What Exactly is Payload Capacity?

Why yes, that second BBQ lunch plate does affect your payload.

byJonathon Klein| UPDATED Oct 20, 2022 11:55 AM
What Exactly is Payload Capacity?

As with ancient hieroglyphics, a pickup truck’s payload metrics can seem indecipherable; a language of numerical values lost to time. There's GVWR, GCVWR, payload and towing rates, not to mention all the horsepower, torque, max torque, max range, towing range, payload range, and a few others Ford, Chevy, RAM, and others haven't yet thought of. It's a mess of numbers that'd make even the most ardent math lover cry. 

Most folks just look away when they get the brochure with such specs from the dealership. They're happy in their ignorance as it means they don't have to retake high school algebra. Those numbers, though, the ones you're happily forgetting about, they're important. One of the most important numbers you should pay attention to is payload capacity, as it could mean the difference between a working truck and one that's off to the scrapyard

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Thankfully, you have The Drive to unravel the Rosetta Stone of truck numbers and explain in somewhat all right English what your truck’s payload capacity actually is. Ready to learn the lingo?

What Is Payload Capacity?

Payload capacity refers to the gross load weight a truck is capable of safely sustaining and operating within. Put plainly, payload capacity refers to how much you’re able to load into both your truck and the truck’s bed without it breaking the suspension, voiding your warranty, and becoming a YouTube sensation for all the wrong reasons

And yes, your family of four, yourself, and Shaggy the Irish Wolfhound all contribute to maxing out your truck’s payload capacity. 

How Do You Calculate Payload Capacity?

Payload capacity is calculated by taking your truck’s GVWR and subtracting your truck’s curb weight. This is your truck’s maximum payload capacity.

If you have a new 2021 Ford F-150, however, you can now spec your ride with an onboard payload scale, so you don't have to do any math or guessing. 

Loading timbers into the back of a truck., Ford

What Is GVWR?

GVWR stands for gross vehicle weight rating and refers to the maximum weight your truck can be to operate safely and without harm to its components. Manufacturers calculate this number by testing the structural integrity of your truck’s suspension components, as well as its body, frame and bed. 

Your truck’s GVWR can be found either in that dusty-old manual in your glove box, the B-Pillar Vehicle I.D. plate or on the manufacturer’s website.

What Is Curb Weight?

Curb weight is the full weight of your truck without you, your family, dogs and all the towels, picnic baskets, charcuterie and rosé you normally bring for a weekend getaway. Included in the truck’s weight, however, are all the necessary fluids, such as gas, oil, and radiator fluid that keep the truck humming along. 

Your truck’s curb weight can also be found either in that crusty manual in your glove box or on the manufacturer’s website.

An ATV payload., Ford

What Is the Difference Between Payload Capacity and Towing Capacity? 

Two of the most important figures in all of Truckdom are payload and towing capacities. These figures are used by customers to determine highly important things like how many ATVs you can stick in the pickup truck’s bed versus how many you can put onto a trailer—an obviously vital capacity metric.

As explained, a pickup truck’s payload is determined by taking the gross vehicle weight rating and subtracting the curb weight. The resulting number is how much the truck can carry inside and in its bed.

Towing capacity is how much weight your pickup truck can tow safely and without damage. The process to determine a truck’s tow capacity is similar to payload capacity. You’ll need the truck’s curb weight and its GCVWR.

Now, stick with us and try not to get cross-eyed as GCVWR is different than GVWR. The added letter changes the definition as GCVWR stands for “gross combined vehicle weight rating” and is made up of the GVWR of the pickup truck and the GVWR of the truck’s accompanying trailer. 

Pickup truck manufacturers offer generalized GCVWR or towing capacity ranges for its truck lineup as, though trailers from different manufacturers can appear similar in design, their individual GVWR varies. As such, manufacturer-supplied towing capacities often look like “18,000 to 21,000 pounds” depending on the options you’ve chosen, i.e. dually, short or long bed, and engine selection. 

The truck’s payload can also affect your towing capacity as the more you load up its bed, the more strain you put on its mechanical components and the less weight you’re able to tow. Another reason it’s important to know your truck’s stats. 

Payload capacities are vital information., Ford

Why Is Payload Capacity Used?

The simple answer is payload capacity is an important metric for truck owners because it means the difference between getting that load of tree bark or playground sand home and accidentally finding yourself a member of the Stance Nation—vape pen not included. 

Overloading your truck’s interior and bed can lead to premature failure of your suspension struts and springs, buckled points on your frame, bent paneling and drivetrain failure due to the sheer weight it needs to propel down the road. 

To better illustrate the difference in payload ratings between something like the Ford Ranger and Ford F-150, imagine Timothée Chalamet attempting to carry two of the Chicago Bears’ linebackers across the field. His knees would buckle, and his heart burst. Now imagine Dwayne Johnson attempting the same; he’d get those two to the endzone. 

Pro Tips For How To Arrange Your Truck’s Payload

Arranging your truck’s payload is also an important component of payload capacity as unequal distribution of the weight can lead to broken components and dangerous situations resembling Italy’s infamous Leaning Tower of Pisa. A dose of anal-retentiveness is helpful, though going full Tetris isn’t necessary. 

Common sense is truly all you need and The Drive’s team is here to offer you our pro tips for arranging your pickup truck’s payload. Our pro tips include: 

  • The most obvious tip is don’t overload your truck’s capacity. Be mindful of what you’re putting in and how much it weighs. 
  • Place the heaviest items you’re hauling at the lowest point in the pickup truck’s bed.
  • When you have larger loads, spread your cargo evenly across the truck’s bed.
  • Strap singular heavy items (i.e. a car engine or oak table from Ron Swanson’s workshop) in the center of the bed using ratchet straps.
  • Never fill your truck’s bed past its bed rail capacity unless properly secured with a tarp for loose items or ratchet straps.
  • Make note that when hauling water or other liquids in your truck’s bed, the liquid will slosh backward, forward and side-to-side as the truck accelerates, decelerates and turns. Sharper throttle or brake inputs, and aggressive directional changes will exaggerate these and could become dangerous. 
  • Make sure all containers are in the truck’s bed are securely closed.
  • State regulations often require bed-stowed items that exceed the length of the bed to have a small red or orange flag or towel attached so other motorists are aware of the object.