Overlanding Payload Guide: Understanding Vehicle Weight Capacity

When you first start off-roading or overlanding, one of the common newbie mistakes is exceeding your vehicle’s payload capacity.

Carrying too much weight puts excess stress on the vehicle’s wheels, tires, suspension, drive train, and engine, which increases wear-and-tear and the risk of mechanical failure. Even worse, exceeding the payload capacity puts you and your passengers at risk of an accident, as vehicles don’t handle well when overloaded.

Understanding what is actually meant by “payload” and other terms like “gross vehicle weight rating,” will go a long way towards keeping your cargo within bounds.

Determining your vehicle’s payload capacity will indicate how much weight you can carry safely and can help you distribute cargo between vehicles appropriately when traveling with others.  

Basic Vehicle Payload Terminology

Land Rover Defender with cargo

The archetype vehicle in overlanding is a Landrover Defender with a roof-rack laden with crates, bags, roof-top-tent and other sundries. One assumes the inside is as packed with gear as the roof rack. The fact is, for older Defender models, which were built like tanks, that might be okay. 

A Defender 110 built between 1991 and 2007 could carry a payload of a little over 2,300 pounds. But what does “payload” mean and how do you calculate it?

Payload

A vehicle’s payload is the amount of cargo it can carry, including passengers and gear. You shouldn’t exceed the payload and should really try to stay well under it — one rule of thumb is to not carry more than 80 percent of maximum payload weight. So how do you determine your payload capacity?

Gross Vehicle Weight Rating

Fortunately, SUVs, trucks, and vans come with guidance on a vehicle’s maximum weight capacity, including the vehicle itself, all vehicle fluids and payload (additional people and cargo), known as the gross vehicle weight rating or GVWR. This number can typically be found in the vehicle’s owners manual and on the driver’s-side door pillar.

Curb Weight

For the older landrover we mentioned before, the GVWR was 6724.1 lbs (3050 kg). Another number supplied by the manufacturer is known as the curb weight, which is the weight of the vehicle, with all fluids topped off, as it shipped from the factory (sans passengers). The curb weight of the Landrover 110 was 4365 lbs (1980 kg).

To determine the maximum payload then, you subtract the curb weight from GVWR:

Maximum Payload = GVWR – Curb Weight

So for the Defender this looks like: 

Payload = 6724 lbs – 4365 lbs

We come up with 2,239 pounds as the maximum payload. Using this same formula you can determine the maximum payload for any vehicle, as long as you know the curb weight and GVWR.

Payload of Popular Overlanding Vehicles

For reference, here are GVWR, curb weight, and max payload for recent models of several popular overlanding vehicles. These are provided here as examples, check your vehicle for specifics:

Make/ModelGVWR (lbs)Curb WeightPayload
2021 Subaru Outback4,8503,6341,216
2021 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon5,8004,4491,351
2012 Jeep Gladiator Sport5,8007,1001,700
2021 Toyota Takoma SR Double Cab5,6004,4451,155
2021 Toyota Tundra SR7,0005,3401,660
2021 Toyota 4-Runner SR6,3004,6751,625
2021 Dodge Ram Power Wagon 25008,5657,0551,510

One surprising thing about payload is that trucks with four-wheel drive and larger engines can have lower payload capacity than a two-wheel drive with a smaller engine. So, for instance, the more off-road capable Rubicon edition of Jeep Wranglers and Gladiators has a lower payload capacity of models with less hardware.

Roof Load Rating

Jeep Wrangler with big load on top

Other than payload, another number to keep a close eye on when packing your vehicle is the load that your roof can handle. Two ratings are often provided: the dynamic capacity and static capacity.

The static capacity indicates how much weight your vehicle’s roof can withstand when at a standstill. Since you’re going to be traveling with your cargo, the dynamic capacity, which indicates how much load the roof can take when the vehicle is moving, is the primary number to watch.

For instance, a Toyota 4-Runner with a factory rack may have a static capacity of more than 700 pounds, but its dynamic capacity is only 300 pounds.

The roof load rating is included as part of the payload, so if you have 200 pounds on the roof you will subtract that from the weight you can carry in other parts of the vehicle.

Another reason to avoid overloading the roof is that weight on the roof raises the vehicle’s center of gravity, which raises the risk of tip-overs. Aftermarket roof racks can dramatically increase your upper load rating, but you still need to be careful of making the vehicle unstable. This is particularly true if you are planning to travel over uneven terrain where you’re vehicle will lean sharply or rock side-to-side. But even on paved roads, an overloaded roof rack raises tip-over risk.



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