About 10 years ago, I made the decision to quit a well-paid, secure job as an architectural designer and start my own architecture firm and move into a travel trailer to start what I thought was going to be a firm designing, well… architecture. Little did I know that this 1970s Airstream would become the spark that ignited a passion and defined my entire future. The long and winding road of that experience led me to start Living Vehicle, in the focused search to create the most luxurious, self-sustaining, off grid living space possible.
Since then, I’ve lived in all sorts of types and styles of small spaces on land and sea, and almost all were mobile and could go from place to place. Of all the mobile dwellings, a travel trailer pulled by a tow vehicle (bumper pull), is by far my favorite. In other articles, I’ve gone into details behind the reason for this preference, but that’s not what this blog is about. This blog is about the tow vehicle because every travel trailer, no matter how large or small, requires something to pull or power it to travel. After all, unlike a motorhome with an integrated engine and steering wheel, a towable travel trailer has no way to move without a tow vehicle. While there is no one perfect tow vehicle to integrate with a Living Vehicle (LV), it is my hope with this article to shed some light on what makes a great tow vehicle for an LV.
Here is what we will cover today.
My favorite part about the concept of a towable travel trailer is that it doesn’t have an engine. Unless you travel full-time in your motorhome, it’s probably going to be the most expensive vehicle you rarely drive.
My wife, Joanna, and I love our truck and it’s our daily driver. While it’s perfectly suited to tow an LV, it’s an excellent vehicle to drive every day as we go about errands and our normal lives. My favorite part about owning a truck is that it’s an extremely capable and adaptable vehicle on so many levels. First, it’s the most capable off-road vehicle I’ve ever owned. Second, it navigates in tight urban environments. And third, it carries up to 5 people (some carry up to 6), literally tons of gear, pets and so much more. Oh yeah, and it tows a Living Vehicle.
The key here is that a great tow vehicle suits many needs. The practicality of having a great truck empowers a great life for my family. It’s extremely easy to drive, capable, safe, and extremely powerful. In fact, between Joanna and myself, we are a one-vehicle family. Joanna typically drives the truck and I prefer my electric bike on a daily basis for running around town or riding to work. The truck acts like a bit of a chameleon, fitting in and supporting my life in many different ways. This is what I consider the most fundamental requirement of a great tow vehicle. Tough to do that with a motorhome. You’ll need to pack up your entire residence in order to move your mode of transportation.
So, while there are all sorts of technical requirements, aftermarket parts, and countless considerations with make model trim levels, and the like, the most important feature of the tow vehicle is that it should work is your everyday driver. Everyone in the family should feel comfortable driving the truck whether hooked up and towing a Living Vehicle or not.
Each of the following points and considerations are viewed through this lens for what I consider the best tow vehicle for an LV.
The Living Vehicle lifestyle is designed with intent. Our extreme focus on the purpose and reason behind LV allows us to easily optimize for and prioritize one design consideration over another. Let’s begin with defining two important considerations: 1) Compromise – which is trying to get two things at the same time, and not completely meeting your needs fully for either one; and 2) Focus – which is realizing what matters most and making that your priority, then understanding what is second, and so on.
Living Vehicle puts quality first, every single time. Our hallucination when starting Living Vehicle was to design the best travel trailer the world has ever seen. We engineered Living Vehicle to last for generations. The reality is, the RV industry has, and still does have, a terrible reputation for producing (can we be candid?) crap. This is the number one reason we decided to create LV, because I believed and still believe it’s possible to produce a mobile living space that exudes quality.
This longevity results in LV holding its value, even appreciating over time. So, why do Recreational Vehicles typically lose 50 percent of their value in the first five years? I can’t think of a worse value proposition for an RV owner then realizing that what you just bought is going to be worth half as much in half a decade. Not exactly a sustainable investment! The same can be said for most automobiles, too. This is something I simply will not accept.
In a worldwide culture of planned obsolescence, where so many are competing for price, quality is not the most important design focus in the RV industry. I chuckle when I see RV dealers advertise lightweight as a positive feature. Sure, being able to tow a lightweight trailer with an SUV may be easier, but what do you lose?
Here’s a dirty little RV industry secret: the term lightweight is synonymous with cheap; manufacturers just get away with it. It’s a sales technique. It becomes the new normal and people expect that they are travel trailer can be pulled with a mid-sized SUV. Quality suffers, price is the most important factor, and keeping it lightweight by using cheap “carboard-like” materials, manufacturers can pump out thousands, and thousands of RVs. Living Vehicle is not that trailer.
The tow vehicle industry has evolved beautifully in the past decade. All major truck manufacturers are now producing extremely capable and comfortable HD tow vehicles that can pull well above 20,000 lbs.
