Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Choosing the Best Tow Vehicle for Full Time RV Life


So you've done an internet search for "best truck to tow an RV with".  Maybe not those exact words but you get my point.


You're hear because you want a nice simple and easy answer.  Perhaps a recommendation or two on a brand and model.

Someone to tell you if you bought "this" RV then "that" truck is the right one. 

I get it.  I wanted that too.

However, the first thing I feel needs to be covered is that there is no "right" truck.  

Buying a truck to tow an RV is a giant exercise in deciding what is important and what is not so important.  Unless money is no object.  Then just go buy the biggest and most powerful one on the lot.

If you miss it the first time, no worries, you can just buy another because money is no object.

If you're like me however, you need to get this right the first time.

I get that too.

Where did I start?

Well, I started to list what I thought a truck needed in order to tow safely in order of importance, or at least what I felt was my order of importance.  I knew the more things I got on the truck the more expensive it was going to be and I did not have an unlimited budget.  As the search lingered on, my list began to change.  That is OK.  In fact, it is suppose to change if you're doing it right.

Some things that once were on the top, began to fall to the bottom.  Others fell completely off the list.

Why did this list change?  Because I didn't understand what would become my first step to finding the best tow vehicle for full time RV life.

STEP 1 - Understand not all trucks are created equal!

When I bought my truck I knew what I wanted it to do.  Tow.  Armed with that information I went shopping.

In fact, I almost bought one.  Glad I didn't cause I would have been upset.

I didn't realize that when you hear the commercials tell you "best in class towing capacity", you may not be getting much towing capacity at all with the truck you're about to buy.

That's because they use a very specific vehicle configuration to determine "Max" tow capacity.  They use that number in there commercials.  It doesn't mean all there trucks they produce and find on dealer lots will be able to tow that much.

There are four main things that determine how much any particular truck can or cannot tow.

1. Engine (Duh!)

Most manufacturers have multiple engine choices to choose from.  Chevrolet has a four cylinder option for there full size half ton Silverado.  Ford has chosen to stick turbos on many of there engine options ranging from a 2.7L 6 cylinder twin turbo engine as well as a beefier 3.5L option.

All manufacturers to my knowledge offers an 8 cylinder engine but you might be surprised to learn that 8 cylinders often do not lead to better tow capacity.

Ford's best option for the highest tow number is the 3.5L twin turbo engine but it is also the most costly option as well.  It is a hard to find option on there lower trimmed trucks such as their XL and XLT.

The last I checked the 3.5L had a max tow capacity of just over 13,000lbs when combined just right with other things on this list.  However, before you click the box on that order sheet at your local Ford dealer, understand towing that heavy an RV is not a job suited for a half ton truck.

Dealerships, manufacturers and truck enthusiasts seldom mention that towing 13,000lbs loaded on a flat bed trailer is a lot different than towing a huge box acting as a wind sail down the road.  If you have never towed before or maybe you have towed but just not an RV then allow me to illuminate the situation for you.

Get a sail boat.  Load it on a trailer and hitch it to a truck.  NOW PUT THE SAIL UP!  Commence towing!!!

In my opinion and my opinion only, towing more than 7 or 8,000lbs of RV is a job better suited for a three quarter ton truck.  That would be an F250 in Ford's world or a 2500 for other brands.

2. Wheelbase 


The longer the distance between the front axle and the rear axle the more that truck will be able to tow in most cases.  It will also be a more stable towing experience.

An easy way to get an idea if the truck your looking at has a longer or shorter wheelbase is by looking at two things.  What style cab and bed length.  As an example I will go with Ford again because I'm very familiar with there option choices.  A supercrew cab with longbed will have a 157" wheelbase.  On the flip side a regular cab short bed F150 will only have a 122" wheelbase.

Obviously the truck with 157 inches between its axles will be more able to resist tail swing from a trailer hooked to it's backside.  Consequently it will often be rated to tow more as well.

3. Axel Ratio 


This is a little known component that has a huge determination not only on the maximum tow capacity of any truck on the road but also fuel economy.  In fact, most car salesman will have NO clue what this is or how it affects anything on a vehicle.

Few people know that the "best in class numbers", commercials tell you about are determined using an axle ratio that most dealerships don't keep or keep very few of in there inventory.  

I went shopping for a 6.2L gasoline engine F250 a couple years ago.  I saw if I got an axle ratio of 4.10 it had a tow rating of 15,000lbs versus 12,500 for the other axle ratios.  Non of the dealerships in my area had any trucks with the 4.10 ratio.  They said they only stocked trucks with the 3.73.  

In fact their was only one in the whole state of Florida.  I asked why and the sales manager shrugged his shoulders at me.  He said he's never lost a sale over axle ratio.  

I guess he can't say that anymore.

4.  4x2 vs 4x4.


That's right, whether a truck is a two wheel drive truck or a four wheel drive truck will also determine how much it can tow.  Many people are surprised to learn that four wheel drive trucks often have a lower tow capacity than their two wheel counterparts.

What else affects Towing #'s?

There are other things that will swing payload and towing numbers up or down but for the most part those four items should get you in the ballpark that you need without too many surprises.

However, I put a few other things on my list for a truck I wanted to tow a rig.

Tire size. 


