Choosing a Trailer for Full-time RVing: Cargo Carrying Capacity

The other day we found ourselves at a fabulous RV dealership in Missoula, Montana: Bretz RV and Marine on I-90. This is a huge place that has a mammoth inventory of trailers and motorhomes that spills over several lots. What a great spot to go RV shopping!

We LOVE RV shopping and have been at it since before we started traveling full-time!

But what brought us here? Well, the 99 cents per gallon propane deal they are offering was one thing, and the free and extremely well laid out RV dump station was another. What a place!

Bretz RV & Marine Free RV Dump Station and 99 cent propane

A free dump and ultra cheap propane brought us to a very cool RV dealership in Montana

After we’d dumped and gotten our propane, we decided to have a look around the RV lots and check out some of the very pretty RVs. Bretz has an enormous selection of Airstream trailers, and we got a huge kick out of seeing a few up close. Beautiful!

Airstream Travel Trailer RV

How fun it was to prowl around these classic Airstream trailers.

I have written a little about what to look for in an RV for full-time living, and one of the things that a lot of new RVers don’t realize when they go shopping is how important it is to get a trailer with an adequate Cargo Carrying Capacity.

Cargo Carrying Capacity is the difference between what the RV weighs when there is nothing in it (the “Unloaded Vehicle Weight” or UVW) and what it weighs when you have loaded it down with all of your personal belongings plus food, water and propane as well as upgrades like solar power, washer/dryer, a big battery bank, a generator, a bike rack and bikes, etc., (the “Gross Vehicle Weight” or GVW).

It is important not to exceed the Cargo Carrying Capacity!

If you do, then you’ve gone over the trailer’s GVWR (“Gross Vehicle Weight Rating”) which is the maximum safe weight for the trailer when it is fully loaded.

On older trailers the GVWR is posted on a sticker that is placed on the outside of the trailer up near the front on the driver’s side. On newer trailers there is usually another sticker that indicates the Cargo Carrying Capacity.

Fifth wheel trailer cargo carrying capacity sticker

A sticker for the trailer’s weight capacities is usually on the driver’s side up by the hitch.

A few weeks after we moved into our 36′ Hitchhiker fifth wheel trailer back in 2008, we took it to a truck scale. We reported on this blog at the time that it weighed 13,850 lbs. This was close to the trailer’s GVWR of 13,995, but not over.

Phew!! We had lived in it a very short time and had filled the cabinets only 1/3 of the way!

Weighing a fifth wheel RV on a truck scale

Right after moving into our new fifth wheel in 2008 we hopped on a scale to see what it weighed.

After we finished our sailing cruise of Mexico in 2013, we had to squeeze our lives back into our trailer, and we had a tough time getting rid of all the wonderful things we’d picked up from sailing.

So we had our trailer weighed using the Escapees Smartweigh Program at the Escapees RV park at North Ranch near Wickenburg, Arizona. Our trailer had gained 250 lbs. and now weighed 14,100 lbs. The weight on our rear axles was 11,250 lbs.

The trailer was built with two 7,000 lb. axles. It also came from the factory with E-rated (10-ply) tires that were rated to carry 3,032 lbs. apiece, or 6,084 lbs. per pair on an axle.

When it comes to GAWR (“Gross Axle Weight Rating”), the axles are rated according to the weaker component, whether it is the axles or the tires. So our GAWR was 6,084 lbs. due to the E-rated tires. However, by upgrading to G-rated (14 ply) tires that are rated to carry 3,960 lbs. each, or 7,920 lbs. all together, the weak link became the axles themselves rather than the tires. So our GAWR was now 7,000 lbs. due to the axles.

Either way, the 11,250 lbs. actual weight we had on our axles was well within both the original axle rating of 12,780 lbs for the pair (6,084 per axle x 2 axles = 12,780) and the new axle rating of 14,000 lbs for the pair (7,000 per axle x 2 axles = 14,000 lbs).