When we set out to design the best quality trailer built for full-time living, we embraced weight as a positive feature and designed LV to go hand-in-hand with modern day heavy duty (HD) trucks. We will not compromise quality because we understand who we are and who we are serving. With this as our #1 priority we have complete focus.
Living Vehicle models for 2021 range between 11,000 and 15,000 lbs. base weight, with a massive 4500 lb. carrying capacity. The gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of a top-end LV is upwards of 18,000 lbs. If you’re going to be living in it full-time, make sure you have enough carrying capacity that includes the weight of everything you want to take with you, such as LV gear, water, and toys – it all adds up!
This makes things simple. LV is not designed to be towed by a SUV, or even a half ton truck, like America’s best-selling Ford F150. There are plenty of lightweight trailers out there that can be towed with those types of vehicles. If you are unwilling to part with your family SUV or half-ton truck, then Living Vehicle is not for you. Today’s modern heavy-duty trucks are mechanical masterpieces. HD simply refers to a category of truck that is designed specifically for towing and carrying weight. This is what’s referred to as a full-size truck, including the Ford F250, 350 or the Ram/ Chevy 2500-3500 series. These are examples of HD trucks. Of course, tow vehicles can go up from there but those simply are not required unless a big powerful truck so your thing.
There are two types of engines on motor driven HD tow vehicles: gas and diesel. The advantages of diesel fueled engine are tremendous. Diesel trucks are purpose built for towing – plain and simple. With significant low-end torque, amazing gear-axle ratios, and increased fuel efficiency over gas. Diesel, as the engine of choice for an LV, is a no-brainer. A gas-powered truck engine is significantly limiting when it comes to payload and towing capacity. Don’t be distracted by the styling or the price of a gas truck. Focus on the numbers. You’ll discover that diesel trucks are more capable in many important categories over their gas counterparts.
Historically, these full-size, HD trucks were very utilitarian and focused more on agriculture, job sites, or commercial work then luxurious amenities, which is why there were not great daily drivers. In recent years, however, trucks have made a giant leap forward in providing extremely capable, comfortable and luxurious HD tow vehicles.
Our short bed RAM 3500 is a perfect example of a daily driver. It really does feel inside like a luxury sedan, with beautiful leather treatment throughout, high end electronics, a beautiful sound system, and a Tesla-style vertical center dash screen – quite impressive! Not to mention the little luxury features, which are awesome, such as automatic skylights, heated and cooling seats with built-in massage, and enough technology to make any techie’s head spin. My everyday driver/ personal tow vehicle feels more like a luxury car than a HD truck. I just love it.
Although I currently own a RAM, I’m not particularly partial to any one truck brand. While I have my favorites from year to year, I’m so impressed with the HD truck industry as a whole as we entered the 20s of the new Century. Whether it’s a Ford, RAM, GMC or Chevrolet, every manufacturer is creating extremely high-quality, luxurious, and very capable vehicles. The beautiful conclusion is that you really can’t go wrong. While I’m not going to advocate for anyone truck brand, there are requirements that must be followed in order to tow a Living Vehicle that will meet your needs.
Let’s start with the concept of towing capacity. Every truck manufacturer rates a truck for towing capacity, which is effectively how much you can pull behind that tow vehicle. Simply put, the PRO model LV fully loaded is 18,000 lbs., which means the tow vehicle pulling that LV must be capable to pull at least 18,000 lbs. Simple.
Today’s trucks can tow well north of that number and I always recommend a margin of safety, so this is why I highly recommend a tow vehicle that can pull 20,000 lbs. or more, regardless of the LV you select.
The next consideration to look out for is the concept of payload. This is another manufacturer specified value that comes with every truck and every configuration is different. Just like towing capacity, there is no one payload for a specific make, model or trim. Literally every single truck and model are different. When considering a tow vehicle, we need to ensure that the payload requirements are specific to the exact vehicle you’re considering. Trucks are like snowflakes and no two are alike. Payload refers to the amount of weight that a tow vehicle can carry. This refers to all of the gear, people, luggage in the cab, and cargo in the truck bed. This means everything and anything you put inside the truck. This includes the weight of the LV’s hitch coupler resting on the 2-5/16” ball at the back of the tow vehicle.
We refer to this as the hitch tongue weight, and for an LV or any bumper pull trailer, the tongue weight is typically 10 percent of the overall trailer’s weight. So, if you have an LV that when loaded is about 15,000 lbs., then you’re going to have a 1500 lb. hitch weight. Of course, the tongue weight can go up or down depending on what you pack and where it’s located inside your LV, but this is a good starting point.
