If you tow trailers, whether occasionally or regularly, a trailer brake controller is a product you should definitely consider investing in. It’s easily one of the most important towing accessories available, probably second only to the trailer hitch itself.
Why is it so important? Because it helps you to tow a trailer safely, and that, after all, is the most important consideration there is. In this guide we take a good look at some of the best trailer brake controls on the market and then take a deep dive with our in-depth buyer’s guide to assess all the features and design points you need to know about these handy little devices.
The Best Trailer Brake Controller
Our first model comes from Tekonsha, and it is not only a proportional trailer brake control, it is also possibly the best electric brake controller on this list. Just take a look at the features it is packing.
First, it has the bright, easy-to-read LCD display screen. That’s very handy, because this little gadget wants to give you a lot of feedback. We’re talking output currency, battery condition and voltage output among other diagnostic readings. That makes it easy to ensure that the product is working correctly and solving any issues if they do come up by pinpointing the source.
It is compatible with electric and hydraulic braking modes, it has three languages, it has a brake boost feature, it works on up to four braking axles and you can save the settings for up to five separate trailers. Heck, we bet it would even cook a steak for you if you ask nicely.
Ok, it won’t cook a steak, but it will help you to control the braking on your trailer simply and effectively. It’s not cheap, but you are getting a very effective device for your money here.
- Bright LCD Screen
- Built in Boost Feature
- Proportional Style Controller
- Brand Tekonsha
- Model 90195
- Weight 1.45 Pounds
Easy to Use, Large Control Button
Wide Range of Diagnostic Outputs
Customizable Braking Levels
It’s not Cheap
Not a Simple Device
Next up we have a Reese Trailer brake control. A somewhat different model to the one we just looked at, it is a far simpler design of brake controller. That’s not necessarily a bad thing however, with a number of useful design points coming out of that simplicity.
Installation, for example, is extremely straightforward. As a solid-state electronic device there are no orientation issues here – you can hang it upside if the mood takes you. It does come with a useful installation harness, though the wires that run to the plug attachment are a little shorter than those you will find on some other models.
Once in place, set up is as easy as install. Use the big chunky buttons to enter and adjust trailer weight and brake activation speed and away you go. You will pay a little extra for the Reese name, but the guarantee of quality design and high-end construction is probably worth the few extra bucks.
- Plug and Play Model
- Bright Screen
- For Use on 12 Volt System Only
- Brand Reese Towpower
- Model 8507111
- Weight 5.6 Ounces
Very Simple to Install
Very Simple to Use
Quite Short Installation Wires
Limited Voltage Use
Our next model of brake controller comes from CURT, and it is a pretty interesting little design. It’s big stand out is the fact it boasts a built in Triple-axis, motion-sensing Accelerometer. Now, an Accelerometer may sounds like the coolest ride at a carnival, but it is also a very handy little gadget to have in your car or truck.
This built in device measures the acceleration – or deceleration – the controller undergoes inside the vehicle, adjusting the trailer brakes to match. What’s more, as a triple-axis installation it can also tell the pitch that the box is currently at. Why is this important you ask? Because it means the box can tell if the trailer is being hauled up a hill, and when it is coming down the other side. It can the adjust brake power accordingly. If you tow through hilly terrain then this bespoke braking adjustment could be very appealing indeed.
There are nine levels of braking sensitivity you can adjust to, meaning this is not really a true proportional braking control. It does deliver a lot of interesting features though and for a price tag considerably lower than many full proportional braking control systems.
- Built in Triple Axis, Motion Sensing Accelerometer
- Works with Trailer Brake Lights
- Nine Levels of Braking Sensitivity
- Brand CURT
- Model 51140
- Weight 8.8 Ounces
Senses Adjustments in Speed
Adjusts Braking Power on Hill Climbs & Descents
Very East Set Up – It Does It Automatically!
Great Value for Money
Not a True Proportional Controller
Must be Installed Within Set Angles
Next up we have this device from Draw-Tite. It is a proportional trailer brake control, however it is a more basic model overall than many other proportional models. On the one hand, that’s definitely a good thing. On the other hand it is missing a few of the things you would expect on a premium model.
On the good side we have proportional braking that is a very good value for a more advanced braking system style. You also get the ability to control up to three braking axles, which should be enough for the majority of trailer sizes. It has a really nice snap-in mounting clip that makes it easy to remove the control box when you don’t need it and the plug and play installation is nice and simple.
On the negative side it’s just a little basic. For example, it will try to give you diagnostic information if it detects any errors with the braking system, but that information can be a little hard to read owing to the simple LED screen. It can also struggle a little when braking on loose surfaces like gravel. All in all though given the low price, it’s not a bad little device at all.
- Built in Boost Feature
- Works Proportionately in Reverse
- Bright LED Display
- Brand Draw Tite
- Model 20191
- Weight 1.2 Pounds
Well Designed Installation Cradle
Boost is Useful for Heavy Loads
Can Struggle on Gravel
Very Basic Design
Diagnostic Read Outs Can be Difficult to Interpret
This product is essentially a more basic version of the Tekonsha product we feature later. The larger, information rich screen has been swapped out for a simple LED screen, and the buttons have been removed and replaced with a dial. You won’t be able to make the delicate adjustments to brake power or the set up of the device, but you are also saving quite a bit of cash.
