There are more accessories for receiver hitches and towing than what you probably even thought of, and you will be needing some of them for your minivan camper conversion.
Let’s start with the basics… the hitch itself. Receiver hitches are not “bumper hitches” and you should never confuse the two. A receiver hitch is not mounted to the bumper at all. It has to be mounted directly to the frame of the vehicle, and for that reason, there is almost a different hitch made for every type of vehicle on the market. So we aren’t even going to suggest what you should have. You need to go talk to your dealer or a hitch specialist to get one installed.
There are different hitch “classes” which basically refers to the weight they can handle, both in pulling and in the straight down weight on the hitch itself. For most minivans, their frame and drive train limits them to a Class III (3) hitch, which is typically capable of pulling around 3500 pounds combined weight of trailer and cargo, and about 200 to 300 pounds of tongue weight. That’s the weight straight down on the hitch itself. Both of these weights need to be monitored when towing a heavily loaded trailer. There are trailer tongue scales available to check the weight of the tongue, and there are also ways to weigh the axle weight of the trailer.
Obviously, if you are using some little fold-up trailer with a maximum combined weight of 1200 pounds, you don’t have to worry too much unless you overload the trailer itself. But if you are a using an enclosed cargo trailer, it can be easy to misjudge what the cargo weighs, and overload both the trailer as well as your towing capabilities! Every commercially manufactured trailer should have it’s rated weight statistics on it somewhere, either on a stamped plate near the tongue or on a stamped plate on the frame somewhere.
As far as your minivan, you need to read your owner’s manual and also check with your hitch specialist to determine EXACTLY what kind of weight your vehicle and your hitch can handle!
OK… that said, let’s assume you have a hitch mounted. On a minivan, that will be a Class III hitch with a receiver size of 1-1/4-inches. (That’s the shaft size of the attachments you can use.) The first thing you need is a pin to hold the attachments in place. The simplest kind of pin is simply bent on one end and has an “R” shaped clip to go through a hole at the other end. These pins can come in two different diameters, 1/2-inch and 5/8-inch. Usually the Class III hitches will use a 1/2-inch pin, so make sure you get the right size.
For better security, these pins also can be bought with locks on the end of them. You want one that uses keys. Unless you want to stand on your head to see, a combination lock is almost worthless. You can always reach under and “feel” to find a keyhole.
The next most basic thing is a regular trailer towing bar. You can use several different sizes of hitch balls with these to fit whatever trailer tongue you have. Also, there are different shaft sizes under the trailer ball where it mounts into the towing bar, so you have to get both of those measurements right, plus the shaft size to fit into your receiver hitch. Once you slide the towing bar into place, you secure it with the cross pin. Don’t EVER try to substitute an ordinary machine bolt for this cross pin, because it is specially designed and hardened to carry the weight of a 3500 pound trailer. An ordinary bolt will shear off before long and allow the towing bar and your trailer to pull out!
As far as your towing bar itself, it usually has a “bent” piece welded to it where the ball attaches to it. This can be flipped either direction to allow you to raise the tongue of your trailer if you need to, OR to lower it. There are variations of these towing bars, typically called “drop bars” that allow even more up or down variation in towing height of the trailer tongue.
With your vehicle and trailer fully hooked up on level ground, you should be able to look at them from the side at a distance, and both should appear to be level. If the back of you vehicle sags, then you might need additional “helper” springs, overload shock absorbers (with a support spring around them), or even air bags to lift the back of your vehicle.
If your vehicle appears level, but the trailer tips backward or forward, then you need to flip the towing bar over or get a different one to raise or lower the ball to which the tongue attaches to make it level. If you don’t, you will create a dangerous situation with poor handling, and in an emergency, you may not be able to keep it under control.
Also make sure that ANY TIME you are towing a trailer, to use proper safety chains besides the ball. If the ball comes out, or the tongue comes off the ball, the safety chains will hold onto the trailer so that you don’t lose control of it. Proper connection for safety chains is to cross them over. In other words the chain that is attached to the right side of the tongue should cross underneath to the LEFT side of the receiver hitch, and vice versa. This keeps the chains from stretching when you go around corners. And never trust just heavy wire “hooks”. If you can, feed them THROUGH the hole and then hook them back into a link in the chain. This provides double protection against them bouncing out. Better yet, use chains with the round links with a screw connection on them, so that they make a complete circle and will never come unhooked!
Now for the “accessory” attachments. There are everything from flat cargo carriers to scooter carriers to bicycle carriers to storage pods, solid mounts, swing-away mounts and everything in between. If you can dream of it, someone else has probably already created it. I even discovered today that they make a receiver attachment to plug in a hanger for the Bivouac Buddy Shower Enclosure! We even had a special step made for the receiver hitch on our truck camper, so that we could get in and out without a step ladder! I’ve even seen winches mounted on receiver hitches!
There are even attachments that allow you to use two-inch receiver hitch accessories (usually used on larger vehicles) with your 1-1/4-inch receiver hitch, and vice versa! But most accessories can be bought for either size, so you should always match the accessory to your hitch classification and shaft size when possible.
For campers with an overhang in the back, they make extension bars to move the connection point of the hitch (the ball) farther back so that when you go around a corner your trailer won’t crash into the corners of your camper. But you have to be very careful when using these, because the extra length adds leverage to the bar, and will decrease the amount of vertical weight allowed on the trailer tongue!
There are even attachments that allow you to “piggy-back” accessories. You can have a trailer towing bar on the bottom, and use a cargo pod or bicycle carrier on the upper receiver. As I said, if you can think of it, someone else has probably already created it!
And the last thing I want to mention here is to NEVER, EVER pull a trailer without hooking up the lights properly! Even if you use a rear mounted storage pod… if it obstructs your tail lights in any way… add some lights to it! I don’t care of it’s a flat bed trailer and they can see over it to your vehicle tail lights…. that’s NOT what people are watching when they’re are following you! If they see lights on a trailer they expect them to work because it’s THE LAW that they work! The slightest reaction time between realizing that they aren’t working and refocusing on the lights on your vehicle can mean a stopping distance of over twenty feet when following you! That twenty feet can make a difference between shoving your trailer into your trunk, or stopping with room to spare!
If you don’t yet have trailer wiring on your vehicle, most of the newer vehicles have plugs on the wiring near the tail lights, and most hitch specialists have wiring harness packages made for your vehicle so all you have to do is plug right into the existing harness. The wires are all color coded right down to the trailer plug. Some small trailers use a simple flat plug to connect to your vehicle, but if it’s a heavier trailer with electric brakes on it, then you may have a round plug which also has your brake wiring in it. If you don’t know, don’t guess at what you are doing. Go to a hitch specialist and get the work done right!