Want to hear a dirty secret?
RVs are often built with insufficient payload capacity.
If I had to bet money, I’d wager most RVs traveling down the road would tip the scales in excess of their GVWR. In fact, I’ve heard it estimated that more than 50% of the RV-tow vehicle combinations speeding down the road are overloaded in some way.
So let’s talk about overloading your RV. In particular, this article will focus on towables, although many of the same issues and concepts apply to motorhomes.
(And fair warning! – your Class C RV might be overloaded right now. Go weigh it!)
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Table of Contents
A Common Problem: Overloaded RVs
I think you’ll find out that many common RV problems, such as tire blowouts, poor road handling, and premature mechanical wear and tear, can be traced back to being overweight.
Although, to be honest, I don’t really blame the customer. To be frank, I blame the industry.
Not sure what we’re talking about? Let me show you. The numbers don’t lie.
- 2022 Salem 177BH Travel Trailer: Cargo Carrying Capacity – 831 lbs
- 2022 Keystone Hideout 175BH Travel Trailer: Cargo Carrying Capacity – 1,076 lbs
- 2020 Jayco Melbourne 24L Class C Motorhome: Cargo Carrying Capacity – 867 lbs
- 2022 Gulf Stream Gulf Breeze 18RBD Travel Trailer: Net Carrying Capacity – 845 lbs
- 2022 Heartland Prowler 335BH: Cargo Carrying Capacity – 974 lbs
In case you weren’t paying attention, that last entry is a nearly 9,000-lb, 37-ft, Paul Bunyan-sized behemoth of a travel trailer with three slides, a 10-cu. ft. refrigerator and a “sleeping capacity” of 7-8 people – but less than 1,000 pounds of personal belongings allowed!
You can’t point a finger at any single manufacturer or RV dealership. It is a systemic problem: both a failure of customer education and an unacceptable design deficiency. And the customer normally doesn’t realize the issue until the deal is signed and the dealer long gone.
I have found that travel trailers and Class C motorhomes tend to be the worst offenders, with some offering less than 1,000 pounds of payload.
5th wheels typically have much better cargo capacity, with some in excess of 4,000 or even 5,000 lbs. Also, as a rule, toy haulers have greater payload capacity than, say, bunkhouse models.
Sleeping capacity seems to have no bearing on the payload. Just because a camper can “sleep” six people doesn’t mean there’s enough payload for all!
Also, as a rule, you get what you pay for. The cheaper the RV, the more likely you are to find insufficient payload capacity.
However, don’t assume an expensive RV is exempt! In fact, many oversized “luxury” Class A motorhomes are so stuffed with appliances and furniture that the 2,000 pounds leftover (which sounds like a lot) can be exceeded just by filling up the cabinets and the basement cargo area!
Why Is Overloading an RV Dangerous?
Many, many problems have their roots in overloading:
- Tire blowouts
- Premature tire wear
- Axle/suspension failure
- Overheated brakes
- Roof and wall leaks
- Rollovers and crashes
And that’s just the impact on your RV! Your tow vehicle can seriously suffer as well.
I’ve heard horror stories of four, five or six tires blowing out in a single marathon road trip. While part of that is likely because of poor tire quality and underinflation, overloading also plays a key role.
These are real dangers – and I don’t mean merely that your tires will wear out 6 months earlier. I mean that you’ll come to a stop while braking in 275 rather than 220 feet, and someone could die from the accident. And your insurance company will refuse to pay out a claim citing excessive weight over the legal limit.
Or I mean that a “simple” tire blowout isn’t. Any tire blowout is by definition a serious failure, and one that puts enormous stress on your axle mounts and suspension hangers. A bad blowout – or series of blowouts – can cause the axle assembly to rip off the frame. You’ll wind up in a ditch, or worse, squashed beneath the leftover parts of your beloved RV.
Overloading your camper can easily put too much or too little weight on the tongue. Too much, and you can severely damage your tow vehicle. In extreme cases, the additional weight can cause the tow vehicle’s rear axle studs to shear off, causing a catastrophic crash. Too little, and your camper can oscillate and fishtail uncontrollably at highway speeds. A stiff cross breeze can cause your squirrely trailer to overwhelm and wreck your tow vehicle.
