Trailer Towing Terms Defined: Differences between Towing Capacity, Payload Capacity, GVWR and GAWR

Parking lot full of dump trailers, utility trailers, and enclosed cargo trailers

If you’ve started your trailer shopping recently you’ve likely come across abbreviations and phrases you’ve never heard before (GVWR, GAWR, Towing capacity, payload capacity, etc) which can be very confusing, so we’re here to take the definition confusion off your plate! Read on for our clarification of the definitions that will help you fully understand the most important factors to making the correct trailer purchase decision for your needs (Hint: they all have to do with weight)!

Towing Capacity

Towing Capacity is probably the easiest of these terms to understand. The car, truck, or SUV you’ll be pulling the trailer behind is called your Tow Vehicle. The tow vehicle will impose weight requirements on your trailer purchase decision because your tow vehicle’s towing capacity is the figure you’ll need to know in order to ensure you purchase a trailer with a GVWR under your vehicle’s maximum weight limit. The Towing Capacity is the Total Amount of weight your Vehicle can tow, and answers the question How much can my vehicle haul? Towing Capacity is not including any cab weight inside your vehicle: that’ll be defined by your vehicle’s GVWR sticker found on the sticker inside the driver’s door usually. Also important to know is the cab weight inside your vehicle doesn’t affect your towing capacity.  You never want to risk overloading your tow vehicle by choosing the wrong axles on your trailer, so it’s necessary to determine your vehicle’s towing capacity before you fall in love with a trailer it won’t be able to haul!

Every vehicle manufacturer has a different towing capacity, and a vehicle’s maximum towing capacity can vary widely depending on the axle size, engine and transmission sizes, hitch rating, even the model or series can affect this figure with some brands! To make sure you buy the right trailer for your needs we recommend you Double Check your vehicle’s Owner’s Manual and use the Index to find the section on Towing to see your manufacturer’s guideline to your  vehicle’s maximum towing capacity. If this option isn’t available, try calling a dealer of your vehicle and ask the towing capacity of your make, model, and year. Also available for those with newer vehicles: Camping World’s Towing Guide can help you determine the towing capacity of 2005-2018 vehicles if you Follow this Link.


Regardless, which state you’re purchasing your trailer in the GVWR on the sticker is the Legal, Maximum Weight Limit of the trailer. GVWR stands for Gross Vehicle Weight Rating, and essentially means the Total amount of weight the trailer can weigh while it’s on the road. Typically *, the stickered GVWR is determined by adding together the empty trailer’s weight +plus+ the total weight of the cargo it was built to handle (Payload capacity).

*Exceptions: Many states have CDL (Commercial Drivers License) requirements when the trailer’s GVWR is over 10,001 lbs; to avoid the CDL requirement you’ll find many trailers de-rated by the manufacturer to just under the CDL weight requirement (9990# or 9900# in CA), so anyone can haul the trailer. Similarly, you’ll find single axle trailers de-rated to 2990# because any trailer with a GVWR over 3000 pounds requires brakes in some states like CA. De-rating a trailer reduces both the legal payload capacity as well as the GVWR.

Payload Capacity

The Trailer’s Payload Capacity is the total weight of the cargo you can add to the trailer safely. Payload capacity is also sometimes referred to as your cargo capacity. The Payload Capacity is usually stickered on the trailer near the VIN#. It can be found by Subtracting the Empty Weight of the trailer from the stickered GVWR.

Helpful Hint: Never buy a trailer with a Larger GVWR than your vehicle’s Towing Capacity! Unless you know the Exact weight of your maximum cargo payload (not just a guesstimate), plus the empty weight of the trailer will never make the trailer’s GVWR close to the towing capacity of your vehicle. Be careful with this buying strategy if you’re unsure about cargo weights though, because when you have free space to fill (and available the payload capacity to haul it) in the trailer, it’s too easy to load it up and then overload and stress your tow vehicle!

Example: Let’s say the SUV/Truck can tow 5000 pounds, but you want a 7000# GVWR Trailer expecting to load 3500 lbs. into the trailer. If the trailer weighs 2500 pounds, your desired 3500# of cargo will overload your tow vehicle’s towing capacity by 1000 pounds (stressing out more than just your engine…even though the trailer would still be capable of handling the cargo weight). However, if you have the same 5000 pound towing capacity and you know you’ll only ever load 1500 lbs. into the trailer, and it’s the same 2500 pound trailer, you’ll be under your vehicle’s towing capacity by 1000 lbs which should not pose any issues at all.


