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Utility Trailer Upgrades

Upgrade taillights, tow balls and connections, tie-downs and more

utility trailer upgradesFamily Handyman

Get more value and better performance from your utility trailer. These easy DIY upgrades and add-ons will let you haul cargo more efficiently and safely, without costing you a bundle.

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Overview: Trailer problems and solutions

Most utility trailers come from the factory with just enough features to satisfy local safety regulations (if any) and your wallet. Sure, they work, but they’re not very user-friendly. They rarely have factory tiedowns or loading ramps. Factory taillights usually have incandescent bulbs, which need constant replacement.

We informally canvassed about 30 trailer owners to find out what drives them nuts. Top of the list? Malfunctioning trailer lights! Followed by rusted-in-place nuts that make it impossible to change ball sizes, seized ball mounts and tough-to-tie-down trailer loads. And just about everyone wished there were an easier way to back up and line up a trailer coupler with the hitch on the first try, especially in the dark. So we did some sleuthing and came up with five cool new products that promise to eliminate these hassles.

This article contains solutions for these problems, along with a wide range of upgrades that will make your trailer-hauling jobs a lot easier and safer. We’ll also show you security upgrades that can prevent trailer theft. You can build and install most of these utility trailer accessories with just a socket set, drill, saw and screwdriver. Find the plumbing and hardware components at a home center or hardware store and the security items at any utility trailer accessories store or online. Choose the upgrades you like. Costs ranges from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars.

Trailer Upgrade 1: LED taillights

Installed LED lights

Splice the new lights into your existing trailer harness or install the new harness from the kit. Test the brake lights and turn signals before you take the trailer on the road.

Photo 1: Connect the wires

Thread the outer and inner tubes onto the wires and push them as far back from the splice area as they will go. Twist the wires to form a butt splice. Heat and apply rosin-core solder.

Photo 2: Seal the insulation

Slide the inner tubes over the splice and shrink with a heat gun. Repeat with the outer tubes. Coat the ends with liquid electrical tape.

Taillights get bounced around, dunked in the lake and soaked with road salt. So it’s no surprise that bulb filaments break and sockets corrode, causing a lot of lighting malfunctions. Sealed LED trailer lights are a brilliant solution.

This pair of submersible LED trailer lights, which come with a wiring harness and a license plate bracket, fit right into the existing mounting holes. Before you remove your old lights, write down the wiring scheme. Then swap in the new lights and follow our wiring photos for making watertight connections.

Wiring the lights
When you install your new lights, don’t use the cheap crimp connectors to splice the wires. The crimp connectors will cause you plenty of aggravation when they start corroding a few years from now. Do the job right the first time—solder all electrical connections and seal each one with a piece of small-diameter heat-shrinkable tubing. Then seal the bundle of wires with a section of larger-diameter shrinkable tubing. Coat the ends of the larger tubes with liquid electrical tape to complete the watertight seal. Heat-shrinkable tubing assortments and liquid electrical tape are available at most auto parts stores.

Upgrade Trailer 2: Adjustable ball mount

Ball mount system

Pull the locking pin and slide the ball up or down so the trailer tongue is level with the ground. Replace the pin and connect the trailer.

Rapid Hitch parts and accessories

The adjustable height mount has several ball options, plus locking pin accessories.

If you own several trailers with different tongue heights or towing ball sizes, you know how hard it is to find a replacement for a rusted/ seized ball or ball mount that will fit them all. Here’s an aluminum ball mount called Rapid Hitch that can tow up to 10,000 lbs. It’s easy to adjust, never rusts and won’t seize in the receiver hitch—ever! It’s a bit pricey (about $200), but it’ll last longer than your truck or trailer. The hitch comes in three ‘drop’ sizes and several dual-ball combinations. To install, just remove the old ball mount and slide this one into its place. Buy the matching locking pin set to secure your investment. Believe us, someone will want to steal this baby.

Upgrade 3: Trailer hitch light

Light it up

It’s a given—you never have a working flashlight when you need one. If you’ve ever loaded a trailer or hooked one to the hitch in the dark, you know it’s not fun. These magnetic LED tap lights (the Energizer Hard Case Professional 3-LED Area Light; sold at opticsplanet.com) are removable so they won’t get wrecked. Just mount the backing plate where you’ll get the best illumination for loading and hitching, then slap the light onto the plate. These babies are weatherproof, unlike most tap lights. But stow them before you take off. The magnets might not hold them on rough roads.

Upgrade 4: Handy tie-down system

E-Track tie down system

Center your cargo over the axle and secure it with ratchet straps. Place a wood beam in the sockets as extra insurance against cargo movement.

E-Track parts

Buy the track and only the additional parts you need.

