Best Trailer Brake Controllers: Whoa, There

Vivek Nayyar
by Vivek Nayyar

Top 8 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.

Table of Contents

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. Promoted Product: REDARC Tow-Pro Elite Electric Brake Controller

REDARC is an Australian company known for making high-quality products products designed to help owners get more out of their vehicles on the highway or far off the beaten path. The REDARC Tow-Pro Elite electric brake controller follows in that tradition and it has both a proportional mode for highway use and a user-controlled mode, which is ideally suited for all-terrain use.

REDARC built the Tow-Pro Elite electric brake controller so it works with both hydraulic and electric brakes. As well, it is compatible with both 12- and 24-volt systems. You will need a 30-amp circuit to install it, but once that is done it can control everything up to a triple-axle/six-brake controller.

The Tow-Pro Elite comes standard with a universal switch and a bare pigtail harness. However, some vehicles will require additional wiring for plug-and-play. The good news is that if you happen to have a Tekonsha, Curt, or Hopkins harness already installed, you can connect the Tow-Pro Elite directly, so long as you are willing to cut off the incompatible plug and splice it in.

Helping make set up as easy as possible, REDARC's Tow-Pro Elite is self-levelling and has a three-way accelerometer, so you can mount it in any direction. Other features include an illuminated knob with elastomer bushings that is safe to use in impact zones (no more bashing your knee against your controller!). And as you can see in the image above, each kit comes with an insert to fill out the switch blank around the control knob.

REDARC has a well-earned reputation for building functional and durable products and the brand has earned an A rating for review authenticity. On top of that, the Tow-Pro Elite trailer brake controller has a 95% positive rating. Finally, REDARC has US and Canadian customer service and tech support numbers which connect you to Australia, but they have afternoon hours in North American time.

Pros

  • Proportional or user control, unobtrusive illuminated dial switch, simple install

Cons

  • Premium product comes with a premium price

3. 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

4. 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

5. 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

6. 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

7. 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

8. 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

9. 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

Which trailer brake controller is best?

You may call one brake controller over the other the best depending on your towing frequency, the route that you mostly take, and the type of cargo you wish to carry on your trailer. Nevertheless, it is imperative to understand how a brake controller works. The functionality is explained below:

A brake controller is an electronic device that is connected to the electronic brakes that a trailer has, and enables the driver to operate from the towing vehicle itself. A typical brake controller is equipped with a couple of controls to best suit the driver’s convenience.

Generally, two types of trailer brake controllers are available in the market namely:

Proportional Brake Controller

This type of brake controller has programmable controls that can be customized according to the preference of the driver. For instance, the sliding button that is present on the controller can be used to manage the sensitivity of the brakes. Similarly, the second button can be configured to activate the brakes automatically as soon as the trailer experiences an unusual momentum or sway.

A proportional brake controller comprises an electrical accelerometer that intelligently senses the inertia or resistance of the towing vehicle, and applies the brakes accordingly. Because a proportional brake controller offers an efficient braking system and smooth stops, it is best suited for large trailers that are designed to carry heavy cargos, and/or mostly take elevated roads such as mountain passes.

Another type of controller is Time-Delayed Brake Controller which is sometimes also referred to as a Time-Based Brake Controller.

Time-Delayed Brake Controller

A time-delayed (or time-based) brake controller applies brakes to a trailer as soon as the driver of the towing vehicle presses the brake pedal. Trailers that are lightweight and/or don’t intend to carry heavy cargo can safely use a time-based brake controller as it is responsive, pretty effective, and comparatively cheaper.

Do I need a brake controller if I have a tow package?

As long as your trailer is not lightweight and doesn’t have surge brakes, yes, it is quite necessary to have a trailer brake controller. A good scenario to explain its requirement would be:

Suppose, you are driving your towing vehicle at the speed of 50 Kmph, and all of a sudden you apply the brakes. Because the towing vehicle itself has a good braking system, it would stop instantaneously. However, in the absence of a brake controller, the trailer will continue to move at the same speed. As a result, the trailer would push the towing vehicle further, and both the vehicles might end up having an accident.

