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Don't Overload Your Trailer Hitches: Understanding Towing Capacity

May 30, 2008
I think many of us with vehicles seriously overestimate or underestimate what we could tow with it. You might look at a boat, utility trailer, or travel trailer and ask yourself "I wonder if my car could handle that?"

Now where would you go for that kind of information? Most people would go straight to the owner's manual of their car. The problem is, the information in that manual will be so watered down and generic that you can't really trust it.

It's going to say something like this: "towing capacities are calculated under the assumption of a standard equipped vehicle, normal driver, and trailers. Any other equipment or passengers will reduce the amount of weight your vehicle can handle."

Huh? So how on earth can you evaluate your real towing capacity? The first thing you have to understand the vehicle manufacturer is using a completely stripped down version of the car or truck to beef up the towing rating. Makes sense right?

They're trying to sell cars, and if you're a family with a tent trailer, seeing a super high towing rating on that little station wagon could be the factor that gets you to buy. That's why you need to bring a skeptical eye to that owner's manual.

The last thing you want is to load up your trailer with a few quads or motorcycles, head up to the mountains, and then have your transmission go out because you trusted the manufacturer's published towing capacity. That could be a very expensive getaway.

Here are some terms you want to be familiar with in evaluating your actual towing capacity:

Unloaded Vehicle Weight (UVW)
You know all those times you're headed down the interstate near the border of the state you're entering or leaving? One of the best ways to find out your unloaded vehicle weight is to stop at one of them, pay the $5 or $10 fee, and have them weigh your car or truck.

If you do stop at one of those weigh stations, try to have your gas tank as full as possible to make the measurement more accurate.

Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR)
This is the maximum weight your tow vehicle can be without wrecking your car, truck, or suv. There are a few places you might find this number - it might be under the hood in the engine compartment, or on a sticker in a door frame, or maybe even in the owner's manual. It's important to know this number because the foundation for safe towing is not attempting to pull something that is just too heavy for your car.

The bottom line when towing is not to overdo it. When you buy a vehicle, if you know it's going to be used for towing, be realistic about the capacity of the car or truck you're buying.

The lightweight family sedan you're buying is probably not intended to pull a 20 foot boat, or a large travel trailer. If you know you're going to be doing lots of traveling, camping, RVing, and other recreation, be honest about what type of tow vehicle you're going to need.

I would recommend buying a solid 8 cylinder engine with a transmission calibrated for heavy duty jobs. I would rather overkill on the vehicle than risk doing thousands of dollars in damage to my car or my trailer. Not to mention the people I'm sharing the road with.
About the Author
Jeremy teaches people about installing a trailer hitch and also advises them on the right way to set up trailer hitch covers.
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