Do Camper Trailers Have Brakes? How to Use Your Brake Controller Properly 

You’re going to buy your first camper trailer, and you have no idea what kind of braking system it has or if it even includes brakes. You’re also not sure if the camper needs brakes. Do all camper trailers include brakes? If so, how do you use them?

Many camper trailers come with brakes, including vintage campers. Whether your camper includes brakes is usually a matter of size, not age, as smaller campers may lack brakes. With a brake controller installed, you can stop your trailer brakes when you hit the brakes on your towing vehicle.

This guide will tell you everything you need to know about camper trailer brakes, including the types of brake controllers and how to install one as well as whether you really need brakes on your trailer. There’s lots of great information to come, so make sure you keep reading! 

How Do I Know If My Camper Trailer Has Brakes?

To reiterate our point from the intro, most camper trailers have brakes. The exception to that rule is very small trailers. 

The only reason a small trailer won’t have brakes is that the force of the towing vehicle stopping is usually enough to pull the trailer to a stop as well. 

As you get into larger campers though, that becomes less and less the case. Hence, they include their own brakes.

You don’t have to wonder whether the camper trailer you just bought is equipped with brakes or not. You can check for them. 

Take a look under your vehicle near the wheels. You’re keeping your eyes peeled for brake shoes. 

Brake shoes are featured in a drum brake system. They’re shaped like crescents and have a rough exterior to create friction. 

If you see brake shoes, then your camper trailer has brakes. This is a likely scenario.

Should you not see brake shoes, then your camper is one of the rare trailers that lacks brakes. 

Don’t worry, as later we’ll talk about whether you even need brakes and how to install them if you want them. Be sure to check that out.

For further confirmation of the presence of camper brakes, go to your trailer hitch. You should see a hydraulic cylinder if the braking system is hydraulic. 

If you’re not sure what we’re talking about, you will by the next section.

A lack of a hydraulic cylinder does not necessarily mean that your camper trailer lacks brakes. If you’re buying your camper secondhand, it could be that the previous owner removed or disabled the cylinder before selling the camper (it happens!).

Further, if you have electric brakes, then there’s no need for your camper’s braking system to use hydraulics. Thus, no cylinder. 

How Camper Trailers Brake

Let’s talk a bit about the mechanics of braking a camper trailer that’s attached to a towing vehicle. Then, in the next section, we can delve into brake controllers and you’ll understand them a lot better. 

A camper trailer can use electricity or hydraulics, as mentioned in the last section, as well as air brakes to come to a stop.

Here’s an overview of all three types of braking mechanics. 

Air Brakes

The larger the camper trailer, the likelier you are to see air brakes. RVs may feature air brakes as well, so if you ever upgrade your travel vehicle, you’ll already be used to air brakes thanks to your camper.

To use an air brake system, you’d have your standard brakes in your towing vehicle, which is likely an SUV or truck. Then there’d be a parking brake separate from the standard brakes. 

To power the braking system, air brakes have an accumulation of air pressure. Since air is infinite, you never have to worry about your brakes not generating enough power for a precise stop. 

What if the air braking system leaked? Well, a small leak isn’t going to affect the system much, but obviously, the larger the leak, the more risk of air loss and thus pressure reduction. 

Electric Brakes

An electric braking system is a popular option for towing rigs. The brakes connect to the wheel drum. The rest of the braking system includes a lever, magnet, and dual brake shoes. 

When applying pressure on the brake, the magnet moves. That causes the lever to move in kind. The brake shoe will stop the camper’s wheels and the camper rolls to a stop as the towing vehicle does.

Hydraulic Brakes

Finally, your camper trailer braking system could be hydraulic. We touched on hydraulics in the section above, but there’s a lot more to this braking system.

The brakes use a hitch and a hydraulic cylinder. The hitch connects with the hydraulic cylinder, especially during fast stops. As soon as the camper rolls to a stop, the hydraulic cylinder deactivates the brakes.

Another instance in which brake deactivation will occur is when you begin to drive your towing vehicle. 