Weighing a fifth wheel RV on a truck scale

In 2013 we began to worry about the battle of the bulge.

Our Escapees Smartweigh weighing revealed that our old 2007 Dodge Ram 3500 single rear wheel truck was overloaded. After we upgraded to our new 2016 Dodge Ram 3500 dually, we went to a truck scale two more times to see how we were doing.

We knew the trailer weight was well within the towing capacities of the new truck, but we had had to replace a trailer axle in August 2015 and then replace the entire trailer suspension (ugh!) in October of 2015. Needless to say, we were concerned about the weight on the trailer axles.

When the trailer was weighed this time around, the weight on the trailer axles had increased to 11,600 lbs., 350 lbs. higher than two years earlier, but still well within the limits of the 14,000 lbs. that the axles and tires could carry.

Discussing the weight of a fifth wheel trailer RV

Mark gets the low-down on our truck and trailer weights.

We didn’t weigh the truck and trailer separately, so we don’t have a figure for the overall trailer weight yet. However, my suspicion is that the extra 350 lbs. on the axles means our 14,100 lb. overall trailer weight has increased by 350 lbs. to about 14,450 or so. This means the trailer is 455 lbs. or so over the its GVWR of 13,995 lbs.

Living light in a fifth wheel RV trailer

Despite having many cabinets that are only partially full, our trailer is over its weight limit!

Besides being overweight, we’ve learned something important from this.

The UVWR (“Unloaded Vehicle Weight Rating”) on our trailer is 10,556 lbs. Since 13,995 GVWR – 10,556 UVW = 3,439, this means the Cargo Carrying Capacity of our trailer is 3,439 lbs. That’s a little above average for most fifth wheel trailers.

However, if our trailer’s true weight is now 14,450 lbs., then the cargo we are actually carrying weighs 3,894 lbs (because 14,450 True Weight – 10,556 UVW = 3,894 Actual Cargo Weight).

Weighing a fifth wheel RV on a truck scale

A few weeks ago (in March 2016) we were back on the scales again.

So, what this means is that for us to live in our trailer comfortably over a period of many years, as we have done, we need a trailer with a Cargo Carrying Capacity of around 4,000 lbs. Other RVers may have different requirements.

Frankly, if we were to buy a new trailer, we would be looking for a Cargo Carrying Capacity of at least 5,000 lbs.

We dry camp 100% of the time, so we always tow the trailer with the fresh water tank full (since we will need a full tank when we set up camp). Water weighs 8.3 lbs. per gallon. So, our 70 gallons in the fresh water tank and 10 gallons in the hot water heater, weigh 664 lbs.

Our waste tanks are empty when we travel.

RVers who don’t dry camp at all can travel with as little as 20 gallons or so of water all together between the fresh water tank and hot water heater, or 166 lbs. of water weight instead of 664 lbs. like we have.

So, what does all this have to do with our RV window shopping at Bretz RV & Marine the other day?

Well, whenever we go RV window shopping, we routinely check the weight capacity sticker on every trailer we look at, because overall GVWR and Cargo Carrying Capacity are just as important to us as the kitchen and living room layout. And while we were checking out cool new trailers, we got a big surprise…

I LOVE little trailers, and I was smitten by a sweet tear drop trailer called the Little Guy Rough Rider.

Little Guy Rough Rider Travel Trailer

The Rough Rider – How Adorable!!

What a fun little trailer! It even has a cute saying on the back…

Little Guy Tear Drop Trailer I Go Where I'm Towed To

“I Go Where I’m Towed To” — Funny, that’s what Mark says!!

We also really liked a big Redwood fifth wheel.

Redwood Fifth Wheel RV with 5 slide-outs two doors

A beautiful Redwood fifth wheel trailer caught our attention.

It was a monster with two exterior doors and five slides. Wow!!

Redwood Fifth Wheel with five slides

This big beautiful baby has two exterior doors and five slides!!

