Before purchasing that new boat or recreation vehicle for your next family adventure, it is worth investing some time and research into learning the basics about towing capacity. Knowing the maximum amount a vehicle can safely tow is essential to understand fully before attaching a trailer or other object to your car and taking it out on the road. Though many cars and SUVs come with a mounted hitch, some can only hold small items, like a bike rack or lightweight utility trailer.
Not all vehicles have the same towing capacity. Most cars, trucks, and SUVs require additional equipment or modification before being considered ready to tow safely. It is not unusual to see a vehicle and trailer combination on the highway that looks dangerous -- good chances are, it probably is dangerous.
A lot goes into how manufacturers determine the maximum towing capacity of a vehicle. For this reason, it is vital to understand some of the basics. It is crucial to understand the towing capabilities of the specific vehicle you plan to tow with and the specifications and weights of the trailer you will be pulling.
A vehicle's towing capacity can be confusing to the average car buyer. Many elements go into determining the towing capacity. Simply put, it is not about horsepower. Most vehicles have the power to pull something small; even an average-size car can usually pull as much as 1,500 pounds. Larger cars, minivans, and crossovers can often haul as much as 3,500 pounds. Trucks and body-on-frame SUVs are traditionally the heavyweights of the towing category. A specific vehicle's optional equipment also changes the towing capacity. Be sure to know the capabilities of the exact vehicle you are using before towing any trailer or loading a car's interior with significant cargo. Failure to follow these guidelines can cause damage to the car or an accident.
What Determines Towing Capacity?
There is a long list of factors that go into determining a vehicle's towing capacity. Some of those factors include horsepower, torque, rear axle ratio, frame design, engine size and type, wheel and tire load ratings, brake size, suspension load ratings, and oil and transmission cooling. It also matters whether the vehicle is rear-wheel-drive, front-wheel-drive, or four-wheel-drive.
The towing capacity is determined during the vehicle's design and manufacturing process. The automaker creates cars and their strengths based on what their predicted uses will be. For example, the manufacturer needs to account for all possible driving conditions. Driving up a steep incline on a hot day causes more strain on the vehicle than on a temperate day with a flat road. It is why low-RPM torque is far more critical to towing ability than raw horsepower.
How Does Torque Work for Hauling?
An automatic transmission with a torque converter will typically be able to tow heavier loads than a vehicle of the same type with a manual transmission. The easiest way to adjust torque for towing is to drive in a lower gear specified for towing. Manual and automatic transmissions both have overdrive gear ratios, which will reduce RPMs (revolutions per minute) and increase fuel efficiency and provide a quieter ride. But they can also reduce torque.
You can drive in a lower gear to tow heavy items in the case of a five or six-speed manual or automatic transmission. For a four-speed automatic, going in third gear is the best way to decrease engine load and increase torque. Many new trucks offer a specific tow mode that drivers can use to maximize the truck's ability to haul its freight correctly. These tow modes also provide other benefits to help control the trailer, like trailer sway control or cameras that monitor the truck and trailer's blind spots.
Many heavy-duty trucks offer turbo-diesel engines, which create incredibly high torque amounts at low RPMs, making them great for towing. Ford, GM, and Ram all offer diesel-powered trucks making over 900 pound-feet of torque for the 2021 model year. You can order a smaller truck like the Chevrolet Colorado with a diesel engine that emphasizes torque over horsepower. For example, the 2021 Colorado's gas V6 engine produces 308 horsepower and 275 lb-ft of torque. An available turbo-diesel four-cylinder makes 181 hp, but its 369 lb-ft of torque gives it better hauling strength.
Owners can increase the tire size to reduce torque and decrease tire size to improve it. They can also spec their towing vehicle with a different axle ratio. A 4.10:1 axle ratio versus a 3.7:1 ratio will give you a 10 percent increase in torque. It is essential to know how changing one aspect of the vehicle will affect the rest of the drivetrain.
Towing Capacity Terms To Know
If you are looking at towing capacities for various vehicles, you might come across a range of terms, so it is good to know what they all mean.
Curb Weight - Vehicle weight without occupants or cargo.
