Last Updated on September 26, 2022
What makes a tow truck? Have you ever considered what vehicle gets used when a tow truck is called in? Or have you ever thought about when the first tow truck was invented? Whether we’re driving a passenger vehicle or something larger like a long-haul truck, when we get stuck on the side of the road we rely on tow trucks to get us unstuck. And if you’re looking to enter into the business of towing, you’ll need some knowledge to go along with your equipment. Now, let’s talk about the best things to know about heavy duty towing.
Looking for vehicles near you?
We'll email you with vehicles up for auction near you and featured auctions.
How heavy do you need?
Tow trucks are categorized into three different weight classes: light, medium, or heavy duty. Each serves the same purpose, but as the category names suggest, each carries a different load amount.
Heavy Duty Towing
Heavy duty tow trucks are needed when long-haul trucks, garbage trucks, dump trucks, and large construction equipment need to be towed.
The weight of a heavy duty tow truck begins at about 26,000 pounds (Class 7). These trucks are fitted with 20-foot-plus boom lifts, six-ton wheel lifts, and a winch. They are capable of handling loads up to 50,000 pounds. You can expect to find them at most typical heavy duty towing companies, however, some specialize in handling even heavier loads. One company boasts about their ability to tow loads up to 150,000 pounds!
And unlike the next two categories, most heavy duty tow trucks are flatbeds.
Medium Duty Towing
Medium duty tow trucks are ideal for towing minivans, box trucks, RVs, and other vehicles of that size. The weight of a medium duty tow truck begins at 14,000 pounds.
Light Duty Towing
Light duty tow trucks are pickups with a tow truck package. The smallest weigh about 8,000 pounds, and are ideal for moving cars, trucks, and SUVs.
These tow trucks are also well-known for offering battery charging, flat tire change out, no-key car entry, and getting out of snow/mud services.
When tow trucks operate, they either tow a vehicle behind it or transport the vehicle on its bed. The first kind is called a wrecker and the second kind is called a flatbed tow truck. Virtually all light-duty tow trucks are wreckers.
How to calculate towing capacity
A traditional semi-trailer (the ones hauled by long-haul trucks) weighs between 9,000 pounds and 13,500 pounds. Depending on axle configuration, they can handle up to 25,000 pounds. This produces a total load of up to 38,500 pounds.
Both the Ford F-750 and the Ram 3500 have towing capacities that exceed 40,000 pounds. Truck models used for long-haul (Class 7 and 8) are capable of hauling trailers with 65,000 pounds. Thus, finding a truck to tow that weight simply requires taking a large truck chassis and adding a tow truck bed, boom, and other tools, which can easily be done at a truck body shop.
The key to being able to tow heavy loads is in the gross curb weight rating (GCWR), gross vehicle weight (GVW), and torque power of the tow truck. Calculate your truck’s towing capacity (TC) with the following formula: GCWR – GVW = TC.
Torque power is needed in order to pull the load and travel up grades without stalling.
The first tow truck
People had only been driving vehicles for a few years when Ernest Holmes Sr. and nine other men helped a driver get his Tin Lizzie out of the Chickamauga Creek. After eight hours, Holmes was struck by the idea that there must be a better way. He created plans to draft the first wrecker tow truck package and asked two friends to help.
In 1919, he secured a patent for his invention and began selling branded tow packages on the chassis of used vehicles. His company became profitable, and even grew during the Great Recession. During World War II, his company was offered a government contract to build recovery vehicles and bomb-loaders for the war efforts.
What makes a tow truck?
Today, trucks are very customizable, especially when ordered for a specific purpose. Many truck manufacturers (both commercial and non-commercial) offer a towing package, so you can order your truck with all the necessary equipment. However, if you want to convert a used truck, there are numerous truck body shops who offer towing packages.
Here are the most common equipment and components found in a towing package:
Also known as an underlift, this is a T-shaped metal bar that extends from the bottom rear of a tow truck. It slides under the front or rear of the vehicle in tow, latches onto two wheels, and raises one section of the vehicle about two feet. The driver operates the wheel lifts from inside the cab of the tow truck using a remote control. An optional rear view camera allows the driver to better see the wheel lifts while in operation.
A boom is a long, high-strength metal that extends from the rear of the cab to the rear of the truck. At the end of the boom is a hook or sling (also called a dolly), used for grabbing onto the tow vehicle. The boom is extendable and is either fixed or rotatable. Once attached, the boom can begin moving the tow vehicle. They are also sometimes used to help right overturned vehicles or pull vehicles back onto the road.
Winches are composed of cable, rope, or chain wrapped around a drum located on either the front or rear bumper of the tow truck, or just behind the cab. When attached to the bumper, winches can be used to tow a vehicle that has gone off-road back onto the road. They’re helpful even if the vehicle has gone into a deep ditch or body of water. The winch acts like a fishing line. You attach the hooks to the tow vehicle and then reel it in. When attached to the rear of the cab, winches get used to carry the tow vehicle onto the truck’s bed.
There are two types of outriggers. One kind looks like metal posts and one extends down from each rear corner of the truck. The second kind appears similar to metal legs and one appears on each side of the truck near its rear, and they extend out and down. Both offer great stability with the latter offering the most.
Chains and hooks
Chains are often used to secure vehicles in medium duty applications while hooks are used more often in light towing scenarios.
Tow trucks often work at times when there is poor lighting. Adding light bars brings more exterior brightness to the scene.
Now that you know some more about tow trucks, you might be ready to buy and furnish one of your own. Trucks, especially when equipped with the proper towing packages, can haul heavy loads. Once you find the right chassis and the right package, with some modifications you will be good to go. Find something that suits your tastes today!