How Much Weight Can I Safely Tow? A Comprehensive Guide to Payload and Towing Capacity

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How much weight can my vehicle tow? If you spend any time browsing camper forums or camping Facebook groups, you have seen healthy discussions about how much weight vehicles can tow. In our opinion, the question being discussed should be, how much weight can my vehicle safely tow?

As campers, we have been in your shoes, wondering if our vehicle would safely pull our rig. When we purchased our current camper, we owned a Chevrolet Silverado 1500. We knew that the truck had just enough tow capacity to pull the camper. However, on the ride home, we learned that the truck was not equipped to pull our camper. With two kids in the backseat and my wife worrying about their safety, there was a quick realization that with a new camper would also come a new truck. We began learning about tow capacity, and we want to share our knowledge with you today.

Towing can be dangerous, not only for the person driving the tow vehicle but for everyone on the road. Most vehicles can tow more than their listed capacity, but that does not mean that it is safe. Exceeding tow limits will eventually cause equipment to wear and increase the risk that an accident may happen. A missing piece of the towing discussion is that the numbers shouldn’t be the bar for how much you can tow, but rather for how much weight you can safely stop. When pulling a camper and you press your brakes, you are not only stopping the vehicle, but you are stopping your camper as well.

It is important to note that all vehicles are unique, and the towing capacity will vary among the same make and model, depending upon the configurations and options that are installed on your vehicle.

As an example, if you are purchasing a truck, several factors affect towing capacity. A truck with a regular cab is smaller and lighter than a truck built with a super cab. The same goes for the bed of the truck. A truck with a longer bed is heavier, affecting payload and towing capacity. Most vehicle models offer a maximum tow package that will help increase towing capacity.

There are various engine sizes available on vehicles and on trucks in particular. For instance, a Ford F-150 has three different engine sizes ranging from 2.7 liters to 5.0 liters. These factors plus others like axle ratio and whether it is a two-or four-wheel drive affect your towing capacity. For these reasons, it is essential to check and determine the exact numbers that match your vehicle. Here is a spec sheet on a 2020 F-150 as an example.

https://www.ford.com/trucks/f150/brochures/?gnav=footer-shop

To tow safely, it is important that your do not exceed your payload or towing capacities.

Payload

Carrying Capacity is only the amount of weight that your vehicle can carry. This can be found on the sticker inside your door jamb.

The sticker on my truck, an F-250, indicates that it can carry 3,339 pounds. That means that I can safely carry up to 3,339 pounds including the people and cargo in the truck.

Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) is the total weight of your vehicle driving down the road. It includes the vehicle itself, passengers, cargo, and the tongue weight of your camper or the pin weight if you have a fifth wheel. The GVWR can be found on a sticker inside your door.

Curb Weight is the weight of your vehicle when it is empty. Curb weight includes fluids such as gasoline, oil, and antifreeze, but does not include passengers or cargo. To determine your curb weight, subtract your carrying capacity from your GVWR. My GVWR is 10,000 pounds, and my carrying capacity is 3,339 pounds. My curb weight is 6,661 pounds.

GVWR – Carrying Capacity = Curb Weight

Tongue Weight

If you are pulling a travel trailer, you need to include tongue weight when determining your payload. The tongue weight is the amount of weight that is directly applied when your camper is hitched to your vehicle.

Tongue weight is usually 10 to 15% of the total weight of your loaded camper. If your loaded camper weighs 10,000 pounds, then your travel trailer should have a tongue weight between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds. While this is a reasonable estimate, it is not a substitute for weighing your tongue to determine its actual weight (we will cover how to get an accurate tongue weight later in the article.)

Pin Weight

When towing a fifth wheel, you need to consider pin weight when determining payload. Pin weight is the amount of downforce caused by the weight of your fifth wheel when it is hitched to your truck. The pin weight should be roughly 20% of the total weight of your loaded fifth wheel. For example, if your fifth wheel, fully loaded, is 12,000 pounds, then the pin weight is 20% of 12,000 pounds or 2,400 pounds.

