Can Pickups Pull Semi Trailers? 8 Facts (With Examples)

If you are wondering whether your pickup can pull a hefty semi-trailer, don’t worry. We have researched this topic and you will find out all the crucial information in this article.

Can a pickup pull a semi-trailer?

Large pickup trucks can pull a semi-trailer with little load. The problem comes when you fill the trailer with goods. However, there are legal issues to consider.

Here’s everything you should know.
(The facts are quite impressive!)

If you think your pickup has some superpower to pull heavy-duty semi-trailers like a big rig, you are wrong.

Regardless of the hype surrounding legendary pickups and their towing abilities, they are not designed to pull the weight of a semi-trailer.

To shed more light on why a pickup may be able or unable to tow a semi-trailer, we will look at some factors at play here.

Pickup Maximum Towing Capacity

The 2019 Ford F-450 Super Duty pickup has a towing capacity up to 34,000 lbs while the F350 Super Duty can tow up to 32,000 lbs according to the manufacturer.

However, a lot of owners don’t realize that this rating is not the realistic weight they can actually tow. This is because it does not include the cargo, passengers, and the hitch mechanism.

Additionally, the actual towing capacity of a pickup can reduce drastically with receiver-pull trailers because most require a 2.5″ receiver.

The receiver reduces the vehicle’s towing capacity by thousands of pounds.

Regardless of the trailer you use, it’s important to err on the side of caution to avoid problems when towing.

Braking Problems Are Critical

If you read about pickups towing large semi-trailers online, it is easy to believe your truck can pull anything on the road.

But it’s not only about moving the trailer, the biggest challenge is stopping.

Pickups use front axle braking systems with limited capabilities.

Trailers use air pressure rear axle brakes which pickups lack the hardware to activate.

If you are towing close to your GCWR or more, it becomes extremely dangerous to stop the vehicle as you won’t have the use of the trailer’s brakes.

Some pickup users install heavy-duty trailer brakes for increased control, but this won’t help if you are pulling a large trailer over your rated towing capacity.

3 (Potential) Problems When Towing Excess Weight

If you are considering towing a large trailer with your heavy-duty pickup, keep the following in mind.

1) Damaged Vehicle

Regardless of the distance, you are traveling or road condition, the chances of wrecking your pickup is high if you don’t have full control because the trailer is swaying.

To avoid costly damage to your vehicle, other road users and public property, get a powerful truck if you need to tow a semi-trailer outside of your towing capacity.

2) Insurance Headache

Smart insurance agents love it when you exceed weight limits while towing with your pickup.

You may not get any help from them if they discover you overshot the acceptable weight limit or didn’t use the proper gear such as a weight-distribution hitch.

3) Litigation Troubles

Besides the potential harassment from the highway patrol and DOT agents, you can run into serious legal troubles if you damage private or public property while towing an overweight trailer.

Limitations Set By The Manufacturers

Manufacturers specify the amount of weight their vehicles can safely bear and tow.

Check your driver’s doorjamb, glove box and the user’s manual for the instructions on your vehicle’s weight limitations.

Look for the terms below.

  • Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR):
    This is the maximum weight of a vehicle when fully loaded. It is the amount your pickup can weigh and operate safely. This figure includes the weight of the vehicle, the passengers and its cargo when it’s not towing.
  • Gross Axle Weight Rating (GAWR):
    This is the maximum weight each axle of a vehicle can bear safely.
  • Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR):
    This is the maximum a tow vehicle, its passengers, cargo, the trailer, and its cargo can weigh.

The most important rating when towing is the GCWR as it limits what a loaded pickup can pull safely.

Many pickup manufacturers claim their vehicle has a GCWR of 30,000 lbs. In reality, this does not mean you can actually tow a trailer of that weight without problems.

In fact, vehicle makers include a fine print warning you to use a weight-distribution hitch when the weight exceeds a certain amount.

The GWAR is also crucial. Each axle on your pickup is rated to bear a particular weight.