So, considering you have a 1500 lbs. hitch weight, a driver and three occupants for another 600 lbs., and let’s just say 500 lbs. of gear, you are already at 2600 lbs., so you can see how it all adds up. Fortunately, today’s tow vehicles are extremely capable and have the payloads to accommodate this weight. This is why I recommend a payload of at least 3000 lbs. to give you ample room to carry everything you need and provide that margin of safety in case you really need to load things up. For example, our Ram has a pay load of about 3700 lbs., more than enough to carry even a fully loaded PRO LV.
When it really comes down to it that’s all that’s required for Living Vehicle. 20,000 lb. towing capacity and 3000 lb. payload. That’s where it gets fun. Once those two values are met then there are so many different options models, trim levels, aftermarket accessories and other considerations to create the perfect tow vehicle for you.
Next, I’ll describe some of my favorite categories to choose from. After all, I love to talk truck!
Not all trucks look or act the same, after all. Arguably, the most distinguishing feature from truck-to-truck, besides its color, is bed type. The truck bed refers to the space behind the cab that is open to the sky. This is where you put all your gear and carry all that great those great toys. The HD truck market offers a rather standard configuration for bed length, and it’s quite simple. You can choose long or short. Long bed trucks, historically, were designed to carry supplies to and from jobsites. The most notable item contractors needed to carry was a 4‘x 8‘sheet of plywood. A true long bed that is 8 feet long is designed to carry lots of gear.
Short beds aren’t that much shorter and tend to range from 5 feet to about 6-1/2 feet. While it may not feel like much of a difference the drivability is significant. I have owned both long and short bed trucks, and here again, it all comes down to what you’re optimizing for, aka your priority. If you plan to use your truck as a daily driver, which I recommend, a short bed will be much more maneuverable in tight spaces because a shorter wheelbase is easier to navigate into and out of tight parking lots. Now, compare this to a long bed with 2 more feet of length, you can see how this makes a big difference. Sure, you can certainly carry around more gear with you, but unless you have very specific gear requirements, I highly recommend a short bed configuration. Best of all, there really is no difference in towing or payload capacity with a long or short bed truck, either.
Let’s now turn our focus to the space where the occupants sit, in the cab. The cab is the space where the driver and all occupants are carried when the truck is moving. This category is a simple configuration, too.
The truck industry offers what I would typically call regular and crew cab configurations. Regular cabs really offer only two seats without backseats. They’re still a great truck for a worksite, but not incredibly functional for a daily driver or family. A crew cab adds two full-sized back doors, just like an SUV, and a bench seat, that is sometimes split, with lots and lots of legroom for the family and precious cargo, like pets. I own a crew cab truck, and the space back in back is outstanding and is in no way restrictive. I’m 6’ 5” tall and I fit comfortably in the backseat of my truck.
There are cab configurations that are bigger, called super or mega, but whatever the term this is the largest cab configuration you can get, even larger than a crew cab. The benefits are added comfort and spaciously luxurious back seats. If you have a large family or plan on spending a lot of time traveling in the truck, then you really should consider the largest cab configuration you can get. Amenities such as extended legroom, reclining seats, and more make this a very comfortable choice. In fact, the mega cab RAM has more legroom in the rear cab than nearly any SUV I’ve ever seen. Remarkable stuff.
While not required, aftermarket enhancements and accessories are some of the most exciting aspects of truck ownership. There are some very clear winners on how to enhance the performance and quality of a full-size truck. I’ll go into some of these major categories now, and share my decisions, as an example to help guide your tow vehicle search.
Suspension – OK, I’ll come right out and say it, the biggest drawback to full-size HD trucks is the notoriously stiff suspension, and it makes total sense. A truck that’s designed to carry and tow very heavy cargo, including a trailer, wouldn’t have the softest, smoothest, cushiest ride. That being said, there are major options to consider. For example, the difference between a F250 and a F350 is significant. Typically, I’ve found with rear coil springs, the Ram 2500 series has a much smoother in a stock configuration. But when customizing your truck and optimizing for payload and carrying capacity a Ram 2500 just might not be capable enough.
Enter the mighty F350, 1-ton, or full-sized, tow vehicle. Designed specifically for towing heavy loads and performance these trucks represent a tremendous leap forward in performance capability. The main difference between a F250 and F350 truck is primarily the suspension. Typically, you will find the exact same engine configurations in both models. The F350 is designed to carry more, and as such, the payload is typically much higher. In a single rear wheel configuration, it’s very common to have payloads for F350 trucks in the 3,000 to 4,000 lb. level. This is perfectly adequate to tow an LV and all your family’s gear.
