Can your ATM be higher than your towing capacity?

There’s been some interesting arguments online lately, where people are saying that if the nameplate on your trailer states an ATM of higher than what the towing capacity (or BTC; braked towing capacity) is on your 4WD, you can’t tow it.

In essence, if you had a trailer weighing 2500kg, with an ATM of 3100kg and a 4WD with a towing capacity of 3000kg would you legally be able to tow it?

Our vans nameplate
If the ATM on the nameplate is higher than your towing capacity, can you tow it?

This is the perfect example of the whole weight saga being poorly understood on a consumer level, but also going into those that enforce the rules, and potentially even insurance companies, and its important to know what the laws are, and where you stand should things go wrong.

If you are still unsure of the 7 towing weights that you need to comply with, we wrote a simple towing guide that makes it all very clear. You can read it here – Towing Capacity and weights.

Caravan towing
How much do you know about the towing regulations?

Can your ATM be higher than your towing capacity?

To answer the above question, we need to go back to the definitions of ATM and Towing Capacity, and look at it objectively (and not make assumptions, like so many people do).

ATM stands for Aggregate Trailer Mass, and refers to the maximum weight your trailer can be at any time. It is just a figure, and does not refer to the actual weight of your trailer.

Its essentially the same thing as the GVM or Gross Vehicle Mass of your 4WD. If you exceed the ATM rating, your are overweight and illegal.

Braked Towing Capacity on the other hand, is the maximum weight that your vehicle can legally tow.

Of course, when you are looking at weights you need to look at lot further than just ATM and Towing Capacity, but you can see clear as day that ATM and Towing Capacity are not linked together in any way. 

Dmax towing a Reconn R2
How is the actual weight of your trailer, vs the ATM on the nameplate

Your Towing Capacity refers to the actual, real life maximum weight trailer that you can tow, and the ATM is the theoretical maximum that you could load your trailer to.

In the above example, you most certainly can tow the trailer providing you are under your towing capacity in terms of the actual trailer weight.

The fact that the ATM is higher than your towing capacity is completely irrelevant; its only the actual weight that matters.

I do wonder if people get confused by referring to the total weight of their van as the ATM. The ATM is not what your trailer weighs, but just the maximum that it can legally weigh.

The trick to getting this right is to go through each of the 7 items, and see if you comply with them, and not to mix and match them. If you can answer yes to all of these, you are good to roll.

Does the total weight of your setup come under the maximum GCM of your vehicle?

Does the total weight of your vehicle (including tow ball mass) come in under the GVM?

Does the actual axle weights (front and rear) come under the vehicles maximum axle capacities?

Does the trailer weigh less than the ATM stated on the nameplate?

Does the tow ball weight come under the maximum tow ball weight of your tow vehicle, and the tow bar?

Do you have the right brakes fitted for what you are towing, and are they set up properly?

Is the trailer you are towing lighter than the maximum towing capacity?

Electric Caravan
If you can answer the above questions as ‘yes’ you are good to tow

But its illegal

Now, I have heard of police officers looking at the nameplates and if its higher than your towing capacity jumping up and down about it, but unless they direct you to a weighbridge and get the actual weights, they have zero leg to stand on.

It would essentially be the same as a police officer pulling you over and saying ‘Mate, I’ve got to give you a fine, because your vehicle has the potential to do 150km/h, and its only 100km/h here’.

Unless you were actually speeding, and they have evidence of it, you cannot be fined for the possibility of speeding, or being overweight.

What about someone driving with a few cartons of beer in the back of the 4WD? Sorry mate, but you’ve got the potential for drink driving, so here’s a fine. Unless you are actually drunk, you have nothing to worry about.

Derby Police
Not all police officers fully understand the rules either.

I have heard of caravan manufacturers de-rating the ATM figure to comply with the maximum towing capacity, which is absolutely ludicrous, and if you change your vehicle down the track to something with a higher towing capacity it forces you to go back to the van manufacturer and have it re-rated.

Have you had people tell you that the ATM cannot be higher than your towing capacity? Send them this article!

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  1. Hi Ray,

    You are very welcome. I’d get written confirmation of GCM from Mazda, just to be sure.

    It seems that a lot of people misunderstand the ATM issue; there were even police who fined someone for being overweight in Queensland and then had it overturned once they checked the actual vehicle weight, and understood how it all works.

    535kg can be quite a lot, or not much at all, depending on how you travel, and how many people are with you.

    The other thing to think about is how well (performance, fuel economy and reliability) your vehicle will actually tow that weight. It might pay to try and tow something that heavy around and see what you think about it.

    I’ve seen too many people buy a van and then have to upgrade their vehicle later on. Admittedly you have done a lot of research, which is good to see

    All the best

  2. Ray Windlow says:

    Cheers for the reply Aaron wasn’t sure if you would still be monotoring the post.
    I was actually told by 3 different Van salesman believe it or not. (face plam slap)
    “No No your car can only tow 1800 kgs and this one is 1900 so its illegal.”
    I have finally managed to source all the figures except GCM but assume it is a combination of the GVM and the maximum towing weight of the vehicle (in this case combined 4090kgs).
    On the spreadsheet I did the calculations are so much easier to manipulate variables to bring it within the weight limits. But essentially whilst I have to decrease payload in the van by 100 to 315kg (after water/gas bottles and incidentals deducted)
    I still have 221 kg in the vehicle (after all its deductions for 2 people, fluids, fuel etc). Helps that the van I am looking at is quite lightweight with a 100kg TBD. So thats a total of 535kg of “stuff” can be jointly carried in car and van. To me thats a fair bit of stuff. I’ve added a website link to the sheet for you to check out whether I have got the bases covered ! Once again thank you for your help and reply

  3. Hey Ray,

    If you mean that you had electric brakes installed in your vehicle, then that is a requirement. The vans come with brakes, but you need a controller to activate them and make them work in most instances. Some are fully mechanical but its rare. The only alternative is something like Elec Brakes, which mounts to the van itself, and is controlled through an app on your phone.