In operation, the device is very similar to the one we just looked at earlier. They even have a virtually identical snap in cradle assembly. So all the pros of the item above – that fact it is easy to install and set up, the fact it provides proportional braking – are the same.
That means that the negatives are also identical. While this is a simple and effective device it is also missing some of the bells and whistles of its premium brother. Still, you are getting Tekonsha build and design quality for a good price, so that’s pretty impressive.
- Plug & Play Port
- LED Screen
- Boost Feature
- Brand Tekonsha
- Model 90160
- Weight 1.25 Pounds
Easy To Install
Good Value for Money
Basic Version of Previous Tekonsha Product
Hayes is a company that has been putting out aftermarket vehicle tools for quite a while, and this is its entry into the trailer brake control market. It’s a time based model so you are already looking at a lower price than the more high-end proportional models.
As a time-based model it is very to install, and it also require no pre-leveling, which we always like to see in time-based braking control units. It’s simple to set up, it’s simple to use… what more can we say? It works on up to three axles and with both manual and automatic brakes. It’s simple and it’s effective.
One thing that isn’t quite so effective is the attached connector, which is frankly garbage. It has a strange design that means it is compatible with some vehicles types for an easy plug and play installation but not with others. Hayes suggests you buy the model with an additional connector to ensure compatibility. The thing is though that extra adaptor costs some extra money. That pushes the total price up toward that of a more basic proportional brake unit. That really does dent the value for the money of this product.
- No Level Adjustment Required
- Fast Installation
- Made in the USA
- Brand Hayes
- Model 81760
- Weight 9.6 Ounces
Works on up to 3x Axles
Low Value for Money
The big stand out with this model is the fact it is so simple to set up and easy to use. The connector is well designed, to allow for true plug and play ability with this model. Once installed, setting brake power is crazy easy, as the device literally has two control buttons. That’s it! Look at the number on the screen. Does that feel like enough braking power? If not, press the plus button. If the power is little too much, press the negative.
Like we said it’s simple but effective. One down side is that manual braking applies full power instead of the percentage of power you’ve set the device too. That’s handy enough for emergency braking, but people who like to manual brake for added control in certain situations may not like that lack of ability to brake to a percentage rather than a full lock.
- Simple Installation
- Big, Easy to Use Buttons
- Time Based with Digital Settings
- Brand Hopkins Towing Solutions
- Model 47284
- Weight 10.4 Ounces
Easy To Set Up
Can’t Save Settings
Manual Control is Full Power Only
Here’s a second entry from this fine company because, quite frankly, it is always a pleasure to see a Reese trailer brake controller. This model is very different from anything else that Reese Towpower offers, however. It is in fact far different from any other product that has made its way onto our list.
This is by far the most stripped back model of trailer brake controller we’ve seen. There isn’t even a screen to display settings, and of course no screen means that there are no diagnostic reports. If the brake system isn’t working, it’s up to you to figure it out. We don’t even have buttons. The brake power is instead controlled by an old school looking, tiny plastic slider. The whole device looks old school; in fact, is it just us or does it look like an old VHS player?
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. This is after all a Reese trailer brake control, so it is highly effective in use. It’s also a dream to install and while it may not be the smallest controller on the market, the fact it has no screen or manual control means you can install it just about anywhere you want. It also has the build quality of Reese for an affordable price tag and that, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call value for the money. Who needs buttons anyway, right?
- Anti-Lock Compatible
- Time Based Design
- Slide Adjustment
- Brand Reese Tow Power
- Model 74642
- Weight 9.6 Ounces
Simplest Design on the Market
Amazing Value for Money
An Antique Red Power Indicator
Very Stripped Back Design
We finish up with the third entry from Tekonsha, and one of the more feature-packed models to make the list. That does mean we have a higher price tag, however. What do you get for the price?
Well, a lot of useful features. For one thing it can handle four braking axles, an upgrade in capacity compared to many other models of trailer brake control on the market. In addition, you have a lovely bright screen with blue numbers. That doesn’t really make much difference, it’s just a bit of change from the usual red. That screen also gives back a huge amount of real-time diagnostic information, making it easy to monitor your electrical and braking systems.
It’s not cheap, but it is packing a lot of cool features. It doesn’t really have any standout, killer feature but it also doesn’t have any real weaknesses, either. It’s essentially an upper mid-range product with an upper mid-range price tag that does exactly what it says it will on the box.
- Digital Display
- Install at Any Angle
- Boost Feature
- Brand Tekonsha
- Model 90885
- Weight 8 Ounces
Handles up to 4 Axles
Gives Great Diagnostic Feedback
A Little Expensive
As promised, for we are people of our word, here is our deep dive into the features that you should keep an eye out for when selecting your product. We’ll also chat a bit about why you should use a brake controller, and even take a quick look at how to install your device.
