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Not every track-day superstar can also be a daily driver. Sometimes, when your rubber isn’t street legal and your headlights have been x-ed out with gaffer tape, a trailer becomes a necessity, as does a vehicle to pull that trailer. But the proper way to tow and all the metrics involved, aren’t covered anywhere in your driver’s education handbook. 

For most, it’s on-the-job training, meaning you purchase something that requires a trailer and you learn by doing. Although that’s workable for some, many others want to know the dynamics, the physics, and the variables associated with a new task. One such variable is towing capacity, an often-highlighted number rattled off in every new truck commercial. To the general public, however, it can be meaningless without context and education. 

That’s why we’re here today, to welcome you to your secondary schooling: Car Bible schooling. Welcome, everyone. Now, are you ready to learn everything there is to know about towing and towing capacity? Then let’s get after it. 

What Is Towing Capacity?

Towing capacity is simply the weight your vehicle is capable of pulling. Although the figure depends on the vehicle in question, it’s measured in pounds — a 5,000-pound tow limit, for instance — and provides a solid point of reference for when you’re looking at trailer weights. 

A Nissan Pathfinder tows two four wheelers.
Certain SUVs have significant towing capacities, as well. Photo: Nissan

How Is Towing Capacity Measured? 

It’s pretty simple math, really. All you need are two figures: your vehicle’s curb weight and its gross combined vehicle weight rating (GCVWR). 

Curb weight is your vehicle’s full weight, including all necessary fluids, yourself, your family, any and all pets residing in the vehicle’s cabin, plus that leftover McDonald’s burger your toddler dropped behind the seat. GCVWR is the combination of the vehicle’s gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) and that of the trailer you’re attempting to tow.

Take the two figures and subtract your vehicle’s curb weight from its GCVWR. Presto, you’ve got its towing capacity. You can find your vehicle’s towing capacity, GVWR, GCVWR, standard hitch rating, and all its other important metrics in that dusty old owner’s manual you have shoved into the back of your glovebox.

tl;dr: Take your vehicle’s curb weight and subtract it from its GCVWR. 

Other Towing-Capacity Variables

Towing is a fairly simple task once everything is ready to go, but there are several variables you’ll need to consider before hooking up a trailer, loading it with a handful of motorcycles or track cars, and heading off into the sunset. Let’s discuss what else you need to know. 

Hitch Weight and Ratings

Hitch weight is the amount of weight a trailer’s hitch can safely handle, as not all hitches can handle the same weight or load. Hitches fall into different rating categories based on how much weight they can handle. 

Class 1: Gross tow weight: 2,000 pounds; tow weight: 200 pounds

Class 2: Gross tow weight: 3,500 pounds; tow weight: 525 pounds

Class 3: Gross tow weight: 8,000 pounds; tow weight: 800 pounds

Class 4: Gross tow weight: 12,000 pounds; tow weight: 1,200 pounds

Class 5: Gross tow weight: 20,000 pounds; tow weight: 2,000 pounds

It’s important to check the hitch rating before purchasing one for your vehicle and trailer or attaching anything to it. When you get it wrong, it can lead to some serious consequences

A Ford Maverick tows a personal watercraft.
Sight lines and visibility is a major factor when towing smaller items. Photo: Ford

Tongue Weight and Loading

Have you ever seen a vehicle towing a trailer on the highway that resembled a fish on the line? Was it slapping back and forth and threatening everyone around it? Yeah, the driver improperly loaded the trailer and screwed up the trailer’s tongue weight. 

Often abbreviated to TW, tongue weight is the force that a trailer’s tongue exerts on the ball hitch. The ideal load on the tongue should only be 10 to 15 percent of the trailer’s total weight. To accomplish that percentage, the trailer needs to be loaded properly.

If the tongue weight is too light, you’ll get dangerous trailer sway. Too much tongue weight will result in the vehicle’s back end dropping, which impacts braking, visibility, and handling. For more visual learners, the video below shows you how improper trailer loading can affect your trailer’s dynamics. 

How To Safely Tow

Towing can be dangerous. If you tow incorrectly, improperly load your trailer, or fail to do a sound safety check, things can quickly go sideways. It’s important to always tow with caution, so let’s talk about how to tow safely. 

Safety Check

This seems obvious, and it should be. You should go over your trailer and vehicle before you head off. That means checking to ensure your safety chains are properly attached, the cotter pin is in place, your load is secure (ratchet straps are tight, load is properly distributed, fluids are placed so they don’t slosh around), your trailer is in good working condition, the tires aren’t out of spec, the trailer’s brake and reverse lights work, and your vehicle can handle the load. 

Don’t Speed

You’ve got an extra couple thousand pounds behind you. That’s a lot of extra momentum you have to halt, so your required stopping distance is increased. Speeding makes all that worse, so just keep to the speed limit and give yourself more time to come to a complete stop. 

Practice 

If you’ve never driven with a trailer before, haven’t done it in a while, or even do it semi-regularly, it’s good to practice whenever the opportunity presents itself. Find a quiet road or empty parking lot and practice reverse, loading, and driving off. Depending on the size and weight of the trailer, you may notice a difference in the way your car handles and feels with different trailers. 

Keep Your Distance

When towing a trailer, your stopping distance increases dramatically, so it’s important to leave much more room between you and the car in front than you usually would. This will give you plenty of time to react if the driver ahead suddenly slams on the brakes.

Load Your Trailer Correctly

We can’t emphasize this enough: Never tow more than your vehicle is equipped to handle. If the towing capacity is not enough for the task at hand, borrow or rent an appropriate vehicle for the load. Exceeding your towing capacity can lead to braking issues, decoupling, and swaying. It also risks damaging your car by putting excess stress on components such as the transmission.

A GMC Sierra tows a box trailer.
Those with big towing needs choose full-size pickup trucks. Photo: GMC

The Questionnaire 

Car Bibles answers all your burning questions.

Q. Can You Exceed Your Vehicle’s Towing Capacity?

A. Yes. You just might not go anywhere as it’ll be too heavy, or you could break a lot of your vehicle’s components.

Q. How Do You Tell If I’m Over My Vehicle’s Tow Capacity?

A. Check the stats on the trailer and what you’re hauling. Compare them to your vehicle’s tow capacity. It’ll also be pretty evident in what your rear suspension looks like. 

Q. Can a Lift or Lowering Kit Affect Towing? 

A. You betcha. Although it won’t affect your vehicle’s tow capacity, it will affect how you distribute the trailer’s weight, how it hooks up to your vehicle, and the speeds available to you. 

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