camper trailer towing

Here’s a safe towing guide for the newbie trailer owner.

If you buy an RV before asking yourself “What kind of camper can my vehicle tow?” you’re making a huge mistake. Here’s why.

When my wife and I wanted to buy a camper, I already owned a truck. But I didn’t know how much it could tow. I looked it up and got multiple answers that varied between 5,000 pounds and 9,100 pounds.

There is more than one answer to “What kind of camper can my vehicle tow?

How much your car, truck or other vehicle can tow depends on the type of vehicle and the towing options on the car or truck.  A general rule of thumb:

  • for a front wheel drive car or small SUV is 1500 pounds
  • a mid-size all-wheel drive SUV or pickup 3000 pounds
  • a full size SUV or half-ton pickup truck 5000 pounds or more. 

The weight limits can vary by large margins depending on how the car or truck is equipped and it is up to you to confirm the limits for your car or truck.

Some diesel owners might say, “Too big? Never.” If you are thinking your diesel pickup can tow anything you slap on the hitch or lock into the gooseneck or fifth-wheel, answer this simple question: What is your rig’s conventional tow rating? If you can’t answer that, those safety and financial issues should be of real concern. — Truck Trend

Overloaded Tow Vehicle Dangers

Not exceeding your vehicle’s capabilities is important for the safety of the occupants. It’s also for the safety and protection of your vehicle’s drivetrain.  While I am commuting to and from work I see a lot of eager families and travelers with ATV’s, boats, and campers in tow.  Many of these vehicles are improperly loaded. Their headlights are up in the air, and their backend dragging on the ground.

Overloaded tow vehicles are especially dangerous. Not only are the front wheels used for steering, they do 75% of stopping.  Overloaded tow vehicles that are improperly loaded and balanced force you to lose your steering control and your ability to stop effectively.  An overloaded tow vehicle’s drivetrain and suspension are also under huge stress.

Understanding a tow vehicle’s limits ensures you will have many picturesque family weekends. You will also avoid costly vehicle repairs.

Don’t Trust the RV Sales Person

Don’t just take the RV dealer’s word for how much your truck can tow, even if they look it up.  While camper shopping I had one salesman tell me that my Silverado could tow 8,500 lbs. He had all Silverado’s listed as towing the same regardless of engine size and axle ratio.  My truck could actually tow considerably less—6,800 pounds—because it had suspension code z85.

It may seem overwhelming and daunting to figure out all of the different options and find the camper your vehicle can tow.  It took me months of looking to find a used truck in my price range with the options needed to safely tow our camper. Patience is essential. The safety of my family was first on my mind. The knowledge of how much it costs to replace an engine or transmission made the task of finding the right vehicle worth the effort.  In the end, I over bought when it comes to towing. That’s just in case we decide to upgrade the camper at a later date.

Research Your Tow Vehicle’s Towing Capacity

Know your towing package options when buying a trailer and tow vehicle.

Most SUVs and trucks have multiple engine and axle configurations. Both affect the max payload and the towing limits (capacity).  Sometimes the difference is several thousand pounds. In advertisements, auto makers will list the highest towing capacity that a particular vehicle can tow. However that value may not reflect all configurations of the vehicle.

For example, Ford advertises the F150 can tow up to 13,200 lbs. But that is for a regular cab, long bed 2-wheel drive, 3.5-liter Ecoboost with the max tow or heavy-duty payload. The same truck without the tow package is limited to 5,100 pounds. Big difference.

People who buy new RVs must match the towing capacity to the camper trailer they’ve chosen. Others decide years after buying the truck or SUV that it would be nice to take the family camping.  The question then becomes: what camper can my vehicle tow? Here’s how to find out.

Vehicle Towing Basics 101

Before we begin, we need to define a couple of terms:

  • Payload is the weight of all of the gear, passengers plus the tongue weight of the trailer. It does NOT include the weight of your vehicle.
  • Gross vehicle weight is the total weight of the car, passengers, gear, and fuel plus the tongue weight of an attached trailer.
  • Curb weight is the weight of the vehicle without any payload or passengers. It is gross vehicle weight minus payload.
  • Combined gross vehicle weight is the total weight the manufacture has determined the vehicle can handle. This includes the vehicle, all passengers, cargo, and fuel plus attached trailers.
  • Max trailer weight is the most amount of weight that a vehicle can tow.
  • Tongue weight is the amount of weight the tongue will put on the hitch.
  • Max tongue weight is the maximum amount of weight that can be put on the hitch and is included in the max payload. This may vary depending on the type of hitch being used. As an example, it might be 500 pounds for a weight bearing hitch and 1200 pounds for a weight distributing hitch.
  • Dry weight is how much the camper weights without adding any water, gas or gear.
  • Max trailer payload is the maximum amount of gear, water and gas that can be safely carried in the trailer. The dry weight plus the max trailer payload is the trailers gross vehicle weight.
  • Trailer Gross vehicle weight is the total weight of the trailer with all contents.