Here’s a video showing the effect of tongue weight on driving characteristics:
What Is Gross Vehicle Weight Rating?
Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) is the Maximum Loaded Trailer Weight. When you park a fully loaded trailer on a scale – axles and coupler, the whole kit and caboodle – GVWR is the highest number the scale should ever show.
To be clear: GVWR is a weight RATING. The GVWR is specified by the RV manufacturer. GVW is an actual measured weight.
There isn’t one method to calculate Gross Vehicle Weight Rating. Some elements are controlled by legislation. For others, leeway is given to the manufacturer.
Most Conservative Calculations
The most conservative option is to set the GVWR equal to the rating of the weakest component, such as tires, hubs, brakes or axles. In this case, GVWR is often equal to (or less than) the GAWR.
Another conservative method is to base the GVWR on safe towing characteristics. If a trailer is intended for rough conditions, such as 4×4 roads, the GVWR may be reduced to account for the extra shock and stress.
And a third conservative method is to base the GVWR on a long product lifespan. If a designer wants a trailer to last for 20 or 30 years, he or she may decrease the GVWR to reduce damage from mechanical fatigue.
RV manufacturers will often add the weight of the vertical tongue load to the GAWR to calculate GVWR.
For travel trailers, the tongue weight is commonly 10-15% of total weight. For 5th wheels, it’s commonly 15-25%.
So if a manufacturer believes that at least 10% of the total weight will always be borne by the tongue, then the GVWR may be increased by that amount.
A 6,000-lb tandem-axle travel trailer with 10% tongue weight, for instance, would have a GVWR of 6,000 + 600 = 6,600 lbs.
Why do manufacturers do this? Simple: to increase the payload (Cargo Carrying Capacity). If a customer sees that Camper A can haul 1,400 pounds while Camper B can only haul 900 pounds, Camper A becomes the obvious choice.
However, there is a real danger here from oversimplification.
This GVWR calculation assumes that the weight is level side-to-side (or in the case of a motorhome, front to back as well).
But that’s rarely true. One side of your RV trailer likely weighs at least several hundred pounds more than the other, especially if your water tanks are off-center. Or for motorhomes, the rear or front axle may be overloaded while the other is not.
So even though your camper weight may be under the GVWR, one of your tires may be grossly overloaded!
Least Conservative Calculation
The least conservative estimate is to maximize the tongue weight addition (for instance, 15% instead of 10% for a travel trailer). Some manufacturers do skirt this line and will assume a less conservative tongue weight ratio.
Another least conservative trick is to subtract the weight of unsprung components, such as the tires and rims, from the GAWR. This is not allowed by some codes.
What Is Cargo Carrying Capacity?
No travel trailer or 5th wheel departs the factory overloaded. By law, no manufacturer can sell a camper with a dry weight in excess of its GVWR.
However, designers often leave far too little payload capacity for belongings and gear.
In severe cases, even just filling the kitchen cabinets, hanging a few bikes on the bumper, filling the freshwater tank, and packing your everyday gear is enough to exceed the allowable weight rating!
A camper should be built with sufficient payload capacity to accommodate full tanks, common camping and everyday items, food and nutrition, and adventure gear.
The average traveling family will pack 150-250 pounds of cargo per person, plus water and propane. Adding 1,000 pounds to a camper is far easier than you think!
And once you start adventure gear like kayaks, bikes and motorized vehicles, the weight skyrockets.
This is why, in recent decades, RVIA (at the behest of NHTSA) required towable RV manufacturers to change the way they were calculating and displaying cargo carrying capacity (CCC), which is visible on your RV tire sticker.
CCC is usually calculated as GVWR minus the following:
- Unloaded Vehicle Weight (“dry weight”)
- Weight of full freshwater tank (including water heater tank)
- Weight of full onboard propane tanks
- SCWR (Sleeping Capacity Weight Rating) (applicable only to motorhomes)
Motorhomes use OCCC, which is a slightly different capacity, and arguably less conservative. But towable campers use CCC as outlined above.
The math sounds complicated, but it was designed with you in mind. You see, the CCC does the math for you.
This way, if you read an RV sticker that says, “880 lbs Cargo Carrying Capacity,” you can trust that you can safely add 880 lbs of your own belongings. You don’t have to subtract the weights of “hidden” operating items like freshwater and propane.
