Trucks 101: Payload vs. Towing Capacity

One of the most important things to know when searching for pickup trucks is the difference between payload and towing capacity. While the two terms are often used interchangeably, they actually refer to different things. So, here’s a look at the difference between payload and towing capacity and why it’s essential to know the distinction.

Payload vs. towing capacity

Car manufacturers define a vehicle’s payload capacity as the maximum amount of weight it can carry safely. In trucks, this consists of the weight in the bed and the cabin, including the weight of passengers. On the other hand, the towing capacity is the maximum weight a truck can pull behind it – typically via a trailer hitch. Often automakers use the term hauling when referring to the carrying weight in the truck bed to distinguish it from towing (the pulling weight in a trailer).

The main difference between payload and towing capacity is the location of the weight. Payload is the total weight of everything in the truck itself, while the latter refers to the weight pulled by the truck. Knowing the difference between the two is essential because both impact how your vehicle will perform.

Overloading a truck’s payload and towing capacities can have serious consequences. First and foremost, it can lead to accidents. An overloaded truck is likelier to lose control, especially on slick roads or when making sharp turns. Even if you’re an experienced driver, it’s still not worth the risk.

Overloading your truck can also void the warranty and damage the car itself. The suspension, brakes, and tires are all designed to handle a certain amount of weight. Once you exceed that, you put unnecessary strain on the truck and its components, leading to premature wear and tear and, ultimately, costly repairs down the line.

The difference between gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) and towing capacity

A bronze 2022 Nissan Frontier compact pickup truck towing a speedboat near a lake
2022 Nissan Frontier towing a speedboat | Nissan Motor Corporation

As we have said, the towing capacity is the maximum weight a truck can pull. For a vehicle to have a particular towing capacity, various factors, including the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR), come into play. Manufacturers define the GVWR as a fully loaded truck’s maximum weight capacity – the payload plus the towing capacity. However, unlike curb weight (the total weight of a car), a truck’s GVWR factors in the actual weight of a loaded vehicle, including its passengers, cargo, and anything towed behind, to determine the maximum weight the truck can handle.

False towing myths you might come across

You might come across some towing myths that are not true while searching for the right truck. Let’s debunk some of them:

1. Adding aftermarket suspension tools can boost your truck’s payload capacity

A truck’s payload and towing capacity are fixed. Simply put, no aftermarket suspension tools can increase either capacity.

2. You don’t have to know much about towing terms

While you don’t need to be an expert in the field, understanding the basic towing terms, such as GVWR and payload capacity, can help you make an informed decision while purchasing a truck. Try and learn the basics before you buy a pickup truck.

3. It is OK to estimate the tongue weight

Incorrect estimation of the tongue weight is among the most common fails when towing. Furthermore, it is often unfortunate since you should never exceed the tongue weight. Therefore instead of estimating, it is better to learn how to calculate it.

4. Trailer bearings don’t need maintenance

Trailer bearings need regular maintenance, especially considering most trailers remain parked outside in weather conditions that can cause rust. Kelley Blue Book recommends continually monitoring, cleaning, and repackaging the bearings with new grease (once a year, at the very least).

5. Any hitch extension can work with your truck

Trucks are not the same, and neither are hitches. Therefore, you need a hitch extension compatible with your vehicle for the best results. The correct measurements of your towing truck will help you select the ideal hitch extension.

RELATED: Towing for Beginners: How to Determine Your Vehicle’s Towing Capacity