Part 1, how big?
There are a few things that you should know before you tow that trailer or RV down the road. Most people can look at the huge RV they want to tow and small Honda Civic in their driveway and know that this isn’t going to work. However, those same folks will assume that any pickup truck they buy could safely haul it around. Not so!
There is an enormous difference in pickup truck capabilities when it comes to hauling a load down the road. If you’re going to the big box store to pick up some mulch or a new patio set, all trucks are about equal. If you’re planning to tow a boat, RV, or utility trailer, the difference can be drastic and life-threatening.
To make the point lets look at a new Ford F150 SuperCrew half-ton. The base model with the standard V6 engine is rated to tow 5000 pounds. This is listed as the Maximum Conventional Towing Capacity in the vehicle specifications. Five thousand pounds sounds pretty good until you look at another very important number, the Gross Combined Vehicle Weight (GCVW) which on this truck is 9900 pounds. To determine the GCVW, you add all of your load, and the trailer weight plus the Curb Weight of the truck. The F150 tilts the scale at 4500 pounds. With the trailer and truck, you are now at 9500, leaving only another 400 pounds for passengers and their cargo. Towing that trailer behind that truck, you have enough rated capacity to bring along an average-sized driver, one average-sized passenger, and a small kid!
Don’t give up hope! The same F150 line up offers trucks with towing ability up to 13,200 pound and GCVW ratings of over 18,000 pounds. While all the F150’s share a common frame and body other changes to the vehicle greatly change the ratings. The engine you choose is one of the main factors, but not the only important one. Differential gear ratios, added cooling packages for the engine and transmission, trailer sway control and built-in trailer brake controller all contribute to the ability of the truck to function as a mule.
Part 2, Brakes or no brakes?
Most states have a maximum weight limit before a trailer is required to have separate brakes, and in some states, a system that will apply the trailer brakes should the trailer come loose from the tow vehicle.
Common sense should tell us that if we are pulling a 5000-pound trailer with a 4000-pound vehicle, something is going to go wrong if there is an emergency. While pickups designed to haul and tow have heavy-duty brakes, you will still see a significant increase in stopping distance without trailer brakes to help.
A good trailer brake controller can be adjusted to match the weight of the load you are pulling. The trailer brakes should begin to apply just barely before or with the truck brakes. They shouldn’t lock up and screech down the road unless you are in a full pedal, heart-stopping panic stop. Included in most trailer towing packages now is an anti-sway function that will help control a towed load that begins to whip around on the road. Many of the trailers you see on the side of the road playing turtle got there from runaway sway.
Part 3, Tongue weight or tongue lashing?
If you don’t understand the principle of Tongue Weight, you may end up with damaged suspension or the trailer whipping around like flapping tongues in a gossip circle. Ideally, the portion of the load weight that rests on the hitch should be about 10% of the towed weight. In the case of our 5000-pound trailer, there will be approximately 500 pounds on the ball hitch. Trailers are designed to have this balance when they are empty; how it’s distributed after the trailer is loaded is up to you. If you place everything in the rear of your camper, or near the tailgate of the utility trailer you will lessen the tongue weight, moving it all forward will increase it.
Equally important is hitch angle. The trailer should sit level after it is hitched up. Angling down increases tongue weight and up lessens it. Most pickups have a receiver-style hitch, one that allows you to remove the portion that holds the ball. The benefit of these is you can buy different offsets to raise or lower the angle of the tongue. You can decide on the offset by parking your trailer, ensuring that it is level and then backing your pickup to it and measuring from the hitch receiver to the bottom of the tongue. A little time and a few bucks spent here will make towing a lot easier.
Part 4, Know your payload or pay
We mentioned Payload earlier. The payload is the difference between the Gross Vehicle Weight and the Curb Weight. It is usually listed in the maker’s specifications and can vary considerably. It is how much you can carry in the truck, both in the cargo box and in the cab. It includes passengers and all of their gear, and anything else you put in there. It also includes the weight on the trailer hitch (Tongue Weight.) Put five average-sized adults in the cab (5×150=750), and you make a serious dent in the 1900 pound maximum payload allowance. You now have only 1150 pounds for the combined weight of the trailer tongue and all your other cargo. It is important to note that Payload applies not only to pickups but to all vehicles. Usually, the smaller the vehicle to lower the payload. When you exceed the payload, the suspension can bottom out and result in shock, spring, or even frame damage.
If you are considering a new truck, the dealer can give you all of the specifications for the truck you think you want. If you are looking for a used truck, it’s a bit more difficult, but you can usually call the maker’s dealer parts department with the VIN and ask them to break it down for you. You can also get a lot of this information with a google search.