Half-ton trucks: What to know before you tow

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Half-ton towing safety

By Tony Barthel
How much can you tow with a half-ton pickup? It might surprise you that there is no single answer to this. It may also surprise you that your very light travel trailer may be much more than your V8 pickup is supposed to handle. 

What a half-ton pickup can tow varies widely depending on how it’s configured. Just because your truck has the big V8 and a tow receiver and, potentially, even a “tow package” doesn’t mean you can tow a trailer even if that trailer has the word “light” or “half-ton towable” as part of its description. 

Even within the same manufacturer, the capability of any half-ton truck model can vary substantially – even with the same engine choice. And there is also the matter of how close to the edge of any vehicle’s capabilities an owner should even get – which is subjective but still a safety concern. 

And, really, it’s not even how much you can tow that’s the most important consideration. It’s how easily you can stop or control the trailer if there is sway that is the most important factor, especially if things get squirrelly out there on the road. 

Nonsense, you say? Fine. Let’s look at the numbers. 

Because I own one of these, I’ve chosen to look at the Ram 1500 for this example. 

You might take a look at this thing and see the big 5.7 liter V8 with almost 400 horsepower and 410 ft-lbs of torque and think that you could tow your house. Perhaps add your neighbor’s house too. 

But in configuring that truck, you have choices including gear ratios in the axle which can be favored to either maximize efficiency or maximize towing. For example, the 2021 Ram 1500 with a 6’4” box offers either a 3.21 or 3.92 rear axle ratio. Essentially, the more the engine spins, the more it is able to tow (I realize this is a huge oversimplification, but bear with me). 

So the 3.21 axle ratio is designed more for fuel mileage, whereas the 3.92 is designed more to deliver power to the ground. Yet, looking at all the Ram pickups in the lot, you couldn’t tell the difference from one to the next with just this one factor in play. And it’s just one factor in many. 

There isn’t a singular definition of a half-ton truck. There are also all sorts of interesting engine choices nowadays. For example, Ford has its EcoBoost series which is a twin-turbocharged six-cylinder engine that is the equal of most V8 engines. Even more, Chevrolet has a turbocharged four-cylinder engine that is rated to tow within 20 lbs. of that company’s V8 in the same truck. 

Furthermore, if you choose America’s best-selling truck, the Ford F150, the standard engine in most of those is also an EcoBoost but with a small 2.7 liter turbocharged V6. Those trucks come with a receiver hitch and can even be outfitted with towing features from the factory. Ford even claims those trucks can tow up to 9,000 lbs. with a 2,470 lb. payload capacity. 

But in a Facebook group I moderate, this configuration is probably the truck where people ask about recommendations for replacing the truck with something more powerful. The numbers say one thing – the real world along with its pesky gravity and physics demonstrate something different.

So you could see two nearly identical half-ton trucks with wildly different towing and cargo capacities. To make it even more confusing, just one option can make a huge difference in how capable a truck is for towing. 

Full-sized pickups are an incredible mixture of features and options and engines, unlike anything you’d find in passenger cars or even SUVs. In addition to the variables described above for gear ratio, things like two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, cab configuration and more will absolutely affect the overall tow rating of any pickup – but particularly half-ton trucks. 

Tires, brake sizes, spring rates and a myriad of factors affect what a truck is rated to tow and reality also dictates how much it can safely tow. 

Furthermore, as truck fuel economy standards imposed by the Federal government increase, you’re going to see more and more unusual engine choices come to market – exemplified by GM’s turbocharged four-cylinder pickup engine in full-sized trucks. Ford’s forthcoming hybrid F-150 has been getting tremendous press – not because of the 4 mpg fuel economy boost, but because of the power port in the bed that taps into the lithium battery pack. 

So how do you know what your truck can carry? It’s actually rather simple after all this. Inside the door of every truck sold in the U.S. is a sticker that will display the Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR) of the truck and trailer as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) J2807 towing standards. 

J-2807 towing tests
The types of loads used to determine the SAE J2807 towing standard.

