Is a Trailer Breakaway Cable The Most Important Safety Device for Your Camper?

By Ryan Wilson

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trailer breakaway cable installed on truck

One of the most important safety features of a camper is the trailer breakaway cable brake system. Its purpose is to activate the camper’s brakes in case the trailer becomes disconnected from the tow vehicle while driving. This can prevent the trailer from rolling away and causing accidents or damage.

If your trailer breakaway cable is damaged or missing, it MUST be replaced before you next tow your camper. Failure to do so could have catastrophic results. At a minimum, you could seriously damage or destroy your camper leading to costly repairs or the cost of replacing your camper entirely! At worst, your camper could seriously injure or kill others!  

I was recently inspecting my trailer during my annual process to de-winterize my camper and noticed that my trailer breakaway cable had a significant fray in it.

Frayed trailer breakaway cable
The frayed trailer breakaway cable I recently spotted on my camper!

I’m glad I spotted it because I don’t want to take that risk when towing my camper with my family!

In this post, I provide you with an overview of trailer breakaway cables, discuss whether you need one for your camper, and provide details on how to replace and install one for safe camper towing.


The Trailer Breakaway Cable I Chose

Trailer Breakaway Cable

Performance Breakaway Trailer Cable

This is the trailer breakaway cable I chose to replace my frayed cable on my own camper. I’ve been using it all summer and it works great. It’s easy to attach and is very flexible and stretches sufficiently. It’s not often that you can find an inexpensive piece of equipment that does exactly what it says it will do!

Buy on Amazon

What is a Trailer Breakaway Cable?

A trailer breakaway cable is a safety device that activates the trailer’s brakes in case of accidental detachment from the towing vehicle. They consist of a cable that is attached to a switch on the trailer and to a secure point on the tow vehicle. 

The cable is shorter than the safety chains so, if the trailer becomes detached, it will pull out the switch and apply the brakes on the trailer. The cable is designed to pull the switch and apply the trailer’s brakes if the hitch fails or comes loose. 

The history of breakaway trailer cables is not well documented, but they were likely introduced in the 1970s based on the history of patents. Beginning in the 1980s, breakaway trailer cables started becoming required for trailers with trailer brakes. Since then, breakaway cables have become more common and standardized, and various types and models are available on the market .


Types of Trailer Breakaway Cable

There are various designs of breakaway trailer cables for activating trailer brakes on the market today. Here are some of the common models and their pros and cons:

  • Coiled wire cables: These cables are made of stainless steel spring wire that can extend and retract as needed.
    • They are easy to attach and detach from the breakaway switch and prevent dragging or tangling on the ground.
    • However, they may not be long enough for some trailers or may lose their elasticity over time.
  • Straight wire cables: These cables are made of metal or plastic wire that can be adjusted to the desired length.
    • They are more durable and flexible than coiled wire cables and can fit any trailer size.
    • However, they may drag on the ground or get caught on obstacles if not secured properly.
  • Zip cables: These cables are made of nylon-coated steel cable that is attached to a pin that plugs into the breakaway switch.
    • They are designed to zip back into a protective housing when not in use, preventing corrosion and damage.
    • However, they may be more expensive and harder to find than other types of cables.

Do I Need a Breakaway Cable on My Trailer?

Federal law requires that any trailer with trailer brakes have a trailer breakaway cable to stop the trailer if it becomes detached from your vehicle while towing.  In California, for example, a trailer breakaway cable is required for any trailer with a gross vehicle weight (GVW) greater than 1,500 lbs.  So this applies to most campers

If you’re in doubt, check with your state’s DMV to see what their weight requirement is.  Additionally, if you’re planning a road trip through a variety of states, it’s important to check each state for their specific rules. Alternatively, you could just be conservative and install a trailer breakaway cable even if your state has a higher weight rating than your current camper. 

Even if it is not mandatory in your area, it is highly recommended for safety reasons. A trailer breakaway cable can prevent accidents and injuries if your trailer becomes detached from your tow vehicle while driving. It can also save you from costly repairs and fines if your trailer causes damage to other vehicles or property.


Trailer Breakaway Cable Hookup

Replacing a trailer breakaway cable is one of the easiest maintenance tasks for camper owners. It can be accomplished in 2 easy steps.

pin attached to breakaway switch
1. Attach cable to breakaway pin
breakaway cable attached to truck
2. Attach cable to tow vehicle
  1. Attach the new cable to the activation pin.
  2. Attach to a secure point on the body of the tow vehicle. Do not attach the cable to the hitch or the safety chain attachments. If the trailer breakaway cable was attached to the hitch, and the hitch itself became detached, the trailer breakaway switch would not become activated.

Make sure the cable is not too long or too short, and that it does not drag on the ground or interfere with any moving parts. If the cable is too long, it could potentially not activate if the trailer chains are still attached or get damaged by dragging on the ground.

Alternatively, too short of a cable could lead to the trailer brakes being activated when actively towing your camper, even if there is no emergency.

Because the trailer breakaway switch uses your 12 volt camper battery to activate the brakes, it is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT that you never tow your camper without a fully-charged battery.

Testing That it Works

Once you have your new trailer breakaway cable attached, it’s important to test that it will activate the trailer breaks when the pin the removed. Below is a good video that shows you the steps required to test that your trailer breakaway switch is working.


When Should You Get a Trailer Breakaway Cable Replacement?

A trailer breakaway cable should be replaced immediately if it is damaged, frayed, corroded, or worn out. A faulty cable can fail to activate the brakes in an emergency, or cause false braking when it is not needed. You should also replace your cable if it does not match your tow vehicle or your trailer’s weight and size.


Summary

Trailer breakaway cables are a critical safety feature that every trailer owner should understand and utilize. It is essential to ensure that the breakaway cable is properly connected, of adequate length, and in good working order to provide maximum protection.

Neglecting to use a breakaway cable can result in legal and financial consequences, as well as putting yourself and others at risk. They typically cost less than $20, so they are cheap to replace.

Interested in learning about other ways to protect your camper? Check out our post on the importance of trailer coupler locks for securing your camper or the importance of using a spare tire cover to protect your spare so it’s ready to use when you get a flat.

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Author

Ryan is an avid outdoorsman who loves camping, hiking, and backpacking. He was initially reluctant to join the camper world, but after his first camping trip in one, he became a convert. He especially loves how camper ownership extends the camping season and makes it easier to be more adventurous with young kids. When not enjoying his free time, he works as a professional wildlife biologist studying the ecology and conservation of large mammals in Alaska.