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How to Pick the Right Tow Vehicle for Your Rig

Truck camping is an economical way to travel often and travel far. Some people spend entire seasons in their vehicles or travel this way full-time. For most of us, however, we could use a little extra room. To ensure you tow your extra living space safely, you need to do some research on what you need in a tow vehicle.

1. Start With the Tow Vehicle or the Trailer

There is a big debate when it comes to picking your tow vehicle or trailer first. Consider your budget and planned camping style above everything else.

When To Start With the Trailer

I know many people who purchased a travel trailer only to discover their vehicles cannot tow it safely. Consequently, the trailer is the safer starting point of the two. Here are some additional reasons to start here:

  • You have the budget to buy whatever truck it will take to tow the trailer you end up choosing.
  • You have an incredibly capable tow vehicle that can withstand whatever impulse buy you end up taking home.
  • You have no idea what you’re looking for, so it’s best and safest not to get a truck first because that will limit your options.

When To Start With the Tow Vehicle

Picking the truck first is the more risque of the two options, but it was the option I chose. Here’s when you should consider this route:

  • You already have a vehicle that can tow at least 2,000 lbs.
  • You know precisely which truck you want and will commit to its towing constraints.
  • You have budget constraints or size constraints and want to use the vehicle to keep you in line.

I started with the FJ Cruiser because it was the adventure rig that topped out everything on my list. I had also already decided that I wouldn’t tow anything over 22 feet long. My current rig is 21 feet and 4 inches long.

2. Understand Towing Weights

Regardless of whether you start with the tow vehicle or the trailer, you will need to understand how weight works in the towing world. These are the main things to keep in mind:

  • Dry Weight: This is what your trailer weighs when the tanks are empty and you have no personal items inside.
  • GVWR: Gross Vehicle Weight Rating is the maximum safe weight of a particular vehicle.
  • GAWR: Quite often, the Gross Axle Weight Rating is the same as the GVWR but not always. It determines how much weight the axles can handle.
  • CCC: Cargo Carrying Capacity or just Cargo Capacity is the difference between your GVWR and the dry weight—give or take a few pounds.
  • Tongue Weight: This is the weight of the front of the trailer that will sit on the ball hitch of your truck. The tongue weight is usually 10% to 15% of the trailer’s GVWR.
  • Payload: This is the maximum weight your tow vehicle can safely carry. When towing, this includes the tongue weight. Keep this in mind if you intend to bring the entire family and tow a trailer.

3. Follow the 80 Rule for Towing

Trucks are built to take a beating, but towing is not one of those times you should push its limits. When trucks tow above their capabilities, accidents become extremely likely. Consequently, experts recommend towing at under 80% of your vehicle’s towing capacity.

My FJ Cruiser has a max towing capacity of 5,000 lbs. That means that anything under a GVWR of 4,000 lbs is fair game. It also means that it can tow every trailer in the TAXA lineup, except the muscular Mantis Overland.

That said, you will start to feel the weight of your trailer once you get to around 30% of your vehicle’s max tow rating. So, the sweet spot you should stay under for top performance is around 60%. By that logic, the Cricket Overland is the ideal trailer for an FJ Cruiser.

4. Consider the Tow Vehicle’s Wheelbase

When setting a limit on the length, keep your wheelbase in mind. The general rule of thumb is that the first 110 inches of wheelbase give you 20 feet of trailer length. Thereafter, you get an extra one inch of trailer length for every additional four inches of wheelbase.

So, what happens if you tow a trailer that is too long for your vehicle? It creates instability on the road. All you need is one good crosswind to hit the side of that trailer. Your vehicle will not have enough contact with the road at the proper angle to counter the force of the wind and the weight of the trailer.

5. Mod Your Vehicle for Towing

If you buy a capable pickup truck with a towing package, you likely won’t need to add anything. When you tow with a smaller vehicle or you are close to maxing out your tow vehicle’s capabilities, mods improve safety:

  • Trailer Brakes: Larger vehicles are harder to stop and you will experience this, no matter how small your travel trailer is. Trailer brakes slow the wheels of the trailer, so your vehicle’s brakes aren’t doing all the work. Check your state requirements here.
  • Weight Distribution Bars: The general rule of thumb is that you need a weight-distribution hitch once the trailer weighs half or more of your tow vehicle’s curb weight. This hitch ensures your tongue weight works as it should, to reduce sway.
  • Anti-Sway Bars: Sway can also stem from not packing your trailer properly. Aim for 60% of the trailer weight to ride toward the front. Also, try to balance the weight on both sides. If you still experience sway after repacking, you need anti-sway bars.
  • Suspension Airbags: The single greatest towing mod I made to my FJ Cruiser was to add airbags to my rear suspension. It prevents sagging from the tongue weight. This allows me to tow level, which improves stability and fuel efficiency.
Photo Credit: Alexis Chateau

While all the information provided here is offered in good faith, I am no mechanic. I brought my truck to the shop before purchasing my trailer and you should too. Mechanics are the best professionals for helping you determine how to pick the right tow vehicle and what trailer to match it to.