Nearly 100 million Americans go boating each year, and boat sales in the US hit an incredible 13-year high in 2020. These numbers only point to one thing – boating is incomparably amazing!
But before you tap into the fun, you’ll need an excellent vehicle for pulling your boat to the preferred location. So let’s face the elephant in the room:
Can a van pull a boat?
Modern vans can pull various types of boats as long as it’s within their towing capacity. Most full-size vans have towing capacities of up to 10,000 pounds, meaning they can easily pull a cuddy boat, a pontoon, a ski boat, or a small fishing boat to wherever your aquatic adventures lead you.
For most people, however, pulling a boat with a van just sounds “head-scratchingly” absurd, for lack of a better word. I bet you’d also argue that choosing the best vehicle for pulling your boat is the same as deciding which truck to buy.
But if you’d like to enjoy a fantastic big family experience with extra space for the kids, gear, and everything while leveraging a workhorse that can pull your boat, you might want to think outside the box.
Vans can do a remarkable job pulling your boat because of their weight, power, and robust torque-focused engines. As long as you do everything within the specs, you’re good to go.
In this comprehensive guide, I’ll help you figure out the following:
- The weight of boat a van can pull
- The best vans for pulling your boat
- Key weight limits to consider
- How to pick the best van for pulling your boat
- 10 important boat towing safety tips
- Important tips for stopping distance
Let’s jump right in, buddy:
Diehard boating geeks know their vessel weights on the fly. But being a newbie shouldn’t be a show stopper, and neither should figuring out your boat’s weight take a toll on your IQ.
So here’s a quick guide for estimating your boat’s dry weight:
- Deck boats weigh an average of 2200 pounds.
- Pontoons also weigh 2200 pounds on average.
- Cabin cruisers weigh 5500 pounds on average.
- Medium sailboats weigh up to 5000 pounds.
Quick fact: Dry weight means the weight of your boat without the gear and trailer but includes the engine without gas.
Note that I’m giving you the average dry weights, meaning things can go slightly below or way beyond that. For instance, a 25-foot pontoon like the Avalon Catalina Cruise has a dry weight of 2450 pounds.
But that’s cool because a standard 15 passenger van can tow it seamlessly, even with additional cargo, fuel, and a trailer attached. Even a 6000-pound ski boat shouldn’t give you a headache as long as you don’t overstuff cargo and that you account for the trailer.
Your trailer weight matters because most trailers weigh over 1000 pounds, and you don’t want to overwhelm your van, especially if you account for other cargo.
Just make sure the weight of your boat, trailer, fuel, and whatnots falls shy of your vehicle’s towing capacity. Assuming you’ve settled your heart on a 6500-pound cuddy (cabin) boat, you’ll likely end up with 8000 pounds or more with everything factored in.
That’s still a green light if you’ll be driving a powerful enough van, like the ones we’ll be covering shortly. But if you go for a heavier boat, I can’t help but think you’ll likely need a crane plus some professional assistance.
Let’s talk the towing lingo now, because there are numbers you should have in mind other than just your van’s towing capacity.
And don’t fret, buddy. You’ll easily find these ratings from your owner’s manual, the automobile association website, and heck – even online forums.
Your van’s GVWR is its maximum allowable weight that includes passengers, cargo, and fuel but not the trailer you’re towing. You’ll easily find this on a build plate on the driver’s door pillar.
Interestingly, the trailer has its own GVWR, and it includes the trailer’s dry weight together with its cargo, say your boat.
Pro Tip: Be careful not to exceed the van’s GVWR because you can easily do so with excess passengers and cargo, even without the trailer attached.
The GCWR is the absolute maximum weight that is allowed for the trailer and towing vehicle combination. It’s set by your van’s manufacturer and includes cargo, passengers, and everything else you’re pulling.
Gross Trailer Weight implies the combined weight of the trailer and its cargo. If you were towing a boat, that includes everything else in the boat. You can easily determine your GTW through a commercial scale, say at a truck stop.
Pro Tip: Have your trailer loaded as you would while traveling, then weigh the van and trailer separately just to ensure you’re within your weight limits. Additionally, the GTW of the trailer should never exceed its GVWR.
