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Do All Campers Have Brakes?

In RV living by Christopher Schopf

Before learning about campers and trailers, you may be surprised that they have brakes on them.  I know I was surprised to find campers had brakes.  Once I found out, I wondered how these brakes were controlled and whether or not all campers had brakes.

Do all campers have brakes?  No, all campers do not have brakes but most do.  In most states, brakes do not have to be installed on trailers weighing less than 3,000 pounds.  However, each state varies and some states will require brakes on trailers that weigh over 1,000 pounds.

Rules about Camper Brakes (For Each State)

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Just to make it a little more confusing, different states may go by different weights.

Some states will go by the actual weight and others will go by the gross vehicle weight rating, otherwise known as the GVWR.

Here is a breakdown of what each state says about trailer brakes.  This chart is an abbreviated chart that only lists weights.  For a more detailed look at your state, take a look at the chart provided at AAA.

Alabama Over 3,000 pounds.
Alaska Over 5,000 pounds.
Arizona Over 3,000 pounds.
Arkansas Over 3,000 pounds.
California Over 1,500 pounds.
Colorado Over 3,000 pounds.
Connecticut Over 3,000 pounds.
Delaware Over 4,000 pounds.
Florida Over 3,000 pounds.
Georgia Over 3,000 pounds.
Hawaii Over 3,000 pounds.
Idaho Over 1,500 pounds.
Illinois Over 3,000 pounds.
Indiana Over 3,000 pounds.
Iowa Over 3,000 pounds.
Kansas No weight limit.
Kentucky No weight limit.
Louisiana Over 3,000 pounds.
Maine Over 3,000 pounds.
Maryland Over 3,000 pounds.
Massachusetts Over 10,000 pounds.
Michigan Over 15,000 pounds.
Minnesota Over 3,000 pounds.
Mississippi Over 2,000 pounds.
Missouri Over 3,000 pounds.
Montana Over 3,000 pounds.
Nebraska over 6,500 pounds.
Nevada Over 3,000 pounds.
New Hampshire Over 3,000 pounds.
New Jersey Over 3,000 pounds.
New Mexico Over 3,000 pounds.
New York Over 3,000 pounds.
North Carolina Over 1,000 pounds.
North Dakota No weight limit.
Ohio Over 3,000 pounds.
Oklahoma Over 3,000 pounds.
Oregon No weight limit.
Pennsylvania Over 3,000 pounds.
Rhode Island Over 4,000 pounds.
South Carolina Over 3,000 pounds.
South Dakota Over 3,000 pounds.
Tennessee Over 3,000 pounds.
Texas Over 4,500 pounds.
Utah No weight limit.
Vermont Over 3,000 pounds.
Virginia Over 3,000 pounds.
Washington Over 3,000 pounds.
West Virginia Over 3,000 pounds.
Wisconsin Over 3,000 pounds.
Wyoming No weight limit.

One thought to keep in mind when reading this chart is that laws do not equal safety.  Also, you’ll be expected to be able to stop regardless of what the weight limit is in your state.

This means that if you have a smaller vehicle or even a larger vehicle with poor braking abilities, you may want to get brakes added to your trailer even if you don’t have to.

Example camper weights to consider:

  • The Colorado BaseDrop
    This is a small teardrop camper with an overall length of 156 inches.  It is only 65 inches tall and weighs only 900 pounds.  With a small teardrop camper like this, you’ll probably never have to worry about adding camper brakes.  This being said, small campers like this are often towed by small vehicles.  If you’re towing with a small vehicle, you may want to add brakes to this type of camper anyway.  This will make towing safer and will increase the longevity of your tow vehicle’s brakes.
  • The Coleman Lantern LT 17FQ
    This camper is only 21 feet long, but it still weighs 3,205 pounds.  With full water tanks and gear, the camper could easily weigh over 3,500 pounds.  In most states, you’ll need to have brakes on a camper this size and most tow vehicles will perform poorly without them.
  • The Jayco Eagle 314TSBH
    This camper is over 30 feet long and has three heavy slideouts built into it.  It has a dry unloaded weight of 8,690 pounds and a GVWR of 10,750 pounds.  Even if your state does not have weight limits for brakes, you’ll still have to have them on this trailer.  Tow vehicles simply are not meant to safely stop an additional 10,000 pounds.

How do Camper Brakes Work?

Camper brakes come in a few different forms.  Most towable campers will have electric brakes or hydraulic brakes while some larger motorhomes may have air brakes.  Each type of brake serves the same purpose but accomplishes it differently.

