Top 8 Best Trailer Brake Controllers
By | Last updated: April 23, 2021
best trailer brake controllers

If you’re thinking about using your truck or SUV to tow anything more than a child’s inflatable dinghy, it is an exceedingly good idea to invest in a trailer brake controller. These units, generally about the size of two stacked smartphones, manage the amount of braking force being produced by the electric brakes fitted to your trailer’s axles.

Not sure if your trailer has electric brakes? Check the plug size on the end of its electrical pigtail that gets connected to the tow vehicle. If it is rectangular with four metal connections, it is only tasked with providing the trailer’s lights with electricity. If it is round with seven pins, your trailer has electric brakes.

These trailer brake controllers allow the driver to monitor the braking situation astern and, in all but the cheapest examples, set the level of braking aggression – also called ‘gain’ – provided by the trailer when you apply the brakes on your tow vehicle. This is an important task because while it is important for safety reasons for the trailer to do its fair share of braking on the highway, less friction is needed when reversing into a campsite at walking speed.

Too much gain in the latter example will create a frustrating situation in which the trailer’s tires don’t roll in sufficient measure to easily navigate the thing in reverse and point it where you want to go. Too little gain when out on the open road will force the tow vehicle to take on the lion’s share of braking duties, potentially overwhelming its brakes and creating a dangerous situation.

That’s why your author is a trailer brake evangelist. We’ve picked out eight of the best for you to consider before getting hitched and hitting the road. Be safe out there, kids.

1. Editor’s Choice: A Factory Unit

For the love of Henry Ford and Dodge Brothers, the best choice a person can make when selecting a trailer brake controller is to get one that is specifically designed and calibrated for your truck. Sure, it’s popular to beat on some manufacturers for offering silly accessories (hello, ZR2 spare tire carrier which consumes the whole bed) but the reality is that engineers much smarter than the average bear spend plenty of time and dollars making sure stuff like trailer brake controllers work properly.

Another advantage to factory units? They actually look like they belong in your truck, unlike some aftermarket units which hang below the dashboard ready to bash a knee and generally looking like an egregious afterthought. Even though your truck may not have been spec’d from the factory with a brake controller, chances are high that wiring and mounting points are already installed behind a block-off plate. Get a dealer to reflash the computer to make sure everything’s kosher (speaking from experience here, folks).

Pros/Looks like it belongs, specifically made for your vehicle
Cons/More expensive than aftermarket options
Bottom Line/Give your truck a factory-fresh look

2. Handsome Fellow: CURT 51170 Spectrum Original

OK, if you’re hell-bent on not buying a factory trailer brake controller for whatever reason, this unit from CURT should be on your short list. It’s rotary knob with attendant warning lights is easy to understand even for novice haulers – crank it clockwise for extra brake gain, dial it back like you’re turning down the stereo for less stoppage.

Like plumbing in a building, all the ugly guts are tucked away out of sight. The attractive round controller is just the driver’s interface – all the brains are in a box mounted underneath the dashboard at a location of your choosing. It can be used with trailers with 1 to 4 axles (2 to 8 brakes) and is fully compatible with cruise control.

Pros/Easy to use, looks great
Cons/A bit on the spendy side
Bottom Line/Add some flair to your towing duties

3. Budget Choice: Reese Towpower Brakeman Timed Compact Brake Control

Let’s get one thing clear right from the start: Cheaping out on safety is never a good idea. In most cases, especially with aftermarket car accessories, you totally get what you pay for. However, if you’re only hauling small loads short distances, popping for this el cheapo unit might do the trick.

Reese (not the candy) has been putting their name on towing accessories for approximately forever. This unit is designed for single and tandem axle trailers. Made of solid state construction, this item has no moving parts or pendulums, and no hydraulic connections and no leveling is required. Note well that this is a time-based control which applies braking power at a fixed rate that is not proportional to the pressure applied to the truck’s brake pedal.

Pros/Pocket-lint price, known brand name
Cons/No digital readout of gain, non-proportional
Bottom Line/Functional but slightly more expensive options beckon

4. Tekonsha 90160 PrimusIQ Electronic Brake Control

If your author installed this unit, he would call it Optimus Primus. Utilizing a plug-n-play port that works with 2-plug adapters, this controller permits proportional control while backing up, a feature which you won’t know you want until you don’t have it. Why? It is an important tool when trying to back into a campsite at 90 degrees without having the trailer fighting your every move. Again, I speak from experience.

Utilizing the primary sensor technology from Prodigy, the PrimusIQ now includes the Boost feature that gives users the ability to apply more initial trailer braking when towing heavier trailers. It also has a digital readout depicting when there is a secure electrical connection, amount of voltage delivery to the trailer brakes, and diagnostic features incorporated in the LED display.

