Learn How to Spot the Right Truck Towing Capacity for Your Needs
Denise is not happy with her current truck.
She has a small two horse bumper pull trailer, a 14.2 hand mule, and wanted to go on short trips around her Los Angeles home. She is a self-identified ‘timid hauler,’ but likes to camp under the stars, ride with friends, and places a high value on safety.
Yet, since she purchased her 2008 half-ton pick-up truck, she has had several regrets. “I was trying to get too much too small,” she recounted.
There are several things she doesn’t like about her truck. First, her 5’6” pick-up bed limits her options to find a camper shell that would fit her small truck. Next, she is unhappy with the door configuration on the extended cab design. “You have to open the front door first and then the back door. I don’t like that. It’s a concern for me if we ever got in an accident.”
She spoke to us about her experiences and provided this piece of advice. “It’s important to know what kind of towing you’re going to do,” she shared. “Think about everything that you’re going to want to do with this truck.”
Choosing the best truck for towing your horse trailer involves a lot of choices. We’ve broken the topics down point by point so you can spot the best tow vehicles to provide efficient hauling, longevity, and above all safety for you and your horses.
The Magic Gs – The Trick to Finding Your Truck Towing Capacity
Looking at a truck’s owner’s manual is like jumping into a nest of acronyms...GVWR, GCVWR, GAWR…
It can be a bit overwhelming!
Every vehicle on the market comes with an owner’s manual that outlines the capabilities and limitations for that specific vehicle. There are several values that are particularly important to notice when you’re planning to tow a horse trailer. We call them the ‘Magic Gs.’
- GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating) – This is the maximum allowed loaded weight of your tow vehicle. It needs to include the trailer tongue weight but not the rest of the trailer.
- GCVWR (gross combined vehicle weight rating) – This is the maximum allowed loaded weight of your tow vehicle and trailer combination.
- GAWR (gross axle weight rating) – The maximum weight your tow vehicle’s axles are able to carry.
Brad Heath, Double D Trailers owner, helped us break down all of the lingo. “All of these terms are important in selecting a safe tow vehicle,” he explained
Each one of these ratings represents a limit on your tow vehicle’s ability to haul a load. Exceeding any of these limits will put undo strain on your truck’s engine, brakes, axles, hitch, or handling capability. In short, you’ll be putting yourself in danger of a serious accident or breakdown.
Find the Tongue Weight of Your Trailer
The tongue weight of your trailer is a vital piece of information that will help you determine if you are overloading your hitch or tow vehicle. “You need to check the tongue weight of your bumper pull trailer, and verify the hitch on your vehicle is rated to carry the tongue weight. Tongue weight information can be found in the owner's manual of a tow vehicle,” Brad explained.
“However, on horse trailers, manufacturers do not list tongue weight so the only way to get the information is to actually weigh the trailer.” If you’re unsure of this value, our calculator may also be helpful to form an estimate.
Understanding the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR)
The GVWR is another particularly important number to look at since it is a limiting factor in determining your truck’s tow capabilities. When checking to see if you are within the stated value, you need to consider all of the cargo and passengers inside your vehicle.
You ALSO need to consider the tongue weight of your trailer.
This can be confusing because the GVWR value is often defined as the weight of the truck ‘without the trailer.’ We feel it’s important to emphasize that the tongue weight of the trailer still needs to be factored in when checking if you’ve exceed the GVWR.
Let’s look at a specific example…
A GMC Sierra 1500 has a GVWR of 7,000 lbs. This value needs to include the weight of the vehicle, fuel, passengers, and cargo.
The Tire and Loading Information sticker shows that this vehicle has a cargo limit of 1,635 lbs. This is the maximum load the vehicle is designed to manage so that its total weight doesn’t exceed the GVWR of 7,000 lbs.
The basic formula to figure out how much cargo your truck can handle is ‘cargo max weight - passengers = cargo capability.’
If we load in two passengers weighing 150 lbs each, it leaves 1,335 lbs of ‘cargo capability.’
