One of the biggest decisions I had to make before setting forth was what kind of vehicle to get to tow our trailer with. Trail decided early on she wanted an Airstream trailer based on their modern styling and a great reputation for durability and quality construction. What to tow it with was left largely to me as I was very likely to do the lion’s share of the driving.
My personal car experience was limited to small economy cars. I’d had a few nail biting experiences with U-Haul trucks and driven my mother’s light trucks from time to time. As we do in this day and age I decided to hit up Google and settle in for a lot of reading on the subject. Here I hope to boil things down for you based on what I discovered and I’ll discuss our final decision.
First, Know your Trailer
Before you can select a tow vehicle you need to know a bit about the trailer you will be pulling. For us, we were looking at one of the larger Airstreams. Trailers these days tend to come in three categories: lightweight mini trailers, full sized standard trailers, and 5th wheels. Lightweight and full sized trailers use an end to end hitch coupler designed to take the familiar hitch ball used for small boats and cargo trailers. 5th wheels use a special kind of 5th wheel hitch which is what they are named for. While end to end or standard hitches can be used with a wide range of vehicles, 5th wheel hitches are for trucks only. Since Airstreams don’t have any 5th wheel style trailers we were looking at any vehicle sporting a standard hitch receiver. I’ve another article that goes into detail about selecting a hitch and explains the terminology used here.
The most important things to know about your Airstream is it’s Gross Vehicle Weight Rating. The gross weight is how much your trailer and all it can carry before it becomes unsafe. This number gives you a good idea of how much total towing capacity your vehicle will need. Your best bet for finding this information is to google your Airstream model, size, and its year of manufacture along with the keyword such as “gross vehicle weight.” For newer models you can get this from the Airstream website. Here is ours: 2016 International Serenity 30 feet. In our case, our gross weight was 8,800 lb; about as big as they come. If you buy from a dealer they should be able to provide you this information.
Your first consideration is that any vehicle you select needs to have a Towing Capacity that meets or exceeds the gross weight of your trailer. If you can’t find anything listing a Towing Capacity for a vehicle it probably wasn’t designed for towing and you should give it a miss. It is possible to take a vehicle that was not originally configured for towing, but has the potential, and rig it up for towing. You need a combination of a strong engine with high torque, good suspension that can handle the added trailer weight, and a frame that can support the stress of pulling and holding up the trailer. Configuring such a vehicle is beyond the scope of this guide. I’ll stick to vehicles that were manufactured with towing in mind and list a Towing Capacity.
Keep in mind Towing Capacity is determined by a number of factors including the Engine, Frame, Suspension and other aspects of your vehicle. This means not all vehicles with the same make and model will have the same towing capacity. Each one is rated based on all its options so you need to see what the specific vehicle you are looking at is rated for. Nearly any dealer or manufacturer can provide you with a specific vehicle’s Towing Capacity. If you are buying it used and they don’t have that data, get as much information as you can about it and go online to try and find out its towing capacity before you buy.
Type of Vehicle
Unless you have an ultra light trailer (under 2,000lb) you need to have a vehicle that was built for towing. Most cars just aren’t made with towing in mind and either the engine, suspension or body of the vehicle can’t handle the stresses involved. Generally, you are limited to Trucks, Vans, and SUVs. All of these vehicles are essentially built with a truck-style frame and have different types of bodies attached to them. Let’s look at the benefits of each.
Trucks: Trucks tend to be the gold standard for towing. They will have the highest Towing Capacity and can tow the widest range of trailers. They will also be the cheapest of the three primary options pound per pound. They also come in a nearly bewildering variety of sizes and options and you could fill a book with truck vocabulary. Provided you know what Towing Capacity you need you can skip all the light duty/heavy duty/half ton/three quarter ton 1500/2500 designations. All you need to know is if the Towing Capacity is up to your needs, if it is, your are good to go. Most of these other designations are archaic terms and vary by manufacturer.
Options that do matter a lot will be the body style of the truck and there are many. Standard cab trucks just have two seats, crew cab and extended cab trucks have back seats. Often the bigger the cab, the shorter the truck bed. The interior of trucks vary from strictly utility to those with extensive luxury features. The make and model doesn’t always tell you what you will be getting so you need to dig into the exact features of each truck you look at. If you order a new truck the number of options is pretty astounding.
