One of the first things to learn when shopping for a new travel trailer, 5th wheel, or other towable is to take everything the dealer tells you with a massive grain of salt. Overall, I had a great experience with my dealer, but at the end of the day, he was wrong on a half dozen questions I had. While some of his incorrect answers were just a sign of me knowing the product better than the salesman, one in particular is outright dangerous. Can you imagine the anger, financial implications and potential liability you inherit if you were to buy a trailer the dealer says you can tow, only to find out that it exceeds the maximum weight your Tow Vehicle can handle? It happens every day.
Determining if you should / can tow the camper you are considering buying with your current, or intended tow vehicle is a mix of art and science unless you have access to the fully loaded camper, your truck, and some time to spend at a professional scale like truck drivers use. Using scales will be the subject of a future article.
You will want to show up at the dealer lot with a bunch of homework already completed. Figuring out how much your TV (tow vehicle) can safely haul is not as straight forward as I had hoped. Here I will show you how to determine what your tow vehicle can reasonably be expected to handle. Let’s assume for a moment that you are planning on using your current truck to tow the camper. I’ll use my own 2012 F-150 as an example case. I purchased my truck before I knew that I would be towing with it. Thankfully, I had some towing specific upgrades on my truck, otherwise known as the ‘Max Tow’ package. Inside the front, drivers side door of your truck, you’ll find a label similar to this one.
There is a lot of information on these 2 stickers that is FAR more valuable than anything you will find in your generic owners manual or towing guide as these are specific to your exact vehicle, including any options you have, etc. Keep in mind if you added 100 pounds worth stereo gear to your truck after you took it home, you need include that weight in your calculations below.
On these stickers you can learn the Gross Axle Weight Ratings for your front, and rear Axles. The Gross Vehicle Weight Rating of the truck, which in my case is 7700 pounds. There are codes on the bottom of that first sticker that even tell you what your gear ratio is if you don’t remember. In my case, the code L6 means I am running 3.73 gears in my Ford Eco Boost.
9 times out of 10 – *the most important number* you are looking for is your PAYLOAD Capacity. Sorry for the caps, but if you only know one of the weight limits of your truck, this is the one you need to know. On the bottom sticker you see where it says ‘The combined weight of occupants and cargo should never exceed:’ – followed by a very important number, which in my case is 1806 pounds. This is my payload capacity. If for some reason you don’t see your payload capacity called out on a sticker on your vehicle, you can still get close as long as you can complete the following formula:
Gross vehicle weight rating – curb weight = payload capacity – This is best calculated after taking a trip to the scale. I’m assuming you have not done that, so if you have to, use the generic weights you’ll find on your truck dealers website, your owners manual, etc… it won’t be totally accurate, but you will be a hundred times more accurate than any salesman on the lot will be that is trying to convince you that you can tow anything he happens to be selling.
It does not matter that my truck can tow (pull) 11,300 pounds according to the towing guide that came with my vehicle, I am still constrained by my payload which dictates how much weight I am allowed to have inside, or attached to my vehicle.
Now that you know your payload capacity, we need to start subtracting things from it, but before we do that – understand that the payload capacity includes oil, lubricants and a full tank of fuel. Everything I’ve read from Ford indicates that It does *not* include the weight of driver, passengers, cargo or any optional or aftermarket equipment, so you have to subtract all of that.
I’ve seen a tremendous amount of speculation on this in various forums, but I’m sticking with Fords advise here. So, now for the math.
-175 – me
-110 – wife
-70 – daughter
-125 – 2 dogs
-125 – misc items.
-100 – Equalizer hitch.
=1102 pounds of Cargo Capacity Remaining – this is packing pretty light.
So, using this example, you now know that you can put an additional 1100 pounds of weight on your truck. All that is really left to do is to determine the hitch weight of the camper you are looking at buying, not the ‘dry hitch weight, but the weight it will be when you’ve loaded up your camper for a trip. If that number ends up being less than 1100 pounds, in this example, you are under your limits and you can at least say you are ‘legal’.
The problem is that the camper manufacturers don’t tell you what the actual hitch weight of any given camper is, how do they know how you will load it? They do tell you what the ‘Dry hitch weight is’. There is a sticker on your camper with this information on it. How you load your camper will determine what your hitch weight really ends up being. Filling your water tanks can easily add 320 pounds to the trailers weight, but how much of that ends up on the hitch? There is some complex math involved there for sure… math that we will not care to tackle in this post.
Anyway, the Jayco 27BHS that I bought last summer shows a Dry Hitch Weight of 605 pounds and based on my Cargo Capacity Remaining figure from above, this leaves me a 500 pound cushion for adding additional weight. Which is good – because your dry hitch weight doesn’t include the weight of your propane tank(s), or any of that gear you have in you rig. I’m going to keep making the point that your ‘dry weights’ are just a starting point, but are meaningless when you are actually in ‘camping mode’ with all of your gear. Don’t let a dealer talk you into buying something that you can maybe… possibly… on a good day, in the right conditions tow -empty- because realistically the *only time* you will tow completely empty is the day you drive it off the lot.
The general rule of thumb is that 12 to 15% of the *entire weight* of your camper is sitting on your trucks hitch. This is assuming that you have loaded your camper properly (a dangerous assumption for some!). I hope I’m starting to make the case here for hitting up a certified scale with your truck, and camper loaded up as it would be on a typical trip.
Here’s one more math problem you can run once you have some of the basic numbers I brought up above.
Your camper also has a gross vehicle weight rating which tells you how much weight your camper can weigh legally, fully loaded. In my case, this number is 8250 pounds, regardless of what you are towing with. So, if I put 15% of that weight on the tongue of the camper, I’m looking at 1237.5 pounds on my hitch which would put me about 135 pounds over my limit (1102 – 1237.5 lbs = negative 135.5 pounds) So, in my case, if I were to load my camper to full capacity, and load it to 15% tongue weight, I’m risking breaking my truck, I will definitely shorten the lifespan of it, and hopefully nobody dies. Not taking that chance.
In my example, if I were to load my camper with 12% of the weight on the tongue instead, I would be asking my truck to shoulder 990 pounds of that weight, which it can do, at least on paper… (1102 – 990 = 112) Thankfully, I never tow fully loaded or even close to it, but in an emergency, I could. I knew before I bought my travel trailer that I would always be within the limits of my trucks capabilities as long as we pack smart and keep things on the lighter side. Please keep in mind that your camper will tow differently with 12% on the tongue vs. 15%. If you don’t load properly and you end up putting too much weight in the back of your camper, you could end up in a dangerous situation with the ‘tail wagging the dog’ as you drive down the road.
I seriously recommend that once you have confirmed that the camper you want to buy (or already own) is safely towable at least on paper with your current truck, you take it down to a certified public scale and confirm first hand what your *real numbers* are. If you don’t have access to a scale, and you can reasonably estimate how much weight you are adding to your camper as you load it (properly) you can be reasonably assured if you are picking the right camper for your existing truck, or if you need to buy a bigger tow vehicle.
I am buying a bigger truck this year for the extra capability I want, but don’t necessarily need. I would like to take a dirt bike along with us, and an extra friend. I can always use more cargo room for beer. I know that my F-150 will not be able to accomplish this.
Amazon sells some tongue weight scales that cost around 100 dollars that you can use at home to tell you what your loaded tongue weight is – even just having that knowledge goes a long way towards ensuring your next road trip goes smoothly and you don’t become a liability on our roads. I just ordered one and will put up a review for it when I get the chance.