1,635 lbs – 300 lbs = 1,335 lbs cargo capability
This cargo capability needs to include any load in the truck PLUS the tongue weight of any trailer being hauled. The hitch on this truck is rated for 1,500 lbs. If the owner decides to haul 200 lbs of hay and 1,500 lbs of tongue weight from his trailer, he will be EXCEEDING his stated GVWR.
200 lbs hay + 1,500 lbs tongue weight = 1,700 lbs total cargo (which EXCEEDS 1,335 lb limit)
To avoid any problems, he could haul a trailer with a lighter tongue weight or find a truck with a higher GVWR.
So remember, the ‘cargo’ value on your truck needs to include the tongue weight of your horse trailer. For more information on how to find the tongue weight of your trailer, read this article.
How to Determine Your Vehicle Towing Capacity
In the owner’s manual of this GMC 1500 Sierra, you will also see the towing capacity of 7,400 lbs. Check the weight of your loaded horse trailer and make sure it doesn’t exceed this value.
This same page shows that the GCVWR is 13,000 lbs. You can check that you’re below the GCVWR by adding together the loaded weights of your trailer and tow vehicle. Again, you will likely need to take your trailer to a scale as few manufacturers share this information.
Don’t make the mistake of assuming you can max out the towing capacity and hitch rating with a large horse trailer. We showed already that a trailer with a 1,500 lb tongue weight would overload a truck like the GMC Sierra 1500.
By the way…different horse trailer designs can have different tongue weights depending on the load distribution, living quarters, and size. For example, we showed how bumper pull horse trailers with living quarters are an unsafe choice because of their extreme tongue weights. Read more here.
Don’t Overload Your Tow Vehicle Axles
The GAWR (gross axle weight rating) is a term we don’t focus on very often but still important to consider. Brad explained, “One common misconception on hitches is that if your hitch isn't rated high enough, you can simply swap it out for another hitch with greater capacity. While this may be true, you need to examine the GAWR and insure you aren't exceeding what the vehicle's axles are rated to carry.”
The 20% Rule for Hauling Horses – Fact or Myth?
Many sources out there will tell you to buy a truck that can handle 20% more weight than you intend to carry if you are towing horses. Their argument is that horses move around with a higher center of gravity and inflict more stresses on the vehicle.
Brad disagrees with this notion. “Vehicle manufacturers recognize clients are hauling travel trailers, horses, cattle, and other loads. When they state a vehicle will haul ‘X’ amount of weight, they have already factored in a safety percentage barrier to account for these loads.”
We have never seen an owner’s manual that makes mention of any sort of 20% rule and are confident that manufacturers would list this rule if it were important to follow. “In fact, the Chevrolet website features a Chevy truck towing a 4 horse gooseneck horse trailer with living quarters!” (see right)
Truck Towing Capacity – Just Follow the Magic Gs
Do you need to be concerned about additional factors on your truck like the curb weight, wheel base, or gear ratio? Our answer is ‘no.’ Just remember that each one of these values is going to be accounted for in the manufacturer’s calculations of the vehicle’s towing capacity.
For example, a smaller pick-up or SUV may have a light curb weight, but it will also have a lower tow capacity. As long as you ensure you are not exceeding the Magic Gs (GVWR, GCVWR, GAWR), you will be okay.
Which Drive System is Best?
The type of drive system that is best on your new tow vehicle is going to boil down to personal preference and your intended use. Smaller trucks or SUVs often come with front-wheel drive (FWD) where all of the power is directed at the front two wheels. These trucks provide less control over the rear of the vehicle so they often have lower towing capacities.
All wheel drive vehicles (AWD) also rely mostly on the front two wheels but are able to redirect power to the rear wheels when conditions are poor. These drive systems are slightly heavier and also have slightly lower towing capacities and lower fuel efficiency.
When engaged, four wheel drive (4WD) trucks are able to send power to both the front and rear wheels for maximum towing capacity. They tend to sit higher off the ground with a higher center of gravity for a slightly higher risk of rolling. Plus, your hitch is going to need a bigger ball mount drop to account for the extra height.
