What to Know Before Using Your Pickup to Tow

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Truck advertisements boast about how much a pickup can tow, with demonstrations of stunning feats such as hauling a space shuttle down a city street. But the reality is, the typical pickup at the dealership has much more humble abilities.

For drivers looking to tow, there are two main things to know: how much weight they’ll tow and which truck can adequately do that job. It may sound simple, but there’s a lot to learn about engines, transmissions, and equipment packages to ensure that they have the right truck for their needs. Understanding all those numbers and what they mean isn’t always easy.

Take Ford, for example. The 2020 F-150 pickup can tow from 5,000 pounds to 13,200 pounds, depending on how the truck is configured. The F-150 most commonly found on dealer lots—an XLT crew cab 4WD with a 5.5-foot bed and the 2.7-liter turbo V6 engine—can tow a maximum of 7,600 pounds. It begs the question: How can there be such a huge discrepancy in towing ability between versions of what is basically the same truck?

To be fair, this is not just a problem with Ford trucks.

Most pickup trucks sold in the U.S. today don’t detail exactly how much they can carry in a readily visible location. The driver’s-side doorjamb has labels with other important information, such as tire and wheel size, tire inflation pressure data, and the GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating), but shoppers will need to figure out a truck’s individual tow rating on their own. They might be able to look at the towing chart that sometimes appears in the owner’s manual, but often the manual refers readers to the manufacturer’s online towing guide. Or they may be forced to trust that their salesperson has the correct information.

Chevrolet started putting a trailering information label on the Silverado 1500 for the 2019 model year. It includes more information than you’ll find on the driver’s-side doorjamb of most trucks, but it still doesn’t list the truck’s tow rating. Chevy says the label “provides customers with the information they need to calculate their pickup’s exact capacities,” but the point is this: Owners will still need to do some calculations of their own to figure out how much the truck can actually tow.

So how can shoppers know which truck to buy to do the job they need it to do? We have information that will help.

The Factors That Affect Towing

Many full-sized pickups are available in a dizzying array of configurations, and all can affect the truck’s tow rating: cab size, bed length, engine, transmission, and two-wheel or four-wheel drive, as well as optional towing or trailer packages.

If you’re shopping for a pickup to tow a specific size or weight trailer, it’s important to make sure the truck you’re looking at can handle your needs. Most compact and full-sized pickups can easily tow a couple of personal watercraft, a small pop-up camper trailer, or even a 20-foot powerboat. But a larger dual-axle RV travel trailer can weigh 8,000 pounds or more. And no one wants to drive up to the RV dealer to pick up a new trailer for the summer family road trip only to find out the truck they bought doesn’t have the guts to safely pull it along.

That’s why it’s critical to understand, before you buy your truck, what type of towing you’re going to do, the terrain you’re most likely to encounter—whether it’s mostly flat highways or short, steep hills, for example—and the weight of the trailer, including any gear you’re planning to take along.

Here at Consumer Reports, we typically recommend that new pickup truck buyers be careful not to purchase more truck than they need (for instance, don’t get a heavy-duty truck if you’re trying to accomplish mostly lightweight chores), but “when it comes to towing, more capability is always better than less,” says John Ibbotson, CR’s chief mechanic. “For example, if you plan on towing, it’s well worth the money to get the most comprehensive tow package that is available for your truck,” he says.

Manufacturer towing and trailer packages can range from little more than a receiver hitch and trailer wiring harness to comprehensive equipment packages that have integrated controls for electric trailer brakes, beefed-up suspension components, and more. Before you spend your money, it’s important to understand how any tow package will enhance the truck’s abilities, and what its total capacity will be once it has been properly outfitted.

We talked to CR’s experts and all the major U.S. pickup truck makers to determine the key factors to consider.

Weight Is Everything

When it comes to towing, it’s crucial that you understand how much weight your truck can carry, in both passengers and payload, as well as how much it can tow behind the vehicle. It’s extremely important that you have a clear understanding of how much everything you’re taking with you weighs.

For example, a camper trailer’s listed weight doesn’t include any extra cargo, water in the holding tank, or dealer-installed options. You’re quite likely to end up throwing some extra equipment or luggage into the trailer for your trip, and all that weight adds to the trailer’s total weight. It’s the same concept when you’re towing a powerboat; the manufacturer lists its dry weight, but hauling the boat with a full fuel tank can easily add 250 to 300 pounds, not to mention other gear that might be stored on the boat.