Electric brakes are the most popular type of brakes on both campers and trailers.  These have two separate components to them.

1) Brake Controllers

The first component is within the vehicle.  This component is called the brake controller.  The brake controller controls the camper brakes and can do this automatically when the vehicle’s brakes are depressed or manually through a hand-operated control.

Brake controllers come in two different varieties.  The proportional variety and the time delayed brake controller.

Proportional brake controllers are set to apply the same amount of pressure to the trailer and vehicle brakes at the same time.  This means that when you have your brake pedal half way down for your vehicle, it is doing the same for your trailer.

A proportional brake controller is the easiest brake controller to use and is recommended for all new camper brake controller installs.

Time delayed brake controllers, also known as time actuated brake controllers or solid state brake controllers, are manually set to apply a specific amount of pressure each time the vehicle’s brakes are depressed.  The heavier the camper, the higher the settings should be.  This means that you may have to change the settings depending on how much gear or water you bring on each trip.

Between the two types of brake controllers, time-delayed brake controllers are usually less expensive.  However, proportional brake controllers have drastically come down in price over the last few years and most people will easily be able to afford a proportional brake controller.

Proportional Brake Controller (2 Examples With Prices)

  • The Tekonsha P3 Proportional Electronic Trailer Brake Control for 1 – 4 Axle Trailers
    This brake controller has an LCD display as well as a flashing warning system that alerts the driver when the brakes are not working properly.  It can be used on trailers that have anywhere from one to four axles.  The average camper only has one or two axles, so this brake controller will work for almost anyone towing a camper with electric brakes.  This brake controller cost around $150.00.
  • The Redarc Tow-Pro Elite Trailer Brake Controller 1 – 3 Axles
    This brake controller is a small streamlined brake controller with an easy-to-read dial.  The advantage of this over the Tekonsha is that it has an out-of-sight mount.  It can be used on trailers that have between one and three axles.  This brake controller costs around $200.00.

Time Delayed Brake Controller (2 Examples With Prices)

  • The Draw-Tite Activator IV Electronic Brake Control – Time Actuated for one to four axles.
    This brake controller has an easy plug-and-play installation process and a small footprint. It works for trailers with one to four axles and sells for around $50.00.
  • The Curt Venturer Trailer Brake Controller 1 – 3 Axles – Time Delayed
    This brake controller has a digital display and can be used on trailers with one to three axles.  It sells for around $35.00.

As you can see, time-delayed brake controllers are less expensive than proportional brake controllers.  However, even proportional brake controllers do not cost much.

Also, note that the prices above do not include installation.  You can install the brake controller yourself or you can have it installed for you.

The most common place to have an aftermarket brake controller installed is U-haul.  You can have them install a brake controller you bought yourself or you can buy the brake controller directly from them.

The average cost for having a brake controller installed professionally is about $200.00.  You’ll often save money if you buy the controller from the same people who install it for you.

2) Electric Brakes

The next component is the electric trailer brake itself.

This brake system is built into the drum of the wheel.  It uses two brake shoes, a magnet, and a lever.  The brake controller controls the magnet, which moves the lever, which activates the brake shoe.

Brake shoes are what actually reduce or stop the spin of the trailer’s wheels.

The biggest advantage of electric brakes is that they can be used in conjunction with the vehicle as well as autonomously.  For instance, you might find that your trailer begins to sway when a large tractor-trailer drives by you.

In this situation, instead of applying your tow vehicle’s brakes, you could just apply the trailer’s brakes.  This would stop the trailer from swaying in a more controlled manner than slamming on your vehicle’s brake would.

3) Hydraulic Brakes

Hydraulic brakes on a trailer work differently than electric brakes.  These brakes use inertia to activate the trailer’s brakes.  Basically, when the vehicle’s brakes are applied, the trailer is pushed towards the vehicle and this presses the hitch into a hydraulic cylinder.  The faster the vehicle slows down, the faster the trailer will push into the hydraulic cylinder.  The hydraulic cylinder activates the trailer’s brakes and deactivates them as the vehicle begins to stop or accelerate again.

The advantage of a hydraulic brake system is that it does not need a brake controller.  Of course, without a brake controller, you won’t be able to operate the brakes autonomously from the vehicle’s brakes.