No matter what you load into your trailer, it seems you’re always searching for secure spots to anchor your tie-down straps. The E-Track system eliminates that problem. Bolt the track to the trailer floor. Then snap in a variety of ratchet straps or rope anchor fittings. We especially liked the wood beam socket. Place the socket anywhere along the track and insert a board to prevent your cargo from shifting. E-Tracks are also available for mounting tie-downs to the sides of your trailer, but use them only if the sides of your trailer are metal reinforced and rock solid.

Can’t Have Too Many Tie-downs!

Did you know that poorly secured loads are responsible for more than 25,000 crashes and approximately 90 fatalities in this country each year? There’s simply no such thing as too many tie-down anchors. Hitching rings are another great upgrade to your utility trailer, and less expensive than an E-Track system. You can find them at most hardware stores for a few dollars each. Buy at least six 3/8 x 5-1/8-in. hitching rings, and mount two each in the front, middle and near the tailgate. Just drill holes in the frame (not the floorboards), insert the long bolt end and secure the threaded portion with a locknut.

Upgrade 5: Quick coupler

Coupler in open position

Back your vehicle close to the open coupler.

Coupler closed

Coupler will snap closed. Then install the locking pin.

Close-up of coupler

This coupler has alignment rods and auto-capture jaws.

Moving an empty trailer to the towing ball is a piece of cake. But heavy trailers require you to back the truck up to the trailer. You know how tricky it is to jockey the unseen hitch into the trailer’s “capture zone.” We found a new-style coupler that has “auto-capture jaws” and alignment rods that make it a lot easier to back your vehicle up to the trailer. Simply extend the collapsible alignment rods and sight them through your back window. If you’re within 5 in. of the coupler, its jaws will automatically “capture” the ball and snap the latch mechanism closed. But make sure you get out and install the locking pin before you take the trailer out on the road.

Visit the Quickbite website to choose the right model for your trailer and to find a dealer near you.

Upgrade 6: The plumber’s trick

Carry long items safely

Ever tried to transport long or fragile items like pipe, drywall corner beads or drip edge? First you have to tie them in a bundle. Then you have to secure the bundle to the trailer. Forget that! Instead, build the same kind of rig a plumber uses. Then just slide in the long items, screw on the cap, secure a red flag and you’re good to go. Build the entire unit for about $25.

Buy a 10-ft. length of 4-in. PVC pipe, an end cap, a cleanout adapter, PVC cleaner and adhesive, and four J-hooks. Prime and glue the end cap and clean out adapter. Take advantage of the wasted space on the side of your trailer and mount the tube there. Secure the four J-hooks to the side of the trailer and snap the tube into place. Tie the rig with rope for added security.

Upgrade 7: Add a winch

Winch it in

Boat owners use a winch to pull their boat onto the trailer. You can install one on a utility trailer, too. It’ll save your back and eliminate the need for a helper. Just wrap the strap around the heavy object and crank it up the ramp toward the front of the trailer. A winch with a 20-ft. pull strap and hook costs about $35 – $40. Bolt it to the trailer A-frame or tongue.

Upgrade 8: Add ramps

Save your back with ramps

Why lift heavy items when you can wheel them up? Build this ramp using an aluminum ramp kit (such as the Highland No. 0700500; sold at summitracing.com) and a 2×8. Just measure the height of the trailer deck and cut the 2×8 to the recommended length. Mount the aluminum top and bottom pieces to each board. Then space the ramps to fit the equipment you haul most often. Install the locking pins, lock the ramps in place and load ‘er up.

Upgrade 9: Yard tool holder

The landscaper’s trick

Landscapers and lawn care guys always haul around rakes, shovels, brooms and other implements by mounting vertical tubes on the front of their trailers. Here’s our version. Cut 36-in. lengths of 1-1/2-in. PVC pipe and glue on an end cap. Then drill a hole in each end cap to provide drainage. Attach the tubes using PVC electrical conduit straps and nuts. If you plan to use the tubes in winter, secure them with metal straps—PVC gets brittle in cold weather and can shatter. For added security, hook a bungee strap to each implement.

Upgrade 10: Vertical storage bins

Dry storage for small stuff

Here’s a great way to store your ratchet straps and bungee cords with the trailer, where they belong. Build vertical storage bins from 6-in. PVC pipe. Glue a cap on the bottom and drill a hole in it to overcome the suction when you pull off the lid. Then mount a handle on the top cap and attach a chain. Perfect dry storage for whatever will fit inside.

7 Ways to Prevent Utility Trailer Disasters

1. Tires: Always replace trailer tires with “Special Trailer” (ST) tires (never passenger-rated tires). ST-rated tires have stronger sidewalls and are built to handle heavier loads. ST tires have a maximum life of five years from the date of manufacture. Replace yours accordingly.

