Understanding GVWR & Payload for a Safe Overland Adventure

fully equipped toyota tacoma overland vehicles from backwoods adventure mods
Photo courtesy of Backwoods Adventure Mods.

As you’re envisioning your ultimate overland vehicle, you’re probably thinking high-clearance bumpers, a winch, rooftop tent, light bar and fog lights, and jerry cans for water and fuel.

The problem is, those things add up to a lot of weight, and by the time you add yourself and a co-pilot, you’re probably very close to most trucks’ and SUVs’ maximum payload capacity. But you still need recovery gear, food, water, clothes, etc.

In this guide, I’ll explain GVWR and payload, show examples of what common overland and offroad upgrades, accessories, and gear weighs, and list common vehicles’ payload capacities to give you a sense of where and how you should upgrade your vehicle for safe but capable overland travel.

What’s the difference between GVWR & Payload Capacity?

Your GVWR is the maximum safe weight that your vehicle can handle with everything in it – passengers, cargo, accessories, equipment, and anything else that didn’t come on it from the factory.

Maximum payload is listed on your door sticker and represents the amount of “stuff” you can put in or on your vehicle. That “max payload” rating is the difference between what your vehicle weighed coming out of the factory and the GVWR.

GVWR – Payload Capacity = Your Vehicle’s Factory “Curb Weight”

Note that I’m saying “from the factory”. The payload capacity listed on your vehicle is for your specific vehicle, with all factory installed options and a full tank of gas. If you had dealer-installed features added or made any modifications after purchase, then that number is no longer accurate. Some dealers will install a second, yellow sticker that discloses how much your payload has decreased based on things they’ve added or modified (mud flaps, all-weather floor mats).

Which is more important – Payload or GVWR?

A vehicle’s max payload capacity is the most important number when evaluating a new vehicle to buy and build into an overland vehicle. The larger the payload capacity, the more freedom you’ll have to build it out.

Your own vehicle’s GVWR is the most important number if you’re working with what you already have, just be sure to stay well under it so you have “room” for passengers.

What are typical overland vehicle payload capacities?

Here are 11 of the most popular overland vehicles and their payload capacities for 2018 models (unless otherwise noted):

Toyota Tacoma TRD Sport Double Cab5,600 lbs1,555-1,540 lbs
Toyota Forerunner TRD Pro6,300 lbs880-1,550 lbs
Toyota Tundra TRD7,200 lbs1,440-1,730 lbs
Toyota Land Cruiser7,385 lbs1,570 lbs
Toyota FJ Cruiser5,570 lbs1,285 lbs
Jeep Wrangler Unlimited 4-door5,400-5,700 lbs930-1,361 lbs
Jeep Gladiator Rubicon5,800-6,250 lbs1,080-1200 lbs
Jeep Cherokee (1995)4,550-4,900 lbs1,150 lbs
Dodge RAM Power Wagon8,510 lbs1,466 lbs
Chevy Colorado5,400-6,100 lbs1,242-1,576 lbs
Ford Ranger Double Cab (2019)6,050 lbs1,560-1,860 lbs
Ford Bronco 4-Door (2021)6,180 lbs1,161 lbs
Ford Transit Trail (2023)9,500 lbs3,406-3,703 lbs

Note that the payload capacity is listed as a range because it differs based on the vehicle’s options. 4WD drivetrains and crew cabs add a lot of weight, so they reduce payload capacity. That said, sometimes (not always!) the 4WD and crew cab models have higher GVWR ratings than 2WD and standard cab models, hence the range in GVWR figures.

Unfortunately, higher trim levels usually add more bells and whistles, leather seating, and creature comforts, all of which add weight. Thus, premium models usually have the lowest payload capacity.

But what about…

Yes, there are a LOT of popular vehicles and model years not listed here, this chart is only to show a general range as an example. Some additional fun facts:

  • The 2024 Toyota Tacoma Double Cab TRD Off-Road has a ~5,800 GVWR and an impressive 1,709 lb payload capacity.
  • If you’re not getting crazy with the off-roading, the Transit Trail has twice the payload of anything else here! I have a lightly modified RWD Transit and it’s impressively capable.
  • The Jeep Gladiator Sport/Willys/Freedom/Overland models have a lower 5,800lb GVWR and lower 1,080lb payload.
  • The Jeep Gladiator Mojave’s GVWR is 6,140lb, and Rubicon’s is 6,250lb, so get the Rubicon if you can. Both of these have a 1,200lb payload capacity.

