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Image: "Chevrolet 1956 210 Townsman Station Wagon Pulling Trailer" by bespha, licensed under CC BY 2.0
Image: "Chevrolet 1956 210 Townsman Station Wagon Pulling Trailer" by bespha, licensed under CC BY 2.0

RVing can work for almost any budget. You can buy a brand new diesel pusher bus for half a million dollars… or you can buy a used pop-up trailer for $1000 and tow it with the family minivan. If you’re looking to get started RVing on a budget, then a trailer will definitely be your cheapest option, but if you don’t currently own something that you can tow a trailer with, buying a second hand tow vehicle may also be in the cards.

Buying your first tow vehicle and trailer can be pretty overwhelming, especially when trying to make sure your tow vehicle is capable enough to pull your trailer. There are lots of resources out there to help you navigate all the terminology that’s used when talking about tow ratings, but much of the time you may hear “make sure to check with the dealer”, meaning either the dealer when you buy your new truck or your RV. When you’re hoping to save some money by buying both your trailer and your tow vehicle off of Craigslist or Kijiji, this advice isn’t very useful. 

I’ve put together some tips for buying your first used tow vehicle and trailer on a budget. In this first part, I’ll focus on your used tow vehicle. Keep an eye out for a future article in our “Start RVing on a Budget” series with tips for buying a used trailer.

Tip #1: Understand all the different acronyms.

For the tow vehicle:

Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR): The maximum allowable weight of the vehicle when fully loaded. This includes the unloaded vehicle weight, all fluids, cargo, optional equipment and accessories. This value is often printed on the sticker inside the driver’s side door with the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). Do not confuse this with the tow capacity!

Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR): The maximum allowable combined weight of the tow vehicle and the trailer together when they are fully loaded for travel. Do not confuse this with the tow capacity!

Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW): The actual weight of the vehicle at any given time, including all fluids, passengers, cargo, and accessories. This will vary depending on your specific situation.

For the trailer:

Unloaded Vehicle Weight or Dry Weight (UVW): The weight of the trailer as built at the factory. The UVW does not include cargo, dealer installed options, water or propane. 

Gross Trailer Weight Rating (GTWR): The maximum allowable weight of the trailer when fully loaded. This includes the unloaded trailer weight, all fluids, cargo, optional equipment and accessories. This is sometimes also referred to as the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR), which is also used for tow vehicles so can be somewhat confusing.

Gross Trailer Weight (GTW): The actual weight of the trailer at any given time, including all fluids, cargo, and accessories. This will vary depending on your specific situation.

Tip #2: Understand the math.

When looking at a used tow vehicle, the first thing you’ll want to know is the towing capacity. There are some great tools that can help you quickly look the value up for any given vehicle (see tip #6 below), however it’s important to know how that number is calculated, because it can change depending on your scenario or the specifics of the exact vehicle you end up buying, especially when buying a used vehicle. The towing capacity you find in a chart will be valid for the vehicle as it was when it left the factory. If aftermarket accessories have been added, they may change your towing capacity considerably from the rating you see given.

The towing capacity is calculated as the Gross Combined Weight Rating minus the Gross Vehicle Weight. Recall however from point 1 that the Gross Vehicle Weight is not a static number - it depends on how much you have loaded into your tow vehicle at the time in question including cargo, passengers and accessories. The towing capacity that you will typically see published for a vehicle assumes that there’s one 150 lb driver and that’s it! So if you are a big-boned family of 6 with a large family dog who all together weigh 1150 lbs, that’s an extra 1000 pounds of capacity that you no longer have available for towing. The math is the same if the tow vehicle you’re looking at has 200 pounds worth of truck bed liner and cap that were added to it, that’s 200 pounds less than the book-value towing capacity you have available for your trailer.

Tip #3: Decide what trailer you want before you purchase your tow vehicle.

While it may seem like putting the cart before the horse, you really need to know exactly what kind of trailer you’re planning to tow, as this will determine what the towing capabilities of your vehicle must be. You don’t need to absolutely have purchased the trailer, but you need to know approximately what your Gross Trailer Weight Rating (GTWR) will be in order to purchase a tow vehicle capable of handling it. 

