The other day, we saw a Ford Escape that had stalled on the road trying to pull a 16’ Bambi Sport.
Our first reaction was, ‘Here we go again. Another guy who’s grossly overestimated the towing capacity of their car’.
To make matters worse, the Airstream was crammed to the brim with stuff. Turns out they were heading to Cibola National Forest for the elk hunt.
And they’d packed in more stuff than what was required. Bows, rifles, generator, food, the trailer was teeming.
We own a 27’ International Serenity and use an F250 Diesel to tow it. That’s because we spend a lot of time on the road, particularly in the mountains and we prefer the extra power due to payload issues. Better to be safe than sorry.
But over the years, we’ve seen a lot of campers end up with a stalled towing truck or car because they miscalculated the towing capacity while towing Airstream trailers.
That begs the question, how much does an Airstream weigh? The average weight of an airstream is between 2,000 and 8,000 lbs:
- Classic 30RB weighs 7,788 lbs
- Globetrotter 23FB weighs 5,297 lbs
- Flying Cloud 23CB weighs 4761 lbs
- Basecamp Standard weighs 2585 lbs
Do people really run the math while selecting a vehicle that can tow their trailer?
Let’s run some numbers.
How much does an Airstream weigh? Understanding The Weight
An Airstream is a quintessential American classic.
The iconic shiny aluminum exterior is a crowd favorite and the trailers are considered to be more aerodynamic, with a lower center of gravity as compared to other brands of trailers.
But over the years, Airstream trailers have gotten heavier. Not just the base weight, mind you.
We are talking about the stuff that people load into their trailers. That has been steadily increasing as well.
So much so, that by the time a trailer is loaded fully, as was the case of the 16’ Bambi we bumped into, it requires a towing set up that’s a far cry from what people typically own.
When it comes to calculating the weight of the trailer, automakers like to throw around a bunch of numbers at you and terminology.
And if you are new to it, it’s enough to bamboozle you.
Let’s start with the most basic of them all.
The Base weight
As we mentioned briefly, the base weight is the weight of the trailer with all the standard equipment that is installed at the assembly line, but without any fluids added to it. So, no freshwater or propane.
Let’s look at the base weight for all the Airstream models.
The Classic 30RB has a base weight of 7,788 lbs.
The Classic 33FB has a base weight of 8,261 lbs.
The Globetrotter 23FB has a base weight of 5,297 lbs.
25FB weighs 6074 lbs. whereas the 27FB weighs 6258 lbs.
The International Serenity 23CB weighs 4761 lbs.
The 27FB weighs 5868 lbs. whereas the 28RB weighs 5979 lbs.
The 30RB weighs 6517 lbs.
The details for the Flying Cloud are as follows:
23CB – 4761 lbs.
25FB – 5503 lbs.
26RB – 5973 lbs.
27RB – 5868 lbs.
28RB – 5979 lbs.
30RB – 6557 lbs.
16RB – 3500 lbs.
19CB – 4000 lbs.
20FB – 4300 lbs.
22FB – 4,200 lbs.
16RB – 3000 lbs.
19CB – 3650 lbs.
20FB – 4000 lbs.
22FB – 3900 lbs.
16FB – 3300 lbs.
Standard – 2585 lbs.
These details are for the standard floor plan mind you. The weight will increase slightly depending on the extras you select or any configurations that you change.
This can also be called the Base curb weight.
A rookie mistake is to select a towing vehicle based purely on these numbers.
The Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW) or Gross Trailer Weight
The Gross Vehicle weight is the total weight of the trailer when it is fully loaded with cargo, fuel, equipment, aftermarket parts and passengers. This includes the hitch weight.
This number is very important because, without this, you would never know whether you are within the weight limits set forth by the manufacturer and, as required by law.
The only way to find this is to drive the trailer on a scale.
GVWR Weight Rating
The GVWR weight rating is the absolute maximum payload that the trailer is rated to carry. This number should not be exceeded at any time.
Let’s look at the GVWR rating for all Airstream models.
30RB = 10000 lbs.
33FB = 10000 lbs.
23FB = 5297 lbs.
25FB = 6074 lbs.
23CB = 6000 lbs.
27FB = 7600 lbs.
28RB = 7600 lbs.
30RB = 8800 lbs.
23CB – 6,000 lbs.
25FB – 7300 lbs.
26RB – 7600 lbs.
27RB – 7600 lbs.
28RB – 7600 lbs.
30RB – 8800 lbs.
16RB – 4300 lbs.
19CB – 5000 lbs.
20FB – 5000 lbs.
22FB – 5000 lbs.
16RB – 3500 lbs.
19CB – 5000 lbs.
20FB – 5000 lbs.
22FB – 5000 lbs.
