Towing Liability: Pickup Tow Ratings explained

Updated Feb 24, 2015

Pickup tow ratings, towing and liability issues

TOWING THE LINE: Pickup tow ratings—and what they really mean when it comes to liability issues and your business

By Bruce W. Smith

“No matter what hitch, suspension, brake, cooling, or engine upgrades you make to your pickup, its towing and load-carrying limits can’t change once it leaves the assembly line.”

It’s a few minutes past 6 a.m. and your crew has to be at the jobsite in an hour.

The crew is grabbing snacks and filling the ice chest with drinks and ice while you top off the fuel tanks on your dually and the compact loader on the trailer.

Your new four-door diesel 4×4 is a dream pickup; comfortable, roomy, and powerful.

In fact, with a towing capacity of more than 16,000 pounds it’ll more than meet any needs for your construction and landscaping business. The little loader you’re towing today, which weighs just a little more than 8,800 pounds, is an easy tow.

You replace the fuel cap, check the hitch to make sure the safety chains are in place and the latch on the hitch ball locked, and head out on the road.

Now imagine being in an accident on the way to the jobsite. There are injuries in both vehicles. To your horror, a lawsuit ensues and you are subsequently found liable for a multi-million-dollar judgment to the injured people.

The reason: Negligent operation of your pickup by towing beyond its maximum towing capacity.



How can pulling a trailered load thousands of pounds lighter than your truck’s maximum towing capacity be wrong? Never happen.

Don’t bet your business on it: The above scenario is an all too real possibility.

Even though you thought your new heavy-duty diesel dually could tow 16,000 pounds, one small detail noted in the owner’s manual was missed: the difference between “weight-carrying” and “weight-distributing” towing limits.

Weight-carrying, or towing in the conventional mode as it’s commonly referred to, means the trailer is hooked to a tow ball or pintle setup attached directly to the hitch mounted on truck’s frame as it comes equipped from the factory.

Weight-distributing, however, is when the trailer is attached to a special weight-distributing (load equalizing) hitch with its spring bars and adjusting chains in use – a setup commonly used when towing travel trailers.

The differences between weight-carrying and weight-distributing hitch setups are worlds apart when it comes to maximum towing capacity: While weight-carrying limits range between 5,000 and 8,500 pounds for heavy duty pickups, weight-distributing ratings can top 18,000 pounds.

In the above scenario, your dually’s maximum weight-carrying capacity was 6,000 pounds rather than the 10,000-pounds-plus being towed at the time of the accident. Such an oversight can be costly in court.

Another often-missed towing caveat in the vehicle owner’s manual is the necessity to use a “sway-control device” on all towed loads beyond a certain weight. Again, this equates to using a weight-distributing hitch, which is a sway-control device.

Towing without regard to the properly-equipped limitations instantly makes the driver face the “Law of Negligence” charge in the eyes of an astute attorney and opens the door wide for a lawsuit.

And don’t think adding a heavier-duty hitch changes the limits set by the vehicle manufacturer:  The only authority legally able to alter a pickup’s tow rating limits is the vehicle manufacturer.

No matter what hitch, suspension, brake, cooling, or engine upgrades you make to your pickup, its towing and load-carrying limits can’t change once it leaves the assembly line.

Tow or haul a load exceeding the original manufacturer’s stated limits and you assume all risks and responsibilities while the vehicle is in motion.


Pickup salesman and ads always tout towing-capacity numbers.

But pickup buyers fail to read the fine print where two words – “properly-equipped” – firmly establish how the vehicle must be setup to achieve those figures.

Towing without regard to the properly-equipped limitations instantly makes the driver face the “Law of Negligence” charge in the eyes of an astute attorney and opens the door wide for a lawsuit.

“A plaintiff who was injured as a result of some negligent conduct on the part of a defendant is entitled to recover compensation for such injury from that defendant,” says Richard Alexander, a major injury trial attorney in San Jose, California, when asked about these towing issues.

“One test that is helpful in determining whether or not a person was negligent is to ask and answer the question whether or not, if a person of ordinary prudence had been in the same situation and possessed of the same knowledge, he or she would have foreseen or anticipated that someone might have been injured by or as a result of his or her action or inaction.

“If the answer to that question is ‘yes,’ and if the action or inaction reasonably could have been avoided, then not to avoid it would be negligence,” warns Alexander.


The negligence issue gets back to the tow vehicle being “properly equipped.”

Those two words are the automotive version of an electrified fence between towing with the full blessing of the vehicle manufacturer and towing illegally.

A properly-equipped vehicle has everything the manufacturer deems necessary to tow up to the maximum towing capacity: the specified engine and transmission; the right bed and cab configuration; the exact axle ratio; and the correct hitch setup.