Prior to 2000, RV manufacturers were allowed to use Net Carrying Capacity (NCC), which was a catch-all bucket for everything after dry weight: personal belongings, food, LP, tools, dealer-installed options, etc. You still see NCC advertised on many websites.
Note that Cargo Carrying Capacity does not specifically subtract the weight of dealer-installed options, like an awning or solar panel. So how do you know your “dealer” weight is the same as your “factory” weight?
In 2007, NHTSA addressed this problem by saying:
“Any party that adds weight to a completed vehicle exceeding the lesser of 1.5 percent of the vehicle’s gross vehicle weight rating or 100 pounds (before first sale to the retail customer) is required to disclose this extra weight on labels affixed to the vehicles.”
So for most travel trailers and 5th wheels, dealer-installed options are not allowed to reduce your sticker Cargo Carrying Capacity (i.e, add more than 100 pounds of options) by more than 100 pounds without the dealer issuing new paperwork and new stickers.
Don’t Trust the Websites!
Many RV manufacturer websites do not accurately display the actual cargo carrying capacity. I have visited many websites, particularly from big box brands like Forest River and Coachman, that show CCC as simply the GVWR minus the empty factory weight. As discussed above, that is not in line with RVIA requirements! That is technically NCC, not CCC.
Myths of RV Cargo Capacity
Before I continue, I would like to kill and lay to rest some persistent myths about RV weight capacities.
MYTH: If It Fits, It Stays
RV designers sneak cargo and storage spaces into every nook and cranny. 360-degree storage is convenient and clever, and customers love it.
But there’s zero guarantee that you can fill up every single one of those cabinets and cubbies without going over your weight limit.
In fact, I’d speculate that many Class C motorhomes and travel trailers over 26-30 feet cannot be fully “stocked” without equaling or surpassing the GVWR.
MYTH: There’s Wiggle Room
No, there isn’t.
GVWR isn’t like a speed limit, where everyone drives 5-10 mph over to “keep up with traffic.”
GVWR isn’t just a CYA, wink-and-nudge number. That’s the limit – the absolute maximum – that the manufacturer determined was safe for your RV.
GVWR isn’t a recommendation. It’s a cap, a ceiling. If you want your RV to last longer, you shouldn’t be towing at your GVWR all the time.
9 Strategies to Reduce RV Overloading
This situation is frustrating, I know. But there are ways you can improve your situation, as a buyer or owner.
1. Buy a Different Camper
Unless you are towing a micro camper like a teardrop, canned ham, or expandable camper, steer clear of any RV with a CCC less than 1,000 pounds.
Aim for a Cargo Carrying Capacity, aka payload, of 500 pounds per person or 2,000 lbs, whichever is greater.
- If you’re a full-timer, you’ll likely need 50% more capacity.
- If you’re a boondocker, you’ll also likely need 50% more capacity.
- If your family travels with pets, add 10-25% more.
- If your rig is a toy hauler, double the target; aim for 4,000 lbs CCC or 1,000 pounds per person, whichever is greater. Yes, those rigs are out there, but you’ll almost certainly have to get a 5th wheel.
There’s no such thing as too much capacity! Any amount “leftover” just increases the safety margin of your camper, leading to a longer product lifespan.
Check out these indicators that the designers may have stretched the capacity to its limit.
- Class C motorhomes on a van chassis
- Single-axle RVs of any type
- Travel trailers weighing more than 8,000 lbs
- Any motorhome with an extra-long rear overhang
2. Weigh Your Camper!
The Golden Rule of safe RVing is to WEIGH YOUR CAMPER!
That doesn’t mean weighing your stuff. That doesn’t mean accepting the manufacturer’s or dealer’s weight estimate. That doesn’t mean doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations or online research.
That means driving your fully loaded RV to a certified scale, like a CAT scale, having it weighed, and saving the printed report which shows you EXACTLY how much your RV weighs.
And once you make any significant changes, you drive it back and weigh it again. The cost and time are minimal.
To help you estimate the differences in weight because of operating fluids, please use the Changing Gears Liquid Weight Calculator.
Even better is to have your RV weighed by a service offering 4-corner weighing so you can evaluate each tire. The best place to find one is at an RV rally from Escapees or FMCA, but some commercial truck facilities carry them standard. Also check with the RV Safety and Education Foundation.
