Keeping the Lights On

Having functional lights on your trailer is not only required by law, it’s a critical safety feature. Often, the trailer you tow will block the lights on the back of your bike from the view of drivers behind you, making your trailer lights the only signals others will see.

Checking your lights should be part of your preflight check every time you hook up the trailer. When you find a light is not in working order, it’s usually a simple to troubleshoot the problem.

If a single light is not working, start at that light and work your way back. Open the lens and remove the bulb to inspect the filament. Some trailer lenses have external screws. Some lenses fit into the body of the trailer, requiring you to loosen the lens from the inside and pop it out.

Your trailer likely uses a standard tail light bulb. Single filament bulbs (1156) are used for turn signals. Dual filament bulbs (1157) are used for running and brake lights. Holding the bulb up, a broken filament is usually self-evident. Replace the bulb with a known good bulb and try the light again before you reassemble the lens.

If replacing the bulb did not solve your problem, begin checking at the plug that runs from your bike. Let’s say your left turn signal is not working. Attach a test light or voltmeter to the pin on the bike-side plug that should be the left turn signal. Activate the signal and check the meter or light. If the voltmeter needle shows no activity or the test light does not blink, the problem is likely on the bike and not in the trailer.

If the voltmeter needle swings or test light blinks, move to the trailer and check for any breaks in the wire between the trailer plug and the turn signal socket. If this wire run shows continuity, check for continuity between the ground side of the light socket and the ground wire on the trailer.  Unless the trailer has sustained damage to the wiring harness underneath, the best candidates for problems are a loose ground wire or a problem at the plug.

Getting Hitched

The hitch industry, if you’d call it that, is a tiny segment of the powersports industry. That’s why you should be certain a hitch is available for your bike before you plunk down money for a trailer.

For popular trailer towers like the Gold Wing and Electra Glide, this is a non-issue. You actually have a range of choices. If you ride a less likely towing bike like an ’83 Suzuki G850 or a brand new model of bike, you may need to turn to other options.

See the complete list of hitch manufacturers on www.openroadoutfitters.com to find a hitch for your bike. If it’s not listed among the manufacturers there, drop us a line. We don’t list everything that’s available because the range of hitches changes all the time. If there is no hitch available by any manufacturer you’ll need to find a fabricator, a topic we’ll discuss in more detail shortly.

Hitch Designs

A motorcycle hitch has several tasks. It must distribute the tongue weight of the trailer across the rear of the motorcycle without upsetting handling of the bike. Tongue weight is how much downward force (measured in pounds) the trailer tongue exerts on the hitch.

The hitch must transmit lateral pull and push forces between bike and trailer as the bike speeds up and slows down. The hitch also serves as a critical pivot point, allowing the bike to lean into curves while permitting the trailer’s attitude to remain unchanged. Those are a lot of requirements for such a seemingly simple device.

Hitch designs follow one of two basic styles, one I’ll call the “towbar style” and the other I’ll call the “fender mount.”

A towbar hitch is a steel bar or rod, bent in a u-shape, and attached to a frame point on either side of the motorcycle. Common attachment points include passenger footpegs, exhaust mounts, and rear saddlebag guards. Any two attachment points on opposite sides of the bike that mount to the frame will do just fine. This provides support for the lateral push-pull forces the trailer will exert on the back of the bike when you’re towing.

In addition, support is required to handle the tongue weight of the trailer and to hold the towbar in place. This support is provided by hanger straps. These straps, also made of steel, often attach somewhere under the seat of the motorcycle and connect to the tow bar.

The towbar style hitch may use a single piece, classic u-shape bar, or it may be made of several pieces, as is the case with a popular design used for the Honda Gold Wing. Even though it comes in pieces, when you put it together, the Wing hitch still looks like a U-shaped towbar with hangar straps.

The fender style hitch is popular on cruiser style bikes. It’s necessary to use this approach because cruisers don’t often have convenient attachment points to bolt on a traditional towbar hitch. Fender style hitches bolt on in the same location as the saddlebags bolt to onto the rear of the motorcycle, usually through two or three holes along the top of the fender. The fender hitch then sweeps down the length of the fender, terminating in a plate at the bottom where the hitch ball is mounted.

Exterior fender hitches are usually chrome plated so they complement the look of the bike. On the one hand, a fender hitch does cover up your painted fender when looking at it from the side. On the other hand, if you have saddlebags on the bike, you can’t see much of the fender anyway.

If your fender is wide and deep enough, some manufacturers offer a hidden fender hitch that fits on the underside of the fender. These are powder coated rather than chrome because you can’t see them.

Fender hitches can be tough to install. It’s not uncommon for several items to already be using the fender bolts—back rest, luggage rack, saddlebag sub-frame are typical. Now you’re adding another thing to line up and an additional thickness. The hitch is designed to fit against the fender, possibly with bushings. (Those are a blast to install along with everything else.)

You may need to stretch the other add-ons so they’ll fit the extra width of the fender plus hitch. It’s helpful to have an extra set of hands and a few small sections of dowel rod that will slide easily through the fender mount points. When you remove a bolt, replace it with a length of dowel rod that is long enough to act like a bolt and hold the hitch in place with enough left over to grab so you can pull it out. This will help you get everything lined up so you can bolt the hitch into place.

In either case, as you look at the list of hitches for your bike, you may find a choice between hitches labeled “standard” and “receiver.” A standard hitch has a hitch ball permanently attached to a permanently affixed drawbar. A receiver hitch is designed to work much like a removable hitch on a four-wheeler. The hitch’s drawbar is pinned into place and can be removed when you’re not towing. Receiver hitches are a little more expensive, but many riders consider them worth the few extra dollars for the ability to improve the look of their bike when they are not towing.