16FB – 4000 lbs.
Standard – 3500 lbs.
The GVWR may also be mentioned as the Maximum Loaded Trailer Weight.
The Hitch Weight
The Hitch weight or the Tongue weight is the pressure that the trailer exerts on the hitch/tow ball.
It is one of the most crucial numbers that you must be aware of. Because if you get this wrong it would be akin to driving a car with egg-shaped tires.
We didn’t come up with that. GMC did. You can read that article over here. (https://www.gmc.com/gmc-life/trucks/why-tongue-weight-is-important-for-safe-towing)
Imagine driving your vehicle with egg-shaped tires. Not only would it be incredibly difficult to control, but you would also endanger the lives of everyone in the car and on the road.
That’s what driving with an improper hitch weight does as well.
The rule of thumb is that the hitch weight must be within 10-15% of your gross trailer weight (GTW).
Anything below 10% and the weight distribution will be uneven. The trailer will tilt upwards from the nose and will fishtail when you drive fast.
The sway (side-to-side movement) can be very risky. If you experience this when you are towing, slow down. Do not hit the brakes right away. Once the sway has reduced, pull over and recheck the tongue weight.
If the tongue weight is above 15%, the trailer will start to tilt upwards from the rear. This will amplify the pressure on the rear tires of the towing vehicle and it starts to sway around as well.
Once again, this is very difficult to control and a potentially dangerous scenario.
Getting the tongue weight right on the other hand will distribute trailer weight evenly. There will be a balanced, straight line from the back of the towing vehicle to the back of the trailer. The coupler will be level.
Always buy a hitch that has a slightly larger tongue weight than that of the trailer that you will be towing. This gives you some leeway and keeps you safer.
The Fresh Water Tank
The Fresh Water tank is an often underestimated statistic that can play an important role in determining the final gross weight of the trailer.
It will also determine the amount of cargo that you can load and carry in the trailer. (Subtract this from the carrying capacity)
For example, the Bambi 22FB has a 27-gallon fresh water tank. One gallon of fresh water roughly weighs 8.34 lbs. So, if you fill the tank to capacity, you will be adding 225.18 lbs. to the curb weight.
The Gross Combined Vehicle Weight Rating (GCVWR)
The GCVWR is the maximum weight of a fully loaded towing vehicle and the attached trailer.
This is calculated by the manufacturer. However, just like all the other ratings put out by the manufacturers, this can be misleading.
Let’s say that your pickup truck has a GCVWR rating of 15,000 lbs. and it has a curb or base weight of 7000 lbs.
Ideally, it should be able to handle 8000 lbs. of cargo and trailer weight with ease.
So, if you have an International Serenity 23CB that weighs 6517 lbs., the manufacturer tells you that you have plenty of truck for the haul.
But if you run the math, the numbers don’t add up.
The Serenity has a 39-gallon fresh water tank. That’s another 329 lbs. Add two propane tanks to that. And that’s roughly 140 lbs. more. You are inching closer to 7000 lbs.
Now add the tongue weight to it. The Serenity has a hitch that weighs 664 lbs. With the propane tank, that will be bumped up by 150 lbs. at least. That’s 810 lbs.
That’s precariously close to that max 8000 lbs. capacity with very little wiggle room.
Most automakers list tow ratings based on the weight of two passengers weighing an average of 150 lbs. each. This and one full tank of fuel.
So, if you have a family trip with six passengers and cargo, you are way past the limit.
And you will notice that the vehicle will start to sway under the weight of the trailer the moment you accelerate. This is often called as ‘The tail wagging the dog’.
Ideally, there must be at least 15% difference between the towing capacity and the maximum trailer weight.
In the case of the above-mentioned example, that’s 6800 lbs. making the truck clearly ill-equipped to tow the 27’ trailer.
Popular Airstream trailers and some vehicles that can tow them
All said and done, let’s take a look at some of the popular Airstream trailers and the vehicles that are capable of towing them through all kinds of terrain, with fully loaded cargo.
#1 – Airstream Classic 30
The Classic 30 is one of the bestselling models from the company’s line up and is synonymous with Airstream in general.
Think Airstream and the first picture that comes to your mind is likely to be that of a classic.
Despite having a design that has largely remained unchanged over the years, the silver-bullet still continues to outsell a lot of its newer and cheaper competition.
Well, you can’t really compete with legends and the Classic 30 has attained cult status among the RV community.
If you own one of these already or are looking to buy one of these soon, here are some of the important details that you must know.
Hitch Weight (with LP and Batteries): 886 lbs.
Unit Base Weight (with LP and Batteries): 7,788 lbs.
Maximum Trailer Capacity (GVWR): 10,000 lbs.
Net Carrying Capacity: 2,212 lbs.