We recommend weighing your truck and trailer together at a certified scale or weigh station before going on a trip—this usually costs about $10. Then disconnect the trailer from the truck and weigh the pickup on its own, which typically costs only about $2 if you do it during the same visit. There are weigh stations throughout the country, especially near rural interstate highways. This is the only way to know the true weight of your loaded truck and trailer.

Engine and Transmission Combo

The engine’s size and power are significant factors in determining how much a truck can tow. When it comes to pickups, there are generally a few different types of engines. Compact trucks typically offer four-cylinder or V6 engines. Full-sized pickups offer a variety of V6 engines, and some of those are turbocharged. Then there are traditional V8 engines, which are what many truck drivers think of as the heavy hitters. That used to be true, but there are some turbo V6 engines that create more torque, the power to start you moving. There is also a growing number of capable turbodiesels for light-duty, full-sized pickups.

For an example of how much a different engine can affect towing, the compact 2020 Chevrolet Colorado with the base four-cylinder engine can tow up to 3,500 pounds, but choosing the V6 engine lets you tow 7,000 pounds. Opt for the turbodiesel four-cylinder and the Colorado has the ability to tow up to 7,700 pounds.

Most Ford F-150s come with a 2.7-liter turbo V6, which allows them to tow up to 9,000 pounds when properly equipped. But to tow the maximum 13,200 pounds, you’d have to step up and get the F-150 with the 3.5-liter turbo V6. That engine, thanks to its prodigious 470 lb.-ft. of torque, is capable of towing even more than an F-150 with Ford’s 5.0-liter V8 engine.

With other full-sized trucks, such as the Chevrolet Silverado 1500, the largest available V8 engine has the highest towing capacity.

Cab Size and Bed Length

Compact trucks are typically configured as four-door crew cabs with a short bed that’s about 5 feet long. But the 2020 Nissan Frontier and 2020 Toyota Tacoma achieve their highest tow ratings in extended-cab versions with the 6-foot bed, while the Chevrolet Colorado hits its maximum capability with a crew cab and 6.1-foot bed. The 2020 Honda Ridgeline and 2020 Jeep Gladiator come only in crew-cab form, with 5.3-foot and 5-foot beds, respectively. Notably, the 2020 Ford Ranger can achieve its 7,500-pound maximum tow rating with either of its two cab and bed combos.

Full-sized pickups can be ordered in a variety of cab and bed lengths, from the old-school regular cab with just one row of seats to a crew cab with four full-sized doors and a huge amount of interior space; extended cabs fall in between the two. Bed lengths range from 5.5 feet to just over 8 feet.

In doing our research, we found that most full-sized trucks get their highest tow rating with an extended cab. But there are exceptions: For example, the Ford F-150 gets to its max tow rating with a crew cab and 6.5-foot bed, while the 2020 Nissan Titan XD achieves its 11,000-pound maximum tow rating with a crew cab and a 6.5-foot bed, the only configuration now available—previously it achieved its 12,710-pound max tow rating with a regular cab and an 8-foot bed.

Two-Wheel Drive or Four-Wheel Drive?

Most pickups give buyers the option of either rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive. (The Honda Ridgeline is the exception; it comes in either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive because of the less-robust SUV platform it’s based on.) In most cases, RWD versions can tow more than their four-wheel-drive counterparts. That’s because the RWD model weighs less, and every pound not built into a truck is another pound your truck can tow.

But for many drivers, it’s worth giving up some towing capacity for the greater traction that comes with 4WD. This is especially true for people who haul boats, because 4WD can be necessary to haul the trailer out of the water up a slippery boat launch. Four-wheel drive will also be critical if your towing sometimes involves driving on snowy roads or navigating muddy campsites.

Gear Ratios

We’re not talking about how many gears your truck’s transmission has, but rather whether the axle ratio is geared “low” or “tall.” Shorter (or lower) gearing is more ideal for towing because it’s easier for the truck to access the engine’s power, which helps the truck accelerate faster from a stop or climb steep hills. Be aware, though: Lower gearing means the engine will run at a higher rpm on the highway, which will ultimately hurt the truck’s fuel economy.

Here’s an example of how gearing can affect a truck’s towing abilities: A 2020 Ram 1500 with a crew cab, 4WD, a short bed and the 5.7-liter V8 engine, comes with a 3.21 axle ratio. Opting for the “shorter” 3.92 axle ratio raises the tow rating from 8,240 pounds to 11,340 pounds. And it’s only a $95 option. That’s a lot of towing bang for the buck.

