Most of us are not full time campers. We have homes, jobs, and a dozen other priorities. We need easy parking, fuel economy, and low maintenance costs from our tow vehicle. Maybe this is your first camper and a new tow vehicle isn’t in the budget. Whether you call it a pop up camper, tent trailer, or ultra light camper towing a camper with a small car isn’t a problem! Even many 4 cylinder cars can tow a pop up camper.
Weight Limits for Towing
If you own a small 4 cylinder or even a larger tow vehicle the first thing to do is check the owners manual for your vehicle’s towing capacity. The manual will include a capacity for what the car can pull and the the hitch weight. Hitch weight (or tongue weight) is the downward force on the hitch.
Small cars are often rated at 1000 or 1500 lbs towing capacity. Unfortunately many car companies do not recommend towing with small cars in the US market. If your vehicle manufacture has been courteous enough to publish a tow rating you should obey it. Things get trickier in circumstances where you can buy a hitch but towing is not recommended at all.
The following table shows the hitch and towing capacity in pounds for several small cars.
Before considering towing with any small 4 cylinder car you will need to find a Class I hitch to pull the smallest of campers. A Class I hitch is typically rated at at 2000 lbs towing capacity and 200 tongue weight. Remember, you are limited to the lower of your vehicle or hitch ratings. If you’ve struck out at this point and there is no hitch available for your car there’s nothing else to consider. Unfortunately, it’s time to buy a new tow vehicle.
If there is a Class I hitch for your car and you vehicle doesn’t have a published towing capacity (I”m looking at you VW Golf…) proceed with caution.
Towing Not Recommended?
If a manufacturer does not recommend towing with the car at all but a hitch is available what should be done? You are forced to decide the safe limit through research and conservative judgement.
Any car with a Class I hitch can pull a near nothing load like 500 lbs with 50 lbs of hitch weight. However, you would be wrong to assume it is safe to pull the Class I hitch limit of 2000 lb with 200 lb of tongue weight. Be conservative and be careful. I decided my towing capacity On a VW Golf using the overseas un-braked towing specs and then adding brakes to make sure I was safe (and lawful).
Second guessing vehicle specs may be necessary at times but there is no amount of analysis, consideration, or care that can be taken to justify breaking the law. Laws dictate trailer size, weight, and other equipment necessary.
My research on towing laws was focused on the state of New Jersey. I did look at other states. They did not look drastically different but please verify laws where you will be towing.
Trailer Size and Weight
Trailer length, width, and height are limited by law. The limits just aren’t very important when towing with a small car. If you have a small tow vehicle and want to live, don’t tow anything close to the NJ limit of 8 feet wide, 40 feet long, and 13 feet high. I did not find laws clearly restricting weight but I suspect these would be equally meaningless for small tow vehicles. Weight does, however, dictate the need for trailer brakes.
When your camper exceeds 40% of your tow vehicle weight many states require trailer brakes. Unless your camper is exceptionally small (under 800 lbs loaded) you want trailer brakes to tow it with a small car. You will find many small campers without trailer brakes. Brakes aren’t warranted for towing small campers with a truck or SUV but your small car needs brakes on any camper approaching it’s towing capacity.
Electric trailer brakes use a signal from the brake switch or third brake light to activate the brakes. A device mounted under the dash controls the timing synchronization and pressure applied by the brakes. I’ve had good luck with the Draw-Tite 5504 Activator IV Electronic Brake Control,
Although there is not an immediate limit on the width of your camper, expect difficulty seeing everything in your side mirrors if your camper is wider than your car. The lawmakers of NJ are ahead of you and this and have drafted into law the following provision for tow mirrors:
No person shall drive a vehicle that is so constructed, loaded, or covered that the driver does not have a clear view of the traffic following and at its sides, unless the vehicle is equipped with a device that will show the road to the rear and side.
If your camper is wider than your car by a few inches on each side this can be easily solved with a set of tow mirrors. I can highly recommend
Dometic DM-2899 Milenco Aero3 Towing Mirrors. I tilt the car’s regular mirrors toward the ground to make space for clamping these on. These bad boys didn’t even budge when I smacked the driver side mirror into a cross walk sign.
Safe Loading and Weight Distribution
This deserves it’s own section because it’s the area of towing capacity that we are all most likely to get wrong. The hitch weight or tongue weight is how much force the trailer puts down on the tow ball. This is where small cars struggle the most in matching well to a camper. A large camper can be towed slowly up to speed. You can even stop a large camper effectively if it has brakes. Unfortunately, you can’t easily mitigate or safely tolerate overloaded suspension and the impact this has on your cars handling. Thankfully, we’re talking about small cars and small campers here.
To measure the tongue weight of your trailer stand on a bathroom scale and just lift straight up on your trailer tongue then back out your own weight. You want to be under your vehicle (and hitch) weight rating. You want to be between 10% and 15% of your trailer weight. For my trailer the sweet spot is right at 165 lbs which is my decided rating for the car and 35 lbs below the rating for the hitch. This is also about 13% of my loaded trailer weight.
Tongue or Hitch Weight is the downward force put on your tow ball. Your Class I hitch is probably rated at 200lbs. Your car may only handle 165lbs. Respect the lower number. You can buy a scale to measure your hitch weight such as the Sherline LM1000. However, for those small campers that can be towed by a small car just stand on a bathroom scale and lift it.
Tongue weight can be controlled by adjusting your load to balance it across the axle. If you are a heavy packer consider the tongue weight when you are packing in the car. Your hitch weight counts as part of your payload and you may bump against the GVWR if you’re traveling with four 250 guys, a cargo box full of gear, and a popup camper.
The worst for last. Your liability coverage from your car should automatically extend to the trailer you are towing. I am neither a lawyer nor an insurance expert but I have repeatedly informed New Jersey Manufacturers insurance that I am using my VW Golf to tow a small camper and that this is not recommended by VW but I am taking all reasonable precautions and obeying the law. They have expressed no concern and have noted this on my account.
Keep your camper under 1500 lbs if you have a small tow vehicle. Use tow mirrors if it is wider than your car. Use brakes if your trailer is nearing 40% of your vehicle weight. Mind your hitch weight and how your packing impacts this and your total gross vehicle weight. If ever I need to make an insurance claim because of an accident with my camper I’ll write another post about insurance. Until then, I hope you are able to get out camping and don’t hesitate to reach out.