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If you're planning on taking the RV towing route, you're probably wondering whether you should get an SUV or a pickup truck to tow your travel trailer.
On the SUV vs. truck debate, the answer is that a pickup truck is almost always the better towing vehicle. Pickup trucks can pull more types of trailers both in terms of towing capacity and the type of hitches they can handle. However, SUVs have their advantages, so if you find the right match for an SUV, it can be your RV-towing vehicle too.
In this post, we'll cover each and every pro and con for each one of these options. We'll discuss the types of pickup trucks and SUVs you need to know and - on the other end of the hitch - the types of towable RVs. By the end of the post, you should have a much better grasp as to what can be matched with which.
Why even tow an RV?
When it comes to RVs, there are two basic setups. The first is motorhomes - a single unit where the "vehicle" and the "home" are permanently attached. The other is a towing setup where you have a towing vehicle and a towable "home".
If you're asking yourself "what to tow with", we take it that you've already made up your mind about wanting a towing setup - and not a motorhome. However, if you're still not sure, it might be worth a short break at this point to go and read our post about motorhomes vs. travel trailers, which basically covers the pros and cons of motorhomes vs. any towing RV setup.
What the towable RVs?
A towing solution is inherently different from a motorhome. If you choose to tow, your rig will be comprised of three parts:
- A towing vehicle.
- A towable/towed home unit.
- The hitch that connects the two.
That means you can get your RV from point A to point B and then unhitch the towing vehicle and go exploring in that area. It's a popular choice among RVers.
There are four types of towable RVs -
- Travel trailers
- 5th wheels
- Pop-up campers
- Toy haulers
In order to decide which vehicle to tow them with - you need to be familiar with these types and choose the one that best fits your needs. The choice of towing vehicle should actually come AFTER you choose your RV. You'll be living in this RV - whether full-time or part-time - so you should feel comfortable with it. So let's take a quick look at each one of the options.
Travel trailers are the basic and most common form of towable RV.
They usually have a flat floorplan - no steps and no high ceilings. They can be as small as a tiny 10-foot long teardrop trailer, or as large as a 40-foot long Jayco Flight Bungalow trailer.
The dry weight of a travel trailer can be anything from 3,500lbs to 12,000lbs. Add another 1,000-2,000 lbs for everything else on the trailer and you get a more realistic range of weights.
Choice of the tow vehicle for a travel trailer -
You connect the travel trailer to the tow vehicle using one of the following types of hitches -
- Bumper hitch
- Rear receiver hitch
- Weight distribution hitch
Your choice of hitch directly affects how much weight you can tow. A weight distribution hitch is a popular choice for heavier travel trailers because the weight distribution makes for a better towing experience.
No matter which of these hitches you choose - they will need to be installed into the back of your tow vehicle. And they can be installed in either an SUV or a pickup truck - not a problem.
In a pickup truck, towing a travel trailer means you have the bed of your truck available for anything that you might want to put there. Just keep an eye on the truck's payload capacity and the weight you end up hauling - it can actually affect towing as well.
A 5th wheel is a type of trailer that has a front shape that can "ride" on top of the bed of the truck.
5th wheels are generally larger and heavier than travel trailers of the same length. They're massive RVs with plenty of slideouts that are built for luxury living standards.
5th wheels weigh anything between 5,000 to 20,000 lbs. Again, that's dry weight. Add another 2,000 lbs to get a feel for the real-life weight.
Choice of the tow vehicle for a 5th wheel -
The reason why 5th wheels are larger and more spacious - i.e. heavier - is related directly to the way they're towed. They're connected to the tow vehicle - always a pickup truck - in a way that makes them far more stable. And you can tow heavier weights when the setup is more stable and less vulnerable to sway.
When towing a 5th wheel, the hitch is installed right into the bed of a pickup truck. There are two types of hitches you can use for towing a 5th wheel -
- A gooseneck hitch
- A 5th wheel hitch
While these differ in their shape - the principle is the same. The hitch is anchored to the bed of the truck so that the weight of the 5th wheel pushed down on that part of the pickup truck. And that's a good thing! Pickup trucks are workhorses, meant to take a lot of weight in that area of the vehicle. Which again, contributes to the overall stability of this setup.
And the bottom line here is simple: You can only tow a 5th wheel with a pickup truck - not with an SUV. Simply due to the shape of the 5th wheel itself and the type of hitches it can connect to.