Tip #4: Never use the “Dry Weight” or Unloaded Vehicle Weight (UVW) of your trailer when determining how much towing capacity your tow vehicle needs to have.

This value only gives the base weight when the trailer left the factory, and does not include options that may have been added by previous owners, nor does it include the weight of water or propane in your tanks, any of your cargo (your food, clothes, cooking utensils, and other sundry items start to add up quickly), and possibly not even the weight of your RV batteries, which can be significant. This is especially true when you’re buying a used trailer - there may be modifications to it (e.g. a bike hitch receiver, upgraded batteries, etc) that have added considerable weight over the original UVW which aren’t immediately obvious.

On larger rigs you may end up well below the GTWR after all is said and done, but on smaller, more inexpensive rigs you will almost certainly end up near it once you add your gear, so always use this value when looking at the towing capacity you will need.

Tip #5: Decide what kind of tow vehicle will work for your needs and your price point.

There are essentially 4 different options when it comes to tow vehicles:

  1. Mini-vans.

    These typically have a towing capacity of 3000 or 3500 lbs, and in addition often have a (rarely mentioned) limit on the square footage of the frontal area of the vehicle that you’re towing. For example, a 2007 Dodge Grand Caravan has a maximum tow capacity of 3600 lbs, but in small print in the technical specs you’ll find “Trailer frontal area not to exceed 32 square feet.” While many people ignore this detail in the specs, it’s something to keep in mind. But regardless, the weight capacity limits you only to popup trailers and some very small trailers, e.g. teardrops or fiberglass “bowlers”. Most minivans only have a 6-cylinder engine, so you’ll have very sluggish performance when towing. For this reason, you don’t want to be towing very far or very often with one of these, and definitely not very fast!

    Also note that minivans are almost all front wheel drive, which means that when the hitch weight pushes down the rear, the wheels at the front that propel the car forward won’t get as much traction as they typically do. This may be a problem if you’re ever trying to get up a sloped gravel road on a rainy day.

  2. Small “crossover” SUVs.

    These may have a towing capacity of up to 5000 lbs, although some may have a capacity of only 3500 lbs or even less. Note that these have what is known as “unibody” construction, like a car. Some examples include:

    • Hyundai Santa Fe XL
    • Toyota Highlander
    • Ford Explorer
    • Chevy Equinox

    The unibody construction of these vehicles means that, unlike a truck, they do not have a frame which takes the weight during towing, but rather the towing stresses are spread across the entire body of the vehicle. Like a minivan, you won’t want to be too near the maximum tow capacity for very far or very often. Also ensure that you look exclusively at All Wheel Drive (AWD) crossovers and avoid Front Wheel Drive to avoid the same issues that minivans encounter when towing.

  3. Full-sized SUVs.

    These usually have body-on-frame construction like a truck does, although modern versions are sometimes unibody construction (so technically they’re “crossovers”, but they have higher towing capacities than most of the smaller ones). These may be a good option if a pickup truck is of no use to you when you’re not towing, or if you’d rather have room for extra passengers than cargo. The towing capacities of these are not as wide ranging as pickup trucks though, and typically range from 6200 - 9000 lbs.  Examples include:

    • Dodge Durango
    • Jeep Grand Cherokee
    • Toyota Land Cruiser
    • Nissan Armada
    • Ford Expedition
  4. Pickup trucks.

    There’s a very wide range of options, price points, and towing capacities here, but a pickup truck can be rated for anything from as little as 2500 lbs on a Ford Ranger to over 24,000 lbs on a Ford F550. Because of this wide range and the different options that change towing capacities, you’ll have to do the most work here to make sure that your chosen vehicle’s towing capacity is actually what you’re looking for.

Which of these options you choose will very much depend on the following factors (in order of importance):

  1. How much you need to tow, i.e. how big a trailer you’re planning to purchase.

    If you’re towing a 26’ 5th wheel, then a pickup truck is clearly your only option.

  2. How many people you need to fit in it.

    If you’re a family of 6, then most crossover SUVs won’t have enough seating (although a few might). If there are only 2 of you, then a regular-cab pickup truck might be just fine (assuming its tow capacity is high enough - see tip #6 below.)

