The Ultimate Guide to Towing Capacity

Ultimate Guide to Towing Capacity - Featured Image

Do you know how to tow?

Most modern vehicles, including passenger cars, are equipped to tow trailers, vehicles, and other large loads. However, towing is more complicated than attaching the load to your car and driving away.

Fortunately, help is here. Whether you’re new to towing or an old pro, we’ve got all the tow info you need to know. Our ultimate guide includes how-to instructions, safety information, a glossary of standard terms, and much more.

What is Towing Capacity?

Towing capacity is the amount of weight a vehicle can pull. Measurements are in pounds. Each make and model has a different towing capacity, as indicated by the manufacturer.

Although specifics vary by vehicle, towing capacity generally falls within the following ranges:

  • Average-sized cars can tow between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds
  • Minivans and crossover vans typically tow up to 3,500 pounds
  • Trucks and SUVs can tow 8,000 pounds and more

Check your owner’s manual for your vehicle’s exact towing capacity. It’ll also be available online. Aside from the capacity, the manufacturer will also provide vehicle-specific information for safe towing.

However, the listed towing capacity isn’t always the same as what’s available in the real world. Manufacturers want to represent their product in the best possible light. They often list the towing capacity for the best-case scenario involving a top-of-the-line model operating in ideal weather and driving conditions.

The manufacturer’s listed towing capacity is an upper limit to what you can tow. The amount you’ll be able to tow in the real world might be lower.

What Determines the Towing Capacity of a Car or Truck?

You’ve probably heard towing capacity relates directly to horsepower. The more horsepower a vehicle has, the more it can tow – at least, that’s the theory. While the idea’s not exactly false, it’s also not the whole story. Instead, a variety of interconnected factors determine a vehicle’s tow capacity.

Towing capacity is determined by:

  • Horsepower
  • Torque
  • Axle ratio
  • Engine size
  • Engine type
  • Wheel/tire load ratings
  • Brake type
  • Suspension load rating
  • Frame design/shape

Generally, rear-wheel-drive vehicles have a higher towing capacity than four-wheelers. Four-wheel drive vehicles are heavy. The extra weight reduces towing capacity.

Each factor works together in different ways, depending on environmental conditions. For example, when towing up a steep incline, low RPMs are far more important than horsepower.

Payload and Towing Capacity: What’s the Difference?

Be careful not to confuse these two terms:

  • Towing capacity is the weight a vehicle can pull.
  • Payload capacity is the weight a vehicle can carry.

Payload sits in the trunk, truck bed, or back seats. Its weight limit is typically much lower than the towing capacity. Although specifics vary greatly by make and model, payload capacity typically hovers around a quarter to a third of the towing capacity.

To give you a general idea, a Ford F-150 has a payload capacity around 2,300 pounds and a towing capacity around 8,000.

Payload capacity includes everything inside the car, even passengers. It’s not just cargo.

The Influence of Transmission Type

Which transmission do you think is better for towing: Automatic or manual?

Most people say manual – but they’re wrong! Surprisingly, an automatic transmission with a torque converter tows more weight than a manual transmission in the same type of vehicle.

Whether using an automatic or stick, you want to drop the vehicle into a lower gear when towing.

  • Drop into fourth gear if the transmission has five or six speeds
  • Drop into third gear if the transmission has four speeds

Many modern vehicles have a “tow mode.” It’s a setting you can turn on and off. The car shifts into a lower gear to help maintain control over the rear load.

Transmissions have overdrive gear ratios which reduce the vehicle’s RPMs. While that keeps the engine quiet and improves fuel efficiency, it also cuts down on the torque needed for towing.

Which Types of Tires are Best?

Tire size does affect towing capacity. Decreasing tire size increases torque, which increases capacity. Increasing tire size reduces torque produced.

Additionally, the vehicle’s axle ratio also affects tow capacity, too. A 4.10:1 axle ratio will give you 10% more torque than a 3.7:1 ratio.

Commonly Towed Items

You might be surprised at the variety of items you can tow.

Cars

Towing is the safest way to move a non-working car. It’s also the ideal way to transport any car you want to protect from damage during a long-distance trip.

Carefully consider the weight of both vehicles involved. Large trucks and SUVs can pull most passenger cars without an issue. However, passenger cars have far more limitations on what they can tow.

Generally, the vehicle doing the towing should have a towing capacity of at least 5,000 pounds. If the towing capacity is less, the vehicle probably isn’t strong enough to safely tow a car.

General Hauling

Pack a trailer with furniture, construction materials, or just about anything else. Almost all modern vehicles can handle a small trailer such as the kind you can rent for the day.

If you’re looking to move a small collection of general items, a towing capacity of 1,200 should be sufficient. Even small cars should handle that without an issue.

