This weekend, I towed a popup camper with a Bolt this last weekend. I thought I’d share my experience for the community’s education and interest. Pics here.
A disclaimer: Chevrolet does not recommend towing with the Bolt EV. It may not be legal or insurable where you are. I decided to tow a trailer on this trip based on my own experience, research, and background as an EV engineer. This post is not a suggestion that anyone else can or should tow anything with the Bolt EV. An internet post is not sufficient guidance for anyone to undertake towing with a vehicle not so rated, which creates risk of loss of life or property.
I towed a lightweight popup camper from the Heber City, UT area to a remote campsite in Southern Utah, and it was great! It took a lot of patience and plenty of kilowatt hours, but it was cool to do it to show it’s possible. The feeling of pioneering something that I’m not sure has been done before was really neat. I felt like I missed the pioneer era of EVs where people were making road trips by plugging into RV park outlets and such because I couldn’t afford an EV then, and this kind of gave me that feeling. By complete coincidence, the campsite we ended up at in the dark and without planning, was a short walk from Boltergeist Canyon. I swear I didn’t edit that in on Google Maps, I didn’t even know the canyon’s name or notice it until the next morning.
I went 568 miles round trip towing a trailer that’s about 1650lb loaded. I had to stop at every Electrify America charge station along my route, but I did skip available Chargepoint stations, which is a credit to the infrastructure. I averaged just over 2 mi/kWh going 60-65mph, but had some sections with significantly more usage. The trip in an ICEv would be about 5 hours, and charging and driving slowly added a couple hours. Because we were traveling with small children, though, almost all the charge time was welcome and actually used for things we’d have stopped for anyway.
This trip was primarily on 80mph interstate, and I spent the whole trip being passed by moody California expats going 90mph while I was doing 60-65mph. I didn’t have charging at my campsite, which was just dispersed camping in the desert. I charged up enough (I thought) at the last DCFC in Cedar City to make it back with plenty of buffer. It took only 20% or so to get there and I parked around 55% when we set up camp. We used about 5% driving to a place to hike in the area. Going back to Cedar, though, we used a TON of energy. It’s a long, long ascent from our camping area near Leeds- about 2500 feet of climb over 25 miles! On top of that, we were facing headwinds of 15-20 mph. I got a Propulsion Power Reduced message part-way up the ascent around 25% SOC, and I’m unsure if that was from powertrain heat or the battery draining so quickly. Power was 40-60kW continually at 60mph and we were getting barely over 1 mi/kWh for 25 miles, discharging the battery far faster than any continuous load ordinarily would.
Fortunately, we’d planned to stop and try to spot California Condors at the Kolob Canyon area and used the visitor center L2 there for about an hour, adding about 10%. Without this extra energy, we wouldn’t have made it, even though that total distance was only 57 miles and we started with a half-full battery. Ascent and wind are major killers with extra weight and a huge square brick behind the car! There’s an old Mormon joke about Cedar City: the prophet sent a group of pioneers down to settle a new city in the south, but they got waylaid by high winds on the way down. The prophet told them to make camp and wait for the winds to die down to continue their journey- and that’s how Cedar City was founded.
Fortunately, winds were more reasonable for the rest of the trip and that climb got us to almost 6000’, or about the same elevation I live at, so climbs from that point on were matched with equal descents. The rest of the way home was the same as the way down with the exception of another charging stop instead of trading cars, because my eGolf wouldn’t make the climb from my friend’s house home towing the trailer. Besides, it wouldn’t be nice to return a drained and dirty Bolt, would it? We used HVAC from Beaver on since it was later in the day than our trip down and got near freezing later.
Here are the details:
|Miles- Running||Miles- Incr.||Energy, kWh||% arriving||% leaving||Cost||Time|
|Payson||51||51||Trade EVs (20?)||95||0||0:30|
|Cedar City EA||246||55||14||49||75||$4.61||0:27|
|Zion NP - Kolob L2||313||27||6?||~15||~25||$5.00||1:00|
|Cedar City EA||330||17||43||4||79||$14.16||1:05|
|Spanish Fork EA||533||70||32||14||68||$10.64||0:42|
Some notes on the charging details: Total charging time looks long, part of that is an hour on an L2 at a site we’d planned to stop at anyway, and part of it is allowing some charges to go well beyond taper points just because that’s when we (ahem… the kids) were ready to go again, or for a bit more insurance getting to the next stop. We also could have cut the last DCFC way shorter, but we took a while for bathrooms and dinner and had 50% when we got home. Also, I actually did this trip in a borrowed Bolt! My friend has plans to tow a small travel trailer with it and had just put the hitch on, and we traded cars for the long weekend so I could give it a spin. Thanks Sam! This meant that I towed the camper from the Heber area down into the valley with my eGolf, where I unhooked the camper and changed cars. That’s why the first charge stop in the chart looks off, it’s actually a car trade. I traded an empty EV for a charged one there, but the time it took probably would have been enough to charge the 20kWh or so used up to that point.
