Buying a Tow Vehicle

January 10, 2017



I know many people argue that you buy the camper first and then buy your tow vehicle second to make sure it can accommodate the weight of your trailer. While this might work for folks who have the funds, but it isn’t always practical for those of us who live on a tight budget. Our tow vehicle will be my daily driver, so therefore it must be our first consideration. I personally believe what matters most is that you understand what type of camper you are looking for prior to purchasing your tow vehicle specifically in regards to the following data points: 1. Trailer Dry Weight, 2. Trailer Tongue Weight, and 3. your estimate of trailer weight when filled with water, LP gas, gear, supplies, and food. In doing this you will have some idea of what the tow vehicle you are looking at can accommodate. For both 1 and 2, that information is provided on the trailer itself and usually in the advertising brochures. Estimating number 3 is trickier because there is probably more you do not take into account that you stuff into or onto your trailer. Considering all of this, I am going to estimate that there will be an additional 1,500 – 2,000 lbs of additional weight added to the dry weight of the trailer.


The easiest way to gather information pertaining to trailer weight is to visit several RV websites and try to find newer model floor-plans that you are interested in and lookup the specifications. A better way to do this is to go to an RV show or even an RV dealer to actually look at the trailers you like, and then write down the weights on a scratch pad. There is more to consider here such as the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (CVWR) and the Gross Combination Weight Rating (GCWR) but for the sake of brevity, trailer information will be covered in subsequent articles. Based upon my research, I will be looking for a 22’ – 28’ trailer with a dry weight between 5,000 – 6,000 pounds.


Purchasing a vehicle is a matter of personal choice and I am not going to claim that my ideas are the best; rather, the intent here is to share my thought process. I have owned GMC, Chevy, and Ford vehicles and have found strengths and weaknesses in each, so I am not partial to one brand over the other. During our last adventure in 1998, we towed a Coleman pop-up camper (with a dry weight of about 2,600 lbs) on a round trip adventure that was well over 5,000 miles with our RWD Chevy Astro Van. This time around, we will obviously have a larger trailer so the vehicle that I have been focusing on purchasing this time around is a 2014-2016 4WD Ram 1500 Hemi V8 Express Crew Cab pickup truck. The vehicle I am looking at has a maximum towing capacity of 8,220 lbs. Although this is well above the estimated range of the trailer’s dry weight, you must remember, we need to pack all of our stuff, so this margin should keep us well within our safety zone. Some of the other features of the truck I am looking at include: a 3.92 rear differential gear ratio, a limited-slip differential, an 8-speed automatic transmission, a class IV weight distributing hitch receiver, a prewired 7-pin trailer receptacle, 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, and rear-view backup camera.


It is hard to find a tow vehicle with all of your wants and needs when working on a limited budget. The aforementioned specifications come pretty close as I will explain. Generally speaking, the stock rear gear ratio for the Ram 1500 is 3.21, thus the higher ratio of 3.92 partnered with the 8-speed transmission will help get that trailer onto the highway a little faster especially on those shorter on-ramps. It will also assist in moderate hill climbs. The less stress placed on the engine usually equates with cooler operating temperatures especially in regards to the transmission as improper towing can be the death of a transmission. Although many trucks advertise that they come equipped with HD (heavy duty) oil and transmission coolers as this vehicle does, it will be worth investigating in future reports as to whether this is sufficient for the job at hand.


Although other items such as the hitch, 7-pin receptacle, and rear-view backup camera can be installed aftermarket, it is a matter of convenience that they come preequipped on the vehicle. I also like the idea that the vehicle has disc brakes all around as many trucks use rear drum brakes. Drum brakes are fine, but since I like doing my own brake maintenance, this makes those jobs a little easier as trying to change pads in drum brakes and then adjust them properly can be a pain. Even though you don’t require a rear-view backup camera, I can tell you that I am looking forward to this feature as it will make aligning the ball hitch with the trailer tongue that much easier.


One thing that makes the Ram pickup a little different from other trucks in its class is that the frame utilizes a coil spring suspension in both the front and rear. Most trucks have a rear leaf suspension which is designed to accommodate heavier loads. While the coil springs in the front and rear makes for a smooth ride when unloaded as a daily driver, I have read reviews that complain about excessive sag and a loss of stability in the rear when hauling and towing. There are remedies for this such as installing a set of more durable springs in the rear; however, I will be installing rear coil-assist air bags prior to departure. The brand I am looking at (Air Lift 1000) has received excellent reviews for the Ram 1500 and does not require any modifications that would void the warranty on a new vehicle.


Some folks prefer a pickup with RWD for towing and as mentioned earlier, I am looking at a 4WD model. The main benefits of the RWD when used for towing typically include better gas mileage and lower maintenance costs. Obviously, I am not too concerned with gas mileage since I am looking at the Ram 1500 with the 5.7 V8 hemi. If gas mileage is important to you than consider researching other options. Because I am not writing a comparison review I will leave that up to you since I am just sharing ideas about my thoughts pertaining to my own personal wants and needs. With that said, the reason for choosing the 4WD is because it will be beneficial in my daily driving environment, will help on towing a boat trailer on slippery ramps, and thinking back 20-years ago, there was more than one occasion where I wish I had 4WD. One time in particular was when trying to hitch up in Golden, Colorado in the pouring rain. There was a slight incline to the trailer and I just could not get the traction needed in our RWD Chevy Astro Van to make it the extra foot-and-a-half to the hitch. Not all campsites are paved or level. So I did a dumb thing that day. I held the trailer tongue for the popup camper and had my son remove the wheel chalk and throw it back in when I gave the word in order to bring the trailer to the vehicle. Fortunately it worked –the tongue didn’t smash through the rear of the van and neither me or my son were injured, however it was a reckless approach to mounting the trailer to the hitch and something I would never do again.  


There are two items that are not installed on the truck that bear mentioning. The first is an essential piece of equipment known as the trailer brake controller. Most large trailers have electric brakes to help slow the combination of tow vehicle and trailer down safely. Even our popup camper had electric brakes. While there are many aftermarket brake controllers available, there is a controller that comes with the Ram 1500. Why it is not included on the vehicle I am looking at I cannot say, but I will likely ask the dealer to install, mount, and flash the device to the truck’s computer more as a matter of conveniences than anything. Second, the truck comes with a 26 gallon fuel tank. There is an option for a 32-gallon tank and I will definitely be looking to that as a potential upgrade so as to incur less stops for fuel.


There it is, my preliminary considerations for the tow vehicle. Obviously, there is so much more to discuss and share, but this will wait for future posts. For now, I hope this helps provide some insight pertaining to all that goes into developing a plan for an adventure on the road.

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