If you’ve been following along, you already know that I recently towed a camper trailer across Canada with my beloved V8 4runner. I shared everything I learned from that trip in this article and one of the main things I touched on was the benefits of a trailer brake controller.
According to the owner’s manual, a Toyota 4runner needs a brake controller for any trailer that weighs more than 1,000 lbs. An electric brake controller will make towing much safer and will also cause less wear and tear on your 4runner.
Is a trailer brake controller necessary for an SUV like the 4runner?
To be honest, I used to think it wasn’t. I would tow my MR2 on a trailer with my WJ Grand Cherokee with no trailer brakes and figured it was fine. I was wrong.
The official word from Toyota’s mouth is that you need a brake controller for anything over 1,000 lbs. Most states and provinces will legally require one over 3,000 lbs. From my experience, they’re a very, very good idea.
Brake controllers add significant safety improvements
Keep in mind, the Toyota 4runner wasn’t originally intended to be a tow vehicle. It’s an offroad adventure vehicle. It’s supposed to take you, your family, and your friends to places most other vehicles aren’t capable of. Sure, it does a great job of towing – but that’s not its strong suit.
The 4runner is relatively lightweight and has a short wheelbase. Compare it to a full-size pickup truck (which is meant primarily for towing) and you’ll see a big difference. Simply put – the 4runner is small for a tow rig.
That means that it doesn’t take a whole lot for a trailer to want to bully it as you travel down the highway. All it takes is a bit too much speed, an abrupt grade change or corner, or a decent crosswind and you’re likely going to be dealing with some sway.
Want to know how I know? I experienced it myself during our road trip and to be honest – it scared me. Now, I’ve raced cars on the track. I’ve pushed vehicles to their limits in snowstorms. I’ve had SUVs on the verge of tipping while offroad. Yet this situation might just be the most scared I’ve ever been behind the wheel.
We were cruising down the Trans Canada highway at about 100 km/h and everything was fine. The trailer might not have been perfectly balanced, but at only 3,500 lbs or so and with the 4runner riding level, I figured it was close enough.
We came around a sharper turn that also turned into a downhill midway through. We weren’t speeding and weren’t overloaded. Yet our camper trailer decided to start swaying.
At first, I assumed I could save it by slowing down gently by letting off the throttle without touching the brakes. But the swaying continued – and then it got worse. I was officially in a situation where I was about to lose control.
The trailer continued to sway as the pendulum effect got stronger. I knew we were about to be in trouble and at that moment, I remembered my father in law’s advice:
Stay on the gas, and hit the manual button on the brake controller.
This straightened everything back out and got us back in control nearly instantly. Had I not had that brake controller, I truly believe it would have been ugly.
The tow vehicle doesn’t need to work as hard with a brake controller
The other benefit of using a brake controller is quite obvious – any time the trailer is able to do its share of the braking on its own, it takes the stress off the tow vehicle. That can really make a difference if you’re towing in areas with lots of steep hills.
The 4runner has fairly beefy brakes for a mid-size SUV. In my experience, they’re plenty strong enough to stop an appropriately sized trailer. But everything works so much better and with so much more control with a brake controller.
A brake controller can limit your liability
In the event of a crash, your insurance company can easily use the fact that you weren’t using a brake controller as a loophole to get out of paying for your claim.
This wouldn’t just include the cost of your damaged vehicle – you could be on the hook for millions of dollars in claims depending on the damage, injuries, and unfortunately, even loss of life.
Using a brake controller will protect you legally in the event that you’re involved in a collision whether you’re at fault or not. Nowadays, insurance companies will do anything to avoid having to pay out for a claim. Don’t make it even easier for them to weasel out of it!
Does the 4runner come with a trailer brake controller?
Unlike some full-size pickup trucks, Toyota 4runners did not come from the factory with an integrated brake controller installed. You’ll have to add an aftermarket one if you choose to go that route.
The good news is that most modern 4runners will have the wiring hidden under the dash for you to plug into. There might be some tweaking of a few wires required but you won’t have to run the wiring throughout the whole vehicle.
Where should you mount a brake controller in a 4runner?
When installing an aftermarket brake controller, the best place to mount the module is:
a) near the factory wiring you’re plugging into
b) out of the way of your legs and feet
Because of this, most peoples’ solution is to mount it on the bottom left area of the dashboard. That’s where the factory wiring should be hidden and it won’t take up much legroom.
Different brake controllers will be mounted differently
The above assumes you’re going with a traditional style brake controller that includes a small box with all of the controls on it. There are other types of controller options available now though, which allows you to have an even cleaner install if you wish.
Controllers like the Redarc Tow-Pro hide the module out of sight and allow you to install a simple knob in your dash for a really clean look. This offers as close to a factory appearance as you can get with an aftermarket controller.
There are also BlueTooth brake controllers available that are controlled by your smartphone – meaning you don’t need to install anything on your dashboard! More on this below:
The best trailer brake controller for a 4runner
As long as you’re fine with a wireless setup, the Curt Echo trailer brake controller is the best option for your 4runner. It’s a BlueTooth module that connects to your smartphone so you don’t have to worry about an installation at all.
Simply plug the brake controller into your factory trailer wiring connection, then plug your trailer wiring into it. The Echo is essentially a middle man between the two.
Now download the Curt app on your smartphone, create a profile and adjust your settings however you want them. It’s seriously that simple.
I didn’t have the time to deal with installing a traditional brake controller just days before our trip so I chose this one. It was a little on the expensive side but in this case, I figured time was money and it was worth it.
Like most BlueTooth devices, I expected this unit to have the odd connection issue here and there. I can tell you that throughout our 10,000+ km road trip, it never waivered. Every time I’d start the 4runner up, I’d open the app and continue on. No hassles ever.
Having to keep your phone screen on while driving might cause you some concerns in terms of battery life but personally, I plug my phone into my Pioneer head unit every time I get in. It’s constantly being charged so that wasn’t an issue.
There were times when we had my wife’s phone plugged into the truck and I was forced to run off the battery. Surprisingly, it didn’t cause much of a drain on the battery and would easily last for a couple of hours. The Curt app also has a dark mode feature which should help prolong your battery life as well.
It’s also worth mentioning that the controller will work perfectly fine with no phone plugged in. You only need it to adjust the settings and to use the manual override button. It remembers all of your settings once you unplug your phone.
I kept mine plugged in all the time to be able to make adjustments but mainly for the manual button. I wanted that thing at my fingertips at all times!
The great thing about the Curt Echo is that you can save multiple profiles in it. That allows you to use it for more than one trailer, and more than one tow vehicle! If I were to add a trailer hitch to our Tacoma (and I probably will) there’s no need for me to buy another brake controller for it. I can plug it into either truck, select the proper profile and take off.
This can also come in handy if you want to have different settings for whether your trailer is loaded or unloaded. Just make a separate profile for each.
There are a lot of great aftermarket trailer brake controllers available to you depending on how much you want to spend, and what type of install you’d like to do.
The important thing is that you get one! Trailer brake controllers are a good idea for any vehicle but the Toyota 4runner is not a dedicated tow rig and needs one even more.
For a couple of hundred bucks, it’ll give you peace of mind, added safety, and take some of the workload off of your brakes. Your 4runner will thank you and so will the other drivers on the highway!
Tim is the creator of Canadian Gearhead. His experience with auto detailing and working for Toyota shows through all of the articles posted here. He runs the Canadian Gearhead site and YouTube channel full-time now and currently owns a 2007 4runner, 2006 Tacoma, and 1991 MR2. Read more about Tim: