Towing capacity; a simple guide to keep you legal

Every day there are arguments, questions and lengthy discussions about what is legal when it comes to towing with a 4WD, and every guide I’ve ever read has not made things overly simple or clear. There is a lot more to towing capacity than just the one rating, and lots of people don’t understand this.

There was an educational exercise done in the Eastern States some time ago, where a heap of vehicles towing caravans and other trailers were weighed in various ways by the transport authority and police. 

Majority of them were not legal. Only one fine was handed out with the intention of it being an educational exercise, but it proves the fact that people don’t understand what needs to be done to be compliant. 

So, they jump online, and are met with a barrage of acronyms like GTM, ATM, GVM, GCM, TBM etc etc and soon get lost. Even those who have put a lot of effort into trying to understand it all still get confused; there’s a lot of poorly written (and sometimes wrong) information out there.

This applies to towing anything; from a boat, to a caravan, hybrid camper, box trailer, camper trailer, horse float or anything in between. Today, towing a caravan is the most common way to be overloaded, as they are incredibly popular.

If you want a real world example, we had our Isuzu Dmax with a GVM upgrade towing a 2.2 tonne camper trailer weighed, and we were extremely close to being illegal.

You can read more about this here – Mobile weighing. It shows very clearly that the best towing vehicle needs to be well under a number of the weights, or you can easily get caught out.

Towing with a Pajero
Our simple towing guide is easy to follow and understand

I’m going to make it really simple. You need to meet 7 things in order to be legal

For the purposes of making this article relevant to you, head over to Redbook, select your vehicle and write down the figures referred to in the below points.

Alternatively, use your owners manual to find the information or give your vehicle manufacturer a call with your VIN number handy. This gives you a starting point for your towing capacities.

There are 32 ways to make your 4WD illegal, and being over weight in any of the 7 below categories is enough to put you in dangerous territory. It doesn’t matter whether you are in a Wagon or Ute, you have to comply with the below:

Be under the maximum total weight (vehicle and trailer together)

When your 4WD is attached to your trailer, the total weight of your setup moving down the road must not exceed the Gross Combination Mass (GCM). Every vehicle has a GCM, which you can find in your owners manual, Redbook or by ringing the vehicle manufacturer.

As an example, our Isuzu Dmax has a GCM of 5950kg. As long as our trailer and vehicle do not weigh more than 5950kg we’ve passed the first test.

It’s simply the total weight of your trailer unhitched, and the total weight of your vehicle unhitched, added together.

Your tow ball weight is not considered in the GCM; its a separate concept and anyone who tells you otherwise is full of it. 4WD weights add up super fast, and if you haven’t had yours weighed, you should.

Tow vehicle weight
What does your trailer and vehicle weigh together?

Be under the vehicles maximum weight

Your vehicle has a maximum weight, which is called the Gross Vehicle Mass (GVM). This is the maximum weight of your vehicle with everything in/on it and includes the tow ball weight.

If we take a 200 series Land Cruiser, you’ll see they have a GVM of 3350kg. The empty vehicle weighs 2740kg, which leaves you with 610kg of weight that can be added.

Your payload includes everything that weighs the vehicle down; passengers, drawer systems, bull bars, water, food and the weight your trailer applies on the tow ball.

This is the primary way in which people are overloaded. Normal 4WD’s don’t have the greatest payloads to begin with, and when you add a heap of accessories and gear on board along with a trailers tow ball weight, you’ll go over the GVM very quickly!

Add 2 passengers, a bull bar, winch,  tow bar, fridge and 250kg of tow ball weight (10% of a 2.5 tonne trailer) and a 600kg payload is pretty much gone already.

It is possible to get a GVM upgrade; if you want to know more, have a read of this – GVM Upgrade through ARB. Just know that GVM upgrades should be done with caution.

You should always start with the right vehicle in mind; if you have to modify a 4WD so much to make it do what you want it to, then you will end up with other problems that are just as frustrating. Read more here; GVM Upgrades; how much is too much?

ARB GVM Upgrade Dmax
What does your 4WD weigh individually?

Be under the vehicles rated axle capacities

Balancing the load on your 4WD is extremely important. If your vehicle has a payload of 800kg, its assumed that the load is evenly balanced throughout the vehicle.

