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Ask Dave: Can I tow a fifth wheel with a 1/2-ton pickup?

Dear Dave,
My wife and I are looking into a fifth wheel purchase. I was wondering if we have to get a 3/4-ton pickup or higher? Or can I tow a fifth wheel with a 1/2-ton pickup? Thanks for any consideration! —Steve, 2021 Forest River Salem FSX

Dear Steve,
There is a difference between towing legally and towing safely, in my opinion. I conduct seminars at RV shows and see the signs all over the place stating “half-ton towable.” Technically, I guess they can state that if you just look at the numbers. So, can you tow a fifth wheel with a 1/2-ton pickup? Technically, yes, but…

I have a 2016 Chevrolet Silverado with a 5.3L gas engine with a crew cab. According to the 2016 Trailer Life Towing Guide, my truck can pull 10,700 lbs. For the past 20+ years, I have worked with the RV Education & Safety Foundation (RVSEF) helping to develop their comprehensive safety program that includes towing guides and especially matching truck to trailer. They recommend not going to maximum weight when towing, but rather reducing it by at least 10 percent as you do not want maximum weight behind you when trying to stop on a hot day or in the mountains. It’s also nice to have a little “oomph” when trying to go up a 6 percent grade. If you are at maximum weight behind you, there’s not much oomph left in the tank. However, I should be able to safely tow 9,630 lbs.

Gross Vehicle Weight Rating

All RVs that belong to the RVIA certification program have a weight sticker that will indicate what the unit weighs unloaded (UVWR, or Unloaded Vehicle Weight Rating) and what cargo weight you can include. This is known as the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR), which is the maximum weight the unit can weigh including water, propane, and cargo.

Looking at these “half-ton towable” units, I see several that list a GVWR at 9,000 lbs. and up to the 9,630 lbs.—such as this example of a Flagstaff model. Even some of the heavier models could be towed if I did not put the whole 2,000 lbs. or more of cargo in the unit and stayed under my goal of 9,630 lbs.

Other weight factors

However, there are other factors to consider such as the hitch weight of the rig and what that will do to my truck’s Gross Axle Weight Rating (GAWR). This unit unloaded has a hitch weight of 1,165 lbs. and most likely much more when I load the bedroom closet and that huge compartment in the front! According to the data plate, my truck has a GAWR on the rear of 3,950 lbs. I have not weighed it to see what my actual weight capacity is. However, I have found most posts indicate the weight capacity is 2,000 lbs.

Of course, my dealer says I can put as much weight in the back as I want! Don’t guess! If I can put 2,000 lbs. in the back and stay under GAWR, then that means there is only 1,950 lbs. on the back end unloaded. Get the actual weights and make sure you know what you are putting in the truck. Also, remember you need to factor in people and that generator you stuck in the back because there wasn’t room in the rig!

Safe towing may not equal good performance of tow vehicle

I have not towed a fifth wheel with my truck as I do not want to install the hitch. But I have towed dozens of trailers and have found that even though I am well under the safe towing weight, I am not happy with the performance of the truck with anything over 6,000 lbs. First, the back end sags considerably, even with less than 1/2 the hitch weight, as it is designed for a smooth ride and has softer springs. My older truck had the Z71 package, which had beefier springs and did not sag. If I were to do any amount of towing, I would add airbags to even out the truck to the trailer, which I have done several times with other trucks. Note, the airbags do not increase any weight capacity!

I ran a company for the past 10 years that had three trucks and trailers covering the country and each put on about 100,000 miles per year. We learned a lot about towing, bearings, and tires the hard way! The F-350 and Chevy 3500 performed the best with the 8,000-lb. trailers and even the 10,000-lb. gooseneck.

Engine performance

Even if you are able to stay substantially below the safe towing weight and the back end can handle the hitch weight, another concern is the power of the gas engine and, more importantly, the torque. A few years ago we purchased a Ford F-250 with the Triton V10 engine. We thought it would handle the 8,000-lb. trailer easily, since it was the same engine powering the larger Class A units at 22,000 lbs. On the first trip out, the truck got 6 mpg and could only hit about 45 mph on a 6 percent grade! My Chevy truck is not much better, although it does get a little better mpg. But the goofy 8-speed transmission is a joke and can’t seem to figure out what gear to use!

A question for you…

I get accused of this a lot, so I’ll add that technically, yes, you can safely tow with a 1/2-ton pickup and gas engine. However, you might not be happy with the performance. And keep in mind, that the F-250 was a 3/4-ton unit but the gas engine failed miserably, in my opinion.

Let’s hear from our readers that have gone through the trials and tribulations of 1/2-ton towing. Leave a comment, please.


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warmonk
9 days ago

simple answer: you can tow it but you can’t stop it.

William
12 days ago

Dave this was an overly complicated answer in my opinion; simply put and tow-capacity aside, only about 1% of the half-ton trucks on the road that are equipped with “max-towing and payload” packages will have the payload capacity for a 10,000 lb. GVWR 5th wheel. Simple math is “about” 1800 lbs. of pin weight, a 150 lb. hitch assembly, a cooler of beer and 500 pounds of passengers/dogs, etc… will exceed the yellow-sticker payload of just about every 1/2 ton truck on the planet.

Left Coast Geek
12 days ago

There *ARE* ultra-light fifth wheels that can easily be pulled by a 1/2 ton, including the Escape 5.0TA, and the Scamp 19…. These can even be pulled by a midsized truck like a Tacoma or whatever.

