Few people ever look at the connection at the back of their truck or motorhome—but they should.
I’m talking about that big assembly of welded metal underneath the rear bumper, called the “hitch receiver.” It's the thing that keeps an Airstream trailer or a towed vehicle from becoming an unguided missile, so it's pretty important.
The hitch receiver gets bolted on either at the factory or shortly before you buy your first trailer, and then generally it never gets examined again. Most of the time people get away with ignoring the receiver because they don’t do much towing. But if you tow a lot, you really need to take a look at this thing once in a while — because what you haven’t noticed can hurt you.
I’m saying this because it seems like about once or twice every year friends of mine discover that their hitch receiver is in dire condition. Sometimes this fact is discovered too late, as you can see in the picture above. That’s a Class V (heavy duty) hitch receiver on a late-model truck, and it is ripped clean off.
Fortunately this happened at low speed, right after exiting an Interstate highway. That’s when receivers usually fail, because the stress encountered from sharp turns, dips, and potholes is usually much greater than the stress on the receiver when cruising on the highway. In this case, the underlying cause of this failure was metal fatigue and rust. The owner lived in a northern climate where the roads are salted.
Another friend told me that his truck's hitch felt “bouncy” and I encouraged him to examine the receiver promptly. He took it to a local hitch specialist, where they found it was riddled with serious cracks. The receiver was replaced that day.
Both of these friends are long-term, experienced Airstreamers, but they just never crawled under the truck to take a look at this crucial equipment.
That’s why I advocate that everyone that uses a hitch receiver take a few minutes every year to conduct a simple inspection — or have it done on a lift by a mechanic.
How to conduct the safety inspection
It's not a hard job and the tools required are simple.
To examine the situation, you'll want:
- a bright headlamp and/or a flashlight, to closely examine the corners and crevices of the hitch
To clean up rusty spots, make sure you have:
- a cordless drill
- a brass wire brush attachment that goes in the drill
- (optional) a smaller wire brush with a handle for the tight spaces
Finally, to complete the job, get:
- a can of black spray paint, to make the receiver look new again and protect against rust
- masking tape and paper to keep the paint from getting on the truck
All of these items can be found an any hardware store.
When underneath the hitch, look for:
- shiny lines on welds that would indicate a recent crack
- rusty lines against painted areas that might indicate an old crack
- broken welds or bent metal
- loose or rusty mounting bolts
This only takes a few minutes. If you want to see what cracks in the receiver might look like, click here.
Also study the receiver box itself. Notice in the picture above there’s a strengthening collar on the back end. This is a common feature in receiver boxes. However, receiver manufacturers seem to rarely put a strengthening collar on the front end of the receiver box, even though both ends endure the same stress.
For this reason it’s a good idea to take a close look at the front end of the receiver box to ensure that the box itself is not splitting or cracking at the corners, as in the photo below.
Any cracks, breaks, bends, or other suspicious items need to be professionally checked out. A trailer shop or welding shop can help you. Sometimes the hitch can be fixed, but often it's best to simply replace it.
Once your inspection is done, it's time to clean up the hitch
Remove all the surface rust, and repaint the hitch so that if a weld breaks or a fatigue crack forms later you'll be able to spot it immediately.
This is where the wire brushes come into play. Scrub the rust with the brass brush attached to the cordless drill until the rust is gone, and wipe it clean. Then inspect the spots you've cleaned once again, just to be sure you haven't missed a possible crack or broken weld.
Mask off the area and spray on a fresh coat of paint. If you want the ultimate in rust protection, considering buying some POR-15. It's excellent for this sort of application. Just remember that any POR-15 that is exposed to the sun will require a top coat with regular spray paint too.
This spring, when you are de-winterizing your Airstream, take a few minutes to do a good inspection of your vehicle’s receiver. It has to manage thousands of foot-pounds of torque from the torsion bars, and goes through thousands of stress cycles every time you tow. Avoidance of a problem is easy, and it’s well worth the small effort.