If you put 800kg over the rear axles (or even behind!) you will exceed the maximum weight that your vehicle is rated to carry on the rear axle.

Every vehicle has a maximum weight rating for the front and rear axles. Don’t make the mistake of loading up the rear of your vehicle excessively as you risk chassis damage, insurance companies walking away from claims and a very unstable/unsafe vehicle to drive.

This is especially important for those of you who own dual cab utes. Due to the design, a huge amount of the weight you add ends up over the rear axles, and tow ball weights apply a lot more force than just their weight to the rear axle. Have a read of this – Is your dual cab’s chassis likely to bend?

Rear axle weight
Do you know what your individual axle weights are?

Be under the vehicles rated towing capacity

Every vehicle comes with a maximum towing capacity. If its 3000kg, you cannot tow a trailer that weighs more than 3000kg. Simple. However, there is a minor point to mention; you can tow a trailer that is rated heavier than the the tow capacity, so long as you don’t load it up beyond your tow capacity.

In other words, the ATM of your van has zero bearing on your towing capacity. You most certainly can tow a trailer with a higher ATM figure (the figure only) than your towing capacity, providing you keep the trailer’s actual weight under the towing capacity. 

For example, if you had a 3500kg towing capacity, you could legally tow a caravan with an ATM figure of 4000kg, providing you kept the actual trailer weight under 3500kg. Towing capacity refers to the maximum you can tow, and ATM refers to the maximum weight your trailer can be. The two are not linked in any way.

Make sure you get your vehicle’s model and age correct. For example, the Prado Towing Capacity today is 3000kg, but it has changed over the years, and you need to make sure the figure you are looking at is for your specific model.

If you aren’t sure of what that is, head to the Red Book link at the top of this post and enter the details in to find out.

Another thing I will mention is to make sure that the tow bar and tow tongue is also rated to the same (or higher) rating and is suited and attached correctly as per the vehicle manufacturers recommendations. If they have a lower towing capacity than that of your vehicle, that is your limit.

In general, towing capacities are generally not able to be fully used under normal circumstances, due to other limitations. For example, just because you have a 3500kg towing capacity doesn’t mean you can actually legally tow 3500kg; it all depends on the rest of the setup.

Be under the vehicles rated maximum tow ball weight

Your vehicle will also come with a maximum tow ball weight. This can vary based on the model of the vehicle and the tow bar that you are using, but you cannot exceed the maximum tow ball weight.

This is a very important number when considering safe towing as it ultimately determines how stable and safe your tow setup is. If you want to know more, read What is Tow Ball Weight, and why does it matter?

In Australia, the guide or general rule of thumb is to have 6 – 10% of the trailers loaded mass on the tow ball; if you have a 3000kg trailer you should have 180 – 300kg on the tow ball. However, make sure your vehicle is rated to take 300kg of down force on the tow ball.

For example, the Mitsubishi Pajero tow ball weight is only rated for 180kg if you are towing over 2.5 tonnes (up to 310kg depending on what model you have; look it up!).

Many trailers have obscenely heavy tow ball weights, especially forward and rear fold camper trailers. Despite the Pajero towing capacity being decent, you have other limitations that come into play.

If you want to know how to increase tow ball weight capacity, you need to check with the manufacturer, to see if it can be done with a different tow bar.

In some cases, there are aftermarket products that will do this too; suspension/chassis/tow bar upgrades. Hayman Reece is a good place to start here, or in the case of the 180kg Pajero tow ball weight you can get an increase through places like Climax suspension.

It’s important that you consider the direction or orientation of your tow hitch as well, as this hugely changes the tow ball weight and your stability. For more information, check out can you flip your tow hitch?

Tow hitch ratings
Our Isuzu Dmax tow hitch data sticker

Be under the trailers maximum weight

Just like your vehicle, your trailer can only weigh a certain amount when fully loaded. The Aggregate Trailer Mass (ATM) is the maximum amount your trailer can weigh when not hooked up to your 4WD. This, and other figures can be found on the nameplate, usually on the draw bar of your trailer.

