How Much Can My Vehicle Tow? A Beginner’s Guide

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So, you’ve finally decided to buy your dream boat or travel trailer.  Now, you can’t wait to hit the water (or the open road)

But then you stop to think:  Am I sure I can safely tow this boat or travel trailer?

It’s an important question, especially when towing a bulky, 8,7000 lb Cabin Cruiser or an 18,000 lb 5th wheel. Not to mention, getting it wrong can prove dangerous (and costly).

Never fear: We’ve got you covered. In this article, you’ll learn all you ever need to know about towing your boat, RV, or trailer. 

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The Language of Towing: Important Towing Acronyms

To tow your trailer safely, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the terms and acronyms used in reference to towing.  

Why is this so important?  Because there can be some confusing cross-over in the definitions.

For example: 

The terms “Gross Vehicle Weight Rating” (GVWR) and “payload capacity” both refer to how much cargo and passengers  – in pounds – you can carry with your rig. However, they aren’t the same thing.

GVWR is the maximum amount your vehicle can safely carry.

Gross Combination Weight Rating (GCWR) accounts for the total weight of your vehicle, passengers, cargo, and the trailer tongue weight (the weight of the trailer as it pushes down on the trailer hitch).  GCWR measures the maximum amount of weight that can be pushed vertically down onto your vehicle, including the trailer tongue.

Payload, on the other hand, refers to how much weight you can safely put on your truck independent of the truck weight (i.e., the enchilada, sans plate.)

Payload = GVWR – Vehicle weight

What Is Vehicle Towing Capacity?

Towing capacity is the maximum amount that a vehicle can safely tow.  In simplest terms, it’s a measure of the maximum weight that your vehicle can pull horizontally on a trailer on flat ground.  This is calculated by combining the weight of your boat (or other towable) and the trailer it’s resting on.

How Do I Find My Vehicle Towing Capacity?

There are two places in your vehicle where you should be able to find the manufacturer’s weight ratings:  the door jamb sticker and the owner’s manual.

Photo source: Tom Ekman

You should double-check the posted weight rating by consulting your vehicle manufacturer’s website (To do so, look up your Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)). 

How Accurate is the Manufacturer’s GVWR?

If you’re loaded down to 100% of your GVWR, and Uncle Fred decides to join the trip at the last minute, you could suddenly be 200 pounds over the limit.  When it comes to towing, every single pound counts

(Experts will advise that you, quite literally, count pounds of fluid in your vehicle!)

Think of the posted GVWR as an estimate of the absolute maximum that a towing vehicle can handle without sustaining damage. Most experts suggest that you start by lopping 10-20% off the top of the manufacturer’s GVWR to leave yourself a margin of safety.

Weight is Only Part of the Equation

The manufacturer-listed GVWR assumes that you are driving a brand-new stock vehicle, have a brand-new trailer with perfectly distributed weight, and are driving cautiously over flat terrain in dry, sunny conditions. This listed GVWR is also based on the assumption that you have experience driving a trailer and will refrain from slamming on the brakes to avoid rear-ending the person in front of you.

Heavier loads = more dangerous to tow. To avert disaster, you’ll need to achieve good weight distribution.  Even a light load can be hazardous if the weight isn’t centered or positioned too low on the trailer bed. 

Use Weight Ratings with Caution

Common sense and experience should always trump any weight rating. 

If your trailer is acting squirrelly, be mindful of the weight you add. A malfunctioning trailer may not be able to sustain the amount of weight specified in the owner’s manual.

This is why experience is critical. Some things you can only learn by doing, and towing is no exception. 

DO NOT rely solely on this guide when towing heavy equipment (like a utility trailer) or a recreational vehicle (a travel trailer). You need someone experienced to show you first-hand how to tow safely. No website, video, or book can teach you the way a fellow boat owner can.

How Do I Find My Trailer’s Ratings?

Ah, yes:  just when you think you know everything you need to about weight ratings,  we decide to add another consideration:  the separate weight ratings for your trailer. 

Similar to your towing vehicle, you should be able to find a sticker on your trailer.  You should also be able to find the necessary weight ratings on the trailer manufacturer’s website. 

As with your towing vehicle, you’ll need to subtract your trailer weight from your trailer’s GVWR to calculate its payload (how much it can carry).