How much does a full overland setup weigh?

While everyone’s build will differ, there is a basic set of equipment we envision for our dream builds. That equipment includes both accessories you add to your car and the gear you put inside, and it all weighs something!

Here’s the list with average weights to give you an idea of what things weigh. Where items are vehicle-specific, like bumpers and racks, I chose items for a 2018 Toyota Tacoma double-cab, which is a popular overland vehicle.

Front Bumper w/ Winch Mount*80 – 185
Rear Bumper**65 – 140
Rear Bumper Swingaway Panels (for mounting accessories)40 / side
Rock Sliders (with step)90
Roof Rack w/ rails (Prinsu CabRack)45
Truck Bed Rack (Kuat Ibex)85
Bike Rack (Hitch mounted, Thule T2 Pro X, 2-bike)49
Awning (Yakima Slim Shady 8′)34
Rooftop Tent (Roofnest Falcon Pro)180
Matching Spare Tire (and rim)85
40″ Light Bar (roof mounted, w/ wiring harness)10
Front Skid Plate (Aluminum / Steel)29 / 61
GMRS Radio w/ External Antenna (Midland MTX275)3
Electric Cooler Fridge (Dometic CFX3 75D)61
Portable Toilet13
Winch (12k, synthetic cable)73
Recovery Kit (Gloves, Straps, Shackle, Hitch Shackle Mount)12
Snatch Block6
Tree Saver3
Traction Boards (x2)15
High Lift Jack (Hi-Lift 48″ Cast & Steel)30
Tool Kit15
First Aid Kit3

* Front Bumpers: I added a range of weights here because they vary so much depending on the material (some are alloy, steel, or a mix of both), and some have bull bars, and some don’t.
** Rear Bumpers: Weights range a lot here, too, based on features and coverage. Swingaway accessory mounts (for spare tires, jerry cans, etc.) are listed separately.
† For the rest of the items, they’re more similar, and the numbers of averages of several popular options. Not many brands publish weights, but you should reach out and ask before buying.

What does it all add up to?

Let’s say you go big and completely outfit your rig with everything on the list. Here’s the totals:

  • Exterior bumpers, racks & tent: 938 lbs
  • Interior gear: 77 lbs
  • Recovery & Safety: 160 lbs
  • TOTAL: 1,175 lbs

(NOTE: For bumpers & skid plate, I split the difference between high and low)

That’s close to some of the vehicle’s total capacity, which means it’s not realistic to think you can outfit your vehicle with eeeeeeverything.

But wait, there’s more…

kuat truck bed rack for overland vehicles

Things like MOLLE panels, grab handles, steps, cross bars, mounts for a jack, shovel, traction boards, jerry cans, etc., all add up, to probably another 10-30 pounds. And if you’re putting bikes on that rack, that’s another 20 to 100 pounds.

This doesn’t add up.

Remember that some items, like bumpers, are often replacing stock items, so the total weight gain will be less than the new product’s actual weight. When possible, weigh the parts that you’re removing to determine the net gain.

What about wheels and tires?

offroad all terrain tire on vandoit camper van

I didn’t include them in the chart because they’re unsprung weight, meaning, they’re not directly adding weight to the parts of the vehicle that are resting on the frame and compressing the suspension. So, and this is NOT advice or permission, my personal belief is that they shouldn’t count as much toward your GVWR, but that’s not what the law says.

BUUUUT, their weight still matters. A typical 35″ diameter tire (12″ width for 16″ rims, Load E rating) can weigh anywhere from 69 to 75 pounds. That’s a lot more rotational mass that takes more effort to accelerate, so gas mileage will suffer and they put more strain on your drivetrain. They also take more braking force to stop, so be sure to allow more space between you and the car in front of you, start braking earlier, and check your brake pads more often. Ideally, upgrade your brakes, too.

And your spare tire does count because it’s mounted somewhere on your vehicle!

Don’t forget about passenger weight!

Remember, passengers count as payload, so if you have a co-pilot and you both average 170lbs, that’s 340lbs less gear and accessories you can have.

And water & fuel & food!

Water is ~8lbs per gallon. Gasoline is ~6lbs per gallon. You should bring 1 gallon of water per person, per day. For two people on three day trip, that’s 6 gallons = 48lbs. If that sounds like a lot, keep in mind you’ll probably use it for coffee, and other stuff, too. But you might want a separate supply for washing dishes, showering, etc.

