Towing the Line

July 3, 2008 07:11 AM

What You Need To Know About Tow Ratings

You're looking at purchasing a new pickup for the farm and one of the key factors in your buying decision is how much can it tow. After all, who wants a pickup on the property that can't pull its weight – and then some – when livestock, equipment, fertilizer, fencing materials or large square or round bales of hay need to be transported to and from the fields?

Tow ratings are every bit as important to the farmer as horsepower and bed length – and more so than fuel economy. Which explains why tow ratings are one of the most popular topics vehicle manufactures use to woo potential pickup buyers to the showrooms.

While the horsepower numbers game is straightforward and verified by third-party sources, towing capacities are an entirely different animal.

It's not that the manufacturers are lying about their vehicles tow ratings. Rather, they are only giving you the part of the story that sounds best to make the initial sale.

The touted maximum tow ratings for just about every brand pickup and SUV offered today is based on the vehicle being "properly equipped.” Properly equipped means the vehicle can tow the touted weight only when it has the right engine, transmission, axle ratio and body style as noted by the manufacturer. In all cases, pickup manufacturers require a gooseneck or 5th wheel trailer setup to tow the absolute maximum trailer weight they have established as that pickup's "maximum” towing capacity.

The next level down in towing capacity requires the use of a weight-distributing hitch. A W-D hitch is the style that uses spring bars and adjusting chains to balance the trailer load to the tow vehicle. You see this hitch setup used all the time on travel trailers.

The lowest towing capacity is towing the trailer by just hitching it on the ball-and-shank coming out of the factory receiver hitch. This is what farmers typically do because of the need for expediency and convenience. Towing a trailer in this fashion is called towing in the "weight-carrying” mode.

Believe it or not, if you look in the owner's manual of just about every 1/2- or ¾-ton pickup, you'll find the vehicle manufacturer limits the weight-carrying towing capacity to less than 7,000 pounds – and most are limited to 5,000 pounds.

Tow a trailer weighing more than the amount the manufacturer lists without the tow vehicle being "properly equipped” and you are risking warranty issues and putting yourself and your farm at great risk from a liability standpoint should an accident occur with said trailer in tow. (It's easy to prove to a jury that you were towing in an unsafe and reckless manner.)

Very few stock and utility trailers can be towed with a weight-distribution hitch. The reason is simple: Many of these trailers use a surge-type braking system that depends on the tongue of the trailer moving about an inch fore-aft to engage the brake master cylinder located just behind the ball coupler mechanism. A typical sway-control device or weight-distribution hitch interferes or incapacitates the trailer's surge-type braking system.

What this comes down to is you must understand the tow ratings that are advertised and lauded by the sales person and how they apply to the vehicle you are buying or the size trailers you intend on towing on the farm. (Read the towing section of the truck's owner's manual before you buy.)

If you do plan on towing big, consider a hidden gooseneck system that keeps the bed free-and-clear when running solo. Or, if you must tow a big trailer equipped with surge-type brakes, utilize a Reese SC weight-distributing hitch system or an Equal-i-zer hitch ( Both are designed or surge-type brake systems – and either one will maximize your new truck's towing capability – and keep you out of hot water.–Bruce W. Smith

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