From Headlights to Taillights: Towing the Line

By Mark Kozemko, Johnson College’s Automotive Technology Program Director

Original published in the August 27, 2021 edition of the Valley Advantage.

Summertime is not only about vacation time. It’s also about summer fun. By that, I mean camping, boating, jet skiing, and the like, all of which include towing something with your vehicle.

Over the last few weeks, a few readers submitted questions about towing, so I thought we’d answer a few this month.

Our first question is, “I want to buy a boat, but I’m not sure if my vehicle will tow it. Will I have to purchase a truck or other vehicle to get my new boat to the lake?”

It’s a great question. Most people I know who tow something have a truck to pull whatever they’re hauling.

A truck or large vehicle is not always necessary, and here’s why. The first thing you need to know is the camper weight or the weight of the boat with a trailer, jet ski(s) with a trailer, or whatever you’re towing. Usually, the information is on the vessel you’re planning to pull. The camper will have only one weight to consider, but the other towable items will have their weight plus the trailer weight. The total weight of the item and its trailer, if necessary, is called the Gross Combined Weight Rating, or GCWR.

The next thing you need to know is your vehicle’s towing capacity. Your car or truck manufacturer determines the towing capacity and lists this information in the vehicle’s owner’s manual. Of course, you can always Google your year, make and model to find this information, too.

Here are a few examples of towing capacity from A 2009 Toyota Camry can tow a maximum of 1,000 pounds while a 2009 Toyota 4Runner can tow a maximum of 5,000 pounds. A 2009 Dodge Ram 1500 can tow a maximum of 3,800 pounds, and a 2009 Dodge Ram 3500 can tow up to 12,300 pounds.

As you can see from the examples, your current vehicle may be enough to get you — and your summer fun vessel — to your destination with no problems. Just remember, never exceed your vehicle’s maximum towing capacity. Doing so can cause significant damage to your vehicle’s engine or transmission.

“What is tongue weight?” is our second question.

Tongue weight is the weight put on the hitch at the connection of the trailer to the vehicle. A vehicle suspension is designed to carry a certain amount of weight. The weight is mainly made up of the vehicle itself, but the suspension can take additional weight when towing. The car or truck, and a specific hitch class, can carry a certain amount of weight.

If you connect your boat or whatever is on the trailer to your vehicle and the rear of the vehicle sags where the rear bumper is close to the ground, then your tongue weight is probably too much.

Our third question is, “If the tongue weight is too high, does this mean the vehicle is not capable of towing what I have connected?”

If connecting to the vehicle causes too much sag, it most likely means your vehicle cannot tow this particular unit. But, there is a chance the boat or whatever is on the trailer is not positioned on the trailer correctly. Let me explain.

If a boat and trailer have a combined weight of 950 pounds and you’re using a 2009 Toyota Camry that can safely tow 1,000 pounds to tow it, we know the weight is under the maximum towing capacity.

However, if the tongue weight is too high, the excess weight causes the rear of the vehicle to sag excessively. This extra weight can create an unsafe driving condition. When we investigate a bit further, we find the boat is too far forward on the trailer, and this adds to the tongue weight. The boat’s position on the trailer needs to be adjusted to get the boat weight back over the wheels of the trailer. When we do this, the tongue weight and the sagging condition are corrected.

“Do I need a special tow hitch on my vehicle?” is our fourth and final question.

Tow hitches are designated by class. The class of the hitch is determined by the tongue weight capacity and the towing capacity. The hitch class goes from a Class I hitch with a tongue weight capacity of 100–150 pounds and a towing capacity of 1,000–1,500 pounds to a Class IV hitch with a tongue weight capacity of 500 pounds or more and a towing capacity of 10,000 pounds. Your vehicle’s towing capacity will determine what class hitch you should have installed to meet all the safety requirements.

Remember that safety is always first, so be safe, no matter what your choice of summer fun may be.