March 31

Towing Tips: Payload, Curb Weight, GVWR, and More

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You can easily find your vehicle’s towing capacity—it’s in your vehicle’s owner’s manual—but it won’t tell you towing best practices, details on the best equipment and how to get the most out of your tows. 

Whether you want to tow a camper, construction equipment or a bike trailer, you have to have a vehicle that is capable of towing the load. 

The limiting factors to towing heavier loads are the frame of the trailer, the load range of the tires on the trailer and the tow vehicle, the tongue weight, the gross axle weight rating (GAWR) of the rear axle, engine power and the brakes on the tow vehicle.

Towing capacity

Trucks generally have higher towing capacities than SUVs. The GMC Terrain, for example, is a small SUV with a towing capacity of 3,500 pounds. Whereas, the GMC Canyon, which is a small pick-up truck, has a towing capacity of more than double that (7,700 pounds). 

On the larger side of the passenger vehicle/light-duty trucks, the GMC Sierra 1500 has a towing capacity of 12,000 pounds, but to really maximize towing capacity, upgrade to the GMC Sierra Heavy Duty, which nearly doubles towing capacity to 23,000 pounds. 

Curb weight vs. gross weight

You can quickly and easily how much your vehicle can tow by learning a few terms. Some terms, such as curb weight and gross weight, have meanings that are very similar but will lead to different results when calculating the payload capacity of your trailer. 

Curb weight 

The manufacturer’s posted weight of the vehicle in operational status with all standard equipment. The curb weight doesn’t include payload or people.

Dry weight

Dry weight is similar to curb weight, however it is when the vehicle is void of any fluids.

Gross weight – (or gross vehicle weight)

The weight of the vehicle including payload and people; it is equal to curb weight plus payload plus people.

Gross vehicle weight rating

Often shortened to GVWR, gross vehicle weight rating is the maximum weight the vehicle is rated to carry.

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Gross trailer weight

This is the weight of the trailer plus cargo (including people) plus hitch.

Gross trailer weight rating

The gross trailer weight rating is the maximum load weight that can be safely towed by a vehicle.

Tongue weight

The tongue weight is the load transferred from the trailer onto the tow vehicle, which is usually equal to 10 to 15 percent of the weight of the tow load.

Payload

The payload is the weight of the load being hauled. (Hauling is different from towing. Towing refers to the load that is attached to the rear of a vehicle and hauling refers to the load that is in or on the vehicle.)

Payload capacity

Dictates how much a vehicle can safely haul.

Gross combined weight

The weight of the tow vehicle including passengers and payload plus the weight of the trailer and load.

Gross combined weight rating – (GCWR)

The maximum combined weight that a vehicle can haul and tow.

Once you know the payload capacity of your trailer, you can choose the hitch that is right for you.

Hitch types

Hitches are varied in order to meet specific applications, so find the best hitch for your towing configuration. Hitches are divided into class and type.

A hitch’s class rating determines how much weight it can tow.

Hitch ClassMax Towing Weight
Class I2,000 pounds
Class II3,500 pounds
Class III5,000 pounds
Class IV7,500 pounds

And, the three types of hitches are weight-carrying, weight-distributing and fifth wheel. 

Ball mount hitch

The ball mount is probably the most familiar to most people. It’s simple and straightforward and is what people typically use for everything from towing pop-up trailers to tiny towing two-wheeled trailers. 

A ball mount hitch bolts onto the frame of the tow vehicle. The two components of the ball mount hitch are the receiver hitch and the ball mount. Different ball mount sizes (usually 1 7/8 of an inch, 2.0 inches or 2 5/16 of an inch) correspond to different trailer connection sizes. This is helpful for easily changing out the ball mount hitch, since you don’t need to unbolt receiver hitch and then bolt on a new one; just untighten one ball hitch and tighten on the other one.

Don’t let the ball drop 

Besides using the correct ball size, the other big factor when using a ball mount is the amount of rise or drop between the hitch and the trailer; this will determine whether your trailer will be level once hitched.

Ensure your trailer is level by measuring the distance from the top of the hitch receiver to the ground and, while the trailer is level, by measuring the distance from the top of the inside of the trailer coupler to the ground. Ensure the ground is fairly even. If the trailer coupler is higher off the ground, you will need to lift the ball height. If the trailer coupler is lower than the hitch, than you will need to drop the ball mount. 

When using a ball hitch, back up the tow vehicle so the hitch ball lines up with the coupler on the trailer, lower the coupler until it completely covers the hitch ball, close the latch and insert the retaining pin and then cross the trailer’s right safety chain under the tongue and connect to the left side of the tow vehicle’s hitch (making sure there is enough, but not too much, slack for turning around corners), and repeat the process with the opposite chain. If the trailer has brake and signal lights, hook them up now.

Weight-carrying hitch

Weight-carrying hitches can tow up to 3,500 pounds gross trailer weight. The biggest liability in the hitch’s ability to tow more is its inability to distribute weight from side to side. 

If you wish to tow more than 3,500 pounds, you need a weight-distributing hitch. 