If you’re going remote, you should probably bring fuel, too. A 20L Jerrycan of fuel weighs 33lbs when full (21 lbs fuel + 12 lbs Jerrycan). So, a good supply of water and fuel gets close to 100 lbs…You can see how this starts to add up!

And then there’s food, plus the storage containers it’s going in. Cheap plastic bins are lighter than the more durable cases from ROAM or Pelican, which can weigh up to 30lbs each! But those bins will keep your food (and gear) safe and dry, and they’ll last for decades, so there’s a tradeoff between durability (and reducing landfill waste!) and weight.

How & where can I weigh my vehicle?

CAT Scales has hundreds of locations throughout the US, and they’re open to any type of vehicle. Use their CAT Scale Locator to find one near you, and check their tutorial for how to position your vehicle on their scales so you know how to drive on them when you get there.

I recommend topping off your fuel tank first and have only yourself in the vehicle for the weigh-in. Ideally, have it packed for a trip so you know what your true rolling weight is for an average outing. Before you roll onto the scale, let the clerk know you want to weigh in and they’ll give you location-specific instructions. Typically, you weigh the vehicle, then park and go in to pay and get your results.

Frequently Asked Questions about GVWR & Payload Capacity

What happens if I go over my GVWR?

broken RAM 3500 with bent bed frame from overloading it with full size camper
An overloaded camper broke a RAM 3500 dually (Photo/Source: TheDrive)

Vehicles are engineered to handle a certain weight safely, and when you go over it, lots of things become stressed. Three things are negatively affected by being overweight: Durability, Performance, and Safety:

You risk premature wear to bearings, hinges, pivots, mounts, suspension, ball joints, and other load-baring parts.

Your suspension is designed to support the maximum weight. Even when you’re getting close to your GVWR, you’re prematurely compressing the suspension, so you’re losing travel and ride height (aka “ground clearance”). Over do it and your shocks aren’t soaking up bumps like they should, and your gas mileage, acceleration, and braking will suffer, too.

From a safety standpoint, it means things are more likely to break. Things like suspension, axles, and wheel bearings that can cause catastrophic failure and dangerous accidents, especially if you’re driving on technical terrain that has you bouncing around a lot. If you really over do it, your frame can even bend and break. It also means your brakes may not be adequate, or at least less able to slow you down as quickly as they should.

Is it illegal to drive my vehicle if it’s over its GVWR?

Yes. It’s a Federal law, and every state has its own versions of it that define the penalties, which can range from fines to impoundment or worse. Some states can even amplify charges in the case of vehicular manslaughter for aggravating factors. Typically this would be Driving Under the Influence or similar infractions, but it’s not a stretch to imagine increased charges if it’s proven that you knowingly operated an overweight vehicle and that its weight caused or made worse an accident that resulted in a death.

What’s the best way to reduce my vehicle’s weight?

a custom sprinter camper van with offroad tires
A full size spare means you can remove the stock spare under the vehicle.

Presumably you mean “how do I drop weight without degrading its performance or capability?” There are some low hanging fruit, for sure, and some simple things you can check and adjust before each trip:

Ditch the spare
If you’ve upgraded your wheels and tires and have a full-size spare, then you can remove the stock spare tire that came with your vehicle. You don’t need both, and that’ll save 70-80 lbs.

Carry only what you need for the particular trip. If it’s a short trip, you don’t need to fill up huge water tanks or bring a ton of food. Wool underwear, socks, and T-shirts can go for days without stinking and they dry fast when you need to wash them.

Think seasonally
If it’s mid-summer, a lightweight set of sheets might be all you need. Blankets can get heavy unless you go with lightweight puffy ones like Rumpl or Voited.

Share the load
Rolling in a caravan? Share the load, letting some folks bring the tools, others recovery equipment, etc. Just make sure there’s a little redundancy built in, and that everything will remain accessible to anyone no matter how stuck someone’s vehicle gets…you don’t want the gear trapped inside the vehicle that needs to be rescued!

Choose components wisely
Many offroad parts are available in aluminum and steel, and you should choose lighter aluminum when possible. There are a few things, like winch mounts and recovery points that you definitely want in steel, but much of the rest can be aluminum, which has the added benefit of not rusting or corroding (Backwoods Adventure Mods makes lightweight hybrid alloy-over-steel bumpers for various vehicles).

