If you live anywhere in the United States, you might be surprised to find out that if you purchase a trailer, you have to go down to your local DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) and register it. Why would you have to register an inert object that has no motor power of its own? Is a trailer considered a vehicle?
In most states, anything you pull behind your trailer is considered to be a class of vehicle, which is why you have to take it down and register it. Every state differs in defining terms, but all trailers are vehicles to some degree or another in each state.
Most of the time, when you are perusing through various state laws (a more yawn-inducing process doesn’t exist) you will see that trailers are classified as vehicles “without an engine.” It has to be classified as a vehicle so that it can be regulated because states want that money one way or the other.
What are the classifications for different trailers?
In most states, a trailer is termed as a vehicle without an engine, and there are five categories - give or take one or two categories - that define the different trailers and what the state considers them to be:
- CMV (Commercial Motor Vehicle): This is just your car, truck, van, or whatever motorized vehicle that you use to travel to and from.
- Recreational vehicle: RVs or motorized motorhomes, fall into three distinct classes based on length, width, height, and weight.
- Vehicle towing a vehicle: If you break down on the road and your vehicle is towed, the towed vehicle is classified as an inoperable vehicle, but a vehicle nonetheless.
- Non-motorized vehicle: These are trailers, discussed in the opening three paragraphs and they are classified according to their GVWR (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating). These can be anything from regular 5’ x 8’ trailers to small travel trailers.
- Motorized trailer: Technically an RV but falls outside of Class A, B, and C RVs, such as a Jeep converted into a travel trailer, a camper van, etc.
All of the above have to be registered, titled, and include a tag of their own. That’s why you will often see even short bed trailers with license plates zip-tied to the rear grate (the part that drops down, forming a ramp).
All states have their way of getting a title and registration for your trailer, but all states share the same understanding that these trailers are considered to be vehicles when they are out on the roadway.
How are trailers regulated?
All fifty states have their own, subtle differences in how they regulate trailers out on the highway, however, all of them share one thing in common: all trailers are regulated based on length, width, height, and weight.
Because of the differences between each state, you can pull a trailer at a certain speed in one state. If you cross a state line into a new state, you’ll find yourself suddenly violating the law by traveling the same speed and towing the same trailer that was just fine in the state you just left.
The same could be said of RVs. RVs are allowed to be 9’ wide in Hawaii, but if you ever bring it into the continental United States, that width will violate every state law that you travel through. However, there are a few things that all states require with a trailer.
- Working taillights connected from the trailer to the towing vehicle
- License plate light that is functional and displays the license plate
- X-crossed safety chains running from the trailer to the towing vehicle
- Functioning brake lights on both the towing vehicle and the trailer
- Working turn signals on both the towing vehicle and the trailer
- Reflectors are applicable in some states
Some states require a few additional items either on the trailer or associated with the trailer when it is being towed.
- Breakaway brakes, which are automated brakes built into the trailer that activate if the trailer is separated from the towing vehicle
- Flares kept in the vehicle with you
- Tie downs for anything in the trailer that is not secure enough on its own
All states also have a maximum towing speed when you are hauling a trailer. These laws exist because it takes a longer distance to brake when you are hauling a heavy trailer than it does when you are not.
The speed limits vary by state and can be as low as 45mph and as high as 60mph. Also, trailers that are exceptionally large and heavy will require the automated brakes we mentioned above.
Trailers also follow the same rules as RVs in their respective states. Most of the states will allow a width of 8’ while a handful will allow a width of up to 8’6”. Only one state allows trailer widths up to 9’ and that is Hawaii.
The different kinds of recreational trailers
No matter what recreational trailer you use, whether you are towing it or it is a motorized trailer, it has to be titled and registered in your state. How much you pay and the hoops you have to jump through are determined by how restrictive your state is and what your trailer is (in terms of weight, height, length, etc.).
Pop-up campers have to be titled and registered in their respective states and are considered to be a vehicle. The title is for ownership, and the license plate is so that you can take it out on the road. You don’t have to have a special license to haul a pop-up camper trailer.
Although you will have to have your fifth-wheel trailer titled and registered in your state, with the requisite license plate on the back, most states do not require anything beyond that. However, there are a few states that require a commercial license to tow a fifth-wheel, if it meets certain parameters.
The following states require an endorsement or special license if your fifth wheel exceeds certain parameters: California, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, and Wyoming.
Be sure to check your state before you buy a fifth-wheel trailer so you know what qualifies for what. Only Washington D.C. and Wisconsin require a Commercial Driver’s License if your vehicle exceeds 26,001lbs GVWR or is longer than 45’.
Caravans fall under most of the same regulations that fifth-wheels do, since caravans are classified as vehicles, like fifth wheels, and are essentially larger camper trailers pulled behind your vehicle with a standard hitch.
If a recreational trailer is a vehicle, does it have to be insured?
Much of your vehicle’s insurance will also cover the costs of damage done to your trailer in the event of an accident. Whether it's because of that fact or not, you are not required by any state law to have insurance on your trailer.
However, it might be a good idea to add insurance to it. We’re talking teardrop trailers, caravans, fifth wheels, and recreational trailers of all kinds here. These are places that you choose to live in at various times of the year.
It makes sense to insure these because they are living spaces, and just because your vehicle’s insurance may cover some things, it's not going to cover everything that’s damaged in your trailer if you have an accident.
The insurance portion on your regular vehicle that covers damage to your trailer is the liability portion of your auto insurance plan. Try convincing an auto insurance agent to cover your microwave because it became unmoored in an accident and ended up in your shower.
You might find that some of these things are going to be very difficult to talk your insurance provider into covering, which is why you should strongly consider a separate insurance policy on your recreational trailer.
The following trailers are all eligible for insurance coverage:
- Pop-up trailers
- Fifth Wheels
- Truck Campers (the camper portion)
- Toy Hauler (teardrop campers)
There are a lot of people that own teardrop trailers but didn’t purchase them as such. Instead, they converted a traditional trailer into a teardrop, which comes with its own regulations. However, something like that is invaluable to the owner because it was crafted by their own hands.
Since even a teardrop trailer is considered to be a vehicle, with all of the titling and registering that go along with it, you should strongly consider insuring it. Arguing with an insurance agent over what your truck insurance will and will not cover when your teardrop is a smear of paint and wood across the highway is not something that you want.
Most trailers are considered vehicles in most, if not all, states. To one degree or another, a trailer that qualifies as a vehicle is also regulated when you are hauling it out on the highway. It requires a title, registration at your local DMV, and a license plate.
The only thing that a recreational trailer doesn’t have to have (according to state laws) is insurance, although you should strongly consider getting it anyway.