Also, look at the total charging cost- probably more than I’d have spent if I’d borrowed my neighbor’s Sorento. Thanks a lot, pay-by-kWh advocates. This would have cost less with EA’s old per minute pricing, even staying well into the taper, and we would have kept the incentive for people to move off the station when they’re tapering. EA has to make up all their fixed costs with just an energy charge now thanks to popular demand for pricing by energy instead of time, so of course the rate is high. On the subject of infrastructure use, I saw just one other EV charging while on this trip, a Niro leaving as I plugged in. These Utah EA stations are very lightly used at this point, and several times I blocked multiple charging stalls to avoid unhooking the trailer. I never had to unhook to charge, actually, but that’s just an artefact of the low EV uptake here. Unhooking to charge while towing will be a fact of life at most stations and in the future.
Of course, I have to discuss on what basis I felt it was safe and appropriate for me to tow the trailer with the Bolt. If you’re the kind of person to roast me in the comments for towing with a Bolt, you’re probably already started on that after only reading the title, so I assume anyone reading this far is open to the idea. I thought about all the different risks that towing adds to while planning this trip- dynamic stability, braking, energy use, legal and insurance issues, etc. I’ve towed thousands of miles with trailers from 300lb to 9000lb with vehicles rated from a ¾ ton Ford to a Prius. I’m an engineer and I work on EV stuff all day, so after a good amount of research, I felt confident enough to try this trip to put my own family in the car and take it out on public roads I shared with other people.
A big part of my basis for towing like this is that I kept my speed down, at all times- not just for efficiency but for stability. The reason that the UK and EU have different tow ratings on their vehicles is their towing laws- the UK mandates a 60mph speed limit for towing with a light duty vehicle and requires special licensing and trailer brakes for larger trailers than what I towed. I did not get to 70mph on this trip even for a second, not even downhill when I was regenerating 30kW and easily could have gotten there power-wise, because my primary concern was stability. Every vehicle/trailer combination has a certain critical speed at which its response to any perturbation (a bump in the road, a gust of wind, the need to swerve) goes from stable to unstable, and you go into a ditch at speed. There was a great article summarizing this on Opposite Lock, but that whole site was deep sixed- the text is still available here, though. That article is based on this SAE research paper. I didn’t do a whole SAE-style analysis on my setup, but I knew 65mph was safe for my setup and I wasn’t going to push it higher even if it was ‘free’ energy-wise going downhill.
Another part of the towing strategy informed by the European style is tongue weight. Typical US guidance on tongue weight is 10-15%. In the UK, it’s 4-7%. This would ordinarily make an unstable setup at 80mph, but the UK has a 60mph limit, so the 4-7% guidance allows for much lighter loading on the tow vehicle as long as speed is kept down. The US has roads with 85mph speed limits and no special speed laws for towing with a class D license, so the 10-15% guidance makes sense when Billy Powerstroke is pushing 90mph with his 10,000lb travel trailer in West Texas just because he’s got the power and desire to do it. The UK also requires trailer brakes on any trailer over 750kg (~1650lb) loaded, which is just about what my trailer was. My trailer doesn’t have brakes. Having them would have added some safety. Having regeneration does help in one way- keeping the brakes cool on long descents- but brakes on the towed axle does add stability in a hard braking event that would be good to have.
The light loading on the tow vehicle helps with concerns about suspension, axle and tire loading, etc. Having only <150lb on the ball and only light cargo in the car means the weight over the car’s axles is less than having five adult passengers and a hatch full of luggage. The photos do show a significant amount of squat in the back when parked for charging, but some of that is caused by the parking brake being engaged. I did still make sure that the Bolt’s tires were aired up near the sidewall pressure rating and to drive carefully around bumps, since dynamic shifts in weight and force while driving can shift more of the trailer load onto the car.
One thing I’d definitely do differently next time is flipping the ball mount over to get the trailer level. The safety chains dragged on almost every driveway entrance and sometimes the trailer jack scraped. The trailer wasn’t level and I’d definitely want it to be if I do this again, I just didn’t want to take the time to do it during the car swap. There may be some tiny aero impact from having the trailer level instead of tilted a few degrees, but not much- it’s mostly about ground clearance.
There you have it- a nearly 600 mile trip with a popup camper, and the only fossil fuels I burned were the couple pounds of LPG for the stove and buddy heater. I was able to pull it off with what’s an affordable EV now, and I’m looking forward to this being within reach for folks who aren’t making Model X money or pushing the limits of sanity with a Bolt. Hopefully the ID.4 will be part of that- I was thinking of its factory 2700lb tow rating, extra battery capacity, and 125kW charging this whole trip. Someday, towing will be within grasp of many more EV owners.