RV 101® – Can a Unibody Constructed Vehicle Safely Tow a Travel Trailer?

One of our newsletter readers emailed me with this question: “I recently purchased a 2020 Honda Pilot EXL AWD. We will be adding the towing package with the hitch and automatic transmission fluid (ATF) cooler. The dealer said I could pull 5,000 lbs. I am thinking a camper that is between 3500-4000. What are your thoughts? My vehicle information is listed here: GVWR 5842, GAWR F 2855, GAWR R 3142.

I get asked this sort of question frequently. Some who write to me know their vehicle is unibody construction, and others don’t know anything about the tow vehicle’s construction, but are curious about how much they can actually tow.

Unibody undercarriage

I ran into a similar towing situation with a Toyota Highlander. Crossover vehicles, and SUVs like the Honda Pilot are referred to as unit-body or unibody constructed vehicles. What this means is, there is no frame under the vehicle to support the body. The body and the undercarriage are all welded and riveted together, and that is what supports the entire vehicle. Manufacturers use unibody construction because it is lighter, more fuel efficient and rides better than a body-on-frame constructed vehicle.

Note: It is my understanding the Honda Pilot does have integrated perimeter frame rails to assist with towing.

My truck’s frame

A body-on-frame vehicle is exactly what it says; the vehicle has a rigid metal frame comprised of two long frame rails connected together with steel cross members. This high-strength steel frame supports the entire drive-train (engine, transmission and axles) and the body is attached to the frame. A pickup truck is a good example of a body-on-frame vehicle. These types of vehicles are heavier, less fuel efficient and do not ride as good as a unibody vehicle.

In today’s marketplace consumers want a vehicle that rides good and is fuel efficient, so it’s easy to see why manufacturers build unibody vehicles. Lighter vehicle’s also help the manufacturer meet stringent government imposed fuel economy rules.

With the popularity of unibody vehicles and camping the issue is, can a unibody vehicle safely tow a travel trailer?

The short answer is, unibody constructed vehicles do not make the best tow vehicle, especially if (or when) a weight distribution hitch is required. It is my belief manufacturers of unibody vehicles shy away from discussing the use of a weight distribution hitch on a unibody vehicle.

weight distribution hitch display

For those who don’t know what a weight distribution hitch is, here is a brief overview. A weight distribution hitch or (WDH) uses bars to leverage (or distribute) the tongue weight placed on the hitch ball to the other axles in the towing system. Spreading the tongue weight to the axles on the tow vehicle and the axles on the trailer results in a better and safer towing trailer. For more information: RV 101® GUIDE – TRAILER TOWING MYTHS, WEIGHTS & CONFUSION EXPLAINED

When you place the trailer’s tongue weight on a vehicle with a steel frame, the weight can distribute through the frame rails without issues. A unibody vehicle is not nearly as rigid as a steel frame, so distributing trailer tongue weight on a unibody vehicle can be problematic.

Note: The majority of unibody vehicle manufacturers state unibody vehicles capable of towing do not require a weight distribution hitch for tongue weights of 500 pounds or less.

For example, Honda states the 2020 Honda Pilot can tow 5,000 pounds if it is an All-Wheel-Drive (AWD) model, and you do not need a weight distribution hitch for trailer tongue weights of 500 pounds or less.

Courtesy of Equalizer Hitch

I seriously doubt that. When you put the trailer’s tongue weight on the Honda Pilot’s hitch ball stand back and look at it; if the lowest point in the line is where the weight is sitting on the hitch ball, you most likely need a weight distribution hitch.

With that said, there are ways to make towing with a unibody vehicle safer.

The Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR) for a 2020 Honda Pilot is 9,755 pounds. The GCWR is the maximum amount the fully loaded vehicle and the fully loaded trailer can weigh when combined together. The Curb Weight (CW) or empty vehicle weight of the model in question is 4,287 pounds. When you subtract the 4,287 CW from the 9,755 GCWR you get 5,468 pounds. This usually results in the maximum trailer towing capacity of the vehicle, but Honda determined the max tow rating for this model is 5,000 pounds, not 5,468 pounds.

Here’s what most people don’t consider

When you add people and cargo to the Honda Pilot, it lowers the towing capacity by that same amount of weight. For example, with two 150-pound occupants the tow rating is 5,000 pounds, but with four 150-pound occupants the tow rating drops to 4,500 pounds. The same applies to cargo you put in the vehicle. With four people, and 200 pounds of cargo the tow rating is 4,300 pounds. And so on.

Note: And keep in mind this vehicle can only tow these weights if you add a transmission oil cooler, hitch receiver, brake control and the 7-way plug.

Now we need to consider the travel trailer. Travel trailers have an empty weight, and a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) just like the Honda Pilot does. The GVWR is the most amount of weight you can place on the trailer’s axles before it exceeds a weight rating. Keep in mind, every component on the travel trailer and the Honda Pilot have weight ratings that cannot be exceeded, like the axles, tires and the overall vehicle. 

So, if you find a trailer, for example with an empty weight of 3,500 pounds the GVWR might be 5,000 pounds. That simply means you could load 1,500 pounds in the trailer before exceeding the GVWR (but only if the weight is properly distributed). So, let’s say you only plan to add 500 pounds of cargo and personal belongings. The Pilot, with four people and 200 pounds of cargo can tow 4,300 pounds. If you subtract the loaded trailer weight of 4,000 pounds you only have 300 pounds remaining before you exceed a weight rating.

In my opinion, and depending on how much weight you add to the Honda Pilot and the trailer, I would look for a trailer that has a GVWR of 3,500 pounds or less. Keep in mind this means 3,500 pounds or less when the trailer is fully loaded. Now, if you take the fully loaded trailer weight of 3,500 and subtract it from our example of 4,300 for the Pilot you have 800 pounds to spare. This means the empty weight of the trailer was 3,000 pounds and you added 500 pounds of cargo. The lighter the trailer, the better it is.

All of this only works if the Honda Pilot and the travel trailer are properly set-up to tow. Weight distribution hitches are designed to make it safer when you tow a trailer. Honda says you don’t need one if the tongue weight is less than 500 pounds.

trailer sway

Now, you need to address the possibility of trailer sway. Trailer sway is a side-to-side fishtail movement. When trailer tongue weight is applied to the hitch ball and is not properly distributed sway can occur. Other contributing factors include tires, weight distributing bars, proper hitch adjustments, the trailer and tow vehicle suspension systems, and cargo weight distribution in the trailer. Imagine for a moment what happens when tongue weight is applied to a hitch ball. This added weight generates friction to the tow vehicle’s rear wheels. Too much tongue weight can affect the tow vehicle’s steering and handling, and too little can result in a loss of traction, contributing to trailer sway. For more information: UNDERSTANDING AND CONTROLLING TRAILER SWAY

In addition to the proper hitch components, at a minimum I would have a friction sway control installed prior to towing with the Honda Pilot and no weight distribution hitch.

For more information on properly and safely towing a travel trailer check out our Trailer Towing Basics online video course

Happy Camping,

Mark J. Polk


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3 thoughts on “RV 101® – Can a Unibody Constructed Vehicle Safely Tow a Travel Trailer?

  1. Mark & Dawn,
    As always a great article! Keep up the great work. GG

    George Grengs
    Valterra Products LLC
    15230 San Fernando Mission Blvd. Ste. B107
    Mission Hills, CA 91345
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