You can use hydraulic brakes without a brake controller. That’s one of the top benefits of hydraulic braking. 

What Is a Brake Controller? How Do You Use It?

Okay, we’ve mentioned them enough. Now it’s finally time to talk about brake controllers in earnest.

What is a brake controller? It’s a device that allows for the stoppage of both the towing vehicle and the camper trailer at precisely the same time. 

Brake controllers are always electronic. You’d fit the brake controller in the cab of your towing vehicle or sometimes on the exterior.

When you press on your towing vehicle’s brakes, an electric current travels to the camper trailer’s brakes and causes them to stop as well without the need for manual depression.

You can select between two types of brake controllers, time-delayed and proportional brake controllers. Let’s take a closer look. 

Time-Delayed Brake Controllers

Known as a user-controlled brake controller, a time-delayed brake controller is dependent on your choices. 

What do we mean by that? Well, before you start driving, you’d toggle the time-delayed brake controller and select the amount of power the brakes receive. 

You can also determine the amount of delay between when you stop your towing vehicle and when your camper trailer stops in kind.

Although it requires a lot of your attention and effort before you start driving, once you’re in your rig and on the road, you’ll be grateful for a time-delayed brake controller. Since you configured the brake controller, every time you stop, the results are consistent.

Of course, getting used to the settings and finding the right levels of power and stoppage for your rig can take some trial and error. You might want to practice in an empty parking lot if you’re new to time-delayed brake controllers.

After all, if you’re on the road and your rig stops a few seconds too late, that can be the difference between a fender bender and getting off unscathed!

Time-delayed brake controllers are quite advantageous for other reasons. They’re usually inexpensive, and you can go off-roading with one of these brake controllers since you can configure the settings properly ahead of time.

Even with the ideal settings, stopping with a time-delayed brake controller creates a kind of push-pull feeling each time you brake. It doesn’t feel great, and worse of all, the pushing and pulling can wear down your brakes, but not evenly, of course.

Proportional Brake Controllers

The other type of brake controller you might consider for your rig is a proportional brake controller. 

The more recent of the two, proportional brake controllers work more simply than time-delayed brake controllers. 

Rather than tinker with the settings before you start driving, all you have to do to activate a proportional brake controller is pump the brake of your towing vehicle.

The speed and pressure of the brake application are then transferred to the camper trailer brake. In other words, the braking is proportional, hence the name. 

This gives you more wiggle room when it comes to how you brake. For example, if you set your time-delayed brake controller for semi-hard stops, then even when you want to stop gently, you can’t.

With a proportional brake controller, you can stop gently if the situation calls for it; you can also brake hard when you need to. 

The smoothness of your braking is a huge benefit of using a proportional brake controller. Your brakes will experience a lot less wear and tear, and the wear that does happen will be more even across the braking system. 

You don’t have as much of that push-pull feeling when using a proportional brake controller either. 

However, you must be willing to spend significantly more money for a proportional brake controller, especially compared to a time-delayed controller. 

How to Install a Brake Controller

After weighing the pros and cons, you decided on either a time-delayed or proportional brake controller for your camper trailer rig. Now you have to install the thing, but admittedly, you don’t know where to start.

Well, you can install the brake controller one of four ways: on the dashboard, mounted to your camper trailer, wirelessly, or under the dashboard. Let’s go over your options and how each is done.

Mounting the Brake Controller to the Dashboard 

If you select the dashboard knob for installing the brake controller, that will require you to wire the controller too. 

You can either stick the brake controller knob on the dashboard using an included glue product or you can drill a hole in the cab and mount it more securely. That’s your choice, as is the orientation of the mounting.

If your towing vehicle doesn’t have pre-wiring, then you’ll need either a four-way or a seven-way installation kit. 

The brake controller knob will include a series of LED lights that will show various colors to tell you which settings you chose as well as to display diagnostics and braking power. You have your pick between time-delayed and proportional dashboard knobs. 

