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Trailer Towing 101

Conventional (utilizing a receiver hitch) and 5th wheel towing systems have many differences and pros and cons, which will be explored elsewhere. While most of these concepts do apply to either method, portions of this information specifically relates to conventional towing situations. The information may seem overwhelming at first, but each weight rating is rather simple by itself and you’ll soon understand the relationship between each one. There are also some simple math equations that should make it easier to understand.


There are many things to consider when choosing a safe and capable tow vehicle and travel trailer combination. People often only concentrate on the advertised weights of the trailer and towing capacity for the vehicle, and gloss over the payload, GVWR, GCWR ratings. However, all of these limitations must be considered and adhered to in order to be safe, legal, comfortable, and to maximize the life of your equipment. Keep in mind that the combination of vehicle, trailer, and equipment is only as capable as its weakest link – and there are many “links”.


Just because a vehicle “can” pull a heavy trailer down the road doesn’t necessarily mean that it should. Vehicles attempting to pull loads heavier than they were designed for can experience inadequate braking, engine and transmission cooling problems, unsafe handling, and shorter equipment life. It’s vital to ensure that all weights are within legal limits and do not exceed the manufacturers’ specifications for any and all equipment which could lead to serious safety, legal, and insurance consequences.


Towing Capacity

The towing capacity rating is really about as simple as it sounds. It’s the maximum amount of weight that the manufacturer states the vehicle is capable of towing, or pulling behind it when traveling down the road. Unfortunately, many people only consider this number when shopping for a tow vehicle and trailer and stop there without looking into the other weight capacity ratings.


A good way to demonstrate why there is much more than towing capacity alone to consider, is to look at the strongman event where they pull a large truck (70,000+ lbs in some cases!) down the road under their own power. Can they pull it? Yes, and it gets easier once it starts rolling. Does it exceed their “towing capacity”? Apparently not. Can they safely stop it once it’s rolling? No, they need someone in the truck to apply the brakes.


Now, let’s imagine it’s a 70,000 lb trailer instead of a truck. The strongman could still pull it, but it would have a tongue exerting a downward force of about 10,000 lbs (even more if it was a 5th wheel trailer). Could his “suspension” safely support that weight? Not a chance.


Vehicle manufacturers’ towing capacity publications are a great resource to find out what a vehicle is rated to tow, but many variables must be considered to ensure you find the actual towing capacity of a particular vehicle. The manufacturers have teams of engineers and lawyers that determine the ratings they will stand behind, so there should be some peace of mind with the numbers they release. However, it's quite common that people suggest not exceeding 80% of the manufacturers' stated weight capacities. Either way, you should never exceed the manufacturers' numbers as it can lead to mechanical problems, warranty issues, and legal ramifications if involved in accident.


Manufacturers often tout towing capacity numbers in their truck and van advertisements, but it can be misleading if you don’t understand how much they can, and do, vary depending on configurations. Advertisements usually state, with a note in the fine print, the maximum possible towing capacity for that model, but the capacity of the truck that you actually want could be substantially less.


Trucks typically offer a large variety of possible configurations that affect towing capabilities. For instance, 2-wheel drive or 4-wheel drive, many cab options (regular, extended, crew), multiple engine, transmission, and gear ratio options, and even the various tire and wheel options will affect the towing capacity.


For example, Ford advertises that their 2019 F-150 has a conventional (non-5th wheel) tow rating of up to 13,200 lbs. A quick glance at the fine print and their trailer towing guide shows that the “F-150 XL SuperCrew®, 6.5' box, 3.5L EcoBoost® 4x2 and Max Trailer Tow Package” truck is capable of that rating, but that number starts to fall as options are changed. The guide also shows that some configurations of the 2019 F-150 are limited to conventionally towing just 5000 lbs! So in reality, a 2019 Ford F-150 can tow somewhere between 5000 lbs - 13,200 lbs. Chances are, the truck you’re looking for falls somewhere in between those numbers, so it’s very important to take a closer look.


Remember, manufacturers advertise the maximum numbers or the best case scenario, which is typically a minimally-equipped vehicle. This could be a very plain work truck with just a basic radio, crank windows, no air conditioning or carpet, etc. - because it weighs less. Towing capacities change quickly when options (weight) get added on.


While vans and SUVs typically don’t offer as many powertrain and suspension options that trucks do, the concept is the same and it requires special attention when reviewing towing guides. Ratings will vary depending on cargo or wagon configurations and engine, gear ratio, etc. options.


Vehicle-Specific Data

Car, truck, and van manufacturers are required to affix Tire and Loading Information and Safety Compliance Certification labels in the driver’s door jamb that list some of the weight capacities for that specific vehicle. Trailer manufacturers affix similar labels on the outside of trailers near the front driver’s side as well. These labels will have the vehicle’s VIN printed on them and the numbers to refer to when considering their capabilities. Manufacturers also publish specifications in brochures and towing guides, but it’s important to know which numbers to use and how to interpret them.


