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Difference Between Weight Distribution & Sway Control

Learn about weight distribution and sway control when towing your pull-behind camper

When trying to get the best bumper pull hitch for your vehicle, you’ll see weight distribution and sway control mentioned as features. These are commonly mistaken to be the same thing but there are important differences that you need to know when buying a bumper pull hitch.

The features get confused because they often go together. Many hitches that have weight distribution will have sway control too. The opposite isn’t true, however, as a standalone sway control hitch cannot distribute weight.

Here we have explained everything about weight distribution, sway control, and other pertinent questions about both of them. We have also included hitches as examples, so you can see what they look like and get some product suggestions.

When you reach the end of this page, you should know everything you need to know about weight distribution and sway control when hitching your RV.

Illustration of a red SUV towing a pull-behind camper.

Towing Basics

For those who aren’t aware, you’ll need to know the basics of towing to understand weight distribution and sway control mechanics. So, with that understanding, we have this short primer on the basics of towing and a glossary for some of the terminology used.

First, you need to know the following terms. Not all of them have been used in this guide but we have advised you to read literature like user manuals, which will contain some of these terms:

  • Dry Weight – The weight of a vehicle/trailer that has no fuel, water, cargo, or people in it.
  • Unloaded Vehicle Weight – Similar to dry weight, this is the weight of a tow vehicle when it rolls out of the manufacturer’s factory.
  • Tongue Weight – The weight that presses down on the hitch ball by the trailer that you are towing. It is often 10% to 20% of GTW.
  • Gross Trailer Weight – GTW is Gross Trailer Weight, which is a distinction from Gross Vehicle Weight. It is the total weight of your trailer when it is loaded and ready for the road. Put simply, it is often the maximum weight that your trailer will reach on the road.
  • Gross Vehicle Weight Rating – Often abbreviated to GVWR, this is the maximum safe weight that the vehicle should have when out on the road. They are set by the manufacturer, so make sure you know the GVWR of your vehicle. GVWR applies to trailers and other towed fixtures, too. You can find the GVWR of your vehicle in the owner’s manual or on the Internet.
  • Gross Axle Weight Rating – This is the highest weight that can safely be placed on one axle of a vehicle, assuming that weight is distributed equally. It also contains the weight of the axle itself. Like the other terms here, it is often abbreviated to become GAWR.
  • Gross Combination Weight Rating – The maximum operating weight of a towing vehicle along with the trailer that it is towing. It is essentially a combination of the Gross Vehicle Weight and the Gross Trailer Weight.

While knowing these weight metrics is important, you’ll need to have the right towing vehicle before you start. Generally, you want a heavier, more powerful vehicle than the trailer or object that you are trying to pull.

This guarantees that the towing vehicle can properly handle the stress you’ll put it under. Fortunately, vehicles are rated for their ability to pull trailers and other hauls, so you should be able to find a suitable vehicle with ease if you haven’t already.

SUVs can be used to tow light and mid-sized hauls. We go into a little more detail on this below when covering weight distribution. For heavier hauls, you’ll need to get vehicles built for towing.

In these cases, a hitch is probably too weak for the haul and you’ll need factory-installed tow packages instead. These built-in hitches change the transmission of the vehicle for towing purposes, a cooling system for the transmission to avoid overheating, and feature electric brake controls for the trailer itself. All of these increase towing capacity.

Lastly, you should try to do all of the following before you try working with weight distribution hitches or sway control bars/hitches:

  • Read any relevant literature, typically the owner’s manual, before you begin.
  • Make sure you have the tools you need. If you do not, you can borrow them from family, friends, or buy them from any hardware store.
  • Load your vehicle and the trailer for your planned driving trip before you install any hitches.
  • For cars that have automatic leveling systems, you should let it take the lead for most hitches. If you’re installing a sway control bar, you may need to disable this feature as it will get in the way. Car owner’s manuals should detail how to turn features like auto-leveling off.
  • Check tire pressure before installing any hitch/bar. Pressure interferes with the heights of your vehicle and trailer, which can make it harder to fit a hitch since they’ll be sat at different levels.

