Is Your Hitch Cargo Carrier Legal? Don't Get Caught

hitch cargo carrier with two boxes behind white Chevrolet van

If you’ve ever looked at a hitch cargo carrier after being installed, you may ask yourself if it’s legal for the cargo carrier to block the license plate or taillights. This is a common issue caused by most cargo carriers.

If your cargo carrier is obstructing the view of your license plate or taillights, it may be illegal depending on your country, state or province.

Some states allow exemptions for cargo carriers blocking the license plate. For example, they may allow the license plate to be partially obscured when the cargo carrier is loaded but require full visibility of the license plate when the carrier is empty.

To check the specific laws in your jurisdiction, refer to the license plate visibility regulations section in this article.

Ways to Fix a Cargo Carrier Blocking a License Plate

If you’ve determined that your cargo carrier blocking the license plate is illegal, you’ll need to fix it to comply with the law. There are 2 ways to fix this.

1. Obtain a Temporary Paper License Plate

Some states allow a temporary paper license plate to be displayed when the cargo carrier is in use. This typically requires a small fee for the temporary plate, which is to be mounted to the rear windshield.

This enables police officers to easily see your license plate with the cargo carrier attached. Once you’re done using your cargo carrier, you should remove the temporary license plate.

2. Relocate the License Plate

If you are unable to obtain a temporary paper license plate, you may also relocate the license plate to a visible location, such as the back of the cargo carrier. The process of relocating the license plate varies depending on the vehicle and cargo carrier style.

Although relocating the plate is simple, most states require the plate to be illuminated at night. This can be difficult when relocating the license plate onto the cargo carrier.

Check your state laws for license plate mounting and visibility requirements.

Do hitch cargo carriers need lights?

Another problem you may encounter regarding the legality of your cargo carrier is the blocking of the vehicle’s tail lights.

In most states, your hitch cargo carrier needs extra lights if it is blocking the taillights.

Regardless of legality, it is important to have extra lighting if your cargo carrier is blocking the vehicle’s lights. Having extra lights can prevent accidents by making your car more visible on the road.

How Much Weight Can a Hitch Cargo Carrier Hold?

Although it may seem simple to find the maximum capacity of your hitch cargo carrier, it is more complicated than you might think.

All cargo carriers have a maximum weight limit, but this is not the only factor that determines how much weight you can hold.

You need to consider hitch tongue weight capacity, cargo carrier weight capacity, and hitch extensions when determining how much weight a hitch cargo carrier can hold.

1. Determining Your Hitch Tongue Weight Capacity

Hitch tongue weight capacity (TWC) is the maximum weight that can be exerted vertically on your hitch under normal driving conditions.

To determine your TWC, check the capacity information for your hitch AND your vehicle owner’s manual. If the two capacities are not the same, use the lowest number for your calculations.

If you’re unable to find the TWC for your hitch, find your gross towing capacity (GTWR) based on the manufacturer’s specifications and multiply the number by 10%. This will determine your TWC.

For example, if your GTWR is 1,500 pounds, your TWC is 150 pounds.

2. Finding Your Cargo Carrier Weight Capacity

The cargo carrier weight capacity (CWC) is a measurement of the total weight that can be safely held by your cargo carrier. CWC is often used to determine how much cargo you can carry, but not the sole factor.

You can easily find your CWC in the documentation provided by the carrier.

3. Determining How Much Your Hitch Cargo Carrier Can Hold

Now that you have your TWC and CWC, you can determine how much weight your hitch cargo carrier can truly hold.

To find the maximum carrying capacity of your hitch cargo carrier, choose the lower number of the TWC and CWC. If you are using a hitch extension, continue to the next section for an additional calculation.

Both TWC and CWC are measurements of maximum capacity, therefore the lowest number must be chosen to avoid overloading your cargo carrier.

How Hitch Extensions Affect Cargo Carrier Capacity

Hitch extensions are used to lengthen the distance between the hitch and the cargo carrier.

Extensions are commonly used to clear spare tires or large rear bumpers. Hitch extensions can greatly reduce your carrying capacity, therefore it is very important to consider.

