How to choose a tow vehicle (or How to choose a travel trailer)

Tech > How to choose a tow vehicle (or How to choose a travel trailer)


Maybe you have a travel trailer (in hand or in mind) and want to know in advance what capacities you'll need in a tow vehicle. Or you're shopping for or already have a tow vehicle, and you want to know what size of trailer you can pull. Good for you! Lots of folks don't think about these things until after they've already bought both... and many find that the two are not a good match. As an aside, most travel trailer tow vehicles are trucks, so I'll use the terms interchangeably.

Don't be seduced by the truck manufacturers' published tow ratings, or the so-called dry weight published by trailer manufacturers. Here's why:

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Tow Ratings

I won't call into question the tow ratings claimed by the manufacturers, but most trucks (I haven't seen an exception yet) will run out of available payload long before they approach the limits of their tow capacity.

Dry Weight

In my opinion this is a useless number. First of all, it is almost certainly not accurate for your trailer when it leaves the dealer's lot because it may not account for such "options" as propane, propane tanks, battery, battery box, air conditioner and awnining. Secondly, you're going to load your trailer with hundreds of pounds of stuff to go camping (like food, clothing, toiletries, bedding, drinks, chairs, stove, BBQ, etc) so even if the dry weight were accurate it wouldn't be much use.

So what to do? As it happens, you can do almost of your calculations with two specs: Truck payload and trailer GVWR (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating).

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Truck payload

Payload can be found on the driver door jamb. Here's mine. The smale print above the red rectangle on the bottom sticker reads, "The combined weight of occupants and cargo should never exceed 710 kg or 1566 lbs". So payload is used up by all of the people in the truck, all the stuff they bring in the cab, all the aftermarked accessories that have been added, and the tongue weight of the trailer. A full tank of fuel is assumed and need not be deducted.

2013 F-150 - Driver door sticker

Can you find the payload online? Not really. For example, below is the spec for our model from the 2013 Ford F-150 Brochure. Note that a 2013 SuperCrew F-150 4x4 with a 3.5L EcoBoost, a 157" wheelbase and a 7700 lb GVWR (that's ours) has a listed maximum payload weight rating of 1840 lbs. Note the absence of trim level and options in the table - I suspect that's because F-150s in this category can be configure in any number of ways. Ours is an FX-4 with a long list of options that costs us 1840-1566=274 lbs of payload. Luxury costs in more ways than one!

2013 Maximum Payload Specs

So the only way to really know the payload of a truck is to open the door and look. Why dealers aren't posting photos of this sticker by choice or legislation in their online ads is a source of frustration and mystery to me.

Trailer GVWR

This spec is more readily available. Many manufacturers post GVWR with a trailer's floor plan. If not, it can be found on the outside of the trailer near the front on the road side (think driver's side). Here's mine - the GVWR is near the top left and reads 2980 kg (6570 lbs).

Outside sticker

Why use the GVWR? Chances are your trailer's GVW (Gross Vehicle Weight), loaded for camping, will approach the GVWR. And any difference between the two is a safety margin. We'll multiply the trailer's GVWR by 15% to determine the tongue weight. Tongue weight should be 12 to 15% of the trailer's GVW so there's more room for a safety margin.

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The math

With all the numbers in hand, the calculations are fairly simple.

Find a truck

To find the payload (P) you need, Multiply the GVWR by 15% to get tongue weight (TW), then add the weight of the occupants (O), cargo (C) and accessories (A). So:

P=TW+O+C+A

Let's say you're looking at a trailer with a GVWR of 7,500 lbs. Let's also say that the combined weight of your family is 500 lbs, you're going to bring along another 500 lbs of stuff in the truck, and any truck you buy will be equipped after the sale with a bedliner and tonneau cover with a combined weight of 100 lbs.

Easy, peasy, lemon squeezie.

P=(7500*0.15)+500+500+100

P=1125+500+500+100

P=2225

You would be looking for a truck with a 2,225 lb payload. You might be looking at an HD pickup, though some newer half-tons qualify when properly optioned.

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Find a trailer

To find the GVWR of the trailer you can tow, the math gets reversed. Subtract the total weight of the occupants (O), cargo (C) and accessories (A) from your truck's payload (P) and divide the result by 15%. So:

GVWR=(P-(O+C+A))/0.15

In this example you've got the same family, same stuff and those same accessories are installed on your truck, which has a payload of 2,000 lbs.

GVWR=(2000-(500+500+100)/0.15

GVWR=(2000-1100)*0.15

GVWR=900/0.15

GVWR=6000

You'd be looking for a trailer with a 6000 lb GVWR... a smallish travel trailer.

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Towing capacity

In the first example we calculated a payload of 2,250 lbs for a 7500 lb GVWR trailer. If we can find a truck with at least that much payload, we can verify its towing capacity. I happened to have the 2013 Ford Brochure open and the closest I could find that met or exceeded 2,250 lbs was rated for a maximum payload of 2,310 lbs. That is a SuperCrew 4x4 with the long wheelbase, the 3.5L Ecoboost engine, and the heavy duty payload package. It would be a lower trim level, like an XL, and not overly burdened with fancy otions. The same Ford brochure ranges that truck's towing capacity from 9,100 to 11,100 lbs, depending on the axle ratio and whether the truck was equipped with the max trailer tow package. In any case, well above what's needed to tow at trailer that's safe for the truck's payload.

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How to choose a travel trailer

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A few more words

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