Evaluating Options

Much of the success of a particular hitch design can be attributed to two factors: 1) the quality of materials used to construct the hitch and 2) the number and placement of the attachment points used to mount the hitch to the bike.

The quality of materials is important because lightweight (cheap) materials will flex if too much weight or force is applied to the hitch. Flexing, in short, is not good.

Any movement in a hitch due to flexing could apply some undesired input to the suspension load of your bike, likely at a time when you don’t expect it and are least prepared to handle it. Consider only hitches made from 1/4″ or thicker plate steel. Inexpensive hitches can be found that use thin tubular steel. Buy one of those only if you plan to use it on your kid’s Big Wheel, not your motorcycle.

The second significant consideration in hitch performance is determined by the number and placement of attachment points. These attachment points determine where the load of the trailer is placed on the bike’s suspension and how the lateral push/pull forces are transmitted between the bike and trailer.

The ideal hitch allows the trailer to be level as it is pulled and is designed to put the tongue weight of the trailer on the rear frame of the bike in about the same position as the saddle bags. You may think the load of the trailer is being borne at the ball, but it’s actually at the points where the hitch bolts to the frame.

In the case of a tow-bar design, this job is handled by the hanger straps. In the case of a fender style hitch, all the forces, lateral and vertical, are being shouldered by the bike at the top of the fender where the hitch bolts to the bike.

Other Considerations

When considering a hitch, you’ll want to know the answers to a few other key questions as well. For example, what tools are required to install the hitch? Does the hitch require any modifications to your bike? Most hitches are designed to bolt on, but some may require modification. On towbar designs, you may need to cut slots in the inner fender to allow the hanger straps to reach under the seat. Does anything need to be relocated? On a fender style hitch, relocating turn signals is not unheard of.

Another important consideration is to determine how the hitch will affect the bike’s serviceability. An inexpensive, one-piece hitch may be a good deal until you find that your service tech has to remove it and reinstall it to change the rear tire. The first extra labor charges for removing and reinstalling the hitch will likely outstrip what you saved when you bought the hitch.

Whatta I Do? I Can’t Find a Hitch For My Bike!

If you’ve looked and looked and can’t find a hitch for your bike, don’t take it personally.  Hitch manufacturing is a tiny business in the overall powersports market.  It’s easy to find a hitch for popular towing bikes like Gold Wings and Harley dressers. But if you have a less common trailering bike or an older bike, don’t be surprised if there’s no hitch made for your bike.

Fear not. You can get a hitch made for your bike if none is available, it will just take a little extra effort on your part. A welding shop or machine shop can often fabricate something for you that will work just fine. You can make the process easier by researching the available hitches and determining what style of hitch might work best for your bike.

If you own a cruiser style bike, a fender style design may work best for you. A fender mount hitch will only work, however, if the fender bolts to the frame.  Cruisers designed to handle optional saddlebags will have the necessary support. Even if your bike wasn’t explicitly designed with a saddlebag option, your bike may still have the necessary support if it is a related model.

If you own a sport bike, dual-sport, or bike that doesn’t have much in the way of rear fender, a towbar design is a better bet. For a towbar style, you want a miminum of four attachment points to create a sturdy hitch. You’ll want one attachment point on each side at the approximate level of the trailer tongue. From the rear of the towbar, you need one attachment point on each side to support the tongue weight of the bike and to keep the towbar level when braking.

Take your research and your bike to a couple of fabricators. If you aren’t sure who to approach, start with a local custom bike shops or independent service shop. Show them pictures of similar bikes with hitches and discuss what you’d like for your bike. Any fabricator you choose will need to have your bike, or a model just like it, on hand so they can make measurements and check for clearances.

Your hitch should be sturdy with no flexibility, and adequate clearance of any moving parts, like your rear tire. The best hitches are made with ¼” steel, then powdercoated or chromed to resist rust.  You can find powdercoaters in just about every area of the country. To have a hitch chromed, you’ll probably have to send your hitch out. Chroming is an environmentally dirty process, so it requires a lot of specialized equipment. A popular company that does chrome for motorcycles is http://www.classiccomponents.com/.  A Google search may turn up someone closer to you.

Is Trailering Safe?

When I talk to a rider who has never pulled a trailer before, I often hear something that starts like this…

“I know this guy who knows a guy who heard that a guy was towing a trailer and it caught the edge of a bridge abutment and yanked his bike so hard it threw him over the bridge onto the Interstate and a truck runned over him.

“I heard about this guy that had a pop-up camper and it popped open whilst he was a running down the Interstate and caught like a parachute and throwed him off.”

“I heard about this guy who…”

Once you’ve heard a few of those stories, you probably start thinking, “Jeez, is towing a trailer safe?”

I understand what people mean when they ask this question, but it’s the wrong question. After all, is riding a motorcycle safe? Motorcycling is an activity that entails risk. Those who ride have judged that they are willing to accept the risks in order to enjoy the reward of riding. Smart riders do things to reduce their risks.

Similarly, towing a trailer with a motorcycle can add some risk to the act of riding. Sometimes people forget they are pulling a trailer or ride too aggressively, and when the trailer hits an unexpected bump or falls off the shoulder of the road, it can momentarily upset a bike’s handling. If you’re caught completely off guard, it might lead you to over correct and crash. On the other hand, if you’re a smart rider, you choose the right trailer, and you learn good habits, your actions can offset those risks. One of the primary aims of this site is to help you make good decisions and learn good habits.

Inspiration, ideas and how-to's for motorcycle travelers.