Tow Vehicle Terms for Dummies (that would be us)

Hello again, Glampers!

For those of you who are considering the RV/Camper route, there are few things that one needs to know about towing.  First, ALWAYS chock the wheels.  (We may have learned this the hard way… thankfully we didn’t roll our new camper off a cliff—but it was close.)  Second, you’ll need the right tow vehicle, and you’re going to want to do some research so you can do it right… and safely.

Towing may be easier than it appears...

Towing may be easier than it appears…

Laura and I were admittedly newbies to the camper thing (and in many ways, we still are!).  In fact, we bought our Airstream without ever actually having camped in a RV.  Thus, we had to learn just about everything from scratch.  Navigating my way through the acronym-heavy world of Tow Vehicles made my head hurt.  And I’m a pilot, for god’s sake.  “Acronym” is practically my native language.

First of all, there are plenty of helpful tips online.  We found and to be particularly helpful.  Please, for the love of god, do not use this post alone as your guide.  There are many reasons you shouldn’t not the least of which are 1)  This is the internet; trusting any of it completely is just a really bad idea,  and 2) not only am I new at this, but I’m also not very smart.  Trust me, do the research… the more you understand about towing, the safer you’ll be.

Next, it’s a good idea to get comfortable with the lingo.  It’s a little like Aramaic, but with fewer vowels.  Here are a few of the important ones:

Tow Rating (TR):  What your vehicle is capable of towing.  This should be listed in your vehicle’s manual or technical specs.  Remember that you need to know/estimate your trailer’s REAL weight.  Not just the empty weight.  Remember that a gallon of water weights roughly 8.5 pounds.  Thus, a full 20-gallon tank will use up nearly 170lbs!  Avoid towing anything heavier than 90% of your max tow rating (mentioned again below for emphasis, and to make me sound cool).

Everything's in that little book!  Who knew?!

Everything’s in that little book! Who knew?!

Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR): The maximum weight of your tow vehicle.  While the GVWR doesn’t include the trailer itself, it does include the “Tongue Weight”–the portion of your trailer’s weight that’s being put on the tow hitch.  Your trailer’s specs should give you an approximate Tongue Weight.

Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW):  The total weight of your vehicle including fluids, cargo, and passengers. Remember, most experts recommend that you don’t exceed more than 90% of your tow vehicle’s max tow capacity.  (Ie. If your vehicle’s max tow rating is 8000lbs, you want to avoid towing anything heavier than 7200lbs.)

Gross Combined Weight (GCW):  Total weight of your tow vehicle and trailer combined.  Useful to know if you’re crossing an ancient Aztec footbridge in your 40-foot Über-Camper 3000.

Tongue Weight (TW):  The downward force that the trailer applies to your tow hitch.  Experts (who are smarter than I am) say your tongue weight shouldn’t be more than 10% of the Gross Trailer Weight.

My highly-technical representation of Tongue Weight.  Inside my head, 'm saying "boop."

My highly-technical representation of Tongue Weight. Inside my head, ‘m saying “boop.”

Curb Weight:  Notional weigh of a vehicle including a full tank of gas.  It’s usually used in reference to a tow vehicle.  Keep in mind, curb weight doesn’t include cargo, extra options or equipment.

Fifth Wheel:  These puppies are the big-rigs of the camper world.  Instead of towing from your vehicle’s bumper, they attach to your truck’s bed (think semi-truck).

Brake Controller:  An interface between your vehicle’s brakes, and those of your trailer.  The coordinated braking means that your tow vehicle isn’t doing all the work.  It’s much easier on your vehicle’s brakes, and much safer!

This is my really-focused-face.

This is my really-focused-face.

As I mentioned above, there is a LOT to learn about towing, and this list is hardly all-inclusive.  There’ll be more tips to come; and in my next post, I’ll elaborate on our personal search for a tow vehicle.  In the meantime, read up, drive safely, and happy glamping!


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