A less common abbreviation you may have also come across in your trailer research is the GAWR (Gross Axle Weight Rating). GAWR is similar to GVWR but only represents the Maximum Axle Capacity of the trailer; not the legal weight rating for the road. A trailer may have tandem 6000# axles (12K total), but the GVWR sticker that determines the legal weight limit on the roads could either be rated at that max of 12,000# or it could be de-rated to 9990# (or a similar weight under 10K in CA) so anyone without a CDL can tow the trailer. If the GVWR is de-rated, the axles can still handle the 12K total weight, but you won’t be legal towing all that weight on the roads if your payload capacity exceeds your trailer’s stickered payload capacity resulting in you towing the trailer on the road while it weighs more than the stickered GVWR legally allows.

Example: Hypothetically, a dump trailer has two 7000# axles and weighs 4000 pounds empty. If the 14K GVWR gets de-rated to 9990# so anyone can haul this trailer on CA roads, the stickered payload capacity would only be 5990 lbs. Alternatively, if it’s stickered so a CDL is required to tow the trailer at 14K GVWR, it has a 9990 pound payload capacity.

Technically you can be ticketed and fined for any single pound you’re over your trailer’s GVWR! So make sure the payload capacity and GVWR stickered on the trailer match your Driver’s License and your Cargo’s Weight Needs to ensure you buy one trailer that’ll work for all your needs without causing more problems for you down the road.

Our Expert Advice: Knowing your maximum towing capacity and cargo weights before buying a trailer will save you time, money, and headaches down the road!

Do You Know How to Read a Trailer’s VIN Tag to Reveal the Information that Matters?

The Payload Capacity, GVWR, and GWVR are all clearly marked on the trailer’s VIN Tag; so is the manufacturer’s name, model and size, recommended tire pressure, and more if you know what you’re looking for and where to look.

Our experts reveal the secrets to reading the VIN Tags from some of our trailers currently in stock below. In order to fully demonstrate the lesson we’ve included standard as well as de-rated trailer tags so you’ll be able to understand how to decipher what you read on the next trailer tag you come across!

Important Note for anyone considering purchasing a used trailer from a private seller: be certain any trailer you look at has an authentic VIN tag! If it doesn’t have the VIN# clearly marked in several locations on the trailer (not just on the VIN sticker). Not so Fun Fact: Trailers are the Number One Stolen Vehicles here in California! Oftentimes thieves steal trailers, remove the VIN tags, and file off the stamped VIN#s on the trailer in order then try to trick you into buying it illegally! This is why our family would NEVER purchase a used trailer from a private party without first verifying they have a clear title for the trailer in hand. The title must be in the person selling its name, which should seem like common sense but you’ll be surprised how often we hear of someone with a story to explain why they’re trying to sell a trailer with a title that’s not in their name…Don’t be fooled there’s too many scammers out there you’ve got to protect your hard-earned money! If you are buying a used trailer the title must also have the VIN number of the trailer and it NEEDS to match the VIN sticker (the VIN Tag should not have any VOID marks visible on it; this happens when a sticker is removed) and VIN stamped on the tongue of the trailer (all of our brands do this extra measure but some may not). Just because it looks like an authentic title you can’t trust that title belongs to that trailer, verify the numbers match just in case before considering the purchase further.

Where is the VIN Tag?

The tag is typically located on the street-side of the trailer either on the side of the exterior, or on the A-frame tongue near the nose of the trailer. If you’re out trailer shopping and you don’t see a rectangular VIN sticker on the front framing or on the side of the trailer, Remember our experts wouldn’t risk it by purchasing that trailer!