From that information, you subtract the weight of the truck and anything in it. That gives you the maximum weight of the trailer it can accommodate. But wait … there is also a maximum cargo-carrying capacity of any truck, also listed on the door jamb. 

If you have a trailer you need to know the tongue weight or pin weight in the case of a fifth wheel as you go camping. So, not the weight from the manufacturer, but what it honestly weighs in the real world with all your travel stuff loaded in it. For the sake of guessing you can go with the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of the trailer as a safe assumption, but you’re best off having the whole thing weighed at a CAT scale or comparable scale. 

So, with all this in mind, let’s look at my own truck. Plug in your numbers accordingly. 

We’re looking at a truck that can tow, according to the manufacturer, 8,520 lbs. with a cargo carrying capacity of 1,900 lbs. Wow, that’s almost a ton of cargo. Let’s load up! But wait…

So, within that, you have to add the tongue weight of the trailer. If we look at an average “light” trailer like the Rockwood Mini Lite 2514s that I reviewed you’ll see it weighs an estimated 5,879 lbs. with a hitch weight of 585 lbs. So that means you’re in the clear, right? Well, hold on. 

People often underestimate how much their contents weigh in a trailer, so let’s go with the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating of that trailer as mentioned above. Now we’ve got a rig that could weigh 7,588 lbs. That means the hitch weight could be about 1,138 lbs. 

Typically, about 15 percent of a travel trailer’s total weight is actually carried by the tow vehicle in the form of tongue weight. Those cast iron pots, bicycles, all that water in the trailer, the food in the fridge and those winter jackets all count. More often than not, people load RVs to the hilt without thinking about it. You can’t ignore the storage tanks, tools, those wood blocks and all sorts of other stuff though, can you?

But weight, there’s more (see what I did there?). You, your spouse, the kids, that firewood, the generator and those ice chests are all cargo in the tow vehicle. So let’s say you and your spouse add up to 400 lbs. (we won’t be specific who weighs what here), which is not unreasonable. A couple of kids at 50 lbs. each, plus Fido, who weighs as much as the kiddos. That means there are 550 lbs. of people and pets alone. 

Now you’ve also got 25 gallons of gasoline at 6.3 pounds per gallon, so add 157 pounds to the tow vehicle. Yep, it’s cargo too. 

Don’t forget the firewood, generators, bicycles, leveling wood blocks, picnic table, etc.

Also important is the hitch you have on the back of the truck. I weighed my own Equal-i-zer hitch and was surprised it was almost 100 lbs. That’s weight taken off the total weight my truck is designed to carry. 

So, while you might look at the brochure for the truck and the trailer and think all is well in the world, in reality, you may be way over capacity. And that’s with a trailer that has the word “Lite” in the name! I’ve seen people with three kids and two dogs and a camper shell full of stuff want to tow something like the Cherokee 294BH Bunkhouse Travel Trailer we reviewed. In fact, I had a customer show up with an SUV wanting to tow one of these. It didn’t pencil out even before he added his four kids and any content at all in the trailer. 

In theory, if you just look at the brochure you’re fine. Until you do the real numbers. And then you may be endangering those three kids, two dogs and your spouse with a vehicle that is severely underrated to tow what you want to tow. 

And should you even tow an RV?

Interestingly, Ram’s towing page shows any of their half-ton trucks for towing “boats, ATVs and trailers” but indicates the Ram 2500 for towing “horses, RVs and just about anything else.” So aren’t RVs basically trailers? 

Well, yes. Sort of. 

RVs are a gigantic wind block which brings another factor into the towing realm. In addition to the actual weight of the vehicle, there’s also overcoming the aerodynamic drag of the vehicle. The rear springs in Ram’s 2500 model are a totally different design than in the 1500, and payloads are significantly higher at 3,330 lbs. compared to 1,900 lbs. for the Ram 1500 Big Horn – which is the model I have. 