Well, which one do you think can carry a heavier load — the little weekend trailer that is just a bed on wheels with a wee mini-kitchen on the back, ideal for summer camping, or the big “full-time,” four season fifth wheel trailer that might replace someone’s house??

Ahem, not the trailer you’d think.

The stickers on these two trailers gave the following:

Rough Rider Teardrop Trailer Cargo Carrying Capacity: 1,925 lbs.
Redwood Full-timer Fifth Wheel Trailer Cargo Carrying Capacity: 1,876 lbs.

Little Guy Rough Rider Travel Trailer Cargo Carrying Capacity

The weights capacity sticker for the teardrop trailer: Cargo Carrying Capacity of 1,925

Redwood Fifth Wheel Cargo Carrying Capacity 1

Weights capacity sticker for the big beautiful fifth wheel trailer: Cargo Carrying Capacity of 1,876 lbs.

Wow!

Reeling from this sticker shock, we wandered around the RV dealership lot a little more and found a wonderful big fifth wheel toy hauler.

Cyclone Toy Hauler Fifth Wheel RV front

Curious about cargo carrying capacities for toy haulers, we checked out this big trailer.

This triple axle behemoth had three slides and was built to carry big toys with motors, like ATVs, motorcycles, and other goodies.

Cyclone Toy Hauler Fifth Wheel RV

Three slides and three axles — ready to go do some ATV adventuring in style!!

Like all toyhaulers, it had a big door in the back that would drop down to become a ramp so you could roll out on your ATV or motorcycle with ease.

Cyclone Toy Hauler Fifth Wheel RV Rear

The back has a huge door that drops down to form a ramp so you can ride out!

So this big guy was built to haul a big load, right?

Well, not exactly. It has a Cargo Carrying Capacity of 2,302 lbs. That is just a little more than the Little Guy Rough Rider teardrop!

The sticker on this toy hauler makes it very clear that when the trailer’s fresh water tank and hot water tank are both full, then the Cargo Carrying Capacity drops to 1,372 lbs.

So, your clothes, food, generator, on-board gas tank, propane tanks and your big toys like your ATV or motorcycle can’t weigh more than 1,372 lbs. all together if you wish to dry camp. If you are going to get hookups, then your limit will be 2,302 lbs., still a very tight squeeze if your toys weigh a few hundred pounds.

Cyclone Toy Hauler Fifth Wheel RV cargo carrying capacity 2

If this toy hauler is towed with empty water and waste tanks, it can carry 2,302 lbs.
If the fresh and hot water tanks are full and waste tanks are empty, it can hold just 1,372 lbs.

I’m not advocating one RV brand over another or knocking any particular RV brand with this info. Far from it! These specs and stickers come from random trailers that appealed to us and that happened to be on the dealership lot the day we were there.

When we have wandered through other RV dealership lots in different states at other times, we have discovered that many very popular brands have similar specs.

Florence Coffee Kiosk next to Bretz RV & Marine

Need a pick-me-up after looking at all those trailers and calculating all those numbers?
There’s a great little coffee kiosk next door to Bretz RV & Marine!

The important thing is that if you are shopping for a trailer that you are going to tow a lot, you should try to estimate how much weight you will put into it, including however much fresh water it will have in it when you hitch up. Then make sure the trailer you buy has sufficient cargo carrying capacity.

Unsure what your stuff weighs?

You can use a bathroom scale to get a rough estimate of what your clothes weigh by putting your laundry basket on it or weighing yourself holding your laundry basket and subtracting out your weight. You can also grab a bunch of clothes/jackets on hangers and do the same thing.

Likewise after a big grocery shopping spree — weigh yourself holding bunches of bags of groceries before you put it all away. Then look at what you already have in the fridge and pantry. The same can be done with pots and pans, dishware, tools, shoes, bikes etc. And don’t forget any upgrades you plan to do to the trailer after you buy it.

Or use our numbers as a guideline. We still haven’t filled all the shelves in our fifth wheel!

Happy shopping!!

