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All About Towing: Tongue Weights and Towing Capacity and More Explained

RV Tow Weights and Towing Vehicle Capacity

Are you planning to buy an Airstream trailer or RV? Does your current SUV or truck (and future towing vehicle) meet the manufacturer’s towing recommendations?

Trying to make sense of curb weight, tongue weight, calculating payload capacity and Gross Vehicle Weight can make any RV owner want to groan and shudder and wish there was an easier way to understand all the towing terminology.

We’ll break down all the different towing terminology for youConsider the following RV tow weights and Airstream trailer weight terms before buying an RV:

Cargo Weight

You may have come across the word “Cargo” many times when buying an RV and always wondered what exactly it comprises of. Cargo is the sum total of all the liquids present in the tank of the RV and it is important not to overdo cargo over the limit.  

Dry Weight

Dry weight of an RV is calculated on by weighing the RV without the presence of any cargo, liquids or passengers. In other terms, you can understand dry weight to be similar to the curb weight of different automobiles. When RVs are sent to the Camping World, the automotive manufacturers calculate the dry weight of the RV and mark it on the vehicle. 

Curb Weight

The term Curb Weight is usually used for everyday-use cars and trucks. Curb weight is the weight of the vehicle when it has little or nothing inside it. However, some car manufactures calculate curb weight to also include a 150-pound driver, while some manufactures include the weight of a full tank of gas.

Gross Vehicle Weight

Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW) is one of the most important things to consider before buying an RV. Gross Vehicle Weight is defined as the weight of the vehicle including the passengers, cargo, liquids and dry weight of the RV. In other words, you can say that the GVW is quite the opposite of dry weight. Gross Vehicle weight combines the base weight of the RV along with its cargo weight. In order to drive the vehicle safely, you must not load your RV over the limit of GVW. 

GVW = Dry Weight + Cargo Weight + passengers weight 

Gross Vehicle Weight Rating

Every RV has a safe Gross Vehicle Weight Rating and a GVW above this rating can put yourself, your RV and others at risk of an accident. You can find the GVWR on the sticker usually located on inside of driver’s side door frame. Keep in mind that GVWR is the maximum safe weight limit which your RV can handle and you should never load your RV beyond this rating. Gross Vehicle Weight Rating can also be referred to as the Gross Trailer Weight Rating (GTWR). 

GWVR is an important number to calculate, find or consider because it is can be illegal to drive a vehicle that is over its GVWR rating. Making sure that your truck or car is under the manufacturer’s GVWR. If you are towing your RV into the mountains and have to drive up and down steep mountain roads, its a good idea to stay under the maximum GVWR since it will be easier to pull the trailer up the steep hills and will also make braking on the downhills much easier.

GVWR/GTWR = Maximum Safe Weight Limit which an RV can carry

Tongue Weight

Safe trailers are always evenly balanced and in order to ensure that, you need to refer to the Tongue Weight of the trailer. When you hitch your tow vehicle with a trailer, the maximum weight which the trailer puts on the tow vehicle after proper hitching is called the tongue weight. Think of tongue weight as the amount of weight the trailer puts onto the tow vehicle hitch. If the trailer and tow vehicle are set up properly with the correct hitch weight and weight-distribution hitch, the tongue weight, or weight that the trailer puts on the tow vehicle’s hitch is roughly between 10 to 15% of the trailer’s GVW. 

Tongue Weight (TW) = 10-15% of the GVW

Weight distribution hitches

Weight distribution hitches help balance the trailer’s tongue weight onto the tow vehicle hitch and are usually easy to set up once you’ve done the initial set up.

I personally use a Blue Ox SWAY PRO hitch because the hitch also works as an anti-sway device to keep my Airstream from swerving back and forth behind me if a big 18-wheeler zooms by or I get hit with a gust of wind.

Gross Axle Weight Rating

The Gross Axle Weight Rating or GAWR is the maximum weight limit which can be put on each axle of the tow vehicle. It’s important to make sure that the camper trailer tongue weight doesn’t overload the back axle of the tow vehicle. The payload in the tow vehicle also comes into consideration, so if you’re close to the max payload and towing capacity of your tow vehicle, you have to be careful how much you load into the back on it. The GAWR ensures that the tow vehicle operates safely and does not break down while driving. 

Gross Combined Weight Rating

The GCWR or Gross Combined Weight rating of any tow vehicle refers to the actual weight rating of the vehicle along with its payload or cargo when it is attached to a trailer or a camper.

GCWR = Vehicle Weight rating + Cargo weight + Trailer/Camper weight

Max Tow Rating

When you buy a towing package from a mechanic which includes stuff other than the brake controller and hitch receiver, all the other elements contribute to maximizing the towing rating of the tow vehicle. A towing rating is the amount of airstream trailer weights which your towable vehicle can safely and legally tow. Special package towing elements may include the suspension weight, tire weight, special gearing etc. 

Planning to Buy a Towing Package? Consider this…

If you are planning to buy a towing package for your towing vehicle by taking help from a mechanic, it is important to keep the following things in mind:

Hitch Receiver:

Your mechanic shall weld the hitch receiver to the frame of the vehicle instead of the bumper as it is not good for the airstream trailer weights balance. Ball mount can be inserted in the hitch receiver to secure the hitch.

Brake Controller

Another important thing to consider is the use of an electric brake controller which syncs the braking of the tow vehicle brakes with trailer brakes.  Some tow vehicles come with an electronic brake controller already installed. If the brake controller doesn’t come standard with your tow vehicle, you can usually purchase an aftermarket brake controller. Make sure the tow vehicle has a towing package with the wiring harness to connect to the trailer.

How to calculate Towing Capacity?

The towing capacity of any vehicle can be found out by doing a quick VIN number check.  The towing capacity of a vehicle is affected by multiple factors and it is important to refer to a VIN number for an accurate prediction of the truck towing capacity. 

You can look up your vehicle’s towing capacity using the VIN number here.

The rule of thumb for safe towing capacity determination is that it shall not exceed the sum of the truck weight, trailer weight and cargo weight.

Towing Capacity (safe) = Towable vehicle weight + Trailer Weight + Cargo Weight

RV Tow Weights/Airstream Trailer Weights


Cargo WeightCWSum of all Liquid weights present In car tanks
Gross Vehicle WeightGVW 
Dry Weight + Cargo Weight + passengers weight
Gross Vehicle Weight RatingGVWR/GTWRMaximum Safe Weight Limit which an RV can carry
Tongue WeightTW
10-15% of the GVW
Gross Combined Weight RatingGCWRVehicle Weight rating + Cargo weight + Trailer/Camper weight
Towing Capacity (safe)TCTowing Capacity (safe)

Towing an Airstream with a bicycle

If all else fails, you could even try towing an Airstream with a bicycle…

Believe it or not, in 1947, Airstream founder Wally Byam set up a publicity stunt where a professional cyclist pulled an Airstream with his bike!

The video above is a modern day reenactment of the event.