Choosing a Tow Vehicle - Part II

Choosing a Tow Vehicle - Part II

Foggy morning at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in southern California

Foggy morning at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in southern California

In Part I, we talked about weight ratings and capacities of the tow vehicle and trailer. This is by far the most critical aspect of choosing a capable tow vehicle that is safe to tow. Please read that first.

In this section we will talk about the considerations we made in choosing the tow vehicle for our 2011 25 FB Airstream trailer.

What came first, the tow vehicle or the trailer?

When choosing a trailer and a tow vehicle, there are generally two approaches:

1.     Choose the trailer first, and then choose a tow vehicle that can accommodate it.

2.     Choose the tow vehicle first, and find a trailer that you can tow it with.

Sarah and I decided on the first option, and really don’t see the point of the second unless you already own a capable tow-vehicle. Our old Toyota RAV4 is capable of many things – but towing a trailer is definitely not one of them!

Once we settled on an Airstream, and specifically a 25-foot Airstream, we were off to the races searching for a tow-vehicle.

What did we want?

·      First and foremost, it had to be capable of safely towing a fully loaded trailer, including up and down mountains (and living in Colorado, there are plenty of mountains). Note that at higher elevations you lose a little horse power, some Colorado passes are as high of 11,000 or even 12,000 feet. Some mountain passes have 7-8% grades (up and down). We had to educate ourselves on the various tow ratings and capacities (which are covered in Part I of this post). We were not interested in any V6 engines, we wanted V8 or above to get us up hills more easily and perform better at high elevation, and if possible, a max-trailering/max-towing package to give us even more towing capacity and better engine braking going downhill.

·      Good gas mileage. We weren’t expecting miracle gas mileage while towing our trailer, but we anticipated driving as much or more without the trailer and so gas mileage is important.

·      Capable of driving off-road (decent clearance and 4WD) for our adventures when the trailer was parked. Again our Toyota RAV4 can do very limited off-road (and we have pushed it further than we should), having a truck with higher clearance and better 4WD capability is a nice perk and will allow us to get to places we haven't been able to reach before. Trucks are wide, heavy (will accelerate quickly even in 4L down steep hills), and do not have the tight turning radius of a Jeep, but for many flatter or straight 4WD roads, high clearance and 4WD is good enough.

·      It had to have a roomy and comfortable interior large enough to support two humans and two cats. For a truck, this means having an extended cab (four doors), and no suicide doors (back doors that open the opposite direction of the front doors and require that the front doors are open).

·      As large as necessary to tow the trailer but no larger. We didn't want some behemoth dually full-ton diesel pickup that could tow 30,000 lbs. when we only needed 1/3 of that.

·      Gas (instead of diesel). Diesel engines will (typically) last longer and are much more fuel-efficient and have more torque, but they are more expensive to maintain, louder, and smellier. Some gas stations do not have diesel and some that do, only have it for a few bays.

·      An included towing package. We were not interested in installing an aftermarket trailer brake controller, or receiving hitch, or anything else. We wanted it all to be integrated from the start.

We contemplated purchasing larger SUV (there are only a handful out there that can tow a trailer), but ultimately decided that a truck would be more versatile and much more capable.

Which Truck?

Spoiler alert: The Chevy Silverado!

Spoiler alert: The Chevy Silverado!

Once we narrowed it down to a truck, we had to decide what class of truck we wanted: half-ton (Ford F-150, Chevy Silverado 1500, GMC Sierra 1500, RAM 1500, etc.), three-quarter ton (Ford F-250, Chevy Silverado 2500, GMC Sierra 2500, RAM 2500), or full ton (Ford F-350, Chevy Silverado 3500, GMC Sierra 3500, RAM 3500). Unfortunately the Toyota Tundra did not have the towing capabilities sufficient for our 25 FB trailer. These classes originally referred to the payload of the truck, see Part I for more on payload.

Now days, a “half-ton” pickup can usually carry a lot more than a literal half-ton, but the “half-ton” nomenclature remains. The three-quarter and full-ton pickups have a more robust frame, better engine braking, and much higher tow ratings. They are also larger, heavier, more stiff when driving, and much less fuel-efficient (in fact, because of their large size and towing capabilities, the EPA does not require them to report fuel-economy ratings).

While we briefly discussed getting a three-quarter ton truck, our heart was on a half-ton pickup. They are smaller and more fuel-efficient, and the larger models are more than capable of towing our fully loaded Airstream, even up and down steep grades. Half-ton trucks are also cheaper!

