One of the biggest decisions behind getting a travel trailer vs a motorhome is your ability to tow. There are a lot of things to consider when it comes to towing, thus a lot of things to consider when considering one option over the other.
- Weight of travel trailer (TT) being towed and its gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR)
- Towing capacity of tow vehicle (TV)
- Tongue weight of trailer
- Payload capacity of TV
- GVWR, GAWR of TV
So, for those of you that really want to know the tech, science, mechanics and all that jazz, here’s Jeff’s summary of each and what they mean.
Before we jump in, it’s important to share that Jeff is not new to towing. He got his first small boat in 1991, upgraded to a 6000lb boat/trailer in 2003, towed many cars across the country, and never had an issue with our current TV.
Our current vehicle is a 2016 Expedition EL with Tow Package.
So now let’s dive in with the details.
Item #1: Weight of Trailer
The weight of your trailer will be listed on a sticker on the side of the trailer. This is the weight if the trailer is completely empty as it rolled off the assembly line. Expect this weight to go up at least 500 pounds after you add propane, dishes, clothes, towels, food, and whatever else you add to the TT. Then after a few days of camping, you will add in more weight as water and other ???? has gone into the black and grey tanks. How much depends on the size of your tanks.
You will have to tow this new “full” weight to a dump site if you are boondocking or do not have a sewer connection at your RV park campsite. However, if you do not add more freshwater during your stay, you are basically moving weight from your freshwater tank to your other tanks plus a little extra ????.
Our manufacturer sticker on the side of our new TT showed a weight of 7296 pounds. We knew it was important to have the exact weights of our TV and TT so we had downloaded and setup the CAT Scale app (not an affiliate) on our phone. Without even having to leave the vehicle, we were able to weigh our TV and TT.
Its weight showed 7859 (trailer axle weight plus tongue weight) with just about 8 gallons of fresh water (enough for using the toilet as we travel). That means we have added about 563 pounds of cargo. The weight of those dishes, grill, chairs, and tools add up quickly!
According to the sticker, our trailer has a GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating) of 9495. We can still put a more into our trailer and be safely under its limits. Remember this extra room can quickly disappear with liquids such as water which will weigh 400 pounds if you have a full 50-gallon tank.
If the black and grey tanks are full on our TT that would be a total additional of 1000 or more pounds and there goes that extra room. Towing with full tanks would likely never happen unless we are boondocking.
Item #2: Towing Capacity of Tow Vehicle
The towing capacity of your TV can often be found on its hitch or online if not there. Our TV hitch has 2 ratings showing how effective a weight distributing hitch (WDH) is. When using a WDH, you can tow 9200lbs but only 6000lb without a WDH. Not all vehicles will have both ratings listed.
We are under are trailer towing maximum with our 7859lb TT when nearly empty but that doesn’t give us a lot of cushion. And we have learned that having cushion makes everything tow easier. So, even if the salesman tells you that your vehicle can tow the travel trailer you are looking to buy do your own homework and do not think that you can go right up under maximum and be OK. While nothing will break or bend, it may mean that you have to white knuckle drive when there are winds or semis sucking you in as they go by. Trust me, even with my experience towing trailers with boats and cars, this isn’t fun!
Item #3: Tongue Weight
The tongue weight is the amount of weight pushing down on your TV hitch. Rule of thumb says this should be about 10 to 15% of your TT weight. Too little and you will get a lot of trailer sway. Too much and you can overload your tow vehicle, stress its rear tires, and push the tow vehicle around.
The tongue weight is added onto your vehicle payload reducing how much cargo (people, animals, and things) you can carry. A weight distributing hitch (WDH) can reduce this tongue weight by redistributing the weight back on the trailer axles and keeping everything closer to level as you tow.
Have you’ve ever seen those trucks or SUV’s that look like they are dragging their tail end while towing a trailer? That’s what it looks like when you tow without a WDH.
You can get a WDH with sway control as well. The sway control helps reduce the sway of the trailer and both are highly recommended except for the very lightest of trailers.
There are a few different ways to get your tongue weight however doing some math after having our TV and TT weighed, we came out with a tongue weight of 919 pounds. That’s 11.69% of trailer weight so, as a percentage, we at a very good spot. However, that is only 1 pound below the maximum tongue weight of our tow vehicle. And, if you recall, having a cushion makes everything easier.
