Choosing a Tow Vehicle for Your Boat

boat tow

High-speed long-distance towing over a highway may require your tow vehicle to have added accessories like transmission coolers.

A few years back I identified the boat I would buy next. It’s a trailerable boat that I can store in my yard and launch with either a yacht club hoist or from a public boat ramp. My plan is to be able to go to regattas anywhere on the east coast with 3 or 4 crew. Now all I need is the money and to identify the tow vehicle that will ultimately pull my boat.

Identifying the tow vehicle starts with knowing the weight you are about to haul. My future boat weighs in at 2,900 pounds, but there are a few added calculations to consider. The trailer weighs another 1,200 pounds and added gear probably brings the total weight up closer to 5,000 pounds. Most boat manufacturers do not provide vessel weights that include gear, fuel, or water, so if you are pulling a powerboat, for instance, figure 6.1 pounds per gallon of gas and 8.3 pounds per gallon of water.

Since most people head to the water with full tanks, the easiest way to calculate this weight is to expect full tank capacity and add this to the base weight of the boat. This is often referred to as gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR), but again add the trailer weight to this to find out how much total weight you are pulling. You also have to add the weight of the passengers in the tow vehicle itself since tow ratings are usually expressed with just the driver onboard. I add another 745 pounds for my crew to the weight of the tow vehicle (full of fuel of course) to come up with the all-important Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR)—the measure of the max allowable loaded weight for the tow vehicle AND its trailer, including passengers, equipment and gear.

Now that I know the total weight I can zero in on the right tow vehicle. Since a vehicle’s towing capacity is determined by the size, power, and type of engine, and the type, quality, and stiffness of the suspension, along with any additional internal parts such as tranny cooler, oil cooler, turbo, etc., here are some further considerations:

Since I’m planning on doing some high-speed long-distance interstate driving, the vehicle I choose should also have added transmission and oil cooling capacity and a bigger radiator. Fortunately, most “factory” tow package upgrades have these,  along with the receiver hitch, beefed-up suspension, and special heavy-duty wiring harness. What they might not include is a transmission temperature gauge. Automatic transmission failure is almost always due to overheating.

I will choose 4WD over AWD because 4WD offers “low range” gearing via a two-speed transfer case for increased torque when on those steep and slippery boat ramps. I’m definitely staying away from 2WD, especially front-wheel drive, since the weight of the trailer might lift the wheels off the ground. I will also choose an enclosed SUV versus an open-bed truck for safely transporting my personal gear.

Rather than search each manufacturer’s individual specs for tow ratings I’m going to use the Tow Rating Database  found on Camping to further hone my tow vehicle search. Finally, I’m going to make sure my tow package conforms to all the state laws pertaining to size, weight, and equipment, such as trailer brakes required by all the states I plan to travel through. A good source for this information is AAA’s digest of motor laws.

While I’m resigned to the fact that my tow vehicle may cost more than the boat I pull, I’m getting closer to choosing the tow package for my needs. I hope my search has helped guide your own towing requirements.


  1. Great advice, particularly about adding the weight of fuel and gear when looking at towing capacity. And for people shopping for used tow vehicles, it’s important to check the specific vehicle year — model year changes can significantly increase or reduce the towing capacity. Thanks!

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