I am an avid RVer, and like many of you, I belong to many camping and RV forums. I am also a safety and compliance specialist for the trucking industry, so weights and measures, load security and legal mumbo jumbo are part of my daily life. That is why this subject is near and dear to my heart. Now that the good weather is here, people are starting to look at their camping equipment and some of you maybe thinking about upgrading to bigger and better. The question on peoples mind when they start thinking about upgrading is: What can I tow with this pickup truck? Or pick another other type of vehicle. The person with the question will go to forums and list a brand and model and ask “can I tow with this?” Then all the readers start answering with things like, I have that truck and I can do it, others will say no you need a bigger truck, and finally, some say that you have to do this that and the other thing to make it work. Many well-intentioned answers just give me the shivers, also there is so much misinformation around it just confuses everyone. So how do you know what the answer is? Well, let’s review this question more carefully.
While this information is directed to pickup truck owners, it does all apply to any other types of vehicle you plan to tow with.
When a pickup truck is not a your pickup truck
The answer that grates at me the most is “I have that pickup truck, and I can tow….” No, you don’t have that pickup truck, you can’t possibly know what truck a person has just by the model. Not all 1/2 ton, 3/4 ton or 1 ton are the same. There are so many builds that make up the pickup truck you can’t just compare a model type. Let’s take Ford F150 for example, its tow rating starts at 5,000 lbs and goes up to 11,900 lbs for its 2017 model year. That is a huge spread. It takes many things to come up with a tow rating, the size of the truck, this includes box and cab. Drivetrain including suspension, axle, and engine size. Two wheel vs. four wheel drive. Add-ons like tranny coolers, tire size all play a part in creating that number. Unless you have the exact same build as the other guy you might as well be comparing your pickup truck to a sports car, that is how equal they are.
So how do you know what your build really is? Your VIN holds all that information, but most people can’t read it. You can go out and get that information, but please not on the internet! Do yourself a favor and go to your dealer or you can call up the manufacturer. They can give you the exact specs of your pickup truck as it left the plant. I know when I was going through this process on our first 1/2 ton truck I was faced with conflicting information from many sources. Using the VIN and contacting Chevy I got bang on what I needed to know. By the way, it was different from other sources by several hundred pounds! Yes we were shocked as well.
You should also know any changes you have done to your vehicle can change your ratings as well. Beware and learn how each change tweeks your ratings.
When knowing what you can tow is not enough
OK, now you know you can pull 10,000 lbs, so is now the time to rush off to the RV dealership and sign on the dotted line? No. What you can pull behind you is one of the two numbers you need. You really need to know now is how much pin weight you have to play with.
What is pin weight? It’s the weight the trailer places on your truck via the hitch. That weight gets added to the Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW) of your vehicle. Think of it as part of your payload. Going over pin weight is generally what makes you over your limits. This is also build specific, using Ram as an example this time, in the 2017 1500 series truck you have a spread of 1320-1880 lbs of payload. Wow who would have thought that! You also have to think about what else you are carrying in your truck, how many people, dogs, firewood, bikes, etc. all drop the payload available of your truck.
While you can increase payload on your pickup truck, it tends to be rather expensive and requires beefing up your suspension. You may also need to upgrade your braking system to match the increased weight. Basically making your 1/2 ton truck more like a 3/4 ton. Installing air bags do not increase your payload capacity it only brings a sagging rear up and level again.
When a 5,000 lb trailer is really 7,500
This is a frustrating topic for me, but it always comes up. People using the empty weight of the trailer. Errr when do you go camping with nothing in your trailer! I mean really, using that number is like weighing a gallon jug of milk without the milk, great if all you want is how much a jug weighs, but not so good when you need to know what the jug and milk weigh. Yes, you really do need to know what the trailer packed up will ultimately weigh. Your best bet is to use gross vehicle weight because that is your upper limit in that trailer. Using the average people pack is 1000 lbs is wrong. Since when are you average? Do you use paper plates and like bag chairs or are you the type who want the full patio lounger and have to use cast iron, well everything. This will make a difference and is very personal. If you are new to RVing I will also tell you, once you get all this lovely extra space, you will start packing more, and more, and more. It’s called weight creep and it happens to most of us. Being at your or close to your limits with empty weight is just asking to be overweight pretty quickly.
Here is another reason to use the top number, a percent of that number is pin weight. Yes indeed, it can be anywhere from 8-20 % or more of the gross weight of the trailer depending on the type of trailer and where the axles are. Good information to have and something to really take into consideration.
A note on gross weight, for some trailer brands and models the difference between empty weight and gross weight is staggering small, like all you can only bring is two boxes of Cheerios small. Ok, exaggerating but I have seen only a couple hundred pounds of cargo capacity in some units. That is pitiful. You really need to make sure your trailer, like your pickup truck, is up to the task you have planned.
It’s 30 feet long
The trailer that is. Yes but different brands have different weights on 30 foot long trailers. You can’t just use length, sorry the weight trumps how long.
There is a caution here though, mostly to do with 1/2 ton series pickup trucks. The longer you go, the more unstable your truck can become. A 30 ft trailer can be rather tricky in windy conditions on such a light pickup truck even with sway control. Think of it like a sail your pulling behind you. I have literally had my 1/2 ton truck, and 30 ft trailer pushed over a full lane in high winds. Was not a warm and fuzzy feeling. This is not to say it can not happen with other heavier trucks like a 3/4 or 1 ton, it can but it becomes less of a factor and it does need stronger forces. Even tractor trailers get shoved and rolled over by the wind. Youtube it sometime.
Read the fine print
A properly equipped vehicle is always in the fine print when you see the huge bold big number advertised as the tow rating. This means built for the task with all the right bells and whistles. It’s not just the average pickup truck off the line, it’s special. If you are buying a new vehicle and are building it, think about all the add-ons that will make your pickup truck a towing beast, it’s worth it! If you are sourcing an existing truck, know what options you need to get it up to the task at hand and for the future.
Since we are talking equipment, make sure your hitch system is up for the task as well. Even a 2500 series truck with a big diesel engine needs sway control on those longer travel trailers.
Never ever take the dealers word
Most just want to sell you a truck or camper, and most have no clue what so ever on limits or weights, some barely know the product they are trying to sell you. To them, a truck is a truck and mostly its all ok. Great it’s what you wanted to hear and they sell tons of pickup trucks and trailers this way, it’s just not exactly selling safety. Do your own research, know your numbers and stick with it. I wish I had the time and room to list some of the great stories I have heard at dealerships and RV shows in regards to what you can tow. Some make your hair stand on end.
I have been doing this for years and…
Yup at least one in every crowd. Just because they can do it, and frankly in some cases they are just plain lucky nothing has happened, does not mean you should too. Driving skill, comfort level, road conditions, terrain, distance traveled, cargo and plain luck all play a part in this statement. Be your own boss.
When all is said and done a correctly matched pickup truck, and trailer can make traveling a dream. This is what you really want. For most of us RVing is our vacation, our get away and trust me, you don’t want white knuckle driving to start out your trip. A bit of time and research today will help you avoid huge mistakes and stress later on. An overloaded vehicle is reducing the safety factor, it is also adding additional stress to your vehicle which will create more maintenance costs down the road and likely reduce the lifespan of the truck. It’s just not a pleasant drive. It’s also not something you can fully understand unless you have been behind the wheel of overloaded hazard, being part of the 110% crowd or having a great match. Once you get that great match you can nod your head and say, yes I get it.
I hope I have shed some light on what to look for and what to avoid. Enjoy the great weather while we have it, safe travels to where ever you are off to.