Towing with a 4runner

Tips For Towing With A 4runner – My 10,000 Km Experience:

4th Gen V8 4runners are famous for being better at towing than any other 4runner model ever built. I hadn’t had the opportunity to put this to the test until Sept of 2021 – we were recently married and for our honeymoon, we decided to go all in.

We hooked a 19″ camper trailer to the hitch and drove over 10,000 kilometers across the country from Southern Ontario to British Columbia. In this article, I’m going to share everything I learned along the way.

Towing with a 4runner

Is a Toyota 4runner good for towing?

Most 4runners are rated to tow at least 5,000 lbs. For a mid-size SUV, it does a good job of towing. It’s important to understand its limitations though. Its lightweight and short wheelbase keep it from towing as well as a full-size pickup truck but it can certainly get the job done.

Towing with a 4runner

In my experience, my 4th gen V8 4runner did a great job of pulling a small camper trailer. This trailer weighed roughly half (3,200+ lbs) of what the 4runner is rated to tow (7,000 lbs).

With that said, I wouldn’t necessarily want to tow anything bigger than that for a long distance. How come? I’ll break it down throughout the different sections below:

4runner trailer braking – is it up to the task?

There aren’t many scenarios that will put your brakes to the test quite like towing a trailer through the Canadian Rocky Mountains. 5-8% grades are plentiful and can be relentless at times. Add in the constant tight corners that you have to slow down for, and your brakes are in for a real workout.

The 4runner’s factory brakes are pretty strong. In fact, I didn’t feel the need to use a trailer brake controller when pulling this trailer around the flat areas here in Southern Ontario. Mountain driving is a whole different story though – and the thought of cooking the brakes on the Coquihalla Highway scared me enough into buying a brake controller just days before we left.

Towing with a 4runner

I didn’t have the time to install a typical trailer brake controller so I did some research on Bluetooth options. They’re wireless and work in conjunction with your smartphone. I ended up purchasing this one from Curt which worked flawlessly after the initial setup. Just download the Curt app, plug it into the factory trailer wiring connection, and then plug the trailer into it.

Overall, my 4runner handled braking on the steep hills really well. I had to bump the output of the trailer brakes up a bit when we got into the mountains, but I never had trouble stopping. Unfortunately, my already “slightly” warped rotors are now definitely, definitely warped.

Want to know if your 4runner needs a trailer brake controller? Make sure to check out this article:

4runner towing stability – load balance matters!

The 4runner’s short wheelbase is one of its main downsides as a tow rig. When dealing with high winds, downhill corners, or emergency stopping situations, a moderate-size trailer tends to “bully” the 4runner. This can result in uncontrollable sway if you don’t have your load balanced properly.

The 4runner can in fact be stable on the highway though – it just requires some thought and planning. It’ll need some tongue weight if you’re pulling either a heavy trailer or one that has the aerodynamics of a barn. That means loading the front of the trailer up to have more weight than it has behind the axle.

Towing with a 4runner

I learned the importance of this on the first day of our month-long trip. We had my bike rack mounted to the back of the trailer with both of our mountain bikes on it. On one of the winding highways in Northern Ontario, we encountered some crosswinds accompanied by a high-speed downhill turn.

As you’d expect, the trailer began swaying – and kept getting worse. I tried easing off the throttle gently (never hit the brakes in that situation!) and it didn’t help. The pendulum effect was happening in full force and every swing was getting worse.

Luckily, my father-in-law (a retired long-distance truck driver) gave me some great advice before we left: in this situation, it’s best to keep your foot on the gas and apply the manual override on the trailer brake controller. This basically pulls the slack out of the hitch from both ends and gets you back in control right away.

In my case, it worked perfectly. I didn’t want to end up in that situation ever again, however, so I made some adjustments at our very next stop. The bikes were relocated into the rear of the 4runner and the bike rack was flipped up to keep it closer to the bumper on the trailer.

We didn’t have any other issues for the rest of the trip, but I’ll admit that my finger stayed pretty close to that manual brake button whenever we were on the highway!