Gene Sannes
12 days ago

If you wonder what the difference is in towing capacity, think of yourself as the half ton pickup, now put a 100 pound weight on your back and see how comfortable it is to walk and go any distance. Then think of yourself as a 3/4 or 1 ton pickup and put a 20 pound pack on your back. That is the difference between being ABLE TO, vs CAN DO.

allen nesbitt
12 days ago

towed a KZ Durango 1/2 ton 5th wheel for 3 years with a 2016 Ford f150 3.5 liter ecoboost twin turbo. 1st set of brakes were replaced at 100,000 miles. Truck was incredible. at about 220000 miles. I started having very minor issues with heat saturation. Payload is the weak link on any of these trucks. i was running about 150lbs over when fully loaded. sold the truck to my son. he is still driving it. doesnt tow with it.
we are now towing the same 30 foot 5th wheel with a 2022 GMC 2500 HD with the Duramax. plenty of truck for this 5r. tows beautifully. nicer than the 1/2 ton. but to this day that Ecoboost blows my mind. it did an incredible job. truck was light. the 3/4 tows better.

HappyCamper7424
12 days ago
Reply to  allen nesbitt

You hit the nail on the head, Allen. For a half-ton PU you will likely max out on the payload rating for the truck well before any of the other tow ratings.

bill
12 days ago

I didn’t see anything considering the size/weight of the 5th wheel being considered. An Escape 21′ 5er would probably work for most 1/2 ton trucks. The final word is usually in the owner’s manual of the truck and commonly known as GCVWR or Gross Combined Vehicle Weight Rating.
This # will take into consideration the engine size, transmission option, and (most important imho) the rear axle ratio.
For me,to tow anything, it has to be a 1 ton dually, gas or diesel made by one of the TWO American manufactuters … Ford or GM.

John Goodell
12 days ago

Why don’t all these articles stop mincing words and just come out and say that you need a 1-ton truck with a diesel engine? Anything less and you will have to constantly worry about safety, gross weight, cargo capacity, hitch weight, engine power, and mileage. Even if you are with specs with a ‘light’ 5th wheel, or maybe you don’t care what the specs say, you will put a tremendous amount of wear and tear on your half-ton pickup truck.

Bob Palin
12 days ago
Reply to  John Goodell

Why don’t they say that? Because it’s not true. My 3/4 ton diesel handles my 33′ fifth wheel just fine.

Jay
12 days ago

Glad to see the intelligent comments here. Only a fool would tow a 5th wheel with a half ton truck. It should be illegal. Brakes, handling, transmission, power are all inadequate to safely tow a 5th wheel. It would be irresponsible to do it.

Thomas D
13 days ago

ATLAS said give me a lever and I can move the world. Just because the Rv goes down the road doesn’t mean it should be. I had a f250 10 cylinder And very disappointing.we went to a v8 Chevrolet diesel. Only the DEF is disappointing
Performance unbelievable. BIG brakes
Stopping is important as well as going

Zach
13 days ago

I’ve towed all over new england, in my younger days, overloaded in an old dodge 1/2 ton with a 4 speed granny gear and it was never a good thing. The transmission managed to make up for some of the shortcomings of the engine torque and the brakes, but not to the point where I would call it safe or responsible today. I upgraded to 1 ton rear springs and added coil-over shocks on all four corners, but that didn’t do anything to help me when I was tearing up universal joints and driveshafts, or squatting/rolling my axle to the point where the rear pinion angle became a problem. Not to mention being the guy with a line of traffic behind me towing 8k lbs up a hill in granny gear at 5 mph.

Bill Fisher
13 days ago

When my wife and I decided we wanted to move from a travel trailer to a fifth wheel I traded our F150 3.5 Ecoboost 4×4 with the towing package for a new F350 crew cab 4×4 diesel. I never even considered getting a F250 class truck. I advise anyone who asks me to do the same; if you are considering getting a fiver get a F350/3500 class diesel. More power, more load capacity, safer, better towing experience and better all around.

Leonard Rempel
13 days ago
Reply to  Bill Fisher

100% agree! We pull a 35′ Montana which can be up to 18,000 lbs loaded. Our Chevy 3500 dually diesel pulls it like it isn’t there. Uphill or downhill it is so safe and stable and the engine break is a game changer on descent. I can’t tell you how many people I have run into pulling a 5th wheel with a half ton, with absolute white knuckle stories. Not only is is dangerous for you, it is dangerous for anyone else on the same road.

Bob Palin
12 days ago
Reply to  Bill Fisher

Many 1 ton engines are identical to the 3/4 ton, no more power. What they have is heavier duty frames, suspension and sometimes brakes.

Charlie Sullivan
11 days ago
Reply to  Bob Palin

You’re right Bob…and that’s what gives them the 1 ton rating.

Jewel
13 days ago

You left one major point out of your article.

Brakes. Most 1/2 tons don’t come with heavy duty brakes. The engine might take the towing load but can the brakes stop all that added weight?

Gas engines also don’t have engine/exhaust brakes, which make a great truck even better. Those are quite handy in the mountain passes!

Bob p
13 days ago

I disagree, you can legally tow with a half ton, but you can’t safely tow with a half ton. I prefer to use the 15% safety factor and have never had a problem. The problem lies with the truck manufacturers using a standard single cab truck with standard equipment to rate there truck maximum towing capacity. If you’re satisfied with that truck go for it, BUT if you want the type of truck most buy, a crew cab, very well optioned truck with most if not all the bells buttons and whistles then NO! I have seen some 5 passenger crew cabs that had less than 700 lbs load capacity after adding the weight of passengers, a cooler, and a few things most campers carry with them. Adult weights are calculated at 150 lbs, children 50lbs, if you weigh closer to normal weight more calculations are needed. Towing is the easy part, controlling and stopping in an emergency is the hard part.

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