How To Choose A Tow Vehicle For My Boat? (15 Clever Tips)

In Boating by Christopher Schopf

Towing a boat can be difficult for first-timers.  There is a lot to learn and not everyone has the right truck, car, or SUV to safely tow a boat.

In this post, I’ll try to make things easier for you.
I’ll talk about what you need to know about towing a boat and will give you tips on choosing a truck or SUV to do it.

Before We Get Startet…

Before choosing a tow vehicle for your boat, you have to know how much your boat and trailer weigh.  You’ll also need to know how much the gear you’ll be bringing with you weighs as well.

For example, your boat and trailer may only weigh 1,500 pounds, but you might have 250 pounds worth of gear with you. 

The additional 200 pounds may force you to have to upgrade from towing with your car to towing with a minivan or SUV.

Find Out How Much Your Boat (Really) Weighs

In most cases, you’ll simply be able to check with your manufacturer.  When you buy a boat it will usually list its weight both with and without the trailer.

If the engine is included in the purchase, its weight will be included as well.

People with older boats may not have the original engine installed.  If the engine is larger and heavier than the original engine, this needs to be taken into account.

Also, if any major changes have been made to the deck, this may have added or subtracted weight from the total.

Some people may find that it is easier to simply get their boat weighed.  Doing this is easy, but you will have to find a local weigh station to help you.  Also, since you’re still looking for a tow vehicle for yourself, you’ll have to borrow somebody else’s tow vehicle to do this.

You’ll want to simply go with a full-size truck so that you’ll know that the truck can handle whatever weight your boat ends up being.

Start off by taking the boat to a weigh station.

Weigh the truck and the boat and then write the number down.  Next, drop the boat off and weigh just the truck and write this number down as well.  End the process by subtracting the weight of just the truck from the total weight and you’ll know how much the boat and the trailer weigh.

How Much Does Your Gear Weigh?

After you know how much the boat and trailer weight, you’ll want to get a feel for how much your gear will weigh.

If the boat has large fuel tanks and freshwater tanks, you’ll want to take the weight of these into account as well.

You can weigh your gear individually and then tally it up or you can load the boat down when you get it weighed at the station. 

However, if you go this route, you won’t ever truly know the dry weight of just your boat and trailer.

Towing Different Sized Boats

Different boat sizes will require different tow vehicles.

The advantage of the smaller tow vehicle is that it may give you access to remote areas that you won’t be able to access with a large truck or SUV. 

This is especially true if you have a small Jon boat that you’ll be pulling off the trailer manually.

Boats Under 1,500 Pounds

Small boats and trailers with a combined weight under 1,500 pounds may often be towed with just a small car.  This is especially true if you don’t plan on loading it down with gear or fuel.

For example, I have a small 12-foot aluminum boat that can easily be towed with a four-cylinder sedan. This boat is human-powered so I don’t have to worry about a heavy motor or a large fuel tank weighing it down.

Even so, there is some extra equipment that needs to be added to the vehicle.  The car towing the boat needs to have a hitch to tow it with.

In most cases, you’ll be dealing with a 2” ball but some smaller trailers may go with hitch balls that are even smaller than this.

Also, the trailer’s lights need to be fully operational while towing.  This means the trailer must be wired up to the car’s electrical system.  Because the trailer is so light, it won’t have brakes so a 4-pin connector is enough to hook up to the car’s system.

If the trailer had brakes, it would need a 7 pin connector and the car would need to have a brake controller added to it.

Boats Between 1,500 and 3,500 Pounds

Boats that are over 1,500 pounds will need a more robust tow vehicle.  A minivan with a towing package may be able to handle this.  True SUVs will be able to handle this weight and some crossovers will be able to as well.

Any truck will be able to tow a boat of this size, but you really don’t need to go any larger than a half-ton truck. 

A half-ton will usually be able to tow at least 3,500 pounds, if not more.  For example, my 5-cylinder Chevy Colorado can tow up to 5,500 pounds with the right gear and equipment.

