The RV industry is booming during the COVID Pandemic. Many people are first-time RV buyers and looking for smaller campers and trailers. Please note, most dealerships won’t be able to help you whether you can tow or not with your current vehicle. Their goal will be to sell you a trailer. You will have to do your own research or you will end up buying something that will sit on your driveway unless you upgrade your truck as well. Now let’s get into it:
Camper Towing Basics
How much your vehicle can tow will depend on the type of vehicle and the options on the car or truck. A general rule of thumb is:
- 1500 pounds for a front-wheel-drive car or small SUV
- 3000 pounds for a mid-size all-wheel-drive SUV or pickup
- 5000 pounds or more for a full-size SUV or half-ton pickup truck
The weight limits can vary by large margins depending on how the car or truck is equipped and it is up to you to confirm the limits for your car or truck.
The weight of the camper is important so you do not damage the towing vehicle. Overloading the car or truck is especially dangerous because not only are the front tires used for steering, but they do 75% of your stopping. When the weight of the vehicle and whatever you are towing is improperly loaded, you lose your steering control and your ability to stop effectively. Do not forget, You are NOT just towing but you need to stop too! Your vehicle’s drivetrain and suspension are also under huge stress. By properly understanding your vehicle’s capabilities you can prevent costly vehicle repairs.
There are a few important terms to know when calculating towing capability and camper weights.
- Payload is the weight of all of the gear, and passengers plus the tongue weight of the camper. This does not include vehicle weight.
- Gross vehicle weight is the total weight of the car, passengers, gear, and fuel plus the tongue weight of an attached camper or camper.
- Curb weight is the weight of the vehicle without any payload or passengers. (You can calculate this using gross vehicle weight minus payload).
- Combined gross vehicle weight is the total weight the manufacturer has determined the vehicle can handle including the vehicle, all passengers, cargo, and fuel plus attached campers.
- Max camper weight is the most amount of weight that a vehicle can tow.
- Tongue weight is the amount of weight the tongue will put on the hitch.
- Max tongue weight is the maximum amount of weight that can be put on the hitch and is included in the max payload. This can vary depending on the type of hitch being used.
- Dry weight is how much the camper weighs without adding any water, gas, or gear.
- Max camper payload is the maximum amount of gear, water, and gas that can be safely carried in the camper.
- Camper Gross vehicle weight is the total weight of the camper with all contents and this can be calculated by adding dry weight and max camper payload.
How Big of a Camper Can I Tow?
You need to start by calculating how much your vehicle can tow. You should be able to find this information in the owner’s manual. Vehicles that have multiple engine options, wheelbases, cab styles, and/or final gear ratio options will have a chart with the combinations and how much each will tow. Read these charts carefully. Some charts will be sorted by combined gross weight or the gross vehicle weight as a determining factor as well as wheelbase, engine, and axle ratio. The towing capacity of a base vehicle versus one that is properly equipped can be several thousand pounds. Knowing how your vehicle is equipped is a major factor in figuring out how much it can tow.
What Does Properly Equipped Mean?
When you purchase a travel trailer or 5th wheel, you can get options with regard to tow packages. These options are usually listed as a tow package, heavy-duty suspensions package, or a max towing package, The packages will include:
- transmission oil coolers to protect the transmission under heavy-duty loads
- heavy-duty shocks to help you control the vehicle under heavy load
- hitch receivers
Some vehicles will have multiple tow package options. An HD or Max towing package could include things like a larger gas tank, HD rims, upgraded axles, and camper brake controllers.
Larger gas tanks are convenient to have on a road trip. The last thing you want to do is to constantly pull over to stop and fill up your gas tank when hauling a camper. Not only is this inconvenient, but not all gas stations can accommodate large campers. Having extra room in the gas tank gives you more peace of mind that you can get where you are going and make better choices about where to pull over.
