Preparing A Truck To Tow

Towing a trailer can be a stressful endeavor for a new or used pickup truck owner, but with an understanding of towing vehicle limitations, proper preparations, and a bit of common sense, the experience can be routine and pleasurable.

Here are some things to know about towing with heavy-duty pickup trucks:

Weight Compatibility

Car and truck manufacturers set specific towing weight limits for each model based on engineering design criteria used to select and match the vehicle’s components. For the truck owner who plans to tow, knowing the truck and trailer weights is critical to ensure the manufacturer’s limits are not exceeded. These are the most important towing characteristics:

Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR): the maximum safe operating weight of a fully loaded truck including passengers and cargo as determined by the manufacturer.

Gross trailer weight rating (GTWR): the manufacturer’s maximum allowable combined weight of the trailer and cargo that the tow vehicle can tow safely.

Gross combined weight rating (GCWR): the total maximum weight of a fully loaded towing vehicle combined with the weight of its loaded trailer including vehicle occupants, cargo, and accessories.

Gross axle weight rating (GAWR): the maximum weight a single trailer axle can safely carry.

Trailer tongue weight: the amount of force (weight) the trailer applies to the vehicle tow hitch.

The Right Tow Vehicle

To avoid purchasing a truck with insufficient power or one with excessive capability, it is imperative to know the trailer weight. For example, a trailer and its cargo weighing about 10,000 pounds hitched to a truck that weighs 9,500 pounds requires a gross combined weight rating (GCWR) of 19,500 pounds.

A crew cab Silverado 2500 HD with the 6.6-liter Duramax diesel engine producing 445 hp and 910 lb-ft of torque, weighs about 9,500 lbs and has a GCWR up to 25,300 pounds. The truck is extremely capable and has some margin to work with should the trailer contain a heavier load.

Other heavy-duty pickup trucks on the market, the Ford F-250, F-350 Super Duty, and Ram 2500 and 3500 are also capable. Each comes with a robust frame, heavy-duty suspension, and a durable six-speed transmission designed for the rated load.

Tow Hitch

The hitch load rating specifies the maximum weight the trailer hitch allows. A gooseneck or fifth wheel hitch can improve the hitch load limit. Weight distribution systems can also shift the weight from the front of the hitch and the back of the towing vehicle to all the vehicle and trailer axles. These modifications don’t increase the vehicle's towing capacity or GVWR, but they do improve the towing equipment performance for heavy loads.

Integrated Trailer and Exhaust Brakes

Most new heavy-duty pickup trucks employ both an Integrated Trailer Brake and an Exhaust Brake system. Both stopping mechanisms are activated when the towing vehicle and trailer slow down.

The integrated trailer brake can be adjusted to deliver the right amount of force for optimal braking and is easily monitored on a controller, usually a screen next to the speedometer.

Exhaust brakes (Jake brakes) use engine gasses swirling through the exhaust to create engine backpressure and aid deceleration. Descending on a mountain pass carrying big bulky loads, exhaust brakes can dramatically slow heavy-duty trucks relieving the stress on brake pads and rotors.

The Silverado 2500 HD, Ford, and Ram heavy-duty trucks are all available with trailer and exhaust brakes. Aftermarket trailer brake systems with controllers are in widespread use on older pickups as well.

Suspension Capability

Most full-sized pickup trucks use rear leaf springs that can be upgraded by adding another leaf or two and re-arching the springs. Front suspensions that typically use coil springs are enhanced by changing to heavier duty springs. While neither modification will increase the towing capacity, they will improve the vehicle’s performance.

Shock Absorbers

The tow vehicle should be outfitted with the best shock absorbers available for vehicles towing trailers. Quality shocks improve vehicle stability and help prevent rapid swaying when the trailer runs on rough roads.

Multiple View Cameras

A backup camera is a welcome addition to both cars and pickup trucks and is available on most new vehicles. They are essential for hauling big loads and even allow pickup drivers to view the trailer hitch from inside the cab for easy solo hitch connections. No more walking back and forth to line up the connection and they help avoid the occasional smashed license plate.

Multiple view cameras are standard equipment on most heavy-duty pickups. The Ford Super Duty trucks offer seven different cameras that can make backing up a trailer a lot easier. With infotainment screens becoming commonplace and in-mirror displays currently available, the affordable technology is appearing across all brands. Backup, cab-mounted, and side-view cameras are also available as aftermarket products.

Drive Carefully

With a trailer in tow, driving at a reasonable speed and allowing enough space between you and any vehicle in front of you is essential for safety. If you are traveling at high speeds and stop suddenly, your trailer can easily skid out of control. A swaying trailer going at highway speed limits is best brought back under control by letting up on the accelerator without applying the brakes.

While driving long distance, a periodic stop to ensure the trailer’s brakes and lights are working, check the tire pressure and make sure the trailer load remains secure is recommended.

Summary

This is just a partial list of pickup truck towing preparations and enhancements that can make the trip a pleasurable experience. Many of the upgrades are now available from the manufacturer on new vehicles and most are available in the aftermarket.

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