brown pickup truck pulling boat

Towing guide

By Steve Temple,

Master tow-vehicle drivers appear to have the skill to thread a needle with their trailers. Whether it's a boat, cargo trailer or camper in tow, the trailer seems psychically connected to the driver's brain, rather than hitched to the tow vehicle. For beginners, towing can be intimidating, but even experienced trailer operators have had their learning curves and difficult experiences. Outfitted with the right information, the right equipment and diligent practice, you too can readily master the art of towing.

Vehicle towing weight capacity

The most valuable rule of thumb for towing is to coordinate the weight capacities of the equipment so the entire rig is stable. This allows for a ride that's not significantly different from the vehicle when it’s towing nothing at all. This arrangement gives drivers the advantage of a predictable response to traffic maneuvers, so all they have to think about is a smooth, even ride.

Experienced drivers have all seen trailers that threatened to pass the tow vehicle or wiggle like happy puppies, or tow vehicles riding painfully high in the front and awkwardly low in the rear. These are examples of mismatched pieces: too much or too little tongue weight, too heavy a trailer weight for the vehicle, and so forth.

Tow terms

The first step before hitching up a trailer to your vehicle is to spoon through a bowl of alphabet soup of terms for towing. Knowing how to decipher these acronyms for capacities and weights and also knowing how they relate to one another takes the guesswork out of towing.

Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR): The total allowable weight of a fully loaded vehicle, including driver, passengers, cargo, fluids, accessories and tongue weight. Beefy aftermarket shocks or airbags won't change the vehicle's GVWR; they just make the ride more comfortable. One of the biggest mistakes amateur towers make is to underestimate the total weight within the tow vehicle.

Gross Axle Weight Rating (GAWR): The maximum weight a single axle is designed to safely carry. This rating is provided to prevent single-axle overloading.

Tow Rating: The manufacturer's recommended towing capacity often based, for larger trucks, on the GVWR plus 2,000 pounds, engine size and axle ratio.

Gross Trailer Weight Rating (GTWR): This figure is located on a metal tag on the trailer frame and is based on the allowable weight of the trailer and its cargo.

Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR): Total weight of the tow vehicle and everything in it, as well as the trailer and its contents. If the truck weighs 7,000 pounds and has a GCWR of 10,000 pounds, the trailer and its contents cannot exceed 3,000 pounds.

Once you have made sense of these terms as they apply to your situation, you're in a good position to determine if a vehicle is safe to tow the intended trailer and its contents.

One rule of thumb: It's far better to have too much tow vehicle in terms of weight and towing capacities than too little. The maneuver that has saved many a road trip is to power the trailer out of trouble – whether it's a heavy crosswind or a fishtailing trailer coming down a grade at highway speeds. The tow vehicle’s ability to regain control, to actually continue to tow instead of being pushed, is vital to everyone's safety.

A good example is a two-horse trailer pulled by a half-ton pickup. Technically, the half-ton is adequate and many recreational, short-distance horse-towers trailer successfully with this setup. But those who have spent many long hours transporting livestock wouldn't be caught dead in a half-ton. Experience has taught these veterans that a three-quarter-ton is the safest tow vehicle for a horse trailer.

One last number, and maybe the most important: tongue weight. This term refers to the trailer weight at the coupler that is supported by the truck. The recommended tongue weight is between 8 and 15 percent of the total trailer weight. To determine tongue weight, go to a public scale: Drive across the scales, stopping with the trailer on the scales and the tow vehicle's rear tires just off the scale deck. Record the weight. Jack up the trailer and unhook it from the hitch and record that weight. The difference between the two weights is your tongue weight. Determining the tongue weight is worth this effort. Too much tongue weight and both the tow vehicle and trailer will sway. Too little tongue weight causes serious trailer sway.


Factory hitches correspond with the vehicle's tow rating and capabilities. If you're starting from scratch, here are the parameters:

  • Class I: Designed for trailer- and trailer-content-weights up to 2,000 pounds; a bumper mount or combination bumper/frame mount.
  • Class II: Always frame-mounted and recommended for total trailer weights up to 3,500 pounds.
  • Class III: Most commonly found on full-size light trucks for heavy-duty towing up to 5,000 pounds of trailer weight.
  • Class IV: Designed for trailer weights up to 7,500 pounds. Class IV hitches can handle up to 10,000 pounds of trailer weight with the addition of a weight-distributing system. This system distributes the tongue weight to the truck's front axle and to the trailer axle(s) and is best installed by an expert, since the system has to be totally compatible with the existing hitch.

Again, the key to successful towing is matching the equipment with the capacities and ratings of the tow vehicle. The rule of thumb for actually driving this well-matched rig is to allow yourself enough time and space to accelerate and brake more gradually, and also to make turns and maneuvers more widely. Finally, before you actually set out on your first towing adventure, three last words of advice: practice, practice, practice.