Remove the weight of the empty trailer and you have the amount of weight you can add. For example, our Soft Floor Camper Trailer has an empty weight of 540kg and an ATM of 1200kg, giving it a ‘payload’ of 660kg.

However, don’t just go off the nameplate on your trailer, as there’s a pretty high chance it won’t be accurate. Some nameplates can be out by a huge amount when the trailer is empty, and people get caught out all the time.

This happens because manufacturers aren’t always honest, and because of different accessories fitted to each trailer.

A lot of big caravans have terrible payloads too (like 2.5 tonne empty, and 2.9 tonne full) giving you a measly 400kg payload for such a big trailer.

Add a bit of dishonesty in and you can be in trouble really quickly. You can get caravans, camper trailers and hybrids with good capacities. Our new Reconn R2 has over 1000kg of payload!

If you are looking for caravan weights explained, you should be starting to feel confident!

Nameplate weights for a camper trailer
Have you ever looked at your trailers name plate?

Have the right brakes

Every trailer that weighs over 750kg should have brakes fitted. This is generally why vehicles have a braked towing capacity, and an unbraked towing capacity.

Some trailer brakes are mechanical and operate with the trailer hitch moving in and out. Some are hydraulic, and most camper trailers and caravan brakes these days are electric.

If the brakes are electric, you need an electric brake controller operating them. Most are fitted to the vehicle, like the Redarc Towpro, but there are trailer mounted options now too.

You cannot legally tow a trailer over 750kg with electric brakes if you do not have a working module installed and operational.

Dmax tow controller
A Redarc Tow Pro Elite in our Dmax

Go and visit a weighbridge

If you don’t know what your setup weighs, head to the local weighbridge and check it out. Be prepared for a shock; I guarantee you’ll be surprised at the result.

These things have a way of being made more complex than they really are. Take your time to understand them, see a weighbridge and you’ll sleep tight knowing you aren’t going to have issues with the law and insurance.

Why does any of this matter?

If you’ve gotten to the bottom of this post, and you still have no idea why its important to be aware of these things, I’ll make it short and sweet.

Firstly, its a legal requirement to meet the above criteria. If you don’t meet it, you are breaking the law. Beyond that, if your insurance company deems an accident you have was contributed to by being over weight, they can legally walk away or reduce your claim. Not good.

In fact, seriously not good. Rear end a nice Ferrari or sports car and you could be in a world of financial pain for the rest of your life.

Lastly, ratings are given from an engineering perspective as that is what they are designed to do, and if you push beyond that limit the chances of something going drastically wrong increase substantially.

Legal towing setup
There’s lots of risk driving a setup that is not legal

What if you are over weight?

If you do visit a weighbridge, and find out that you have broken one of the 7 things above, there’s a few things that you can do. The first, and most obvious is to ditch as much weight as possible. This may be from your trailer, or from your 4WD.

Start with emptying your setup, and re-packing the things that you really need. Remember that a huge amount of weight usually comes from accessories – second tyres, rear bars, bull bars, winches, extra fuel tanks etc all add up, very fast.

If your tow ball weight is excessive, shifting weight around can help dramatically, just do it sensibly.

If you are still over weight, and there is nothing you can do about it, you can look at getting an engineering certificate to carry more weight. This applies to trailers (see your trailer manufacturer first) and 4WD’s. A number of shops sell off the shelf kits for vehicle GVM (and sometimes GCM) upgrades.

Independent engineers can certify a myriad of different things too, and are worth consulting.

We found our Dmax was going to be over weight at the end of the build, and approached ARB who fitted an Old man emu GVM upgrade.

If you want to know more about what it weighs, check this out – Dmax weight summary

Do you know what you weigh, and that you are legal?

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  1. Hi Aaron,
    Very interesting read. I’m currently looking at upgrading to a caravan. Currently towing with a 2021 hilux sr5. I have some basic accessories ( toyota steel bullbar, basic canopy, towball and minor extras. I took it over a weigh bridge today. Now if I add passengers, 200/250kg on average for a family van, bit of camping gear in the rear I would be close to full gvm. But it seems as though most would be. The van I am looking at, I would be under gcm.
    If under gcm but borderline gvm is that a safe way to be traveling. It seems unavoidable to be at full gvm without a gvm upgrade on most If not all dualcabs.