Remember that your Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) is the maximum weight of your vehicle driving down the road. For safety reasons, it is important that you do not exceed those limits. Your vehicle will be less safe, but carrying too much weight will wear out the chassis and suspension of your vehicle as well. Many people will add airbags to their rear springs. Airbags will help keep your tow vehicle from squatting when hooked up to your camper. However, this does not increase your GVWR,

Gross Combined Weight Rating

Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR) is the maximum weight of your vehicle combined with the weight that is being towed.

How Do You Determine Towing Capacity?

To determine your Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR), you need to know your truck’s configuration. In my case, I have a Ford F-250. My truck has a 6.2-liter gas engine and a 3.73 axle ratio. If you do not know your axle ratio, you can find it using the axle code on the door jamb sticker. If you do not know your engine size, you can input your VIN into an online VIN decoder, and it will provide this information.

An important aspect of understanding your towing capacity is that it can change from trip to trip. The GCWR represents the maximum combined weight of both your tow vehicle and camper. The weight you are carrying inside your tow vehicle may change depending upon the number of passengers and the amount of cargo that you are taking on the trip. For example, if I am the only person in my vehicle, then the weight of my tow vehicle will decrease, which effectively increases the amount that I can tow.

My GCWR is 19,500 pounds. 19,500 pounds minus the weight of my vehicle provides my towing capacity. My empty vehicle weighs 6,661 pounds. We are a family of four and weigh approximately 675 pounds. We will also carry about 200 pounds of cargo in our truck. I need to factor in a tongue weight of 1,000 pounds. This means that my vehicle weighs about 8,536 pounds while traveling. I can subtract that total from my GCWR of 19,500 pounds to get a towing capacity of 10,964 pounds.

The Effects of Weight Distribution Hitches

Weight distribution hitches do not change the tongue weight of your trailer. Instead, the pressure on the spring bars reduces the downforce on the rear axle of your tow vehicle, which effectively distributes the weight between both the front and rear axles. However, the tongue weight is unchanged.

Safety

For safety reasons, Campers and Campfires recommends that you pull between 75 and 80 percent of your total towing capacity.

I know that my towing capacity is 10,964 pounds. Eighty percent of that 10,964 pounds is 8,771 pounds. My travel trailer fully loaded/packed weighs 7,100 pounds, which makes it well within my towing limits.

Safety is much more than what your vehicle can tow. Many people will exceed their tow limits and justify it because the vehicle can pull the weight. Most vehicles can pull more than their towing capacity, especially on flat ground. However, that does not mean that your vehicle can stop that much weight, especially in an emergency situation.

Camper Weights

Camper weights are an important part of the equation when determining if your set-up is safe for the road. Just as your truck has a GVWR, your camper will have one as well. Campers have stickers indicating their dry weight as well as their maximum Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR). Sometimes you will see this referred to as Gross Trailer Weight Rating (GTWR). To make this less confusing, we will refer to it as GTWR.

Dry weight is the weight of your trailer when it is empty. Be sure to check your manual to determine if your manufacturer includes the weight of the propane and battery in the dry weight of the trailer.

Your camper’s GTWR is the maximum weight of your fully-loaded rig when it is being pulled down the road. This includes any fluids in the camper, such as water in your freshwater tank, as well as anything that is stored inside the camper.

You can subtract your dry weight from the GTWR to determine how much cargo you can safely carry in your RV.

My camper has a GTWR of 7,725 pounds and a dry weight of 5,873 pounds, which means that I can safely add 1,852 pounds of cargo to my camper.

Properly inflated tires on the camper are necessary for safe travels. Too much weight or even the correct weight on improperly inflated tires can lead to a tire blowout. Ensure that the load rating on your tires is sufficient to handle the weight of your camper. We recommend Goodyear Endurance tires. On our camper, we have Goodyear Load D tires that are rated to carry 2,150 pounds each. We have four tires. In theory, our tires should support 8,600 pounds. Goodyear Load E tires are rated to carry a maximum of 2,830 pounds each, meaning that four tires can support 11,320 pounds. For more information, read our article on tire safety.

