How Does Pulling a Camper Affect Gas Mileage | 5 Key Factors


Whether you are deciding which type of vehicle to buy to pull an RV or are just budgeting a long trip, knowing the gas mileage based on weight is a common question. Luckily, there is a good rule of thumb method you can use to get an approximation.

On average, your vehicle should lose about seven miles to a gallon when towing a camper. However, this number can be smaller or larger, depending primarily on the camper’s weight, followed by aerodynamics and size. Also, regular maintenance is essential to maximize the efficiency of the vehicle.

The rest of this article will provide you with answers to questions like: what’s the effect of pulling a trailer on gas mileage, how can I improve my gas mileage when I’m towing a trailer, and which trucks get the best gas mileage while towing.

The Effect of Pulling a Trailer on Gas Mileage – 5 Factors

The effect towing has on gas mileage is an excellent example of Newton’s second law – force is mass times acceleration. Most of this concept is common sense.

If your mass is larger, you’ll need more force to achieve the same acceleration you’d achieve if your mass were smaller. In other words, weight is everything when it comes to this.

Other elements like aerodynamics, size, quality of the trailer, and your driving skills are definitely going to play a part. Still, the weight of the trailer is the most critical factor.

1. Weight- The Most Important Factor

It doesn’t matter what mileage your car is rated to get; you’ll certainly see it drop. This is directly related to the weight you’re carrying – the more weight you’re carrying (or dragging), the more mileage you lose.

If you’re dragging a heavy trailer that’s filled to the brim with luggage, you’ll see that you’re losing a lot of mileage (we can’t talk exact numbers because those numbers depend on three things: the speed you’re driving at, the weight of the vehicle, and the weight of the trailer). However, if you’re dragging a light trailer that’s empty, you’ll be losing much less mileage.

2. Trailer Quality

Another important factor that will undoubtedly affect your mileage is the quality of your trailer. There are hundreds of reasons why your trailer might be slowing your vehicle down (aside from the weight, obviously). If your trailer isn’t performing on an optimal level, it’s definitely going to slow your car down more than with the weight itself.

Imagine that one of the wheels on your trailer is wobbly (if it is, you shouldn’t even get on the road) or that the suspension is somehow weighing down on the trailer – these things will add even more resistance to your driving. 

Try thinking about it like this: if you’re having any mechanical issues with your trailer, that’s the same as adding more weight to it. It will drag your vehicle even more.

3. Considering Drag

Drag, while we’re at it, is another factor that will definitely affect your mileage. This is basically the effect of wind pulling on the vehicle and on what the vehicle’s towing. You’ll be facing more drag if you’re towing a trailer because having a trailer behind your car adds more surface area, which can be affected by the wind. This forces the engine to work harder to keep speed or acceleration, which, in return, uses up more fuel.

Aerodynamics play a huge part in this particular play. If your vehicle and your trailer are more aerodynamic, they’re allowing the wind to pass with minimum drag. Even though many people don’t seem to think much of it, having an aerodynamic body can affect the force needed to pull the vehicle forward tremendously, which will affect gas consumption tremendously.

4. Engine Size

If you have a larger engine, your trailer will have less of an effect on gas consumption, while having a smaller engine will negatively affect your gas consumption.

If you’re driving a truck that gets 15 miles to a gallon, you won’t be facing too much of a change if you’re pulling a small camper. However, if you’re driving an Impala and you’re hauling a trailer, you’re going to see a substantial adverse change in your consumption.

5. Vehicle Size

Lastly, the size of your vehicle is going to affect your gas mileage. If your vehicle is smaller than the trailer you’re towing (which it likely is if you’re driving a car), more drag is going to collect. It’s unlikely that your trailer is in any way fully covered by the size of your vehicle, but if your vehicle’s larger, less drag is going to affect the trailer. Your vehicle is basically covering for the trailer, which is a great thing. However, it’s likely that you’re not driving a van or a truck, so your towed vehicle is going to be affected.

Just remember that your vehicle should be as large as possible in this scenario and cover your trailer as much as possible. 

How Can I Improve My Travel Trailer Towing Gas Mileage?

First, let’s think about weight. We have already established that this is the most important part of a towed vehicle.

When you’re purchasing your trailer, don’t automatically buy one that will add unnecessary weight to your driving system. There are many trailers out there that are heavy for a reason, some have sturdier suspension, or in general, pack more equipment. You need to think about whether you actually need all that. Don’t spend money on a trailer that’s just going to waste money when it comes to fuel, and always try to buy the lightest trailer you can.

Only Bring What You Need

When it comes to weight, make sure that you’re not carrying anything unnecessary. It’d be unwise to overpack (either your vehicle or your trailer) with things you don’t need, as they’ll only slow you down.

Your fuel efficiency decreases by 2 percent for every 45 kilograms of added weight. Car manufacturers calculate fuel efficiency with about 300 pounds (136 KG) of weight in the car – passengers and luggage included. That’s insanely unrealistic as that doesn’t account for two grown people, let alone a child or luggage. Keep this in mind when you’re purchasing your car, as this is a little trick that manufacturers use.

