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Don’t be fooled! Here’s how to find the best trucks for towing

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It’s summer, which means you’ll see a bunch of trucks towing campers, boats and other things on the open road. The ability to tow heavy things is at the core of what makes a truck, well, a truck, however, not every truck can tow the same, and there are a lot of considerations when buying a truck for towing. So, if you’re thinking of hitting the open road yourself this summer and need a more capable truck for towing, here’s what you need to know about the best trucks for towing.

I’ll hit on the top items I get asked when it comes to buying the right truck for the job.

A half-ton truck tows more than a half of a ton

One of the most confusing things when it comes to trucks and towing are the class names. For example, there are compact, midsize, full-size (aka half-ton), heavy-duty (two kinds) and medium-duty trucks. Many people get stuck on the names without realizing how much things have changed and why that matters.

For example, a half of a ton is literally 1,000 pounds (a ton is 2,000 pounds). However, most half-ton trucks tow more than 10,000 pounds or 5 tons these days. Along those lines, a 3/4-ton heavy-duty truck doesn’t tow just 1,750 pounds — rather you can find them with max tow ratings upwards of 20k pounds or 10 tons. Then, there is a 1-ton heavy-duty truck with a max tow rating of more than 35k pounds or 17.5 tons. Finally, there are medium-duty trucks (F-550, F-650, etc…), which tow even more than that. These are often commercial trucks.

Another thing to consider is a midsize truck today tows more than a full-size truck did from the 1960-1970s. And if you think that’s interesting, consider the fact a 2000 F-250 had maximum towing capacity of 14,700 pounds, which is nearly the same as a 2022 Ford F-150.

This is all to say things have dramatically changed over the years, and the first step in finding the best trucks for towing is to consider your source of information. In other words, go directly to the manufacturer’s towing charts to determine which truck you really need.

It’s all about that torque

Another confusing item for most people is understanding the difference between torque and horsepower when it comes to towing. The old analogy, “horsepower is how fast you hit the wall, and torque is how far you take the wall with you” still applies.

When it comes to towing, you need to disregard the horsepower number, which is more for top-speed, unloaded driving. Instead, torque is the muscle that gets your load going off the line. It also determines how confident the truck will feel going over hilly or mountainous terrain.

For example, one of the best towing engines for half-ton trucks is General Motor’s LM2 3.0-liter inline 6-cylinder diesel, which is soon to be replaced by the upgraded LZ0. While diesel is always better for towing, the secret sauce is actually in the numbers. The inline 6 produces 277 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque. While you might jump to the conclusion that more torque than horsepower is good for towing, the answer is more complicated. The secret sauce here is you get all 460 pound-feet of torque at just 1,500 RPM. This means you will get max torque very early in the so-called torque curve. For the driver, this will feel like the truck has plenty of power and is quick off the line.

When looking for the best towing trucks, you must look not only at torque numbers but also at which RPM full torque is realized. Lower is better.

So, diesel is better than gas, right?

Asking if a diesel or gas engine is better for towing will cause a lot of debate.

There are, like most things, a bunch of different ways to look at this question. Let’s simplify it with this: A diesel engine burns fuel slowly, which makes it more efficient with the fuel and allows it to operate at higher compression ratios. It also utilizes features like a diesel exhaust brake for better control when descending. Diesel engines are the choice for semi trucks, commercial equipment and most long-haul independent truckers. The reason? They pull better, use less fuel during and have more power than their gasoline counterparts.

With that said, the newer gas engines have really improved and you’ll find many of the advantages of diesel aren’t as great as they once were — especially if you look at hybrid trucks like the all-new 2022 Toyota Tundra with its i-Force Max engine. Gas-engined trucks are also less expensive overall — they have lower fuel costs, less maintenance and the overall purchase price is much less than their diesel counterparts.

That being said, diesel is still going to be better for those who tow a lot.

Max towing is deceptive

If you watch enough ads on TV or read enough articles, you’d swear all of today’s trucks are amazing for towing. I mean, they can literally tow a house! But that’s not the whole story.

A good example of this is on Ram’s website with the graphic declaring “Major Pulling Power” and “best-in-class available diesel towing of up to 37,050 pounds.” Those are some impressive stats until you realize that’s just one version of the 3500 setup for max towing — and it’s only available with an additional max towing package. Yeah, lots of asterisks.

When you actually start to build a truck for your needs, you’ll find the towing numbers change dramatically. For example, a Tradesman version of the Ram 3500 with the 6.4-liter V-8 Hemi engine has a max towing capacity of 14,970 numbers. Not anywhere near the 37,050 pounds number.