Fresh Water Tank: 54 lbs.
Gray Water Tank: 37 lbs.
Black Water Tank: 39 lbs.
Ideal Vehicle configuration to tow a Classic 30’: There are a lot of variables that can affect the right towing vehicle for a classic 30’. But the simplest of rules that can help you narrow down on a few options are the Maximum Towing Capacity and the GVWR which we already discussed earlier.
As long as the Max Tow Capacity is at least 10% (Better if it’s 15%) more than the GVWR, you are within the operating envelope of the vehicle.
The classic 30’ has a GVWR of 10000 lbs. Ideally, you need something that can haul 11,000 lbs. or more.
The first ones that come to our mind are the Ford F-250 Super Duty or Chevrolet Silverado 2500. Both are ¾ ton pickups and can haul an airplane if need be.
So can the Infinity QX80 and the RAM 2500 Power Wagon. Go Diesel if you have the bankroll. It’s a personal decision more than anything. But if you spend a lot of time on the road, Diesel will be the better option.
Despite what you might have heard or read, a ½ ton truck or an SUV won’t be the best of choices to tow a 30’ trailer.
#2 – Airstream Caravel
The ongoing appeal of the Airstream Caravel can be gauged with a cursory glance at the used-trailer marketplace. This compact Airstream is in high demand despite being discontinued a few decades ago.
It’s no wonder then that Airstream reintroduced it this year.
The Caravel is the Bambi’s bigger, meatier sibling with apartment-style furnishing.
It can sleep four and comes with a bunch of upgrades that make it a practical choice for someone who seeks a mobile home with a small footprint. But one that doesn’t compromise on luxury.
The Caravel’s curb appeal is unbeatable. It’s easy to maneuver and can be towed with a crossover SUV or even some sedans.
If you are fancying the new 2020 Caravel, then here’s a quick glance at some of the numbers.
Unit Base Weight (with LP & Batteries): 3500 lbs.
Hitch Weight (with LP & Batteries): 490 lbs.
Maximum Trailer Capacity (GVWR): 4300 lbs.
Net Carrying Capacity: 800 lbs.
Fresh Water Tank: 23 gallons
Ideal Vehicle configuration to tow an Airstream Caravel: With a base weight of just 3500 lbs. the Caravel is one of the lightest Airstreams around.
And the sub-5000 lbs. GVWR really opens up a lot of options for potential buyers.
If you own one of the old uni-body cars or trucks, then you don’t even need to consider new options. But the ride wouldn’t be too forgiving.
For buyers looking for new towing vehicles, there’s the Jeep Grand Cherokee which can easily haul up to 7200 lbs., the Nissan Pathfinder can do 6000 lbs. without breaking a sweat. Why, even the Toyota 4Runner can do 5000 lbs.
If you are looking for something smaller, there’s the Honda Pilot, the Chevy Avalanche or any sedan from Nissan, BMW, Volvo, Mustand and Subaru to name a few.
#3 – Airstream Bambi 16’
As part of its revival spree following its resurrection after the recession, Airstream has reintroduced the diminutive, single-axle trailer that was nicknamed ‘Bambi’ for years.
Now, it is officially named so and comes in four sizes. The smallest of them is the 16’ RB and while it’s not the cheapest Airstream, it is by far the cheapest one that retains the unmistakable silver-bullet exterior that the trailers are synonymous with.
So, if you are looking to get a slice of the airstream trailer without breaking the bank, the Bambi is your best bet.
Despite the compact form factor, the Bambi puts every square inch of space into good use. It can sleep four, has a fully loaded galley kitchen, a shower and a toilet in tastefully decorated colors and finishes.
Goes without saying that the Bambi can take you to most places where a full-sized 30’ classic can’t.
And the icing on the cake? It is extremely easy to tow.
Here are the details for the Bambi.
Unit Base Weight (with LP & Batteries): 3000 lbs.
Hitch Weight (with LP & Batteries): 430 lbs.
Maximum Trailer Capacity (GVWR): 3500 lbs.
Net Carrying Capacity: 500 lbs.
Fresh Water Tank: 23 lbs.
Ideal towing vehicle configuration for the Bambi 16’:
Tipping the scales at just over 3500 lbs., the Bambi is among the lightest Airstreams that you can own. And there are some great options when it comes to towing the petite trailer.
The Jeep Cherokee can do 4500 lbs., So can the Audi Q5.
There are many cars like the Chevorlet Equinox, the Mercedes Benz GLK-250 and the Ford Escape which can do 3500 lbs.
But it would leave you with very little leeway if you have the trailer loaded to capacity with cargo.
Personally, we recommend a car with a max two rating of 4500 lbs. at least.