4-corner weighing (also known as wheel position weighing) is recommended by virtually all tire manufacturers. Here’s what Goodyear says:
“Goodyear also recommends weighing each wheel position of your vehicle. Just because your vehicle meets the GVWR, it may still be overloaded on an axle.”
Weighing your rig at an RV weigh station takes less than an hour (sometimes just 10-15 minutes), start to finish, and costs less than $75.
To learn more about weighing your RV, read this 4-part article series from Live Small | Ride Free.
3. Balance the Load
Armed with the knowledge from your wheel positioning weigh-in (you did check the weight on each wheel, right?), you can move items around in your RV to balance the load.
This may require you to carry more or less water weight than usual.
If you’re finding it difficult to balance the weight, consider storing some items in backpacks or tubs so they can be shifted from one side to the other.
4. Level the Camper When Traveling
Leveling the camper will help achieve the proper tongue weight-to-overall weight balance. A nose that is too high can overload the axles; a nose that is too low can overload the hitch or coupler.
The front and rear of your trailer frame should be within ½” of each other once the trailer has settled. Less is better. Even an inch of unlevel from front to back can cause premature tire wear on a tandem-axle setup.
For most larger trailers, achieving true level will require you to use a weight-distribution hitch, which will also improve overall driving performance. A weight-distribution hitch is highly recommended for any trailer weighing 5,000 lbs or more!
5. Upgrade Your Tires
No, beefier tires don’t increase your GVWR. But they can increase your margin of safety. Reliable brands include Bridgestone and Goodyear – but don’t buy on brand name alone! Aim for a tire reserve capacity of 15-25%, and the higher, the better!
Never reduce your tire inflation pressure below the manufacturer’s maximum recommended pressure in their Load and Inflation tables! Underinflated tires are weaker tires.
In an effort to reduce tire blowouts, RVIA recently mandated that all tires have 10% reserve capacity compared to the GAWR. Therefore, the tires should not be loaded to the failure point if the GVWR is ever exceeded.
6. Switch to Lithium Batteries
Lithium (aka LFP, LiFePO4) batteries weigh just one-third of lead-acid batteries but offer 2x the usable energy capacity! With a dual-battery bank, you could save up to 100 pounds by switching to lithium batteries.
Tolearn more about lithium RV batteries, read my article on how to convert your RV batteries to lithium!
7. Travel with the Tanks Empty
Water is extremely heavy! It weighs 8.3 pounds per gallon. Most RV tanks are 30-60 gallons, with some as large as 100-120 gallons!
A 50-gallon freshwater tank, when full, weighs an additional 415 pounds. That’s enormous! And the farther away the tank is from the center and top of the axle, the more uneven of a weight impact it will have.
If you subscribe to the idea that water in the tanks makes for a good cleaning, then just fill your tanks to 10-20% capacity. Shock from the road will slosh around the water and help clean your tank walls and sensors.
8. Upgrade the Suspension
Upgrading your suspension does not increase your GVWR! However, increasing the GAWR of your 5th wheel or travel trailer can increase your safety margin, which can extend the lifespan of your RV.
Remember that the weakest link breaks the chain. So if you choose to upgrade your suspension, that means all of it – axle, leaves, brakes, spindles, tires, rims, etc.
This is especially true if you plan to upgrade from 3,500-lb leaf spring axle suspensions. Adding capacity will likely mean upgrading to the next size of axle, which means new and bigger everything: different rim bolt patterns, new brake size, new suspension hangers, the works.
Upgrading your suspension is neither cheap nor easy. It may affect dozens of things: your ride height, your entry step height, your vehicle handling, braking performance, axle equalization, kingpin ride height, etc. And that can affect your total ride height, which affects what roads you can safely travel … see here for RV height road restrictions.
You get the point. Don’t rely on a suspension upgrade to fix all your problems. Beefing up a suspension does nothing to beef up a frame or superstructure, so don’t count on a new suspension to justify being overweight.
9. Offload the Non-Essentials
To quote Joshua Becker:
“The first step in crafting the life you want is to get rid of everything you don’t.”
- Extra books (try a Kindle?)
- Floor mats and decorative
- “Just in case” hand and power tools
- Seasonal clothing and shoes
- Ceramic kitchenware