If you’re moving large items, like several pieces of furniture or heavy equipment, the vehicle’s towing capacity should be at least 3,000 pounds. Check your state’s laws. Many states require brakes on trailers weighing 3,000 pounds or more.

Recreational Vehicles

Whether driving away for the weekend or traversing the entire country, an RV lets you travel in style. The smallest RVs requires a vehicle with a towing capacity of 4,500 pounds.

Larger RVs have twin axles. A twin-axle RV requires an all-wheel drive truck or SUV with a minimum towing capacity of 7,000 pounds.

Don’t forget your luggage! Many people only consider the weight of the empty RV when determining towing capacity. You need to factor everything you’re putting inside the RV, too.

Horses

After all, you can’t ride a horse on the freeway! When towing a horse trailer, include the weight of the horse in your capacity calculations.

Horse trailers are some of the tallest objects towed. Visibility can be an issue. Extended mirrors or even rear-view cameras help increase safety.

You may be interested in: Our guide to the Top 10 Best Weight Distribution Hitches

How to Tow Safely

Towing can feel pretty nerve-wracking, but with some practice and care, you’ll soon tow like a pro. Here’s how to stay safe:

Check All Connections

Check the trailer connection. Then check it again! Make sure all the wiring, lights, and other aspects are in proper working order. All the towing capacity in the world won’t matter if the trailer detaches from your vehicle.

Stay within Capacity

Don’t push the capacity limits. Keep the total weight towed under 80% of the vehicle’s towing capacity. Carrying the maximum capacity, especially over long distances, increases vehicle strain and the risk of accidents.

Adjust Your Driving

Speeding up, slowing down, and other common driving actions take longer to complete when towing a trailer. Increase the distance between your vehicle and those in front. Slow and steady is key. Avoid fast acceleration, sudden braking, and quick maneuvers.

Keep your eyes on the road ahead. The earlier you can spot potential problems, the more time you have to react.

Resign yourself to the right lane. You likely won’t pass many other vehicles when you’re towing a trailer. Generally, you want as much space between your vehicle and everyone else on the road.

Avoid Trailer Sway

Trailer sway is a common problem you’ll likely experience. It’s when the trailer swings back and forth behind your vehicle. Sway starts small but can quickly pick up speed, whipping your trailer around the road.

Sway mainly occurs due to environmental factors such as high crosswinds, steep grades, and slippery roads. Driving too fast can also lead to sway.

A sway control unit is (naturally) the best solution. It’s a moveable, metal bar mounted to the hitch. You can also control sway by slowing down and applying the trailer brakes.

Plan Your Parking

Parking lots can be your kryptonite. Pulling into a parking lot is usually no problem, but getting out can quickly become a nightmare.

Generally, prepare to park far away. You’ll need large, empty sections of the parking lot with enough space for a complete turnaround.

Protect Against Theft

Unfortunately, trailers entice thieves. Break-ins aren’t the only problem, either. Thieves can unhitch your trailer, hook it up to their vehicle, and quickly drive away with your belongings.

Law enforcement typically recommends two theft-prevention strategies:

  • Reduce trailer visibility
  • Increase trailer security

First, keep your trailer out of sight as much as possible. Store it behind your house, in a shed, etc. when on your property.

Unfortunately, you can’t always hide a trailer when on a road trip or another long journey. Instead, try the opposite tactic. For example, park your trailer near the front of the hotel, in a highly visible area, instead of the rear of the building.

Also, keep your trailer locked. Not only do you want to lock up the trailer, but also place a coupler lock on the hitch.

Glossary of Towing Lingo

Here’s a look at what common towing terms mean:

Hitch Rating

The hitch is the mounting point on the vehicle for the trailer. It’s a metal frame attached to the rear of the vehicle. They’re classified in five different ways depending on their weight capacity.

Class 1 hitches are the smallest. They support up to 200 pounds. Most Class 1 hitches hold bike racks or tow small trailers.

Class 5 hitches are the strongest. They hold 1,700 pounds or more. Class 5 hitches can tow full-size trailers, boats, and larger loads.

Every vehicle has a hitch rating. Aside from the weight limit, the rating also gives you a general idea of what types of things the vehicle can safely tow. For example, a Class 3 rating is probably fine for moving furniture across town, but you’ll want Class 4 or 5 for larger jobs like towing cars or heavy equipment.

Also read: What is the Best Fifth Wheel Hitch? (Reviews) – 2019 Edition

Hitch Weight

The hitch weight is the limit in pounds the hitch can hold. It’s used to determine the hitch’s class, too. Pay close attention to the weight limit for your specific hitch.

Gross Trailer Weight

Abbreviated as the GTW, the gross trailer weight is the total weight of the trailer and its contents. Don’t forget about the latter. Understanding the trailer weight is easy because the manufacturer provides the information directly.

