What You Need to Know Before Towing With an SUV

img2089106386 1522781376759 jpg 2018 Full Size SUV Challenge | photo by Christian Lantry

SUVs are more popular than ever, and with the advent of social distancing, more people are camping with travel trailers for their summertime activities. If you’re new to towing with an SUV, or just new to towing altogether, there are some important things to know before you go, as well as tips for while you’re towing. We leaned on our sister site’s wealth of information on towing for the following SUV towing primer. 

Related: These 10 SUVs Have the Highest Towing Capacity for 2019

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How to Determine How Much You Can Tow

Knowing the SUV’s gross vehicle weight rating, gross axle weight ratings, gross combined weight rating and towing capacity are pivotal in knowing what size trailer to purchase. 

Gross combined weight rating: The GCWR is the maximum allowable weight for the tow vehicle, the passengers and cargo in the tow vehicle, and the trailer and cargo in the trailer.

Gross vehicle weight rating: The GVWR is the maximum amount a vehicle can safely weigh when fully loaded. 

Gross axle weight rating: The GAWR is the maximum weight that can be safely placed on a single axle of a vehicle.

chevrolet siverado crew lt trailboss 4wd 2020 03 detail  exterior  red jpg Chevrolet Silverado trailering information label | photo by Joe Bruzek

Some of these numbers are easy to find, like the GVWR and GAWRs, which are posted on a sticker on the driver’s door or door frame. Some GM vehicles now list towing capacities and GCWR on a sticker in that same location. Others may require a look through the owner’s manual or even some online research to find your specific SUV’s towing guide, which will list maximum trailering capacities for a given configuration (engine, drive type, axle ratio, towing package, etc.). 

When it comes to the maximum trailer weight specification, use caution here, as this is the max tow rating for an unloaded tow vehicle, which is rarely the case. When passengers and gear are added, as you might (or might not) expect, the total tow rating decreases. 

For more information on how to calculate how much a specific SUV can tow, check out our towing articles such as “How Much Can My Truck Tow?” and “Why Weight Capacities Are Important.” 

Trailer Brake Controllers?

2017 GMC Controller jpg 2017 GMC Sierra trailer brake controller | photo by Matthew Barnes

A trailer brake controller is what the tow vehicle uses to communicate how much braking force should be applied to a trailer with brakes. Most vehicles manufactured today that can tow at least 5,000 pounds have a prewired seven-pin outlet next to the receiver hitch on the rear of the vehicle. While the seven-pin plug wiring is there, often there is no trailer brake controller installed in an SUV. Some manufacturers are finally stepping up and offering factory-installed trailer brake controllers on some full-size SUVs, but these packages are optional and aren’t common yet. 

For most SUVs, there is no controller installed, which means that the owner must purchase and install one in order to safely and legally tow. Frequently, there will be a prewired plug under the dash that has all the wiring for the brake controller running to it. This makes connecting the wires a breeze, and typically all that is needed is an adapter to fit the brake controller and vehicle plugs. To learn more about the types of trailer brake controllers look at our “Trailer Brake Controllers” story.

Trailer Hitch Receivers

img 1345356854 1545158814945 jpg 2019 Lamborghini Urus | photos by Brian Wong

If the SUV is not equipped with a trailer hitch receiver from the factory, a hitch receiver should be chosen that can fully support the maximum rated weight that the vehicle can tow. Remember that the highest weight a vehicle can tow is limited by the lowest rated piece of towing equipment.

Picking a Trailer Hitch

Greased Hitch Ball jpg Hitch ball | photo by Mark Williams

When towing with an SUV, a conventional also known as a bumper pull hitch will be the only hitch choice except for a few specialty options. I highly recommend that a weight-distribution hitch with sway control be used whenever possible. Many body-on-frame SUVs, including the Ford Expedition and Chevrolet Tahoe, will require a weight-distribution hitch in order to reach their maximum rated capacity. Some vehicles, generally SUVs with unibody frames, clearly state that a weight-distribution hitch should not be used as frame damage can occur. Check the vehicle owner’s manual for use of a weight-distribution hitch. For more information on hitch types visit this story, “Know Your Hitch Types.”

Pre-Trip and Towing Best Practices

There are a few things that need to be checked before towing. Check all vehicle tires and hitch components for wear, cracks and defects. Depending on the type of hitch used, there will be some additional items to clean and grease. The trailer should have the axle bearings checked, greased and repacked as needed. All connections like safety chains, trailer wiring, breakaway cable and coupler should be checked. Once everything is connected, test all lights on the tow vehicle and trailer to ensure they are working properly.

Tongue Weight

Properly loading the trailer so that 10-15% of the total trailer weight is on the trailer tongue is crucial to towing stability. Be sure to check the trailer tongue weight once everything is loaded for the trip. Make adjustments as needed. Once this is done, the same loading setup can be repeated without having to measure the tongue weight again.

Towing Mirrors

Having a proper set of mirrors is extremely important when towing. Many trailers will be wide enough to block rearward visibility from the tow vehicle’s mirrors. If this is the case, then extended mirrors should be installed.

Brake System

Once all the connections are checked, the trailer brakes can then be checked. This is done by rolling at a slow speed and using the trailer brake controller to apply the brakes. The vehicle should stop within a few yards. If not, then there may be an issue with the system.

Driving With a Trailer

img 665385699 1535129910203 jpg 2018 Ford Expedition | photo by Christian Lantry

Always use Tow/Haul mode, or on some Toyotas, ECT Power mode, when towing if the vehicle is so equipped. These modes can adjust throttle mapping, transmission shift points and torque converter lockup to make for a better towing experience, and to reduce heat and wear on the transmission. On twisty roads, it is a good idea to drive below the speed limit to maintain control. On highways and freeways, keep speeds at or below 65 mph until enough experience is gained to know that the vehicles are stable at higher speeds. 

For a more in-depth look at some tips for towing safely, see our article on “Towing Tips for Beginners.”

Towing for the first time can be a daunting task, but with a little knowledge and guidance it can be stress free. Start with shorter trips and some practice runs to get to know how the SUV tows, what to expect for braking distances at various speeds and to ensure everything is set up properly. Most importantly, be safe and have fun!

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