  2. Hey Stuart,

    Thanks for your kind words.

    In theory it should do the maximum tow capacity, but it might work hard to do so. Are these an automatic gearbox, or a CVT? I’d find real life experiences from anyone with the same vehicle.

    The Patriot is an interesting choice if you aren’t intending on leaving the sealed roads; do you already have one?

    All the best

  3. Hey, found your articles really useful so appreciate the knowledge.

    I’ve got a Subaru Outback 2021 with a max tow of 2,000kg/ball weight of up to 200kg.

    My question is, if I do meet all the other criteria for towing (tow ball weight, GMV, GCM etc.) *should* I go up to my towing limit? Or is this just asking for trouble?

    Background: Looking to tow a camper trailer (probably a Patriot X1 (ATM: 1,600kg / 120kg drawbar) on mostly sealed roads, nothing too crazy.

  4. Hey Sharronne,

    Thanks for your kind words. I haven’t had a whole lot of experience with motorhomes, but the same principles will apply.

    If you aren’t towing, you are only really concerned about the GVM and axle weights, which should be easy to stay within given these are designed to carry loads.

    It doesn’t hurt to understand what they weigh empty, and what weight has been added when you load them up though.

    All the best

  5. Sharronne says:

    Hi Aron
    Thanks for all your info.
    I’m in early stages of purchasing a motorhome or Campervan( Sprinter) or similar. Do most of your above info apply to these vehicles as well. I won’t be towing anything,
    Still learning heaps about travelling in general. Your posts are my bedside reading these days. Thanks again

  6. Hey Susan,

    Yep, I was wondering the other day how much bigger and heavier vans are going to get. A weigh bridge is certainly worth while doing, and I share your sentiments about sales people! So many don’t even understand the weights and they are giving out advice!

    Take care

  7. Susan dickeson says:

    With the increase of travellers (I call them covid travellers), and all these new beut big “off road” caravans on the road, I have been concerned with the way they have been set up. All the bells and whistles, mud tyres (on a caravan!), 2 spares, stone guards, 100 L or more water tanks, jerry cans, half tonne of fire wood, genny, 2 x 9 kg gas bottles, air con, etc. Many caravan payloads are only 500kg or less. Many look either overweight or not packed properly, ( ^ or V shape at the tow point.) There are not many 4wd’s that will tow 3700 kg or over. ALERT – Police is all states are targeting rigs and found 9 out of 10 are overweight! Before leaving, find a weigh bridge and weigh the car , with and without the tow ball weight, and the caravan hitched. Add and subtract tow ball weight as needed. Also, take with a grain of salt any advise given by caravan dealers, they want to sell vans (You have a Prado for this 3000kg van, no problems.) Which Prado are they referring to!

  8. Hey Doug,

    I’m glad you found it useful. Your scenario is super common; dual cab Utes are so easy to overload on the rear.

    GVM upgrades generally come in two types; a small increase without changing the axle loads, and then a much larger increase with re-rating the axles. In essence the GVM upgrade supplier takes on the warranty for broken differentials and anything that might fail due to exceeding the manufacturers recommendations.

    In my mind, the lighter you go the better for everything, and we specifically avoided going for a massive GVM upgrade to limit what we took, and to stay within the OEM limitations. Our maximum front axle weight plus maximum rear axle weight is our new GVM (with a minor upgrade through ARB).

    At the end of the day though, if you need the new rated axles you probably don’t have much choice, but just be aware of the weight distribution and drive it accordingly. I have seen a couple of 79’s with bent chassis, and you don’t want to go down that path!

    All the best

  9. Doug Charles says:

    Hi Aaron.
    Very interesting article we have just had our 79 series landcruiser with a 3700 kg gvm(lovells upgrade) and van cruiser (fury rd) weigh by a mobile weighing company and we were under gvm and gcm and atm, gtm and towbar was 10.4% so thought we where doing well till we looked at the axle loadings and found our rear axle was significantly over loaded so yes it certainly pays to look at everything very closely. My question is what do you think of axle re ratings on the tow vehicle and are they worthwhile?
    Cheers Doug

  10. Hi Brett,

    Interesting conclusion, and one I don’t agree with at all. If they were capable of towing 5000kg, they would be rated to do so

    All the best

  11. It proves they are all way under rated as all the vehicle that tested over weight, had zero issues and zero accidents.. if the legal rating is 3500kgs it will tow 5ton… we need less compliance not more red tape and woke rules

  12. Hi Carlos,

    Looks positive, and reasonably well balanced too. The only thing I would check is the axle weights of your vehicle; you could be close to the front or rear maximum depending on what they are, and how the car is loaded.

