The idea of hauling a 30-foot Airstream Classic trailer to a luxury RV resort on California’s Central Coast seemed like a whimsical adventure.
But hauling 7,800 pounds of trailer weight is no romantic vacation, even if you’re headed to wine country. A successful trip requires a gutsy tow vehicle, a knowledgeable pilot and – most of all – good old-fashioned arithmetic.
I thought a 2019 Ford F-150 Lariat crew cab pickup powered by a 3-liter turbo diesel engine could do the job, especially based on its 10,100-pound towing capacity.
Unhitched, the F-150 felt light and nimble. The aluminum body, 5-foot-6-inch box and extra muscle from the diesel engine gave the pickup an athletic feel. It navigated city streets easily and maintained speed effortlessly on the highway. The driver’s seat is comfortable and offers excellent lumbar support over long distances. The back of the cabin has enough space for people and storage of road-trip essentials. A useful stowage compartment is tucked away under the rear bench.
Towing isn’t just about the trailer. You have to count people and gear when calculating the towing capability of a truck. That’s especially true when the journey includes inclement weather, changing elevations, rugged passes and fast-moving traffic.
With the trailer hitched, my husband beside me and two kids in the back, the F-150’s personality completely changed.
The hills of Paso Robles, Calif., are the real deal. On a 75-mile loop that headed west from our RV resort to Cambria, south to Morro Bay and then back north toward Atascadero, the Airstream manhandled the truck. It was no longer the idyllic hotel-on-wheels I was looking forward to for the next three nights.
The first miles on surface streets toward Route 46 felt comfortable. The F-150 held its confidence on flat roads at 35 mph and smoothly guided the trailer around turns. Our rig blended in with the other travelers carting monstrous RVs with well-equipped pickups.
The feeling shifted, however, as I merged onto the freeway. I accelerated to settle in among the flood of RV-haulers traveling at the posted 55 mph speed limit for vehicles with trailers. Almost immediately the truck started to swerve under the weight of the trailer.
I gripped the wheel and wondered who was driving – the trailer or me. Passenger cars in the fast lane seemed to fly by at lightning speed.
The truck’s trailer sway-control quickly mitigated the movement. I sensed its automatic braking under my foot and a warning on the instrument panel told me to slow down. Ford’s towing technology provided some assurance.
The weather was also menacing. It was a blustery day with thick cloud cover and light mist. Headwinds pushed back at the truck as we approached what appeared to be a never-ending series of rolling hills.
To control speed on downgrades, I shifted from Drive into Manual mode and kept the truck’s 10-speed transmission between third and fourth gears. The F-150 chugged along amid traffic at a sluggish 40 mph, a speed that gave me more control of the heavy load.
We emerged from the hills and headed south along the coast on Pacific Coast Highway. The whipping wind finally subsided. I relaxed into the southbound drive as expansive views of the Pacific Ocean filled the windows. The air thickened, and light rain dotted the windshield.
Most of the coastal leg followed a two-lane highway. The drive was smooth but slow. Occasionally the road widened to two lanes, giving faster vehicles an opportunity to pass.
I turned east onto U.S. Route 41 for the home stretch of the drive. The highway mostly snaked back and forth. The truck’s oversize side mirrors gave me extended visibility as we followed the curves of the road. We finally made our way back to I-46 and exited the freeway.
At the resort, I noticed that most other guests used heavy-duty pickups. Our half-ton truck was out of place. A more thorough look at specs of the F-150 Lariat revealed that the towing equation is complex.
Ford lists the towing capacity of the four-wheel-drive F-150 SuperCrew Lariat with a diesel engine and towing package at 10,100 pounds. In theory, the 7,800-pound-Airstream is within its capabilities.
But other factors come into play.
First is the automaker’s official curb weight of the vehicle, which for the F-150 is 5,271 pounds. That does not take into consideration the options on the truck.
At $70,100, including the $1,595 destination fee, this model was loaded with $20,520 worth of options. Features like the twin panel moonroof ($1,495), bedliner ($595) and power running boards ($995) add extra weight.
The truck’s weight was closer to 5,710 pounds, according to Ford. And a half-full, 26-gallon fuel tank adds about 100 pounds, bringing the total weight to 5,810 pounds.
WATER AND PROPANE
Second, consider the weight of the trailer. The official weight is 7,800 pounds, but it has a 54-gallon water tank and two propane tanks on board. Water weighs 8.34 pounds per gallon, so half of a tank adds 225 pounds. Even an empty propane tank weighs about 70 pounds.
The trailer weighed at least 8,100 pounds, maybe more.
Now, examine the payload of the truck: 1,288 pounds. Payload is the passengers plus the cargo. My group weighed a combined 430 pounds. Cargo added another 250 pounds for a total of 630 pounds.
Finally consider how a trailer adds tongue weight, which is the amount it exerts on the hitch. It’s typically calculated at 10 percent of the weight of the trailer and cuts into the payload. In the case of an 8,100-pound trailer, tongue weight is 810 pounds. The Airstream, however, had two propane tanks sitting right on top of the hitch, which bumps the tongue weight to an estimated 950 pounds.
These figures contribute to the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating, which is the curb weight plus payload. The Ford recommended GVW is 7,050 pounds. Our weight was 7,390 pounds.
Another weight valuation of the truck is the Gross Combined Vehicle Weight Rating. This is the curb weight plus the payload plus the trailer weight. The F-150 has a GCVWR of 16,100 pounds. The load weight on my trip was 15,490 pounds, leaving me only 610 pounds of wiggle room.
“The F-150 isn’t really the best choice to tow any Airstream over 27 feet,” said Chris Cordes, a towing expert and Airstream ambassador. “A loaded 27-footer is at the edge of this truck’s operating envelope. You’ll find the vehicle struggling to accelerate as well as maintain speed on large grades.”
Loaded weight is the key, he said.
“You want at least a 15-20 percent margin of error between the towing capacity and the trailer’s fully loaded weight,” Cordes said.
However, Ford told Trucks.com that it does not recommend a cushion and that it stands by the truck’s towing capacity.
But beware of load weight creep. Manufacturers weigh trailers without water, propane, food or personal belongings inside. Add all that up and there’s a good chance you’re 1,000 pounds heavier than the empty weight, likely more, Cordes said.
“I would not recommend pulling a 30-foot trailer or above with anything less than a 3/4-ton-level truck from any brand,” he said.
Going by the minimum 15 percent rule on the F-150’s towing capacity of 10,100 pounds, my Airstream should not have exceeded 8,585 pounds. At 9,060 pounds, I left only 10 percent room for error.
Next time I meet the Airstream it’ll be with a Ford F-250 Super Duty so the trailer doesn’t end up towing my truck.