Axle ratios will impact how the vehicle tows. Taller gears like 3.73 or 4.10 will have the engine revving higher while going down the highway for more horsepower. This limits downshifting when going up hills. The taller gears also improve acceleration for merging on the highways but they are not very fuel-efficient. Short gears like the 3.15 or 3.29 will get better mileage but will tow less weight and you may have to run in a lower gear when going down the highway.
Is My Car Properly Equipped For Towing?
If you already own the vehicle or need to buy one this can be a little tricky. Look at the back of your vehicle and if there is not a hitch already installed then it will likely not have a tow package. This means it will be limited to towing the lowest possible camper weight. If you do have a hitch, you still need to confirm what the tow package is. Sometimes a hitch is installed separately to a package, so a hitch does not automatically mean you can tow.
You can also check the sill plate. Open the driver’s door and look for the silver manufacturer’s plate on the door frame. On this plate, you will find information such as tire pressure, color codes, interior codes, and the manufacture date. It will also list front axle weight, rear axle weight, and gross vehicle weight information.
So, How Much Can I Tow?
It is highly recommended that you give yourself a buffer on the max tow weight. For example, if our truck can tow 5,000 pounds, then your camper should not exceed 4,000 pounds. This buffer will make sure you stay safe in case you encounter any wind or weather that would require a little extra power. In addition to the weight of the camper, you also need to consider other factors that can limit how big your camper can be. These factors include the max tongue weight, how many passengers will be in the towing vehicle, and will there be anything in the trunk or bed while you’re towing.
The max tongue weight is the factor many forget to calculate. If you have a truck that can tow 11,700 pounds and has a tongue weight of 1,220 pounds with a weight distributing hitch, you would use the 10-15% rule to calculate that an 11,700-pound camper will have a tongue weight between 1,170 lbs and 1,700 lbs. This would mean that the truck is limited to 1,220 pounds on the hitch so an 11,700-camper is likely to max out the tongue weight.
You should stick with the safer option of a camper that is 8,100 pounds that would have a tongue weight of between 810 and 1,220 pounds. Make sure the tongue weight of your camper is included in the max payload of your vehicle. So if the max payload of the truck is 1,865 pounds and you max out the tongue at 1,220 pounds, that leaves only 645 lbs of payload for passengers and gear in the truck. This works out to only be about 160 lbs per person. When you consider the average family size as a family of four with mom, dad, two teenagers, and a 100-pound lab, this could easily get to 800 pounds. You have already used more of the available payload.
The next factor to consider is the frontal surface area of the camper. Travel campers and campers are not always the most aerodynamic of vehicles and although manufacturers have worked to improve aerodynamics, sloping campers and rounded corners eat up headroom on the inside. You can find the max frontal service area the camper can have in your owner’s manual.
- For small cars, it could be less than 25 feet (5 by 5).
- For trucks and larger SUVs, it could be as high as 60 feet (7.5 by 8).
- The aerodynamics of the camper or camper will play a big role in factoring in this. A sloping front is better than a flat front and will allow for a larger total surface area because its drag will be less.
How Much Does My Camper Weigh?
This is much simpler than figuring out how much the truck can tow. Look on the front driver-side corner of the camper and you should find a sticker with the tire information and the camper weight. The weight listed here will most likely be the gross vehicle weight which is the maximum the camper plus everything in or on the camper. This is the weight you want to use when matching a camper to a tow vehicle.
Be careful not to use the shipping weight (the weight used by the manufacturer to ship the camper to the dealer), or the dry weight of the camper (weight before adding any water, propane, supplies, bedding, and gear).
If the camper has a payload of 2,000 pounds, then that’s how much stuff you can pack into it. The heaviest thing will always be water. If you travel with water in your freshwater tank, grey and black tanks, you need to remember that water weighs 8 pounds per gallon. Water can also have the unique property of being a live load, which will change the balance of the camper.
