How Much Can You Tow? How to Determine Your Vehicle's Towing Capacity

Updated on November 27, 2017
Don Bobbitt profile image

Don has been an avid traveler and motorhome owner for most of his life and he shares his knowledge of motorhomes and other RVs.

Vehicles Vary Widely in Towing Capability

Almost any vehicle can tow some amount of weight if it is connected and operated properly. But how much?

You would never consider attempting to tow a large heavy camper, of any kind, with a small under-powered vehicle, of over-load a vehicle with an obviously excessive weight.

Either of these conditions can not only cause serious damage to your towing vehicle and your towed trailer, but could put you and anyone else on the road with you in serious danger.

The problem, for so many of us RVers either novice or expert, is that we often do not know how to calculate the true and safe weight limits for what their existing vehicle can tow, or especially how to decide whether a vehicle they are about to buy can safely tow their trailer.

You'll want to know your state's rules for towing, your camper's weight (GVWR and its true weight), your towing vehicle's weight, the towing capacity specs of the vehicle you have or are considering buying, and the weight your hitch or tongue can handle.

Know the Towing Laws by State

First of all, if you are going to tow anything, regardless of whether it is a small trailer, a camper-trailer, or a big fifth wheel, you need to know your individual states' rules for towing.

Most states' requirements are very similar, but some are very different.

It is easy to use this quick reference by Brake Buddy on towing laws by state.

And of course, you can always check at your local DMV for more on your home state's specific rules and regulations for towing.

What is GVWR? And Those Other Confusing Abbreviations?

Somewhere on every vehicle out there, you can find a label that includes specific data on the vehicle itself, including the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number), the vehicle's Curb Weight, and its GVWR number.

Every towing vehicle and trailer should have a GVWR, or Gross Vehicle Weight Rating, written on it. GVWR is the legal maximum gross weight of this vehicle and its contents, essentially passengers, and all of its cargo (but not of a vehicle it is towing).

You need this number in order to calculate what you can safely and legally carry and tow. Typically it's seen as a maximum, but the vehicle owner who travels in hilly country or mountains should take care to give themselves plenty of margin for a more enjoyable and safe trip.

How Things Work has a more detailed discussion of GVWR.

Gross Vehicle Weight is the weight at any given time of a vehicle and its contents. It changes when people and things go in or out of the vehicle. In contrast, the GVWR (the rating) never changes.

Curb Weight is what a vehicle weighs sitting at a curb, with little or nothing in it: some say only a driver weighing 150 pounds, others say a full tank of gas and other fluids needed to operate the vehicle.

GCWR, a characteristic of the towing vehicle, stands for the Gross Combined Weight Rating: the maximum allowed weight of a vehicle and its cargo including a trailer or camper and its contents.

GTWR, a characteristic of a trailer, is Gross Trailer Weight Rating, the maximum allowed weight of a trailer, by itself, and its various contents. Note that sometimes camper manufacturers will use GVWR or GTWR for a camper to indicate the empty weight of the camper.

GAWR stands for Gross Axle Weight Rating. GAWR is the maximum allowable weight on an individual axle of a vehicle or camper.

See also the National Highway Traffic Safety Association on how to use the towing ratings of a vehicle.

Terms and Abbreviations Relating to Weight and Towing

Abbreviation
Stands for
What it Means
GVWR
Gross Vehicle Weight Rating
The maximum legally allowed weight of the vehicle and all its contents, passengers, and cargo (but not of any attached vehicle)
GVW
Gross Vehicle Weight
What a vehicle happens to weigh including whatever is in it.
 
Curb Weight
What a vehicle weighs sitting at a curb empty (may assume a single 150-lb driver and/or a full tank of gas)
GCWR
Gross Combined Weight Rating
The combined weight rating of a vehicle and its cargo including a trailer or camper.
GTWR
Gross Trailer Weight Rating
Weight of a trailer (including its cargo) that a towing vehicle is rated to tow. A motorhome may have a GTWR.
GAWR
Gross Axle Weight Rating
Maximum allowable weight on a single axle of a vehicle or a camper.

What Is Your Camper's or Trailers GVWR?

As I mentioned above, trailers and campers will have either a GVWR or a GTWR number assigned by the manufacturer.

As I said, in the world of campers, the number they give you is often the empty weight of the camper unloaded. This means no water or other fluids in the tanks, and no clothes, no food, no beach chairs, no unattached cargo of any kind.