Towing with a 4runner

Pulling a trailer in Overdrive

This has been a dilemma of mine for years. I understand that towing with Overdrive on can cause the transmission to overheat and possibly even fail. But that tends to be caused by the 4runner wanting to bounce in and out of Overdrive. What if it’s willing to hold the gear steadily? Isn’t it easier on the engine for the RPMs to be lower?

If you’re familiar with the drive from Ontario to British Columbia, you’ll know that there’s a specific area where this topic is relevant – the Prairies. Basically, the road is straight and flat from about 15 minutes into Manitoba, through Saskatchewan, and into part of Alberta.

When I say straight and flat, I mean STRAIGHT AND FLAT. For hours. Maybe even days. So why have the engine screaming at a high RPM if it isn’t required?

For this trip, I chose when and where to tow in Overdrive carefully. Roads with lots of corners and hills were obvious choices to run with Overdrive off. But if I felt like the 4runner would be able to hold the gear for an extended period of time, I’d allow it to use Overdrive. As soon as I felt there was too much load on the engine or it began hunting for a gear, I’d pop it out.

I decided to perform a test to find out whether you actually save gas by towing in overdrive. The results surprised me – you can find them here:

Towing with a 4runner

4runner towing MPG

It’s no secret that the Toyota 4runner isn’t exactly the most fuel-efficient vehicle on the market. It’s thirsty even when you’re not pulling a trailer. As soon as you hook up to something that’s going to cause the engine to work harder, you’re going to see that fuel economy plummet. Depending on the weight and aerodynamics of the trailer, it can be pretty bad.

In my case, the trailer wasn’t very heavy at all – about 3,200 lbs or roughly half of what the 4runner is rated to tow. Aerodynamics were more of an issue though. The trailer is wider and taller than the 4runner and due to its shape, can feel like pulling a parachute through a headwind.

I saved every receipt from every gas station along the way. It added up to over 2,200 liters of fuel and more than $3,100! Based on my testing, my 4runner was getting 9 MPG. Keep in mind, it’s lifted and running heavy 285/70/17 tires. It gets roughly 15 MPG when not towing a trailer.

So if you’re concerned with fuel economy, the 4runner shouldn’t be your primary choice for a tow rig. You could replace it with a truck that’s larger, comfier, and more stable – and still get the same or better mileage.

Towing with a 4runner

Maneuvering a trailer in tight spaces

I’ve shared the downsides of the 4runner’s small size already, but did you know that there are benefits to it too? I experienced them first hand. I was able to maneuver into tight areas with ease. This trailer was very easy to reverse and the short 4runner made it effortless to swing around when backing up through a sharp corner.

We were even able to camp in sites that were technically for “tents only” due to how nimble the 4runner was. That simply wouldn’t be possible with a full-size pickup truck.

The 4runner’s size also came in handy when traveling through the downtown core of large cities like Winnipeg, Calgary, and Vancouver. It’s much narrower than a big pickup so getting lost in the city wasn’t quite as stressful as it could have been.

And yes, I actually pulled the trailer through a Tim Hortons drive-thru, marking one of my most Canadian moments ever.

Towing with a 4runner

Is the 4runner a reliable tow vehicle?

The Toyota 4runner is widely known for being one of the most reliable vehicles on the planet. The thing is, hooking up a trailer to any vehicle is going to cause it to work harder under more stress. How does the 4runner handle it?

Well, I can only speak about mine – but it was flawless. Not even a hiccup. I can’t say I was kind to it either. We climbed up the steepest grades, fully loaded. We made it down descents that cooked the brakes on big rigs (we caught it on video!). We even unhooked and went off-roading on muddy trails.

Towing with a 4runner

Now that we’re home, it still runs and drives exactly as it did before our trip. I even ended up 5,000 kms overdue for an oil change and it didn’t seem to care at all. It started up every morning, didn’t burn any oil, didn’t develop any new rattles, and still tracks perfectly straight. I’ve always said I wouldn’t hesitate to drive it across the country and now I’ve done just that!

