Towing 101: What You Need to Know to Tow with Confidence

A properly calculated tow rating is critical to keeping you, your passengers and your investments safe on the road. Here's how to calculate your car or truck's true towing capacity.

Ford F-150 Lightning Electric Truck
The Ford F-150 Lightning is capable of towing 10,000 pounds. Photo: Ford

Need a Towing Tutorial? We Got You.

For so many of us, towing has become a thing. We have cars and SUVs that can tow, and we have learned we really love adventure. And towing has become a year-round pursuit: boats in summer, snowmobiles in winter, campers to escape from the city all year long. Any time of the year is a good time to break out the ball hitch and breakaway chains and hook up the trailer

If you have ever rented a trailer or Uhaul and the attendant checked your equipment and hooked it up for you, it may have seemed so easy, and no extra license or training is required for most recreational towing. But there is a lot to know about safe towing. An overly heavy load can pull your car off the road, and an improperly secured trailer is a danger to everyone. The key is to understand the details of towing – from your vehicle’s tow capacity to trailer hitch style to how to adjust your driving for your trailer. 

It’s not as scary as it may seem, but it also isn’t something to go into blind. Here is what you need to know to keep yourself (and other drivers) safe while you are towing

Related: Let’s Tow Everything!

How To Calculate Tow Capacity

Know Your Real Towing Capacity

The first step to towing with your vehicle is to know your vehicle’s tow capacity. Tow capacity is the maximum amount of weight your vehicle can pull – not just the trailer but the actual vehicle, its contents, and the trailer weight.

While many calculations factor into a manufacturer’s tow capacity, let me simplify it for you. It starts with the GCVW, or gross combined vehicle weight. You can find this number, which factors in the engine power, transmission, and other specs to calculate the maximum amount of weight the vehicle can tow and haul. That is the number the manufacturer uses to calculate the maximum towing capacity for the vehicle.

This GCVW measure can be found on the manufacturer’s website, in your owner’s manual, or in the car itself. If you can’t find it, you can always run by your local dealership – always better safe than sorry.

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Towing Capacity

There are lots of details to consider before you start towing your gear. Photo: Annika Carter

Can Sedans and Small SUVs Tow?

If you own a sedan or crossover that does not have a towing capacity listed in the owner’s manual (or it’s just so buried in the pages that you can’t find it), this does not mean you can’t tow. Almost any sedan or crossover can tow, even if they don’t come from the factory with a tow hitch. Companies like UHaul or any mechanic can fit one on a vehicle. Just be sure to know how much weight you can pull. 

You can always Google search your vehicle’s tow capacity, but make sure the source is accurate and specific to your car, motor, and packages. The safest bet is always going straight to the source – the manufacturer or dealer.

Most sub-compacts, coupes, and roadsters will not have a rated tow capacity from the manufacturer and are deemed unsafe to tow with. 

Once you know your vehicle’s towing capacity, do NOT exceed it. This can cause excess damage to your car and can be unsafe for you and other motorists on the road. 

Related: Our Five Favorite Trucks, Minivans, and SUVs for Tailgating

2022 Ford Lightning Towing

The Ford Lightning proves to be more than capable of towing. Photo: Erica Mueller

How Much Can You Tow? Figuring Out Your Practical Tow Rating

Remember that your towing capacity will be situational, so your practical tow rating – the actual weight you can tow – may be lower. For example, if your full-sized sedan is rated to town 1,500 lbs but your hitch is only rated for 1000 lbs, your practical tow rating is only 1,000 lbs. Or maybe you are driving a pickup truck with a 10,000 lb. towing capacity, but you have 7,000 lbs of bricks in the truck bed (for one heck of a garden makeover!). In this case, towing 10,000 lbs will exceed your truck’s GVCW, or gross vehicle combined weight (the total allowable weight of the car, passengers, cargo, payload, and trailers), so it is unsafe to combine this heavy payload with a heavy trailer.

For cars with lower towing capacities, especially sedans, even just having the car full of passengers could impact your towing capacity.