Backwoods Adventure Mods’ Hi-Lite Hybrid Bumpers.

Bumpers are up to you, but mostly we’d recommend aluminum if you can afford it, even for skid plates unless you’re absolutely going to be smashing into things on purpose. Rock rails, however, should be steel.

Lighter weight parts usually cost more, adding up dollars quickly. But but the weight savings can add up quickly, too. Think about how you’re really going to be using your vehicle and then sleep on major purchases. A lot of us get really excited about having all the goodies at first, then start to pare down as we realize what we really use and what’s extraneous. Don’t hesitate to ask around and check forums.

Lastly, decide if you’re building an Overland vehicle, or an Off-road vehicle. They’re different, and you may want to use your weight allowance for more long-distance creature comforts than ultimate off-road capability.

Remove spare seats
This is easier than you think! Many crew cab truck and SUV owners are driving solo or with a single front seat passenger. In that case, take the rear seats out. You’ll save weight and have more usable space…it could even be a great spot for your spare tire to keep that weight centered between the axles!

Sleep lower
Rooftop tents are awesome, but they’re also among the heaviest things you’ll add to your vehicle. And that weight sits really high, so it has an outsize effect on how your vehicle feels when it’s wobbling through potholes and over rocks. If you can sleep inside your vehicle, or pitch a tent next to it, you could save 100lbs or more.

What if I want to tow a trailer? Does towing affect my payload capacity?

an overland trailer with camp kitchen
Overland trailers can be a good way to bring more gear without overloading your vehicle.

Yep, and usually not in a good way. This is where you need to look at GCWR, or Gross Combined (Vehicle) Weight Rating, which should also be listed on your vehicle’s sticker. This is the total combined weight that your vehicle and the trailer can weigh:

Vehicle GVWR + Trailer weight = GCWR

More precisely, your Vehicle’s GVWR + the Trailer’s loaded weight should not exceed your vehicle’s GCWR.

SIDE NOTE: Your trailer also has a GVWR, and your vehicle has a maximum towing capacity and maximum tongue weight, which is the weight that the trailer is actually applying to your tow hitch. You need to stay within these limits, too, but for the purposes of this story, we’re focusing on how adding a trailer affects your vehicle’s payload capacity.

So, how does your trailer’s weight affect your payload capacity? For that, we need to know all of the vehicle’s ratings + your trailer’s actual weight when loaded, then do some math. Let’s assume your vehicle has:

  • GCWR = 12,500lbs
  • GVWR = 6,000lbs
  • Curb Weight = 4,500lbs
  • Max Payload = 1,500lbs
  • Trailer Weight = 7,200lbs

Our starting max payload in this example is 1,500lbs (GVWR – Curb Weight). Once a trailer is attached, use this formula get your remaining payload capacity:

GCWR – Trailer Weight – Curb Weight = Theoretical Combined Payload Capacity

So, for our example vehicle, here’s how the numbers add up:

12,500 – 7,200 – 4,500 = 800lbs

Based on the ratings, that gives you 800lbs of total payload capacity on your vehicle. If you went higher than that, you’d exceed the GCWR. Remember that payload includes people and fuel, so your gear payload is much lower than 800lbs.

But what if it’s an ultralight trailer? Let’s say your trailer is only 5,000lbs:

12,500 – 5,000 – 4,500 = 3,000lbs

Since 3,000lbs exceeds 1,500lbs, you need to go with the lower number and stick to your vehicle’s payload capacity of 1,500lbs.

But, if your vehicle can pull it (check its towing capacity), you can relocate some of your gear to the trailer. Towing a heavy trailer, especially off-road, isn’t fun, but if you need to bring more stuff, spreading the weight between vehicle and trailer is a smart way to keep everything within safe limits. Just make sure the two don’t exceed your vehicles GCWR!

What else have you done to save weight? What questions do you have? Email us and let us know and we’ll update the article.

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About Tyler 74 Articles
I'm a serial traveller and road trip lover who's crisscrossed the US so many times I've lost count. I've owned cars, SUVs, wagons, vans and a 37' class A toy hauler RV, and I've customized them all! I love the open road and getting off the beaten path to find new adventures, mainly traveling with Kristi and the kids to explore the world on our own two feet (and, usually, two to four wheels)!