It all sounded so simple at the dealership.
“You drive an F-150, huh? That won’t be a problem. It can tow about 10,000 lbs, right?” says Rick the RV salesman. He grins and slaps the electric tongue jack of a 32-ft travel trailer. “This here bad boy weighs 7,000 lbs. You should be well under your limit.”
If you’re lucky, you’re reading this paragraph before you signed the dotted line at Rick’s “This-Friday-Only!” dealership.
If you’re so not lucky, you’re now the proud owner of a 32-ft four-wheeled behemoth, and your shiny F-150 is starting to look awful puny …
“Hey, Can My Vehicle Tow that Trailer?”
It may be the number one question asked on RV owner forums: “Can my vehicle tow [X] camper?”
Some dealerships will give you a straight-up, honest answer. Some will … how should I put it?
Ever read the kids’ book, “If you give a mouse a cookie”?
“If you give a mouse a cookie, he will want some milk to go with it.”
It’s a lot easier to sell a $40,000 RV if you don’t have to sell a $40,000 truck along with it.
STEP 1: Find Out EXACTLY What Your Vehicle Is Rated to Tow
So let’s start with some facts.
If you want to know EXACTLY how much your vehicle can tow, find the Trailer Towing Chart from your vehicle manufacturer. These are all available online from Ford, Ram, Chevrolet, Toyota, etc.
You’ll need to know:
- Axle ratio
- Cab style
- Drivetrain (e.g. 2WD, 4WD)
- Bed length
Or you can skip all this research drudgery and look at the VIN sticker on the inside of your door jamb. It should tell you exactly what your maximum tow capacity is.
Was Rick the Salesman correct?
Sure, with a 5.0L V8, 3.73 axle, 4×4 drivetrain, the Max Trailer Tow Package, Heavy-Duty Payload Package, and a SuperCab long bed, you could tow 13,000 lbs. What a beast!
Your F-150? With the 3.3L V6, 3.55 axle, 4×2 drivetrain and SuperCrew short bed? Maximum towing weight: 5,100 lbs
Actually, you can’t tow that, either.
STEP 2: Account for Tow Vehicle Passengers and Cargo
I could spoon-feed you a thick alphabet soup of automotive equations (GCVWR, GAWR, GVW, TW etc.), but who wants to swallow all that?
But … there are two acronyms you should really know!
UVW: Unloaded vehicle weight, also known as “curb weight,” “factory weight,” or “dry weight.” This is the weight of your RV as configured by the manufacturer. It’s what’s on your sticker or title. Your dealer may add a few options that slightly increase the factory weight.
TW: Tongue weight. This is the weight of your trailer at the hitch as configured by the factory. Generally, it should be between 10 and 15 percent of the UVW.
Fore more information, check out FMVSS 49 CFR § 571.110.
Anyways, let’s keep it simple.
Brochure towing capacities are best-case scenarios only. They aren’t real-world values. They assume your truck is completely empty except for you and a passenger.
Oh, and both you and the passenger weigh 150 lbs. Wouldn’t that be nice? (Thanks for rubbing it in, Ford!)
So if you weigh more than your 15-year-old self or are carrying any gear whatsoever, expect your towing capacity to decrease.
There are literally dozens of fine-print reasons why your real-world towing capacity won’t be what the chart says.
We’re not going to run through all of them. Instead, just lop off 750-1,000 lbs. If your chart value is 9,000 lbs, assume you can actually tow 8,000 – 8,250 lbs at most – and that’s just with regular passengers and cargo.
And this assumes you’re just traveling for a weekend. If you’re embarking on the All-American road trip, the combined weight of passengers and tow vehicle cargo could weigh quite a bit more. In that case, you’ll have to whip out the calculator.
But we’re not done quite yet.
STEP 3: Account for RV Size and Driving Dynamics
There is one special tow capacity stipulation I want to highlight: Frontal area.