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18 thoughts on “Choosing a Trailer for Full-time RVing: Cargo Carrying Capacity

  1. Great story. Cargo weight seems to grow while we are sleeping. Before you know it, that skimpy 800 pounds we started with, has expanded to 1600 pounds.

    Thank you for pointing out how little cargo capacity is available in most RV’s and how we overload what is available. From now on, I will be more aware of cargo weight than the floor plan. I don’t full-time, but I still carry a lot of gear. Things can happen no matter how short or long the trip, especially if you are overloaded.

    I enjoy your tips and trips. Keep Rolling Strong! (My logo that I decaled on my RV.)

    • You are so right about that cargo weight growing while we sleep!! And also that being overloaded is a concern for anyone towing a trailer — absolutely!! Thanks for the pat on the back and enjoy your travels. You’ve got a great logo!!

  2. Good read! I love the Redwoods, they are made so well, but that cargo capacity sure was a suprise.
    I tell ya, lots of homework to do before purchasing!

    • I love all the big cushy fifth wheels too — so pretty and comfy!! It is startling that so many are built with very little cargo carrying capacity. With any luck, some manufacturer decide to specialize in high end trailers that are built to carry a real household safely and will carve themselves a special niche in the market!!

  3. A good read for sure. I found your blog during my research for a new truck. I also blog a little (https://painthousetexas.wordpress.com), although I have been lax in doing so lately. I can appreciate your creative blending of your sense of humor and pertinent information. BTW, we presently own a 2012 MegaCab Longhorn 4×4 SRW Cummins. I am stepping up to a 2016 Megacab Longhorn 4×4 Dually, with the Aisin transmission. Your blog on the buying process was very well done and informative, even for a ‘car guy’ such as myself. I’d be curious to know what kind of economy (ha!) you get with the new truck? We tow a 36′ gooseneck car hauler when we show off our work (show cars) around the country and are looking to start traveling more for fun in a 5th wheel. Keep the “how to” stuff coming!

    vaya con Dios,
    Randy Borcherding / PAINTHOUSE

    • Fuel economy? What’s that?? LOL!! We were getting 9.5 mpg more or less while towing until we installed our new Edge Juice with Attitude tuner a few hundred miles back. That has bumped it up by a mile per gallon, more or less (blog post coming). Thanks for appreciating my info about our truck buying process. That’s really nice for a gal to hear from a “car guy” (although I owe whatever I know to my “car guy” hubby who has patiently taught me a ton of stuff!!). You might get a kick out of two awesome car races we’ve seen on the open road in our travels – the Sun Valley Road Rally and the Nevada Open Road Challenge!

  4. The 2016 Northwood Arctic Fox 29-5K has a Net Cargo Capacity of 5,392 lbs. The lowest Net Cargo Capacity of their current Arctic Fox 5th wheels is 3,509 lbs.

    • Arctic Fox is one of the few mass market fifth wheel builders that understands just how much stuff long term travelers have with them in their trailers. Like all builders, their cargo carrying capacities drops off as the units get longer (probably because the same size frame is used across several models). Sure wish they made more floor plans and had gelcoat exteriors (although that probably adds a bunch of weight!)!!

      If you go fully custom, of course, you can specify exactly how much payload capacity you want/need.

  5. Great article. My wife and I visited a large dealership last weekend in the FL Panhandle looking for fifth wheel extended stay RV options. All of the models we looked at were severely limited on useful load. We are now looking at the Weekend Warrior 4250W which has nearly 6000 pound useful load. FFI check out this link; https://weekendwarriortoyhauler.com/toyhauler-5th-wheels.html
    During your travels have you seen any of these models? If so do you have any options or advice on this company and their fifth wheels?
    Thanks for your great website.
    Anthony

    • Take the GVWR, then add in the weight of all the factory installed options that are included in the model you are buying, then add the weight of full holding tanks (fuel, water, waste grey water, waste black water, propane), then add the weight of other gear that will be added (batteries, solar etc.), then add the weight of the toys that will be placed in the garage, then add the weight of food, clothes, etc. If the number you end up with is within spec, you are golden.