Extensions reduce TWC by 30-50% since more leverage is exerted on the hitch.

For example, if your TWC is 150 pounds and you’re using a hitch extender that reduces the weight by 50%, your new TWC is 75 pounds.

Use your new TWC to compare to the CWC to find your true maximum carrying capacity.

TWC vs. CWC, What are the Uses?

There is a subtle difference between these two acronyms and people always can me about the difference or how are they being applied.

TWC (Hitch Tongue Weight Capacity)

When installing a new hitch, you'd check the TWC to ensure it can handle the weight you plan to carry.

If you're towing a trailer, the tongue weight (the weight the trailer exerts on the hitch) should not exceed the TWC.

When using a hitch-mounted cargo carrier, the combined weight of the cargo and the carrier shouldn't exceed the TWC.

CWC (Cargo Carrier Weight Capacity)

When purchasing a new cargo carrier, you'd check its CWC to ensure it can handle the items you plan to transport.

If you're loading heavy items onto a cargo carrier, their combined weight shouldn't exceed the CWC.

It helps users avoid overloading the carrier, which could lead to material fatigue or failure.

How Overloading Your Cargo Carrier Can Result in Jail Time

Although an overloaded cargo carrier isn’t illegal itself, it could violate the law if something goes wrong. If your hitch cargo carrier collapses, the cargo will fall onto the road, potentially damaging other cars or injuring others.

Unsecured loads on your car can also result in expensive fines and potentially jail time!

Unsecured load fines in the United States range from $10 to $5,000, with 16 states including jail time as a possible punishment (Source).

Although some states may not heavily enforce these laws, it’s important to think about them before hitting the road.

How an Overloaded Cargo Carrier Can Cause Damage

There are many ways for an overloaded cargo carrier to cause damage.

An overloaded cargo carrier can damage your vehicle, the items you carrying, and the cargo carrier itself.

1. Your Vehicle

By overloading your cargo carrier and surpassing your hitch’s tongue weight capacity (TWC), you are susceptible to multiple unsafe conditions.

When you exceed TWC, your vehicle becomes unsafe to drive. Your vehicle will likely experience swaying and sagging of the rear suspension. This results in reduced braking and steering capability, making it unsafe to drive.

This increases the likelihood of an accident, which will severely damage your vehicle and potentially injure yourself and others.

2. Your Cargo

Although this is obvious, it is worth mentioning as a reminder. If you overload your cargo carrier with items, it increases the chance of it failing. If your cargo carrier collapses while driving, your cargo can become severely damaged.

Overloading your cargo carrier may be convenient, but it is worth risking damage to all your items?

3. Your Cargo Carrier

Every hitch cargo carrier has a maximum capacity. Loading it past this weight limit could result in unintended consequences. Overloading your cargo carrier can cause it to collapse, bend, and break, often damaging or weakening it permanently. Good cargo carriers cost over $100, so is it worth risking the money you’ve spent?

Summary for Cargo Hitch Carrier Regulations

Note that there are legal implications of a hitch cargo carrier that obstructs the view of your license plate or taillights.

Depending on your state, it may be illegal and result in potential fines or penalties. Therefore, it is essential to familiarize yourself with the specific laws in your country and state to ensure compliance.

While some states may allow exemptions for partially obscured license plates when the cargo carrier is loaded, it is still important to prioritize the full visibility of your license plate when the carrier is empty.

This will help you avoid any legal issues and ensure the safety of yourself and other drivers on the road.

When determining the weight capacity of a hitch cargo carrier, consider both the hitch tongue weight capacity (TWC) and the cargo carrier weight capacity (CWC).

Check your vehicle's manual and the hitch's specifications for the TWC, and use the lower of the two values.

If using a hitch extension, remember it can reduce the TWC by 30-50%.

Always choose the lowest value between TWC and CWC to avoid overloading.

Michael Rollins
Cars are my life - 20 years in the fast lane and I'm still hooked. When I'm not under a hood, you'll catch me on a hiking trail, in a coffee shop, or cheering at a baseball game. I'm not just about horsepower and torque, I'm all about life's simple joys. Here to share my car wisdom, making your ride choices a breeze.