New or Used?

One of the “fun” parts of this project was finding out how expensive trucks really were! Another realization is that while the used-truck market is fairly robust, most people really use their trucks. There were not many used trucks with low mileage and those that had low mileage were almost as expensive as a new truck. So we decided to pay a little more for a new truck that we could abuse ourselves, rather than be at the mercy of a truck that someone had abused before us.

Our Choice!

After a lot of research, dealer visits, and test-driving we settled on a 2014 Chevy Silverado 1500 double cab 4WD with a EcoTec3 5.3L V8 engine (The EcoTec3 automatically switches between 8 and 4 cylinders, increasing fuel-efficiency). Our particular model was one of four in Colorado that had a max trailering package, which includes a higher axle ratio and tow rating. It had the highest towing capabilities of any V8 half-ton pickup, and also the best gas mileage. We also liked the interior more than the Ford F-150, and preferred normal rear doors rather than the "suicide" doors on the Ford. The main initial drawback was the color – black – we would have preferred red or blue or silver, but we were on a time crunch and the selection of trucks with the max-trailering package was limited.


After 6 months of travel and 24,000 miles of driving, we are still happy with our decision. While towing we get 11-13 MPG, which we expected. When not towing, we easily get 20 MPG on the highway, which is better than we expected. It is much more quiet than we anticipated, and drives very smooth (it certainly doesn’t feel like you are driving a stiff truck). We have driven it up and down the mountains in Colorado (including the 5,000 ft up and down passes on I-70 west of Denver) easily, and some 8% grades. The cruise control, console display, stereo, back up camera, and trailer break controller all work great. We have driven on some sandy 4WD "roads" in California and Utah (without the trailer!), and some 4WD in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado and the truck has handled great so far.

Our only complaint is that we wish the area under the rear seats was flat (as they are on the Ford F-150), which would make it more practical to use that area for storage.

There are some people who argue against having a half-ton pickup truck towing larger trailers such as our 25 foot Airstream, but to us that's nonsense. If you have enough towing capacity, a weight-distributing (and anti-sway) hitch, and drive with common sense you will be more than fine.

It is now almost 2016 and the tow vehicle landscape has changed a little since our purchase almost a year ago, but we expect to be happy with our Chevy for a long time and many more miles. The important thing when choosing a tow vehicle is that you are happy with it, some of our "must haves" might not be important to you, and you might care about things that we don't (or you might be towing a much larger or heavier trailer, where a half-ton pickup doesn't make sense, or where the higher torque rating on a diesel engine is important to you,). This is an expensive choice that you have to live with and you should make it on your own terms and not anyone else's.

Choosing a Tow Vehicle - Part I

Choosing a Tow Vehicle - Part I

Happily parked at the beautiful Belle Campground in Joshua Tree National Park

Happily parked at the beautiful Belle Campground in Joshua Tree National Park

Choosing a tow vehicle for your trailer is a complex process, the goal of this post is to make it as simple as possible without skipping over the critical details. Anyone looking for a tow vehicle (or looking for a trailer for their existing tow vehicle) should find the information useful. We also go into the factors that informed our tow vehicle choice for our Airstream (spoiler alert: We decided on a 2014 Chevy Silverado 1500 EcoTec3 5.3L V8 4WD) in Part II.

Caveat: I do not have an advanced degree in towing or tow ratings or tow vehicles, so please do not take this as the final word, but rather as a good starting point. I did spend an inordinate amount of time researching this stuff, and have put together the most salient points for your current benefit (and my future benefit, when I forget most of it as I inevitably will!).

Tow Ratings and Towing Capabilities

Before we start, it is important to get some definitions and math out of the way. The single most important factor in choosing a tow vehicle is that it can safely and reliably tow your trailer. In order to do this, we have to talk about weight ratings and towing capacity. Keep in mind that truck dealers and RV dealers are usually more interested in making a sale, and less interested in whether your tow vehicle/trailer combination is safe. It is always best to do the research yourself beforehand, rather than to rely on the dealer providing accurate information. Even if they do not try to intentionally mislead you, they may simply not know enough to help you make a good decision. Also just because you can tow a trailer with a specific tow vehicle doesn't necessarily mean you should. It is best to plan for the worst case (a loaded pickup and trailer up and down mountains) rather than the best case (an unloaded trailer, flat roads, no wind, etc.). Usually those who try and cut corners own a tow vehicle already and want to justify a larger trailer.