      In the example given, of the 6,000 lb of cargo carrying capacity, if the fresh and waste water tanks are full, then there is only 3,040 lbs. of capacity left for everything else, from factory installed options to the toys that will be hauled to food, clothing, etc. One of the popular factory installed options is fuel tanks for a generator and for toys (motorcycles/ATVs). If the unit being purchased has that option, then another nearly 400 lbs. must be deleted from the cargo carrying capacity, leaving less than 2,700 lbs. for everything, from other factory installed options, to toys hauled in the garage to food and personal gear.

  6. Hi there. Great article. I do have one question now. Do you where do you cited above for the various trailers or just for the trailer themselves, correct? At what point do you need to consider how much of the trailers wait will be on the truck vehicle? Since typically the truck will carry 20 to 25% of the trailers weight, doesn’t that give you more carrying capacity on the trailer itself? I’m still researching the right trailer for my family and so I’m still learning and just trying to make sure I understand correctly. One thing I’ve learned, is not to rely on the sales person to be forthcoming in terms of weight of the trailer and their sales commission. But I also know it’s my responsibility to be safe, not theirs. That’s not meant to be a dick against sales people, there’s just too many factors for them to be well-versed in all matters of towing.

    • Most fifth wheels will have a pin weight of anywhere from 15% to 25% of the weight of the trailer, and the pin weight is usually published in the specs (“hitch weight” is another term for it). You have to consider the pin weight plus anything else you’ll be carrying in the bed of the truck plus your own body weight and fuel weight to figure out if your truck’s carrying capacity is sufficient to carry the pin weight of the trailer.

      The RV industry has its shady side, and the published weight capacities of trailers can be misleading and odd, to say the least. For instance, many manufacturers calculate the GVWR of a fifth wheel trailer as the GAWR (Gross Axle Weight Rating) plus the pin weight since that weight will be borne by the truck. That is, the GVWR is the axle weight capacity plus the pin weight because the pin weight isn’t riding on the axles at all. Do some math with some specs and see if this is true (I just checked a Cedar Creek Hathaway trailer).

      Ironically, if you look at most toy hauler specs, the GVWR is simply the same as the GAWR without adding in the pin weight. Sometimes it’s actually LESS than the GAWR. For instance, I just looked at a Grand Design Momentum which has three 7k axles giving it a GAWR of 21k lbs.. But the trailer has a GVWR of only 20k lbs. If it were a regular fifth wheel the GVWR would be 21k lbs PLUS the pin weight (in this case 3.3k lbs), or 24.3k lbs!!!!

      Why do they do that?? Who knows!!

      Generally toy haulers have a much beefier suspension, so the manufacturers don’t have to monkey with the numbers and add in the pin weight to get a sizable GVWR. At the same time, they don’t want to scare away potential customers with modest sized trucks by publishing a huge GVWR that is beyond the capacity of common trucks — yet, of course, you wouldn’t have to weigh down the trailer to its max capacity…

      This way of calculating GVWR for toy haulers also helps their customers that have smaller trucks if they cause a fatal accident. If the GVWR is within the rating of the truck, the driver’s liability has one set of parameters while if the GVWR is beyond the limits of the truck (and there’s no way to verify how the trailer was loaded at the time of impact) then their liability has a different set of parameters.

      So, with toy haulers, the manufacturers deliberately rate the GVWR as less than it probably really is — or the other way of looking at it is that with regular fifth wheels the manufacturers deliberately rate the GVWR as more than it probably is!

      It’s all good food for thought. Have fun shopping, Tom, and enjoy your travels!