Things to consider before selecting a towing vehicle for an airstream trailer
With all the numbers to parse and variables to consider, it is no wonder that newbie campers often find themselves at wit’s end trying to figure out whether their vehicle is sufficient to tow their trailers.
If you are at that juncture, then here are a few more pointers that will help you make an informed decision.
The Towing Package
Your vehicle will come with a towing package. But many a time, it may not be the best option for your trailer.
On other occasions, it may not be in the best of shape.
Either way, being aware of what constitutes a good towing package will make things easier for you if you ever need an aftermarket one.
The Hitch: The Hitch nowadays is used as a catchall phrase to describe the three components that are needed to tow a trailer. So, your SUV or truck may have a hitch installed on it. But don’t be surprised when the mechanic tells you that you need to buy a better hitch. He may mean one of the components that we will discuss below.
Receiver: One of these parts is a hitch receiver, which can either be mounted on the vehicle’s bumper or welded to the vehicle’s frame.
A bumper-mounted hitch might suffice for lightweight trailers used to tow small boats and PWCs. An airstream will uproot it off the frame. So you need one that’s welded to the frame.
The receiver will have a square socket made of stainless steel, that can vary in size. The bigger it is; the more weight it can tow.
The steel used to make this frame will range from Class I to Class V.
For airstream trailers, look for a frame with Class 3 steel at least.
Ball Mount: The Hitch Ball mount is a mechanism that fits into the receiver and is locked into place using a hitch pin. The Ball mount is what distributes the weight of the trailer evenly.
There are different types of ball mounts. The simple ones are nothing but a shaft.
For an airstream, you need a weight distributing hitch or a sway-control hitch which have mechanisms that help control the trailers sway and curb unnecessary movement.
Hitch Ball: The last component is a hitch ball which fits and locks into the coupler. The coupler, in turn, attaches to the tongue of the trailer.
The coupler and tongue are part of the trailer and not the hitch.
The weight distributed hitch
Airstream highly recommends a weight distributed hitch for towing all its trailers. In fact, it is required by law in many parts of the world if you are towing a trailer that weighs more than 2000 lbs.
A weight distributed hitch helps maintain a level plain between the trailer and the towing vehicle at all times.
Without this, the trailer will fishtail, affecting control and braking of the towing vehicle.
Sway is when the trailer moves from side to side even on straight roads. This can occur due to numerous reasons. The commonest of them is crosswind coming from the sides due to passing vehicles or due to wind conditions.
Sway control hitches feature extra struts that are attached to steel springs designed to control tension. These increase the horizontal resistance on the tension bars thereby controlling sway.
Aftermarket sway control bars can be added to just about any weight distributing hitch these days.
Types of Towing Vehicles
There are three categories of vehicles that can be used to tow an airstream. There are trucks, Vans and SUVS.
Trucks: As it would be evident by now, these are the gold standard for towing trailers and have the maximum towing capacity of the three. So if you are looking at a trailer that is more than 30’, you need a truck to tow it. The advantages of a truck go beyond pulling a heavy load. Most modern trucks come with 4WD and can be terrific off-roading vehicles when you aren’t camping. You might hear the word ½ ton and ¾ ton thrown around while describing pickups. You’d be happy to know that most trucks these days average a ton and more and can easily tow a fully-loaded 30-footer.
SUVs: Most airstream models, except for the largest ones can be towed with the right SUVs. SUVs are a comfortable middle-ground as they are typically built on the same chassis as trucks but offer the best of comforts. So, you have climate control, TV screens and other modern paraphernalia with a beefy frame and sufficient max tow rating. However, there’s a catch. You can very easily overstuff the SUV with cargo and overload the payload. Also, these are the most expensive options.
Vans: Vans are probably the last choice for a towing vehicle for most people. But if you look at their max tow ratings, you’d be surprised. Most large vans can easily tow a 30’ trailer. Medium-sized ones can haul most Airstreams. An advantage is that these have capacious cabins which offer sufficient room for cargo and a large family. Why you can even park your RV at a camp and go off-road in the van. Head up to some remote camping locations where the RV can’t go. Vans aren’t as expensive as SUVs. You might have to compromise on some of the luxury additions though.
Diesel vs. Gas
The Diesel vs. Gas debate will rage on forever. There’s enough literature about this on the internet already. So we don’t have much to say about this.
It’s subjective. There are campers who love diesel and there are gassers who diss it at every given opportunity.
Diesel will give you more pulling power as well as increase the longevity of your engine. The caveat is that it costs more to maintain in prime condition. Also, not every gas station on the route may stock it.
Gas is well, gas.
Pick what works for you.
That’s it, folks. We hope that you enjoyed the read.
Got questions or suggestions? Give us a holler in the comments box.