Payload Capacity: Everything You Need to Know

Payload Capacity: Everything You Need to Know

You’ve seen the truck commercials or websites that boast of the best-in-class maximum payload capacity of 5,140 pounds, but what is payload capacity, and does it matter to the average truck owner? Let’s load up some practical knowledge of what gross vehicle weight rating (GVRW), towing and payload can mean to you and your safety.

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What is payload capacity?

When looking for a truck to help you do some work, you’ll be swimming in numbers about horsepower, torque, payload capacity and towing capacity. Simply stated, the payload capacity is about what your truck can safely support on all four of its wheels, and towing capacity is about what you can pull.

A truck’s payload capacity is the amount of cargo and passenger weight that you can safely add to your vehicle on top of the truck’s curb weight.

If you have your owner’s manual, the payload capacity for your specific truck is in there. However, if you don’t have that handy, you’ll also be able to calculate the payload by following this formula using the GVWR and curb weight information on a sticker on the inside of the driver’s side door:

GVWR - truck curb weight = payload capacity

What does all that mean? Let’s explain.

What is GVWR?

The gross vehicle weight rating tells you how much your vehicle can safely weigh once it is packed with fuel, junk in your cabin, accessories, passengers and cargo.

GVWR includes:

  • The unladen vehicle weight inclusive of fuel and engine fluids.
  • Driver and passengers’ combined weight.
  • Cargo on the vehicle or in the truck bed.
  • Items inside the cabin.

What is curb weight?

Your vehicle’s curb weight is its weight without cargo, passengers or non–factory installed items other than what came on the truck—including oil, brake fluid and coolant. It’s the weight of the vehicle as it left the factory.

Curb weight includes:

  • The weight of the vehicle.
  • Necessary fuel and fluids for operation.
  • Any factory-installed options or accessories.

If you add larger wheels, off-road tires, roll bars, winches and other accessories, those items increase the vehicle’s curb weight, lowering the amount of payload you can safely carry.

Going back to the calculation, the GVWR of your Chevy Truck might be around 7,000 pounds, and the curb weight is 5,000 pounds. That gives you a theoretical payload capacity of 2,000 pounds.

However, that doesn’t mean you can carry 2,000 pounds of bagged concrete while you and your buddies roll to the mountains to repair that weekend getaway driveway. Why not? The passengers and fuel will weigh about 500 pounds, which drops your additional cargo weight to 1,500 pounds or less depending on your passengers’ weight. This weight is the amount you can safely add and be within the GVWR of your truck.

Payload vs. towing capacity

Payload and towing capacity are different, but they also go hand-in-hand. Towing capacity is not the same as GVWR, nor is it the same as curb weight, but it has something to do with the Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR).

GCWR includes:

  • The unladen vehicle weight.
  • Fuel and other engine fluids as delivered from the factory.
  • Factory-installed options and accessories.
  • The payload, including passengers and cargo.
  • The weight of any trailer plus the load.

You can usually find the GCWR of your truck inside the door frame on the driver’s side.

The vehicle manufacturer performs safety tests during the development of the vehicle before and during government-mandated certifications. Once the tests are completed, the vehicle’s manufacturer sets the GCWR as the safest combined maximum weight of your fully loaded vehicle pulling a loaded trailer. You should never exceed the maximum GCWR while towing.

What happens if I exceed payload capacity?

Today’s trucks are marvels of engineering and can carry more than any truck owner would have dreamed of 10 years ago. However, even though your truck is built to handle the massive weight it’s designed for, it still has a GVWR and GCWR. Exceeding those weight ratings can do long-term damage to your vehicle and may even cause harm to you.

Every component of your vehicle is designed, built and tested to meet the weight ratings. Exceeding the maximum ratings could cause:

  • Loss of vehicle control.
  • Tire failure.
  • Damage to or loss of leaf and coil springs.
  • Frame damage.
  • Brake overheating and failure.
  • Transmission overheating and failure.

Also, suppose you survive an accident in an overloaded vehicle. In that case, you may receive an expensive citation from the police and have your insurance claim denied by your insurance company.

How to maximize your payload capacity

It’s essential to understand that the payload figures on manufacturer websites focus on the best-case situation and often with added equipment, tow packages and even the highest trim of a heavy-duty model. So, your truck would need the required minimum equipment.

You can’t increase your payload rating, but you can make your truck weigh less. For instance, changing from commonly optioned 20- or 22-inch wheels to smaller diameter steel or aluminum wheels will save weight. Removing bumpers, the spare tire and even mirrors will take off the weight and add to the cargo capacity. Anything added by you, such as a winch, hitch or bumper guards will subtract from your payload amount.

Now that you understand payload capacity and vehicle weight ratings, let’s check out some ways to get the most out of what you have.

Never exceed payload capacity

Pickup trucks are built for towing and hauling, but there’s a limit to what they can do. If you pass that limit, your braking, handling and steering will be compromised, and you can seriously damage your truck. You’ll increase the chances of component failure and be at risk of a rollover accident. Almost one-third of all accidents are rollovers. Even if you’ve reduced the vehicle’s weight in order to improve payload capacity, you’re better off playing it safe.

Always prepare

Take some time to prepare before you carry things. You may need to upgrade your bed with some truck racks, a bed liner or rear bars to keep items secure.

Load heavy stuff first

Keep the heaviest part of the load as low and forward in the bed as possible. Be aware that hauling heavy items may throw your truck out of balance. Also, too much weight toward the back of the truck bed will cause your vehicle to handle poorly.

Don’t exceed your bed height

Limit the height of the items in the truck bed. Height and size can change your truck’s center of gravity and affect the ride, handling and braking distance. If you’re going to carry taller items, it’s time to get truck bed stakes to hold your payload safely.

Place items by size

Keep more oversized items toward the bedsides and secure them to the pickup bed rails with straps. Securing your payload prevents it from sliding around and affecting the handling balance of your truck.

Use straps

AAA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety says road debris, including unsecured loads, caused over 200,000 crashes from 2011-2014. Buy a set of heavy-duty 15-foot 1 1/4-inch or wider ratchet straps with a minimum of 1,000-pound load limit/3,000-pound break strength.

Consider state regulations

If you’re hauling oversized cargo, such as lumber, that extends past the bed of the truck, be prepared to attach a brightly colored flag that motorists can easily see. Check state regulations before hauling oversized items.

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At Bumper, we are on a mission to bring vehicle history reports and ownership up to speed with modern times. A vehicle is one of the most expensive purchases you'll likely make, and you deserve to have access to the same tools and information the pros use to make the right decisions.

About Steven Mitchell

Steve’s first car had pedals, and he’s been filled with passion for four wheels ever since. Steve lives and breathes the auto industry as a technologist, futurist, and writer while keeping up with the whys, hows, and plans of the automotive industry. His automotive journey began with a fully restored Triumph TR3b that he sadly never appreciated until decades later. Ownership of X-1/9’s, BMW’s, an SVT and a Dodge Ram Hemi have given way to an Audi Sport.

Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.