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Having the ability to tow a trailer can prove extremely useful for both work and play. But not every vehicle rolls out of the factory with the parts required to tow vehicles and other loads safely. You’ll need to install the right accessory: either a step bumper or a receiver hitch.

Bumper Hitch or Receiver Hitch: What’s the Difference?

A step bumper is exactly what it sounds like—a bumper with a step built into its frame. While not all step bumpers can serve as towing hitches, some units come with a mounting hole for a hitch ball.

Meanwhile, a receiver hitch is a type of towing hitch that mounts to the frame of a vehicle. Most receiver hitches fit on the rear, but some can attach to the front or underneath the bumper. The rear-mount type is for towing a trailer behind your vehicle. On the other hand, the front-mount type is for when you want to tow your car behind an RV or a heavy-duty truck.

The main difference between a step bumper or bumper hitch and a receiver hitch is their primary purpose. A step bumper can function as a towing hitch, but that is not its primary function. On the other hand, a receiver hitch is specifically designed for towing purposes, making it the better choice of the two if you plan on doing a lot of heavy towing.

A typical step bumper on a pickup truck
A step bumper is exactly what it sounds like—a bumper with a step built into its frame.

Go for a step bumper if you:

  • Only plan on towing smaller trailers and light loads. A step bumper is typically rated at about 3,500 lbs towing capacity. The exact rating can usually be found somewhere on the bumper itself.
  • Prefer to load and haul cargo on your truck bed. Again, the step bump gives you a leg up even when you’ve got your hands full.
  • Cannot afford to buy a full-sized cargo trailer or lack suitable parking space for the trailer.

A receiver hitch suits you better if:

  • You plan on towing loads that are too heavy for a step bumper and tow ball.
  • You often haul cargo that’s too big or heavy for your pickup’s truck bed. There are some loads that can only fit in a trailer.
  • You often tow trailers in your line of work.

What is a Step Bumper or Bumper Hitch?

Equipped as standard in many larger vehicles like SUVs and trucks, the step bumper or tow bumper is a bumper with a recessed center section that functions as a step. Usually, there’s a hole that serves as a mounting point for a tow ball.

Some step bumpers also feature an anti-slip surface pad at the center of the bumper. The pad gives the step more traction so that it’s not as slippery when dirty or wet.

The advantages of having a step bumper include:

  • The step makes it easier for people to board and alight from the truck bed, particularly if the vehicle boasts considerable ground clearance.
  • The step bumper speeds up the process of loading and unloading the truck bed. People can use the step to give themselves a leg up while hauling cargo onto the truck or off it.
  • If the step bumper features a hole for a receiver ball, it can tow a trailer that it’s rated for.

However, for towing purposes, the drawback to a step or tow bumper is that you are limited to towing smaller trailers and lighter vehicles.

What is a Receiver Hitch?

If your truck comes with a towing hitch, it’s likely a receiver hitch. The receiver tube can accept hitch accessories such as ball mounts that serve as attachment points for trailers.

Receiver hitches come in five different classes based on their tow weight and the size of their receiver tubes. Towing capacity refers to the weight of the unloaded cargo trailer, while gross trailer weight capacity indicates the maximum weight of a fully-loaded trailer.

receiver hitch installed on a vehicle
A receiver hitch serves as an attachment point for trailers.
Hitch Class Receiver Tube Hitch (inches) Towing Capacity (lbs) Gross Trailer Weight Capacity (lbs) Suitable For
Class 1 1 ¼ in 200 lbs 2,000 lbs Cars, crossovers
Class 2 1 ¼ in 350 lbs 3,500 lbs Cars, crossovers, minivans
Class 3 2 in 800 lbs 10,000 lbs SUV crossovers, vans, SUVs, pickup trucks
Class 4 2 in 1,000 lbs 12,000 lbs Full-sized pickup trucks, SUV
Class 5 2 or 2 ½ in 2,700 lbs 20,000 lb Full-sized pickup trucks, commercial trucks (including dual and chassis cab trucks)

Receiver hitches do one job and one job only—they serve as an attachment point for trailers. They do not improve the safety of the vehicle or provide access to a pickup truck’s cargo bed. Nonetheless, this type of hitch is exactly what you’d want if you want something heavy-duty and reliable.

The rear bumper takes up space and can get in the way of a receiver hitch. If you install a new bumper, you may have to move the hitch or remove it entirely.

Selecting the Right Step Bumper or Receiver Hitch

Whether it’s a trailer hitch or a step bumper, make sure it’s compatible with your car or truck. Vehicle-specific bumpers and hitches cannot fit on unsuitable models.

rear view of a truck with step bumper
Vehicle-specific bumpers and hitches cannot fit unsuitable models.

Choosing a Receiver Hitch

Start by determining your vehicle’s towing capacity. Your new receiver hitch should match that capacity to future-proof the accessory in the event that you need to tow heavier loads.

Choosing a Step Bumper

Select a bumper designed for the year, make, and model of your vehicle. When in doubt, take measurements of your old bumper. The new step bumper should fit within those dimensions.

Furthermore, make sure that the new step bumper will not get in the way of existing parts on the vehicle’s rear, such as tail lights and brake lights.

Step bumpers come in aluminum, metal, plastic, steel, and stainless steel. The material will determine the bumper’s durability, resistance to corrosion, and weight.

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