(These factors are spelled out in the vehicle’s owner’s manual—and on the pickup manufacturer’s web sites. And it’s the responsibility of the vehicle driver to read the owner’s manual.)

The hitch is what determines immediately if a pickup can tow a little or a lot. For example, all Ford, Dodge and GM ½-ton pickups are limited to 5,000-pound trailered weights using a conventional hitch setup, while pre-2010 GM heavy-duty pickups are limited to 7,500 pounds. (The 2010-newer GM HD pickups have  higher tow rating.)

Likewise, pre-2011 Ford F250/350 and Dodge Ram 2500/3500 single-wheel models are limited to 5,000 pounds using the factory-supplied receiver-type hitch; duallys, three tons.

To tow a trailer exceeding the above weights mandates the use of a weight-distributing/load-equalizing hitch. No “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts” are found anywhere in those vehicle manufacturer’s limitations.


Don’t blame yourself for not knowing these little caveats about towing. Automotive manufacturers are always pushing for a marketing edge, and tow ratings play a big role in their sales strategies.

2011 Ford tow rating chart

Almost every ad you see on TV or in magazines shows a truck or SUV towing at or very near its upper limits.

By design or happenstance they don’t show the hitch setup being used.

This leads the average buyer to believe their vehicle can perform in the same manner just like it comes from the showroom floor without the use of any additional towing equipment or accessories.

Unfortunately those who use their pickups hard at work and for play have to live with, and abide by, the tow ratings the vehicle manufacturers set.

Ignore the vehicle’s maximum tow ratings, and words such as “properly-equipped,” “weight-carrying,” and “weight-distributing,” then you assume all responsibility for whatever happens down the towing road. – PT


About the author: Bruce W. Smith is editor of Custom Rigs and author of “The Complete Guide To Trailering Your Boat,” published by McGraw-Hill/International Marine Press.


Manufacturer Towing Info





Look closely at the hitch on your truck and you’ll see the weight-carrying capacity clearly indicated. This number is the maximum weight the hitch manufacturer deems safe for towing with that particular hitch configuration.

The limit indicated on the hitch may be higher or lower than the weight-carrying limit on the vehicle—especially if you’re purchasing a used vehicle whose previous owner installed the hitch.

If the two ratings don’t agree, the lower figure of the two always takes precedence because that’s the limit of the weakest link in the towing connection.




Dually or not, towing compact equipment such as this skid-steer loader almost always requires the use of a weight-distributing hitch setup to be in compliance with the vehicle manufacturer’s towing requirements of the vehicle being properly equipped.



There are limits to how much load your pickup can carry safely as determined the manufacturer.

These limits include how much it can carry on each axle, the total combined weight it can carry, and how much it can tow.  Each of these limits is important to vehicle durability and handling.

Surpass any one of them and you put yourself, your passengers, your vehicle, and those sharing the roadways with you at risk.

Automotive manufacturers provide this information in the form of Gross Weight Ratings listed in the owner’s manual, inside the glovebox, or on the edge of the driver’s doorpost.  Here’s what each rating means:

  • GROSS AXLE WEIGHT RATING (GAWR) is the load-carrying capacity of a single axle. Note that there are separate GAWRs for the front (FGAWR) and rear (RGAWR) axles—and these ratings are limited by the lowest-rated component’s load carrying ability, whether tires, wheels, springs, or the axle housing itself.
  • GROSS VEHICLE WEIGHT RATING (GVWR) is the maximum allowable loaded weight of a vehicle. This weight is the combination of the vehicle’s empty weight (with full fuel tank) added to the vehicle’s maximum payload capacity, plus the weight of the driver and passengers.
  • GROSS COMBINED WEIGHT RATING (GCWR) is the maximum allowable loaded weight of a vehicle and the trailer it tows. It is the sum of the vehicle curb weight plus the weight of driver, passengers, bed payload, trailer tongue weight and towed trailer weight. –BWS




  • 16’ Kaufman skid-steer trailer wood deck (10,000# GVWR)         1,980 lbs
  • 20’ Hudson HBC10 skid-steer trailer (12,230# GVWR)                    2,230 lbs
  • 20’ Big Tex 12FT-20 Tilt-Bed utility trailer (12,000 # GVWR)       3,120 lbs
  • John Deere 320 skid steer                                                                                 6,435 lbs*
  • Bobcat S185 skid steer                                                                                         5,808 lbs*
  • Cat 236B Series 2 skid steer                                                                             7,007 lbs*
  • Yanmar CBL 40 compact backhoe/loader                                              7,750 lbs*
  • Kubota KX 121-3S excavator                                                                         9,987 lbs*

*Would require use of weight-distributing hitch setup to be compliant with all pickup manufacturers’s towing requirements when towed on the above trailers, or trailers of similar weights.