Step One: Look at the Owner’s Manual

So you decided you want to buy a trailer camper. To buy wisely, you need to know the biggest camper you can buy that doesn’t require a new tow vehicle.

The first place to look when determining out how much your specific vehicle can tow is the owner’s manual. On some vehicles this may give a very simple and straight forward answer.  For others, the manual can be vague.

  • A small car manual could simply say towing is not recommended or list a max towing capacity.
  • Most SUVs and trucks will have something like “do not tow anything over 3,500 pounds unless equipped with the heavy-duty trailer tow package.”

How is your tow vehicle equipped?

Does your vehicle have multiple engine options, wheel bases, cab styles and/or final gear ratio options? If so, the manual will have a chart showing the combinations and how much each will tow. Read these charts carefully.  Many times towing charts will only apply if the vehicle has the trailer tow package.  The charts will also include lots of foot notes. Some charts will be sorted by combined gross weight or the gross vehicle weight as a determining factor as well as wheel base, engine, and axle ratio. 

The towing capacity of a base vehicle versus one that is properly equipped can be several thousand pounds. Knowing how your vehicle is equipped is the only way to know how much it can tow.

Tow package and suspension options to consider

There are several options to look for when purchasing a tow vehicle.  These options are usually listed as:

  1. tow package
  2. heavy-duty suspensions package
  3. or a max towing package that includes things like transmission oil coolers, heavy duty shocks and hitch receivers. The Transmission oil coolers protect the transmission under the extreme duty of towing heavy loads. They keep the transmission cool and prevent break down of the oil. Heavy duty suspension parts can include upgraded shocks and sway bars. These help you control the tow vehicle under load by keeping the tires firmly planted on the road. They also limit rear end squat.

Some vehicles will have multiple tow package options. For example, an HD or Max towing package could include things like a larger gas tank, HD rims, upgraded axels, and trailer brake controllers.

Large gas tanks help too

The larger gas tanks are very convenient, especially on a road trip.  Constantly pulling over to fill up your gas tank when you are hauling a camper is inconvenient. Some gas station are a tight squeeze to get in and out of. The extra room in the gas tank gives you more peace of mind. You can get where you are going and make better choices about where to pull over.

Axle Ratios can help or hurt

Axle ratios impact how the vehicle tows.  Taller gears like 3.73 or 4.10 will have the engine revving higher when going down the highway. That’s when the engine is in its power band, generating the most torque and horsepower. This limits down shifting when going up hills. Taller gears also improve acceleration for merging onto highways.

These gears are not as fuel efficient. Short gears like the 3.15 or 3.29 will get better mileage, but will tow less weight. You may have to run in a lower gear when going down the highway to stay in the trucks power band. The transmission may also hunt for gears more because the truck is at a lower RPM.

The ¾ and 1 ton trucks generally come fully equipped to tow. But they might have options that increase the towing capabilities.

How do I find out if my vehicle is set up for towing?

Does your current vehicle have a tow hitch?

If you already own the vehicle or looking to buy a used one it can be a little trickier.  First, look at the back.  If there isn’t a hitch already installed, most likely it does not have a towing or payload package and will be limited to the lowest trailer weight.

  • NOTE: If there is a hitch this does not automatically mean it has the tow package. Hitches can be added separately from the tow package.

Next, you want to look at the sill plate. Just open the driver’s door and look for the manufacture’s sill plate on the door frame.  It is usually silver and may list things like tire pressure, color codes, interior codes and the manufacture date. It also lists things like the front axle weight, rear axle weight and the gross vehicle weight.

Find your axle code to know how much your truck or car can pull

Sometimes the chart in the owner’s manual will be listed by gross vehicle weight ratio (GVWR). Others will list the combined gross vehicle weight. On my 2016 Ford F150 it lists the towing capacities by cab, engine rear axle and combined weight. But the plate does not list the combined weight on the plate in door jam.  It does list the axle code: the one piece of the equation that tells me what size camper my truck can pull. This may give you enough information to use the chart in the owner’s manual.

On my 2004 Silverado there were build codes in the glove compartment.  All I had to do was look up the suspension and tow package build codes online and I was able to verify my vehicles capacities.  It would be best practice to verify what is included in each suspension package for your year and model vehicle. These numbers may vary from year to year or model to model.