Mounting the Brake Controller to Your Camper Trailer

If you’d rather not mess with your towing vehicle’s cab, you can always install the brake controller right on your camper trailer. You’ll need a seven-way connector to do this, but you can skip all the drilling and hard-wiring. 

Some trailer brake controllers feature LED lights and displays akin to a dashboard-mounted brake controller. The lights would indicate the same things, including brake power and selected settings. 

The only downside is that these brake controllers are usually quite costly, especially compared to a dashboard knob. 

Wireless Brake Controller Installation

The latest and greatest in brake controller mounting technology is the wireless brake. If you can find one of these, they are exceedingly simple to install, as you don’t have to drill holes or otherwise alter your towing vehicle. 

Most wireless brake controllers are plug-and-play models that include a remote control for configuring options and reviewing settings. Wireless brake controller models are usually compatible with your smartphone as well.

Where does the wireless brake controller connect to? Usually, it’s your 12-volt accessory outlet, but not always. 

You will spend considerably more money for a wireless brake controller, but the convenience and time savings are hard to beat. 

Mounting the Brake Controller Under Your Dashboard 

Your last option is to install your brake controller under your towing vehicle’s dashboard. Once again, you’d need a four-way or seven-way installation kit if your towing vehicle doesn’t have pre-wiring. 

A dashboard-mounted brake controller can include an LED display or an LCD screen that reads error codes and produces boost setting information and brake power output. 

You will have to install the brake controller under your dashboard at a precise angle, and it can take some time to get it right.  

These are the big, boxy brake controllers you often hear about, so if your cab is on the cramped side, it’s not hard to bump into your brake controller with your leg whenever you’re driving. 

Does My Camper Need Brakes?

To you, installing camper brakes sounds difficult, expensive, and time-consuming. Can you simply forego the brake controller when driving your camper trailer?

That depends on where in the country you call home as well as where your travels take you. 

Throughout the United States, laws are in place that require camper trailers to have brakes depending on how much the camper weighs. 

These states require trailer brakes if your camper trailer is between 1,000 and 3,000 pounds or over 3,000 pounds but less than 4,000 pounds:

  • Wisconsin
  • West Virginia
  • Washington
  • Virginia
  • Vermont
  • Tennessee
  • South Dakota
  • South Carolina
  • Pennsylvania
  • Oklahoma
  • Ohio
  • North Carolina
  • New York
  • New Mexico
  • New Jersey
  • New Hampshire
  • Nevada
  • Montana
  • Missouri
  • Mississippi
  • Minnesota
  • Maryland
  • Maine
  • Louisiana 
  • Iowa
  • Indiana
  • Illinois
  • Idaho
  • Hawaii
  • Georgia
  • Florida
  • Connecticut 
  • Colorado
  • California
  • Arkansas
  • Arizona
  • Alabama

If your camper trailer weighs more than 4,000 pounds, then the following state laws require trailer brakes:

  • Rhode Island
  • Delaware

Does your camper trailer weigh over 4,500 pounds and up to 6,500 pounds? In these states, you need camper brakes:

  • Texas
  • Nebraska
  • Alaska

In Michigan, if your camper trailer is 15,000+ pounds, then camper brakes are required. In Massachusetts, the weight limit is more than 10,000 pounds. 

A few states don’t have weight limits on camper brakes, so you can probably forego them (not that we recommend you do!):

  • Wyoming
  • Utah
  • Oregon
  • North Dakota
  • Kentucky
  • Kansas

Final Thoughts

Camper trailers usually have brakes except for very small models. The brakes may be operated hydraulically or use an electric or air braking system. 

Many camper trailer owners opt for a brake controller to stop their trailer in conjunction with their towing vehicle. 

Whether you select a time-delayed brake controller or a proportional brake controller, you can mount the controller under your dashboard, on the dashboard, or even on your camper trailer. A wireless installation is an option as well.

Camper trailer brakes give you a higher degree of control and can prevent jackknifing and trailer sway, two very scary situations. They’re worth having, and in many states, it’s the law! 

Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

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