The 4runner lives up to its legendary reputation time and time again. Using it as a tow vehicle doesn’t change that at all.

Does the 4runner have enough power to tow heavy loads?

The Toyota 4runner has been offered with a few different engines over the years but none compares to the 4.7L V8 that could be had in the 4th gen models. That’s not just a matter of opinion either.

The previous 3rd gen, current 5th gen, and even the 4th gens equipped with the V6 were all rated to tow 5,000 lbs. By changing just the engine in the 4th gen to the V8, the towing capacity jumps to as much as 7,300 lbs!

There’s no question that a V8 4runner is the best option for towing. So how did mine do while towing in the mountains?

Towing with a 4runner

With over 330 ft-lbs of torque, getting moving from a stop is no problem at all. The gearing does a great job of keeping the engine in its power band and even though the RPMs might sound like they’re screaming at times, the engine remains smooth and cool. I didn’t notice my water temp move even a smidge over regular operating temp despite many long climbs.

There were times when I’d be climbing a very steep grade and need to slow down for a corner. Overall, I was able to keep up with the flow of traffic. I never once felt stressed over not being able to get up to speed. If I put my foot down, we’d accelerate – in any situation.

Here are the towing capacities for every generation of 4runner:

GenerationTowing Capacity
5th Gen5,000 lbs
4th Gen5,000 – 7,300 lbs
3rd Gen5,000 lbs
2nd Gen3,500 lbs
1st Gen2,000 – 3,500 lbs

The best part about using a 4runner for a tow rig

There is a huge benefit to using a 4runner to tow your camper trailer. It’s capable of doing a good job of towing but that’s not its biggest strong point. Don’t forget, the 4runner is an adventure vehicle through and through. Yes, it can tow your trailer. But getting out and exploring will always be its forte.

Towing with a 4runner

Combining the ability to live out of a camper trailer with all the amenities you need with the ability to detach and handle most off-road trails is what makes towing with the 4runner a great idea. You can fit through trails that a full-size pickup truck couldn’t dream of.

We detached and explored some off-road trails outside of Kamloops, British Columbia and had a blast. The 4runner allowed us to literally climb mountains and take in some incredible scenery. When we were done, we went back to our campsite, hooked up and were back on the road.

Towing with a 4runner

A motorhome might be comfortable and a good way to travel on pavement, but towing a trailer with the 4runner opens up so much more potential for adventure.

Mods to increase towing capacity – can a 4runner tow more than 5,000 lbs?

“Can” and “should” are two different things. I’m fairly confident that the 4runner has enough power to tow a lot more than 5,000 lbs – even the V6 models. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea though.

Unfortunately, we can’t control the world we live in. The 4runner might perform great in an ideal scenario but it’s when the variables change that you can run into trouble. That might mean a violent crosswind, a flat tire, someone cutting you off, or even driver fatigue.

These are all reasons why you should be conservative with the amount you tow – you never know what’s going to happen. I found a lot of peace of mind in knowing that I was only towing half of what the 4runner was capable of. I knew that I had a lot of room for error before any situation would become threatening.

Towing with a 4runner

Obviously, I can’t say it’s ever a good idea to overload your tow vehicle with more than it’s rated for. But there are indeed some mods that will allow your 4runner to handle the same weight with less effort.

Headers

If you want to improve your towing power, a set of Doug Thorley headers will wake the 4.7L engine up. If you look at the dyno graphs of 4runners that have these headers, you’ll see that the biggest gains are in the mid-range (+30 hp and +30 ft-lbs). It just so happens that the 4runner’s gearing keeps it right in those RPMs when towing.

My V8 with nearly 250,000 kms (and running 87 octane gas by the way!) had no problem with even the steepest hills. Once I brought the RPMs up to the area where all the improvements are, it just wanted to keep pulling and pulling.

A stock V8 4runner will have plenty of towing power but upgrading the headers will make it laugh at nearly any situation.