Most boats over 2,500 pounds will have brakes connected to them.

This means the tow vehicle will need to have a brake controller and a 7-pin connector.  You most likely won’t have to worry about weight distribution hitches, but they can be useful and they will make towing easier for you and the vehicle.

Boats Between 3,500 and 5,000 Pounds

Boats of this size will usually require a small truck or large SUV.  Not all SUVs are capable of towing and many crossovers are marketed as SUVs these days so you’ll need to take this into account when looking for a tow vehicle.

In fact, some small trucks are actually built on unibody frames and cannot tow a lot of weight, so this is also something you’ll need to watch out for. 

For example, my father’s Honda Ridgeline truck can only tow about 4,000 pounds as it is not built on a true truck frame.  The advantage of this vehicle is that it drives as smoothly as a car and it does still have some towing power.

With a boat over 3,500 pounds, you’ll certainly need brakes, a brake controller, and a 7 pin connector. 

You’ll also want to consider a weight-distribution hitch and stabilizer bars to make towing easier and safer.

What About Boats Over 5,000 Pounds?

Larger boats should really only be towed with larger trucks.

I’d recommend you stick to trucks that are 1 ton or larger.  However, some smaller trucks may still be able to tow a boat closer to the 5,000-pound mark. 

This is especially true when you’re dealing with a ¾ ton truck with a large engine.

Of course, you’ll also need all the recommended equipment like brakes, stabilizer bars, and weight distribution hitches.  You may also need to add a transmission cooler and airbags to your transmission as well.

15 Great Tips Before Choosing a Tow Vehicle

Now that you know what size tow vehicle you need for your boat, here are some tips to think about when buying a tow vehicle.

1) Never Go Too Small

Towing a boat with a vehicle that is too small to handle it is dangerous. It is much harder to stop and much more difficult to keep control of your vehicle when it is being used to tow a load that it cannot handle.

Not only this, but towing with an inappropriately sized vehicle is illegal. When you get into an accident you may end up finding that your insurance company will not cover the damages.

On top of this, you may end up in jail for negligence.

If all of this isn’t bad enough, just imagine how you’d feel if you, your loved ones, or other drivers on the road were injured because you chose to tow with a vehicle that was too small. Get a large enough tow vehicle and you won’t have to ever worry about this.

2) Don’t Go Too Large

You don’t need a 2-ton truck to tow a 14′ aluminum boat. A 2-ton truck isn’t going to get good gas mileage and it is going to cost a lot more money than the small SUV or minivan you could have gotten to tow the boat.

On top of this, a truck this large could put restrictions on where you can and cannot bring your boat.

Some roads leading to back inlets are hard to access and you might not be able to get through these roads in a large 2-ton truck.

In this case, you’d be better off with a small and narrow vehicle like a jeep wrangler or a Ford Escape. These vehicles would have plenty of power to tow the small boat and they’d offer wider access to narrow roadways.

Basically, at the end of the day, you’ll want to match the vehicle size to your boat size as best as you possibly can.

3) Plan for The Future

Another thought to keep in mind is that your interests might change over time. Are you just buying a boat for the first time? Do you have experience with larger or smaller boats? If not, you may end up deciding to get a different boat within a year or two.

In this case, going a little larger may actually make sense. For example, you but a small 16-foot starter boat to get used to boating, but you eventually intend on buying a larger 26-foot cabin cruiser.

A small tow vehicle can successfully tow a 16-foot boat, but it can’t tow the large cabin cruiser.

Instead of buying a small tow car and then having to upgrade later on, it may make sense to buy a larger tow vehicle instead. In this instance, the 2-ton truck might be useful because it will be able to tow your larger boat in the future.

4) Consider Buying Used

A new tow vehicle can be incredibly expensive. In fact, a large SUV like a Chevy Tahoe or Chevy Suburban can easily cost you $50,000.00.

This tow vehicle may not be used very often which means the cost of each use becomes incredibly high.