Trailer Hitch

Tow all your favorite stuff with our simple guidelines. Photo: Annika Carter

Consider the Trailer’s Weight in Your Calculations

You will, obviously, need to be aware of the weight you are towing. Most trailers are sold with documents displaying their unloaded weight — but don’t forget to add the weight of the items you carry in the trailer. For example, my race trailer weighs 3,600 lbs unloaded, and my car weighs 2,000 lbs. But I can’t forget about the hundreds of pounds of tools, tool boxes, tires, wheels, fuel, and other equipment also in the trailer.

The same goes for campers – if you add furniture and luggage to a camper, don’t forget to consider that weight. The easiest way to do this is to consider the trailer’s gross vehicle weight rating, or GVWR (remember, this is the TOTAL allowable weight of the trailer, including the weight of the trailer itself). Since your load should never exceed the trailer’s GVWR, if your vehicle can pull the GVWR, you will be a-okay.

Along this same thread, be aware of your trailer’s GVWR and be sure your load doesn’t exceed it. Remember, the GVWR includes the trailer’s weight itself. If a trailer’s GVWR is 5,000 lbs and the trailer weighs 1,000 lbs, you can only carry up to 4,000 lbs of cargo.

Details Of Towing

Once you understand these components, you can tow like a pro. Photo: Annika Carter

Equipment Calculations Matter, Too

Once you have confirmed that your vehicle can tow your desired trailer, it is time to consider the equipment you’ll need. 

If your car does not have a tow hitch, technically called a receiver hitch, you must have one fitted. Receiver hitches do have weight limits, so ensure the receiver hitch you choose is rated for sufficient weight. Be careful here – there are receivers on the market that have little to no weight rating. These are designed for smaller, non-trailer accessories, like bike racks. If your receiver is installed at the factory, the manufacturer will ensure this receiver hitch is rated for the towing capacity of the vehicle. 

Some vehicles are equipped with a fifth-wheel hitch, though these are mostly full-size heavy-duty pickup trucks and are less commonly intended for recreational use. They can tow up to 20,000 lbs., sometimes more, so if your tow needs are really hefty, it might be worth looking into a truck with this much capacity.

Towing Guide

Keep all our tips in mind before you try to tow for the first time. Photo: Annika Carter

And, the Sticky Part: The Capacity of Trailer Components

Next, you will need to source a trailer hitch, which goes into the car’s receiver and connects to the tongue (the very front point) of the trailer. For most consumer trailers, you will use a ball hitch. While other hitches exist, they are uncommon on the trailers designated for consumer use.

There are a few considerations with your ball hitch. First of all, just as with the receiver, your ball hitch will have a weight rating. I always recommend buying something rated for a good bit more than the weight you are towing, too. If you are towing 5,000 lbs., I would generally recommend not purchasing a 5,000 lb. ball and instead look for the next step up (likely 7,500 lbs.). 

This hitch is attached to the receiver using a large hitch pin. You can purchase a standard pin, which is secured with a cotter pin in one end, or a locking version to provide some extra security. Always double and triple-check that this pin is properly fitted and that the cotter pin or lock is secure.

Ball hitches also come in different sizes. You want your ball to be sized properly for your trailer, so check the size of the coupler or the trailer size of the ball hitch connection to know what size to purchase. Sizes range from 1 ⅞” to 3”, with most trailers falling at 2” or 2-5/16”. Generally speaking, the larger and heavier the trailer’s weight rating, the larger the ball.

The physical ball on the hitch is bolted on and can be swapped out, although I find, for simplicity’s sake, it is often easier to buy a hitch with the ball already attached. In this way, you only have to worry about the weight rating for the entire hitch instead of having to match the weight ratings on the components. It also saves you from having to purchase a VERY large wrench!

If your vehicle does not have trailer wire hookups for your brake lights and any other necessary electrical systems, you must purchase this. Generally speaking, if your vehicle has a factory-installed receiver, you likely have a plug for the wires. If you had to have a receiver installed, the installer should be able to install the plug as well. 

Towing Hitch

Towing doesn’t have to be as hard as it looks. Photo: Annika Carter

Now, On to the Fun! 

Once you’ve done the math and ensured you have all the right capacities and equipment, you’re ready to tow. And I promise, it’s not as difficult as it sounds, and it’s worth it for all the fun you can have once you have that boat on the water– or that race car on the track! 

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Annika Carter has over four years of performance driving experience, both with and without professional instruction. She has driven... More about Annika Carter