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Payload vs. Towing Capacity: Why It’s Important to Know the Difference

Truck TV ads include many towing numbers splashed across the screen, dramatically growled by husky-voiced announcers. But, in truth, they may not mean what you think. It’s vital to understand the difference between payload and towing capacity to know what your truck can (and cannot) tow.

No truck model has a single payload or towing capacity. Those numbers change based on the engine, transmission, drive wheels, and optional equipment you choose. Advertisements almost always use maximum figures for relatively uncommon combinations your local dealer may not have in stock.

What is Payload Capacity?

2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz Truck Bed Towing Bike in Green

The payload capacity is not the amount of weight you can safely place in the bed of your truck. If you fill your truck’s bed with the amount of weight equal to the payload capacity, you’ve overloaded it.

Payload is the total amount of weight your truck can carry in the cabin and the bed combined. You, dear reader, count as payload.

Your 2022 Ford F-150 regular cab, 4×2 pickup with the 5.0-liter V8 engine, and heavy-duty payload package may have a maximum payload rating of 3,325 pounds. But if you weigh 200 pounds, you can carry only 3,125 pounds in it. If you bring a 200-pound friend to help you load, you can then carry a mere 2,925 pounds. If your 50-pound dog comes along for the ride, you are limited to only 2,875 pounds in your truck bed.

And while the term payload does not refer to the amount of weight your truck can pull, towing a trailer does add to the payload by pressing down on your vehicle. In other words, every trailer or camper has a tongue weight – the amount of weight it exerts on the tow vehicle by pressing down on the hitch – which you must include in payload calculations.

What is Towing Capacity?

2021 Ford F-Series Super Duty

Towing capacity refers to the maximum amount of weight your vehicle can pull behind it on a trailer.

Like payload, towing capacity changes drastically based on the configuration of your specific vehicle. The 2022 Chevy Silverado 1500, for instance, can tow as much as 13,300 pounds — in a standard bed RST, 4×4 configuration with the optional 6.2-liter V8, the max trailering package, and 20-inch wheels. That identical Silverado can tow as little as 7,200 pounds — a little more than half that weight — in the off-road-oriented Trail Boss trim, a standard bed, a 4.2-liter V6 engine, and no towing package.

RELATED STORIES: 7 Things You Need to Know About Towing Capacity

What is the Difference Between Payload Capacity and Towing Capacity

  • Payload capacity refers to the total amount of weight your vehicle can carry. It includes everything in the cabin, from the driver to the owner’s manual in the glove box. Payload capacity also defines everything in the cargo area and whatever is in the bed of the truck.
  • Towing capacity refers to the amount of weight your vehicle can pull behind it on a trailer.
  • The capacity for towing is higher than payload capacity for the same reason you can pull more weight behind you in a wagon than you can carry in your own hands. You can pull more than you can haul. So can your vehicle.

How to Calculate Payload Capacity

You will rarely ever need to calculate your vehicle’s payload capacity. That’s because manufacturers list it in the owner’s manual of each car. It is also typically listed on a placard inside the driver’s side doorjamb. This weight is sometimes listed as payload capacity and sometimes as a figure that “the combined weight of passengers and cargo should never exceed.”

Should you need to calculate the weight of your payload, you’d need to add it up. Here’s how below.

  1. First find the combined weight of your vehicle.
  2. Then add all of the people and cargo within it.
  3. Next, you would subtract your vehicle’s curb weight — the weight of your truck and all of the fluids it needs to function, but with no people or cargo inside.

Most importantly, exceeding the listed payload capacity of your vehicle can damage critical components and void your warranty.

How to Calculate Towing Capacity

Drivers can calculate towing capacity as:

GCVWR – Curb Weight = Towing Capacity.

  • GCVWR is your vehicle’s Combined Vehicle Weight Rating – the combined weight of your tow vehicle and the trailer you plan to tow, together with all of the cargo each will carry. So, GCVWR includes the people in the tow vehicle, anything they take in the cabin with them, and the fully loaded trailer itself.
  • Curb Weight is the tow vehicle’s weight when filled with gas and other fluids it consumes while driving, but with no people or cargo. Curb weight is usually found in your owner’s manual and often found on a placard mounted low on the driver’s side door jamb.

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How Do I Find the Weight of My Vehicle?

Your car, truck, or SUV’s curb weight, or the weight of the vehicle and all the fluids it consumes while driving, is usually listed in the owner’s manual and on the driver’s side door jamb.

What Happens If I Exceed Payload Capacity?

Exceeding payload capacity is a bad idea for safety reasons and financial reasons. Even in a best-case scenario, an overloaded vehicle will not handle safety. It will accelerate slower, turn on a broader circle, and apply the brake a longer distance than usual. You are more likely to cause an accident in an overloaded vehicle.

A vehicle carrying more weight than it can safely carry may also suffer expensive damage to the frame, suspension, transmission, or engine.

The vehicle’s warranty will not cover any damage caused by overloading.

What Happens If I Exceed Towing Capacity?

Exceeding your vehicle’s towing capacity is unsafe and risks potentially costly repairs. A car, truck, or SUV that exceeds the designed towing weight will struggle to get up to speed (if it moves at all), it will brake at unsafe distances, and will turn too widely for the roadway. Drivers are more likely to cause an accident towing a heavier weight than their vehicle can safely tow.

An overloaded tow vehicle can suffer expensive damage to its frame and suspension, overheat quickly, and suffer severe driveline damage. Repairs will not be covered under warranty because towing more than the vehicle is rated for can void all warranties. It’s also illegal in most places.

How to Calculate Curb Weight?

Automakers list the curb weight in the owner’s manual of each car, so there is no need to calculate it. You can also find it on the driver’s side doorjamb of your vehicle.

In performing any payload or towing calculations, remember that your car’s curb weight is its weight when empty of all people and cargo. It does not include a driver.

Sean Tucker
Sean Tucker
Sean Tucker is an author, reporter, and reviewer covering the automotive and energy industries. His work has appeared in print and online through U.S. News and World Report, Yahoo Autos, MSN, Dub Magazine, and more. He has been an expert guest on cable television discussing the car industry, and has served as reporter and managing editor for energy and insurance industry publications, covering... Read More about Sean Tucker

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