Tongue weight means the amount of pressure that the trailer would put on your vehicle’s trailer hitch. A ball-mounted hitch requires a tongue weight within 10-15% of the GTW for safe towing and steering.
If it goes beyond that, you’ll have too much pressure on your van’s tires and suspension. And if it falls way too shy of that, you’ll likely have trouble with a swaying van.
Pro Tip: Consider towing limits as maximums rather than suggestions. It’s good manners to stay well below the maximums so you can pull your boat safely and prevent wearing down your van.
Just not to bog you down with obvious things, the stress here is that you should go for OEM (original equipment manufacturer) parts.
Here’s why you need OEM parts for your ball mount, trailer hitch, and wiring harness, among others:
OEM parts are generally of the best quality, sturdier, and safer to use.
That said, they’ll serve you longer and more reliably, something you can only dream of with third-party dealership parts. What’s more, parts from such dealers may alter your van’s weight capabilities.
To be on the safer side, you should also find out the state laws on the specific equipment you’ll need together with stipulated ratings. Simply go to AAA’s Exchange forum.
Picking the right van that can pull your boat doesn’t end at the towing capacity. Here are the pluses to what makes an excellent van for the task:
The ideal van for pulling your boat should have a stiffer suspension to handle the extra weight of the boat and trailer. That gives you better traction and performance on top of letting you enjoy the ride.
Pulling your boat is all about moving smoothly at low speeds while maintaining control. Choose a van that gives you the maximum torque at a lower RPM as it will likely perform better, without straining the engine.
Remember, any good towing vehicle should deliver plenty of low-end power, and I have a high opinion of diesel-powered vans.
Assuming you’re going for a long road trip, say interstate, it’s good to choose a van with large transmission and unique cooling capabilities like oil cooling.
A quality van for pulling your boat could do better with a towing mode. This is desirable for the long-term health of your van’s system as it ensures your transmission delays upshifting and maintains low gears whenever needed.
The extra work done by pulling your boat together with the trailer could heat things up, and before you know it, your van may experience automatic transmission failure.
A transmission gauge could come in handy then. And while this may not be a standard feature in most vans, you might want to think of it as an extra safety precaution.
Towing is far different from everyday driving, and it puts additional strain on the engine. Your van must then be equipped with a sizeable radiator to cool the engine faster and prevent overheating.
Here’s a roundup of 5 best vans that can pull your boat:
1. Mercedes Benz Sprinter
The Sprinter van is an iconic German machine that most folks would want to associate with luxury. But you might also want to own this behemoth because it makes a really huge work van.
With the monster power of a 3-liter V6 diesel engine, you can pull your favorite boat to any location with confidence.
The passenger versions of the Sprinter have their maximum towing capacity at 5000 pounds, with a GCWR of 13,930 pounds. Pulling a heavier boat is easy peasy because Mercedes also offers heavy-duty versions of the Sprinter as cargo vans, which can pull up to 7,500 pounds.
In terms of safety, the Sprinter indeed goes the extra mile. Awesome driver-assist tech and safety features like the 360 degrees camera and the Active Distance Assist Distronic will help you tow that boat safer than you’d imagine.
2. Ford Transit
Think of a full-size work van, but with a relatively lower towing capacity. The Ford Transit passenger van has its towing capacity capped at 4300 pounds, while some cargo versions could give you an admirable 6900 pounds.
You might balk at that, but the Transit could be your favorite if you’re looking to pull a smaller boat while enjoying the comfort and agility of a full-size van.
Overall, the Ford Transit is decently finished, with a stellar ride quality, a modern infotainment system, and advanced safety features. Combine that with the legendary EcoBoost turbocharged V6 engine, and you have great fuel economy.
3. Ram ProMaster
The Ram ProMaster is another work van worthy of pulling your boat. It’s also a relatively modern vehicle with unbeatable features to offer.
That said, the ProMaster’s front-wheel-drive platform is designed to save on space, and it comes with a little stubby nose. With that, you get a better turning radius and unmatched visibility.