4) Air Brakes

Air brakes are sometimes installed on large motorhomes.  This type of brake works just like a car or truck’s hydraulic brake system in that you’ll have standard service brakes operated by your foot as well as a separate parking brake.  The main difference with air brakes and hydraulic brakes is that air pressure is used rather than hydraulic fluid to power the brake system.

The benefit to air brakes is that they have an unlimited supply of power.  Pressure is applied through air rather than fluid and as long as the chamber retains some pressure, the brakes will continue to work.

For example, a small leak will not cause a complete failure in an air brake system.  With a hydraulic-based brake, a small leak can result in the loss of all hydraulic fluid which then, in turn, renders the brake inoperable.

Additional Braking Features

Electric trailer brakes will usually come with a breakaway system.  This is a system that applies the brakes when the trailer has come loose from the tow vehicle.

Some states require this type of system and others do not.  Either way, it is a good idea to have a breakaway system as this will help keep you, your camper, and others safe in the event that your trailer gets away from you.

Do Vintage Campers Have Brakes?

Vintage campers often come equipped with brakes.  This is especially true for larger campers.

These brakes can be hydraulic brakes or electric brakes.  The most common type of brake found on a vintage camper is a hydraulic brake.

Modern brake controllers will work with electric camper brakes installed on a vintage camper.  When buying a vintage camper, always be sure to have the brakes tested as these systems can wear out over time.  Electric components can corrode on electric systems and hydraulic fluid can leak out of hydraulic systems.

How do I Check My Trailer for Brakes?

The easiest way to check to see if your trailer has brakes is to take a look at the wheels and look for brake shoes.  If the wheels have brake shoes, then they have brakes.  At this point, you’ll know that your camper has brakes, but you won’t know whether or not these brakes are electric or hydraulic.  To check to see what type of brakes you have, go to the trailer hitch and look for a hydraulic cylinder.

If you see a cylinder, you have hydraulic brakes.  The absence of a cylinder means you have electric brakes.  Just keep in mind that previous owners may have disabled the braking system.

For example, an owner who did not want to use a hydraulic brake system may have removed the cylinder.  In this case, you’ll have to replace the hydraulic cylinder so that the brakes will actually operate once more.

Should I Add Brakes to My Trailer?

Adding brakes to a trailer is never a bad idea.  Trailer brakes will reduce wear and tear on your tow vehicle’s brakes, help you stop quicker, and help you manually reduce trailer sway while out on the road.

They’ll also help keep your liability down in the event that you’re ever involved in an accident with your camper in tow.

In many cases, it may also be the only way for you to legally operate your trailer.  Different states have different rules and while the trailer may be legal to operate without brakes in one state, it may be illegal to operate without brakes in another.  Add brakes and you’ll never have to worry about whether or not your trailer needs brakes again.

How to Add Brakes to A Camper That Does Not Have Them?

Brakes can be added to any trailer.  If the trailer already has brake mounting flanges, the process is easy and you’ll just need to install the brake system.  If the trailer does not have brake mounting flanges, you’ll either have to have them welded to the axle or you’ll need to replace the axle with one that does have brake mounting flanges.

Once the flanges have been put in place, you’ll be able to install the actual braking system to the trailer and the wheels.  This system will vary depending on the type of brakes you’ve decided to choose as well as the size and weight of the camper you’ll be pulling.

In addition to all of this, you’ll need the proper wiring kits as well as a breakaway kit.

Installing brakes on a larger camper with more axles will usually cost more than installing them on a smaller camper with fewer axles.

This is because different axle sizes will require differently sized brakes.

Unless you’re a skilled welder or mechanic, you may want to pay to have a professional install your camper’s brakes for you.  Not only will this help to ensure that the job is done properly, but it may help you avoid liability issues in an accident.

For example, what if the brakes you installed failed to operate and you end up causing an accident.  The insurance company comes out to investigate and finds out that you installed the brakes yourself.  They may say that the accident was your fault and they may refuse to pay.

If others are injured in the accident, they may bring a personal lawsuit against you.  Without protection from your insurance agency, you might end up losing the lawsuit and being subject to a large judgment against you.  In this case, the money you saved by installing your own trailer brakes will pale in comparison to all of the money you’ve lost.

In Summary

Most campers require the use of brakes and they’ll already come equipped from the factory.  These brakes will most likely be electric brakes and you’ll have to have a brake controller installed on your vehicle in order for them to work.  You can install this yourself or you can hire a professional to do it for you.

If your camper does not have brakes, you should probably get them installed.  This will ensure that you’re always operating safely and within the law.