A dual rear wheel configuration will significantly increase this payload, but frankly is unnecessary. If you’re into carrying very heavy loads in your truck bed while towing an LV, a dual rear wheel might be for you. I have customers who carry full-size motorcycles in there 8’ truck bed while towing their LV. In this example, a dual rear wheel is great. Whatever wheel configuration you choose, the rear suspension tends to be a bit stiff for my liking, no matter the stock trim level or suspension configuration. As such, there’s tremendous aftermarket upgrades for the suspension that will increase ride quality for on- and off-road performance, while maintaining the factory specifications for towing.
One such company that I have grown particularly fond of is Carli suspension. I go into more details in a video about what makes the Carli suspension system great. A high-end Carli suspension system will maintain factory payload and towing capacity while significantly enhancing ride quality. It turns an F250 or F350 truck into an extremely capable on- road or off-road everyday driver, and great LV tow vehicle.
There’s something special about purpose-built wheel and tire combinations for increasing traction and performance trucks. I’ve always been particularly fond of tires. What started out as an aesthetic appeal turned into a deeper understanding about how much tires can increase performance and ride quality. The wheel rims and tires are part of the overall suspension and performance solution that need to be carefully considered, too. Most importantly, you need to pick a wheel and tire set that maintains the factory payload. A truck aftermarket kit is only as strong as its weakest link, and if your tires can’t hold up to the weight the truck was designed to carry, your payload is accordingly reduced.
A full-size truck can easily accommodate a 35” or 37” tire. Not only do they look great, but it increases the available rubber depth between ground and wheel. By combining a large tire with an 18” wheel, small bump compliance is significantly enhanced.
Ever ridden on the freeway and felt those concrete expansion joints to be a bit bone jarring, especially when going over bridges? That’s what I’m talking about. Not to mention off-road performance and traction, and safety in the rain and snow, picking the right tire can make or break the ride quality, performance, and safety of the truck itself. From my personal experience, I can highly recommend the Nitto Ridge Grappler. This is a fine USA made tire that blends the best of an all-terrain tire with mud-terrain performance. It has an extremely high weight rating, too, with an aggressive tread, and nearly silent freeway performance. This tire was arguably the best-selling HD off-road tire in 2020. And there’s thousands of miles of user-reasons to back it up.
There are so many visual enhancements and upgrades that can turn an everyday truck into something very special. In this category I caution you not to go overboard, rather be very selective of the overall look your after when choosing an accessory. In our higher end LVs, we have an off-road package that applies a spray on protectant on the a-frame and lower trim rail around the entire unit. Not only does this visually anchor the LV to the ground, but it also provides protection for the surface that is most likely to receive dents and dings from road debris, rocks, and brush over the roadway.
I like to match this blackened effect in a truck by continuing the lower black trim all the way around. This includes both front and rear bumper along with the lower section of the door panels. Not only does this unify the appearance it offers the same protection when off-road in from rocks and other debris to your truck. If you want to take us a step further, you can even replace the front and rear bumper with a purpose-built powder coated steel solution. Not only do these bumpers provide add protection, but you can also get great accessories to integrate with such as light bars and towing winches for real off-road adventures.
The final category of aftermarket accessories opens up a real can of worms and can be a bit of a rabbit hole. There are manufacturer design limitations that reduce the performance of the engine for one reason or another. Much of this is due to EPA standards, and reducing pollution. I want to be clear that I do not advocate for modifying trucks that do not conform with your state law. These laws change from state to state, but I can say California is one of the most restrictive states in the country when it comes to motor performance upgrades. There’s much to learn about CARB and EPA require emission standards and compliance is mandatory but let me simplify it for you.
The California Air Resources Board (CARB) certifies that all combustion engines – from lawn mowers and leaf blowers to truck engines and much bigger – that are manufactured or sold in the state of California must comply with strict regulations. CARB also controls the quality of fuel sold in the state of California through their Fuel Enforcement Program. This is why the state’s smog has been drastically reduced in the past 50 years! Several other states have adopted California’s strict standards, including Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia.
Nevertheless, while complying with CARB, there are many mini aftermarket computers and tuners that can significantly enhance performance, horsepower, and so many other aspects of the tow vehicle. One very simple enhancement is what’s known as a throttle tuner. For very technical reasons I won’t delve into here, diesel trucks tend to have a throttle lag that you’ll notice when you push down on the pedal it takes a bit of time before acceleration occurs. Not being one to wait, this drives me crazy! Frankly, this feels a bit dangerous to me, and is an unnecessary limitation. If I’m at an intersection and need to act quickly, I want my truck to be ready and capable to go at a moment’s notice. The throttle controller will eliminate this lag when you press down the gas pedal.