After that we’ll have a try at answering some of the most frequently asked questions about these devices, and then you should have everything you need to make the most of your trailer brake controller.
What to Look for in an Electric Trailer Brake Controller
A lot of trailer brake control units actually share a pretty limited range of features. That is because these devices are at the same time both complex and simple (stick with us here). They are simple in that they only perform one function, they are easy to install and relatively easy to use. They are complex because they automatically calculate and apply baking pressures, and take a fair amount of responsibility for safe towing. Here are some of the features that make these simple but complex machines tick.
- Proportional or Time Based: We will go into the difference between the two types of brake controller in more depth below. Choosing between them is however one of the big decisions that you need to make when you buy your controller.
- Brake Boost: You will find this more on proportional styles of controller. Basically, if the device senses that heavy braking is happening, such as an emergency stop, it will apply a boost to the braking power. This is usually only about 5% or 10%, but that extra power can be helpful when you are trying to stop a heavy load quickly but safely.
- Number of Axles: Count how many wheel are on your trailer, divide the number by two and that is how many axles your controller needs to control. Most controllers are going to be fine handling two or three axles. There are some, but not many, that can handle up to four, so keep an eye out for one of them if your trailer has an extra set of wheels.
- Built in Screen: There are lots of versions without screens, but we only included one in out list. We frankly simply couldn’t not include that one as it was a Reese trailer brake control with a price of under 30 bucks. Broadly speaking though we prefer a controller with a screen. It’s just that little bit easier to set up and it is also useful to get the diagnostics presented back to you on a nice bright, easy to read screen.
Why Should you Use a Brake Controller
- Safety – Towing a trailer is not as easy as it seems and there is a wide range of safety advice you should adhere too. That is why the extra safety factor of a trailer brake control kit has to be the number one benefit of these devices. When you are hauling a trailer, you are dramatically affecting the braking characteristics of your vehicle. When you apply brake force, a brake controller adds additional braking power by activating the trailer brakes. This adds braking power to all (or most) of the wheels you are controlling (vehicle and trailer) making braking faster and easier.
- Protect Vehicle Brakes – Without a controller, all the stopping power when you are towing has to be supplied by the brakes on your car or truck. Not only is this very dangerous with heavy towed weights, it also puts a huge strain on your vehicles brake system. Therefore even if you are only towing lighter trailers, it makes sense to hook up a trailer brake controller. It will spread the braking power around the whole rig (car and trailer), putting less pressure on your vehicle brake system.
Types of Trailer Brake Controller
There are two types of brake controller, and you will find examples of both on this list. They are Proportional and Time Based.
- Proportional: More complex and more expensive but arguably the superior system – at least if you are towing regularly enough to justify the outlay. They basically monitor the speed of the vehicle, sensing deceleration rates and applying the brakes on the trailer to match. That provides a bespoke application of braking power for a smooth slowing down process. Installation is a little harder, as they must be installed within a certain angle arc in order to work properly.
- Time Delayed: The second type of trailer braking control is much simpler. They are also though easier to install (they can be mounted at any angle) and a lot cheaper. They work by allowing you to set a percentage of braking power that is applied to the trailer brakes when you push the vehicle brake pedal. That power is held for a set amount of time. They are much simpler therefore, but don’t supply the same bespoke braking power levels as a proportional control. That can make stopping a little bit jerky instead of nice and smooth.
How to Install a Trailer Brake Controller
One of the good things about trailer brake controllers are the fact that they are very easy to install, provided that you have a relatively modern car. If so, you should find a small panel toward the bottom or side of the steering column. Pop it open and you should find a plug that you simply, well, plug your new brake controller into. Mount the holding bracket with a power drill or even some 3M Command tape and away you go.
It could be an idea to break your multimeter once the controller it installed, to just double check the electrical system is working perfectly.
Best Trailer Brake FAQ:
Q: What is a trailer brake controller?
A: Without sounding too obvious, a trailer brake controller is one of those devices that really does what it says it will on the box. It says it will control the brakes of your trailer, and that is exactly what it does. It does this to help you control the braking of your vehicle and the trailer when you are towing a load.
Q: How does a trailer brake controller work?
A: It really depends on the type of controller that you’ve selected. We go into this a little more in depth in the buying guide up top. Broadly speaking though, it is connected to the trailer braking system via the vehicle’s electrical system. It then applies the trailer brakes in tandem with the application of the brakes in the vehicle itself.
In other words when you throw you big boot down on the car’s brake pedal, the trailer brake control tells the trailer to brake too.
Our Top Pick
We called it early, but for us the overall top pick simply has to be the 90195 from Tekonsha. It just packs so much into such a small box it’s hard to go elsewhere with our pick, despite the long list of excellent products that came after it. It’s simple to install, it’s simple to use and above all it is just jammed full of so many useful features. As we mentioned in our initial review, no it’s not cheap. But if you’re going to invest your money you may as well put it into the best trailer brake controller that money can buy and for us that is this one.
- How Brake Controllers Work – HowStuffWorks