TOWING: Choosing the Best Pickup for the Job

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When it comes to towing boats, pickups are the natural choice with their towing capacity, cargo room and powertrain.

However, some trucks do better than others when it comes to towing a boat. Here is what you need to know.

With trucks, it is easy to get carried away with favoring one brand over another. This loyalty can be misplaced, as it is the truck’s features that make the most difference.

Items like engine size, axle ratio, towing capacity, payload capacity and towing packages make a world of difference. When looking at a truck to tow a boat, it’s best to drop your brand assumptions and look for these key items.

Towing/Payload Capacity

First step is to learn how heavy your boat is when on the trailer. This information will help you quickly narrow down your pickup choices.


For example, towing a fiberglass boat that weighs 3,400 pounds can be handled by a half-ton truck. Most half-ton trucks, properly equipped, can tow upwards of 10,000 pounds, with some exceeding 11,000 pounds.

If you have a larger boat like in the 8,000-10,000-pound range, then you will need to step up to 3/4-ton trucks, which average a towing capacity of 17,000 pounds. These trucks are beefier than a half-tonner, and they are more adept at towing heavier loads due to heavy-duty frames, larger brakes – and sometimes, they’ll have engine-exhaust brakes.

A one-ton truck is also an option for exceedingly heavy loads. These days, one-ton trucks can tow upwards of 30,000 pounds and have all sorts of towing-specific equipment.

For loads weighing less than 5,000 pounds, you could move down to a mid-size truck. These smaller trucks will handle that size of boat, but you may max out the payload capacity with passengers and gear.

The reality is some boat owners prefer a 3/4- or one-ton truck for their towing needs for their effortless brawn. Remember that this is simply a preference, and a half-ton truck will largely do the job these days for most jobs.

Engine Type and Size

“Which engine?” is also important, and there are more choices in this category than many consumers realize.

For example, you could decide to go with a diesel engine or a gasoline engine. Also, you could decide between a V8, a V6 or even a turbo-charged V6 engine.

And, there are diesels – full-sized with the Ram EcoDiesel and mid-sized with the Chevy Colorado.


The diesel vs. gas debate goes like this: diesel pulls better than gas due to how the fuel burns. But it costs more to maintain and requires DEF (Diesel Exhaust Fluid). A diesel will use less fuel when towing than a gasoline engine.

Then you have the V8 vs. a turbocharged V6 (Ford EcoBoost) debate. This comes down to how much you plan on towing.

Any V8 will tow better than a V6 and it will tow much better than a turbocharged V6. However, if you are only towing the boat to the lake for the summer and then bringing it back in the fall, the turbocharged V6 may be the best option.

Why? The majority of the time you are driving around with an empty bed and not towing. In this case, the EcoBoost will return between fuel economy than the V8. Simply put, if you aren’t towing, you will see a dramatic difference in fuel economy for the EcoBoost. However, if you tow regularly, then the V8 is where you want to be.

Axle Ratio

One of the least understood parts of towing for consumer is the axle ratio. In fact, this ratio can make a huge difference in how well a truck tows.


Basically, the axle ratio refers to the gears in the truck’s differential (the roundish box sitting between the rear axle). This mechanical device connects the rear axle to the driveshaft and then to the engine. Controlling the amount of turning the rear axle turns changes how power is delivered to the tires and how much work the engine needs to turn to spin the wheels.

Axle ratios are often shortened to numbers like 3.21, 3.55, 3.73, 4.10, 4.30, etc…  Essentially, what a buyer needs to know is the lower (numerically higher) gear ratio means the truck will tow better while the higher (numerically lower) gear ratio is better for fuel economy.

For example, a truck with a 3.21 axle ratio will get better fuel economy than a truck with a 4.10 axle ratio. Why? The 4.10 axle ratio provides more low-speed wheel torque which means it helps move loads better, yet at higher speeds, the engine is going to have to work harder at moving the gears in the differential causing a drop in fuel economy.

Other Towing Goodies

Finally, automakers are constantly coming with new towing aids. While some truck buyers may seem these are simply unnecessary gadgets, they do make life easier. Here are a few examples.


Ford Trailer Backup Assist – a new feature on certain Ford trucks is the trailer backup assist. This system helps you back up a trailer by changing the way the steering wheel reacts to driver input. Instead of turning the wheel right to go left, you turn the steering wheel the real direction you want to go in reverse.


Nissan Titan XD Trailer Light Check – checking the trailer lights is typically a two-person job with someone in the cab turning on the lights, pressing the brake and turning on/off the turn signals while another person stands behind the trailer to make sure the lights work.

On the new Nissan Titan XD, the truck will cycle through the lights by pressing lock, lock and holding the lock button on the key fob. All you need to do then is stand behind the trailer and it will cycle through the lights.

This is a handy feature for checking the lights without needing anyone else’s help.


Rear View Camera with Ball Center Line – this feature is available on many trucks these days, and it’s a game changer for many people.

Trucks with rearview cameras have long had boxes outlined representing how much room you have and even where the tailgate will extend to. Now, there is another line that signifies where the ball when hooking up to a trailer. Often this is a dashed line or even a solid line and as you reverse the truck, the line moves with you to help you line up the ball just right.

For anyone who has played the guessing game on hooking up a trailer, this is a must.

2014 Ram 3500 Heavy Duty

Whatever truck you decide to go with, keep these tips in mind when buying your next truck. They can make the difference between liking your truck and loving your truck.

Tim Esterdahl

Tim Esterdahl

Hailing from Western Nebraska, Tim has covered the automotive industry for many years. He has written for a variety of outlets including Truck Trend,, and others. He is a married father of three and an avid golfer.