VIN Look-ups Tell Your Towing Capacity

The other way (and this might be the easier way) to confirm vehicle options is to look at the window sticker. You did save the window sticker right?  The window sticker will generally list the GVW, GCW and any options that came with car including tow packages. If you did not save it that’s okay. You can look it up here using the VIN. These versions of the window sticker will list out options but may not list standard equipment.

Be cautious of dealer advertisements.  Many will list tow package in the description but it may just have the hitch receiver and not the full tow package. While shopping for a used truck online I found several ads stating the truck had the tow package when it didn’t. The truck only had a hitch receiver on the back which would limit the towing to 5,000 pounds. Very few ads listed the rear end and the size of the gas tank—both options that make for better towing.  I used the website to confirm the trucks equipment before going to the dealer.

The sill plate of your vehicle gives clues for safe camper towing

Look for the manufacturer towing guide

Don’t give up if the tow package is not listed as an option on these window stickers. Remember, these only list options and the tow package may be standard equipment. Look online for the sales brochure this will tell you what came with the trim level you have.

Next, do an internet search for the year make and model of your car plus “towing guide”.  Most manufactures have towing/trailering guides and will help you determine options needed to tow safely.  Then use the information from the window sticker, the build codes, door jamb information and sales brochure to confirm which options the car has.  Then, use the chart in owner’s manual to confirm your max towing weight.  The same chart will likely be in the towing guide as well.

Allow for extra weight

Give yourself a buffer on the max tow weight. If your truck can tow 5,000 pounds your trailer should not exceed 4,000 pounds. This keeps you safe in case you encounter any wind or weather that requires a little extra power.

There are also other factors besides the weight that limit how big of a camper your car can tow. Those include the max tongue weight, how many passengers will be in the car and if there is anything in trunk or bed while you’re towing. Elevation can also be a factor.

How max tongue weight can limit the camper size

Let’s say the truck can tow 11,700 and has a tongue weight of 1,220 with a weight distributing hitch. 

  • Using the 10-15% rule a 11,700 pound trailer will have a tongue weight between 1,170 lbs and 1,700 lbs. 
  • The truck is limited to 1,220 pounds on the hitch. A 11,700 trailer is likely to max out the tongue weight.

A safer option would be to limit the trailer to 8,100 lbs which would have a tongue weight of 810 – 1,220 lbs.  Also, tongue weight of your trailer should be included in the max payload of your vehicle. 

  • So if the max payload of the truck is 1,865 lbs and you max out the tongue at 1,220 that leaves only 645 lbs of payload for passengers and gear in the truck. Which is only about 160 lbs per person. A family of four with mom, dad, two teenagers and a 100 pound lab could easily get to 800 pounds using even more of the available payload.

You may need to watch the weight even closer if you plan to travel through the mountains. Gas motors lose power as the elevation rises.

Driving on hilly or mountainous terrain or on unpaved roads can reduce fuel economy.  —

According to the 2016 Ford towing guide, gas engines lose 3-4% of their power for every 1,000 feet above sea level. To combat this power loss, Ford recommends reducing the gross combined vehicle weight by 2% for every 1,000 feet.

Why you should adjust trailer weight for driving conditions

Here’s an example of why you should consider max trailer weight during your travels. For instance, driving from Florida, sea level, to Denver 5,200 feet above sea level, changes your max trailer weight.

  • Your truck starts with a 17,000 pounds GCVW and the truck with passengers weighs 6,600 lbs. The trailer can weigh 10,400.  By the time you get to Denver the GCVW will have dropped by 10% to 15,300. 
  • The truck and passenger still weigh the same 6,600 pounds so your max trailer weight is now 8,700 lbs.

Even here in Illinois and Wisconsin where I do most of my towing I should reduce the CGVW by 2%.  Most of my towing is done between 500 and 1,000 feet above sea level.

The other reason to have a weight buffer is that some of the load in a camper can be a live load. This means it moves as you go down the road, making it act heavier because the weight has momentum.

Best practice for max trailer weight:

My old Chevy had a max towing capacity of 6,800 pounds and was maxed out when towing. It showed, especially going up hills or when fighting a head wind.

The best practice is to give yourself a 10 -15% buffer on your max trailer weight. This gives you some power reserves for weather and elevation changes. If you regularly drive through the Mountains maybe go as high as 20%. The elevation changes effect turbo charged engines less, but it is still better to be safe than sorry.

What is the Trailer Camper’s Maximum Frontal Surface?