The Trailer VIN Tag’s Important Info

  • The Manufacturer’s name is the top line of standard trailer VIN Tags.
  • The second line usually has the date the order or VIN was created and assigned by the Manufacturer. Along with the GVWR in both kg. and lbs.
    • Subtracting the Payload Capacity from the GVWR will tell you the trailer’s empty weight.
  • Then the GAWR will be listed for Each Axle, so you can do a tiny bit of math to get the true Weight Rating for both axles if it has more than one.
    • Sometimes this will be exactly the same as the GVWR and sometimes the GVWR will be smaller because it’s been de-rated.
  • The standard tires for the trailer are also listed as well as the rim size and recommended tire pressure rating.
    • R stands for Radial (rubber tire with steel threads), D stands for Bias ply tire (rubber tires)
  • Some Brands put their model reference and size in the Bottom Right corner on the VIN Tag (some include both width and length others just include the length), as you can see from our examples from Innovative, Look Trailers, and Playcraft Trailers. Featherlite Trailers mixes things up a bit by adding the model and size in the Top Right corner instead.
  • The Payload Capacity sticker is another Crucial sticker you need to make sure is on your trailer. Because the Payload Capacity is one of the Most Important numbers you’ll need to know! Usually this sticker is positioned next to the VIN Tag; you shouldn’t have to search hard to find it once you’ve spotted the VIN tag.
  • The VIN # reveals the trailer’s model year: 2017 year trailers will have an H in the last 8 digits, 2018 year trailers have a J, and 2019 trailers are already out with the letter K initiating the last 8 digits of the VIN#s. You can continue this trend to easily reveal the model year of older units as well.
Stock#4622, 2018 Look Trailers STLC 4′ x 6′, 2990# GVWR (no brakes so must be under 3K), GAWR reveals this trailer has a 3500# axle, and payload capacity of 2257, which means it weighs 733 lbs. empty.

Because this single axle 4×6′ trailer was de-rated the GVWR is 510 less than the GAWR, which means the payload capacity is also 510 pounds less than this trailer would’ve had if it had brakes equipped from the manufacturer originally.

Stock#4310, Playcraft Trailers 82″ x 18′, 7K GVWR auto hauler with 5050 lb. payload capacity, 1950 empty weight.

Playcraft Trailers are owned and manufactured under the name Sun Country Trailers in Arizona. Stock#4310 was ordered with drive-over fenders making it have a 102″ drive-able width, however, it was built on the 82″ wide model so will have 82″ between the fenders.

Stock#4437, Innovative 72″ x 10′ 10K Dump Trailer with 2- 5200# axles de-rated to 9990# so anyone can haul it. This allows for a legal payload of 6490 lbs.

When dump trailers are de-rated like the one above, the legal payload capacity can vary by as little as 500 pounds all the up to 5000 lbs difference from the payload when stickered at the full Axle Rating. If you know you’ll need to haul A LOT of weight (over the 10K GVWR) then you should look into getting a CDL to ensure you don’t rack up Thousand$ of dollars in fines for being overweight hauling a de-rated trailer!

Stock# 4543, 2019 Pace American Shadow 8.5′ x 20′, 9900# GVWR with a payload capacity of 5667.

This top of the line Shadow GT Race trailer weighs considerably more than the same size trailer in an entry-level model because of it’s all 16″ on center tube framing, torsion suspension, .040 aluminum exterior, and lots more features we’ve upgraded it with! Check out the Shadow Race trailer we have in stock now

Stock#3543, 2018 Featherlite Trailers lightweight 3182 model, 16′ length. 7K GVWR with a payload capacity of 5650 pounds.

Featherlite Trailers are built with the highest quality aluminum alloys that are as strong as steel and used to build airplanes. Because aluminum is substantially lighter than steel, these trailers offer More Payload Capacity on the same axle platform (2-3500# axles). Aluminum is also rust and corrosion resistant so Featherlite Trailers last forever without the fear of rust creep eating away at your trailer. The quality packed standard features on Featherlite Trailers are decisions that so cost more up front but will provide decades of dependability; and if you ever do experience any issues Featherlite Trailers are backed by the industry’s longest warranty on trailers: 3 year bumper to bumper warranty with a full 10 year warranty backing up the trailer’s structure and materials! Click Here to Check out the Featherlite Trailers in stock in So Cal at Norco Trailers.

Clockwise starting Top Left: Featherlite Trailer 1693 lightweight utility trailer, Pace American single axle Concession Enclosed Trailer, Innovative Trailer Mfg. Scissor Hoist Dump Trailer, Featherlite Trailers 9409 3 Horse Trailer

Ready to find the trailer you need that’ll work to tow behind your vehicle? Visit our Online Inventory Here to View Pictures and Prices of ALL 500+ Currently Available Trailers at Norco Trailers in SoCal.