Gooseneck Towing - A hitch mounting system that relocates the trailer ball mount to the middle of the truck bed. Many agricultural and heavy-duty trailers have a gooseneck that overhangs the bed. Towing this way can increase capacity, in some cases up to 30,000 lbs.
Fifth Wheel Towing - Another heavy-duty trailer coupling option, similar to gooseneck towing but more commonly used for recreational travel trailers. A large hitch is mounted in the truck bed, connecting to the trailer with a jaws-and-kingpin mechanism rather than a ball mount.
GVWR - 'Gross Vehicle Weight Rating' - Maximum weight the vehicle can tolerate for the driver, any passengers, cargo, accessories, and components.
GTW - 'Gross Trailer Weight' - The maximum weight for a trailer along with its contents. The total weight is challenging to know after adding a load to the trailer. Still, it must not exceed the maximum towing capacity.
GCWR - 'Gross Combined Vehicle Weight Rating' - The maximum amount of weight for the trailer, the vehicle, and all its contents, including passengers and cargo.
GAWR - 'Gross Axle Weight Rating' - The maximum weight allowed on a single axle for towing purposes.
TW - 'Tongue Weight' - The amount of downward force placed on the towing vehicle's tongue or trailer hitch. It should be roughly 10-15 percent of the Gross Trailer Weight.
How to Find Your Vehicle's Towing Capacity?
Your owner's manual should indicate both towing and payload limits for your vehicle. It should give you instructions on how to pull correctly as well as towing limitations. Most automakers provide downloadable copies of the owner's manual on their website. It's important to remember that most rear-wheel-drive vehicles have a higher maximum towing capacity than their four-wheel-drive counterparts. That is partly due to real-wheel vehicles being quite a bit lighter, which reduces the amount they can pull.
Suspension characteristics also change the vehicle's payload and towing capacity. For example, the 2021 Ford Raptor can tow 8,000 lbs and has a payload rating of 1,200 lbs. When adequately outfitted, a non-Raptor F-150 can tow up to 11,300 lbs and has a payload capacity of 2,238 lbs. The Raptor's softer suspension design gives it impressive off-road skills but relatively less towing capabilities.
How to Find the Weight of Different Trailers
Once you know the weight and towing capacity for your vehicle, you will want to look at the trailer's weight. The GTW, GVWR, and GAWR should be listed on the VIN plate. Know the exact weight of a trailer before towing. Suppose you are shopping for a vehicle with the expectation to tow different trailers. In that case, here are some typical trailer weight estimates:
- Aluminum boat trailer, 12-15 feet: 200 pounds
- Aluminum boat trailer, 16-20 feet: 300 pounds
- Fiberglass boat trailer up to 17 feet: 200 pounds
- Fiberglass boat trailer, 18-20 feet: 300 pounds
- Fiberglass boat trailer, 21-22 feet: 570 pounds
- 8-foot single-axle utility trailer: 320 pounds
- 10-foot single-axle utility trailer: 360 pounds
- 12-foot tandem axle utility trailer: 1,200 pounds
- 16-foot tandem axle utility trailer: 1,300 pounds
- 20-foot tandem axle utility trailer: 1,500 pounds
- Bumper pull horse trailer containing one horse: 1,800 pounds
- Bumper pull horse trailer containing two horses: 3,100 pounds
- Bumper pull horse trailer containing four horses: 4,500 pounds
- Gooseneck pull 16-foot livestock trailer: 3,500 pounds
- Gooseneck pull 20-foot livestock trailer: 4,000 pounds
- Gooseneck pull 28-foot livestock trailer: 5,000 pounds
- 26-foot 5th wheel: 5,900 pounds
- 31-foot 5th wheel: 7,800 pounds
- 35-foot 5th wheel: 10,200 pounds
- 17-foot camper: 2,300 pounds
- 23-foot camper: 4,200 pounds
- 30-foot camper: 4,800 pounds
- Recreational vehicle trailer: 8 feet, 350 pounds
- Recreational vehicle trailer: 14 feet, 980 pounds
- Toy hauler 20 feet: 4,100 pounds
- Toy hauler 28 feet: 6,600 pounds
- Toy hauler 37 feet: 12,000 pounds
The Difference Between Payload and Towing Capacity
You will see both towing capacity and payload listed with many vehicles, and the two terms are not interchangeable. Payload refers to carrying ability while towing capacity refers to pulling ability. It is an important distinction as payload capacity is typically a much smaller amount of weight than the towing capacity. In other words, if your truck or SUV can tow 8,000 pounds, that doesn't mean it can carry 8,000 pounds in the bed or cargo area. In a specific example, the Chevrolet Colorado can tow up to 7,000 pounds, but its maximum payload capacity is 1,550 pounds. Many truck beds have the available space to carry more than the rated payload, particularly with dense items like liquids. Just because it fits in the cargo box does not mean it is safe to move. The engine, suspension, or brakes can easily be overwhelmed, damaging the vehicle or causing an accident.
