Truck Buyers Beware: Understand Your Ratings for Safer Towing

Truck Buyers Beware: Understand Your Ratings for Safer Towing 1
“I have no problem pulling my 41-foot fifth-wheel with my three-quarter ton diesel.” Statements similar to this quote occur every day on various social media forums. Unfortunately, these statements are not helpful and could lead someone to purchase a trailer much too big for their tow vehicle. I know this firsthand because I learned this costly lesson in 2009.

For individuals sharing those statements, there is no doubt that their three-quarter-ton truck can tow a large trailer like that “just fine” or with “no problem.” Although the truck may appear to be towing it with no problem, only time will tell if that remains true. I certainly didn’t have any problem towing my new Heartland Cyclone with my new 2008 three-quarter-ton Ram truck.

When it comes to comparing the engine and transmission between most three-quarter-ton and one-ton diesel trucks, there’s little to no difference. The common differences are most likely the axles, springs, tires, rims and gear ratio. Sometimes, the brakes could be different, but that appears to be a rare occurrence.

Occasionally, on various social media forums, someone will ask if their engine of particular size is strong enough to tow a certain large travel trailer. Unfortunately, this really isn’t the best question to be asking.

The reality is, almost any size vehicle, with an adapted towing apparatus connecting to a large and heavy object on wheels, will be able to tow it. Heck, my wife and I watched an old F150 flatbed truck tow my 17,800-pound trailer up a steep slope at the 49er RV Ranch in Columbia, California, and then backed it into an RV space that was also on a short rise. Because of the space restrictions, I couldn’t have accomplished that with my dually.

On YouTube, you can find videos of a Toyota Tundra towing the Space Shuttle, and a VW Touareg towing a 747 jumbo jet. In one episode of the TV show, Top Gear USA, a Ford F150 truck towed a 727 cargo jet around an obstacle course.

The ability to tow something is never the problem.

Safety Concerns

The problem simply may be an individual’s lack of concern for towing safety and vehicle longevity.

Anytime a vehicle’s gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) or the gross combination weight rating (GCWR) is exceeded, there are safety concerns and, over time, excessive wear will contribute to premature failure of vehicle components. Some vehicle manufacturers even state that the warranty could be invalidated if the weight safety ratings are exceeded. Driving an overweight rig may develop into costly liability issues if involved in an accident involving people or another person’s property.

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Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) & Gross Combined Weight Rating (GVCR)

GVWR is primarily specified by the weakest link in the load-bearing components such as the frame, axle, springs, tires, rims and brakes. I have studied the vehicle safety pages at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Website, and it is clear that NHTSA is highly concerned about braking capacity. NHTSA requires that all fully loaded vehicles will safely stop. The brakes must stop the vehicle within a specified distance when the vehicle is at the maximum GVWR. Exceeding the GVWR can result in failure to stop within a safe distance, resulting in serious injury or death.

The trailer’s braking capacity is never included in these guidelines. Trailer brakes are only required to stop the trailer, not the towing combination. Therefore, if the trailer’s kingpin or tongue weight causes the tow vehicle’s GVWR to be exceeded, there is a potential braking hazard.

The GCWR is assigned by manufacturers and includes the powertrain’s capabilities. Any of the powertrain’s components, or combinations thereof, may create the weakest link in the powertrain.

Mechanically, the differential gear ratio is not necessarily a weak link, but rather a ratio of power reduction or an increase to the wheels depending on the ratio. When considering same brand trucks having the same engine and transmission combo, a differential ratio such as 3.42:1 will cause the engine and transmission to work harder than if the ratio was 4.10:1 with the same amount of weight hauled or towed. The tow vehicle will still move the weight regardless of the differential gear ratio. But a lower transmission gear may have to be used to move the weight with a lower gear ratio, therefore increasing engine RPM and fuel cost. It may also increase additional stress on the engine and/or transmission, which increases the risk of premature wear and breakdowns.

When viewing some tow-rating charts, you may note that identical vehicles, with the only mechanical difference being the gear ratio, will have different GCWRs and maximum trailer weight ratings. The Ram trailer towing chart below provides a good example of this.

Truck Buyers Beware: Understand Your Ratings for Safer Towing 2

Know Your Facts & Do The Math

The important thing to remember when someone states that their truck tows it “just fine with no problems” is to be cautious of that statement. The simple act of towing it, is no proof that the tow vehicle is not exceeding weight safety ratings, nor does it prove another family of a different size can do the same. Similar to finger prints being different for every person, not all towing situations are the same for every individual or family.