Think about how you intend to use the truck. Are you going to go off-roading on the beach or in snow? Are you going to be driving in slippery conditions?
Brad stated, “Of course, a FWD will have a different tow rating than a 4WD, so make sure the ‘Magic Gs’ (GAWR, GVWR, GCVWR) aren’t exceeded and you are safe.”
Manual or Automatic Transmission
A manual transmission might be a good idea if you live in a very hilly or mountainous region since downshifting gears provides additional braking. Brad explained, “However, today’s transmissions are much more sophisticated than in times past!” Many big name brands like Chevy don’t even offer fully manual transmissions any more. Instead they have a ‘manual’ mode on their automatic trucks.
Gas or Diesel?
Again, this decision depends on the type of driving you are going to be doing. On larger and heavier loads, a diesel truck tends to have enough engine torque to stay in a higher gear during towing and remains at lower RPMs.
Brad clarified, “In other words, you will not hear the transmission shift to a lower gear and the engine rev up.” On a gas engine with less torque, the transmission will downshift to a lower gear and the engine will increase RPMs to handle the strain.
Two Types of Chassis Designs
A chassis is the primary framework of a vehicle onto which all the other truck parts are mounted. Larger SUVs and trucks have a “body on frame” design with a rigid ladder-like chassis that provides extra strength. Brad explained, “They are more equipped to handle the stresses/twisting/torqueing associated with towing.”
In contrast, smaller vehicles have a “uni-body” design onto which the stresses of hauling are distributed upon the entire vehicle. Really, these differences are going to be reflected once again on the vehicle’s stated tow capacity.
“As long as the tow vehicle is within the ‘Magic G’ zone, either style would be acceptable,” Brad concluded.
Should You Get a Tow Package?
A tow package includes items like a hitch, trailer wiring harness/plug, transmission cooler, stronger suspension/brakes, and perhaps even a tow/haul feature on the vehicle. Brad shared, “In my opinion, a tow package is going to be needed on any vehicle that’s towing.”
He explained that a truck may be equipped that way from the factory or the tow package may be added as an after-market add-on. Either way, it will help you tow more safely and better equip your truck to handle the extra strain of hauling.
One special feature on many tow-equipped trucks are extended mirrors with turn signals. This is especially important on interstate travel with multiple lanes as the signal allows vehicles beside you to know you are changing lanes.
Gear Ratio on Your Towing Vehicle
Gear ratio is one of the components vehicle engineers use to determine what a vehicle will actually tow. Normally with a lower transmission gear, your engine will have more revolutions to produce greater power and a higher tow capacity. A higher gear in transmission will produce less revolutions of your engine resulting in a lower tow capacity.
It should be noted that low gears (greater towing capacities) result in less gas mileage since they turn more RPMs. So when shopping, gear ratio could be important so as to not vastly "overdo" the requirement for towing. Otherwise, you could be wasting a lot of money on gas when a higher gear may do the job and provide better mileage.
For example, if you see an F-150 with identical specs, except one is rated at 20 MPG and the other at 16 MPG, chances are it's a different gear ratio and the one with the lower MPG will have a greater tow capacity. If the 20 MPG vehicle passes the Magic G test, no need to waste gas dollars.
Matching Your Truck Tow Capacity to Your Horse Trailer
We always recommend that you decide on your horse needs first and then find your tow vehicle second. A well-built horse trailer can last you for years on end while people tend to trade in trucks much more often. The type and size of your horse trailer is going to dictate the size and power of your tow vehicle.
Once you know the total weight and tongue weight of your trailer, you can begin the process of finding a truck to match. Remember to check the Magic Gs of towing so that your truck can safely handle the load.
Also take into consideration the little things that will improve your experience. Great visibility, a comfortable seat, and vehicle durability will make a big difference. Does the door configuration make sense for your passenger’s safety? Is the pick-up bed large enough for your needs? Our friend Denise showed us how skipping these little details can result in years of dissatisfaction.
Finally, before you load up your horses, practice driving with your new truck and trailer combination so you can deliver a smooth and comfortable ride for your horses. After all, you’ve gone to all of this trouble for them!