Travel trailers are not always the most aerodynamic vehicles. Manufactures have worked to improve aero dynamics but sloping trailers and rounded corners eat up head room on the inside. The next limitation to consider is the frontal surface area of the camper trailer. I know… more math. 

  • For those who don’t remember, area is width times height.

The owner’s manual of your vehicle includes the max frontal service area the camper trailer can have. For small cars, it could be less than 25 feet (5 by 5). For trucks and larger SUVs it could be as high as 60 feet (7.5 by 8). The aero dynamics of the trailer will play a big role in factoring this. A sloping front is better than a flat front and allows for a larger total surface area because it will have less wind drag.

How much does that trailer weigh?

Verify the gross vehicle weight is within the capacities of a vehicle before buying it.

Finding out how much a trailer weighs is much simpler than figuring out how much the truck can tow. Look on the front driver side corner of the trailer. There should be a sticker with the tire information and the trailer weight. The weight listed here will most likely be the gross vehicle weight (GVW). This is the maximum weight of the trailer plus everything in or on the trailer. This is the weight you want to use when matching a trailer to a tow vehicle.

  • Be sure not to use shipping weight—the weight used by the manufacture to ship the trailer to the dealer.

Look in the cabinets; you might find a list with all of the weights like tongue weight, dry weight, payload and gross vehicle. It may also include trailer tank sizes. The trailer’s owner’s manual might also have these listed.

When looking at trailers, be sure to note how the weight of the trailer is described. Verify that the gross vehicle weight is within the capacities of a vehicle before buying it.

Maximum Trailer Payload Considerations

The difference between the dry weight and the gross weight is the trailer’s payload. If the trailer has a payload of 2,000 pounds, that’s how much stuff you can pack into it.

Remember the heaviest thing in your trailer is water. If you travel with water in your fresh water tank, grey and black tanks, consider water weighs 8 pounds per gallon. It can also have the unique property of being a live load while going down the road. 

Water weight changes towing capacity

On-board water can also change the balance of the trailer. For example, my trailer’s 30-gallon fresh water tank is located in the front. The 45 gallon black tank is over the rear axle. The 40 gallon grey tank just behind the axle. An empty fresh tank and half full black and grey tanks will give the back of the trailer more leverage. It will sway more because the water is moving as the trailer goes down the road. If all of the tanks are full the trailer is more balanced and because the tanks are full the water will slosh less.

This goes back to having that extra towing capacity for changing conditions. Even if you try to always tow with empty tanks you will have to be able to tow with full or partially empty tanks and still be safe. Always plan for the unexpected when towing.

  • When estimating weight, I generally round up. If all of the tanks are full it is 115 gallons of water times 8 pounds per gallon equals 920 pounds. I just round that up to 1,000 lbs.

Weigh camping gear, too

My trailer has a 2,000-pound payload limit and the gross vehicle weight of 5,900 pounds. I estimate that most of the time it weighs about 4900 pounds when being towed. 

Here is my gear list and estimated weights

  • Full holding tanks: 1000 lbs (actual 920 lbs)
  • Propane tanks: 100 lbs (actual is closer to 80 lbs)
  • Battery: 65 lbs.
  • Clothes and bedding: 80 lbs (20 pounds per person)
  • Food: 75 lbs
  • Camera gear and electronics: 50 lbs
  • Tools: 50 lbs
  • Chairs, pots, pans and other camping gear: 250 lbs
  • Fishing gear: 50 lbs (150 lbs more if I bring the electric motor)
  • Total: 1,720 – 1,870 lbs.

Example Cars, SUVs, Trucks and Trailers with Towing Capacity Estimates

Below is a sample list of vehicles and campers that match together based on weight. The vehicles listed here are assumed to have the tow package if available. Some of the trailers listed below will also require a weight distribution hitch, sway control or fifth wheel hitches.

The best trucks for towing a travel trailer depend on different factors. For example, half-ton trucks can tow a fifth wheel but not all bed sizes can accommodate a fifth wheel. 

The following are examples of trailers that can be towed by typical vehicles. Your particular car may tow more or less and it is your responsibility to confirm your vehicle’s capabilities.  There are countless floor plans so hopefully this list will jump start your search.

Ultra lightweight trailer and car combination example

  • Car –Honda CRV all-wheel drive
  • Towing capacity 1500 lbs

The best ultra lightweight trailer and car combination includes small teardrop trailers, like the those from Colorado Teardrop Camper.  The Basecamp model weighs in at 900 pounds so options will need to be kept to a minimum to stay within the weight limit of the CRV.  It is built around a queen size bed and sleeps 2. No kitchen or bathroom, but for two people with a small car this will get keep your camping gear together and ready to go while providing a cozy place to sleep. The Colorado Teardrop Basedrop is a great example.