You should also follow certain safety precautions wherever possible. These will keep you and others safe and, at the very least, avoid potentially costly damages to your vehicle. Whenever hitching or un-hitching your trailer, you should always follow these steps:

  • Use wheel chocks to prevent the wheels from sliding or rolling while you are hitching things up.
  • You should apply safety chains to cargo that could become loose on rough terrain or in the event of a crash. When you apply chains, they should be crisscrossed to make them more effective.
  • You should always have a pin inserted through the coupler hole before traveling. It should be pushed all the way through, with no risk of it gradually coming undone when vibrating on the road.
  • Before traveling, make sure your vehicle’s turning and braking lights work. This is important with any vehicle, of course, but there is more at stake when you are hauling cargo and driving one of the largest vehicles on the road.
  • Your breakaway wire, which is a legal requirement for trailers in most places, should always be kept in good condition and secured to your trailer during towing. Without a breakaway cable, you can risk a runaway trailer that detaches and causes harm/damages to others and their property.
  • It’s popular to place objects like cinder blocks beneath the tongue of the trailer. If you do that, you should make sure any holes in the block are facing upwards. For surface area, you should place wood on top that can withstand pressure.

Weight Distribution Explained

Car towing a travel trailer parked in desert area.

Weight distribution is a feature you will see advertised by many hitch manufacturers. This means that the hitch will spread the weight of a trailer more evenly.

This is important because weight is properly distributed between the towing vehicle and the trailer that’s getting pulled behind it. This results in a smoother ride and it’s also safer because nothing will break or buckle from bearing the entirety of the trailer’s weight.

If you have a tongue pull trailer that’s over a certain weight when compared to the towing vehicle, you’ll need to use a weight-distribution hitch. Also, most RV travel trailers need to have one of these hitches no matter how much they weigh.

RV Weight Distribution Hitches & How They Work

To best explain how weight distribution hitches work, you should think back to times when you have connected a heavy trailer to your vehicle.

If you’re here, you’ve probably done that before, and you may have noticed that the vehicle sags at the back. This is because the entire load is weighing the vehicle down.

If the back of the vehicle is weighed down, the front of the vehicle will be lifted up. It may not be very noticeable but, when you’re driving on the road, this means you can have less control of your vehicle.

This, along with sway from the trailer, can cause accidents. Many trailer-related accidents happen because trailer sway is exacerbated when the weight isn’t balanced properly.

So how is a weight-distribution hitch different from other hitches? Weight distribution models have two steel arms that extend out, near the ball of the hitch, to reinforce the connection between your vehicle and the tongue of the towed trailer.

Weight-bearing down on the trailer’s tongue can then be spread along the front axle of your vehicle and the back axles of the trailer.

When the weight is spread more evenly, the vehicle and the trailer will become more level and there will be less sagging. This gives you more control over the towing vehicle while limiting sway in the towed trailer.

It’s important to know that using a weight-distribution hitch doesn’t change tongue weight requirements.

Never use a hitch that isn’t properly rated for the towing job you are trying to give it – the hitch should be able to comfortably shift any weight you put on it, whether that weight is distributed or not won’t make a difference to how much it can handle.

With a level vehicle and trailer, your ride will be smoother and your vehicle’s back axles won’t wear as much. You should also have more control when driving, too.

Some people still experience sag, even with weight distribution gear, but there are other things you can do to level out your equipment. One popular alternative is using airbags to lift the trailer up.

The Three Kinds Of Weight Distribution Hitches

There are three main types of weight distribution hitches you’ll find on the market. Let’s take a look at them, along with the advantages and disadvantages that every customer should know.

  • First, there are the hitches that make use of steel arms and chains to keep the trailer and the towing vehicle balanced. For an example of what one looks like, check out the Curt Round Bar Weight Distribution Hitch. There is also a no-sway variant too.

These hitches are much more affordable for the average person. They also tend to be quieter when driving. To enable sway control, they need to be modified with a sway control bar that doesn’t come with the hitch unless you get a specific model.