When adding weight to your camper, it is important that you keep that weight evenly distributed throughout the camper. Too much weight towards the front or the rear of the camper can lead to a dangerous situation and an uncomfortable ride.

Know Your Numbers

When purchasing a camper, you must know your numbers. Many salespeople will tell you that you can tow a camper, even though it exceeds your towing capacity. You would be surprised by how many salespeople do not fully understand towing capacity and will steer you down the wrong path out of ignorance or greed. We used to own a Lexus RX450h SUV with a towing capacity of 2,000 pounds. When we were first shopping for a camper, we had a salesman look at the vehicle and tell us that it could tow 5,000 pounds and that we would be fine with a 4,000-pound camper that was on their lot. Towing a 4,000-pound camper with that Lexus would have been a disaster, and it would have most likely ruined the transmission. It is up to you to do your research to ensure that you get a camper that you can tow safely.

What Comes First, the Tow Vehicle or the Camper?

Many people who are new to camping do not have a tow vehicle or a camper. They will often ask what to purchase first, the tow vehicle, or the camper? Campers and Campfires recommends choosing the camper first, but make sure that you know your budget and stick to it. Choosing the camper first makes it easier to shop for a tow vehicle because you know how much weight that you will eventually be towing.

Buy More Towing Capacity Than You Need

If you can afford it, buy a vehicle that tows more than you need. One thing that is consistent among fellow campers is that they tend to trade for larger rigs after a couple of years. Over time, families grow, and people get comfortable towing their campers. Larger rigs eventually become an option. Owning a larger truck will provide you with more options if or when you are ready to trade in your camper. Having a larger truck also helps ensure your safety on the road.

How to Determine the Weight of My Set-Up

Campers and Campfires recommends that you determine an accurate weight for your camper and tow vehicle to ensure that you remain within the recommended safety limits. To safely tow your vehicle, you need to know the following weights: payload, gross combined weight, and your tongue or pin weight (depending upon whether you have a travel trailer or a fifth-wheel).

There are a few different options for obtaining these numbers.

Tongue/Pin Scale

Manufacturers make scales specifically for determining tongue/pin weight. Knowing your tongue/pin weight is important for two reasons. First, you need to know the tongue/pin weight to determine your payload. Secondly, knowing the tongue/pin weight ensures that your weight is distributed evenly throughout the camper. If your tongue weight is over 10 to 15 percent of the total weight of the camper, you should redistribute items to reduce the tongue weight. The reduction can be made by moving items sitting near the front of the camper closer to the middle or rear. The same applies to fifth-wheels. If the pin weight is over 20% of the total weight of the camper, you need to redistribute the items to ensure that the weight is distributed evenly. The Sherline Trailer Tongue Weight Scale (check it out on Amazon) is perfect for measuring the tongue weight. Sherline (check it out on Amazon) also makes a scale to measure pin weight.

Truck Scales

Many truck stops have certified scales, where for a nominal fee, you can have your towing set-up measured. This is a great way to determine the gross combined weight of your camper and your vehicle. You can also determine your tongue weight and gross vehicle rating, but you will have to unhook your trailer.

Better Weigh

Better Weigh (check it out on Amazon) is a Bluetooth enabled device that connects to the OBD port in your tow vehicle. It will determine payload, gross combined weight, tongue weight, and pin weight. First, insert the Better Weigh device into the OBD port in your tow vehicle. Next, pair the device with your smartphone using Bluetooth, and you can determine your important weights to check that you are safe in your travels.

Ensuring the safety of your family as well as other travelers on the road is a top priority and responsibility when pulling a travel trailer or a fifth-wheel. To be safe, it is crucial that you have a good understanding of payload and towing capacity. Every set-up is different. Be sure to research the exact numbers for your camper and tow vehicle.

Do you have any advice regarding tow capacity? We would love to hear from you! Please drop us a line in the comment section below.

Sean Green

Sean and his family travel and camp throughout the United States. They enjoy camping over 100 days per year and love the educational experiences that it provides to people of all ages.

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