Check out our guide to boat trailers here.

Weight Types to Measure

To add yet another layer of complexity, there are at least six different weight measurements that you need to be aware of.  We’ll discuss all of them in the following sections.

What Is Curb Weight?

Weight measurement #1: The curb weight of your vehicle, which refers to what your rig weighs at the dealership (all fluids topped off, no passengers, no cargo, no extras.)  This is the baseline weight of your towing vehicle by itself.

Weight measurement #2: The trailer weight, which is a computation of what your trailer weighs without a boat or any cargo.

Obviously, you should first weigh your vehicle and empty trailer to obtain these baseline (unloaded) weights.

What is Payload?

Next, you want to look at weights when all your cargo, passengers, and trailer are onboard/in-tow. 

Weight measurement #3: The trailer payload.  This is the maximum weight that the trailer can carry.  It is calculated by subtracting the trailer weight from the GVWR of the trailer.

Weight measurement #4: The loaded trailer weight.  This is how much your trailer weighs with the boat (or whatever you tow) on top.  Experts advise not going above 80% of the payload weight limit.

Weight measurement #5: The Gross Combined Vehicle Weight Rating (GCWR).  This is a composite of the weight of your vehicle, passengers, cargo, and trailer tongue weight. 

Weight measurement #6: The trailer tongue weight.  This refers to the weight (downward push) of the trailer on your trailer hitch.

What is the Trailer Tongue Weight?

Tongue weight is the downward force exerted on the hitch by the trailer. 

The tongue acts like a fulcrum, so the actual downward force is relatively light (you can pick up smaller trailer tongues by hand).  The mechanical advantage decreases as the tongue approaches the ground, so the height of your ball hitch can affect tongue weight.

A typical rule of thumb for towing is that your trailer tongue weight should be 10-15% of the loaded trailer weight.

If your trailer tongue weight is too high or low, this can create problems with trailer sway, steering, and braking.

Using Scales to Weigh Your Towing Set-up

CAT scales allow you to weigh your rig and trailer – loaded and unloaded.  You can find the nearest CAT scale here.

How Do I Use the CAT Scale to Weigh My  Trailer?

You’ll need to find a method to this madness.  The technique for weighing your loaded trailer and boat tongue involves moving your trailer (with and without the boat)  on and off the CAT scale.

CAT gives an introduction here.

What Are Braked and Unbraked Trailers?

Trailers that weigh over 1650 pounds require their own braking system.  Otherwise, they exert that additional load on the brakes of your towing vehicle, causing strain.

The last two words to add to your new towing vocabulary are:

Unbraked towing capacity refers to the maximum weight a vehicle can tow with a brakeless trailer.  Typically, 1650 pounds.

Braked towing capacity refers to the maximum weight a vehicle can tow when the trailer is equipped with brakes.  Check the trailer’s owner’s manual for this weight rating.

What Are Axle Ratings?

We recommend reading this article about how to safely load up your vehicle and trailer, in accordance with the axel ratings.

Gross Axle Weight Rating (GAWR) refers to the maximum weight you can safely place on top of a given axle.  There is often a difference between axles.

For example, a Ford truck might list the GVWR as 7350 pounds.  But it may also list axle-specific maximums, i.e., a maximum of 3900 pounds for the front axle and 4150 pounds for the rear axle. 

What does this tell us?   Ensuring a balanced load is critical.  If you ever had to carry an unbalanced load – like a few dozen cinder blocks in your truck bed – you should consult the maximum weight for the rear axle.

Keep it Between the Lines

Towing is dangerous – particularly for those drivers who don’t have much experience.

For safety purposes, truck drivers must undergo a whole certification process to prevent the proverbial “jackknifed big rig” on the freeway. While drivers towing personal vehicles may not need to enroll in a full-blown course, you won’t want to approach towing with a blasé attitude.

Here are all of the towing laws by state, courtesy of AAA.

Finding a Home for Your Trailer

We’ve discussed the best way to store your boat and trailer.

With Neighbor, you can find someone down the street with enough extra space to store your boat

Ask the Pros

When learning how to tow your boat or trailer safely, it’s best to have someone experienced to show you the ropes.  Your investment and physical safety depend on your ability to pull your trailer safely.

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