Step Bumper Vs. Receiver Hitch

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Towing a trailer can be a necessity for many families, but what if your truck has no hitch? Let’s explore which is better, a step bumper vs. a receiver hitch.

Many manufacturers produce step bumpers with predrilled holes for a ball mount. While a step bumper hitch can tow small trailers, the purpose for which it was designed is different. A receiver hitch can handle heavier loads because it is bolted directly to the car’s frame, providing more stability.

Effective towing begins with the right equipment, whether hauling a small trailer to the dump for spring cleaning or towing the pop-up camper to the lake for a fun weekend. One of the first places to start is the decision to install a trailer hitch. Since only some vehicles come with a frame-mounted hitch installed, owners are often faced with the decision of whether to install a step bumper or a receiver hitch. Which one is better? What are the differences in towing capacity with a bumper or a receiver? Are there weight capacities that should be followed? Does installing them void factory warranties? This article will examine this issue to help you decide the best hitch for your situation.

Table of Contents


What Is A Step Bumper?

A step bumper is a rear bumper with an indentation formed into the frame. The primary purpose of the step bumper is to provide a place for owners to “step up” when loading or unloading items out of a cargo bed. Many SUVs have step bumpers, and If you have ever used a roof rack, you have an idea of how helpful a step bumper can be.

Some step bumpers will have a predrilled hole formed in the molding, designed to handle a tow ball. This ball allows a trailer coupler to be hooked directly to the back of the truck or SUV. It is important to note that not all step bumpers have the capacity for towing. Some SUVs are not rated to tow much of anything (around 1,000 lbs). An owner should know their vehicle’s towing capacity before attempting to haul a trailer of any size.

A step bumper is adequate for hauling lightweight trailers under 3,500 lbs (the weight for which most bumpers are rated for). Most manufacturers will have a sticker on the bumper or information in the owner’s manual that indicate the bumper’s weight limit. If you do not haul very often, plan to tow lightweight trailers, or need to haul a light trailer a short distance, then in all likelihood, a ball mounted on a step bumper can provide the needed support.

What is a Receiver Hitch?

A receiver hitch is a piece of metal housing bolted to frame of a vehicle and is designed to accommodate a ball mount. Generally, a receiver hitch connects a cross-bar on either side of the truck frame, underneath the rear axle. The receiver bar extends below the rear bumper, and a ball mount is inserted. The trailer’s coupler is fastened to the trailer ball for movement during turns. Because the bumper hitch receiver can tow heavier loads, a receiver hitch is better for most towing purposes.

You should use a receiver hitch if you tow any trailer heavier than 3,500 lbs fully loaded. In addition, if you plan to tow frequently, or are towing over a long distance, consider installing a receiver hitch. Some states have strict tow regulations, and while none prevent a regular bumper from being used for towing, there are often limits in weights and trailer size that you need to know.

Receiver hitches come in five different classes depending on the weight capacity they are designed for. Below is a review of each class of trailer hitch and their weight restrictions. For an excellent article on Trailer Hitch Classes, follow the link.

Hitch Class Trailer Weight Tongue Weight
Class I Up to 2,000 lbs Up to 200 lbs.
Class II Up to 3,500 lbs Up to 350 lbs
Class III Up to 8,000 lbs Up to 800 lbs
Class IV Up to 10,000 lbs Up to 1,000 lbs
Class V 16 - 17,000 lbs Up to 2,400 lbs

Please note that it is essential to know the weight rating for your hitch and trailer before attempting to tow with your truck or SUV.

Concerns About Towing With a Step Bumper vs. Receiver Hitch

There are some critical differences between the issues with the step bumper that you may not encounter with a receiver hitch. While both hitch types can experience issues, a bumper hitch can exacerbate concerns. Tongue weight should be 10 - 15% of the loaded trailer weight.

The Durability of the Bumper

If you plan to tow with a bumper hitch ball, it is essential to ensure that the bumper is rated for the weight you plan to tow. Regardless, towing with a step bumper will put more pressure and strain on the rear bumper of your SUV or truck, so be sure that you are willing to live with the possibility of a serious repair if you tow too much weight.

Lack of Wiring Harness/Safety Chains

Many step bumpers are not intended for towing, so the truck needs to be equipped with a wiring harness. While there are aftermarket wiring kits that are easy to install, this is still an extra expense typically attached to towing with a bumper rather than a receiver.

With a ball hitch fastened to a step bumper, there is no easy place to hook up safety chains. Typically, safety chains will hook up to the underside of the receiver hitch, but with an SUV or older truck, there may not be an apparent location to hook the trailer chains to the tow vehicle. (Please note that safety chains are essential in almost every towing experience. Should the coupler become disengaged from the ball, the chains can help keep the trailer connected so that emergency maneuvering can be performed.

The Height of the Bumper

The major disadvantage of a step bumper pull is that the hitch ball is situated at the height of the truck’s rear bumper. This height may not be the best height to pull your trailer. A receiver hitch with an adjustable ball drop (rise) can allow you to raise or lower the ball so that trailer always rides level with the tow vehicle.

Towing a trailer at an angle can produce excess strain on the tow vehicle’s rear axle. If the trailer tongue is angled down, the front of the trailer is too heavy and may respond less easily to commands. A heavy trailer tongue pushes down on the truck’s rear, lifting the front, and reducing the truck’s front steering capabilities. A level trailer tongue will balance the weight over all four wheels and help steering and braking.

If the tongue is angled up, the trailer tongue weight is too light, and trailer sway is often the result. (Trailer sway is the number one reason for lightweight trailer accidents. According to the NHTSA, over 55,000 accidents involving small trailers happen annually).

Steering Is Less Capable

When using a step bumper, the trailer tongue is situated directly behind the truck’s tailgate with virtually no room to spare. Varying on the trailer model, steering with a ball mounted on a bumper is not as easy, and you have to be careful that the corner of the trailer does scrape against the tow vehicle’s backside. (This is typically found when trying to back the trailer into a tight spot. Sooner or later, you will likely “kiss” your rear bumper).

How Much Do Step Bumpers Or A Receiver Hitch Cost?

Aftermarket step bumpers cost between $100 - $500, depending on the manufacturer and the composite materials. (Step bumpers can be fashioned from modeled plastic, steel, or chrome). Receiver hitches will cost between $140 - $400 to install, depending on the labor charges involved. While installing a hitch can be done as a DIY project, it is probably just as easy to have a service center install it.

Does Installing a Receiver Hitch Void My Warranty?

Manufacturers cannot void your warranty when you install aftermarket components like a receiver hitch. However, you should ensure that you pull the correct gross trailer weight capacity with your hitch so you don’t give your manufacturer or insurance company a reason not to pay should something happen. (Ensure a certified technician installs your trailer hitch as an added safeguard).