If you exceed that weight, the vehicle can experience serious stress and applying the brakes will become a problem.

The Weight Of 3 Types Of Trailers

Now, what is the weight of an average semi-trailer?

It depends on the trailer.

1) 5th Wheel Semi-Trailer

A full-sized 5th wheel like the one used to tow RVs can weigh up to 11,000-20,000 lbs when laden.

When unladen, a one-ton pickup can tow a regular sized 5th wheel with little trouble because of the evenly balanced center of gravity.

5th wheels have their tires close to the middle of the trailer which helps to reduce the tongue weight that is transferred to the towing vehicle.

The tongue weight is the force the trailer or towable load exerts on the back of the tow vehicle. It is usually 10 percent of the weight being towed.

Tongue weight plays a vital role in the safe operation and control of a towing vehicle.

When towing a full-sized 5th axle semi-trailer of 20,000 lbs, expect 2,000 lbs resting on the rear axle of the towing vehicle.

But you can reduce it by rearranging the cargo or using a weight-distribution hitch.

This is manageable for pickups like the F350 and F550 with a GCWR of 10,300 lbs and 14,706 lbs, respectively.

You can read more here about the difference between a fifth-wheel mount and a gooseneck-mount.

2) Goose Neck Semi-Trailer

A gooseneck semi-trailer is used to transport oversized cargo that cannot fit in a van such as farm and construction equipment.

A typical 37″ deck dual tandem gooseneck trailer with 12k lbs axles can have a GVWR of 26k. And goosenecks transfer about 4500 lbs of their weight to the rear axle of the pickup.

So if you are towing a 14,000 lbs backhoe or bulldozer on this trailer, an F350 or F450 can handle the weight.

However, heavy-duty trailers with higher GVWR cannot be towed safely with a pickup of any size. For that, you need a bigger truck and you may also require a CDL (commercial driver’s license) and a DOT number.

3) Van Semi Trailers

The van semi-trailers typically weigh about 13000-14,000 lbs empty based on the length and design.

These trailers transfer the highest weight to the tow vehicle and some can have a tongue weight of up to 20,000 when loaded. However, it is possible to redistribute the weight by changing the position of the rear axle.

Nevertheless, pickups cannot handle that type of weight without experiencing a catastrophic failure.

The vehicle might be able to tow the trailer empty for short periods. But it won’t survive for a long period with such a burden and DOT task force won’t even allow you.

Weight restrictions vary by state but it is capped at 80,000 lbs in most of the United States.

This figure is the GCRW which combines the weight of the towing vehicle, its cargo, passengers, the trailer and its cargo.

You won’t find any pickup that can pull 80,000 lbs. Even tractor-trailers can’t pull over that without a special permit for safety reasons.

Other Restrictions To Be Aware Of

Full-sized pickups must use a weight-distribution hitch when hauling trailered weights over a predetermined amount set by the manufacturer.

For many decades, this figure was 5000 lbs but it can vary according to the vehicle model and manufacturer.

This rule applies whether you are towing a gooseneck, 5th Wheel, dry van, or even boat trailers. If you are hauling a trailered weight in excess of what the manufacture permits, use a weight-distribution hitch.

The weight distribution hitch works as its name implies. It helps to balance the weight more evenly to reduce stress on the axles.

Unfortunately, most people don’t read the fine print and never bother to check the weight on each axle so long as they can move the vehicle.

If you do this, you are exposing yourself and others to unnecessary risk. When in doubt, check your user manual, the glove box or the door jamb for more information.

You might also be interested in: How Far Can Stuff Hang Out Of Trucks? (Numbers Per State)

Final Words

A pickup can tow a semi trailer but it depends on a lot of factors including your vehicle’s GCWR and towing capacity.

It is important to adhere to weight restrictions in your state and use the manufacturer-recommended towing equipment.

But remember that a pickup is not a tractor. If you always need to pull cargo that exceeds your pickup’s towing capacity, get a big rig.

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