We do not talk about hitches in this post (perhaps in a future post), but they also play an important role in safely towing your trailer. In our opinion, a hitch that has anti-sway control is a must, and one that has weight distribution is also very useful especially for smaller tow vehicles.

There are several important weight ratings that you need to pay attention to. These ratings are all maximums - the most weight you can carry/pull/etc - your truck will usually perform better when the actual weights are lower. These ratings can be found in the owner's manuals and brochures for the specific tow vehicles and trailers. We also provide the ratings for our tow vehicle and trailer below.

On the tow vehicle (most commonly a half-ton or larger truck):

GVWR – Gross Vehicle Weight Rating. This is the maximum weight of the tow vehicle and cargo (includes passengers and fuel). Often this value is displayed on a sticker inside the tow vehicle.

GCWR – Gross Combined Weight Rating. This is essentially the GVWR plus (or combined) with the maximum weight of the trailer and the trailer's cargo.

Towing Capacity – The maximum weight of the trailer (including the trailer's cargo) that the tow vehicle can tow. This is the most important number for your tow vehicle. While you might assume this should be GCWR – GVWR, in practice the towing capacity is actually a little higher (there are some reasons for this, but they are rather technical so I will skip over them).

GAWR – The gross axle weight rating. This is the maximum weight that can be placed on an axle (this includes the truck/engine/frame/etc., not just the cargo). There is one rating for the front axle, and another rating for the rear axle. These are usually different, and the rear axle GAWR is usually higher on trucks. Note that the front axle GAWR plus rear axle GAWR is usually slightly higher than the GVWR of the tow vehicle. Neither of the three ratings should be exceeded.

Payload – How much cargo weight the truck can support. This does not include fuel (in other words, this number assumes you have a full fuel tank). Passengers and cargo are counted against the payload.

On the trailer:

GVWR – Gross Vehicle Weight Rating.  Like the tow vehicle GVWR, this is the maximum weight of the trailer plus its cargo, including full holding (water/gray/black) tanks. Keep in mind that a gallon of water weighs 8.3 lbs. On our 25 FB Airstream our combined three tank capacity is about 120 gallons or 996 lbs. (though we rarely travel with all tanks full, usually a full gray tank means a mostly empty fresh water tank and our black tank is rarely full).

Base Weight (or Dry Weight): This is the weight of the trailer without any cargo and with empty holding tanks. This is used to give you an idea of how much cargo you can fit into your trailer before you reach the GVWR (GVWR - Base Weight - full holding tanks = approximately how much stuff you can put in your trailer).

Tongue Weight: This is the weight of the front part of the trailer, and it counts directly against the payload of the tow vehicle. Usually it’s about 10-15% of the GVWR of the trailer. Without a weight distribution hitch, the tongue weight will be on the rear axle of the tow vehicle, with a weight distribution hitch that weight will be spread among all axles of the tow vehicle and trailer. Weight distribution hitches are often critical for smaller tow vehicles. There is some controversy over whether using a weight distribution hitch (which actually distributes some weight back to the axle of the trailer) will give you back a little payload. In my opinion, it's safer to assume that it does not, and that the tongue weight, regardless of whether you use the weight distribution hitch, will always count fully against the payload. It's better to err on the side of having too much capacity than too little.

Making sense of the weight ratings

Now that we have the definitions out of the way, here is what you need to know to be safe:

  1. The towing capacity of your tow vehicle must be greater than the trailer GVWR (the max weight of the trailer fully loaded). While technically they can be equal and still be “up to code”, it is better to have a buffer on your tow vehicle (20% is a number we see often, we have a buffer of about 50%). Also if you are on the fence about what size trailer you want, having extra capacity on your tow vehicle means you might be able to get a larger trailer without having to get a new tow vehicle.
  2. The tongue weight of the trailer counts against the payload of the truck. The weight of your hitch also counts against the payload of the truck (some hitches do not weigh that much, our ProPride Hitch is pretty hefty at 195 lbs.). Even if you have enough towing capacity on your tow vehicle to tow your trailer, your available remaining payload can be decreased significantly. If you plan on carrying a lot of cargo (kids, dogs, a heavy generator, bikes, tools, etc.) this could become a factor.
  3. The tongue weight (plus the weight of your hitch) by default will be on the rear axle of your tow vehicle, and you may exceed the rear axles GAWR. We have a weight-distributing hitch so that this weight is spread among the axles of the tow vehicle and trailer.