Know Your Towing Terms

If you’re new to the towing game, you’re going to hear and read a lot of terms you might have never seen before. Here’s a primer.

Gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR): The weight of the truck plus the maximum allowable weight for all occupants and cargo. The GVWR is shown on the vehicle’s certification label on the driver’s doorjamb. Note that the trailer’s own weight is not included in the GVWR, but the tongue weight of the trailer is—meaning the weight of the portion of the trailer that connects to the truck. More on that soon.

Gross combined weight rating (GCWR): The maximum weight that a truck with a fully loaded trailer—including all cargo and occupants—can handle without risking damage. The GCWR for your truck is not usually found on the label on the truck’s doorjamb, but it can usually be found in the towing section of the manufacturer’s website.

Payload capacity: This is the maximum weight of cargo and passengers that the vehicle is designed to carry. Payload is the GVWR minus the truck’s base curb weight, which is classified as the weight of the vehicle including a full tank of fuel and all standard—but not optional—equipment. Don’t forget that the trailer’s tongue weight needs to be included here, too.

Trailer tongue weight: Also known as tongue load, this is an important number. It’s the amount of the trailer’s weight that rests on the hitch ball, the part of the truck that holds up the trailer while you drive. 

Tongue load should be 10 to 15 percent of the trailer’s total weight—if you’re towing 5,000 pounds, the tongue weight would be 500 to 750 pounds. Typically, if your truck is rated high enough to handle the trailer you’re towing, it should also be rated high enough to handle the weight the trailer puts on the hitch. But keep in mind: The trailer’s tongue weight needs to be added to the truck’s payload, so the 500 to 750 pounds in the above example needs to be added to the truck’s gross vehicle weight (GVW). 

As a Ford truck engineer told us, it’s critical to be mindful of (and add in) tongue weight because the tongue load sits directly on the vehicle itself. 

It’s also very important to know your truck’s payload capacity, and to factor the tongue weight into the truck’s payload, because the trailer’s tongue weight can limit how many people can ride in the cab and how much stuff can be carried in the bed.

The height of the hitch affects both the tongue weight and the truck’s braking ability. It’s absolutely critical that the trailer sit level when it’s attached to the truck. Too much tongue weight can cause the truck to sit too low in the rear; that can hurt the front wheels’ ability to provide steering, traction, and braking, and potentially cause suspension damage. Too little tongue weight affects how the trailer will handle behind the pickup, potentially causing the trailer to fishtail, or sway from side-to-side.

If you have to tow different trailers, it can be helpful to have a hitch that can be adjusted for height.

How It All Comes Together

Once you understand what the truck you own can do, and the weight of the trailer you’re looking to tow, it’s time to make some calculations. There are many things to consider, and yes, there is some math involved to make sure your pickup truck hasn’t exceeded its GVWR and that the truck and loaded trailer combined don’t exceed the maximum GCWR.

Here’s a real-world example from a Chevrolet engineer that shows the math:
Trailer weight: 10,000 lb.
Pickup truck GVWR: 7,000 lb.
Pickup truck weight before added payload: 5,500 lb.
Payload added to pickup:
• Two occupants: 300 lb.
• Extra cargo: 100 lb.
• Trailer hitch equipment: 75 lb.
• Trailer tongue weight: 1,000 lb. (10 percent of trailer weight)

Total payload: 1,475 lb.

Tow vehicle weight (5,500 lb.) + Payload (1,475 lb.) = 6,975 lb., which is just shy of the truck’s 7,000-lb. GVWR.

As this example shows, reaching the limits of a pickup truck’s payload can happen quickly when you’re towing. This means that if you’re towing near your truck’s limits, you might have to leave something—whether it’s cargo or passengers—behind to stay within the truck’s safe capabilities.

Figuring all of this out can be confusing. Luckily some truck makers have online towing and trailering guides. For instance, Ram Trucks has a unique web page to help truck owners and shoppers. Owners can type in their vehicle identification number (VIN) to get hauling info that is specific to their truck, a Ram spokesman told us. Shoppers can build out a truck on the site that will meet their hauling needs.

What to Know About Towing

There are so many vehicles to satisfy your inner adventurer. On the “Consumer 101” TV show, Consumer Reports expert Mike Monticello explains to host Jack Rico what to know about getting these beauties from point A to point B.

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