The damage could be more severe if you are in a slopy area and moving downwards. Furthermore, if you are on a mountain pass, such an accident might pose a threat to life.

What kind of brake controller do I need?

Depending on the type of trailer you have, the kind of cargo you plan to carry, the frequency of your movement, and the territory you are expected to travel, your preference of brake controller may vary.

To elaborate, if you plan to tow heavy items like construction material, livestock, etc., a proportional brake controller would be a good idea as it can sense the momentum and offers an efficient braking system and smoother stops.

On the other hand, if the trailer that you wish to tow is lightweight, and even the cargo is not expected to be quite bulky, a time-based brake controller would be a wise choice considering both performance-wise and economically.

What are two of the most common trailer braking systems that require an electronic controller?

The fact is, there are three types of trailer braking systems namely hydraulic surge, air brakes, and electric. Out of these three, only the electric braking system needs electronic brake controllers that are available in two variants called Time-Delayed Brake Controller and Proportional Brake Controller. The diagram that follows explains things more clearly:

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(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 / ShutterStock.com. Product images provided by the manufacturer.]

Vivek Nayyar
Vivek Nayyar

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2 of 6 comments
  • Carlson Fan Carlson Fan on Feb 22, 2022

    I have a Tekonsha P2 controller, all the control you could ever want and need. Doubtful a factory unit works any better & sure you get the built in look but I'll take the built in "Transmission Temp Gage" in the 'Hoe over a brake controller any day of the week. Most trailers I pull don't have electric brakes but when towing I always have my eye on the transmission temperature.

  • Argistat Argistat on Feb 22, 2022

    Do the OEM factory brake controllers sense the truck's brake pressure to decide amount of braking to apply to the trailer? The proportional add-on controllers I've used in the past to tow a 6000lb trailer could never be adjusted to work ideally in all conditions. None I know of sense truck hydraulic brake pressure. By "work ideally", I mean the truck brakes should brake the truck weight and the trailer brakes should brake the trailer weight, vs. one of the two taking on more than it's share of braking duty. I suspect part of the reason is the amount of trailer brake they apply is proportional to the rate of deceleration, not the amount of truck brake hydraulic pressure? I'm by no means an expert on this.

  • Varezhka The biggest underlying issue of Mitsubishi Motors was that for most of its history the commercial vehicles division was where all the profit was being made, subsidizing the passenger vehicle division losses. Just like Isuzu.And because it was a runt of a giant conglomerate who mainly operated B2G and B2B, it never got the attention it needed to really succeed. So when Daimler came in early 2000s and took away the money making Mitsubishi-Fuso commercial division, it was screwed.Right now it's living off of its legacy user base in SE Asia, while its new parent Nissan is sucking away at its remaining engineering expertise in EV and kei cars. I'd love to see the upcoming US market Delica, so crossing fingers they will last that long.
  • ToolGuy A deep-dive of the TTAC Podcast Archives gleans some valuable insight here.
  • Tassos I heard the same clueless, bigoted BULLSHEET about the Chinese brands, 40 years ago about the Japanese Brands, and more recently about the Koreans.If the Japanese and the Koreans have succeeded in the US market, at the expense of losers such as Fiat, Alfa, Peugeot, and the Domestics,there is ZERO DOUBT in my mind, that if the Chinese want to succeed here, THEY WILL. No matter what one or two bigots do about it.PS try to distinguish between the hard working CHINESE PEOPLE and their GOVERNMENT once in your miserable lives.
  • 28-Cars-Later I guess Santa showed up with bales of cash for Mitsu this past Christmas.
  • Lou_BC I was looking at an extended warranty for my truck. The F&I guy was trying to sell me on the idea by telling me how his wife's Cadillac had 2 infotainment failures costing $4,600 dollars each and how it was very common in all of their products. These idiots can't build a reliable vehicle and they want me to trust them with the vehicle "taking over" for me.
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