Be aware that a typical RV couple can easily add 1000 to 2000 pounds of extra cargo before towing a trailer. Think about it;

  1. Your water holding tank might hold 60-100 gallons of fresh water and at 8-pounds a gallon that is 480-800 extra pounds by itself.
  2. Add another 400-500 pounds for canned goods, pantry items and all of the foods you packed into your fridge
  3. Then add another 100-200 pounds for clothes, linens, etc.
  4. And, all of those folding chairs, barbecue grill, tools, folding tables, lights, water and sewage hoses and connectors, and such you stuffed into your storage compartments could easily add another 400-500 pounds.

My little list ended up with over 1500 pounds and I didn't even try to add everything a couple might take on a vacation trip.

So my True Camper Weight will be significantly higher than the manufacturer's empty weight, which they may tell you is its GVWR.

Confirm Your Camper's Weight

After speaking with several sales people and getting several different answers from them, I realized that I needed to educate myself if I wanted to be sure I picked the right vehicle to tow my camper.

So, the first thing I did was crawl around on the inside of my fifth-wheel camper until I had found the right label and confirmed that the campers GVWR was 12,000 pounds. This is not a "dry" or "curb" weight, but the weight of a camper full of the amount of stuff it is rated to carry.

Now this is a big number but my fifth-wheel is a big camper, so I now knew that I had to get what was right for towing a camper of this size and weight.

What Are Your Towing Vehicle's Towing Specs?

I had a relatively large fifth-wheel camper, and I was looking into purchasing a new pickup truck which would have the power, accessories, and safety items necessary to tow my camper safely.

I had to spend a while on the web to find the right data to compare the different trucks on the market today and find the right one for me. Since my wife and I were looking at a Ford truck, we found the Ford 2016 Vehicle Towing Guide useful.

Once I found this data sheet I was able to use its data in my own towing decisions and even my camper selection.

Using Specs to Calculate Your True Towing Capability

My wife and I had already decided for personal reasons that our desired vehicle would be a crew cab truck, with a large diesel engine and a single rear wheel axle (SRW).

These personal preferences, plus cost, limited my choices to a 3/4-ton or a 1-ton truck. As it happened, the data sheet gave me the same towing specs for either truck, the 3/4-ton or the 1-ton, with the same drive train and engine.

I ended up with a Fifth Wheel towing weight limit of 15,900 pounds for either truck.

If I had wanted to take the next step up, I would have to move up to the DRW (dual rear wheel) option, which as I said earlier, I didn't want to be driving around town when I wasn't towing a trailer.

Either truck also had a towed trailer (fully loaded) weight maximum of 14,000 pounds.

As my trailer's GVWR rating was 14,000 pounds, I understood the trailer wasn't supposed to weigh more than 14,000 pounds loaded.

So this "loaded" GVWR of 14,000 pounds was 1,900 pounds under my allowable maximum towing limit for the fifth wheel; I concluded that the combination would work.

What Is Tongue Weight?

But, hold on, there is another spec to consider herem and that is the Hitch Maximum Weight Load (or Tongue Weight).

Ford recommends that this number be 10%-15% for the loaded trailer, or 15%-25% for a loaded fifth-wheel camper.

You need to make sure that this number is also met when you make your hitch selection.

For instance, if you are towing a trailer that weighs 12,000 pounds, your hitch and its mounting must be designed to handle a "tongue weight" of at least 15% of 12,000, or 1800 pounds.

And with a fifth wheel hitch, it must be able to handle a "tongue weight" of at least 25% of 12,000, or 3000 pounds.

Types of Hitches

Different types of hitches include the ball hitch, tri-point or "tow bar" hitch, the "goose neck" hitch, and the fifth-wheel hitch.

Fifth Wheel Hitch Receptacle

A Fifth Wheel Camper uses a hitch connection similar to that used by commercial tractor-trailers. You will see these mostly on pick-up trucks that are towing heavy campers and even large commercial trailers.
A Fifth Wheel Camper uses a hitch connection similar to that used by commercial tractor-trailers. You will see these mostly on pick-up trucks that are towing heavy campers and even large commercial trailers. | Source

Most Common Tow Hitch Receptacle on Motorhomes or Heavier Loads

This standard tow hitch receptacle can accept a variety of tow connectors, from a standard ball hitch to one of the more popular slide-in hitch adapters used most often for towing heavier loads.
This standard tow hitch receptacle can accept a variety of tow connectors, from a standard ball hitch to one of the more popular slide-in hitch adapters used most often for towing heavier loads. | Source

Tow Bar

This is a 10,000-lb Blue Ox Aventa tow bar.  This design of towing adapter is used with vehicles that have the standard square slide-in towing hitch designs. This hitch is used almost exclusively with motorhomes due to their high weights.
This is a 10,000-lb Blue Ox Aventa tow bar. This design of towing adapter is used with vehicles that have the standard square slide-in towing hitch designs. This hitch is used almost exclusively with motorhomes due to their high weights. | Source

Tow Bar Hitch With Ball Adapter

This is the most popular type of towing connection used if your towing vehicle has a ball-type hitch connector. Take care when purchasing because they also have towing limits.
This is the most popular type of towing connection used if your towing vehicle has a ball-type hitch connector. Take care when purchasing because they also have towing limits. | Source

Even if Your Weight Is Under the Limits, Towing May Be a Slow Process

So, with my newly calculated towing capability numbers being 1900 pounds under the maximum, am I OK?