  3. How much you plan to drive it when not towing.

    A minivan or crossover SUV may be appropriate for your daily drive to work, but a truck or large SUV may be too fuel inefficient to use daily when not towing. 

    Keep in mind that the newer the tow vehicle you buy, the more fuel efficient it will be, but it will also be much more expensive. A 2014 Ford F-150 V8 will be more fuel efficient than a 2004 version, but the price difference can be prohibitive if you won’t drive it often enough to reap the fuel economy savings. It’s entirely possible that it may make more financial sense for you to buy a beater truck that gets used almost exclusively for towing, and keeping a more fuel-efficient small car for your daily drive. 

Tip #6: Check out Trailer Life Magazine’s Towing Guides for guidelines on towing capacities for different vehicles.

These guides are an invaluable resource when trying to determine what the towing capacity is for any particular vehicle. For most vehicles, you’ll need to know the following values to get the exact towing capacity:

  • The trim level of the vehicle (“SLT”, “XL”, “LE”, “Premium”, etc.)
  • The engine size (e.g. 3.5L V6 or 4.7L V8)
  • The drivetrain type (2WD, 4WD, AWD)
  • The cab size, in the case of a truck (standard, crew cab, supercrew)
  • The wheelbase length (typically only applies to trucks where there are multiple options depending on the bed chosen).
  • The axle ratio (usually only applies to trucks where there are various options, this can usually be determined based on the VIN - see tip #9 below).

A new guide is released for each model year, so if you’re considering purchasing a 2006 Dodge Durango with a 5.6L engine and 4-wheel drive (that happens to be what we purchased), you can check the 2006 Guide where you’ll see this chart:

From this I can see that my towing capacity is either 7,150 lbs or 8,650 lbs, depending on whether my axle ratio is 3.55:1 or 3.92:1, respectively. I went to test drive it knowing that either value was more than adequate to tow my trailer that had a GTWR of 3800 lbs plus my family of 4 and any cargo we might put in the tow vehicle.

Tip #7: Look up any vehicle of interest on Car Complaints.

This isn’t really specific to buying a tow vehicle, but it’s a useful tip when buying any used vehicle, especially on a shoestring budget. One of the advantages of buying an older car is that there’s lots of information out there on what makes and models turned out to be lemons. For instance, we seriously considered buying a Ford Explorer until I drove one with a bad transmission. At first I thought it was just that one, but a quick check on the Car Complaints website indicated that this was a major problem with Ford Explorers built between 2004 and 2007. (The 2007 versions earned their “Beware of the Clunker” seal, whereas the 2004 through 2006 versions were given the “Avoid Like the Plague” seal!) Whatever model and year you’re looking at (and you may not want to tie yourself to one model if the used vehicle market in your area isn’t huge), make sure to look it up here before you even bother to check it out in person.

Tip #8: Ensure any vehicle you are looking at has the factory installed tow package.

This is very important! While you might see a vehicle with a hitch receiver in the pictures, many owners may install aftermarket hitch receivers to attach hitch-mounted bike or cargo racks, etc, so a hitch receiver is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the vehicle being suitable for your needs. A factory installed tow package includes much more than just a hitch receiver, it also includes important things like an auxilary transmission cooler and possibly upgraded suspension and transmission gearing to support towing. Be sure to ask the seller if it has a factory tow package before bothering to going to see it. When test driving the vehicle, you should usually see a 7-pin connector next to the hitch receiver, and you should be able to pop the hood and find the auxiliary transmission cooler right in front of the radiator, like this:

Note that when searching on Autotrader, Kijiji or Craigslist, you can try to include “tow package” in your search terms, however you’ll find that many listings don’t include any details about the tow package in their ad. Using the presence of a hitch receiver in the pictures can sometimes be a good first step at narrowing down your search results, but always confirm with the seller and then confirm independently that the tow package has been installed before purchasing a vehicle.

Tip #9: Look up all the specs on the vehicle you’re considering so you can pinpoint the exact tow capacity yourself.

Never trust the seller to tell you the correct tow limit! 