Overall a truck gives you the best towing options at the lowest price but you will be limited in what you can store or how many people you can seat in the vehicle compared to the other options.
Vans: Vans are generally built with a truck frame but a different body style which is why they can be just as effective for towing. The one thing they can’t tow is 5th wheels because you need a truck bed for the specialized hitch. What can really set a van apart is its large enclosed space. You can use this for extra passengers, storage space, or even a smaller mobile living space for camping in places where your trailer would be impractical. Mind you we are generally not talking about mini-vans here but full sized cargo, commercial, or passenger vans.
There are some downsides on a van. For starters, they tend to be a bit more expensive than trucks. Secondly, they are less often fully configured for towing so you may need to install a hitch receiver and brake controller on yours if it doesn’t have one. Of the three types of vehicles, they tend to have the least luxury cabin options. Finally, vans tend to have less off-road capabilities than Trucks or SUVs so if you want to detach and go backcountry you are going to run into more difficulties with ground clearance. Finally, wind resistance can be an issue in a Van, which eats up gas and makes handling a bit more challenging in high winds.
SUVs: Like vans, we are talking about SUVs that are built using a truck frame rather than smaller commuter style SUVs. The bigger it is, the more likely it is able to meet your Towing Capacity requirements. Because they are less often used for towing, it can be a bit of a challenge to find out what their Towing Capacity is. The advantage with SUVs tends to be in the areas of passenger comfort and vehicle handling. These drive more like a typical car, fit into smaller spaces (generally) and they have lots of passenger space with amenities like built-in DVD players and other fancy interior gadgets. You will spend quite a while in your tow vehicle so this stuff can matter a lot. They also tend to come with great navigation systems and safety features like collision detection that can keep you safe on the road. Last but not least, SUVs tend to be loaded with advanced safety features and have the most secure cabins.
The biggest downside tends to be limited Towing Capacity. Even the biggest SUV’s cap out near 10,000 lb and those are a rare breed. Much more common are towing ranges between 2,500 and 5,000 lb. You will also pay the most for an SUV due to the more complicated vehicle body and all the extras they tend to come with. Finally, SUVs will have the smallest storage capacity. The more luxurious they are, the less storage they will tend to have.
Trucks: Best at towing, Many options, Best value, Least seating
Vans: Most storage, Super versatile, Least luxury features
SUVs: Best safety, Most comfortable, Least Storage, Weakest towing, Most expensive
Diesel vs Gas engines
On most of these vehicles, you can get them with either Diesel or Gas engines. These days the differences are smaller than they used to be but it is worth some consideration. Diesel engines tend to last longer but require a bit more maintenance to keep them in good condition. Diesel engines will also generally get somewhat more miles to the gallon. Finally, Diesel engines will have more torque (pulling power) and thus can tow heavier loads. On the downside, diesel can be harder to find than gas in some parts of the country and the price tends to be more volatile, sometimes higher and sometimes lower than regular gas. Neither choice is bad and while I probably would have preferred a Diesel engine, I have a Gas engine in my truck because it was what the truck I liked happened to have.
One thing I ended up needing to buy to go with my vehicle is a brake controller. This is an electronic device that applies the brakes of the trailer you are pulling when you brake the tow vehicle. Some vehicles with a complete tow package will already have a built in brake controller. Mine, while rigged for towing and having a brake connection, did not have a controller. I had the trailer dealer do the installation, which while not especially complicated still takes a bit more know-how than I had at the time. I went with this controller Tekonsha 90885 Prodigy P2 Electronic Brake Control. I like that it has a big display for the brake strength and a nice easy dial for controlling it. Simple and easy are both good qualities for this gear. The reason you need to adjust the strength is that conditions like humidity and temperature as well as whether you are in a hilly area can affect how much oomph you need for smooth braking.
We ended up with a Ram 1500 crew cab Larraine with a V8 Hemi Engine. It has a towing capacity of 11,000 lb and is pretty luxurious inside the crew cab. I was set on an SUV initially. I loved the luxury and safety features they offered. In the end, though I was worried about their Towing Capacity not quite meeting my needs and the prices were simply a good 25% higher than a Truck which could well exceed my minimum towing needs. The truck also has a lot more space to store tools and equipment which is important when you plan to live on the road as we do.