Less common than travel trailers or 5th wheels, pop-up campers are half-tent, half travel trailer.
The top section of their walls is made of tough fabric so that the entire unit is collapsible. When not in use, the pop-up camper literally folds down into a flat towable that looks like this -
Pop-up campers don't have a lot of bells and whistles to them. They usually support a minimal kitchen and port-a-pot toilets and some would say offer no more than a convenient tenting experience.
Pop-up campers weigh between 600 and 2,500 lbs. Definitely less than a travel trailer or 5th wheel! And while that's also dry weight - it's closer to the finite figure. For one thing, pop-up campers don't have tanks like travel trailers and 5th wheels, and for another, there's not a whole lot more you'll carry in that collapsible tent of yours.
Choice of the tow vehicle for a pop-up camper -
Because they are flat and relatively lightweight, pop-up campers lend themselves easily to towing. That's not to say that they can't experience sway - they certainly can - but you can usually tow them even with tow vehicles that have a low towing capacity.
Since you can tow a pop-up camper with either a bumper hitch or a weight-distribution hitch - you can use either an SUV or a pickup truck to tow them with - anything goes.
We won't go into too much detail on this type of RV. Toy haulers are basically a type of travel trailer. The only difference is that their interior design is suited for hauling things like motorbikes, horses, ATVs and basically anything that just need a large open space.
Towing a toy hauler is identical to towing a travel trailer, so in principle, either a pickup truck or a strong SUV could do.
Travel trailers? Size matters!
We now know that a 5th wheel can only be towed by a pickup truck. Let's leave these rigs aside for a few moments and talk about travel trailers.
When determining whether to tow a travel trailer with a pickup truck or SUV - the size of that travel trailer matters. By size, we're referring to length and weight.
In the end, regardless of which tow vehicle you'll choose - you have to match the weight your towing with that vehicle's towing capacity, right? We'll talk about that more in a minute, but it's worth noting here - while still on the topic of the towable - that the heavier and longer the travel trailer, the stronger the tow vehicle would have to be.
While full-size SUVs like Ford Expedition or Chevrolet Suburban are powerful beasts, they can't compete with a 1-ton truck. As we said, the pickup trucks are the workhorses - not the SUVs. Keep that in mind, as we begin to go talk about tow vehicles.
What we're towing with
Ok, let's talk about tow vehicles.
For most people, the two options are pickup trucks and SUVs. Both of these are built for towing (among other things) but there are differences between them. Let's start the grand debate by describing the vehicles themselves and drawing the limits of each type.
There are two general types of pickup trucks:
Midsize pickup trucks
Midsize pickup trucks are smaller than full-size ones and can tow less. The towing capacity of a Chevrolet Colorado can get up to 7000 lbs while that of a Toyota Tacoma is 6,400lbs. A Honda Ridgeline midsize truck can only pull up to 5,000 lbs.
So, are midsize trucks any good?
Absolutely! These trucks do have their advantages. Thanks to their generally more slender build, they're easier to maneuver around town so if that's most of what you'll be doing - and all you need to tow is a small pop-up camper, they may offer a good solution.
Full-size pickup trucks
Full-size pickup trucks come in three classes but all of them are large vehicles with a strong engine and much higher payloads and towing capacity numbers, compared to their smaller midsize siblings.
The term "half-ton" originally reflected payload capabilities but has come to signify a class in its own right. Examples of half-ton trucks are -
The towing capacity of a half-ton truck is usually within the 8,000 lbs range. Ford F-150 boasts a better towing capacity, going as high up as over 11,000 lbs. However, this number can be misleading. It takes a very specific model, with very specific trimmings to reach that figure and even then - you'll be stretching it. A more realistic towing number for half-ton trucks is keeping within the 6,000 lbs limit.
3/4 ton trucks
These are stronger trucks that can haul more weight and tow more as well. Examples of 3/4 trucks are -
The towing capacity of this class is usually in the 12,000-15,000 range.
These are the strongest full-size trucks. They're true heavy-duty vehicles capable of towing and hauling heavyweights. Examples of these trucks include -
- Ford F-350 & Ford F-450
- Silverado 3500HD and 4500HD
The towing capacity for these truck can be really high. A Ford F350 or F450 can tow up to a whopping 34,000 lbs! That's a LOT! Enough to pull a large 5th wheel.
