Thanks to youthful ignorance and inexperience, my early towing travails were less than terrific. Following my senior year in high school, I battled a treacherously unstable rental trailer packed full of my stuff for 600 miles, stopping to pick much of it up off the road each time the trailer whipsawed so violently its poorly secured doors flew open. Home at last, I discovered that the idiot who had hung the temporary hitch on my bumper had mounted it way off center.

A few years later, I was dragging my low-budget race car all over the Midwest on a low-budget trailer designed for a much lighter load. I soon learned to handle it, but that overloaded trailer was so unstable that no one else could keep it under control. More years passed before I could afford a proper trailer with decent trailer brakes, which made things much better.

I sometimes wonder if today's fledgling trailer-towers struggle through such learning curves. But it's a more sophisticated art these days, with much more capable vehicles and technology and no shortage of help and advice from manufacturers and media.

For starters, nearly everything capable of towing or hauling, from full-size pickups to compact crossovers, carries factory ratings that tell you how much it can handle. Most of us understand these are not to be ignored if we want to avoid the frustrations of insufficient performance, cooling, braking, or handling and even tire, wheel, chassis, or structural failures.

But where do these capability ratings come from? How much can we trust them? Do they result from rigorous testing by experienced engineers--or from marketing mavens bent on one-upping each other? Are there government and/or Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) procedures and standards that manufacturers must follow?

It's safe to say that dedicated teams of tireless truck engineers toil in laboratories and on proving grounds and public roads, in all extremes of weather, to ensure that their tow-capable vehicles measure up to their published ratings. It's also safe to say that marketing types typically set the targets based on customer research and competitive needs.

There have not been industry standards for establishing tow ratings--but there soon will be. A group of engineers from GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Nissan, and Honda has been formulating SAE "recommended practices" that will establish a consistent set of procedures and measures for determining Gross Combined Weight (GCW) and tow ratings. It is targeted for the 2011 model year, but the industry's financial struggles may set it back a year.