Another product I can highly recommend is made by Banks Power and is appropriately called the Paddle Monster. This is a very easily installed and connected to your On-Board Diagnostics (OBD) port. This accessory is legal in all 50 states and is a great start to performance tuning. I won’t go too deep into this but suffice to say there are many aspects of tuning that can significantly enhance the stock quality of your truck. I encourage you to dig in here but remain compliant with whatever your state laws are where you plan on driving your truck.
A tremendous advantage of diesel tow vehicles is the absolute powerhouse of an engine that lies beneath the hood. These engines provide amazing low-end torque, well-tuned gear ratios, and plenty of power with room to spare. One advantage of having this type of configuration is to leverage the additional power from the diesel engine and create a redundant source of electricity to charge the LV’s onboard batteries.
One of the core concepts of LV is redundancy. In battlefield situations, winners and losers are determined by the one who has a backup solution ready. This can be the difference of success or failure, or life and death. Well-off off-grid living might not be a life-or-death scenario, it can certainly make or break the quality of your trip. LV is powered by natural resources, primarily by the sun. For days when the sun is not available, or in locations that have obstructions from trees or cloud cover, having alternative power sources is an absolute must. Built-in generators are another way to create electric energy. Generators turn alternators that create 120 volts electricity and can power electronics and charge batteries. Take one look at that diesel engine under the hood of that beautiful tow vehicle and it’s no stretch to think that it can provide a similar method of power. Another great package available for every LV is the energy integration option.
While most tow vehicles can provide a minuscule amount of power from the 7-pin connector that powers the running lights and brakes in traditional trailers, the power system requirements of an LV are far too massive to gain any kind of power from this source. So, naturally, we designed something specific, special, and super powerful.
Enter energy integration. We have designed a specific alternator that maybe installed in the engine compartment of the tow vehicle. This alternator is fine-tuned to match the LV’s energy system and provides rapid charging whenever the truck is on and the LV is connected. When searching for a tow vehicle, one requirement is that the engine configuration has just one alternator because we’ll need space to install a second LV-specific alternator for this package. Simple.
Welcome to the future! At this point it’s quite clear to see the future of transportation is electric. Tesla has been brining industry disrupting innovation to the motor Vehicle market within the last decade, introducing high-performance low-cost electric cars. As we enter the new decade in the 2020s, electric tow vehicles are on the new horizon. Now, with nearly a dozen truck companies, established industry veterans and start-ups competing to bring their electric tow vehicles to market, it’s only a matter of time before electric trucks become the industry norm.
It’s no secret that Living Vehicle has a mission to create a completely electric self-sustaining mobile dwelling. Part of this vision is a beautiful integration with an electric tow vehicle that will one day integrate with LV. Take a look at the roof of an LV and you’ll see a massive solar array. Our vision is to create enough power from the sun to power not only the Living Vehicle but the electric tow vehicle, as well. Imagine a truck trailer combination that requires no fuel, no gas station, and no supercharger. This is our vision of the future and it’s real. It’s just a matter of time.
As we work towards the future of electric truck integration, I’ll take a moment to speculate on where the industry is heading. Almost every electric truck I see on the market is starting with what I would call the half-ton category. These are your F150s and 1500s of the world. America’s best-selling truck, the F150 is the gas version of the electric truck I see emerging. This is a natural progression. The electric vehicle market began with cars, evolved into SUVs, and next it will emerge into light duty trucks. When these truck specifications are finalized, and we understand the true towing capability and payload the electric tow vehicle will be a reality.
The Tesla Cybertruck appears to be a capable, natural fit for the LV. There are others that have higher and lower capabilities, but until the final Tesla truck model is introduced and specifications finalized, we can only imagine what it will be. That being said, the electric tow vehicle market is extremely exciting, and I can’t wait to get my hands on electric truck, hook it up to an LV, and continue creating the future.
Since I graduated college, trucks have been a big part of my life. Starting with my background in construction, and living in the mountains, playing on dirt roads as a past time, continuing with a trailer renovation/ architectural company where we pulled all sorts of vintage metal trailers across the country; tow vehicle trucks are in my blood. I am humbled in awestruck to see the continued development, capability and performance of modern heavy duty tow vehicles end I’m excited to witness the future as we move towards electricity as the primary power source. Electric, gas or diesel, modern day trucks and tow vehicles are an engineering masterpiece. It is my hope that through this article in I collective experience I can shed some light on what is one of my favorite pastimes, and I hope it becomes one of yours – trucks!