The care, feeding, and loading of your pickup

While seemingly nearly every truck on America's roads rides along with an empty bed, there are indeed times in nearly every pickup owner's life when it's time to load up some cargo. Such vehicles are designed for exactly this purpose, but it's important to know a few things before hitting the highway with a bed full of topsoil or a stack of railroad ties.

Continue reading for some tips on properly loading a truck, and as always, we welcome additional contributions from our readers.

Disclaimer: Some of these pictures show improper loading, which we're showing as examples of what not to do. Just because we survived moments of stupidity does not mean that we condone it. When in doubt, always consult the owner's manual.

1. Know your vehicle's limits

Assuming that one is working with a properly maintained vehicle - if something is barely adequate for an empty vehicle, it probably won't get any better with an increased load - the first step is to determine the maximum working payload of the vehicle in question. This is determined by the vehicle's chassis, and the load rating of the installed tires. The place to start is with the manufacturer's tire pressure placard, which is located on the driver's doorjamb:

Here we see that this vehicle carries a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of 8600 lbs. That's the maximum total vehicle weight, including the vehicle itself, the passengers and fuel, and any cargo. According to the scales at the local scrap yard, our truck weighs 5350 lbs with a full tank of gas, so we can carry a maximum of 3250 lbs including passengers, and only if the Gross Axle Weight Rating (GAWR) is not exceeded in the process. Since our truck carries only 2100 lbs or so on the rear axle when empty, we won't have a problem with the rear axle weight rating (especially since some of that weight will get transferred to the front axle) just so long as we stay under the GVWR. The front axle weight rating will likely only be an issue for those who use their trucks for snowplowing.

When hauling aggregate loads (sand, gravel, etc.), keep in mind that the stuff is sometimes much heavier than it looks. The average 8'-long pickup box can hold over two cubic yards of material, which is about 6000 lbs of sand. That blows past the GVWR of almost any pickup truck, so be careful when asking the front-end loader driver to drop in a couple bucketfuls of moist topsoil.

2. Inflate your tires properly

The placard also lists the vehicle's tire size and recommended tire pressure necessary for the vehicle's GVWR. If different tires have been installed, it will be necessary to use the proper pressure and not to exceed the tire's weight rating. In this case, the stock 245/75/16 tires required 80 PSI to support 3000 lbs each; our 315/70/17 tires only require 50 PSI for the maximum load of 3200 lbs.

It should be noted that maintaining the maximum pressure on the rear tires of a pickup will likely lead to a poor ride and uneven wear when the bed is empty, so it's best to vary the pressure as required.

3. Load the cargo properly

When loading cargo into the bed, it's best to keep it below the level of the box rails unless the vehicle is equipped with a "headache rack" (a barrier preventing objects from coming through the rear window). The reason, of course, is that one probably would prefer to avoid an unwanted visit from something like a cement block during a hard stop or a collision.

Also, try to keep the cargo low and towards the front of the bed. Anything placed behind the centerline of the rear axle will serve to take weight off the front wheels, which will cause some seriously spooky handling characteristics.

When loading cargo, the tailgate should not be used as a platform on which to apply any sort of significant weight. This is especially true if using a ramp to load something heavy, like a motorcycle. The straps that secure tailgates are prone to failure, and we've heard more than one story of someone who's dropped a lawn tractor or Harley several feet and wrapped the tailgate around the bumper in the process. It only takes a few seconds to remove the tailgate, and we recommend doing so when loading or unloading.

4. Secure the load

Next, it's usually necessary to find a way to hold the cargo in place. If one sights down the front of this bed, it's possible to see that it's bowed inward towards the cab - the result of a sudden stop with a transmission that was not properly secured. In an accident, the results could have been far worse.

Those fortunate enough to own a newer pickup likely have a variety of factory-installed tie-downs; for older trucks or those with drop-in bedliners, some other form of tie-down will need to be provided. The anchors on our truck are mounted to the stake pockets with toggle bolts and have held up rather well.

Uh, well, OK, the one at the left rear corner is leaning like that bell tower in Pisa, so there is a limit to how much force should be applied to this sort of eyelet.

Such anchors work well in conjunction with bungee cords or stretch nets (for lighter loads) or ratcheting tie-down straps (for heavier cargo). When using this type of tie-down, keep in mind that there's a long path of relatively thin sheetmetal between the top rail of the box and the vehicle's frame.

If motorcycles or ATVs are to be hauled, it's best to mount some sort of anchor low in the bed. Recessed anchors are the best as they won't interfere when hauling other loads, but the downside is that they require cutting the bed, and they don't work well with drop-in bed liners. This type of anchor should be secured near a bed crossmember using high-grade hardware and large washers.

When using nylon tie-down straps, inspect them on a regular basis for wear, and replace them at the earliest signs of damage. They're cheap - or at least they're much less expensive than lost cargo, damaged vehicles, or personal injury.

Another option that works well with drop-in bedliners are these little plastic blocks called Bed Bugs. They do a great job of keeping lighter cargo from sliding around in the bed (but we still recommend tying down any cargo that could become a hazard if dislodged during a sudden stop or collision).

5. Drive sanely

One great thing about modern pickup trucks is that they have sufficient power to provide brisk acceleration, even when loaded to the maximum rated capacity. The problem is that they tend to not stop and turn so well, however, and so it's important to exercise some restraint with the loud pedal when hauling cargo. One should at least double the typical following distance, and appropriate caution should be given to changing the vehicle's direction. Placing a few thousand pounds at chest level can dramatically alter the vehicle's center of gravity, and the rearward distribution of the weight makes oversteer more likely. Keep this in mind at all times when carrying a load.

More Information