What’s going on? Well, you have conventional (bumper) towing numbers, 5th wheel max towing numbers, different engines, rear axle ratios and different max towing packages. Those all make a difference.

Just remember in order to hit those max towing numbers, you are looking at a very specific truck. Always make sure to consult towing charts before you finalize your order.

Do the math, payload matters

One of the least understood topics for towing is payload. Simply put, payload is everything you add to the truck when the truck is sitting empty. And, yeah, that includes passenger weight as well as the weight of your beer cooler and fishing gear.

You maybe thinking, well if my cargo is on the trailer, then payload won’t matter. Wrong. When towing, you need to take part of the hitch’s weight and “transfer” it to the truck. If you have ever seen a truck squat, you can see this transfer of weight.

This number is usually a big reason why people start considering a 3/4-ton truck over a half-ton truck. While the half-ton truck can tow 10,000 pounds, they often have a payload below 2,000 pounds. In fact, most half-ton trucks I review are more like 1,500 pounds of payload. Quite often, trailers and campers require at least 10% of their weight be added to the truck. This is where things get tough for a half-ton.

Let’s say you have a fairly typical 6,000-pound RV camper and want to take your family of four camping with you as well as your cargo (luggage, food, cell phones, shoes, etc…). The local RV guy said the camper is “half-ton ready,” so you are good to go, right? Probably not.

The math is this: 6,000-pound RV camper = 600 pounds of tongue weight added to the truck. Your family of four, let’s say, is 700 pounds all together. This means an average half-ton truck would be close to overloaded with its maximum 1,500 pounds of payload since 600+700=1300 pounds. Give or take a few hundreds pounds of cell phones, computers, food and what not you have in the truck, and you can see how close you are to maxing out the truck.

Will the truck pull it? Probably. Will it cause more wear and tear long-term loaded up like that? Oh yeah. Should you be concerned about tires, brakes and the engine? Yup. Would a 3/4 ton handle the load better with less concern over driving and damage to the truck? Uh huh. And that’s why people go bigger.

How to find the best trucks for towing?

Armed with this knowledge, how then do you find the best trucks for towing? Start with your maximum trailer load — whether it be a boat, camper or trailer. Determine the max weight you plan to tow, then determine the maximum weight of all your passengers and their things. Do the math and determine if a half-ton or 3/4-ton or 1-ton is for you. Simple way to think of it is this:

  • Half-ton = 2,000 pounds payload, 10,000 pounds towing
  • 3/4-ton = 3,000 pounds payload, 15,000 pounds towing
  • 1-ton = 5,000 pounds payload, 30,000 pounds towing

You’ll also need to factor in if you will be doing conventional bumper pull or a 5th wheel or gooseneck hitch. Quite often, you can only add a 5th wheel or gooseneck hitch to a heavy-duty truck.

Next, consider if you want the extra stability a dually truck gives you for towing with crosswinds, or if you want less tires to worry about.

Finally, consider what comforts and tech you want in the cabin. Long-distance towing can be tiring and boring, you’ll definitely want comfortable seats, a good infotainment system, plenty of USBs and cup holders. But there is also new available tech, like Super Cruise that enables hands-free towing on GMC Sierra and Chevy Silverado trucks, and if something like that appeals, it could steer you in a very different direction on the best towing truck for you.

Which truck, then, is the best?

All new trucks have their pros and cons, yet that’s not what you want to hear is it. Which one, would I, recommend for the best towing experience?

Based on comfort, towing tech, engine availability, here is my short list:

Why both Ram trucks? Simple, they have the best combination of comfortable seats, powertrain setup, style and the right amount of tech without overkill for towing. My only concern is always long-term reliability, however, they are making strides when it comes to quality.

The bottom line

The reality is towing doesn’t have to be as hard or complex as people make it out to be. Most trucks are really good these days, and any “best trucks for towing” lists that don’t reference any of the above should be taken with a grain of salt. Just take the time to figure out exactly how much you want to tow, then verse yourself in towing information like GCWR, GVWR, tire load ratings, payload, etc., and you’ll be an informed consumer who will make the best choice for your personal situation.

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Tim Esterdahl

Automotive Journalist Tim Esterdahl has been a lover of trucks and SUVs for years. He has covered the industry since 2011 and has pieces in many national magazines and newspapers. In his spare time, he is often found tinkering on his '62 C10 pickup, playing golf, going hunting and hanging out with his wife and kids in Nebraska.

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