One of the things I really dislike about SAE’s J2807 is that it’s measured with flat trailers with heavy loads on them. This is all well and good but doesn’t reflect the incredible aerodynamic drag that is a travel trailer or fifth wheel. This is why I recommend never exceeding about 70% of your truck’s towing capacity because there really isn’t a way for us mere mortals to factor in these numbers. 

It is relatively easy to calculate what your tow vehicle can tow with the numbers provided by the manufacturers. But it was surprising to many customers when I was working at the RV dealership that we would tell them a specific half-ton pickup wasn’t suitable to tow a trailer they were interested in. Yes, even those “light” trailers. 

There were times we would lose a sale to a customer when we were honest with them, but we always thought this was preferable to their losing their lives due to a tow vehicle poorly suited to what they wanted to tow. 

Click here for the chart I used to determine that my V8 half-ton truck was unable to safely tow a 5,800 lb. trailer.

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Ed Fogle
4 months ago

Remember, you can change the tongue weight without changing the trailer weight by redistributing the contents. The article seemed to be focused on max tongue weights.

C H
4 months ago

I ending up with a Winnebago Micro Minnie because it was the lightest (3800lbs dry weight, 7000lb GVWR) double axle bunkhouse. I figured as long as I pack light, I can stay within my F150’s tow limit of a nominal 7600lbs, packing all the cargo in the trailer so that only 15% of it counts as payload. Between the truck manufacturers competing in bogus numbers and the trailer manufacturers taking advantage of that to be lazy with weight, it’s no wonder so many people are overloaded.

Terry
4 months ago

I tow a 8420lb travel trailer with a half ton Silverado with max trailer package. I’ve towed up and down 13 percent grades. Ran with the 80mph traffic on the interstate and very seldom hold up traffic on two lane black top. I haven’t noticed any problem with the “little” truck. I suppose it’s what you get used to. I’ll borrow a bigger truck to see if there is a big difference and report back

Bob P
2 months ago
Reply to  Terry

Towing at 80 mph you are crazy and stupid, with the tires that are on RVs you’re risking your family’s and everybody else on the road with you lives. Research research research, don’t end your lives in ignorant bliss.

Neal
4 months ago

“Inside the door of every truck sold in the U.S. is a sticker that will display the Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR) of the truck and trailer as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE)”

The VIN sticker shows the GVWR. Not the GCWR.

Ken Stroupe
4 months ago

Great article, slightly disingenuous closing statement.

Your truck is more than capable of safely towing that trailer. (It’s your cargo that’s the problem! LOL!)

But your hitch weight is assuming full trailer GVWR. Your trailer cargo shown is 700# less than maximum.

What would new new figures be if you take the cargo out of the truck (215#) and put it in the trailer and adjust tongue weight to 12% (perfectly safe) and maybe reevaluate your dishware?

Or am I reading the spreadsheet wrong?

Perfectly timed article as I’m ordering a 2514S to replace our Geo Pro 19FD tomorrow and am shopping a new TV that be my wife’s daily.

Doug
4 months ago

would be great if the “chart” were not an image, but a shared link that would let us make/download a copy (very easy in Google Sheets).

Mark
4 months ago
Reply to  Doug

Yes, a link to a template spreadsheet would be appreciated. Excellent article. Gave me even more info to work with. Thanks.

Gary G
4 months ago

One can tow a “great amount” with any 1/2 or 3/4 ton truck, but controlling it is another matter.

Alain Tasse
4 months ago

Tony, such a great article. One more thing to calculate is each axle’s individual capacity. We tow a 4950 pound travel trailer with a 4×4 suburban tow-rated for 8,000 pounds. When all is weighed and w.d. hitch perfectly balanced, we’re just under a few hundred pounds of each axle’s load limits. As you stated, physics do tend to creep on us unexpectedly!!

Donald N Wright
4 months ago

wish I could print your chart.In the words of the Aliner guru, “take less stuff”.

ron
4 months ago

It would be a safe bet to say 90% of all tow vehicles on the road today are over the recommend weight limit.

Irv
4 months ago

Good article, especially the focus on the door sticker and cargo capacity.