A Guide to Trailer Towing Capacity

Trailer Towing Capacity Guide

Whether you’re thinking about buying a trailer or already own one, probably the most frequently asked question out there involves towing – what do I need to tow?

Having a trailer doesn’t do you a lick of good if you can’t get it to your destination! But figuring out what you need to take it on the road isn’t as simple as it might seem.

There are tons of factors you need to take into consideration. Just because it rolls doesn’t mean you’re good to go.

That’s why we took the time to create a guide to trailer towing capacity that shares everything you need to get your trailer on the move!

What Happens if You Overload Your Vehicle?

While you might think all you really need to do is get your trailer rolling, , that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s easy to overload your vehicle without realizing it.

Towing a trailer that your vehicle isn’t rated to move can create a litany of issues. You might snap or break your hitch if it isn’t a high enough grade, or you might overtax your engine. Even worse, if your vehicle’s braking system can’t handle the extra weight, you might not be able to stop when you need to.

The manufacturer designed your vehicle with specific performance standards in mind. When you upgrade to a towing package, you usually get more than just a tow hitch. They typically give you bigger brake calipers and pistons as well.

These components help your vehicle handle the extra weight, but only for the excess weight the manufacturer rated them for. Not only does towing too much weight put additional stress on your brakes, but it can also overtax your engine.

What happens to your engine when you tow too much weight? You can damage or even destroy your engine prematurely. Furthermore, you’ll struggle to get your vehicle to higher speeds, and you won’t be able to accelerate appropriately when you need to.

It might even be more dramatic when you hit a mountain pass or something similar. Instead of climbing the mountain with ease, you might end up not being able to move your trailer from the bottom of a valley.

Of course, if you hook up a fully-loaded fifth wheel to a mid sized sedan, you won’t be able to move at all. What’s worse, you’ll end up causing a ton of damage before you realize you’re doing anything wrong.

Determining Your Vehicle’s Towing Capacity

There are tons of things that go into determining your vehicle’s towing capacity. Still, the first place to start looking for information is in your vehicles owner manual.

Not every owner’s manual will break down the towing capacity for your particular vehicle. This is especially true if you own a vehicle that traditionally isn’t used for towing. However, even smaller vehicles owner’s manuals will typically mention a maximum towing capacity, even if they are a bit vague.

For vehicles that are more commonly used for towing and those with different engine options, the owner’s manual will typically have a chart informing you of your specific model’s maximum towing capacity – if your vehicle has the towing package.

While that’s a great place to start, it’s not always that easy.

Trust but Verify

Salespeople are notorious for telling you what you want to hear. Whether you’re buying a trailer or a vehicle to tow a trailer, if they think it’ll make a sale, they’ll tell you that it will work, which takes us back to the old mantra, trust but verify.

Salespeople are often the most knowledgeable people around. They can offer a lot of useful information, but identifying what information to listen to and what to ignore can be tricky.

Take note of everything they say and verify the stuff you care about after the fact. If everything still checks out, go ahead and make the purchase. If it doesn’t, then find out what you need and find a different salesperson.

Terms to Know

If you’re looking into towing things with your vehicle, there are a few terms you should learn before talking to anyone. If you don’t, they will be throwing around terms, and you won’t know what’s important and what to ignore!

Below are some of the more common terms to familiarize yourself with when it comes to towing.

Payload

Everything but the weight of the trailer or vehicle. Add together the passengers’ weight, gear, and tongue weight, and you get the total payload.

Curb Weight

The weight of the vehicle or trailer – no passengers or gear.

Gross Vehicle Weight

Combine the curb weight and the payload, and you get gross vehicle weight.

Combined Gross Vehicle Weight

Combined gross vehicle weight is the amount of weight the manufacturer has stated that the vehicle can handle. It’s the max payload, curb weight, and towing capacity.

Tongue Weight

The tongue weight is the amount of weight the tongue will put on the hitch.

Max Tongue Weight

The maximum amount of weight that the tongue can handle. Depending on the type of hitch used, the max tongue weight can change.

Dry Weight

The weight of a camper without any gear, water, or fuel.

Max Trailer Weight

The max trailer weight is the maximum weight of a trailer that a vehicle can tow.

Max Trailer Payload

To ensure a safe tow, you can only load so much weight on your trailer. The maximum weight that a trailer can withstand safely is the max trailer payload.

Trailer Gross Vehicle Weight

The functional weight of the trailer when you’re trying to tow it, which equals all the gear, fuel, water, and trailer weight combined.

Just Check Out the Towing Guides!

The easiest way to determine your vehicle’s towing ability is to check if the manufacturer has put out a towing guide for your particular vehicle.

We’ve tracked down the most recent towing guides for Chevy, Ford, GMC, and Dodge, but it’s worth trying to track down the towing guide for your particular vehicle model and year.

2020 Chevrolet Towing Guide

2020 Ford Towing Guide

2020 Dodge/Ram Towing Guide

2020 GMC Towing Guide

Breaking it All Down

Just because a 2020 Chevy Silverado 1500 with a 2.7L Turbo engine can haul 6,800 pounds doesn’t mean that your 2020 Chevy Silverado 1500 with a 2.7L Turbo engine can tow 6,800 pounds.

At first glance, it doesn’t make much sense until you realize that Chevy didn’t equip every truck in that model with a towing package. You need to make sure the truck you’re considering has all the proper towing equipment.

If you’re looking to upgrade your vehicle to one with towing capabilities, it’s unfortunately more complicated than simply adding one part. You’ll need to upgrade the brakes, hitches, tongues, and suspension.

Otherwise, you might be able to tow something, but that doesn’t mean you can do it safely!

Torque to Wheels

Just because your vehicle is producing a ton of torque doesn’t mean that you can tow something like a trailer. There are several different ways to measure torque, and engine torque is just one of them. A more meaningful measurement is torque to wheels.

Simply put, it’s the amount of power the drivetrain delivers to the axles and wheels. It’s a more accurate measurement for towing since it doesn’t matter how much torque your engine produces if it doesn’t make it to the wheels.

Make sure to check torque to wheel ratings when determining tow capacity instead of simple engine torque specs.

Remember the VIN

One of the easiest ways to track down your vehicle’s towing capacity is through the VIN. This only works though if the vehicle is direct stock from the manufacturer. If the vehicle has aftermarket parts or packages installed, the VIN won’t account for this, and the towing capacity will be inaccurate.

Simply find an excellent VIN decoder for your vehicle’s make, and they can give you all the information you need. If you can’t find a VIN decoder that gives you information regarding the vehicle’s towing capacity, any VIN decoder should provide you with the vehicle’s gross weight and other valuable information.

Making Sure You Have Enough Umph

While the manufacturer rated your vehicle for 5,000 pounds, that doesn’t mean you should hook up a 4,800-pound trailer to it. While your vehicle can pull this in perfect conditions, real-world conditions are rarely ideal.

Inclement weather, elevation, inclines, and more affect your towing capacity. You should always subtract at least 10 to 15 percent of the total tow capacity. So, if your truck can haul 5,000 pounds, you shouldn’t connect more than 4,250 pounds.

Furthermore, some conditions can reduce your towing capacity by close to 50 percent. If you’re going to be making one of these trips, you would need a vehicle rated at 10,000 pounds to move a 5,000-pound trailer.

How Strong Is Your Hitch?

Don’t underestimate your hitch. All of the weight that you are towing flows through the hitch, and if it isn’t up for the task, you’ll find out quickly. Check the specs for your hitch before hooking anything up.

In conjunction with your hitch’s towing capacity, you need to verify the towing capacity of your vehicle’s tongue. Also known as the max tongue weight, it’s one of the most critical points in the towing setup.

Even if your vehicle has the torque to tow something and has large enough brakes to stop it, it won’t matter if the trailer exceeds the max tongue weight.

By overloading the tongue, you risk having your trailer breakaway as you travel down the road, creating a dangerous and destructive situation.

Sea Level Matters

It’s not something most people think about, but the higher the altitude, the less you can tow. That’s because attitude affects your engine performance, and when your engine’s power is compromised, the weight you can tow is also diminished.

A quick rule of thumb for engine performance is for every 1,000 feet above sea level, your engine will lose about 4 percent in performance. That isn’t a big deal for most situations, but it might be a concern if you’re going for major road trips at high altitudes.

For instance, if you’re looking to check out Mount Evans Road in Colorado, you’re going to lose a little over 40 percent of your engine performance.

If your engine is limiting your vehicle’s towing capacity, you can reduce your maximum towing weight by the same amount. So, if the manufacturer rated your vehicle for 5,000 pounds, you can only tow 3,000 pounds when you’re traveling on this particular road.

Now that’s the highest paved road in the United States, but the point remains. Be aware of altitude, especially if you’re towing close to your vehicle’s capacity.

Finding Your Trailer Weight

Just like your vehicle comes with an owner’s manual detailing your gross vehicle weight, your trailer comes with a similar number. However, this weight is simply for the vehicle, and it doesn’t cover other factors like appliances and add-ons.

Finding the information in your trailer’s owner’s manual is a great starting point, but you’ll need a little extra work to figure out your trailer’s total weight.

A Guide to Estimating Your Trailer Weight

Start with the information in your owner’s manual. From there, find any additional packages that you purchased and see if they include the total added weight. Whether it was a luxury appliance package or a kitchen add-on, sometimes they’ll provide weight values for you.

If not, you’ll need to track down the weight of all the appliances and furnishings you added. Don’t forget to check if you have a full water tank or not. Keep in mind each 10-gallons of water weighs close to 84 pounds. You’ll need to add this amount to your trailer’s weight.

If you’re transporting fuel, make sure to add this number in as well. From there, add up all your gear, clothing, equipment, etc… Once you’ve added everything together, see if your vehicle can handle it.

A Rough Guide to Towing

If you’re comfortable with the math involved with towing and are simply looking for a general towing capacity reference number according to vehicle make/model, check out our beginner’s guide below. While these suggestions are certainly not foolproof, they do provide general guidelines you may find useful. 

Keep in mind that these are the maximum towing capacities. So, if you’re going to be traveling at altitude or you’re still going to be adding in extra gear, you’ll need to upgrade to the next larger size required to ensure that you don’t have any issues out on the road!

Small Vehicles

By small vehicles, we’re not talking about a Mazda 3, but more of a Mazda CX-5 or Kia Sportage. These smaller SUV/crossovers can typically tow close to 1,500 pounds. It’s enough for the smallest campers without any added features.

It’s extremely easy to overload these vehicles, so be sure to do your homework before hooking up anything to travel.

Mid-size SUVs

The CX-9, Hyundai Santa Fes, and the Ford Edge make up the mid-size SUVs. These vehicles can typically tow close to 3,500 pounds, drastically opening up the options for the kind of campers you can tow.

You can usually tow small campers with kitchens and limited commodities. However, you still need to be careful not to overload the vehicle with larger campers.

Standard SUVs

Ford Explorers and Honda Pilots make up the next category of vehicles. Most standard SUVs can tow up to 5,000 pounds, further enhancing the camper size you can tow. You’ll still need to verify that these SUVs have a tow package. Otherwise, your vehicle is going to have an even lower towing capacity.

Large SUVs

Suburbans come to mind when talking about large SUVs. The largest SUVs on the market make up this category. With an added towing package, these vehicles can usually tow up to 8,000 pounds.

As long as you stay focused on smaller campers, you can tow just about any model, but before purchasing, verify that your particular SUV can handle it.

½ Ton Pickups

When you’re serious about towing, upgrade from an SUV to a truck. The smaller ½ ton trucks can tow between 6,000 and 8,500 pounds. Half ton trucks include options like the Ford 150 and Silverado 1500.

They aren’t the biggest trucks in the world, but they are large enough to tow a wide array of trailers and campers.

¾ Ton Pickups

If you need to tow a little more than a ½ ton pickup will allow, the next option available is a ¾ ton pickup. These trucks are the Ford F250, Silverado 2500, and Rams 2500 series vehicles. They can typically tow between 8,500 and 10,000 pounds.

1 Ton Pickups

1-ton pickups are where the numbers start to get a little more serious for larger towing applications. These vehicles can tow anywhere between 10,00 and 14,000 pounds. One ton pickups are the Ford 350s, Silverado 3500s, and Ram 3500s.

1 ½ Ton Pickups and Larger

If you’re looking to pull the largest fifth wheels on the market, you need something a little bigger than a 1-ton pickup. They make 1 ½, 2, and 2 ½ ton pickups and most of these vehicles can tow anywhere between 14,000 and 34,000 pounds.

Whatever you’re trying to tow, these vehicles can handle it.

Other Considerations

We’ve covered the basics, but there are several other considerations you should look into before connecting your hitch! We’ve highlighted three more concerns below; make sure to check them out!

The Suspension Sags

Throwing a ton of weight on a rear hitch puts a little extra stress on the rear suspension. If you don’t have the right tow package or if you overload the system, you could end up damaging your suspension or wearing it out prematurely.

If you are planning on towing a lot and you’re not sure if your suspension can handle it, you can always upgrade your suspension so you can drive with peace of mind in knowing your vehicle will be ok!

Towing and Fuel Economy

It’s a well-known fact that towing anything is going to wreck your fuel economy. It’s why larger fuel tanks are one of the most significant commodities in tow vehicles. The heavier the trailer you’re trying to tow, the worse your fuel economy, which means you need a bigger tank.

Of course, the bigger the fuel tank, the heavier the vehicle when it’s full, meaning you need even more fuel.

Elevation Is the Game Changer

We’ve mentioned it once already, but it’s so important that we wanted to give it an extra look. Elevation limits the effectiveness of your engine. You’ll get reduced horsepower, reduced towing capacity, and reduced fuel economy.

If you’re struggling to get by at sea level, you won’t make it as you head towards the stratosphere. Meanwhile, even if you’ve never had issues at lower elevations, the higher you go, the more you’ll struggle.

Just remember, every 1,000 feet reduces engine performance by 4 percent on average. Some vehicles might do better, but others will do even worse.

Summary

While towing might seem like a necessary evil, get it right once, and it’s not something you’ll usually have to worry about again. When in doubt, go for a slightly larger towing capacity. That way, you won’t run into a situation down the road that your vehicle can’t handle.

With a little research, you can safely take your camper or trailer anywhere and enjoy the open road and the great outdoors! What are you waiting for? Get towing!