When shopping for a new truck, I get a perverse kick from asking the salesman about the tow package, which elicits a response like “Oh, this one’s got a trailer hitch,” with the salesman pointing eagerly to a shiny pickup with a ball-mount on the rear bumper.
My smart-ass reply: “You know, there’s more to a tow package than a tow ball.” His smile fades as he realizes that selling me a truck will not be as easy as he’d hoped.
The point is that you can’t count on a salesperson’s knowledge when it comes to picking a vehicle to tow your boat. It’s up to you to know what features are available and how they contribute to the vehicle’s towing capacity and ease of trailering your boat.
Today, there are more towing features than ever. A good example is the 2013 Ram 1500, which I recently tested near Nashville, Tennessee. This half-ton truck offers a pair of towing innovations, as well as other features that are common to nearly all tow packages. Let’s look at some.
1. Higher Number of Gears
Automakers have been steadily increasing the number of gears in automatic transmissions for trucks. Why? The more gear choices you have, the easier it is to match the engine’s power band to any given towing situation. They also negate the need for a super-low axle ratio — a must-have towing element in the past. Today, six-speed auto trannies (with an overdrive gear) are common, but Ram’s TorqueFlite eight-speed has six gears leading up to two overdrive gears. Like transmissions from Chevy, Ford and Toyota, it also has a tow/haul mode to hold gears longer and lock out overdrive while towing big boats — an important component of today’s tow packages.
2. Heavy-Duty Cooling
Tow packages include heavy-duty cooling systems, not only for the engine coolant but for the engine oil and transmission oil as well. The rigors of towing — especially uphill — can generate substantial engine and transmission heat, and heavy-duty cooling systems help maintain the proper operating temperatures and prevent damage. Some tow packages also include transmission temperature gauges, as well as engine temperature gauges, to monitor the drive-train fluids.
3. More Efficient Power Plants
Horsepower is the No. 1 criterion in determining tow capacity. You can’t produce a lot of horsepower without burning a lot of fuel, but automakers are now offering tow-capable engines that offer high efficiency when not pulling a trailer boat. The EcoBoost 3.5-liter V-6 available in Ford’s F-150 is a prime example. It helps achieve an 11,300-pound tow rating yet gets an Environmental Protection Agency 16 mpg city/22 highway when not towing.
4. Special Suspension Systems
Most tow packages include beefed-up suspension systems. Yet the 2013 Ram 1500 includes air suspension as factory equipment. This option is more than just helper springs — it is self-adjusting air suspension on all four corners. For towing, this means you can put the vehicle’s maximum tongue weight on the hitch, and though the rear of the truck might initially sag, within 20 seconds of starting the engine, the Ram 1500 will level itself. When not towing, the air suspension self-adjusts for a softer ride.
5. Bigger Mirrors
Larger, sometimes extendable, side-view mirrors help you get a better look beside and behind the boat when trailering and backing up. Some tow packages offer a few choices in side-view mirrors. Bigger is always better.
6. Downhill Braking
Controlling downhill speed while descending a steep grade with a boat in tow is critical. Wheel brakes can quickly overheat and become ineffective. Manually downshifting to lower transmission gears helps take some of the burden off the brakes. However, there are now special tow-package features such as automatic downshifting at the touch of the brake pedal and compression-release braking on diesels (known as Jake brakes) that also can help keep downhill speed in check.
7. Trailer Wiring
Today’s tow packages also include special vehicle wiring to tie in the boat-trailer lights and release a trailer’s disc brakes when backing up. This usually takes the form of a round, seven-pin receptacle, which requires an adapter to mate with a boat trailer’s flat-four (for drum brakes) or flat-five (for disc brakes) plug. Also integral to the tow package is a heavy-duty flasher module — one that will not be overwhelmed by the trailer’s turn-indicator lights. With a standard flasher module, turn indicators tend to flutter or do nothing rather than flash decisively to show your intentions while towing.
A Hitch is Just the Start
While nearly all factory tow packages include a frame-mounted receiver hitch, the presence of such a hitch does not guarantee a tow package. On new vehicles, ask for the Monroney, aka window sticker. If the vehicle has a towing package, it will be listed here. On used vehicles, making this determination is more difficult, but a heavy-duty radiator, an engine oil cooler, large side-view mirrors, a round seven-pin receptacle and a tow/haul mode for the transmission are key indicators of a towing package. To help you determine the towing capacities of new or used vehicles, visit the searchable online towing-ratings database at boatingmag.com/tow-ratings.