Through our own search for a new travel trailer, we discovered early on that it will save a whole lot of time to only look at those we can safely tow. Or, be prepared to buy a new tow vehicle. In our case, we want to stay with our Nissan Xterra a while longer. So, we had to learn some points about safety while towing an RV.
Safety First When Towing an RV
How Much Weight Can I Tow with My Car, SUV, or Light Duty Truck?
I've done extensive research on this topic. As far as I’m concerned part of the camping experience is the journey on the road. I don’t want to have to struggle pulling my camper trailer or have any feeling of being unsafe while towing an RV.
The other issue is that even if the manufacturer of your tow vehicle (TV) states a certain towing capacity or GVWR, it doesn't mean you should be towing an RV that weighs that much.
Terms and Weights That You Must Know
Note that weight ratings will differ depending on engine, transmission, and whether it’s a 4x4 or not. So make sure you identify the correct rating for your specific vehicle. You can typically find this information online by just Googling your vehicle.
Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) for Your Tow Vehicle
Manufacturers will publish the GVWR of your vehicle. You may see it listed on a sticker in the driver’s side door opening. Or you can just look it up online. The GVWR is the total weight your vehicle is rated to carry including its own weight.
If the weight of your vehicle is part of the maximum weight you can carry with the vehicle (GVWR), you must determine the weight of your vehicle before added options like a trailer hitch, bike rack, roof racks, etc. That is called the curb weight.
Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW)
To determine how much additional cargo you can carry take your curb weight, add the weight of a full tank of gas, and the weight of the passengers. There are 2 variables to add to this number which is the weight of any cargo you can add to your tow vehicle plus the tongue weight of your travel trailer. This is your GVW.
Our Nissan Xterra has a curb weight of 4,152 lbs. When I add passengers and gas it brings the GVW to 4,649 lbs. Our GVWR is 5,200 so we have 551 lbs. left for cargo and the tongue weight of the camper trailer. The tongue weight of the best lightweight travel trailers we have found is a little more or less than 400lbs. Every travel trailer manufacturer will publish the tongue weight in the description. In our case, this only gives us an additional 150 lbs. of cargo that can go on or in our Xterra.
Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR)
Now that you know how much your tow vehicle can carry and you’ve estimated what it actually will carry on the trips, you must now determine how much weight you can add by towing an RV. So, you must find the GCWR of your vehicle.
The GCWR is the weight of your tow vehicle GVW with passengers, fuel, cargo, and tongue weight plus the total weight of what you will be towing. To determine how much weight you can safely tow subtract the GVW including tongue weight from your GCWR. This will tell you how much weight you can put behind you while safely towing an RV.
The GCWR of our Xterra is 9,659 lbs. The GVW of our loaded-up Xterra including tongue weight of 400 lbs. is 5049 lbs. That means the maximum weight we can pull is 4,610 lbs. That is significantly different than the 5,000 lb. tow capacity and 5,200 lb. GVWR that is published by Nissan. This is why it is important that you take the time to do this calculation yourself before you buy and start towing an RV.
GVWR of Your Travel Trailer versus Dry Weight
There are 2 important numbers or ratings you want to pay attention to regarding your travel trailer. The first is the dry weight. Dry Weight is simply the trailer without any additional options, dry tanks, and no cargo. Travel trailer manufacturers will give you the dry weight in their description of the trailer. Note that some manufacturers label this as Dry Weight while others label it UVW (Unloaded Vehicle Weight).
Actual Weight You’ll Be Towing
To determine the weight that you’ll have behind you while towing an RV, you’ll have to estimate what options you might add and what stuff you’re bringing (griddles, chairs, hoses, clothes, all of it). In other words, what you’ll be adding to the Dry Weight.
If you’re going to be boondocking you’ll also need to add the weight of your full freshwater tank. Travel trailers usually have about a 30-gallon capacity. Water weighs approximately 8 lbs. per gallon. That’s an additional 240 lbs.
Make sure the total weight of your travel trailer (dry weight plus everything you’ll be adding) is under the GVWR of the trailer. You’ll see below that the GVWR typically gives you plenty of leeway for bringing the items you want.
Just 3 of the Many Travel Trailers Available with a Dry Weight of Under 3,600 lbs.
The Magic Number
Also, make sure this weight is under the total you can tow behind your tow vehicle. For instance, our maximum weight is 4,610 lbs. If we add 1,000 of cargo to our trailer (which isn’t hard to do) that means we need to be looking at a travel trailer with a Dry Weight of 3,600 lbs. or less. 3,600 lbs. is our magic number for towing an RV. We can now go with confidence and look at travel trailers with a Dry Weight of 3,600 lbs. or less.
Added Safety and Comfort While Towing Your Lightweight Travel Trailer
Even if you go through the above calculation and determine a safe dry weight for your travel trailer you must still realize that you are going to be pulling a couple of tons behind you. Those tons are made up of a wall of aluminum that has a relatively high profile with a lot of that weight high above the chassis. And remember, what you’re towing weighs almost as much as your tow vehicle. That makes for some sway while towing and a whole lot of sway when being passed by tractor-trailer trucks.
Distribution Hitch with Sway Control
It will cost up to $800 or so but the peace of mind while driving our family will be more than worth the cost.
To fully understand the added safety and comfort benefits watch the video below.
If you're handy and know your way around vehicles you can install this yourself. Check the price on Amazon, Fastway e2 2-Point Sway Control Trunnion Hitch, 92-00-0600, 6,000 Lbs Trailer Weight Rating, 600 Lbs Tongue Weight Rating
One More Safety Feature You Should Have - A Trailer Brake Controller
If your tow vehicle does not have an integrated brake controller you will want to add one. This will electronically control the brakes on your trailer when you hit the brake pedal in your tow vehicle. By activating the brakes in your travel trailer it will slow the trailer down. If you do not have a brake controller you will be expecting your tow vehicle brakes to do all the work of slowing and stopping up to 5 tons of weight. Not only will this wear out your tow vehicle brakes quicker, it simply is not as safe.
Most States require an Electronic Brake Controller for trailers over 3,000 lbs. Some, like Delaware, require a Brake Controller for trailers over 4,000 lbs. Some states have this requirement for trailers that weigh even less. To check the laws concerning brake controllers in your state and those of states you'll be traveling in visit State Requirements for an Electronic Brake Controller.
To learn more about brake controllers and to see a very simple brake controller option that you can install yourself watch this video.
As you can see in this video, installation is not that difficult. If you feel that you want to install it yourself, click below for pricing on Amazon, Tekonsha 90250 Prodigy RF Electronic Brake Control
Going through these calculations and finding the numbers takes a bit of time. The good news is that you only need to do it once. And it will save you stress and anxiety while on the road towing an RV. It may even save your life, the life of someone in your family, or someone with whom you're sharing the road.
If you have a towing capacity of around 5,000 lbs and have calculated your Magic Number be sure to visit our article, Best Lightweight Trailers for a 5,000 lb. Towing Capacity.