The Garage Cars 101

What Exactly Is Your Truck or SUV’s Towing Capacity?

If you can tow a space shuttle, you can tow a boat.

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You’ve likely seen thousands of truck commercials in your time. By law, each commercial is mandated to include Sam Elliot’s intoxicatingly smooth drawl to detail what seem like absurd capacities for towing, payload, and offroading as a truck drifts across a picturesque American Southwest scene. It’s captivating and has helped the American truck industry sell a lot of trucks in recent decades. Like, a lot.  

And though we’ll never say no to Sam Elliot, he’s an American treasure and we’d love to have him lull us to sleep reading us the Illiad or something, Elliot’s monologue of numerals isn’t exactly helpful for those who don’t understand exactly what those capacities actually mean. One of the most touted numbers in all of truckdom is towing capacity. Everyone thinks they need to be able to tow the space shuttle just to tow an aluminum bass boat based on those commercials, but what do you actually need and how are those numbers calculated?

Towing Construction Items
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Thankfully, The Drive’s crack editors have earplugs and can look away from Elliot’s commanding presence to give you a straightforward answer to all your burning questions about towing and towing capacities. Ready to show that mustachioed man who’s boss? We thought so, let’s dive in. 

What is Towing Capacity?

Towing capacity refers to the gross pulling weight a truck is capable of safely towing behind it. Put simply, towing capacity refers to how much you’re able to hook up to your truck without it breaking the suspension, ripping off part of your frame, voiding your warranty, and becoming a viral sensation for all the wrong reasons.

And yes, everything in the truck, including you, your family, that five-pound box of Sour Patch Kids, and your 180-pound Mastiff, Spot, affects your truck’s towing capacity. 

How Do You Calculate Towing Capacity?

Towing capacity is calculated by taking your truck’s GCVWR and subtracting your truck’s curb weight. This is your truck’s maximum towing capacity.

Towing Boat
Boating towing., Ford

What Is GCVWR?

Now, try not to get cross-eyed, as GCVWR is different than GVWR. 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. 

What Is GVWR?

GVWR stands for gross vehicle weight rating and refers to the maximum poundage your truck can weigh to operate safely and without harm to its components. Put simply, it’s the max weight before everything goes caput. Manufacturers calculate this number by testing the structural integrity of your truck’s suspension components, tires, wheels, body, frame, and bed. 

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

What Is Curb Weight?

Curb weight is the full weight of your truck without you, your family, the dogs, or any of the bicycles, White Claw, smoked brisket, and sunscreen 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.

Towing Camper
Towing Camper, Ford

What Is the Difference Between Towing Capacity and Payload Capacity? 

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

As explained above, towing capacity is how much weight your pickup truck can tow safely and without damage. 

Manufacturers offer generalize GCVWR or towing capacity ranges for their pickup truck lineups, as trailers come in different shapes, sizes, and weights. Thus, manufacturer-supplied towing capacities often look like “18,000 to 21,000 pounds.” Truck options, such as engine selection and single versus dual rear wheels, can also affect a truck’s GCVWR.

Payload capacity refers to the gross load weight a truck is capable of safely sustaining and operating within. This is calculated by taking the truck’s GVWR and subtracting its curb weight. 

That said, your truck’s payload of all your friends and their kettlebells—don’t ask—also affects your towing capacity. The more you load up its bed or cabin, the more strain you put on its mechanical components and the less towing capacity you have. Another reason it’s important to know your truck’s stats. 

Towing Horses
Towing Horses, Ford

Why Is Towing Capacity Used?

Simply put, towing capacity is important for truck owners because it means the difference between getting that boat or racecar home and accidentally wheelieing in front of the world’s smartphones—don’t worry, we hear trending on Twitter is nice this time of year. 

Attaching too much weight to your truck’s hitch can lead to premature failure of your suspension struts and springs, buckled points on your frame, ripped off paneling or driveline components, or drivetrain failure due to the sheer weight it needs to pull down the road. Towing capacity is also important because extra weight can lift the front end of your truck, thereby reducing your steering and braking, which could become dangerous.

To better illustrate the difference in towing capacity ratings between something like the Ford Ranger and Ford F-250, imagine Timothée Chalamet wearing rollerblades and attempting to pull two Chicago Bears’ linebackers across a basketball court. His back would snap, and the linebackers would stay stationary. Now, imagine Dwayne Johnson attempting the same while wearing his signature Under Armour sneakers rather than rollerblades; he’d get those two to the far side with the quickness. 

Pro Tips For How To Tow

Just as an unequal distribution of the weight in your truck’s bed can lead to broken components and dangerous situations resembling Italy’s infamous Leaning Tower of Pisa, so too can towing with the wrong equipment, without the necessary knowledge, or using the wrong truck for towing. 

Common sense needs to be applied and, thankfully, The Drive’s team is here to help and give you our pro tips on how best to tow using your truck. Our pro tips include: 

  • Start slow. Towing is an acquired skill and it takes years of experience to perfect. Starting at slower speeds with smaller trailers is safer than buying a Ford F-650 Super Duty and 28-foot trailer, popping on 41,000-pounds of equipment and heading off onto the highway without ever towing a yard trailer with your tractor. Know your limits. 
  • Be mindful of what you’re putting into the bed of the truck and how much it weighs. As mentioned before, adding weight will decrease the amount you can safely tow.
  • Consult The Drive‘s How To Tow guide before you try towing. If you have a friend or family member with experience who can help, that doesn’t hurt either.
  • Set your side-view mirrors correctly. You should be able to see behind the trailer you’re towing.
  • Make note that when towing trailers, the trailer can move 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. Some modern trucks have active sway control. You can check your manual or the manufacturer’s website to see if yours is equipped.
  • Make sure your trailer’s hitch, security chains, and brake and indicator light plug is securely fastened and properly set.
  • Before you purchase a camper, boat, or trailer, check your truck’s manual or the manufacturer’s website to see what your truck is rated to pull. This could save you thousands of dollars in repairs and potentially save you from causing an accident. 

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Jonathon Klein Avatar

Jonathon Klein

Managing Editor, Commerce

Jonathon is the Managing Editor for Commerce at The Drive and has been writing about cars and motorcycles for over a decade, but he's been known to scribble pretty things about the foster care system, adoption, tattoos, sex and life, gear, adventures, food, autonomy, technology, and numerous other topics. He’s been working for The Drive since 2019 when he started as its Senior Editor.