To only way to accurately measure the weight of your trailer (full or empty), tow vehicle (full or empty), and axle weights is to use a scale (such as a CAT Scale which are located across the US). This will also help you calibrate your weight distribution hitch more accurately than using the time-honored “eyeball” method.

Example Weight Ratings

Here are some real-world examples of these ratings using our tow vehicle and trailer to give you a better feel for these ratings. You can find these ratings in the brochures or websites for your trailer and tow vehicles.

Our tow vehicle (2014 Chevy Silverado 1500 V8 4WD with max-trailering package):

GVWR: 7,200 lbs. (max weight of truck plus cargo plus passengers plus fuel)

GCWR: 16,700 lbs. (GVWR plus max weight of the trailer and the trailer cargo)

Towing Capacity: 11,200 lbs. (max weight of the trailer and the trailer cargo, notice this is higher than the GCWR - GVWR of 9,500 lbs.)

GAWR front axle: 3,950 lbs. (max weight on the front axle)

GAWR rear axle: 4,100 lbs. (max weight on the rear axle)

Payload: 1,866 lbs. (the max weight of cargo that can be placed in the truck)

Our trailer (2011 Airstream 25 FB, just under 26 feet long):

GVWR: 7,300 lbs. (the max weight of the trailer plus trailer cargo plus full holding tanks)

Base Weight: 5,600 lbs. (the weight of the trailer with no cargo and empty holding tanks)

Tongue Weight: 837 lbs. (the amount of weight of the trailer in the front at the tongue, counts against the payload of the truck)


Based on the above weight ratings, you can see that:

  • The towing capacity of our truck is 11,200 lbs., and the GVWR of our trailer is 7,300 lbs. That gives us an excess capacity of 3,900 lbs (over 53%), which means we could upgrade to a larger trailer and still have a buffer. If we were really negative, and assumed our towing capacity was 9,500 lbs. (GVWR - GCWR), we would still have a buffer of 30%.
  • Our payload (1,866 lbs.) minus our tongue weight (837 lbs.) minus our hitch weight (195 lbs.) gives us 834 lbs. Subtract out humans and felines and we are left with 430 lbs. If we have two full 6-gallon water jugs that's down to 330 lbs. A "small" 2000W generator and that's down to 270 lbs. of payload. The numbers can add up quickly. If you are close on payload you can opt to carry some cargo in the rear of the trailer, as long as you don't go over your trailers GVWR or your towing capacity. For us, we have excess towing capacity so if payload becomes an issue, we can carry more things in the rear of the trailer.
  • The base weight of our trailer (5,600 lbs.) plus full holding tanks (996 lbs.) is 6,596 lbs., which means we can carry an additional 704 lbs. before reaching the trailer GVWR of 7,300 lbs.

Now that you have an idea of what all the numbers and weight ratings mean, you can pick the appropriate tow vehicle for your trailer, or the appropriate trailer for your tow vehicle, if you already own a tow vehicle.

For more about our towing vehicle selection process, please see Part II.

Review: Zamp Solar 200 Watt Portable Solar Charging System - ZS-200P

Sarah and I purchased our trailer with the intent of using it anywhere, including places with no hookups or only partial hookups. We will take and pay for hookups if we have to, but we did not want to be limited to places that only had hookups. There are many scenic locations that have no hookups at all, and our trailer has holding tanks and batteries for a reason!

Why Solar?

Batteries alone are not enough for an extended trip without hookups, we need a way to supplement our power and re-charge the batteries. The two most common methods for this are generator power and solar power. Sarah and I own a Yamaha EF2000iS portable generator. It works great, but at the end of the day it's still a generator. Even though it's a "quiet" generator it's only quiet relative to other, louder generators, it still puts out a decent amount of noise. It's smelly and requires regular maintenance and a constant supply of gas (we may look into converting it for propane use for convenience). Though it is loud and smelly, it can be used to quickly bring our batteries from 50% to 80%, and works whether the sun is out or not.

We wanted to supplement our generator with solar power. Actually that's not true, we want the generator to supplement the solar, and only be used when we do not have access to sunshine due to weather, or a completely shaded campsite.

Solar is clean and quiet and largely maintenance free (solar cells usually have warranties of 20-25 years), but requires direct (non-shaded) access to sunlight to work.

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