Don’t Forget Fuel Type

Another thing you should keep in mind is the sort of fuel you’re using. Diesel is much better than gas if you’re towing. Even though diesel is slightly more expensive than gas, it’s actually more efficient for pulling.

Diesel engines usually get 12 to 15 percent more power out of a gallon of fuel. This makes them more efficient than gas engines, and depending on how much and how far you’ll be towing, it might make them a better option. They also have more pulling power, which makes them better suited for towing.

Choose the Path of Least Resistance

It’s also essential to plan your trip well. The worst thing that can happen to you is to get stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Ensure that the roads you’ll be driving on will be relatively clear and that you can move freely. Wasting fuel on stagnant movement is going to cost you a lot of money. Avoid traffic and stick to straight roads.

Make sure that you’ve adapted your way of driving to the towing. This is especially important – you should practice slow acceleration and early braking. If you’re braking suddenly, you’re basically throwing fuel away, and accelerating quickly will insert more fuel into the engine, which will spend more.

If possible, avoid windy days. Drag will occur even if there’s no wind. After all, you’re moving through the air, and that air has to move out of the way for you to pass through, and it will create resistance. However, if it’s windy, that resistance will only be stronger, and that will definitely slow you down. It’s also dangerous to drag a trailer if it’s windy, as you can easily get knocked over.

Don’t Forget the “Little” Things

Increase tire pressure – even though it will have no effect on your vehicle, increasing tire pressure by 5 to 10 PSI will dramatically affect your fuel consumption. Don’t overdo this, though, as you’ll lose handling and grip on the road.

Lastly, we recommend installing a wind deflector. It’s a simple piece of equipment, but it will decrease drag that’s affecting your trailer. They deflect the wind and push it above the trailer.

Which Trucks Get the Best Gas Mileage While Towing?

It’s important to choose the right vehicle when you’re deciding to tow something. Here’s a list of a few trucks that definitely deserve to get some attention. Obviously, the newer vehicles have better gas efficiency but can also cost a pretty penny. Something 3-5 years old with less than 75,000 miles will save you a ton of money and do the job nicely.

Chevy Silverado

This truck uses a diesel engine, as we’ve already explained why this is important, and it’s actually showing numbers that not even mid-sized limousines can match. It gets 23 miles to a gallon in the city, 33 miles to a gallon on the highway, which averages 27 (while towing). This truck is also huge, so you’ll surely have a lot of room in it. The engine in this truck produces a stunning 277 horsepower, and it can tow up to 7,600 pounds in double cab and crew cab models with rear-wheel drive.

Dodge Ram 1500

It also runs on a diesel-powered engine, and it’s so incredibly close to the Silverado. In fact – the difference is only found in a single digit. It gets 22 miles to a gallon in the city, 32 miles to a gallon on the highway, which averages on 26 while towing. Incredibly, these two trucks are very close to the same thing, mileage-wise. However, its towing capabilities are much more developed than with its Chevrolet counterpart. It can tow up to 12,560 pounds with similar equipment – that’s actually 65% more than the Silverado. 

GMC Sierra

The Sierra takes the third spot on the list. This truck doesn’t use diesel as fuel, but gas. It peaks at 17 miles to a gallon in the city, 23 miles to a gallon on the highway, which averages on 19 while towing. It uses a new cylinder-deactivation technology known as Dynamic Fuel Management – that’s where it gets its extra miles per gallon. It actually produces more horsepower than either of the previous two – topping out at 355 horsepower, which amounts to a towing maximum of 11,300 pounds for the Sierra. 

When you’re choosing a camper and a vehicle for towing, always keep in mind the important advice we’ve given you. Weight has a massive effect on your efficiency and mileage, and you should always try to follow the guidelines from this article.

Pro Tip: I avoid buying used vehicles that already have a tow hitch installed. This is actually a trick my dad taught me when I bought my first truck. A pre-owned vehicle with a tow hitch could have spent thousands of miles pulling something heavy up and down mountains and thus have a more worn-out engine than a vehicle without a hitch. It’s much better to buy a truck without a hitch and then have an aftermarket one installed yourself.

Final Thoughts

If you’re going on an extended trip, you must have thought about purchasing a camper. These trailers are incredible as you can simply pull them behind your vehicle and have a home that’s following you everywhere you go. This is an excellent solution for accommodation, as you don’t have to worry about paying for hotels or motels. It also allows you to have a place where you can cook and eat, as well. However, running an RV will burden your car with more weight, which is going to reflect on the amount of money you spend on gas.

I hope this article has given you the answers you need in planning your trip or deciding on a vehicle.

For more, don’t miss An SUV vs a Sedan for Long Drives | Pros and Cons.

Jim James

Hey, I'm Jim and the author of this website. I have always been interested in survival, fishing, camping, and anything in nature. In fact, while growing up I spent more time on the water than on land! I am also a best-selling author and have a degree in History, Anthropology, and Music. I hope you find value in the articles on this website. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or input!

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