    Who told you it is illegal? As long as you are under the required weights then its completely legal, and you are correct with your assumption about the actual van weight being the only thing that matters, not its ATM as plated. You could tow a van that has 3500kg ATM, as long as the actual van weight is kept under your towing capacity (and you are compliant in every other way).

    That said, you need to make sure everything is correct, and that can be a bit more complicated. The tare weight of many vans can be incorrect, and your tow ball weight can be much higher. You might end up with a tow ball weight of 200kg when loaded, and that will make a difference. Speaking of which, your CX5 will have a maximum tow ball download requirement, and that’s one of the weights you have to comply with.

    I would have a good read of this, and then come back if you have any further questions:×4/a-simple-towing-guide-for-keeping-your-4wd-and-trailer-weight-compliant/

    All the best

  4. Ray Windlow says:

    Hi Aaron
    It seems there is a lot of misinformation out there or misunderstanding more like.
    I am looking for a lightweight van sub 2000kg to tow with my Mazda CX5.
    The MTW is 1800 kgs for my normally spirated petrol 2.5 engine.
    Mistakenly I paid the extra for electric brake add-on when I bought it. Seems vans under 2000 most have automatic brakes of their own. Grrrrrrrrr
    Anyway most of the Adria’s etc that fit into the 1800kg are tiny and cabin feverish in size.
    However there are a few in the 1900 to 1950 kgs weight bracket.
    As I am travelling alone and dont plan on loading up 4 tons of clothes, cooking utensils, bikes, surfboards etc I don’t see that I would come near the calculated payload of say 515 kg in one wherfe the tare is 1385 and atm 1900. Even allowing 200 kg for gas bottles and water still got plenty to play with for clothes and some food stuffs and fishing rod.
    And the CX5 by my calculation has a crapload of payload anyway with 2 persons max, computer equipment (for work) and a ball wiehgt of 100.
    But what I have been told its illegal, it will invalidate your insurance.
    From your article I see that as nonsense. Provide I keep the van AT OR UNDER 1800KGS why would it be illegal ? And at 1800 kgs it still allows me a max payload in the van of 415 less gas bottles and water sol maybe 200kg of clothes food and bits n pieces.
    Am I reading it right ? As I see it the manufacturers ATM is a theoretical weight if I load it to the gills to the capacity they say it can hold. So anything below that within the limitations of the vehicle should be satisfactory would make more sense ? Or am I missing something ?

  5. Hey Simon,

    Cheres, and yep, that is a clearer way of explaining it. I recall sitting back and wondering if I’d made myself clear or not when writing this!

    All the best

  6. Hey Scott,

    The towing capacity refers relates to the total weight of what you are towing. When you disconnect the trailer, its total weight is what you need to look at. In your example, you would not consider the GTM, but the ATM of 3150kg as that is what you are towing (regardless of the weight shift when you hook up).

    All the best

  7. Aaron, great post, and clearly explained.

    Although, this comment, gave me a double take “Your Towing Capacity refers to the actual, real life weight of the trailer you are towing”, in my view it should state “your Towing Capacity refers to the maximum weight you can tow”. It’s still a maximum capacity, not to be exceeded, not an actual, real life weight of the trailer you are towing.


  8. Scott Baker says:

    Hi I am still a little confused by this. If you are fully loaded to the maximum ATM of the Caravan for argument sake 3150kg ATM 2960kg GTM. And your Car as a Towing capacity of 3000kg (and a GCM of 6500kg). Can you legally tow it? I.e. the car is only towing the GTM amount of 2960kg?

  9. Hey Eric,

    It’s pretty clearly worded here –

    “You must ensure that the loaded mass of your caravan stays below the maximum capacity of all four criteria as specified by the towing vehicle manufacturer, towbar manufacturer (if different to the towing vehicle) and the caravan manufacturer.”

    If the ATM (actual figure) was the limitation, it would say that. It specifically refers to loaded mass as that’s the only relevant thing

    All the best

  10. Eric Cameron says:

    Hi Aaron, like you I hear this argument all the time , to assure people of this, is there a webpage or legislation you can direct us to confirm this from the RMS.

  11. Hey Kerry,

    Thanks for your kind words. I’m happy to answer any specific questions you have on your own setup, if you’d like; just leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.

    I’ve been thinking about making a calculator (and have seen a couple online), but they are very theoretical, and to get the big picture you need real life weights.

    There’s certainly nothing out there from authorities that I have seen, but I’ll see what I can knock up in the future

    All the best

  12. Kerry Brown says:

    Very comprehensive, thanks Aron.
    Allot to take in.
    Would pay for a days training on this because a chalk board really helps my senior ability to understand.
    If I had a more comprehensive understanding, I would have fun trying to to put together an excel spread sheet that gave a tick of approval when all correct parameters were met.
    Is one available through the various authorities?
    It should be.
    Please advise.

  13. Sean Dwyer says:

    Finally! This clears up a question I’ve been asking myself lately. Owning a 2006 Toyota Hilux with a measly 2250kg (rated) towing capacity and being in the market for a Hybrid like the Lifestyle R2 is proving very difficult. There aren’t many options out their where the trailer plate states ATM <2250kgs. Surely a Reconn R2 with Tare of 1650kgs allows me to diligently load up to 600kgs provided I don't exceed the GCM, GVM etc.