Dispatches from life on the road

Modern Nomad

Pick the Right Truck to Haul an Airstream

Towing capacity is just the start

A truck’s towing capacity is only one in a range of stats that you must parse when choosing a tow vehicle. (JJAG Media)
Arizona

Towing capacity is just the start

Last fall, after pondering whether the Chevy Colorado is enough truck for pulling Artemis the Airstream, I decided that while our tow vehicle wasn’t perfect, it was adequate. “Run what you brung,” I wrote, concluding that it was better to stick with what we owned than take a financial hit on a new truck. But to start the year, Jen and I traded the Colorado for a Chevrolet Silverado 2500 HD. And, cost aside, it was the best decision ever.

So what changed?

Flashback to our November trip to New Mexico’s Valle Vidal. Having gone there for an elk hunt, our annual meat harvest, we were about as heavily loaded as ever. The trailer was spilling over with a rifle, bow, heavy boots, and all the gear you need for a cold-weather hunt. Four fat bikes hung off the back. In addition to our standard 39 gallons of fresh water, we’d brought 15 gallons of drinking water, a half dozen frozen water jugs, and a jerry can of fuel for the generator. We had food enough for four people for a week. And on top of it all, when we pulled out, the Yeti was so overstuffed with 400 pounds of elk meat that it wouldn’t close.

As we drove up the steep, washboard dirt slopes over Comanche Pass, the Colorado in four-low, we ground to a halt. It felt as if we simply didn’t have enough power. Jen backed the trailer down to flat spot and got a running start, and even with the gas pedal floored, we couldn’t get above 10 miles per hour and just barely clawed our way over the saddle. This wasn’t the first time, either. We had two near-strandings earlier in the fall in similarly remote situations.

But how could this be? Our 2015 Colorado was rated to tow 7,000 pounds, and Artemis weighs just 6,000 pounds loaded. Even the Chevy engineer told me we had plenty of truck for the job.

What I had started to suspect through the fall, and what I’ve since come to understand very clearly, is that a truck’s towing capacity is only one in a range of stats that you must parse when choosing a tow vehicle. There are sites that delve into the nitty gritty. But briefly, in addition to a truck’s trailering capacity, you must consider its curb weight (how much it weighs empty), its payload capacity (the amount of weight in cargo that in can manage, including passengers and fuel), its gross combined vehicle weight rating (GCVWR, e.g. how much the whole system can handle between the weight of the truck, cargo, trailer, and everything inside the trailer), and the tongue weight of the trailer (which must be no more or less than 10-15 percent of the loaded trailer’s weight). So when you go into the car dealership and they say, “Sure, 7,000 pounds is plenty for your needs,” get out a pen and paper.

We'd bought the Colorado long before we conceived of an Airstream, so while we made it work, it was never optimal. After our stall-out in the Valle Vidal, I started running the numbers, and what jumped out immediately about the Colorado was its low payload capacity, just 1,520 pounds. Between bikes, racks, cargo box, topper, stove, extra fuel and water, and all the other sundries we carry, my calculations put us just a few hundred pounds shy of that figure. You must also add the tongue weight of your trailer, 600 pounds in the case of our stock Flying Cloud 23FB with no options, and that’s probably conservative given that we’ve lifted Artemis with a steel frame and routinely pack a lot of gear. (Yes, it’s worth investing in a tongue weight scale. Better still, the Weigh Safe hitch measures it in real time.) Right away, we were over our truck’s payload capacity and very likely over the its GCVWR. Throw in an elk or two, and it’s actually a wonder that we never got stuck.

So we decided to get a bigger truck. But picking the right one wouldn't be easy. The Chevy website says the company’s next biggest truck, the half-ton Silverado 1500, has a max trailering capacity of 12,500 pounds and the even larger three-quarter ton 2500 gets up to 18,100, both of which sound ample for our needs. But the key is that “up to” because every model of each truck varies. For instance, the trailering capacity of the 1500 ranges from 5,500 pounds on the 2WD 4.3L V6 Short Box Crew Cab up to 12,500 on the 6.2L V8 Standard Box Double Cab. In other words, if you look closely, about half of the 1500s would still be inadequate for our needs.

Again, plan on lots of research and arithmetic before you buy a truck. More than once while out on lots looking at trucks, a dealer overstated a model’s numbers, which I only knew because I arrived with a spreadsheet I’d built and demanded he back up his claims. (Have I mentioned how much I dislike buying cars?) 

In the end, we bought a pretty big machine, a Chevy Silverado 2500 HD, with a 6.6L Turbo-Diesel V8. It has twice the payload and trailering capacity of the Colorado, which means we should never be underpowered and can upsize trailers should we ever decide to do so. One of my biggest misgivings about such a huge truck in the past was the inevitable poor gas mileage, but so far we’ve averaged 13 miles per gallon when towing, which is more than we were getting with the Colorado. Honestly though, given the massive improvement in hauling and experience, I wouldn’t care if it were less. On the interstate, we can cruise at 80 miles per hour and barely even realize Artemis is behind us, whereas the Colorado’s engine would be screaming and laboring at 60. Semis and high winds no longer push us around, so long days driving aren’t stressful like before. And though we’ve yet to find any dirt roads as testing as those that stymied us last fall, we’ve driven some super steep mountain roads pulling Artemis, and the Silverado didn’t even break a sweat.

I’m not saying that everyone needs a massive truck. We put almost 30,000 miles on the Colorado towing Artemis without incident, and the savings on fuel and sticker price on that mid-size truck is significant. If we were typical 9-5ers who got out a handful of weekends a year in the trailer and stuck to campgrounds, I never would have upgraded. However, Jen and my needs are particular, both because we live in Artemis full time, so we drive a lot, and because we haul a lot of equipment for testing. We also take her into rugged, remote spots.

The truth is that no tow vehicle is perfect. Every option is a compromise, and you must weigh all of the factors against your needs, budget, and plans. Most importantly, it’s vital to think accurately about your needs and then spend time researching what can meet them. Jen and I may have slightly overbought with the 2500, but the big diesel means we’re set for pretty much any scenario. And since these engines typically last 300,000 miles and beyond, we hopefully won’t have to go to a car dealership for another decade. 

Filed To: Trucks / Cars / Gear / Travel