So, this means we need to get a better tow vehicle and make sure we store whatever we can farther back in the TT. That is sometimes hard to do since the main storage area is the large pass-through located at the front of the TT where we put all our big stuff.
Item #4: Payload Capacity
The payload capacity of your TV is found on a sticker in the door frame. This is the total amount of everything you can safely carry within your TV. But remember, you must subtract your TT tongue weight from this amount.
We tend to like our creature comforts (power seats, heated/cooled seats, leather, power mirrors, etc.) and our 2016 Expedition EL has them all.
If you have a TV with lots of options and comforts, you will find that this payload capacity is lower than what you expect for a truck or large SUV. It doesn’t give you a lot of room to carry things once the trailer is connected.
For our TV, we have a payload of 1439. Subtracting the tongue weight of 919 that leaves 520 pounds for cargo which includes people and your favorite travel animal(s). It’s a good thing our favorite travel animal, Oreo, only has 3 legs, we needed that extra 5 lbs!
Item #5: GVWR, GAWR of TV
Along the same lines as the payload of your TV is the GVWR of a TV. We have a GVWR (again found on the TV door sticker) of 7760. We weighed in at 7560 on the CAT scale giving us barely enough room with only 200 pounds under the TV GVWR.
The GAWR is the gross axle weight rating and is the amount that each axle can hold.
Here’s the thing. We planned. We checked. We thought that we found a trailer than met our needs and that our tow vehicle could tow it even if we were closer to the limit than we would like. But what we found was that we were over our TV rear GAWR.
The rear axle had 4440lb of weight on it and our TV maximum is 4300 so we were 140 pounds over. Who would have known this was a problem? Ok, I’m sure someone with way more experience than we have would, but we thought we had done our research.
It wasn’t sagging more than normal but the WDH prevented this from happening to some extent. We certainly would have never known if we didn’t get everything weighed. This proved to be a very well spent $12 and very easy to do. Luckily we had a lot of cargo in our TV, including the generator. We opted to leave that home for now and moved what we could into the TT. We also moved everything as far forward in TV as possible. We plan to add a carrier to the back of TT for the generator so look for details on that in a future posting.
So, all the best laid plans can go awry. The numbers we learned explain why towing with our TV is a little scary when going too fast (over 70MPH seems to be the magic don’t exceed number unless very windy then 60-65MPH is more comfortable), high winds, or the semis flying by. This is with a WDH with sway control. We are too close to the maximums in many areas and the short wheelbase of even a large SUV doesn’t help. It is a comfy, no make that a great, ride which unfortunately translates into lacking towing stability even to an experienced driver.
Even with an expert driver, once you start getting close to the vehicle limits, you begin to see why those numbers matter. This is especially true with the amount of wind a TT catches since it is just a big box or kite behind you.
We’ve continued to research since making our purchase and realized that a rule of thumb seems to be don’t exceed 75% of the TV towing capacity. This helps to keep things comfortable as you drive down the road. With us being at near 87% of just the towing capacity of the TV with a loaded TT and near 100% on some other factors, it all adds up to what is sometimes that dreaded white knuckling experience.
We (well Jeff mainly) had thought we had thought of everything but there are so many variables to think of and figure out. And don’t think you’ll show up with your TV to an RV dealer and they are going to go over any of this with you. If they even check your hitch towing capacity, that likely will be it and “SURE, you are good to tow this trailer”. They will totally miss 1 or more other factors that you are exceeding in your TV.
Many of these numbers are hard to know until you actually get your trailer and weigh it. However, you can certainly take your tow vehicle to a CAT scale or other truck scale to get an idea of how much you can add to it and make some rough estimates to trailer weighs empty and after you load it up with all the good stuff we love to camp with to see how you will be with your TV.
Spend the $12 now and then again once you get your TT. You can save $1000s later in either damage to your TV or having to upgrade your TV. If you have a family of 5 and a big dog that fits in your large SUV or 1/2 ton truck, just know that you likely cannot pull a trailer that is large enough to fit all of them due to payload or axle ratings.
For us, well, an upgrade to a 3/4 ton truck will be in our future as much as we will hate to say goodbye to our SUV. The ability to travel safely and easily far outweigh our love for this particular vehicle as we embark more on this new adventure in our life.