The Toyota 4runner is a fantastic option for anyone that enjoys the outdoors – be it camping, fishing, extreme sports, or just exploring in general. Boating certainly fits in with the rest of the outdoor lifestyle so you might find yourself asking if you can tow a boat with your 4runner.
Yes, it’s very possible to tow a boat with a Toyota 4runner. It features the same body-on-frame design as most pickup trucks, a stout engine, large brakes for a vehicle of its size, and optional tow packages. For modern 4runners, you’ll want to stick with a boat that’s 19ft or less though.
How to know how big of a boat your 4runner can tow
Since every generation is different, the safest way to find out is to take a look at the GCWR (Gross Combined Weight Rating) sticker in your door jam. Subtract the vehicle’s curb weight and the number remaining will account for the boat as well as gear and passengers.
The GCWR rating represents the entire amount of weight your 4runner can haul down the road safely – including itself. This shouldn’t be confused with towing capacity. Chances are, you won’t be able to tow right at the weight limit with 3 250lb passengers and a trunk load of cargo. You need to consider what you’ll be packing with you and not just what’s on the trailer hitch.
Newer 4runners are able to tow much more than a 1st gen from the 1980s, so it’s important to do the math and find out the actual number rather than assuming the widespread “5,000 lb” tow rating counts for every 4runner (it doesn’t, by the way!).
Want to know everything there is to know about towing with a 4runner? Here’s everything I learned after pulling a camper 10,000 kms across the country:
Advantages to towing a boat with a 4runner
While the 4runner isn’t most people’s number one choice for a tow rig (if you are serious about towing heavy weight often, a full-size pickup is hard to beat), it does have a few advantages.
The first and possibly most important is the fact that it has a proper truck frame underneath it – not a unibody like many other modern SUVs like the Jeep Grand Cherokee. 1st and 2nd gens shared the same frame as the pickup trucks while newer 4runners have their own design (although it’s still similar).
For more comparisons between 4runners and pickups, make sure to check out this article:
The next advantage is the 4runner’s 4×4 system. This is truly a go-anywhere type of vehicle and when you combine that with a decent towing capacity, you have a great combination for adventure. Slippery cement boat ramps won’t be a problem and in some cases, you might not even need a boat ramp at all!
A 4runner’s ride height also helps with shallow boat ramps. They’ve been blessed with plenty of ground clearance in the name of off-roading which translates to the ability to wade out into deeper water than most vehicles.
Relocating the rear differential breather is a good idea if you plan on submerging the rear axle completely but aside from that, the only thing stopping you would be water entering the cabin. 4runners aren’t afraid to get wet.
Disadvantages of towing a boat with a 4runner
Unfortunately, there a few ways that the 4runner doesn’t quite measure up to more popular tow rigs. It is indeed a mid-size SUV in the end which means a heavier boat has the potential to bully it on windy highways.
The biggest disadvantage to towing with a 4runner is quite simply its weight. It doesn’t take a whole lot for a 4runner to feel like it’s being pushed around by a heavy trailer. This situation can arise from a trailer being too close to its weight limit, high winds, steep downhill grades, and even emergency maneuvers.
Another problem is the 4runner’s short wheelbase. While it’s great for off-roading on tight trails and offers a good turning radius, it’s not ideal for towing at high speeds. A longer wheelbase would make your tow rig feel more planted on the highway and less likely to sway.
Toyota 4runner towing capacities by generation
To give you an estimate of what type of boat your 4runner is capable of towing, I put together a quick table. We’ll dig more into each generation below.
|5th Gen||5,000 lbs|
|4th Gen||5,000 – 7,300 lbs|
|3rd Gen||5,000 lbs|
|2nd Gen||3,500 lbs|
|1st Gen||2,000 – 3,500 lbs|
1st Generation 4runner (1984-1989) Towing Capacity
Although technically the 1st gen 4runner was the closest to being an actual pickup truck out of all, they also happen to perform the worst in terms of towing. They’re incredibly reliable but unfortunately, that also means that they’re rather underpowered.
Horsepower and torque on both the 4 and 6 cylinder options are very weak compared to modern vehicles. The other problem is the brakes. Quite simply, they have a hard enough time stopping the vehicle on its own. Adding a trailer behind it and it isn’t likely to be a very enjoyable experience.
For those reasons, the towing capacity of a 1st generation 4runner is a measly 2,000 – 3,500 lbs. The range can is caused by the choice of transmission – an automatic 4runner is limited to 2,000 lbs while a 5-speed manual can tow the full 3,500.
A 1st generation 4runner can indeed tow a boat but it will have to be a very small one and it won’t exactly do it well. If you plan to tow often, there are far better choices out there.
2nd Generation (1990-1995) 4runner Towing Capacity
You’d think that a 2nd gen 4runner would be able to tow more than a 1st gen by the looks of it but that isn’t the case. Despite having a much more modern body and interior, 2nd gen 4runners suffer the same limitations when towing. The 22RE and 3VZ engines both carried over from the 1st gen so even though they look different, they’re quite the same mechanically.
3rd Generation (1996-2002) 4runner Towing Capacity
The 3rd gen 4runner opens up much more potential for towing a boat. With a 5,000 lb towing capacity, they can handle a decent sized one. The 3.4L 5VZ engine produces more power and torque but it still might have a tough time on steeper grades when pulling close to its limit.
A 3rd gen is a good option for towing small boats (or slightly larger if you aren’t doing it often or in hilly terrain). By this point, the 4runner started to offer a good balance between being a great off-road vehicle and a capable tow rig. It still isn’t the best option for hardcore towing by any means, but it can get the job done safely.
4th Generation (2003-2009) 4runner Towing Capacity
The 4th gen 4runner is by far the best choice for towing a boat. Why is that? Because for these years, Toyota offered the 4.7L V8 engine out of the much bigger Tundra and Sequoia trucks. That engine raises the towing capacity up as high as 7,300 lbs (on 2wd models).
The torque of the V8 engine makes a huge difference when it comes to pulling a boat. So much so that these would be considered a better choice for towing than even a brand new 4runner. In this case, newer does not mean better. The V8 4runner can tow heavier with less effort and in a higher gear. Lower RPMs mean less wear on the engine and a quieter, more comfortable towing experience.
Click here to read more of the differences between the V6 and V8 4runners.
4th gen 4runners equipped with the V6 engine are rated the same as the 3rd and 5th gens – 5,000 lbs. These can also tow a boat as well as the others but are certainly lacking compared to the V8.
5th Generation (2010-Current) 4runner Towing Capacity
Despite being the most modern and refined 4runner by far, the 5th gens are not as good for towing as a V8 4th gen. The towing capacity for these new 4runners drops right back down to 5,000 lbs (the same as the 3rd gen and the 4th gen V6). Again, that still allows you to tow a boat fairly well, but not the best option if you’re comparing other 4runners.
What 5th gens might lack in terms of raw torque, they make up for with a comfy interior, added safety features, and modern tech. These are a great choice if you’re looking for a modern off-road vehicle with lots of features that can still pull a decent size load.
Technically any 4runner can tow a boat. The size and type of boat that you can pull however, greatly depends on the generation and choice of engine. 3rd and 5th gens will do a good job of towing a typical smaller boat but if you need some extra oomph, the V8 4th gen is your best bet.
Tim is the creator of Canadian Gearhead. His experience with auto detailing and working for Toyota shows through all of the articles posted here. He runs the Canadian Gearhead site and YouTube channel full-time now and currently owns a 2007 4runner, 2006 Tacoma, and 1991 MR2. Read more about Tim: