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If you’re new to RVing and you’re in the market for a camper to tow, one question you likely have is how much weight you can safely tow with your current (or future) vehicle. This question can be a little confusing initially, but with some easy-to-locate information, you can find the right answer.
Before we dive too far into determining your tow rating, there are several things to consider when deciding how much you can tow.
First, RVs can be heavy, including even smaller travel trailers. Except in rare situations, if you plan to tow anything beyond a teardrop trailer, you likely need a larger SUV or full-size truck. When you get into the larger heavy trailers or fifth wheels, you’ll likely be looking at a minimum of a three-quarter-ton truck or larger.
Additionally, much more goes into towing an RV beyond the vehicle’s towing capacity. Therefore, you must also consider your cargo weight in your tow vehicle and RV. Additionally, it would be best to balance that weight by not carrying too heavy of a load in either vehicle.
You will also likely need to consider towing accessories, like adding a weight distribution hitch, truck airbags if you have a very heavy RV, and a quality brake controller. While it may seem overwhelming initially, it will all make sense once you learn more about your specific needs.
Selecting A Camper
My first advice when shopping for a towable RV is to purchase the tow vehicle first. If you don’t do this, then the RV will be the determining factor in what tow vehicle you end up buying. There are many stories of people buying too large of an RV and not being able to tow it safely.
In this instance, your only options are to sell the RV or buy a larger tow vehicle, both costly mistakes.
If you already have your tow vehicle, it’s relatively easy to figure out what it can safely tow. While most vehicles will have an easy-to-find tow rating, it’s best to use this as an absolute maximum weight rather than a starting place for the size camper you plan to purchase.
In addition to the weight of the camper, you also need to factor in the gear and supplies you’ll be carrying with you. You’ll be surprised by the amount of stuff you’ll need to bring camping, and it all adds up in weight and can put you over the edge of your tow vehicle’s capacity.
Additionally, while a truck may be able to safely tow 10,000 lbs, you probably don’t want to max out your truck all the time. Heavier loads mean more wear and tear on the truck’s components, including the engine, suspension, brakes, transmissions, etc.
Therefore, I always recommend you aim for an RV less than 75% of the tow vehicle’s maximum capacity. This adjustment will give you some breathing room when you have a heavier load and reduce the stress you put on the vehicle’s vital components.
How Do You Determine Your Vehicle’s Tow Rating?
The only way to find the maximum tow capacity for your vehicle is to look at some numbers provided by the vehicle manufacturer. While you can get a general idea of a tow vehicle’s towing ability by the make and model of a truck, it’s not enough to determine the actual vehicle’s rating.
For example, if you’re purchasing a Ford F-150, there are many different configurations of that truck, including the engine size, transmission, axel ratio, tow package, etc. All of these variations can alter a vehicle’s tow capacity by significant percentages.
Truck manufacturers like to advertise their vehicles with the optimal towing capacities for the top configurations. So if you’re watching a truck commercial where they mention the towing capacity, look at the fine print at the bottom of the screen. They usually state that the advertised number is for adequately equipped models.
To find the actual rating of your vehicle, you’ll want to gather some key figures about your vehicle.
- Gross vehicle weight rating: The GVWR is the maximum amount a vehicle can safely weigh when fully loaded.
- Curb Weight of Vehicle: The tow vehicle’s weight alone (no passengers, cargo).
- Gross combined vehicle weight rating: The GCVWR is the maximum allowable total weight for the tow vehicle, the passengers and cargo in the tow vehicle, and the trailer and cargo in the trailer.
Luckily, The GVWR and GCVWR are readily available. In almost every truck/car, these numbers are printed on the tag inside the driver’s door. Knowing these numbers can tell you how much a vehicle can weigh when filled with people, luggage, dogs, and other items.
They will also help you determine how much weight you can place on the vehicle’s tongue (hitch mount). As for the curb weight, you subtract these two numbers.
The GCVWR is a good place to start. This number will show the total maximum amount of combined weight the truck can carry and tow. If you subtract the curb weight from this number, you’re left with the extra capacity that the vehicle can tow.
Therefore, this calculated number is your maximum towing capacity.
Most truck manufacturers will complete this calculation for you and give you the tow rating. However, if you can’t find that number, which may not be readily available for smaller SUVs and passenger vehicles, you can do the math yourself.
Again, this tow rating is under optimal conditions. It assumes that you don’t exceed the GVWR of the truck and don’t have any added modifications that add weight to the vehicle. Use this number as the ceiling of the vehicle’s tow capacity to ensure you choose an RV that stays within the limit.
Remember that you’re dealing with raw numbers when calculating your tow rating. The curb weight of your vehicle is calculated for the actual weight of your vehicle with full fluids reservoirs, like gas, oil, etc.
Once you add items to the equation, like passenger weight, cargo, or a trailer, you start using up the available capacity. The GVWR is the maximum weight you can carry in your vehicle combined with its curb weight. You can’t simply carry more weight inside the truck and think it will increase the towing capacity.
Estimating your cargo weight without actually weighing your truck when fully loaded is difficult. A useful exercise is loading your truck with all the camping gear and people and taking it to a weigh station.
This step will give you a better idea of what you’re carrying.
Most manufacturers will publicize a towing guide for their current year’s fleet. These guides are an invaluable resource and something you should look at when determining the size of the trailer you can tow.
In the guide, the manufacturer will list the actual capacity of the various configurations offered. Besides the truck sticker, this is the best place to find your towing capacity details. Here’s an example of the guides available from Ford: https://www.fleet.ford.com/towing-guides/
At this point, you should now know the towing capacity of your tow vehicle. The next step is determining the trailer weight (or towable RV).
How Do I Find The Weight Of The RV?
On every RV, you should see a sticker affixed to the RV’s front left side that will provide you with its weight information. When shopping for an RV, you can also find this information on the manufacturer’s website or from the dealer.
You should see a rating for the trailer’s GVWR on the tag. Just like the tow vehicle, this rating uses the same calculation. The GVWR is the maximum your trailer can weigh when fully loaded and should never be exceeded.
This weight includes the actual weight of the trailer combined with your cargo: camping supplies, food, water in the tanks, bedding, etc. You may also see a number for UVW (unloaded vehicle weight). UVW is the trailer’s weight as it came from the factory.
You subtract these numbers to determine how much cargo weight you can safely carry in the trailer.
You may hear people refer to a trailer’s dry weight (how much it weighs empty) and wet weight (the GVWR plus the maximum about of cargo, and water (fresh and waste) you can carry in the trailer). However, when calculating your tow vehicle needs, you should use the GVWR for selecting your tow vehicle capacity (the larger of the two numbers).
While it’s easy to convince yourself that you won’t carry too much cargo in your RV, this is not a good assumption. As the saying goes, ounces make pounds and they can add up very quickly. When shopping for an RV, assume you’ll be using the maximum amount of weight you can safely carry.
This step will ensure you have the right tow vehicle for the RV. A miscalculation at this step can create a dangerous towing setup.
What About Tongue Weight?
You may have come across this other number when researching your tow vehicle. The tongue weight is the weight of the downward force applied to your vehicle’s tongue (or hitch).
Your tow vehicle will have a specific tongue weight limit, which is factored into the overall GCVWR (it’s not extra weight you can carry). In addition, each RV will have its unique trailer tongue weight (or hitch weight) that rests on the tow vehicle.
This weight is usually around 10% of the RV dry weight but is typically factored into the trailer’s gross weight. For most setups, especially when towing with a full-size truck, the tongue weight limit won’t be much of a concern as long as you’re within the overall towing limit for the vehicle.
However, this can be an important calculation if you’re towing with an SUV or passenger vehicle.
What About 5th-Wheel Trailers?
With a fifth-wheel trailer, the calculations will be virtually the same. However, it would be best if you did more research into the payload capacity.
The payload capacity is the amount of cargo you can carry in your vehicle, including the bed of the truck. When shopping for a truck, you may see two different tow ratings for both a bumper pull and a fifth wheel.
A fifth-wheel rating may be lower than a bumper pull because you carry more weight in the tow vehicle’s rear axle (pickup bed). This setup changes the weight distribution and can impact how much the vehicle can pull.
You also need to account for the weight of a hitch. Fifth-wheel hitches can weigh over 100lbs. A fifth wheel, since it adds extra weight to the bed of a truck, may require added components like airbags, heavy-duty shocks, or dual rear wheels.
So, How Much Can I Tow?
Now that you have these two important numbers, the tow rating of the vehicle and the GVWR of the RV, you have just about everything you need to make a good decision. Your RV’s GVWR should be below the tow rating of the truck.
As mentioned, it should ideally be around 75% of the tow vehicle’s capacity. If you’re right at the limit or over, you should reconsider and look for a lighter RV.
What Impacts A Tow Vehicle’s Maximum Tow Rating?
Several things will impact the amount of weight a tow vehicle can tow. These components include engine type, transmission, axle ratio, and the addition of a tow package.
Let’s look at some of these items in more detail.
The engine is one of the most important parts of your tow vehicle and will play a big role in determining its overall capabilities. Larger engines, like 8-cylinders, are historically better at towing. However, advancements in recent years have resulted in some 6-cylinder and turbo gas models inching closer to the larger 8-cylinder capacity.
When truck shopping, you’ll see different-sized pickups, including half-ton trucks, ¾ ton trucks, and full-ton pickups. With each upgrade in size, you’ll get a beefed-up engine and other components. While it’s tempting to go for the biggest truck you can, it doesn’t always mean it’s better.
A larger truck will be much more expensive and fuel economy will be significantly worse. If you don’t need that large of a pickup truck to tow your RV, it’s best and more affordable to opt for a smaller truck, assuming you’re well within the range of its towing capacity.
Gas vs. Diesel
You’ll often see the debate over gas and diesel engines regarding towing. Overall, Diesel will beat just about every gasoline vehicle of similar build. This improvement is because you get more torque and horsepower out of a diesel engine.
With that being said, gasoline engines are getting much more competitive in towing capacity, and when combined with their much lower operating costs, they are a favorite amongst many RVers.
The one key advantage that Diesel still has is mileage. You can rack on tons more mileage on a well-maintained diesel engine. Some trucks are still going strong at a million miles. You’ll never see that with a gasoline engine. However, remember that maintenance on a diesel truck is much more expensive.
The upfront costs are much higher as well. Cost-wise, diesel, and gas trucks are fairly comparable when factoring in the cost of the truck, fuel, maintenance, and longevity.
You may have also seen some innovations come out with fully-electric trucks. While range is a limiting factor for some RVers, they offer some pretty impressive towing specs. Check out this article on the future of electric trucks and the RV industry.
An axel ratio is one of the most overlooked components of a vehicle’s towing capacity. The axel ratio is the number of revolutions the driveshaft must make to spin the axel all the way around (1 full turn).
A higher axle ratio will deliver more torque and produce better-towing results. However, a higher ratio will also mean more fuel consumption, which is why it’s mostly associated with the benefit of towing.
It’s harder to find a manual transmission, and soon it may be impossible. However, an automatic transmission will usually offer higher tow ratings. Your vehicle’s tow ratings will consider the transmission, so you only need to worry about this if you’re specifically shopping for a manual transmission.
In that case, you will want to know that you may get a slightly lower towing capacity by choosing a manual.
If you plan to tow with your new vehicle, and they offer a max tow package, then you should get it. The tow package is more than just a hitch and electrical plug. It’s a complete redesign of the truck’s most crucial towing components.
This add-on usually involves a higher axel ratio, beefed-up suspension, improved engine components, better brakes, etc. A tow package is a must for trucks hauling heavy loads for long periods.
It will also add to your vehicle’s resale value, as it’s a sought-after option from RVers.
There are so many variables that can impact a vehicle’s tow rating that it’s impossible to list all of them here. However, consider that anything that adds additional weight to a vehicle may reduce its capacity.
For example, longer-bed pickup trucks usually have a lower capacity than smaller ones. A 4-door super crew cab will be heavier than a two-door pickup. Four-wheel drive is heavier and will have a lower towing capacity than its two-wheel drive counterpart.
Typically, vehicles with a higher trim level will be heavier.
However, we don’t only buy a vehicle for towing. If you require certain components in your towing vehicle, don’t sacrifice them because you want more towing capacity. The good news is that a tow vehicle is available for almost any RV.
However, it may cost you more and be more expensive to operate the heavier it gets.
Determining how heavy of a camper you can tow can seem confusing, but all the information you need to figure it out is readily available. The number one thing to remember is that an overloaded towing setup is not only bad for the vehicle but also dangerous.
So take some time and determine what you can safely tow, stick within that range, and enjoy your RV adventures.
As mentioned at the start of the article, it’s important to purchase your tow vehicle before buying an RV. If you do it in reverse, it’s easy to get into a situation where you don’t have a large enough vehicle or are forced to upgrade to a larger, often more expensive, one.
The weight of the RV is equally as important as the towing capacity of the tow vehicle. They must both be compatible.
Also, remember that even small travel trailers can weigh a lot. In many situations, they are much too heavy to be safely towed by an SUV. Trucks are typically the best option for carrying heavy loads, but they are also less economical or convenient for a daily driver.
However, regardless of what you decide, don’t try to exceed the towing capacity for your vehicle to cut corners on getting the properly sized tow vehicle.
Many options are available for moderately-sized RVs that don’t require big 3/4 or larger full-size trucks. On the flip side, you don’t need to get a huge truck if you’re only towing a small RV. Ideally, the truck and camper should be sized together.
This planning will save you the most money upfront and be the most economical to drive.