UVW (Unloaded Vehicle Weight), Empty, Dry, or Curb Weight

Knowing the empty weight of your tow vehicle and trailer is critical. It will allow you to properly select a safe combination of tow vehicle, trailer, equipment, and determine how much payload capacity you have available. Empty weights can be found in various publications, but are notoriously inaccurate because even identical models vary substantially due to being built with different options and equipment. One model can vary by hundreds of pounds depending on what options it was built with.


Car, truck, van and trailer manufacturers list general empty weights in their literature, but those don’t explicitly provide the empty weight of each specific vehicle. While their published numbers can provide some guidance while researching different models, they must be considered with caution. Thankfully, there are some simple methods to find a vehicle’s empty weight. For instance, travel trailers typically have a label located on or near the entry door which lists the actual weight of that specific trailer as it rolled out of the factory.


The label below was placed in the entry door frame of a 2018 Keystone Crossroads Sunset Trail SS331BH. Since the VIN is listed on the label, these numbers are relevant to that specific unit. Therefore, the UVW and cargo weights listed are considered correct and should be used for any towing calculations rather than the advertised numbers. For example, the manufacturer’s literature states the empty weight of this model is 7186 lbs with a payload capacity of 2549 lbs, but the label shows 7398 lbs and 2297 lbs respectively. A likely reason for the discrepancy is that this unit is equipped with the optional second air conditioner unit which increased the empty weight and, therefore, decreased the cargo capacity.


An often-overlooked point is that you must consider the impact of any dealer-installed or aftermarket equipment. If this trailer had left the factory with only the standard single air conditioner unit and the dealer installed the second unit, it would not be reflected on this label. However, it would now have a different empty weight and payload capacity leaving the dealer’s lot than it did leaving the factory, and this label would no longer be accurate.


Obviously, it’s important to be aware of what changes may have been made after a trailer is manufactured. Additional air conditioner units, power tongue jacks, bike racks, etc. are all commonly installed at RV dealers. Keep in mind that any changes made to a trailer after it was built will have an effect on the empty and cargo weights. This is also important to consider if buying a used trailer and whether any previous owners installed aftermarket equipment. The same concept applies to tow vehicles, with added trailer hitches, running boards, brush guards, bedliners, etc. having the same effect.


Unfortunately, while cars, trucks, and vans do have labels with some of their weight capacities listed (explained further in another section), their individual as-built empty weights are not specified. To discover a tow vehicle’s empty weight, a trailer’s new empty weight after changes, or just for peace of mind and accurate data, the best thing to do is to weigh the units. Weighing a vehicle and/or trailer is actually an easy process using a truck stop scale, and will be covered in detail in another article.


Payload/Cargo Capacity

Most full-size truck and van manufacturers follow the same payload rating systems that have been used for decades. 150 or 1500 refers to a “1/2 ton” payload capacity, 250 or 2500 for “3/4 ton”, and 350 or 3500 for “1 ton”. The capacities are listed in quotes here because they bear no direct correlation to the actual payload capacities of those vehicles. It works well as a method to compare and categorize the vehicles, but the actual payloads can vary tremendously among models. That’s a good thing because an actual payload capacity of just 1/2 ton, or 1000 lbs, would be very limiting in many towing applications.


The payload capacity refers to the amount of weight a vehicle can haul. Or, the additional weight load you can add to your empty vehicle, which is what the suspension and axles have to support. This includes anything that goes in (or on) the vehicle: people, pets, luggage, bikes, coolers, running boards, other accessories, etc. The trailer tongue weight must also be included for the tow vehicle’s payload calculation because it puts additional weight on the suspension and axles.


Remember, the payload rating is specific to your trailer and tow vehicle. It varies from unit to unit based on each and every option and piece of equipment.

Also, contrary to some people's belief, air bags (the inflatable type that are installed in the rear suspension) DO NOT increase payload or any other capacity. They only help to level the rear of the tow vehicle and may provide a more comfortable ride. Obviously, they CANNOT reduce the amount of weight pressing down on the vehicle's suspension.


Trailers also have a payload rating specified by the manufacturer and it follows the same concept as the tow vehicle. Anything that adds weight to the trailer after leaving the factory must be considered in the payload capacity. Additional air conditioners, luggage, bikes, coolers, dishes, bedding, food, and also fresh water, waste water, etc. must be considered.

Keep in mind that the trailer tongue weight will change with the use of a weight distribution hitch and affect the payload calculation on both the tow vehicle and trailer. Also, adding air bags to a tow vehicle’s suspension can help level the vehicle and improve the ride quality, but they do not increase the payload capacity. This is because the amount of weight on the axle doesn’t change, only how much the suspension is compressed.