Weight-distributing hitch

The purpose of a weight-distributing hitch is to transfer the tongue weight from the towing vehicle’s bumper to its axles and to the trailer’s axles. Distributing the weight improves trailer handling, especially when turning and braking, which leads to a safer towing experience, as well as less wear and tear on the trailer. 

Weight-distribution hitches allow for towing greater gross trailer weights. For example, a Class IV weight carrying hitches can handle up to 33 percent more trailer weight (2,500 pounds) by adding a weight-distributing system.

Any time the gross trailer weight exceeds half of the gross trailer weight capacity of the tow vehicle, you should use a weight distribution hitch to prevent the tow vehicle from sagging in the rear and lifting in the front. The weight distribution hitch fixes sag by redistributing some of the tongue weight from the rear axles of the tow vehicle to its front axles, and this leads to better handling.

Different types of weight distribution hitches have weight limitations and offer varying degrees of sway control.

Friction bar hitches

Friction bar hitches are the easiest and most cost-effective option but offer relatively mild sway correction. They are for use with lightweight trailers only. Installed onto both sides of the trailer, the system uses tension to prevent the trailer from swaying. Friction bar hitches can’t be used in conjunction with hydraulic brakes and they seriously impede driving in reverse.   

Dual cam hitches

Dual cam hitches are stronger than friction bar hitches and are suitable for lightweight trailers of all types and flatbed trailers. Sliding devices, called cams, extended from the trailer frame to the lift bracket to limit movement between the trailer and the tow vehicle. The dual cam hitch can be used with any type of brakes and allows for easy reverse operation without disengaging the hitch.

Maximize trailer payload capacity

For medium to large trailers, you will need either a two-point hitch or a four-point sway control system. 

Both systems use springs to limit trailer sway. The only difference is the amount of connections. As the names imply, the two-point sway system connects to the trailer’s frame at two points and the four-point sway system connects at four points. Both systems can be used in conjunction with all braking systems and can be operated in reverse without disengaging the system.  

Turning pickups into tractors 

For towing heavier loads, a fifth-wheel hitch may be necessary. A fifth wheel is the type of hitch on the rear of class 7 and class 8 trucks that haul the heaviest loads without a special permit. A fifth wheel hitch is also available for heavy-duty to light-duty trucks. While other hitches could be equipped to a car or SUV, the fifth wheel hitch can only be used with a pickup truck as the hitch drops into the bed of the truck. 

The reason for three kinds of fifth wheels is to provide sufficient clearance between the trailer and the truck. For an eight-foot truck bed, the bed space is large enough that no special amendments need to be made. The sliding hitch moves from front to rear in order to increase clearance. And the sidewinder features a pivot spot 22 inches behind the king pin to provide sufficient clearance. 

Top 10 towing tips

Having the correct equipment is only half the battle when it comes to safe towing; you also need to know towing best practices. 

1. Know your limitations and stay within them.

Two versions of the same model truck can have very different gross trailer weight ratings. Also be aware of the weight limits as determined by the axles and the tires on the trailer. 

2. Properly maintain your trailer.

The components that are the most likely to cause failure are the tires and axle bearings. Damaged or improperly inflated tires are more likely to give out while driving. Damaged axle bearings can lead to axle ends breaking off, which will delay your arrival time and perhaps cause a serious accident. 

3. Check your tires before you load.

Use a tire pressure gauge to check your tires. Inflate the tires as needed. Also check for tire damage. 

4. Optimize weight distribution.

You want the load’s weight to be evenly distributed from side to side and a little heavier at the front compared to the rear. A 60/40 front/rear weight distribution is usually optimal.

5. Tie it down.

Secure your load to the trailer with straps, tarps, and chains. You may need to check legal requirements if you are towing large items, such as heavy equipment. 

6. Hitch it right.

Use the right hitch for your situation. Make sure the hitch is attached to the tow vehicle and the trailer. If it is a weight distribution hitch, making sure that it’s set correctly. Use safety chains.  

7. Check your mirrors.

Make sure you have all the necessary extra mirrors needed for a trailer. Position them so you can see what’s behind the rear of the trailer.

8. Synchronize your brakes.

Larger trailers come equipped with their own brakes. If your trailer has its own brakes, make sure they are in good working order and in snyc with the brakes of the tow vehicle. The brakes on the trailer should be set so they never fully lock up even when applying full pressure to the brakes in the tow vehicle.

9. Light it up.

Larger trailers come equipped with their own turn and brake signals. If your trailer has its own turn and brake signals, ensure they work properly before getting on the road.

10. Change your driving habits.

Trailering increases risk of vehicular accidents, so you can decrease that risk by slowing down and by avoiding driving in reverse and passing other vehicles. Allow extra space when passing other vehicles or when making turns. Slow down when climbing hills in order to decrease the demands put on the engine. Decelerate sooner and downshift when travelling downhill.

By adhering to towing best practices and by having a clear understanding of important terms, such as curb weight, GVWR, and tongue weight, you can determine your trailer payload capacity and tow safely.


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