2. Tire pressure: Inflate trailer tires to the pressure shown on the tire’s sidewall. Or, if the sidewall pressure conflicts with the recommended pressure shown on the trailer manufacturer’s nameplate, follow the manufacturer’s pressure recommendation. Low tire pressure is the No. 1 cause of trailer tire failure. Overloading the trailer is No. 2.

3. Lug nut/bolt torque: Tightening lug nuts or bolts to the proper torque is critical. If you’re not using a torque wrench, you’ll never get it right. The recommended torque should be listed on the trailer manufacturer’s nameplate, and it’s usually much higher than for cars and trucks. Never drive a loaded trailer with a missing lug nut or damaged lug bolt.

4. Safety chains: Always cross the safety chains when you hook up to the hitch. The crossed chains catch the tongue and prevent it from hitting the pavement if it ever detaches from the receiver. Leave only enough chain slack to allow for turns. If your chain is longer than that, shorten it. Secure the coupler throw latch with a lock or clip to prevent it from popping open.

5. Wheel bearings: Failed wheel bearings are the No. 2 cause of all trailer breakdowns. Repack the bearings at least once a year (see Repacking Trailer Wheel Bearings for step-by- step instructions). And don’t pack the hub with grease. Extra grease in the hub generates heat that can cause premature bearing failure.

6. Load placement: Place 60 percent of the weight toward the front of the trailer to prevent sway and fishtailing.

7. Lubricate the ball: If you don’t, you’re wearing out either the ball or the coupler. And that wear can cause a sudden and dangerous disconnect. Sure, grease is messy. But it’s the only way to reduce heat and wear. Grease it or lose it.

Upgrade 11: Spare tire carrier

Stow the spare

Flat tires are the No. 1 cause of trailer breakdowns. If you’re not carrying a spare tire when you get a flat, you’re in a heap of trouble. But where do you keep it? In the trailer bed where it’s in the way? This spare tire carrier (Fulton Performance Heavy Duty Spare Tire Carrier; sold at boatersplus.com) doesn’t require assembly and can be mounted easily to the trailer rails. To lock the tire in place, simply run a bicycle locking cable down the tube and snap it shut.

Upgrade 12: Cargo net and D-rings

A cargo net and D-rings are great for “lighty, loosey” items

At highway speeds, light items can fly right out of your trailer. Even if they’re tied down, they can break loose and take off. So you need one final mode of protection. We recommend a cargo net DIY enclosed trailer hack. Find one in the automotive section of the home center or at any auto parts store. Install D-rings every 18 in. along the top rails. You may be tempted to screw them into place. Don’t. As the wood rails age, the screws can pull out. Instead, secure the D-rings with nuts and bolts. When you’re finished loading, just throw the net over the trailer and clip the snaps to the rings.

Foil trailer thieves

Security

Trailer thieves get quite a laugh out of coupler “latch locks.” They can cut them in an instant with even the smallest bolt cutter. Then they’re on their way with your trailer. If you want real protection, use a coupler lock that presents thieves with a real challenge. (Shown here is the Trimax UMAX100 Universal Coupler lock; sold at jegs.com.) Just insert the ball into the coupler and slide on the U-bracket. Unless the thief has the time to unbolt the entire coupler and install a new one, you’ll be well protected.

Really foil trailer thieves

More security

If you have a really expensive trailer, it pays to get an extra layer of protection by using a “boot”-style lock in addition to the coupler lock. There are many styles to choose from, but we liked this particular model (the Trimax TCL75 Wheel Chock Lock; sold at newegg.com) because it doubles as a wheel chock to prevent the trailer from rolling. Just slide it onto the wheel and press in the lock cylinder.

Required Tools for this Utility Trailer Upgrades Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY trailer upgrades project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • 4-in-1 screwdriver
  • Adjustable wrench
  • Drill/driver - cordless
  • Heat gun
  • Miter saw
  • Safety glasses
  • Socket/ratchet set
  • Soldering iron
  • Wire stripper/cutter

Required Materials for this Utility Trailer Upgrades Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here’s a list.

  • 1 1/2 – in. PVC with end caps
  • 2 x 8
  • 4-in. PVC with end caps and cleanout
  • Adjustable ball mount
  • Aluminum ramp kit
  • Boot lock
  • Cargo net
  • Coupler lock
  • D-rings
  • E-track tie down
  • Heat-shrinkable tubes
  • Hitching rings
  • J-hooks
  • LED taillights
  • LED tap light
  • Liquid electrical tape
  • Metal straps
  • Quick coupler
  • Rosin-core solder
  • Spare tire carrier
  • Winch

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