Three pickup tow ratings

TOWING BASICS: Max Trailer Capacity


by Bruce W. Smith


Three numbers dictate a pickup’s maximum towing capacity not one: weight-carrying; conventional towing; and 5th wheel/gooseneck


Despite what the advertisements and sales associates pitch related to a pickup’s maximum towing capacity, every pickup  actually has three different towing capacities — not one.

This is important to understand if you 1) tow heavier loads, and 2) want to keep out of potential liability and insurance issues.

Read the owner’s manuals and manufacturer’s online towing guides carefully and two maximum towing capacities are listed, conventional and 5th wheel/gooseneck. Manufacturer’s 2012 Towing Guides online: FordGMDodge/Ram.

A third maximum tow rating, weight-carrying, is hidden in the fine print or noted at the bottom of the guides. Most of us know this type of trailering method as towing- on-the-ball.

(Conventional “weight-carrying,” as touted by the vehicle manufacturers in their advertised tow ratings, requires the use of the factory hitch with  a weight-distributing, or some call it weight-carrying hitch assembly. A W-D hitch is NOT a factory or dealer-installed option.)

Towing on the ball

The lowest towing capacity for a pickup is pulling a trailer using the factory receiver hitch and ball/shank. It’s called “conventional weight-carrying” mode.

For the majority of 1/2-ton pickups towing in this manner limits trailers to less than 5,000 pounds while  HD pickups typically have a maximum weight-carrying capacity between 5,000 and  7,500 pounds. (Ram HDs, for example are limited to 5,000 pounds towing on-the-ball.)

Remember, this rating is the weight of the trailer and the load it’s carrying.




Manufacturer's web-based trailering guides are a good source for towing requirements and capacities. Just read the footnotes and fine print closely.




Towing with a W-D hitch

To achieve the vehicle manufacturer’s maximum “conventional towing” capacity as listed in the sales brochures and TV ads requires the use of a weight-distributing (W-D) hitch assembly.

This is an aftermarket towing setup that slides into the factory receiver hitch and has “spring bars” that attach to the trailer. The use of a W-D hitch is mandated by the vehicle manufacturer when the trailered load exceeds that limit set for towing on-the-ball as mentioned above.

The words “when properly equipped” in the owner’s manual and stated in the manufacturer’s towing guides apply specifically to the use of a W-D hitch.

Tow a trailer without your pickup being “properly equipped” makes you bear the full burden of liability in the event of a towing-related accident.

Should that accident lead to someone getting injured or killed, be prepared to face, and most likely lose, a huge lawsuit.

So, to summarize, three pickup tow ratings, not one: Towing using the factory hitch and ball/shank; towing using the factory hitch with a weight-distributing setup; and towing using a 5th wheel or gooseneck hitch.  â€” Pro

NOTE: ProPickup’s editor, Bruce W. Smith, is also the author of “The Complete Guide To Trailering Your Boat,” which is a must-read for anyone who is a recreational boater.