It doesn’t matter if you’re buying a beater pickup truck from a sketchy guy in a parking lot or a 2-year old certified used vehicle from a reputable dealer, always make sure you’ve looked up the exact specs of the vehicle and cross-referenced those with the owner’s manual to know the exact towing capacity before you purchase. Salesmen in a dealership can’t be expected to know the true towing capacity of every vehicle on their lot, especially when it varies by wheelbase, axle ratio, cab size, and engine size. It is not unheard of for a salesman to quote the highest tow capacity for a truck without realizing that it doesn’t have the right axle ratio for that value.

The exact specs for a vehicle that you’re looking at can be looked up using the VIN for the vehicle. Find this inside the driver’s door frame, on a sticker that looks like this:

Once you've got the VIN, there are 3 ways you can try to lookup the specs for the vehicle:

  1. For most vehicles you should be able to look up the general specs online with a VIN decoder. There is one at https://www.ford-trucks.com/forums/vindecoder.php. (Note that this works for all makes and models, not just Ford trucks! You'll find the same VIN decoder on other forums too, they all seem to point to the same place.)

    It is however important to note the caveat of the tool:

    Note: This product is intended to provide a general description of the information generated by the entered vehicle's Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and some pieces of data may be general to that specific model and not entirely accurate for the vehicle specified.

    This tool works by decoding the VIN and giving the general details of the TYPE of vehicle that it indicates. So it may not be able to accurately tell you if there is a tow package installed on the vehicle you’re looking at, and you should take it all with a bit of a grain of salt, as it will not know the exact options that were on the vehicle you’re looking up. For instance, with my Durango, it does not list the tow package in the “equipment” section, as it was an option and not standard. 

    It should however be able to tell you things like the axle ration on the vehicle, the wheelbase, the trim level, and any other details that the seller may not seem to know offhand. It may also give you an indication of the towing capacity on the "specs” page (although again, it may show a range, as it may depend on the options on your specific vehicle). Assuming your vehicle is properly equipped with a tow package, this value is probably more reliable than the value in the Trailer Life Towing Guide, and pay attention that you may see details here like different towing capacities with or without a weight distributing hitch, which isn’t in the towing guide.

  2. Try and find the build sheet for your vehicle online. Some manufacturers will have a tool that allows access to their database to get the exact options that were installed on your vehicle when it left the factory. Here are some links and tips:

    At this time I’m not aware of any other manufacturers that have a tool available for use online. If you know of one that I’ve missed let me know in the comments.

  3. Finally, you should always be able to go into a dealership for the make of the vehicle you’re looking at with the VIN and request that they look up the original build sheet for you and print it off.

Tip #10: Check out all the amazing resources available to help you understand all this stuff!

There are some great resources out there which can really help you understand the basics of tow vehicles and matching them to trailers.

  • Mark Polk of RV Education 101 is an industry leader in knowing about how to calculate the real tow capacity of a vehicle and what capacity you need to tow a trailer that you’re interested in. I recommend his Trailer Towing Basics course which includes sections on how to tow and backup a trailer too which will come in handy later. The course is $39USD, but can also be bought as a package with 3 other courses that will introduce you to using, maintaining, and winterizing your trailer for $89USD.
  • If you can’t swing the cash for one of Mark Polk’s courses, the second best thing is to listen to him talk about towing on one of the many podcasts that he’s been a guest on. Most recently he was on the RVFTA podcast talking about matching trucks to trailers, or you can listen to him on an episode of the Girl Camper podcast where he got into the nitty gritty of tow vehicles and answered lots of great questions from host Janine Pettit. 
  • Finally, if you’ve got questions that need to be answered in person, there is almost always at least one seminar about tow vehicles at any RV show. Head there and ask your questions to the host of the seminar. Since they’re not trying to sell you anything (not directly, anyway), you’ve got better odds of getting an honest answer about whether the vehicle you’re considering will tow the trailer your considering. The Go RVing site usually has a list of RV shows (Canadian shows here, and US shows here) so you can look for one coming up in your area.

Now comes the hard work - get out there and start pounding the pavement and find yourself the right tow vehicle for the right price! Good luck!
 

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