Know what you can tow; SAE changes in trailering capacity testing procedures reflected in manufacturer’s max load numbers

With company owners’ growing concerns of costly liability exposure, contractors, DOT, utilities, municipalities and other trades that use pickups for towing trailers are paying much closer attention to the vehicle manufacturer’s tow ratings.

Multi-million-dollar liability lawsuits stemming from pickups not being “properly equipped” for the weight of trailer being pulled (per the vehicle manufacturer’s guidelines) are a real threat to any corporate entity.

Lawyers facing your company on the other side of the litigation table don’t care what the driver’s excuse was for towing a trailer behind a pickup that wasn’t setup correctly for the trailered weight.

In a court of law, towing beyond a vehicle’s maximum trailered weight, as set by the manufacturer, is still driver negligence.

The reason is simple: The vehicle’s owner’s manual and the vehicle manufacturer’s trailering guides spell out, in detail, how a truck has to be equipped to tow loads safely.

Accordingly, both driver and the company the driver is employed by will take the blame and financial fall should someone be hurt or killed in a towing-related accident.

It’s important to understand hitches and tow ratings if you want your company to remain protected from such liability exposure.


There are two types of towing capacities listed in the owner’s manual and trailering guides: “Conventional” and 5th wheel/gooseneck.

However, in reality there are actually two towing capacities for a pickup – within the conventional towing mode: Weight-carrying and weight-distributing (or weight-equalizing).

Weight-carrying capacity refers to using the factory receiver-type hitch that comes on the truck. These are typically a 2-inch Class III/IV or 2-1/2-inch Class IV/V hitch. In jobsite parlance, this mode is “towing on-the-ball.”

Weight-distributing capacity is using the factory hitch, but replacing the standard ball/shank with a special weight-distributing hitch-head assembly. The W-D head utilizes “spring bars” to help equalize the tongue weight between tow vehicle and trailer.

Gooseneck/5th wheel hitches connect the trailer to special setups mounted in the bed that attach to the truck’s frame rails. These hitches place the tongue (pin) weight of the trailer evenly between the front and rear axles, and in doing so, provides the “maximum” towing capacity advertised by the vehicle manufacturers.


Weight-carrying limits are usually thousands of pounds less than weight-distributing capacities, which are typically several thousand pounds less than those of the gooseneck/5th wheel capacity.

For example, the weight-carrying capacity of most ½-ton pickups is limited to 5,000 pounds, while weight-distributing limits are closer to 9,000 pounds.

That weight capacity difference between weight-carrying mode and weight-distributing mode gets even wider in the heavy-duty pickups.

Towing on-the-ball with a new heavy-duty diesel pickup is limited to less than 8,500 pounds on Super Duties, 5,000 pounds on Ram HDs, and around 13,000 pounds for many GM models.

Meanwhile, weight-distributing capacities for the 2012 HD pickups max out between 12,000 and 17,000 pounds, depending on make/model of the pickup, axle ratio and transmission selection.


Towing limits are affected by cab configuration, engine type, hitch, wheelbase, transmission type and axle ratio.

The latter, axle ratio, is a big towing capacity changer; the difference between 3.73 gears and 4.10s can be as much a 5,000 pounds. So it pays to keep that in mind when spec’ing out your next pickup.

It’s also prudent to understand sales people and advertisements. They sell on the biggest performance numbers – and usually when it comes to towing capacity, those numbers don’t coincide with the pickup you are buying.

You have to check the manufacturer’s trailering guide to see what the limits are for your particular truck, and what towing equipment must be in place for it to be “properly equipped” to handle the trailered load.


To help make you be more aware of how heavy a trailer a new pickup can legally and safely tow – and in what manner – we’ve put together three basic comparison charts by the towing method: Weight-carrying; weight-distributing; and gooseneck/5th wheel.

We’ve broken out the list for ½-tons, ¾-tons and 1-tons. And under each we’ve picked the most popular models and configurations for our ProPickup audience.

Our tow-rating charts on the following pages don’t cover every 2012 model pickup. So we’ve included links to where this information is available on the different manufacturer’s web sites so you can find the data applicable to the pickups you own—or are thinking of buying.

What our tow-rating charts should do is give you a good idea of where different pickups stand in the towing-capacity world – and help you stay out of a potential lawsuit.