You may need to drill holes into the trailer’s tongue, too. As you’d expect, these hitches need to be heavy so that they can bear the weight of whatever you are hitching to your ride.

  • Secondly, some hitches use so-called L-pins and steel tabs. These have integrated swaying control, so you shouldn’t need to worry about making any modifications to add that feature. You also don’t need to drill any holes, so it’s perfect for those who don’t want to do some DIY work or don’t have the tools.

These models don’t use chains, they use strong steel arms with tabs that connect to the trailer’s tongue.

The Equal-i-zer 4-Point Sway Control Hitch is an example of this. They are easy to install and, due to the triangular shape that it uses, they are great at controlling sway. If there’s a downside, it’s the scratching noise that comes from metal connecting to metal when you turn your vehicle.

L-pin hitches aren’t necessarily better than chain models, though having tabs is better at controlling sway with problematic trailers. Both of them require manually lifting steel arms, which may be difficult for some owners.

  • Lastly, there are relatively new weight distribution hitches that are being used for RVs and other mobile vehicles. They are great for bumper-pull trailers where weight distribution and sway control are concerned. Through heavy-duty springs, a pair of chains, and a turning ball hitch, they can do everything that chain and L-pin hitches can.

An example of these hitches is the Andersen Hitches No-Sway Weight Distribution Hitch. All you need to properly install one of these hitches is a socket wrench, which is used to twist the tension bolt several times.

It doesn’t require the same heavy lifting that other hitches do. They also don’t have steel arms that need to be carried around, only the chains. They’re also very quiet when compared to the others.

When To Use A Weight Distribution Hitch

So, when is a weight-distribution hitch the right tool for the job? When a trailer is too large and heavy to get towed by the towing vehicle, a weight-distribution hitch makes it safer, as we covered at the start of this page.

In many places, weight distribution hitches are required when the trailer gets heavy enough. The limit is typically where the trailer reaches 5,000 pounds and over, in which case SUVs and trucks that weigh half a ton need a weight-distribution hitch. With one-ton trucks, the hitch would be required for trailers that are 6,000 to 8,000 pounds.

For bumper pull RVs, a weight-distribution hitch is almost always required. You don’t want your RV or mobile home swaying around and distributing the weight evenly is a big part of controlling that.

Small-axle trailers still should have weight distribution hitches so it doesn’t sway much and disturb their content.

Many swear by weight distribution hitches simply because they make your rides safer. So, even if you are below any weight requirements, you may want to consider using a weight distributing hitch for safety reasons.

Sway Control Explained

Rear view of a car towing a pull-behind camper.

Now that we have some idea of what weight distribution is, how it works, and when it is required, let’s cover sway control. They are often thought to be the same thing but there is a meaningful difference between them.

To understand sway, you need to know how a bumper pull trailer connects to your towing vehicles. With most hitches, it’s a single ball that allows the trailer to move properly when making turns. This movement is good – too much rigidity would make turning impossible – though too much movement becomes a bad thing.

For example, if the trailer is swinging side to side when you’re driving down a straight road, you have a problem. A swaying trailer can even tip over, destroying the contents and even flipping the towing vehicle in some cases.

This is something that should be desperately avoided, which is why both weight distribution and sway control hitches are popular and useful for truckers and mobile homeowners across the world.

Sway Control Hitches & How They Work

Trailer sway is caused by a variety of factors. Here are just some of them:

  • The surface of the road.
  • The speed of your vehicle.
  • Your vehicle’s tire pressure.
  • Current wind speeds.
  • The number of axles on your trailer.
  • The tongue weight of your trailer.
  • Placement of cargo/contents in the trailer.

So, as you can see, many things can make a trailer sway more than usual. Even the arrangement of material in the trailer will influence how it moves on the road, though this is something that can’t be helped much when you are towing an RV.

A dedicated sway control hitch (or a sway control bar modification) adds friction to the hitch connection. This stops the trailer from swaying when it shouldn’t but still allows for turning, so your ride is smoother and easier to control.

When the trailer tries to sway, the bar will keep it centered so it doesn’t disrupt the towing vehicle or pose a danger to anybody.