I'm not going to get to deep into this one because it will make your head swim.  However, take these two tire sizes for example:



Both are options on an F150.  If it were me comparing two identical trucks and the only difference was these two tire sizes then my decision would go like this;

If I want to tow (and I do), then I want the 275/55R20.  Why?  Because the first number 275 is the tire width.  This will give me more surface contact area with the road than the 245.

If my trailer goes to swinging then I want more grip. 

The second number is the distance from the outside of the tire to the rim.  So essentially from the road to the rim.  It is the wall of the tire.  The walls of tires flex.  They flex left to right and forward and back.  You hit the gas, they flex.  You turn a corner, they flex.  You hit a bump, they flex.  The smaller number indicates a shorter wall.  This shorter wall flexes less than a taller wall.  

If my trailer gets squirrely on me, I don't want too much flex in my tires.  They also translate less body roll inside the cab while cornering.  The way I describe it is it feels like the truck has it's feet more firmly planted on the road.

The trade off is usually you feel more of the road.

Tow Package. 

A tow package is an option offered by manufacturers that gives you a receiver hitch from the factory.  You also might get a beefier stabilizer bar.  Often times it also indicates the presence of an auxiliary transmission inter-cooler.  In lay terms it is an additional radiator that helps keep the transmission temperature in check.  

Pulling heavy loads puts additional stress on the transmission causing it to run hotter.  This in turn causes the fluid inside the transmission to break down quicker.  

Not having an inter cooler doesn't mean your truck would tow less and having one doesn't mean your truck can tow more.  It just helps keep everything working harder longer with less potential for problems down the road.

Having one in my opinion and my opinion only, is always better than not.

So which truck is the best?

I know you probably did a Google search and just wanted a quick answer.  A brand, a model and an iron clad reason why that one is the best.

I can't give that to you and you shouldn't expect anyone to give that to you.

If you are going to pull a box on wheels down a road then you owe it to not only yourself but also your family and anyone else's family you'll be on the road with to understand what it takes to do it safely.

Some will say, "Buy the biggest and strongest truck then you don't have to worry about what it can tow.  You'll just know it can."

If you walk onto an RV dealership lot the salesperson may say it is better to buy an RV first, then you know for sure what truck you need.  

I think both ideas are hogwash.

If you lose your mind and buy the prettiest RV you walk into because it most closely resembles your house and you find yourself the not so proud owner of a 14,000lbs monstrosity of a rig, then you may be in for financial heartache. 

Some trucks can cost upwards of $85,000.  The bigger the rig you buy the more it will probably weigh.  This in turn most likely means you need a more expensive truck.

So how did I choose mine?

When I bought my truck I picked a Ford F150 with the 2.7L engine that had a tow package and 275/55R20 tires.  Why?

I wanted a daily driver as well as a tow vehicle.  Fuel economy was a factor in long term ownership cost as well as upfront price.  Full time RV living means you are towing often but not everyday.  I don't want my truck to suck the life out of my wallet when we are stationary for awhile.

I'm not afraid to admit I'm not made of money.  Long term ownership costs are always a variable I consider when making purchases.  The 2.7L engine has proven to give me 22 MPG over the last three years of ownership.  Since I wanted fuel economy when not towing, that put the three quarter ton trucks out all together.

The 3.5L twin turbo from Ford towed around 13,000lbs.  The V8 around 10,500lbs.  The 2.7 engine had a tow rating of 7600lbs in the configuration I purchased.  I knew from other research that I wasn't willing to tow more than 8000lbs of RV with a half ton truck.  So I didn't need to spend the extra cash on the V8 or 3.5L engines.

The 2.7L became the go to choice and as for the tow package I knew I wanted that for long term ownership potential

As for the tires.  I test drove a few trucks with 17" tires and felt a noticeable difference in the handling when cornering at speed.

Think interstate on ramps and interchanges or perhaps the occasional yellow light that you want to make a turn at.  So the 20" tires became a must.

My order of importance wish list went like this:

1.  Fuel Economy when not towing.

2.  Truck price and long term ownership costs.

3.  Stability and handling for safety while towing.

4.  Tow Capacity

5.  Tow Package

Final Thoughts

I knew early that I wanted a Ford product.  I am not endorsing them or feel they are the best brand of vehicle manufacturer available.  I realized in my research they had the most options available that were stocked at dealerships in my area.  This gave me the most bargaining power when visiting dealerships.

If one didn't want to play ball I walked and went to another.  I was confident I would find another truck optioned similar to what I wanted elsewhere.

At no time did I ever treat the purchase as anything other than a business decision.  I didn't care if it was black, red, white or Polk-a-dot.

My truck sat on the dealership lot for 4 months.  I watched it in my autotrader account for three and a half of those.  Dozens others came and went, but this one remained.  Four days before the end of October in 2017 I called the sales person I had spoke with months earlier but not since.  

He remembered who I was and two of my children's names.  I gave him the stock number of the vehicle and an out the door price with trade.  He already had my trade info from my previous visit.

He called me back 5 minutes later with a yes.

Now all I had to do was find the right (but not perfect) RV to go along with my new truck.

Watch for that post next!

Thanks for visiting my humble website.  Be sure to visit my YouTube channel and subscribe.  I post videos on DIY projects, homesteading and RV living.

My family and I have sold our house and are living in a 30' bunkhouse travel trailer until we find our next homestead.  Be sure to follow me on Facebook and subscribe to my YouTube channel to keep up with the journey.

Until then!

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