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Payload and towing capacity are both used to calculate the amount of weight your vehicle can carry. However, there’s a slight difference between how they’re used and calculated.

Payload vs Towing Capacity

Payload capacity is the amount of weight a vehicle can carry, while towing capacity is the amount of weight it can pull. However, these two are much more complicated than that. The total weight accounts for a handful of different factors:

What is Payload Capacity?

Payload capacity is the maximum amount of weight a vehicle can safely carry. It includes the weight in the trunk and cabin–including the passengers.

If you’re pulling a trailer, tongue weight may also add to the payload. This is the weight exerted by the camper or trailer on the tow vehicle as it pushes down on the hitch.

Towing Capacity

Towing capacity, on the other hand, is the amount of weight it can safely pull from behind. The capacity changes drastically based on how the vehicle is configured, how much weight it’s carrying, and how the load is distributed.

As a general rule, the towing capacity will always be greater than the payload capacity. For comparison, you can pull more rocks in a wagon than you can in your own hands. The same principle applies to vehicles.

Some of the most common things people tow and their weights are:

  • Car (2,800 lbs)
  • Car trailer (1,600 to 2,000 lbs)
  • Motorboat (2,500 lbs)
  • Boat trailer (300 to 1,500 lbs)
  • Camper (5,200 lbs)
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Curb Weight

Curb weight is the truck’s empty weight. This takes into account a full tank of fuel and all the standard equipment, calculating the weight of a fully functioning vehicle without passengers and luggage. It’s the closest way to determine a vehicle’s actual weight.

You can find your vehicle’s curb weight in the owner’s manual. Some models even have it on the driver’s side door jamb.

How to Calculate Payload Capacity

Before calculating the payload, it’s first important to know what Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) is. GVWR is the maximum total weight your truck can handle. It’s determined by the manufacturer and is indicated on the owner’s manual.

For the actual payload capacity, you simply have to subtract the curb weight from the GVWR.

  • Gross Vehicle Weight – Curb Weight = Payload Capacity

This equation changes if you attached a trailer to your truck, because the tongue weight is weighing the truck down. Basically, part of the maximum capacity has already been taken up by the trailer. In this case, the equation should be:

  • Gross Vehicle Weight – Curb Weight – Tongue Weight = Payload Capacity

Lastly, you should also subtract the weight of aftermarket components if your vehicle has them because the curb weight doesn’t account for their weight.

  • Gross Vehicle Weight – Curb Weight – Aftermarket Component Weight = Payload Capacity

If you’re unsure of your calculations, the owner’s manual should indicate your vehicle’s payload capacity.

How to Calculate Towing Capacity

To calculate the towing capacity, you’ll first need to know the vehicle’s Gross Combined Vehicle Weight Rating (GCVWR). The GCVWR is the combined GVWR of the truck and the trailer, including the cargo each one carries and the passengers inside.

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The way to get the towing capacity is by subtracting the curb weight from the GCVWR.

  • GCVWR – Curb Weight = Towing Capacity

If your vehicle has additional passengers and luggage, it’s important to remove their combined weights as well, because the curb weight doesn’t account for passengers and luggage:

  • GCVWR – Curb Weight – Luggage/People Weight = Towing Capacity

The same principle applies to aftermarket components. In this case, you simply add their weight to the equation above. It should look something like this:

  • GCVWR – Curb Weight – Luggage/People Weight (if applicable) – Aftermarket Components = Towing Capacity

Similar to the payload capacity, the owner’s manual should indicate your truck’s towing capacity. However, note that the number you see on the manual assumes the vehicle is only carrying the driver.

The extra weight may skew the number, and you could exceed the towing capacity. It’s worth noting that manufacturers have made it clear not to exceed it. Doing so may put too much stress on the axles.

Ways to Increase Towing Capacity

If you feel the towing capacity of your vehicle isn’t enough, there are modifications you can make that might increase it.

Get the Appropriate Hitch

Investing in the appropriate hitch means getting one that is rated to handle the weight of your trailer/truck.

A weight distribution hitch will help your vehicle tow a larger trailer. It uses spring bars to distribute the weight of the trailer throughout your tow vehicle’s frame. It’s one of the most cost-effective and easiest ways to improve towing performance.

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Upgrade the Brakes

The brake system works harder when you’re towing something heavy because of inertia. It’s the tendency for objects to resist changes in the way they are or aren’t moving. And physics also dictates that the more mass an object has, the more it resists change.

In that case, upgrading the brake pads and rotors prepares your truck to effectively manage the stress from the additional stress.

Replace the Axles

Upgrading or repairing worn-out axles can better manage heavy-duty components because they come with enhanced gear ratio that lets you tow heavier loads. The only downside to doing this is how expensive it gets.

A similar alternative you can consider is replacing traditional truck parts with recreational vehicle (RV) parts. These parts are specifically made to carry heavy loads, making them perfect for towing. However, it’s advised to leave the tinkering to professionals.

Install a Bigger Radiator

Towing takes its toll on the engine, because it works harder and creates more power to pull the heavy load. As such, it’s paramount to keep it cool to avoid overheating and warped cylinder walls.

One way to do this is by installing a bigger radiator. Increasing your engine’s cooling capacity helps minimize wear damage to the parts of the powertrain.

About The Author
CarParts Research Team
Written By Research Team

Automotive and Tech Writers

The Research Team is composed of experienced automotive and tech writers working with (ASE)-certified automobile technicians and automotive journalists to bring up-to-date, helpful information to car owners in the US. Guided by's thorough editorial process, our team strives to produce guides and resources DIYers and casual car owners can trust.

Any information provided on this Website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace consultation with a professional mechanic. The accuracy and timeliness of the information may change from the time of publication.

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