There are many things to consider when you’re buying an RV. If you’re in the market for a towable, figuring out if your vehicle can tow the RV is one of the most critical factors.
In this article, we’ll simplify what “gross vehicle weight rating” (GVWR) means and how to apply it to your RV, as well as how it’s significant to whatever situation you find yourself in.
We’ll also show you how to calculate your gross vehicle weight, the relationship between trailer weight vs. tow capacity, and the difference between GVWR and curb weight.
You’ll also learn some great veteran tips that give you peace of mind when loading up your RV without being nervous about going overweight.
Why You Need to Know About Your RV’s Weight
When it comes to RVs, knowing the various weight factors keeps you, your family, your tow vehicle, and your coach safe. Many RV accidents occur due to overweight towing at specific points on the travel trailer or motorhome or not using the correct equipment.
Have you ever tried to pull something, and the rope snapped on you? The reason the rope broke had to do with the fact that you were trying to pull something heavier than it could handle.
Think of your tow vehicle as the rope. If you’re using a rear ball hitch, it’s connected directly to the chassis (the frame) of your vehicle. A fifth wheel hitch is centered above your pickup truck’s rear axle and coupled to a ball hitch (which is also an extension of the chassis) within the cargo bed.
There are too many videos on the internet showing travel trailers ripping away from their tow vehicles or fifth wheels taking cargo beds off pickup trucks. When you watch them, you can get a feeling that you’re watching an episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos, but it can be pretty scary when it happens to you.
Unstable Trailers (Video)
You can avoid this problem by knowing your RV weights, how they affect the towing experience, and keeping all of them within safe tolerances. Part of the RV experience is the journey itself. Finding that roadside tourist attraction like the Wall Drug Store should be on your mind (since you’ve seen their signs for the past 100 miles), not questioning whether the next bump will be the one that does you in.
RV Weights Explained
Those that are new to the RV community find themselves asking many questions about RV weight.
- Which RV weight do I need to pay attention to?
- What’s the difference between gross weight and dry weight?
- What’s the difference between curb weight and gross weight?
- What’s the formula for calculating gross vehicle weight?
Each one of these weights has different meanings, and all of them are important. Here are the definitions and practical applications of each measurement. You may want to bookmark this article as a reference guild for future reference.
If you’re using a truck camper or fifth wheel, the payload capacity is the maximum amount of weight the pickup truck can haul inside the cargo bed. Fifth wheels substitute tongue weight for payload weight since the hitch fits inside the bed. Fiver’s put 20% of their weight on the hitch, so you need a truck with a payload capacity that can take the weight.
Truck campers rely solely on the payload weight. The heaviest versions have dry weights that won’t overburden a heavy-duty 350/3500 series pickup truck.
Dry Weight/ Unloaded Vehicle Weight (UVW)
You’ll hear this weight referred to most often as the dry weight. It stands for the weight of the RV when it’s empty. When we say empty, we mean how it came from the manufacturer, so the furniture and features are apart of the dry weight. Once you start adding water to the holding tanks, or your items, the weight has a different definition.
Curb Weight (Wet Weight)
You’ll see this weight factor with passenger vehicles. The wet weight is the dry weight, plus all liquid tanks filled up. This would mean the freshwater holding tank (not the grey or black), propane tanks, and any other tanks for a travel trailer.
You would include the oil, fuel, and other automotive liquids that make the vehicle “healthy” to operate for motorhomes. Think of the curb weight as how a dealership would deliver an RV to a customer. They would make it “camp-ready” so the customer could drive straight to their favorite campground (minus camping gear).
Cargo Carrying Capacity (CCC)
Some manufacturers use the phrase “Net Carry Capacity (NCC).” The weight factor is the maximum amount of weight the RV can carry safely. Think about those cartoons or comedies where you see someone trying to close an overfilled suitcase. If you exceed your maximum weight limit, it has the potential to damage the RV or worse.
Another name for the hitch is the tongue. A travel trailer that uses a ball hitch on the rear of a tow vehicle put 9-15% of its total weight on the hitch and receiver. If there’s too much weight on the hitch, it can overstress the tow vehicle’s suspension. Too little will give you a lot of sway (the side-to-side fishtailing motion).
Ensure you use the proper sway control equipment, the correct hitch classification (III-V), and follow your RV dealer representative’s advice. Uncontrolled sway is one of the significant reasons RVers end up in roadway accidents.
Have you ever noticed that the heavier furniture or appliances are close to the RV’s axles? The axles are responsible for the majority of the coach’s weight. Longer towables distribute the weight through the chassis; even with the stabilizer jacks down, the axles bear most of the weight.
Your RV can hold more weight than the axle weight. Your biggest concern with axle weight is making sure you’re not placing too much weight over the axles. Toy haulers and teardrops need to pay the most attention to this. Fifth wheel towers need to make sure the RV weight isn’t too much since the hitch receiver sits above the pickup’s rear axle.
Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR)
Per the various governing authorities in the RV industry, RV manufacturers must publish the GVWR of every RV they produce. The GVWR is the maximum amount of weight that’s safe for the RV.
The GVWR includes the holding tanks, camping gear, food items, personal belongings, people inside, additional features (like solar panels), and anything else inside or attached to the coach. Your actual Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW) shouldn’t exceed the rating.
Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR)
There are some roadways with maximum weights. Bridges and some toll roads are examples. Your Gross Combined Weight (GCW) includes the total weight of your RV and tow vehicle. In situations like this, you’ll see signs posted warning you about this. Many trip planning apps will also alert you about these roads.
If you’re not sure about how heavy your GCW is, you can find CAT scales or other vehicle scales in your area. The city/county dump uses them, truck weigh-stations, truck stops, and industrial material supply companies.