For example, you purchase a $50,000.00 vehicle and you keep it for 10 years. This vehicle cost you about $5,000.00 a year.

But what if you only tow your boat 25 times a year?

You’ll end up spending $200.00 each time you tow your boat. This is actually an optimistic number too as most boat owners will only use their boats 5 to 10 times a year. The person that buys this tow car and only uses it 10 times a year will end up spending $500.00 each time they tow their vehicle.

A better option might be to buy a used Tahoe at $5,000.00. This vehicle won’t be used much so it could still end up lasting another ten years and it only cost 10% of what the new vehicle costs.

If possible, buy a used vehicle that already has a hitch and brake controller installed.  Just by having these items already in the vehicle you could save yourself over a thousand dollars.

5) Get An Inspection

If you’re buying used, you will want to pay a mechanic to do a full inspection of the vehicle.  Even though you won’t be using it often, you will be putting it to work when you do.

For this reason, you’ll want to make sure everything is in good working order.

You can hire a mechanic to take a look at your potential purchase for $100.00 to $300.00 depending on the location of the inspection.  You’ll pay more in some areas and less in others.  You’ll also pay more if the mechanic goes to the vehicle rather than the other way around.

Either way, an inspection could save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars in the end.

6) Consider The Vehicle’s Other Uses

Just because you’re buying the new vehicle to tow your boat, doesn’t mean you won’t be able to use it for other purposes. Are you buying a small tow vehicle?

If so, why not trade in your daily driver and buy a new one that can also tow your boat? This will save you money on the vehicle, the insurance, and the maintenance.

Do you have other recreational items that you could tow?

If you’re thinking about buying a camper, you might want to buy a tow vehicle that can tow either trailer.

Would a truck be useful for work or for DIY projects around the house? You might find that buying a small truck to tow your small boat is more useful than buying a small SUV.

The reason for this is that you can use your truck to transport tools, equipment, and materials that you can use at work or around the house.

7) Get an Insurance Quote Before Buying

Guy doing an inspection of a tiny house on wheels

Vehicle insurance can be expensive. This is especially true if you decide to buy a brand new vehicle to tow your boat with. For this reason, it might be a good idea to check with your insurance company before you buy your tow vehicle.

After calling your insurance company, you might find that buying one vehicle will save you a significant amount of money on insurance premiums versus buying another vehicle.

Not only this, but you may find that your insurance company will give you a discount for adding another vehicle as well as a boat to your insurance policy.

In this case, you may find that the tow car actually costs you less in insurance premiums than you previously thought it would.

You could save this money or use it to invest in a better tow vehicle for you and your family.

8) Consider Your Budget

Tow vehicles come with a multitude of expenses. Not only do you have to purchase the tow vehicle, but you have to purchase insurance, tags, and fuel. On top of this, you also have to maintain the vehicle.

The maintenance of a tow vehicle also means a lot of car washes. This is especially true if you plan on dropping your boat into saltwater.

Saltwater can wreak havoc on your tow vehicle so it is critical that you wash the vehicle after each use.

If you have a backyard then this might not be a big issue. In this case, you’ll have a slightly larger water bill but it won’t break the bank. However, if you have to bring your car to a car wash each time, this will add up.

Use your boat once a week and you could end up spending another $20.00 to $40.00 a month just in car washes.

9) Take Modifications Into Account

As we said earlier, a tow vehicle is going to need to have some work done to it to make it capable of towing.  This means that even people who already have vehicles capable of towing their new boat may need to spend some money on their tow vehicle.

A brake controller will cost around $100.00 to purchase and can cost another $100.00 to install.  On top of this, you’ll need wiring run to the rear of the vehicle and either a 4-pin or 7-pin connector.

This might cost a couple of hundred dollars to install on your vehicle.

You may also need a hitch receiver installed onto your vehicle as well.

This hitch receiver will need a hitch ball to be useful and the total for all of this could be a few hundred dollars plus installation costs.

