Wednesday, March 20, 2013

How Much Trailer Can You Tow?

'How much trailer can I tow?' This question, plus variations on it, is one of the most common ones asked by people seeking to buy their first trailer--vintage or otherwise.

It's so common, in fact, that if you Google 'how much trailer can I tow?', you'll find that this question has been asked and answered, in depth, in many places. (And it wouldn't be a bad idea for you to read what is available.)

Enough factors go into this that there isn't a simple, easy answer. But if there were, it would be one you aren't going to like hearing: Less than you probably think. And definitely less than the tow-rating number in your vehicle's owner manual.

Here's why.

* If you're like the majority of American motorists, you chose your current vehicle for reasons other than towing--fuel economy, for instance, or lots of extra room for kids, cargo, and pets. It probably has a four- or six-cylinder engine, modest horsepower, and was designed with lightweight parts and an abbreviated wheelbase. In other words: It was designed for purposes other than towing of a recreational vehicle. Therefore, to employ it for towing is a compromise, at best.

* The tow rating in your manual is only part of the picture, and a deceptive one at that. Tow ratings are derived in 'curb conditions,' meaning that they don't take weather, elevation, bow winds (from passing vehicles), and other effects into consideration. Rule of thumb for this is to reduce the stated tow rating by at least 20 percent; so if your manual says your car or SUV is rated to tow 3,000 lbs., you need to knock that down to 2,400 pounds just for starters.

* You must consider more than just the weight of the trailer. You also must factor in weight of everything you put into the trailer and into the tow vehicle, including food, camping supplies, passengers, even the fuel in your tank. This will add another 500 pounds or more (easily!) by the time you're done loading everything and are ready to leave your driveway. Now your hypothetical tow rating is down to 1,900 pounds or less. (Imagine where you'd be if your manual's tow rating were at 2,000 pounds.)

In a perfect world, we all would get to find our dream trailer first, and then go out and find a tow vehicle that could tow and handle it safely. In the real world, it usually doesn't work this way: We have a driving vehicle to start with, then find a trailer we like and hope we can somehow cobble the two together.

Before you try this, continue to educate yourself. And as you do, beware of the worst thing you can do for your safety's sake, which is to fall into 'yeah, but' mode.

This is when someone with more experience tries to tell you that your tow vehicle is inadequate for the trailer you want, and you reply with some reason (usually financial) to ignore the advice and do what you intend to do--which is to hook too much trailer up to your daily driver and venture out on the road.

That is a good way to ruin your transmission at best, and become the cause of a fatal wreck at worst.

Be safe. That's the first rule from here!


  1. any camp outs in california?

  2. Hi Girl Camping Girl,

    One of my Airstream friends sent me the link to your blog; I hope you don't mind my commenting on your latest entry.

    If you get a chance, have a look at my blog:

    I wrote a series about how much trailer you can tow, only I tow way more than the manufacturer's rating. Sure, you can't just hook a trailer up to any car and expect it to tow, but with some well thought out modifications it's perfectly feasible to ignore that tow rating, especially as it's actually just an arbitrary figure set more to satisfy the marketing people than to reflect the capabilities of the car, especially with things like Minivans and Sedans. Towing is so much more than just a simple weight figure.

    My point in linking to my blog is really to show you that by simply relying on a tow rating as a guide to tow vehicle selection, you exclude so many capable tow cars, especially when dealing with vintage trailers that are so much lighter than their modern cousins.

    Anyway, I hope you get a chance to look at my blog as I think you might appreciate the alternative view.

    Steve (aka Mr UK Toad)

  3. Hi Steve,
    I do appreciate the alternative view. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. We're on the same page here: Tow rating isn't all that it's about. And there are indeed capable tow cars -- but not all cars are capable for what some would-be trailer owners would like them to be able to do.

    Carry on!

  4. Great article should cut and paste it on the sotf chat...girls just don't want to accept the fact that they can't tow with a four cylinder or even a six especially with an automatic transmission...

  5. Bless the enthusiasm and desire to participate. But I do have concerns for some people's safety, especially after seeing photos of multiple wrecks. No one gets to be the exception to the laws of physics.