Towing with a 4runner

OME 895 rear springs

I ordered these rear springs when I lifted my 4runner and I was a little uncertain about how it was going to ride when unloaded. You see, these springs are rated to hold 200+ lbs of extra weight – either from heavy bumpers, a tire carrier, a rooftop tent, extra luggage, or all of the above.

I run empty most of the time. My fear was that the ride was going to be too stiff. I was pleasantly surprised by how smooth it actually rode and how well these springs matched the Fox 2.0 Coilovers and rear shocks. It always had a bit of rake though, where the rear end sits higher than the front.

The moment I hooked the trailer up, I was grateful for these springs. The 4runner sat nice and level, even with a bunch of tongue weight from the way the trailer was loaded up. Based on my measurements, the rear end only squatted 3/4″. Ride quality was amazing and remained perfectly in control on even the roughest of roads. All in all, these springs made a massive difference in how the 4runner tows a trailer.

Ground To Fender Measurement
No Trailer39″
With Trailer38.25″

Weight distributing hitch

I didn’t have one for this trip and I probably should have. Yes, my setup towed just fine for the most part. But I feel like I could have got away with not worrying about the load balance nearly as much if I had a weight distributing hitch.

It would make the rig even more stable and safer in all conditions. If I was going to be towing like this on a regular basis, I think I’d invest in one.

Reverse camera

I don’t have one of these either. Well, I almost did. You see, I installed the Pioneer head unit a while ago and while I had everything torn apart, I could have easily wired a backup camera in. At the time, I didn’t see any need for one so I skipped that step.

I don’t know how many times I hooked the trailer up to the hitch during our month-long trip but I know it was a lot. Maybe my wife would be able to tell you the exact number – since she helped guide me back nearly every time. Insert embarrassed emoji here.

Towing with a 4runner

So, can a 4runner pull a small camper?

There you have it folks, that’s my experience with towing a camper trailer across the country with my 4runner. Do I recommend that you attempt the same thing? Yes.

As long as your 4runner has been well maintained and your trailer falls within its capacity, the 4runner will do a fine job of taking you and your cargo wherever you want to go.

With that said, it wouldn’t be my first choice if I was towing regularly for purposes other than adventure. If you’re pulling cars, large utility trailers, or pretty much anything big and heavy, a full-size pickup truck is going to do a better job.

But if you want to pack up your gear with your significant other and explore the country, I can’t think of a better rig than a V8 4runner.

2 Comments

  • Tom Donaghy

    May 10, 2023 at 2:21 pm

    Thank you for sharing! I have a Gen5 V6 4 litre engine, it seems to do well leaving in 4 and never in OD. 4Runners are about the transmission more than the engine. Using an equalizer hitch and. Curt brake system, our 3200 lb Wolf Pup single axle trailer tows well, it was comforting to read your accounts, mine would be the same. Wind is worse than hills. Hills come and go but wind is all day long! Fuel consumption in 4 is 20.5 litres/100 @ 2600 rpm, with wind, brutal, 28 l/100.

    It works,as you have concluded, and you get a great adventure machine to play with once you make camp!
    Regards, tomD

    Reply
  • bob

    February 16, 2023 at 2:02 pm

    Have towed a 3000 lb empty trailer plus 500-1000 load with v8 2007 4R from colorado both to east and west coasts of US and Canada several times, approx 40,000 mi. Was reading blog on repair etc as vehicle is getting older but low mileage 80K, bought in 2015 with 20k. Has worked good, thought as typical comment can never have too much tow vehicle except when driving around town unhitched. Waiting for next gen 4R, if not good may get hybrid sequoia and deal with size.

    Regarding fuel economy, it primarily depends upon trailer aerodynamics (frontal area) and speed, so you get approximately same mpg regardless of the tow vehicle except for a diesel, see this website. Got values to be within 1 gpm both towed and untowed. Search blog on site for examples with pulling trailer.https://ecomodder.com/forum/tool-aero-rolling-resistance.php

    Reply

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