Pros/Works proportionally in reverse gear, good digital readout
Cons/Gain adjuster thumb wheel looks terribly cheap
Bottom Line/Stellar aggregate rating from 4200+ customers

5. Draw-Tite 5535 Trailer Brake Control

Hailing from another well-known name in the hauling industry, this bite-sized trailer brake controller neatly integrates an LCD readout and a quartet of control buttons – one set for gain and one set for boost. The seller says it’ll easily handle trailers with up to four axles, meaning you’re in proportional command of eight separate brakes.

No manual adjustments to the unit are necessary, with the controller automatically leveling itself. Just like that guy in the bro-dozer, this thing is always compensating – except here it is doing so for uphill/downhill travel in order to allow you to stay focused on the road ahead. And, hopefully, the trailer behind. Those who needed to contact the company to sort out a problem report excellent customer service.

Pros/Reasonably priced, good feature count
Cons/It looks like a tacked aftermarket trailer brake controller ...
Bottom Line/... because that's exactly what it is

6. CURT 51180 Echo Mobile Electric Trailer Brake Controller

This one’s definitely not for Luddites. Plugging right into the 7-pin connector in the rear of your vehicle, this brake controller connects to a smart device for wireless and remote operation. Do you trust that connection when it’s in charge of helping you slow down a heavy trailer? That’s the $237.95 question. Also, all functions are controlled from an app on your smartphone, meaning you’re outta luck if you forgot to charge the thing.

It won’t ugly up your interior, that’s for sure, with every single bit of its kit residing outside the truck near its hitching point. Owners can fling it in the glovebox when it’s not in use. Apparently, if the Bluetooth connection is lost, the controller still works by simply using its most recently programmed settings, so that’s reassuring. Recent customer feedback is largely positive and the overall rating is better than the last time we featured this product.

Pros/Quick installation, easy to move, doesn’t mar dashboard aesthetic
Cons/How good is that Bluetooth connection again?
Bottom Line/Remove it when not in use to prevent theft

7. Tekonsha 90885 Prodigy P2

Sounding for all the world like some sort of obscure video game title, the Tekonsha Prodigy P2 is one of the few trailer brake controllers on this list that displays cool blue LCD digits instead of illuminating an angry red readout. Like others, it can handle a trailer with up to four axles while depicting voltage delivery to trailer during braking.

Numerous mounting options, including 360 degree vertical rotation with a disconnect feature, allows user to remove and store the control when you’re not hauling the mail. Continual diagnostics check for proper connection, shorted magnet conditions, and reverse battery protection for both vehicle and breakaway.

Pros/Easy-on-the-eyes numbers, proportional representation
Cons/Looks cheap
Bottom Line/Just another aftermarket trailer brake controller

8. Tekonsha 90195 P3 Electronic Brake Control

As big brother to the unit above (P3 is one better than P2, after all), this controller boasts more options and a better design, looking more like a factory-integrated unit and less like something your grandfather got at the hardware store during a closeout sale. A relatively large screen capable of displaying more than simple brake gain helps immensely.

You’ll still have to screw the mounting bracket under the truck’s dashboard, though, something your author would never do even under the threat of personal injury. I’d rather mount it to myself than the truck, actually (my therapist appointment is Wednesday). Still, for those who don’t mind the look, this controller boasts top-notch reviews with real-world customers calling it a powerful towing companion that’s easy to use.

Pros/Great display, buttons you can use while wearing gloves
Cons/Slightly more costly than some other units
Bottom Line/Offers model-specific options which is helpful

Trailer Brake FAQs

How are they configured?

Essentially, take your unladen trailer and do a couple of 30 mph stops, adjusting the gain until the trailer stops smoothly with no tugging back on the truck and no tire lock up. That is your empty setting. Then, load up the trailer with what you will normally be carrying and try the same type of stop with the same settings. It should not lock a wheel (obviously) but will also take longer to get whoa’d up since you’ve just added several tons of mass to the equation. If necessary, adjust the gain settings to achieve the same smooth stop you had with the empty trailer.

Gain? Boost? Who said the what now?

The higher the gain setting (generally on a scale of 1.0 – 10.0 in 0.5 steps), the more aggressively your trailer brakes will apply when you press the brake pedal on your tow vehicle. A low gain number means the vehicle is doing most of the braking work, which could be a tough situation if you’re hauling a heavy trailer in mountainous areas. However, there are times when you’d want hardly any gain, such as when trying to finesse a trailer in reverse. In that instance, keeping the trailer wheels rolling assists with turning.

How do these things actually help?

See above. Snarky answers aside, these trailer brake controllers are all but a practical necessity when towing heavy trailers since they permit drivers to safely control the amount of braking work being done by both tow vehicle and trailer.

From time to time, TTAC will highlight automotive products we think may be of interest to our community. Plus, posts like this help to keep the lights on around here. Learn more about how this works.

(Editor’s note: This post is meant to both help you be an informed shopper for automotive products but also to pay for our ‘90s sedan shopping habits operating expenses. Some of you don’t find these posts fun, but they help pay for Junkyard Finds, Rare Rides, Piston Slaps, and whatever else. Thanks for reading.)

[Main photo credit: Butsaya / Product images provided by the manufacturer.]

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