A good example would be if two families purchased identical tow vehicles. Family A consists of two adults only, while family B consists of two adults, three children ages 8 to 16 and one German shepherd. Obviously, the total weight in family B’s truck will weigh significantly more. The heavier weight of family B’s truck decreases the available payload, therefore reducing the amount left for tongue or pin weight. Total gross vehicle weight (GVW) directly affects the towing capacity. Every auto manufacturer warns owners to subtract the additional vehicle weight that is above the curb weight from the published max trailer weight ratings. (See the chart below.)

Rather than being too quick to answer “yes” to someone’s towing capability question, all the right questions must be asked and answered in order to know how much weight a tow vehicle can realistically tow.

  1. What is the tow vehicle’s GCWR?
  2. What is the tow vehicle’s GVWR?
  3. What is the scaled weight of the tow ready vehicle (GVW)?

Knowing how to use the answers to the questions above is the critical issue. There are two calculators online that are useful and will aid an RVer in matching a tow vehicle and trailer. One such calculator that provides results for fifth-wheel and travel trailers simultaneously is the SAE J2807-compliant mobile-friendly, web-based app, RV Tow Check. The other website has individual towing calculators and is called Changin’ Gears.

Truck Buyers Beware: Understand Your Ratings for Safer Towing 3

Towing Over 10,000 Pounds

Do you currently own a three-quarter-ton truck and are you towing a fifth-wheel trailer that has a GVWR more than 10,000 pounds? If you do, I highly recommend you have your rig weighed if you haven’t already done so. Escapees RV Club’s SmartWeigh program has locations across the southern U.S. as well as pop-up sites at various rallies and gatherings across North America.

The statistics provided by the RV Safety and Education Foundation state that 60 percent of all tow vehicles exceed at least one weight safety rating. Only you can ensure that you’re not one of the owners with an overloaded RV. If you find that you are, consider the options on how to eliminate the overloaded condition.

Truck Buyers Beware: Understand Your Ratings for Safer Towing 4

Crunching the Numbers

Three months after I purchased my new trailer, I traded in my Ram 2500 for a new Ram one-ton dually. That cost me an extra $15,000 I hadn’t planned to spend. I became well aware of the potentially unsafe towing conditions after I weighed my rig and crunched the numbers. The hard realities grew as I discovered that, by the time I loaded my toy hauler for full-time travel, the 2500’s weight safety ratings would be exceeded by a significant margin.

If you have any concerns about towing safely, one of the best actions you can perform is weighing your rig to ensure you’re not exceeding the weight safety ratings. And if it’s been more than a year since you last weighed, or if you added some new stuff without getting rid of old stuff, it’s time to weigh again. I don’t know about you, but I’m married to a Tracy (Lucille Ball) clone in the movie, The Long, Long Trailer.

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Truck Buyers Beware: Understand Your Ratings for Safer Towing 5
Truck Buyers Beware: Understand Your Ratings for Safer Towing 6


David W Gray

David W. Gray has traveled over four years as a full-time RVer. After experiencing newbie problems, he quickly learned important lessons. Frustrated at the limited, simplified RV weighing techniques available online, he created a Website geared for both the novice and the well-seasoned RV traveler. Due to Gray’s strong analytical research and safety training skills developed during his years of military and other federal government services, this positioned him to develop realistic, user-friendly RV safety products and to provide important RV safety information.

4 Responses

  1. Great article. I’m also scared by those who say their truck can tow their trailer “just fine” or with “no problem”. That usually means they haven’t checked all the items you note.

    I think one of the problems is the “maximum trailer weight” ratings that truck manufacturers publish. That’s what too many people site.

    When we started full-timing, the predecessor to RV Tow Check saved me from buying too small a truck for our 5th wheel. The Ram dually we bought made towing comfortable. Not only were we towing safely, but cross winds and 18 wheelers on 2 lane roads didn’t require me to “saw” the steering wheel, to keep on the road.

    Thanks for the article!

  2. Doing the Math is quite crucial to know how much weight a tow vehicle can realistically tow rather than answering it directly. There are questions that need to be considered as well not just acting things aggressively. Appreciate this article! That’s why it needs to have a professional to get things done

  3. Well-written post. Worth the share. I am pretty sure this would help readers especially those who are new to towing services and how it works. Thanks!!

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