Ford F-150 Harley-Davidson towing a boat. (© Tom Wilson)

Ford F-150 Harley-Davidson towing a boat.

Boating season is upon us, folks. That means you'll soon be towing your favorite water toys — fishing boats, Jet Skis, kayaks, etc. — to the local beach or launch ramp for some spirited fun in the sun. It's a rite of summer. Naturally, it helps to have a tow vehicle that's well-matched to your needs, especially if half the fun is getting there.

Luckily, there have never been so many good towing options to choose from as there are now. But as with any other auto purchase, there are some critical criteria to consider before buying a new or used machine to tow your toys.

Ideally, we'd like to see a tow rating of 6,000 pounds or more, as trailer boats — which are usually 20 feet or shorter — rarely weigh more than that. Almost all midsize pickups and SUVs — and any large ones — can easily handle that sort of load. Less than a 5,000-pound tow rating is not desirable.

A wide variety of vehicle configurations and neat towing features are available that will make the trip easier.

Bing Images: Pickup Trucks

Because boating is such a social activity, a vehicle's seating capacity is important to consider. Fishermen do well with a standard-cab pickup and its single bench seat, but any family boat draws a crowd, and that means a crew-cab pickup or an SUV. An SUV is the most comfortable and preferred when people are the emphasis, while pickups are best when handling wet or fishy gear and toys. Pickups can also simultaneously tote a pair of smaller personal watercraft in the bed and tow a boat on a trailer, something an SUV can't do.

Is 4-wheel drive a must? Not really. Many people assume they can't do without it on wet launch ramps. It certainly helps, but we don't consider it mandatory. Of course, the heavier the boat and the steeper and slicker the ramp, the more we'd lean toward 4-wheel drive. Otherwise, 2-wheel-drive vehicles cost less to purchase, fuel and insure.

While gas mileage is on the mind of every American these days, it's tough to factor in when choosing a towing vehicle, because the heavier the load the less range you get from a tank of gas. So in this regard, it's best to concentrate on the vehicle's unladen fuel consumption, because that's what will have the biggest effect on the household budget.

Finally, however, we suggest that you get all the truck you can afford. A larger, more spacious cabin, and bigger, higher-torque engines in a stable, capable truck are what transform a towing excursion from a chore to fun. Trust us.

To help you decide on a ride, here are our five picks for the ultimate tow vehicles this summer.

View Slideshow:  Worthy Workhorses

Dodge Ram Dakota

Midsize trucks are as small as we dare to go for family boaters, and in that class, the Dodge Ram Dakota offers the most interior room and the highest tow rating — 7,250 pounds — when the 302-horsepower V8 engine is selected. Stick to the functional options and the Dakota is a good value and a capable tower. Alternately, Toyota's vaunted Tacoma offers refinement, dependability and good resale value, and its 4.0-liter V6 engine can pull 6,500 pounds. Remember, you'll lose cargo-box length if you opt for a small extended cab in the midsize segment; a full-size pickup at a more basic trim level could be a better choice.

View Slideshow:  10 Most Fuel-Efficient Workhorses

Ford F-150

Click to enlarge picture2011 Ford F-150 EcoBoost (© Ford Motor Company)

2011 Ford F-150 EcoBoost

There's no such thing as the best pickup truck for everyone and every job, but Ford's marriage of a turbocharged V6 engine and a refined F-150 chassis comes close. With up to an 11,500-pound tow rating and mid-20s mpg fuel economy, the new EcoBoost 6-cylinder F-150 is a winner. Don't think the engine is two cylinders short; it's slightly faster and stronger than the standard 5.0-liter V8, which is a fine engine as well. As a full-size pickup, the Ford is at the core of the recreational-boat towing market.

Compare: Ford F-150 vs. Ram 1500 vs. Toyota Tundra

Dodge Ram 2500

Click to enlarge picture2010 Dodge Ram 2500 Laramie (© Chrysler Group LLC)

2010 Dodge Ram 2500 Laramie

Just as it's easy to option a midsize pickup well into full-size territory, it's almost as effortless to option a full-size pickup into the heavy-duty truck realm. In that case, consider the Dodge Ram 2500 Mega Cab. This limousine of pickups has an immense cab, perfect for long, comfortable trips. We suggest forgoing the $8,000 diesel-engine option for the standard 5.7-liter V8 to keep the price close to $40,000. You'll still be able to tow 12,300 pounds and/or carry 3,120 pounds of gear in the bed.

Watch Video:  2011 Dodge Ram 2500-3500

Chevrolet Traverse

Click to enlarge picture2009 Chevrolet Traverse (© General Motors)

2009 Chevrolet Traverse

Like large pickups, the towing options in full-size SUVs are nearly endless. But in handy-sized SUVs the choices are not so obvious. A good one is the amply proportioned Chevrolet Traverse. Its three rows of seating accommodate the family; storage room is good; optional all-wheel drive gets it up the boat ramp; and the standard 3.6-liter V6 engine gives it a workable 5,200-pound tow rating. And back on the mean streets of suburbia, the Traverse offers desirable utility as a family vehicle, too.

Bing Images: Chevrolet Traverse

Nissan Xterra

Click to enlarge picture2009 Nissan Xterra (© Nissan North America)

2009 Nissan Xterra

For an affordable boat-towing SUV, the Nissan Xterra has the market almost to itself. Built using a rugged truck frame from the Nissan Frontier pickup, the Xterra can tow up to 5,000 pounds, thanks to its 4.0-liter V6 engine, and it offers seating for five. Seating and cargo room are understandably more limited than in a full-size SUV, but besides towing the boat, the Xterra is also a bona fide off-roader that's just as happy to scramble in the desert as drag toys to the beach.

View Slideshow:  Real Off-Road Warriors

Longtime Road & Track contributor Tom Wilson's credits include local racing championships, three technical engine books and hundreds of freelance articles.