However, determining the weight of the items in the trailer gets trickier. You’ll need to calculate the weight of whatever you’re towing carefully. Weighing individual items before placing them in the trailer is usually the safest option.

Gross Vehicle Weight Rating

The GVWR is the total weight limit supported by the vehicle. It’s not the tow weight or the vehicle’s weight. Instead, it’s the weight limit for only the vehicle.

Remember, you need to consider more than the weight of the cargo you’re placing in the vehicle. The weight of the fuel and even the passengers counts, too.

Gross Combined Vehicle Weight Rating

The GCVWR is the total weight limit for everything. It’s the combined limit for both the loaded vehicle and the loaded trailer.

The GCVWR is listed owner’s manual. Fully loading a vehicle does reduce its ability to pull a full trailer. Generally, you don’t want both the vehicle and trailer filled to capacity at the same time.

Both the GVWR and the GCVWR are typically listed in the owner’s manual. They’re also displayed on the metal info card attached to the inside of the driver’s door.

Tongue Weight

The TW is the force exerted on the hitch. About 10% to 15% of the trailer’s weight should press onto the hitch. Special tools are available to measure the tongue weight.

If the tongue weight is less than 10%, the trailer can actually pull the rear of the vehicle upwards when driving. However, too much tongue weight can drop the vehicle, resulting in braking and handling problems.

Curb Weight

Curb weight is another term for the weight of a vehicle without any passengers, cargo or liquids (such as fuel.

Dry Weight

Similar to curb weight, the dry weight is the total weight of an RV without cargo, passengers, or liquid. It’s the weight recorded by the manufacturer.

Payload and Towing Capacity for Popular Trucks and SUVs

Let’s take a quick look at the weight capacities for a few of 2019’s best-selling trucks and SUVs:

Ford

Ford F-150

  • Payload: 1,326 to 2,309 pounds
  • Towing capacity: 5,000 to 8,000 pounds

Ford F-250

  • Payload: 2,474 to 4,332 pounds
  • Towing capacity: 12,300 to 13,300 pounds

Ford Explorer

  • Towing capacity: 2,000 to 5,000 pounds

Toyota

Toyota Highlander

  • Towing capacity: 1,500 to 5,000 pounds

Toyota Tacoma

  • Payload: 1,120 to 1,620 pounds
  • Towing capacity: 3,500 to 6,800 pounds

Toyota Tundra

  • Payload: 1,140 to 1,730 pounds
  • Towing capacity: 6,400 to 10,200 pounds

Dodge

Dodge Ram 1500

  • Payload: 1,528 to 2,302 pounds
  • Towing capacity: 6,280 to 7.520 pounds

Chevy

Chevy Colorado

  • Payload: 1,242 to 1,576 pounds
  • Towing capacity: 3,500 to 7,500 pounds

Jeep

Jeep Wrangler

  • Towing capacity: 2,000 to 3,500 pounds

Jeep Grand Cherokee

  • Payload: 1,237 to 1,987 pounds
  • Towing capacity: 3,500 to 7,200 pounds

Trailer Brake Controllers: What You Need to Know

A trailer brake controller allows you to control the trailer’s brakes from within the vehicle. The controller mounts into the cab. It features a few different braking controls plus a variety of real-time information regarding speed, output, and more. A variety of different controller styles are available.

Most trailers have electric brakes. An electromagnetic brake drum draws power directly from the vehicle. A brake controller is necessary to operate any trailer with electric brakes.

Proportional Braking

Most trailer brakes use a proportional stopping system. When the brakes engage, the stopping power applied to the trailer’s wheels is proportional to the vehicle’s current momentum.

Proportional stopping is the smoothest, most efficient braking system. It’s especially useful when driving across hilly terrain.

Time-Delay Braking

Time-delay braking is the other type of electric trailer braking system. When the brakes engage, the stopping power increases over time until it reaches a fixed point. The time delay is adjustable. However, time-delay braking isn’t as precise as proportional braking. It’s also not as common.

Surge Brakes

Surge brakes are the main alternative to electric brakes. They don’t require any electrical connection to the vehicle. Instead, they’re a hydraulic system which uses the trailer’s weight and momentum to slow it down based on the speed of the vehicle. They’re not as safe or controllable as electric brakes.

Final Thoughts on Towing

Towing is a convenient way to move vehicles, trailers, and other gear. However, make sure you understand the basics. Otherwise, you risk causing serious damage to your vehicle as well as others on the road.

Always follow all recommended weight guidelines. Never exceed the manufacturer’s limits. Also, double-check the trailer’s connection before hitting the road.

As long as you follow proper use guidelines, towing is safe, effective, and even fun!

Brett Gordon
 

The engine behind editing at DigMyRide.com and the brains behind its build. During the day, Brett is a thirty-something guy from SoCal climbing the corporate ladder, but at night, he enjoys nothing more than contributing to the online world of cars, automotive tech & trends.

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