The 2018 Ford sales literature overtly states the F-150 offers a maximum payload capacity of 3270 lbs. A footnote clarifies that the Heavy-Duty Payload Package and 5.0 V8 engine are requirements to potentially attain this rating. The label below is an example that illustrates the vast difference in capabilities even among the same vehicle model.

This Tire and Loading Information label is from a 2018 F-150 SuperCrew®, 6.5' box, 3.5L EcoBoost® 4x4, a very popular configuration. The payload capacity for this particular truck is only 1756 lbs. Compared to the advertised maximum, this is over 1500 lbs, or nearly 50% less payload capacity. Such a low payload can quickly become an issue combined with trailers weighing several thousand pounds.


GVWR (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating)

Every car, truck and van and trailer has a GVWR, which is simply the maximum overall weight limit of the unit. The total of the empty weight of the vehicle and the actual payload on board should never exceed the GVWR.


GCWR (Gross Combined Weight Rating)

The GCWR is the weight limit of the combination of the tow vehicle and its payload plus the trailer and its payload. In other words, the grand total of everything you have traveling down the road, and should never exceed this weight. It is calculated as the GVWR of the tow vehicle plus the GVWR of the trailer.


GAWR (Gross Axle Weight Rating)

The GAWR is specified for both the front and rear axles and is the maximum weight that each is rated to carry.


This Safety Compliance Certification Label is from the same 2018 F-150 used in the previous example. The front GAWR is 3600 lbs, and the rear GAWR is 4050 lbs, so the GVWR is 7050 lbs.


This label is from the same 2018 Sunset Trail RV used in a previous example.


Trailer Towing Packages

Truck, van, and SUV manufacturers commonly offer trailer towing packages as standard or optional equipment. However, there are often trailer towing packages that are separate from the trailer hitch package, so it is very important to understand exactly what is included in each package and what your vehicle is equipped with.


It is possible to have a vehicle equipped with a towing package that includes a transmission oil cooler, upgraded alternator, and other equipment, but no hitch or trailer wiring. Fortunately, installing a hitch and the associated wiring is relatively easy and inexpensive. However, it is also possible to have a vehicle equipped with a hitch and wiring, but without the mechanical upgrades. If those upgrades are needed for your towing needs, it can be complicated and expensive to make those modifications.


As mentioned previously, some vehicle manufacturers also offer heavy-duty payload packages as an option on some models. This can make a significant difference in the vehicle’s towing and hauling capabilities. Depending on configurations, there are examples where a 1/2 ton truck could have higher towing and payload capacities than a 3/4 ton truck. When considering a vehicle for towing, it is very important to check into all of the options and specifications to ensure it will meet your needs.


  • Now that I know more about towing capacity, payload, GVWR, etc., what's the easiest way to find the information I need about my current or potential equipment?


You will need to get the information from a few different places, but it's not hard to find. Do NOT simply do an internet search and use info from the results page or any numbers that you see others mention about their vehicle, no matter how similar it seems.


To get the most accurate, real world numbers, you should weigh your equipment at a truck stop scale. If you haven't done it before, it's really not hard, and it's not just for big rig drivers - RVers and others do it all the time. There are videos explaining it on YouTube, and CAT Scales has an app for your phone that makes it even easier.


Towing Capacity

It's easy to find the manufacturers' towing guides online. For example, if you have a Ford, search "Ford towing guide" along with the year of your vehicle and look for the PDF towing guide publication by Ford. Go to the chart for your vehicle and carefully match up your exact configuration. You may also find this information in your owner's manual. If you're unsure of any of it, you should contact a dealership service department for assistance.


Empty Weight

Trailers: The empty weight should be posted on a label around the entrance door and/or the VIN tag at the front driver's side of the trailer.

Tow vehicles: Unfortunately, this typically isn't posted on the vehicle anywhere. You can look up the manufacturers' stated curb weight of the vehicle and subtract the payload, but the best way would be to weigh it.

GVWR - Payload = Empty Weight


Payload

Important: This number is specific to your trailer and tow vehicle. Don't go by the payload of someone else's similar equipment or guess at it.

Trailers: The payload should be posted on a label around the entrance door and/or the VIN tag at the front driver's side of the trailer.

Tow vehicles: Look in the driver's door jamb and the payload will be listed on the "Tire and Loading Information" tag.

GVWR - Empty Weight = Payload


GVWR and GAWR

Trailers: This is on the VIN tag at the front driver's side of the trailer

Tow vehicles: Look in the driver's door jamb and the numbers are listed on the "Safety Compliance Certification Label".

Empty Weight + Payload = GVWR and Front GAWR + Rear GAWR = GVWR


GCWR

This should be listed in the tow vehicle manufacturers' towing guide and/or the owner's manual.

Tow Vehicle GVWR + Trailer GVWR = GCWR


More posts will be coming soon on other towing details including hitches, weight distribution systems, tires, using trailer tow mode in your vehicle, and more.













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