Imagine a kit. The bigger the kite, the more wind it catches, right?
A truck and trailer work the same way. The wider and taller the RV, the harder the truck must work to pull it through the air. And – you guessed it – that further reduces towing capacity.
Ford doesn’t tell you how much less you can tow. They just say “performance will be significantly reduced.” That’s because aerodynamics is a dark art in physics, and there’s no chart-friendly way to quantify it. Plus, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Big trailer trailers and fifth wheels can overwhelm smaller trucks.
So unless you’re towing a pop-up or teardrop trailer, your RV will be too tall and too wide for maximum towing capacity.
STEP 4: Subtract for Driving Conditions and Tow Vehicle Condition
I can hear you whispering. “Geeeeeez Ross,” you say, “Why you gotta rain on my parade like this? Don’t you have any good news?”
I don’t, actually. Instead, here’s some more fine print.
The towing capacities in Ford’s chart are based on Ford’s factory-installed towing packages. These include improvements like a transmission cooler, engine oil cooler, larger gas tank, stronger rear bumper, locking rear axle, etc.
So if you’re thinking, “I can just take my base F-150 to U-Haul and install a Class IV hitch and then tow 10,000 lbs!” please, please, drive far, don’t drive anywhere close to me.
Oh, and if you want to visit the Rockies, Ford recommends decreasing towing capacity by 2% for every 1,000 ft above sea-level. At 8,000 ft elevation, that’s 16% less.
STEP 5: Account for Your Gear!
Last piece of the puzzle – you need some leftover weight for your stuff!
We RV designers call this “cargo carrying capacity.” Check the VIN label on your unit. Most medium-sized RVs have a CCC of 800 – 2,000 lbs.
This is usually calculated with the water and fuel tanks empty! However, a lot of stickers now show the base CCC with calculated reductions for full water and waste tanks.
If you’re a minimalist backpacker, you can get away with 500 lbs. If you’re a burger-grillin’, camp chair-loungin’, 10-person tent erectin’, corn bag tossin’ weekend warrior, the sky’s the limit. Buy accordingly.
Let’s wrap this up.
Say you have a maximum towing capacity on the chart of 9,000 lbs.
- Lop off 750 lbs for the weight of your three kids, spouse, and all your backpacks and computers in the tow vehicle.
- You’re towing a 12-ft tall travel trailer. Let’s knock off another 750 lbs or so for good measure.
- Vacation destination: North Carolina Blue Ridge mountains. Elevation: 4,000 ft. Take away another 720 lbs.
- With the sports gear, camping equipment and RV convenience items, you’re adding another 500 lbs to the factory weight.
Subtract 250 lbs for water and fuel, too.
Total: 6,030 lbs
Look! I’m a magician! I made 3,000 lbs just disappear!
STEP 6: Now Do the Math
Now what happens if you ignore my advice and listen to Jerry B. down the road? “That’s just lawyer talk,” he assures you. “I’ve towed Ol’ Bertha here to California and back with my Dodge Dakota. Never had a problem.”
And … well, sometimes that happens. Some trucks seem to absorb whatever you throw at ‘em. That’s a credit to their engineers.
Other times, you burn up your transmission. Or you shear off all the studs on your rear tires.
Yes, I’ve seen both.
Now look, I’m not telling you whether your vehicle can or can’t tow a certain camper. That’s a legal liability I don’t need on my shoulders. All the numbers in this article are best guesses. THEY ARE NOT ENGINEERING ADVICE!
What I’m saying is this:
- Find out exactly what the manufacturer says your vehicle can tow.
- Account for the additional weight of trailer, dealer and aftermarket options, passengers, RV height and width, tow vehicle cargo, trailer cargo, elevation, road conditions, your driving style and a generous buffer.
- And that’s your real-world maximum towing capacity.
And more than likely, the last step:
4. Trade in your F-150 for a dually three-quarter ton truck.
Now that’s a real truck!