SUV stands for "Sports Utility Vehicle". These days, it basically a vehicle that has some off-road abilities, even though you can actually find many SUVs that don't have four-wheel drive. Their "off-road abilities," for what they're worth, are largely due to the vehicle's height and ground clearance.
While on average they have smaller payloads and lower towing capacity, they do have some of both, and generally, their numbers are higher than those of a sedan (regular car). That's why SUVs - especially the larger ones - can be considered tow vehicles.
Here too, we have midsize SUVs and full-size SUVs. Let's look at both options.
Generally larger than sedans and more "sporty" than minivans, midsize SUVs are a popular choice. These vehicles can actually talk quite a bit. The Mitsubishi Outlander can tow up to 4000 pounds depending on the exact model. A Nissan Pathfinder has a stated towing capacity of around 5000 pounds. These numbers should suffice for towing a very small travel trailer A teardrop trailer or maybe A pop-up camper.
The emphasis here is on the word small. You have to keep in mind that the weight of travel trailers are always stated as dry weight. That means that once you put things inside your teardrop travel trailer the weight increases. You can still Find configuration of a small enough trailer That is a mid-size SUV can easily and safely tow, even when fully loaded.
Clearly for towing anything more significant than a teardrop trailer or a pop-up camper we have to move on to the next category: The full-size SUVs.
Now a full-size SUVs are very impressive vehicles. A Ford Expedition For or a Chevy suburban has a towing capacity of around 9000 pounds. That's more than enough to talk to an average size travel trailer. It's easy to find a trailer that weighs around 4 to 5000 pounds so that even once you fill up the tanks and load up the trailer, you still have plenty of regular room when towing with a full-size SUV.
The pros and cons of Pickup Trucks as RV towing vehicles
So at this point, we come to actually discussing the pros and cons of each option as a towing vehicle for an RV. Let's begin the comparison by looking into the pros and cons of a pickup truck. For this purpose, we're going to focus on full-size pickup trucks because, for most of us, this is the real realistic option for towing a travel trailer or a fifth wheel.
Pros of towing an RV with a pickup truck
1. Pickup trucks can tow a fifth wheel RV
This is by far the most significant difference between the two options. A pickup truck has a bed and on that bed, you can mount a fifth wheel hitch for towing a 5th wheel RV.
2. Pick up trucks can simply tow more
Whether towing a travel trailer or a 5th wheel, pickup trucks can simply tow more. Compare the 9,000 towing capacity of the largest SUV with the 20-30,000 lbs towing capacity of a heavy-duty pickup truck.
3. You can use a pickup truck for other hauling and towing tasks
Need to help a friend move? Or deliver a large item from a store to your home? A pickup truck is the best solution. Even though a full-size SUV will give you a lot of cargo space - with the passenger rows flattened - the pickup will have a higher payload.
4. Pick up trucks are just cool
We checked Kelly Blue Book stats for the best selling new vehicles in 2019. The first three places were taken by full-size pickup trucks! So clearly, many Americans think these vehicles are just super cool to have, regardless of what they actually need.
Cons of towing an RV with a pickup truck
1. Not enough room for a big family
That is perhaps the biggest disadvantage of pickup trucks as towing vehicles. They may be able to tow a massive 5th wheel, but they're not people carriers.
A pickup truck will only carry five to six passengers, depending on cab configuration. Which means you can't take a family of seven in a pickup truck. And no, you can't really let the kids - or any adults - ride in the travel trailer or 5th wheel. It's illegal in most states - and very dangerous regardless of what the law says.
2. You're driving a workhorse
Pickup trucks were originally designed for work, not recreation. They're meant to haul and/or tow very heavy loads on a daily basis. The lighter half-ton trucks, such as the Ford F-150 or Silverado 1500, may not be much different than a full-size SUV in many respects. But when talking about heavy-duty trucks, we're talking about a whole different kind of vehicle.
Heavy-duty trucks like the Ram 3500 or Ford F-350 and F-450 are great choices for pulling a massive 5th wheel. Take that 5th wheel away, and you have a huge vehicle with a super powerful engine - that's not really meant to take your kids to school with.
It's an overkill.
It will be more difficult to drive around and maneuver in an urban environment. And the costs associated with buying the truck, maintaining it and driving it around will be very high.
The pros and cons of SUVs as tow vehicles
Pros of towing an RV with a full-size SUV
1. A luxury vehicle at your service
New full-size SUVs are luxury vehicles. You don't have to buy the premium edition either. Even a regular Ford Expedition or Chevy Suburban offers a deluxe driving experience. These huge vehicles are spacious and come with lots of bells and whistles such as button start, auto stop-start, power driver seat, over a dozen cup holders, a variety of USB and electric outlets and so much more.