I am OK, but maybe not very speedy. My fifth-wheel towing friends say I should be able to tow my fifth-wheel camper easily and efficiently on flatlands, rolling hills, and coastal areas, but if I go into any serious mountains, I am going to be that slow truck and camper you always see trying to pull up and over every steep and long grade.

The truck I had picked would do the job, but it will be a noticeably slow process with each serious hill and somewhat more costly in fuel costs.

I had thought about using a "dualie" or DRW version of the same truck, because this configuration greatly increases the towing load capability. But I decided not to, because even with the dualie option, both of the trucks (SRW or DRW) would have the exact same drive trains and engines. So, from my perspective, all I would gain would be the added load carrying capability. Either truck would be slow on hills.

It is ultimately a personal decision.

Towing Safety Information

How to Tow a Trailer properly

© 2013 Don Bobbitt

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    • Don Bobbitt profile image
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      Don Bobbitt 5 weeks ago from Ruskin Florida

      Typically, your size auto will only tow 1000 pounds; such as a small trailer for hauling small loads locally.

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      waleed1111 5 weeks ago

      hi all I have CR-V 2007 with engine 2.4 gasoline how much weight I can tow?

    • Don Bobbitt profile image
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      Don Bobbitt 2 years ago from Ruskin Florida

      gene irvine- Far too many people ignore what the "extras" weigh when they are calculating what hitch system they need. I never recommend that anyone end up wit a load that is "just under" the limits.

      It's not just a safety issue, either. If you "over buy" your hitch system you will find that you have more control and your towing experience is a lot nicer, in addition to being safer.

      DON

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      gene irvine 2 years ago

      Hello Don, I have a Polaris 850 that i lug around when i go camping along with extra fuel , ramps, ect. I'm installing a new equalizer hitch, do I need to take this extra weight in consideration even though the quad sits in the truck bed?

    • Don Bobbitt profile image
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      Don Bobbitt 3 years ago from Ruskin Florida

      cam8510- Sounds like you have a plan. You have a good sturdy truck and a plan for matching it with the appropriate tow load.

      AS to me? Well like you said the research is a bit of work to get the right information, but once you have the right numbers you can tow a lot safer load.

      And Arctic Fox makes a top end quality RV.

      I hope you enjoy your travels.

      DON

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until March 2018

      Don, I had a nice long comment written and evidently switched pages without sending it. I hate it when that happens. I bought a pristine '95 Dodge Ram 2500 last spring. Cummins diesel, no rust. I went through all of these things you have pulled together here. It is quite a process to figure these things out. I discovered that due to an axle ratio of 3.52, I'm limited to a GTWR of 10,000 lbs. That's ok though. I'm looking for an Arctic Fox that fits the tongue weight and towing weight. Thanks for all the hard work on this hub. Very helpful.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until March 2018

      Thanks Don, for all the information in one place. I spent last winter wading through all of this and it was pure torture. I purchased a very clean 1995 Dodge Ram 2500 Cummins that has never towed and needed to know what I could pull with it. I came in at about 10,000 lbs for the trailer fully loaded. I think a 3.54 gear transfer ratio is holding me to a lower weight. But that's ok, I've got an Arctic Fox in mind that should fit the bill. Great information that for me was very difficult to pull together and understand.

    • Don Bobbitt profile image
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      Don Bobbitt 4 years ago from Ruskin Florida

      mr-veg- Actually,I am in the process of shopping for the right Pickup truck to tow my 5th wheel, or "fiver" as they are now called. And, I have had to go through this process in detail for myself. So, I figured that I would share what I have learned.

      Thanlks for the Read and comment,

      DON

    • mr-veg profile image

      mr-veg 4 years ago from Colorado United States

      Nice interesting observation that you have put out here Don !! Really nice and I learnt something new today !! Voted all the way up !!

    • Don Bobbitt profile image
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      Don Bobbitt 4 years ago from Ruskin Florida

      Lizzie- Thank You for your comment, and I hope the article is of some use to you in the future.

      DON

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      Lizzie Edenfield-endenfin 4 years ago

      So interesting and educational! I have always wondered how they work. I'm so excited about what I ve learned, I 'm even thinking to buy a boat, just to try it. Thank you Don!