With trailers that carry cargo, putting too much at the front is advised to further reduce sway. If you pack everything at the back, the back end of the trailer will gather more momentum as it swings from side to side.

It’ll start off small but, with that momentum, it will quickly become a problem. Even the best anti-sway hitches can’t contend with that.

If you ever do feel swaying, you shouldn’t suddenly brake. Instead, you need to slow down gradually so that everything stays under control and you don’t accidentally whip your trailer to one side and cause an accident.

Sway Control Bars & Built-In Sway Control

There are two main ways to achieve sway control. The first is by installing a sway control bar onto your trailer, which works best with a single-axle trailer.

Sway control bars are often combined with weight distribution hitches, though it is possible to use them independently. For the best results, combining them is ideal.

Sway control bars are easily installed by screwing them onto the tongue of bumper-pull trailers. Check out the EAZ LIFT Screw-On Sway Control to see what one of these bars looks like.

After hitching a trailer, you just need to attach the sway control bar next to the tow vehicle’s hitch. Tightening the bar then increases tension across the connection point, reducing sway.

Using a sway control bar can become tedious for some, especially truckers who haul things for their job. This is because they need to be unhooked every time you need to reverse. For RV and mobile home trailers, you may not need to worry about this so much.

Weight distribution hitches often come with a sway control bar since they complement each other well. Chain-style weight distribution hitches, like the one we covered above, often come with these bars too.

As for hitches with built-in sway control, these don’t require any DIY skills or modification to work properly. We have already covered two examples of hitches with sway control that is built into the hitch itself and not added on, with the Equal-i-zer 4-Point hitch and the Andersen Hitches hitch.

They reduce sway in slightly different ways. Hitches like the Equal-i-zer hitch connect their steel arms to steel tabs, so the friction generated reduces sway.

As we said, it can get noisy when metal rubs against metal, however. The model from Andersen Hitches uses springs instead, which are perfect for creating tension.

For heavier trailers, integrated sway control hitches are more effective than slapping a sway control bar onto a different hitch. You also don’t need to disconnect built-in sway control hitches when you want to reverse, which is a great advantage for many drivers out there.

When To Use A Sway Control Bar/Hitch

Unlike weight distribution hitches, any bump-pull trailer should have some kind of anti-sway device. As we explained above, it’s an important piece of safety kit that will make your drive smoother and ward off disaster, no matter how heavy your trailer is.

That’s why many people have them despite being under most weight requirements – because it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Pull-behind camper in the US.

Frequently Asked Questions

Having covered the basics of weight distribution and sway control hitches, you may have specific concerns that haven’t been addressed.

Here we have some of the most popular questions that get asked when these hitches are discussed, along with the answers that you are looking for.

What Should I Do If My Trailer Sways?

Swaying can happen no matter how much you try to stop it. It’s one of the realities of towing a trailer or any kind of heavy cargo, so you’ll need to know how to properly stop sway once it starts.

As we mentioned already, the most important thing is that you slow down gradually instead of coming to a sudden stop. With a sudden stop, you risk damaging your vehicle, the trailer, and causing danger to everybody in the vicinity.

If on the road, look for somewhere that you can safely slow down and pull over without causing any distractions or disturbances to other drivers. You don’t want to slow down and come to a halt in the middle of the road, where an accident is much more likely to occur.

How Powerful Does The Weight Distribution Hitch Need To Be?

While weight distributing hitches move the weight around, the full weight of the trailer is still bearing down on the connection point. A weight distribution hitch doesn’t, in any way, reduce how heavy the load is.

This means that you should only use hitches that are properly rated for the trailer, being able to tackle more pounds than the trailer weighs. If you don’t, you’re risking costly repairs or an even costlier accident.

What Is TSA?

You may see something called TSA when checking out hitches and the manufacturers that offer them. What does this mean? TSA stands for Trailer Stability Assist, which is a program that uses sensors to monitor and control trailer sway.

By coordinating with the vehicle’s computer, the sway can be controlled more effectively.