If you’re buying a used vehicle, you may want to compare purchase prices with the price of any modifications you need to make.  In the end, the more expensive tow vehicle that is already equipped to handle your boat may actually be less expensive than the one that needs a thousand dollars worth of work to make it tow-ready.

10) Know The Benefits of Dual Wheels and Single Wheels

Some larger vehicles will have dual wheels on the rear axel.  These rear wheels can give the vehicle the ability to tow more and they can make the vehicle safer on the highway.

However, there are some downsides to dual wheels as well.

For example, a set of single wheels actually provides better traction than a set of dual wheels.  This knowledge could come in handy when you’re deciding on when and where to launch your boat from.

If you plan on launching your boat on slick boat ramps in icy conditions, you may find that a vehicle with only two rear wheels is actually more practical.

Also, keep in mind that a vehicle with 6 wheels is more expensive to maintain than one with only 4.  You’ll basically end up spending 50% more on tires when you choose a truck with 6 wheels.

11) Consider The Width

As we mentioned earlier, some roads can be quite narrow.  For this reason, you may want to take a look at the width of each vehicle you consider.  This is especially true if you plan on towing a narrowboat.

A narrowboat means that your vehicle will be the widest part of your towing rig.  As such, a wider vehicle will place restrictions on where you can go.

On top of this, a wider vehicle is more difficult to drive and park on city streets.  If your tow vehicle is serving more than one purpose, you might want to consider the ease of driving it to places other than the boat ramp.

Also, remember that just because a vehicle is wider doesn’t mean it can tow more.  My truck is a foot narrower than my dad’s truck and it can tow about a thousand pounds more than his can.

This shortened width makes it very easy to drive through the city compared to his.

12) Think About the Trailer Types You’ll Be Towing

Boat trailers are always standard trailers that are pulled from the rear of the vehicle.  However, horse trailers and some campers must be towed from a gooseneck.  If you plan on buying one of these trailers, you’ll end up needing a truck.

For this reason, it’s important that you think about all of your needs before you choose a tow vehicle. 

If you don’t, you may end up needing to buy two tow vehicles and that would be quite expensive.

13) Think About Options That Make Launching a Boat Easier

Newer vehicles come with many different options.

Some of these options can actually make launching a boat much easier.  For example, boat ramps can be slippery.  One way to help with this is to buy a vehicle that has traction control.  The traction control will help your vehicle gain its footing as it launches your boat into the water.

Another option to think about is four-wheel or all-wheel drive.

Remember, your rear wheels may end up in the water so they’ll have less traction than your front ones will.

If your vehicle is four-wheel drive, you’ll be able to use your front wheels to help pull your vehicle out of the water after your boat has been launched.

14) Consider Fuel Types

Larger tow vehicles may come in both gas and diesel options.  In the United States, diesel can’t always be found very easily.  For this reason, you may want to think about where you’ll be launching your boat and where you’ll be driving your tow vehicle.

If you’re in a place that doesn’t sell diesel close by, you might want to stick with gasoline.

On the other hand, diesel fuel can sometimes be more cost-effective.

In this case, you may want to consider a diesel to save money on fuel.  Also, diesel engines tend to last much longer than gas ones so if you’re buying used, you may want to take that into consideration.

15) Get Some Cameras

A good set of backup cameras can go a long way towards helping you hitch and unhitch your boat to your vehicle.  Place another set at the back of your boat and they can also be used to help you drop your boat into the water.

In fact, some people buy 360 degree overhead cameras that offer up a birds-eye view of the surrounding area. 

A camera system like this makes it much easier to launch a boat into the water.

You might also want to consider a dash-cam as well.

Often-times people drive erratically around people towing boats.  You may end up getting into an accident and the other driver might blame you for it. 

Having a dash camera will help you prove to the police as well as your insurance company that the other driver was actually at fault.  This could save you a lot of time, legal trouble, and money.

In Summary

Choosing a tow vehicle might seem difficult at first but once you know what you want and what you need it will always become much easier.  Just take your time and access your needs and you shouldn’t have any trouble buying a tow vehicle to tow your boat.