Calculating gross vehicle weight uses the following formula:
Dry weight + Cargo Carrying Capacity ≤ Gross Vehicle Weight
The equation’s answer is equal to or less than the actual gross vehicle weight because the manufacturer may have included other measurements in the GVW. If the actual gross vehicle weight is greater than the dry weight and CCC, your calculation should be near the actual GVW. Also, it’s better to guess lower than higher.
What Happens if Your RV Is Overweight?
When you hook your RV up to your tow vehicle, you’re adding stress to the truck or SUV. If you were to stack several cinderblocks on a skateboard, attach a rope to the front of it, and start pulling, after the first few feet, you’d start to feel it. Your feet, legs, back, shoulders, arms would begin to hurt from the strain. Your tow vehicle goes through a similar effect
The difference is, your vehicle has components in it to take the strain up to a certain amount. The chassis is reinforced, your suspension has heavy-duty parts, the motor and transmission have separate radiators to keep them cool. There’s also some wiring, so the Department of Transportation (DOT) required lights work (brake lights, turn signals, etc.).
If you exceed the RV’s GVWR, you’re overstressing the tow vehicle and RV’s components. All of the parts mentioned above can break due to stress. RV towing while overweight has caused many roadway accidents due to losing control of the coach or the tow vehicle.
Insurance adjusters have the training to determine if an overweight travel trailer was the cause of the collision. In situations like this, the insurance company won’t cover the incident since the RV’s weight exceeded the maximum safe GVWR. The next time you have an opportunity, look through your RV insurance or your vehicle insurance policy. You’ll see a paragraph in there that talks about overweight RV accidents.
Some states have vague traffic laws when it comes to weigh-stations. You may need to stop at weigh stations with a travel trailer in those states. Most of the time, the attendant will wave you through and tell you it’s unnecessary to stop. You can drive by them, but if law enforcement stops you, they can make you turn around and go through the closest weigh station.
The penalty for not stopping the first time is a ticket with a couple of hundred dollars fine. Multiple offenses can send you to a holding cell if your driving record warrants it. If the weigh station finds that you’re overweight, it can come with an RV overweight ticket, fines, or worse. Our best recommendation is to avoid overweight towing and learn about the towing regulations of the states you drive through.
How Do You Determine the Weight of Your RV?
Travel trailers have a broad weight range — the lightest trailer is a teardrop that weighs 300 pounds, and the heaviest travel trailer is a fifth wheel that comes in at over 15,000 pounds. We don’t include motorhomes since they aren’t towables. The average dry weight of a camper trailer is 7,650 pounds. If you add the average amount of passenger and gear weight (1,500 pounds), it’s 9,150 pounds.
When you’re looking at trailer weight versus towing capacity, there’s a lot you need to understand about how much weight your tow vehicle takes. We talked about how your vehicle handles the stress of towing above, but now we’re going to show you what it actually does.
The downward force from the hitch/tongue weight is 10-15% for a rear ball hitch and 20-25% for a fifth-wheel kingpin. The passengers riding inside the tow vehicle add weight as well. Don’t forget any gear in the trunk. Air conditioning or other high power accessories can draw power away from the road to better support the electric-making alternator. Then you have the actual towing of the RV itself.
A good “rule of thumb” that veteran RVers use is either the 20% principle or the 1,500-pound limitation. Leave 20% or 1,500 pounds of your maximum towing capacity for towing. While you’re traveling, you’ll be climbing hills, taking curves, managing unpaved roads, wet roads, and other challenges. Your tow vehicle needs enough horsepower and torque for acceleration and other issues.
How Much Extra Weight Do You and Your Family Add to a Camper?
To determine how much extra weight you, your travel companions, and your gear add to your RV, you don’t need to weigh everything. General estimations can give you ballpark ranges. As long as your tow vehicle’s maximum tow capacity has a big enough difference from your RV’s dry weight, you shouldn’t be too concerned.
A reasonable estimate for personal things and camping gear is between 400-600 pounds for a family of four. The weight range includes clothes, food, outdoor furniture, essential setup accessories, and other supplies. RV manufacturers estimate adults to be 150 pounds per person and children under 100 pounds, so we recommend that you know your family.
Couples that are camping can shave down their camping gear estimate to 200-300 pounds. Some camping supplies like outdoor furniture, sports equipment, or other oversized items add significant weight.
You also have to include those things you can’t see—for example, your freshwater tank. Water weighs 8.34 pounds per gallon. For safety, never travel without freshwater. Veteran RVers will fill their tank a third to halfway to balance safety and weight.
Propane has some weight to it as well—your house batteries, spare tire, and other essentials that are beyond the RV’s dry weight. That’s why you want a tow vehicle that gives you a large cushion between the dry weight and the maximum tow capacity. When you choose your RV, choose one where the GVWR is lower than your tow limit to ensure you don’t have weight issues.
How to Improve Your Gas Mileage While Towing
If you look around the internet, forums and blog articles are discussing the idea of improving your fuel economy when you tow lightweight travel trailers. The reality is “yes, but not really.”
Suppose you have two Ford Explorers (21 city/ 28 hwy/ 24 combined MPG). The blue one is pulling a travel trailer that weighs 5,000 pounds (max tow capacity is 5,600 pounds). The red one is pulling a 2,500-pound travel trailer. You then have them drive exactly 100 miles to the same destination and take the same route, and it’s all highway driving.
In this scenario, the Red Explorer would show an increase in fuel economy by one or two additional miles. If scientists were conducting this study, they would say, yes, the lighter weight increases fuel economy. As far as real-world application, it’s up to you to decide if it’s worth it.