Go premium, and the only thing these vehicles won't make you at this point is coffee.
2. Plenty of room for family and cargo
Possibly the biggest advantage of this class of vehicles is the number of passengers you can take on. Tow your trailer behind and you can have up to 8 family members sit in the SUV - all of them with plenty of legroom (and cupholders to go around!)
What's more, if you need cargo space for your daily chores - when you don't have the RV with you - these vehicles have plenty of that too. All of it well enclosed and protected from the elements.
3. An excellent family vehicle
The above-listed properties make these vehicles a popular choice for anyone looking for a solid family car. Regardless of RVing. Being able to tow a trailer when you go camping once in a while is just an added bonus.
Cons of towing an RV with a full-size SUV
1. SUVs can't tow a 5th wheel
A 5th wheel or gooseneck hitch - the only hitches that connect 5th wheels to their tow vehicle - must be installed in the bed of a truck.
Which means even the largest and strongest of SUVs can never tow a 5th wheel. If you're sure you want a travel trailer - not a problem. But if you think there's a chance you may switch to a 5th wheel down the road, this can be a deal-breaker.
2. Limited towing capacity
As mentioned above, the towing capacity of large SUVs is almost always under 10,000 lbs. That's more than enough for an average travel trailer but it could be a limiting factor if you want to tow a large one.
3. Different towing experience (sway)
Bumper towing is inherently more difficult compared to 5th wheel towing. A weight-distribution hitch can help a little but all in all, this set up is more prone to sway.
The risk of sway increases with heavier loads which is why it's always a good idea not to reach the limit of your towing capacity. You should also take into account your tongue weight - which should be between 10% and 15% of your total trailer weight.
Still, even if you did everything right - sidewind will affect a bumper-towed rig more than it will a 5th wheel.
The Bottom Line: SUV or Pickup Truck?
Clearly, there is no one answer that is right for everyone. That's why you'll see people happily towing an RV with either one.
So, to help you find the answer for you, we've created this list of questions that you must ask yourself before committing to either option:
Do you prefer a 5th wheel or a travel trailer?
If you have your heart set on a 5th wheel, then a pickup truck is pretty much your only choice for a tow vehicle. You simply can't hitch a 5th wheel to an SUV.
What size towable RV do you have?
If you're going to tow more than 6-7,000 lbs, you're getting into the heavy-duty towing zone. You should consider a pickup truck - and not a half-ton either. A heavy-duty truck like the Silverado 2500HD or its equivalents is probably the right choice for you. Definitely not an SUV.
How many people will you be driving?
A family of seven or more? You're going to need an SUV.
A pickup truck with a crew cab can carry five people in comfort. Six - with a bench for the front row).
What to do if you really want to tow a 5th wheel AND you have a large family? You'll need a second driver. Yes, with a second car, in addition to the tow vehicle. At which point, a motorhome may be a better choice for you.
How much time will you be towing an RV?
Do you plan on frequently traveling from one place to another or are you going to spend weeks on end in a specific campground? That could affect your choice of tow vehicle - as well as the choice of RV.
The more towing you plan on doing, the more attractive the pickup truck + 5th wheel combo becomes.
How sensitive are you to the risk of sway?
We've seen many posts by senior RVers saying that they switched from travel trailer to 5th wheel towing when dealing with sway issues became too difficult. Having met someone who was actually involved in a sway-induced accident, we tend to support his view that risk-averse drivers may be better off with a 5th wheel.
And again, if you plan on towing a 5th wheel - a pickup truck is the only possible tow vehicle.
Do you have other uses for a pickup truck?
If you're going to use your RV on a part-time basis, what will you be doing with the tow vehicle during the rest of the time?
There are jobs available to pickup truck owners/drivers, so your pickup can become a money-earning venue.
Are you ok with driving a large pickup truck for daily chores?
Investing in a large F-350 and then having to use that as your day-to-day vehicle may or may not be a lot of fun. Depending on your driving style and the area in which you leave, it may be too large and cumbersome.
Over to you
We hope these questions help you put things in perspective and figure out which solution may be the right one for you. We'd love to hear your opinion on the question too: Do you prefer an SUV or a pickup truck for towing an RV - and why? Leave a comment to let us know!