What Does Tow Rating Mean?

When it comes to towing a trailer, camper, boat, or other cargo, the tow rating is arguably the single most important specification to consider. Exceeding your vehicle’s max towing capacity even slightly can overload components leading to disastrous failures, creating dangerous handling deficiencies, and leaving you stranded roadside or worse.

Yet understanding the various tow ratings can get confusing quickly – Is it tow capacity, hitch rating, gross vehicle weight rating, or something else that matters for your pickup or SUV? And where do you even find the tow rating for your specific vehicle configuration?

This comprehensive towing guide answers those questions and more by clearly defining the most critical weight ratings, capacities, and terminology every tow vehicle owner must know.

What Does Tow Rating Mean?

What Does Tow Rating Mean

We’ll demystify precisely how vehicle manufacturers determine max tow ratings as well as key differences like braked versus unbraked ratings.

You’ll learn how component upgrades can enhance towing capacity and why factors like transmission capability often constrain the total weight you can pull more than sheer engine power.

With clarification on gross combined vehicle weight ratings, trailer tongue weight limitations, and how to configure your optimal towing setup while maintaining crucial safety margins, understanding tow ratings ensures your next haul stays within legal limits and is disaster-free.

The tow rating refers to the maximum weight that a vehicle can safely pull or tow. It is one of the most important specifications to consider when selecting a tow vehicle and trailer.

Understanding tow ratings ensures that your vehicle has the capability and capacity to safely tow the trailer and cargo you need to haul. Exceeding tow ratings can overload the vehicle, risking component failure or loss of control.

What Determines Tow Rating?

Tow ratings are determined by vehicle manufacturers based on testing and engineering specifications.

The major factors that affect the tow ratings include:

  • Engine power and torque – More powerful engines with higher torque outputs allow heavier towing loads.
  • Transmission and gearing – Transmissions must be robust enough to handle towing loads without overheating. Lower gears provide more torque for towing.
  • Chassis and frame – The chassis and frame must provide enough rigidity and support for towing stability.
  • Suspension – Suspensions are tuned for ride quality and control when towing heavy loads.
  • Brakes – Larger brakes with advanced features like trailer sway control allow safer stopping when towing.
  • Tires – Tow ratings assume properly inflated tires with adequate load ratings.
  • Cooling systems – Upgraded cooling systems maintain proper temperatures when working hard under towing strain.

Manufacturers test vehicles under maximal towing loads to validate the tow rating. Tow ratings are typically listed in the owner’s manual or on placards in the vehicle.

What Affects Tow Rating Numbers?

Many components and factors determine how much weight a vehicle can safely tow. As such, actual tow capabilities can vary significantly between vehicles.

  • More powerful engines, sturdier frames, heavy-duty transmissions, and larger brakes allow higher tow ratings.
  • Towing equipment like the hitch and wiring harness has an associated max tow rating.
  • The vehicle’s Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) and Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR) limit total towable weight.
  • Opting for a towing package from the manufacturer increases the vehicle’s max tow rating.
  • Even same-model vehicles can have very different tow ratings based on factors like engine, drive type, cab configuration, etc.

Always refer to towing guides for your exact vehicle configuration to determine the maximum towing capacity.

Braked Vs Unbraked Towing Capacity:

Two tow ratings matter – the braked towing capacity and unbraked towing capacity:

  • Braked Towing Capacity – Maximum weight the vehicle can tow when the trailer has its separate brake system
  • Unbraked Towing Capacity – Maximum weight the vehicle can tow a trailer without a separate brake system

Braked trailers have much higher tow ratings since the trailer brake system assists the vehicle brakes in stopping the added weight. Unbraked tow ratings are extremely low by comparison.

Never exceed the unbraked towing capacity unless your trailer has properly functioning trailer brakes. Always refer to the brake type assumed for the stated tow rating.

Gross Vehicle Weight Rating vs Tow Rating:

The Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) is the maximum allowable weight of the fully-loaded vehicle itself. This includes:

  • Curb weight of the vehicle.
  • Weight of added passengers and cargo.
  • Weight is borne by the axles (GAWR).

The GVWR must exceed the maximum loaded vehicle weight when towing. If GVWR is exceeded, component damage or failure could occur.

Compare GVWR to tow ratings to make sure total vehicle-plus-trailer weight stays within safe limits.

Gross Combined Weight Rating vs Tow Rating:

The Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR) is the maximum allowable weight of the tow vehicle and loaded trailer combined.

  • It includes curb weight, passenger/cargo weight, tongue weight, and loaded trailer weight
  • The vehicle chassis, suspension, axles, tires, hitch, and brakes must handle GCWR
  • The vehicle’s engine and transmission must provide enough power to propel the GCWR

Towing capacity decreases as more cargo weight is added to the vehicle, so cargo capacity is reduced when max towing.

Gross Trailer Weight and Gross Trailer Weight Rating vs Tow Rating:

  • Gross Trailer Weight (GTW) – The actual loaded weight of the trailer itself plus all cargo
  • Gross Trailer Weight Rating (GTWR) – The maximum allowable weight of trailer and cargo, as set by the trailer manufacturer

The GTW and GTWR help determine how much weight the trailer adds to the total towed load. Make sure:

  • GTW < GTWR (never overload trailer)
  • GTWR < vehicle tow rating
  • GTWR plus vehicle loaded weight < GCWR

Tongue Weight and Tongue Weight Rating vs Tow Rating:

The tongue weight is the downward force the trailer’s coupler/hitch applies to the vehicle hitch at rest:

  • Typically 10-15% of loaded trailer weight
  • Affects weight distribution behind the vehicle’s rear axle
  • Helps stabilize the trailer so it doesn’t sway

Tongue Weight Rating is the maximum tongue weight the vehicle hitch can handle. Excess tongue weight overloads the rear axle and suspension.

Gross Axle Weight Rating and Gross Axle Weight vs Tow Rating:

Gross Axle Weight Rating (GAWR) is the maximum allowable weight pressing down on an axle:

  • Established by the vehicle manufacturer
  • Exceeding GAWR risks axle/suspension damage
  • Front Gross Axle Weight Rating (FGAWR)
  • Rear Gross Axle Weight Rating (RGAWR) – Important for tongue weight!

The actual Gross Axle Weight (GAW) must stay under GAWR thresholds – this is difficult when towing near capacity.

Curb Weight and Dry Weight:

Other key vehicle weight definitions:

  • Curb Weight – Weight of vehicle with all fluids/tanks full
  • Dry Weight – Weight without any fluids or consumables

Knowing curb and dry weight is useful when calculating available cargo capacity both in the vehicle and when towing heavy loads.

Tow Rating of a Tow Setup:

  • The tow rating of a complete towing setup is limited by the lowest rating among these components:
    • Vehicle tow rating
    • Trailer weight rating
    • Hitch rating
    • Weight distribution bar rating
    • Sway control rating
    • Any other towing system component
  • Even one overloaded component can compromise safety, stability, and control
  • Consult ratings for each towing system part before assembling – don’t discover low ratings during use!

Top Trailer Brake Controller Brands:

Brand Notable Features
Curt Echo Wireless operation, digital display, automatic leveling
Tekonsha P3 Proportional braking, 3 boost levels, compact design
Draw-Tite I-Stop Slidebar controller, LED display, wireless capable
Hopkins Agility 10 power levels, digital readout, easy installation
Reese Power Wright Vibration feedback, storable display, quick calibration

Common Tow Rating FAQs:

  1. Where do I find my vehicle’s tow rating information?

Check your vehicle owner’s manual or door placard. Towing capacity should be listed along with any requirements (certain models, packages, etc).

  1. What is the vehicle component most likely limiting the total tow rating?

The engine and transmission are most often the limiting factor – their torque output and cooling capacity determine overall capabilities.

  1. Why are weight-distributing hitches required for towing heavy loads

They redistribute tongue weight to help avoid overloading either axle and enhance stability and braking performance.

  1. What is the penalty for exceeding tow ratings?

Exceeding any weight rating risks vehicle damage, loss of control, denied insurance claims, and serious accidents. Don’t do it!

  1. Do accessories like a bike rack reduce my tow rating?

Yes – anything attached to the vehicle adds weight and drag, cutting into total capacity. Even empty racks decrease ratings slightly.

  1. Can I safely tow a 5,000 lb trailer with a vehicle rated for 5,000 lbs of towing capacity?

No – there should always be at least 10-15% headroom within ratings to accommodate conditions and allow a safety margin.

  1. Do different cab configurations change the max tow rating?

Yes – extended and crew cabs place more weight behind the rear axle, necessitating lower ratings in some cases.

  1. Can I increase my truck’s tow rating by upgrading components?

Yes, upgrades to cooling systems, gearing, and brakes can safely increase tow ratings. But consult the vehicle manufacturer first.

  1. Do electric vehicles have lower tow ratings than gas/diesel trucks?

Typically, yes – the range tradeoff and electrical power limit total towed load, though ratings continue to improve.

  1. Where can I weigh my fully loaded vehicle plus trailer?

Many truck stops have scales onsite to obtain accurate gross combined vehicle weights as a towing safety check.

Suggested Guides:


Understanding tow ratings is a critical responsibility for tow vehicle owners. Exceeding any weight rating compromises safety.

Study your setup’s ratings to maximize safe cargo capacity, stability, braking, and control – never just hitch up and go!

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