Equipped with a 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 engine, the ProMaster performs superbly with 276 HP and a nine-speed automatic transmission. The passenger version of this van can tow more than 6,410 pounds, while the cargo van goes a notch higher with a towing capacity of around 6,910 pounds.
4. Chevrolet Express
With a sturdy body on frame, the Chevy Express is a legendary work van that has won the hearts of many drivers since 1997.
If you want a van with a generous seating for 15 passengers and can pull your massive sailboat, the Chevy Express and its GMC Savana twin are to be benchmarked upon. Both of these beasts have an optional 6.6-liter V8 engine with a 6-speed heavy-duty automatic transmission.
With that, you have an unrivaled monster that can pull up to 10000 pounds – enough for your heavy family boat. If you go for the standard versions, you can still get a maximum towing capacity of between 7000 and 7400 pounds.
5. Iveco Daily
This is a no-brainer: it takes a heavy duty van to do a heavy duty job. And that’s just what the Iveco Daily offers.
The Iveco Daily van is an excellent choice if you’re looking for a sturdy van with a reasonably high towing capacity. Perhaps the most remarkable feat about this behemoth is that it’s built on a solid ladder frame chassis that Iveco also uses for trucks.
What’s more, some versions of the Iveco Daily van weigh up to 7.2 tonnes (15873 pounds) and can pull up to 7700 pounds without a hassle.
While boating can be one of the loveliest adventures, certain mistakes can easily ruin your fun before and when you hit the road.
For example, your trailer could detach and tip when you tow inappropriately, imposing danger on both you and other road users.
Doing things incorrectly can cause other nasty stuff like straining your engine, severe damage to your suspension, and spoilt braking systems.
The following important safety measures should be at your fingertips when pulling your boat with a van:
1. Remember you’re towing
Always remember you’re towing and be careful while making tight turns, backing up, accelerating, and braking.
2. Maintain a safe speed
As a rule of thumb, do not exceed 55 MPH while towing your boat because you’ll always need additional braking time and may not handle abrupt maneuvers.
3. Install safety chains under the hitch
For additional safety, be sure to install safety chains under the hitch.
4. Distribute cargo appropriately
Ensure most of your cargo (at least 60%) is placed forward of the rear axle to avoid swaying.
5. Proper tongue weight
For greater stability, ensure the tongue weight is set within 10 to 15 percent of the overall trailer weight.
6. Carry spare tires
Carry spare tires for both the van and the trailer, ensuring they’re properly inflated and well-treaded.
7. Use an appropriate trailer hitch
Use a proper trailer hitch that keeps your boat level while allowing room for adjustment.
8. Brake carefully
When driving downhill, tap the brakes in gentle presses and release them other than using them for the entire descent. Otherwise, they’ll overheat and malfunction.
9. Fit brake lights on the trailer
Ensure you have at least one functioning red brake light on the trailer, or you’ll be committing an expensive mistake. There’s no harm in double-checking for loose wires that are dragging on the ground.
10. Maintain a stopping distance
Maintain a reasonable stopping distance with the vehicle ahead of you. We’ll explore this up next.
Important Tips for Stopping Distance
Your van can be a considerable towing beast, but how easily can you stop with all that weight pushing behind you?
Generally speaking, you should always maintain at least 4 full seconds with the vehicle in front of you. Here are the key tips in line with this:
- Ensure your trailer is equipped with brakes if the total weight exceeds 4000 pounds.
- For every 10 feet of vehicle length, allow a stopping distance of 1 second. That means if the combined length of your van and trailer is 43 feet, you’re looking at a stopping distance of 4 seconds.
- Don’t tow an unbraked trailer that weighs over 75% of the weight of your truck when loaded.
While a van can pull your boat, it’s important to factor in which type of boat you’ll be towing so you pick the best van, especially if you’re going for a big family retreat.
With a passenger van, you’ll essentially kill two birds with one stone if you consider the generous passenger space and incredible towing capabilities.
Still, you could opt for a cargo van as most of them have higher towing capacities, especially if you’ll be hauling some real cargo together with your boat.
As long as you do everything within the specs like weight ratings and follow the safety guidelines, you shouldn’t find trouble pulling your boat with a van.