    I assume your van is also good for 2700kg?

    All the best, and well done for looking into it all

  13. Carlos Wallis says:

    Hi there
    Have a 2021Ranger. GVM currently 2850 and Van total loaded weight 2700 with ball weight 250kg
    My take is that this is ok and under 6000 GCM and GVM limits on vehicle of 3200.
    It’s confusing to say the least
    Thanks hopefully

  14. Graham Besant says:

    Thanks Aaron for your advice I shall pursue the numbers on the van a lot closer.

  15. Hi Graham,

    When you say the ball weight is 145kg, have you actually seen this, or is it their quoted figure? I would ask to have the van loaded up (at least with full gas bottles and water tanks), and physically see the weights for yourself.

    My parents are in the same boat, towing a 2750kg van and they are often moving jerry cans around to maintain under the 180kg tow ball weight.

    Yes, you can adjust weights to keep the tow ball weight down, but ultimately the bulk of the weight will come from how the van is designed. You may find depending on where the water tanks are located that it is impossible to keep the weight under 180kg when its loaded, and it could even get worse when the water tanks start to empty.

    To answer the rest of your question, I believe Mitsubishi recommend 6% tow ball weight, so a 2930kg van would be around the 180kg mark. Heavier isn’t a bad thing, and can give you more stability depending on how the weight is distributed on and in the van. My folks have no issues with sway, but the 180kg limit is certainly a bit annoying at the very least.

    Without knowing your sales person, I’d be very loathe to believe anything they say; make sure you see it with your own eyes, and you could even put it into the contract; fully loaded as a normal person would it must be under 180kg tow ball weight. That way, you have an out as needed

    All the best

  16. Graham Besant says:

    HI Aaron
    I have a 2020 Pajero and fully aware of the towing capacities and loads but we were considering purchasing a van with a ATM of 2930 kg. The ball weight empty is 145 kg. to keep the ball weight to 180 kg or less the sales people are saying just load the van so that the dose not exceed the 180 kg.
    To my thinking this may cause the tail to wag. Good idea or not.

  17. Anne Reader says:

    Thanks Aaron
    I will take that all into account

  18. Hi Anne,

    It’s actually simpler than you might realise:

    Your horse float should weigh 1950kg empty. What will it weigh when you add one/two horses and gear?

    If its over 2500kg, you cannot have the tow ball weight at more than 180kg. The tow ball weight is a product of how you load the trailer up. If you put lots of weight far forward, the tow ball weight goes up. If you put lots of weight further back, it will go down. It could be as low as 150kg, or it could be up around the 300kg +. I’m not familiar with horse float tow ball weights.

    If the trailer is over 2500kg and over 180kg tow ball weight it will be illegal behind the Pajero. If its over 3000kg it will also be illegal.

    If you are upgrading vehicles, you need something that will take the extra tow ball weight, which is where the Pajero falls short. Also, make sure its towing capacity is higher than the maximum weight you will load the float to. 200 Series Land Cruisers, Y62 Patrols, American trucks (Silverado, F250, Dodge Ram) or an actual truck are your best options. You may get away with a normal dual cab ute, or MUX too. It’s just about finding something that ticks the 7 items we talk about in this very post

    All the best

  19. Anne Reader says:

    I am looking to upgrade my horse float and am wondering if I will be illegal if towing the one I am looking at. I own a 2018 Pajero with towing capacity of 3000kg with max tow bar download 180kg (optional download of 2500kg with 250 kg two bar download capacity). The perspective horse float tare is 1950kgs and GVM is 3500. It is all so confusing but I don’t want to be illegal. If the Pajero is not suitable, what vehicle would be? Also what defines the donwload capicity?

  20. Hi Howard,

    Yep, makes it hard to do the right thing

    All the best