Tow Story: Understanding Tow Vehicle Ratings

You dream of all the adventures ahead. The roads less—and most—traveled. Perhaps you’ve already bought your trailer or fifth-wheel, or maybe you’re still shopping for it. Regardless, you’re intent on making sure you get the perfect vehicle to pull it. That means figuring out all those tow ratings and confusing acronyms.

Relax. We’ve got you. Read on for a helpful look at what all the ratings and acronyms entail.

Welcome to the jungle.

You don’t have to look far to see just how many potential options you have before you in terms of tow vehicles—nearly 1,000 vehicles total when you consider all the different configurations available in 2019. 

Even smaller vehicles are now becoming more capable of towing, while trailer manufacturers have introduced newer lightweight designs that don’t require heavy-duty trucks to haul. 

When it comes to tow ratings, key components that affect the ratings include truck cab sizes and bed lengths, engine types, transmissions, and axle ratios. Other components like wheels, tires, suspension equipment, and fluid coolers also factor in.

So, how much vehicle do you need to tow your trailer?

KEY NUMBERS FOR TOWING CAPACITY

First, it’s important to realize that the maximum towing capacity published in vehicle brochures is just an estimate. The specific towing capacity depends on how the vehicle is configured and equipped.

Specific weight ratings and limits are published in your vehicle owner’s manual. You need to find two key numbers: 

Gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR): The maximum amount your vehicle can weigh, including passengers, cargo, and the “tongue” weight of the trailer you’re hauling. 

Tongue weight is the amount of pressure the trailer puts on the tow vehicle’s trailer hitch or the fifth-wheel. It varies based on trailer design and how you distribute its load.

Gross combination weight rating (GCWR): The maximum weight of both the vehicle and trailer, plus the passengers and cargo in both.

WATCH YOUR WEIGHT

Some vehicles also list axle weight limits in addition to GVWR and GCWR. Each of these numbers are maximums, so stay well below them.

When you see towing limits, you’ll also see the words “when properly equipped” next to them. That means having the proper trailer hitch, as well as the right engine cooling and braking systems. 

HITCH CLASSES

Whether you’re towing a travel trailer or a fifth-wheel, a properly rated hitch that’s adjusted correctly creates a much safer towing experience. 

Hitch hardware is rated from Class I to Class V, with specific trailer weight ratings applied to each class, as follows:

Class I hitches
Class I hitches can tow trailers with a Gross Trailer Weight (GTW) of up to 2,000 pounds, with up to 200 pounds of hitch weight. They’re limited to small utility trailers or attaching bike racks or cargo carriers.

Class II hitches
Class II hitches can tow very lightweight RVs like teardrops and small folding camping trailers. They can handle up to 3,500 pounds, with a hitch weight of 350 pounds. These hitches are commonly used on minivans and small SUVs.

Class III hitches
A Class III hitch can handle up to 8,000 pounds as a weight-carrying (WC) hitch or 12,000 pounds as a weight-distributing (WD) hitch. WD hitches use spring bars to distribute the load equally to both axles of the tow vehicle, while some of the weight also shifts to the trailer axles. Distributing the load more evenly restores the tow vehicle’s ride height. 

Class IV hitches
Class IV hitches are rated up to 10,000 pounds as a WC hitch with a 1,000-pound hitch weight. They’re rated at 14,000 pounds as a WD hitch with a 1,400-pound hitch weight, depending on the make and model. 

Class V hitches
Heavy-duty haulers get Class V hitches with a maximum WC or WD rating of up to 18,000 pounds and 2,500 pounds of hitch weight for a 21/2 -inch opening. Class V hitches with a 3-inch opening are rated at 21,000 pounds and 3,000 pounds of hitch weight.

THE BEST TOW TRUCKS

Now that we’ve explored ratings and their typical loads, we’ll take a brief look at the towing capacities of different types of trucks. As you compare trucks, carefully check the specs because the engine, gearing, length, axles, cab style, bed style, and towing package all affect the vehicle’s towing capacity. For example, a souped-up Ram 3500 can tow north of 30,000 pounds, but that capacity drops to about 11,000 pounds without the right features and options.

Mid-size/compact

Weekend warriors love pulling small campers with compact trucks that have maximum towing capacities ranging from 5,000 to 7,700 pounds.

Segment includes:

  • Honda Ridgeline
  • Nissan Frontier
  • Toyota Tacoma
  • Ford Ranger
  • Chevrolet Colorado

 

Full-size

Popular with consumers, full-size trucks have towing capacities from 9,740 to 13,200 pounds.

Segment includes:

  • Nissan Titan
  • Toyota Tundra
  • Chevrolet Silverado 1500
  • GMC Sierra 1500
  • Ram 1500
  • Ford F-150

 

Heavy-duty

Look at these trucks if you’re hauling a fifth-wheel, as they tow from 12,760 to 18,500 pounds.

Segment includes:

  • Nissan Titan XD
  • Ram 2500
  • GMC Sierra 2500HD
  • Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD
  • Ford Super Duty F-250

 

Ultra-duty

Extra-large fifth-wheels may demand ultra-duty trucks with a maximum towing capacity from 20,000 to 32,000 pounds. While they’re powerful, they’re going to be painful at the pump and likely won’t ride as well as their smaller brethren.

Segment includes:

  • GMC Sierra 3500HD
  • Chevrolet Silverado 3500HD
  • Ram 3500
  • Ford Super Duty F-350

So, there you have it. We’ve explored the jungle of GVWR, GCWR, hitches, weight ratings, and truck categories. And you’ve emerged unscathed!

We hope you found this article helpful. For even more insights, check out The Ultimate RV Towing Guide. You’ll get an even better view of the towing landscape—no binoculars required.

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