An empty fresh tank and half-full black and grey tanks will give the back of the camper more leverage, causing it to sway more. If all of the tanks are full, then the camper will be more balanced as the full tanks will slosh around much less.
Estimated Gear Weights
Below are some estimates for the weight of the most common gear included in campers. These are weights you need to consider when it comes to the calculating payload.
- Full holding tanks: 1000 lbs (actual 920 lbs)
- Propane tanks: 100 lbs (actual is closer to 80 lbs)
- Battery: 65 lbs.
- Clothes and bedding: 80 lbs (20 pounds per person)
- Food: 75 lbs
- Camera gear and electronics: 50 lbs
- Tools: 50 lbs
- Chairs, pots, pans, and other camping gear: 250 lbs
- Fishing gear: 50 lbs (150 lbs more if I bring the electric motor)
This would bring the total gear weight to between 1,720 and 1,870 lbs.
Towing Capacity Estimates
The vehicles listed here are assumed to have the tow package if available. Some of the campers listed below will also require a weight-distribution hitch, sway control, or fifth-wheel hitches. You will need to check these factors before buying a camper. ½ ton trucks can tow a fifth wheel but not all bed sizes can accommodate a fifth wheel.
The examples provided are for campers that can be towed by typical vehicles. Your particular car may tow more or less and it is your responsibility to confirm your vehicle’s capabilities. There are countless floor plans so hopefully, this list will jump-start your search.
Ultra Lightweight Camper
Typical Car: –Honda CRV all-wheel drive
Towing Capacity 1500 lbs
You could tow something like the Scout Olympic, hard side, non-slide, or carry a short bed truck camper
Dry weight, 1,165 pounds + 4.9 gallons fresh, 40.9 pounds + 2x 5-pound full propane tank, 10 pounds + battery, included in dry weight + stuff, 500 pounds = 1,715.5 pounds
Typical Car: Midsize SUV like the Chevy Equinox
Max Towing: 3500 lbs
You could tow something like the Bigfoot RV, hard-side, non-slide, wet bath, or carry a short bed truck camper
Dry weight, 2,061 pounds + 32 gallons fresh, 266.9 pounds + 6 gallon water heater, 50 pounds + 2x 20-pound full propane tanks, 40 pounds + 2 batteries, 130 pounds + stuff, 500 pounds = 3,047.9 pounds
Typical Car: Standard-size SUV like the Ford explorer
Towing Capacity: 5000 pounds
You could tow something like the Arctic Fox 1150, single-slide, dry bath, or carry a long bed truck camper
Dry weight, 3,953 pounds + 53 gallons fresh, 442 pounds + 6 gallon full hot water heater, 50 pounds + 2x 30-pound full propane tanks, 54 pounds + 2 batteries, 130 pounds + stuff, 500 pounds = 5,129 pounds
Typical Car: Large SUVs like the Suburban.
Towing Capacity: Over 6,000 to 8,000 pounds, when equipped with the tow package
Medium Heavy Campers
Typical Car: ½ ton pickups
Towing Capacity: Over 9,000 pounds, if you have a half-ton with the tow package or HD payload
Typical Car: ¾ ton pickups
Towing Capacity: Most ¾ ton pickups can tow 12,000-15,000 lbs. The gas models can generally tow between 9,500 and 15,000 pounds. Diesel models tow up to 14,500 18,000 pounds.
Extra Heavy Campers
Typical Car: 1 ton pickups
Towing Capacity: Between 22,000 and 34,000 pounds when equipped with the dual rear wheels
Once you know the weight information for the travel trailer or 5th wheel you like, you can calculate how much weight you have to tow. If you are choosing a camper to buy, this guide will help you match the right camper to the vehicle you currently have for towing.
If you already have a camper, you can use this to calculate if the vehicle you have will be able to tow the camper. It is important that you get a camper that meets your budget and preferences, but it is more important that you get the right match between vehicle and camper. Do the weight calculations first to narrow down your search for your new trailer.