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Apr 25, 2024

12 min. read

A Beginner's Guide to Towing a Trailer

Illustrations courtesy of Guilherme Henrique.

Whether you're looking to haul a Jet Ski to the nearest lake, or you want to rent a camper trailer for a road trip, learning how to tow can be a game changer. But there’s a lot to consider before pulling out of the driveway. — Matt Bubbers


Check your owner’s manual to find out if, and how much weight, your vehicle can tow. If you’re still not sure, ask your dealer or contact the manufacturer. “My truck’s limit is 10,000 pounds, so I don’t tow more than 7,500 pounds,” says Ryan Peterson, manager of automotive services for CAA Club Group. “I never exceed 75 percent of my tow limit.” Why? Staying well under the limit leaves a margin of safety, plus it puts less wear on your vehicle and makes for a better towing experience. That said, a tow vehicle is a hefty investment, and buying one that is clearly over your basic needs can be prohibitive. For drivers who will occasionally be close to maxing out their vehicle’s towing capacity, consider investing in some additional gear to make the journey safer—sway-control bars help mitigate side-to-side trailer movement, and a weight-distribution hitch can help to level the trailer and tow vehicle.

A Beginner's Guide to Towing a Trailer


Here are some key terms and numbers you’ll need to know about calculating your towing capacity.

TOW RATING This is a best-case-scenario measure of a vehicle’s maximum towing capacity. It doesn’t account for passengers or cargo. (Find this and other key stats in the owner’s manual or driver’s door-jamb sticker.)

TONGUE WEIGHT Also known as tongue load, it’s the amount of the trailer’s weight (when loaded) that rests on the ball. As a general rule, it should be 10 to 15 percent of the loaded trailer’s weight.

PAYLOAD CAPACITY The maximum permissible weight of all passengers and cargo, and the tongue weight.

GROSS VEHICLE WEIGHT RATING (GVWR) The maximum permissible weight of the vehicle plus passengers and cargo plus the tongue weight. Trailers have their own separate GVWR, too.

GROSS COMBINED WEIGHT RATING (GCWR) The maximum permissible weight of the vehicle, plus the trailer, plus passengers and cargo.

GROSS TRAILER WEIGHT (GTW) The total weight of a trailer plus its cargo.

CURB WEIGHT The weight of the vehicle, ready to drive, without any optional equipment, passengers or cargo—often found in the owner’s manual. You’ll want to know this when calculating how much your vehicle can tow while staying under its GVWR, GCWR and payload capacity.


Never haul more than your vehicle’s tow rating. Simple, right? Not so fast. It’s not enough to merely ensure you’re under the tow rating—drivers must also be careful not to exceed their vehicle’s GCWR, GVWR or payload capacity. This is where you’ll have to do some math. The formulas look like these:

GCWR ≥ gross vehicle weight + gross trailer weight + passengers and cargo weight

GVWR ≥ gross vehicle weight + tongue weight + passengers and cargo weight

Payload capacity ≥ tongue weight + passengers and cargo weight

You’ll need to estimate the combined weight of everything in your trailer (or, if it’s a boat, ATV, etc., find out the exact weight from the manufacture), then do the calculations to determine how much you can safely tow.

A Beginner's Guide to Towing a Trailer


Once the trailer is hitched up, it’s ready to be loaded with your gear In general, when dealing with a cargo trailer, you’ll want to load it after it’s hitched. Park on a level surface with the parking brake engaged and chock the trailer’s wheels by placing a sturdy wedge or block against the tires, so they can’t roll.

The goal for loading is 60/40—60 percent of the cargo’s weight should be ahead of the trailer’s axle (think: the trailer’s wheels) leaving 40 percent behind the axle. That’s critical to ensure the safe handling of your tow vehicle and it’ll also help keep 10 to 15 percent of the trailer’s weight on the tongue. Lastly but vitally important, secure the load with appropriate chains, ropes or ratchet straps.


It’s a bit like Tetris, loading everything properly. Load the heaviest item first and try to position it just ahead of the trailer’s axle to get that 60/40 weight split.


Adapt your driving when towing a heavy load

MAKE SURE YOUR VEHICLE IS IN GOOD CONDITION. All fluids should be topped up and tire pressures correct. If necessary, install tow mirrors that extend out past the regular mirrors to provide a better view of what’s behind the trailer.

SLOW DOWN AND LEAVE EXTRA SPACE. Accelerating and braking takes significantly longer when towing a heavy load. For that reason, it’s crucial to leave much more distance between you and the vehicle ahead than you normally would.

SWING WIDE. Take corners wide and keep an eye on the trailer in your mirrors to avoid hitting the curb.

CHECK FOR CLEARANCE. If you’ve got a tall load, measure it. Covered trailers will have the height marked on the outside.

TAKE CARE WHEN REVERSING. Backing up can be intimidating, but don’t sweat it! Take it slowly, ask a friend outside to spot you, and take advantage of new technology like trailer-mounted back-up cameras where possible. Backing up with a trailer can be counterintuitive, so if you can, practise in a parking lot. And be patient—this is a tough skill to master.

CHECK EARLY AND OFTEN. Soon after you set off, pull over somewhere safe and check that the trailer, its load and all connections are snug and secure. Make it easy on yourself and find a spot that you can easily exit without much manoeuvring.


The good news: EVs offer an instant surge of low-end torque that makes for an especially smooth towing experience. The bad news: Driving range plummets when towing. How much range is lost depends on the type of trailer and weight of the load. A real-world test by Consumer Reports found Ford’s F-150 Lightning and Rivian’s R1T were both reduced to less than a third of their normally rated range when towing 4,536 kilograms. You’ll need to charge more often, Peterson says, but many public EV chargers aren’t set up to accept vehicles towing trailers. In order to plug in, you may have to uncouple the trailer. It all adds up to a longer journey, so plan accordingly.

Questions about towing? Email autoadvice@caasco.ca or call 1-866-464-6448 with questions for our experts.