Some folks get hung up debating whether a truck with a manual transmission is better than one with an automatic for towing a boat – and vice versa. They’ll go on for hours stating reason after reason why one is better than the other. Well, let me spill the beans and tell you right now, both are right. Or pessimistically speaking, both are wrong.
The fact is, there is no right or wrong answer. There used to be a time when having a truck with a manual transmission was a clear advantage for boat trailer towing. Those days are long gone. As a matter of fact, the only advantage between one or the other is user preference. In other words, the advantages a driver gains when towing with either transmission is based on feel and how comfortable the driver feels with the equipment. Of course, so long as the truck in question is in fact capable of the towing loads it’s being subjected to.
Here’s an example…
Driver X has been driving manuals all his life. He gets into his friend’s automatic Toyota Tacoma and immediately feels uncomfortable with what he’s doing. The truck may very well be capable, but he feels it isn’t. The driver might feel the truck is constantly hunting for gears and might believe it’s not going to manage long tows without eventually breaking. This might lead to an insecure driving experience that might also prove to be unsafe.
However, the same driver in his element, towing with a manual truck will likely feel confident and secure. This would obviously yield a better and overall safer towing experience.
But really, which is better?
Like we said earlier, nowadays they are both fine. Truck manufacturers these days possess a level of technological expertise in automatics that was not present 20 years ago. While it’s still an argument that manuals were better for towing back then, that is not necessarily the case now. In fact, just about all of the full-size pickup trucks like the Ford F-150 and Toyota Tundra have automatic transmissions. These trucks are designed with towing big loads in mind. Their trannies are designed with cooling systems for the automatic transmission, that are specially made to handle towing heavy loads.
As a matter of fact, take the larger Ford F-Series Super Duty trucks for example – The F-250, F-350 and F-450. What do they have for transmissions? Automatics. Ford calls it TorqShift® 6-Speed SelectShift Automatic.
The engines in trucks designed for towing have a stronger alternator and are fed by heavy-duty batteries. Some are even designed with more radiator cooling power and even a bigger fan. And of course, they also feature a special transmission cooling system, something that’s necessary for towing with an automatic. Note that with some trucks that can already handle the load, you can buy an aftermarket transmission cooling system to help make the truck tow-worthy.
The main argument between automatic and manual transmission for boat trailer towing comes down to heat really. Meaning, you don’t want the transmission to overheat while towing or it will soon fail. Of course, automatics are more prone to this than stick-shifts. Why? Because in some trucks, the transmission will constantly try and hunt for the right gear while towing. This gear hunting causes excessive shifts that will quickly lead to overheated transmission fluid. The excess heat will break down the tranny fluid yielding it useless – It won’t protect your gears any longer and lead to transmission failure. Muy malo.
Some trucks, especially the higher capacity ones don’t suffer from this. Smaller automatic trucks, like a Toyota Tacoma or Nissan Frontier might have a tendency to hunt for gears will towing. To avoid this it’s important to lock the transmission out of overdrive. Of course, read your manual and find out how the overdrive works in your particular truck. But as a rule of thumb, you want to lock the truck OUT of overdrive to help avoid constant gear changes. Also, while towing your boat or trailer, pay close attention to what the transmission is doing. Don’t just wander off drinking your coffee or talking with your passenger – It’s easy to get distracted driving an automatic. Listen to what your truck is doing. Listen for gear hunting and excess shifting from your auto tranny. If it’s doing so, make sure you don’t allow your truck to be in overdrive. In this case, if in doubt, go manual 😉
Now that automatic transmissions in trucks have gotten so good, reliable and tough, the dilemma of automatic vs. manual for towing boats should very well be left to driver preference – Nothing more, really. If your truck is a 1980’s automatic, it might be a different story. But if it’s been OK for the last 30 years, we doubt you have to worry about it too much!
Disclaimer: This article is based on feedback from many drivers’ experiences and on the reliability and design of modern automatic transmissions. None of this is set in stone. Plus, there are so many different types of vehicles, engines and transmissions out there that this may not even apply to you. So please, use your judgment and use the information provided in this article as a piece of the puzzle for your research rather than a definite answer.
This post draws the line between car-related content that is also in part related to boating. Many of us boaters are also car enthusiasts for a very good reason… it’s also very exciting. For car and truck dedicated stuff check out our sister site RallyWays.com. There you will find world-class automotive photography and exciting stories from the car-culture world of Southern California.
Thanks and happy towing; happy boating!