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How much can you Tow? How to calculate your vehicles Towing Capability.

Updated on August 27, 2016
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.

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 are very similar but some will have very different and very specific requirements for towing on their roads, so always check to make sure you are in compliance with the law.

It is easy to find and use the info on the popular towing sites for a quick reference, click here to see the Brake Buddy article on Towing laws by state.

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

Tow Hitch adapter used most often with motorhomes or heavier tow 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 heavier towing 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 heavier towing loads.. | Source

Vehicles vary widely in Towing Capability

There are so many vehicles on the market and every one of them can tow some level of weight if they are connected and operated properly.

You would never consider attempting to tow a large heavy Camper, of any kind, with a small under-powered vehicle. And, of course, you should never intentionally over-load a vehicle with an obviously excessive weight.

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

The problem, for so many of us RVers, either the novice or the expert. is that we often do not know how to calculate the true and safe weight limits for themselves with their existing vehicle, or especially, if they are looking to get another vehicle.

Fifth Wheel Hitch Receptacle

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

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.

This label will include, among other things, such vehicle specific data as the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number), the vehicles Curb weight and its GVWR number.

The GVWR, or Gross Vehicle Weight Rating, is what you need in order to calculate what you can safely and legally 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.

The GVWR for a vehicle is the legal maximum gross weight of this vehicle and its contents, essentially passengers, and all if it's cargo. Click on How Gross Vehicle Weight Rating Works for a more detailed definition of this common term.

Curb Weight is defined as what a vehicle weighs sitting at a curb, withonlya driver weighing in at 150 pounds.

GCWR - this is the abbreviation for the Gross Combined Weight rating of a vehicle and its cargo including a trailer or camper.

GTWR - This is the abbreviation for the Gross Trailer Weight Rating and is the maximum weight of a Trailer, by itself. Often Camper manufacturers will use GVWR for the camper to indicate the empty weight of the camper as opposed to GTWR.

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

What is your Camper or Trailers GVWR

As I mentioned above, trailers and campers, whether towed using a ball hitch, a tri-point (aka tow bar hitch) hitch, a "goose neck" or fifth wheel hitch will have either a GVWR or a GTWR number assigned by the manufacturer.

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

And 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.

I 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 manufacturers Empty GVWR.

Tow Bar hitch with ball adapter.

Adjustable Tow Bar 5000lb Capacity Car/ Truck Rv
Adjustable Tow Bar 5000lb Capacity Car/ Truck Rv

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.


Confirm your Campers Weight

And, by the way, 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.

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 Vehicles Towing Specs

I was, at the time, looking into purchasing a new Pickup Truck. I had a relatively large fifth wheel camper and I needed a relatively powerful truck with the appropriate accessories and safety items necessary to tow my camper safely.

To this end, 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.

For a number of reasons, my wife and I were looking at a specific Ford Truck and we found the

Ford 2016 Vehicle Towing Guide which provides good solid data for any owner to be aware of.

Once I found this data sheet I was able to use it's 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 that our desired vehicle would be a Crew Cab truck, with a large Diesel engine and with a single rear wheel axle (SRW), all for personal reasons.

These personal preferences plus cost, limited my choices to a 3/4-ton or a 1-ton truck.

After checking the spec sheets, these criteria actually ended up giving me the same 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 or dual real wheel option, which as I said earlier, I didn't want to be driving around town when I wasn't towing a trailer.

The truck also had a towed trailer (fully loaded) weight maximum of 14,000 pound with either of these trucks

So, seeing as I had selected a fifth wheel, I would use the 15,900 pound number,

I also added another 2000 pounds for both the trailer and the truck being loaded.

Putting these numbers together, I can use 12,000 plus 2000 (for carge and people) and I have a "Loaded" GVWR of 14,000 pounds which is 1,900 pounds under my allowable maximum towing limit.

Blue Ox Tow Bar

Blue Ox BX7445 Aventa LX 10,000lb Tow Bar
Blue Ox BX7445 Aventa LX 10,000lb 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.


What is Tongue Weight?

But, hold on, there is another spec to considerhere 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.

Where should your numbers actually fit

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

Well, honestly, after talking to a number of fifth-wheel towing friends, they say I should be able to tow my Fifth Wheel camper easily and efficiently on flat lands, rolling hills and coastal areas.

But, if I attempt to 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 could use a "Dualie" of DRW version of the same truck, because this configuration greatly increases the towing load capability. And, I did think about it.

But I made my final decision on the fact that 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,while 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

      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.


    • profile image

      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

      Don Bobbitt 2 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.


    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 2 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      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 2 years ago from Maple City, Michigan

      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

      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,


    • 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

      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.


    • profile image

      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!