TSA systems engage automatically when swaying is detected. From there, it tactically brakes in a way that doesn’t interfere with your driving but stops the swaying from happening.

It’s more important in smaller vehicles that may not have weight-distributing hitches or sway control bars. Even then, TSA can still be useful for heavier trailers and the vehicles towing them.

Can I Make Lifting Steel Arms Easier?

If your weight distribution hitch has steel arms, you may have trouble lifting them to fix and remove the trailer. This is a common problem, especially for those that are new to towing cargo or RVs. Some tough it out, which is an option.

After you’ve done it for a while and you’re stronger, it becomes easier and faster to lift the steel arms of a hitch. However, this is a chore and there are ways to make it easier on yourself.

First, it helps if your hitch has lever handles that can be used to manipulate the arms. It’s still hard to properly lift them sometimes, especially if the hitch is in an awkward position. In that case, try to move somewhere where you have full access to the hitch from most angles.

Others make the process easier by lifting the trailer with the tongue jack. This levels the truck and the trailer, so you won’t have to move the arms as much to make the connection.

As we have stated, a lot of issues come from your towing vehicle and the trailer being uneven against each other, so using a tongue jack helps with that a lot.

Does A Weight Distribution Hitch Need A Sway Control Bar?

Sway control bars are installed on hitches and, as we said, many weight distribution hitches come with a sway bar pre-installed or ready to install. So, does a weight distribution need a sway control bar? The answer is no.

There are weight distribution hitches that work independently. Since weight distribution and sway control are two different things, you can have a trailer with just the hitch. Likewise, you can just use a sway control hitch with no extra weight distributing apparatus.

That said, it depends on the kind of hitch. Also, many weight-distributing hitches sell with sway control bars. This is because sway control bars make weight distribution hitches even better, so why not if you can afford it?

That’s also why most high-end weight distribution hitches have sway control built into them too, they complement each other and result in a much safer ride with no sway.

If you have a weight-distribution hitch that uses chains to hold the arms (instead of tabs) then you will need to use a sway control bar if you need to reduce sway. Chains don’t have the necessary friction, so a sway control bar generates the friction instead.

Do Weight Distribution Hitches Work In Tight Spaces?

Weight distribution hitches are fine for backing into tight spaces – it’s the sway control bar that might be a problem. If you are backing into a tight space or through a tight turn, you’ll need to disengage it before you try reversing or pulling off any tight maneuvers.

If you try the maneuver without disengaging the sway control bar, you’ll find it very difficult to move the vehicle. They control small movements, after all, and a lot of movements you make in tight spaces/on tight corners will be small.

Then you risk overdoing it and causing damage to your vehicle by knocking it against a wall or somebody else’s car.

Are Weight Distribution Hitches Needed For 5th-Wheel Trailers?

The weight of a 5th-wheel trailer is focused on the center of your truck, and on both of the axles, so it already has its own form of weight distribution. This makes sway much less of a problem, which makes sense when these trailers are flat and used to move cargo around.

You can’t be too safe, however, which is why some still use weight distribution hitches with 5th-wheel trailers. They are more common for short bed trucks that can’t distribute the weight across as large an area.

They’re also useful for making sharper turns when you have a large 5th-wheel trailer fixed to your vehicle. When reversing, the hitch can slide back and create more room between the vehicle and the trailer, making turns more sudden and giving the driver more control as a result.

Conclusion

That should be all you need to know about weight distribution, sway control, and the differences between them both. There’s a lot of useful information about hauling in general, not just for RVs and mobile homes, but it’s translatable knowledge that can be used when setting off for a remote vacation.

The main takeaway is that weight distribution and sway control are not the same. While they are similar and produce the same results – stopping your trailer from swaying – they work differently.

In some hitches, they work in tandem to get the best sway control possible. Others just have weight distribution and so, to get dedicated sway control, you need to install a simple bar modification.

Knowing this is crucial when you’re hauling heavy loads. You don’t want to set off without having the extra protection that both weight distribution and sway control give you.

Fortunately, we have given examples of hitches and bars that help distribute weight and generate friction to reduce sway, so you know what to look for.