Ever wondered just how much your vehicle can actually tow? Are you considering purchasing a new trailer but are unsure if your car can handle it? Max towing capacity should not be taken lightly. Exceeding what your vehicle is designed to tow can strain your engine and transmission, accelerate brake wear, damage your tires and even warp your chassis. This could in turn trigger catastrophic failure while driving and could lead to property damage or serious injury. To select a trailer that your vehicle can tow safely, calculate what your vehicle can tow and compare it with the trailer’s tongue weight. Follow these guidelines to help you make these critical calculations or use a towing capacity calculator online.

Find Your Vehicle’s Towing Capacity

Before you begin, make sure that all numbers you use have the same weight units. Never mix kilograms with pounds.

First, load your vehicle with expected number of passengers and all cargo you expect to transport in your towing vehicle, especially heavy items such as generators and specialized hitches. Then, take your vehicle to a truck stop or a CAT scale and weigh your vehicle. This will be your scale weight, so save this number.

After that, there are two ways you can discern the actual towing capacity (TC) of your vehicle.

  • Gross Vehicle Weight Rating – All cars will have a label that mentions the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR). This is the maximum weight your towing vehicle can move safely. However, GVWR does not represent the actual weight of your vehicle with the driver, passenger and cargo inside. You can find this label on either the driver’s doorjamb or in the compartment between the front seats. (You can also find the tow limit in this handy manual courtesy of Trailer Life.) Subtract the scale weight from the GVWR. This will be your actual towing capacity. That is,
    GVWR – Scale = TC
  • Cargo Carrying Capacity Some vehicles will have an alternate sticker showing the Cargo Carrying Capacity (CCC). The information will be presented as follows:
    The combined weight of of occupants and cargo should never exceed XXX kg or XXX lb. Subtract the scale weight from the Cargo Carrying Capacity to attain your actual towing capacity. That is, CCC – Scale = TC

Attain Hitch Capacity

Even with the actual towing capacity of your vehicle in hand, the hitch on the vehicle may have a different rating. In that case, the lower number should be used for calculations beyond this point. For example, if your vehicle’s towing capacity is 4,000 lbs. but the hitch capacity (HC) is only 2,500 lbs., then the vehicle can ultimately pull only 2,500 lbs. safely. Thus,

If HC < TC, use HC

If TC < HC, use TC

If you wish to increase the hitch capacity, replace your hitch with one that does not exceed the vehicle towing capacity.

Learn the Weight of the Trailer

Trailer dealers can easily mislead you in the allowed weight a trailer can handle. This is because trailers use both GVWR and what is known as  either “dry weight”, “unloaded vehicle weight” or “dry hitch weight”. Dry weight refers to the weight of the trailer when empty and does not include any extra equipment you may load such as batteries or tanks. (Learn the best way to load a trailer here) Ignore this number and find the GVWR of your prospective trailer. (It may also be known as Gross Trailer Weight Rating, or GTWR.) Ask for assistance if you cannot locate the number on the trailer.

Note that the hitch on your towing vehicle will only tow the weight transmitted through the tongue of the trailer. To calculate the maximum tongue weight (TW) of the trailer, multiply the trailer’s GVWR by 15%. That is,

GVWR x 0.15 = TW

Compare Tongue Weight With Vehicle/Hitch Capacity

Finally, use the lower of either the vehicle towing capacity you calculated or the hitch capacity, then compare it with the maximum tongue weight you also calculated. If the former number is greater than the latter, then your vehicle can tow the trailer. That is, If TC or TH > TR, you’re good to go!

Related: Choosing the Right Tow Dolly