The following is the payload and max towing capacity of some of the most popular trucks and SUVs for the 2021 model year:
Popular Pickup Trucks
Ford F-150 Towing Capacity
Payload: 1,745 to 2,238 lbs
Towing capacity: 5,000 to 14,000 lbs
Ford F-250 Towing Capacity
Payload: 2,462 to 4,323 lbs
Towing capacity: 12,300 to 20,000 lbs
Toyota Tacoma Towing Capacity
Payload: 1,120 to 1,620 lbs
Towing capacity: 3,500 to 6,800 lbs
Toyota Tundra Towing Capacity
Payload: 1,520 to 1,730 lbs
Towing capacity: 8,800 to 10,200 lbs
RAM 1500 Towing Capacity
Payload: 1,242 to 2,322 lbs
Towing capacity: 6,150 to 12,560 lbs
RAM 2500 Towing Capacity
Payload: 1,564 to 4,012 lbs
Towing capacity: 10,520 to 19,780 lbs
Chevy Colorado Towing Capacity
Payload: 1,285 to 1,550 lbs
Towing capacity: 3,500 to 7,700 lbs
Chevy Silverado 1500 Towing Capacity
Payload: 1,750 to 2,280 lbs
Towing capacity: 7,200 to 13,300 lbs
GMC Sierra 1500 Towing Capacity
Payload: 1,570 to 2,280 lbs
Towing capacity: 7,400 to 11,800 lbs
Nissan Frontier Towing Capacity
Payload: 1,316 to 1,867 lbs
Towing capacity: 6,250 to 6,750 lbs
Jeep Gladiator Towing Capacity
Payload: 1,080 to 1,200 lbs
Towing capacity: 4,000 to 7,650 lbs
Honda Pilot Towing Capacity
Towing capacity: 3,500 to 5,000 lbs
Subaru Outback Towing Capacity
Towing capacity: 2,700 to 3,500 lbs
Ford Explorer Towing Capacity
Towing capacity: 5,000 to 5,600 lbs
Toyota Highlander Towing Capacity
Towing capacity: 3,500 to 5,000 lbs
Jeep Wrangler Towing Capacity
Towing capacity: 2,000 to 3,500 lbs
Jeep Grand Cherokee Towing Capacity
Towing capacity: 3,500 to 7,200 lbs
GMC Yukon Towing Capacity
Towing capacity: 7,500 to 7,900 lbs
As this list makes clear, there is a broad range of towing capacities within a vehicle category. Several possible towing weights are available within one vehicle model based on engine, drivetrain, and optional equipment. That is why it is essential to know the capabilities of the tow vehicle's exact specification and the trailer's actual weight. A tow vehicle may seem to pull a heavier trailer than it is rated for easily. Still, damage to the car is likely, and the brakes and other critical systems may not be able to bear the excess weight, resulting in potentially dangerous failures.
Having all the necessary information makes towing for work or play much safer. This guide should give you enough groundwork to start the process of getting that new tow rig or trailer. Whether it's a fishing boat, camp trailer, or heavy hauler, be sure you have the right combination of tow vehicle and trailer to keep things safe out there on the road. Happy towing!