Maintaining a safety margin on the max tow weight of small vehicles is tough. Be careful not over load the trailer or tow vehicle.

Small trailer and car combination example

  • Car – Mid size SUV like the Chevy Equinox or Lincoln MKZ
  • Max towing 3500 lbs

The best small trailer for a small car is a popup or tent camper like the Forest River Rockwood Freedom 1940ltd. The trailer weighs 1600 lbs dry and 2350 gross vehicle weight. It has a tongue weight of only 195 pounds.  Loaded up it is safely with in the limits of the Equinox and other SUVs the same size. Has plenty of sleeping room for the family.

Because it is a Popup or Tent Camper it will have less wind resistance when being towed. There may also be some travel trailers that have light enough dry weights to tow with this size SUV, but their gross weights max out or exceed the towing capacity.

Medium-light weight trailer and car combination example.

  • Car – Standard size SUV like the Ford explorer and Honda Pilot.
  • Max towing capacity is 5000 pounds

Many vehicles in this class have towing capacities up to 5,000 pounds. They can handle a small travel trailer in the 14-19 foot range. The dry weights on these are around 2,500 pounds although some may be heavier depending on options. These will offer expanded space, bunks, bathrooms, cook tops, air-conditioning and couches. Amerilite by Gulfstream offers several trailer that have combined weights under 3,500 pounds.

Medium weight trailer and car combination example

  • The next category is the Large SUVs like the Suburban.

When equipped with the tow package many of these vehicles can tow over 6,000 pounds and some can tow as much as 8,000 pounds. However, my search for a new car did include looking at large SUVs and in the used market only a few had tow packages, but almost all had hitches on them.  I think dealers order them without because the ride is smoother.

For these I would look for a travel trailer in the 20-26 foot range. Keep the dry weight under 3,500 pounds the wet weight under 6,000 pounds. The Amerilite 248BH is a great choice and right in the middle of the range 5,900 pounds gross. Online it says the GVW is 7,700 pounds on but on my door panel it says 5,900 pound). It has nice sized fridge, decent sized holding tanks to get you through a weekend of camping. It also has bunks for the kids.

Medium heavy weight trailer and car combination example

  • ½ ton pickups such as Ford F150, Dodge RAM 1500

If you have a half ton with the tow package or HD payload you have a lot of trailers to choose from. Most trucks when properly equipped can tow over 9,000 lbs. Some can even tow over 11,000 lbs. I like the Keystone Cougar 25BHSWE because it has bunks and a king size bed.  It weighs in at gross vehicle weight of 8,000 pounds.

Heavy weight truck and trailer weight combination examples

  • ¾ ton pickups such as a Ford F250 or Dodge RAM 2500

Most ¾ ton pickups can tow 12,000-15,000 lbs. These bigger trucks give you more options for bigger trailers. The gas models can generally tow between 9,500 and 15,000 pounds. Diesel models tow up to 14,500 18,000 pounds.  These can tow travel trailers like the Winnebago Spyder 29KS or fifth wheel trailers like the Gulf Stream Sedona 28CBF.

Extra Heavy weight truck and trailer combination examples

  • 1 ton pickups such as a Ford F350 and Dodge RAM 3500.

When equipped with the dual rear wheels these trucks can tow fifth wheel trailers between 22,000 lbs and 34,000 pounds. This means you can tow luxury trailers like the Luxe brand of Fifth Wheels. These offer luxuries like washer and dryers, solid surface counter tops, stainless steel appliances and multiple bath rooms.

Truck Towing Guides for Download

Obviously, you should check out the towing guide for your vehicle.  Here they are for your convenience!

Now that you have the knowledge to answer the important question “What camper can my vehicle tow?” it’s time to go trailer shopping! Have fun out there.

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Author Anthony Foxx

I am Tony, an RV designer and RV developer. I create bill of materials for RV manufacturers for travel trailers and fifth wheels. I worked as a freelance transportation consultant for Lyft. As an RV development consultant, I create customization trees for RV manufacturers who want to offer a solution to prospective customers to design their custom RV with variant configuration. Apart from this, I sell in Indiana trailer hitches, hitch balls, goosenecks and weight distribution systems where I provide advice to customers who want to know which is their towing capacity, which hitch ball should they utilize and how to deploy a weight distribution system. I do my best to explain all these processes and their installation, in the Lifestyle edition of Business Finance News.

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