  7. Toy haulers seem to not be a capacity panacea. We have a smallish trailer that can haul 2800 bs cargo with a gvwr of some 7600 lbs and still provide amenities for well under $18k new [forest river cherokee grey wolf 22rr.] For capacity vs price, this is about the best there is. Note I said __cargo__ not toys. We do big ren faires [the ones that go for 8 weeks] and comic cons and such. So we’re sorta fulltimers much of the year. As we use this for our job we’d prefer to see >5500 lbs capacity and some extra space. As in, what we want is a more spacious trailer with a workshop in the back. This solves what we need. So we started to look at 5th wheels. Mistake. Most everything seems to have maybe 800 lbs more cargo capacity than the cheapie we already have and at prices that are sometimes eye-watering [really, an extra 1000 lbs is going to cost me over $50k? Seriously? Ack. Phhttpppttt.]

    Meanwhile the hauler mfgs seem to be laser locked into thinking all hauler buyers are wanting some sort of joe sixpack’s imagined version of luxury whilst toting dirt bikes to remote locales 3 weeks a year. Brochures and dealer verbiage seems to be selling the active ultra healthy organics and power toy lifestyle. All of which results in overly glitzed almost comically gaudy cheapness weighing 13k lbs with LED party lights and subwoofers on the outside [party central] and a cargo capability of 3000 lbs. **before** they toss in the generator and the 30 gals of gas tanks and pumps.

    What’s needed, and what I have been looking for, is a list of capacities [CCC] wherein people can pick more likely candidates etc from a list and zero in on these. What we find is that the published wishful thinking CCC is rarely if ever the actual number one sees on the label in the dealer lot. Well then, who exactly has the sort of time needed to inspect every flipping hauler made in various configurations? Nobody.

    Does anything like this list exist? It seems rather silly that in 2019 and having the internet that useful data is no more available than it was in 1974. I’m thinking what we’re going to have to do is buy something as close to the ballpark as we can find and then chuck the useless bits over the side [massage sofas, happijac beds, generator, gas tank system, and so on.] What’s worse here is finding weights on even the subsystems; e.g. nobody seems to know how much a happijac bed/sofa system weighs in at. Happijac says motors and railings are avg 250 lbs but the mfg adds their own sofas, ask them… and then you ask them and the answer is to ask happijac — who provides it all.

    Thanks, and we appreciate your site!

    • Thank you for your thoughts and insights.

      I’m not sure if you’ve seen our recent post on our own search for a toy hauler or fiver (it’s here), but we’ve had many of the same thoughts you have. I also just submitted an article to Trailer Life Magazine about looking for a new rolling home that will be appearing in the September 2019 issue, and I’ve expressed similar sentiments there as well.

      I believe there is a divide between what RV executives think their customers want and what RVers would actually like to have. But the only way that chasm will ever be breached is if RV executives have to spend at least 2 weeks a year living and traveling in their own products. Every employment contract for every RV executive at every RV manufacturer should include a mandatory two week per year stint experiencing their own products 24/7.

      From towing to parking to setting up camp to cooking and using all the systems and storage spaces in the RV to sleeping on the factory installed mattress night after night to breaking down camp to towing it back to the factory, every RV executive and major RV parts supplier executive should have an intimate familiarity with their product that comes from extensive personal use.

      If they did, then most of the problems in the RV industry would vanish overnight.

      Instead, executives’ familiarity with their products comes more from standing in them at trade shows while talking about them with customers, and that’s not the same thing.

      In my experience, a tiny percentage of RV executives, managers and salespeople have ever spent more than a few nights in an RV in their entire lives. Sadly, this is true even among those who have worked in the RV industry for decades.

      It is unfortunate that mass market toy haulers are built to be mobile sports bars. I believe there is a market for toy haulers among people who want a tough rig with a garage but who don’t want to buy massage chairs, LED lights, four TVs or an outdoor kitchen.

      However, it is what it is, and unless we want to build our own RVs, all we RVers have to choose from is whatever the manufacturers decide to build for us.

      For the moment, all the marketing and sales execs I’ve talked to believe that toy hauler buyers are younger guys who like a bit of flash and who want to spend weekends and vacations partying with their friends and watching the game on TV in their rigs. So, that’s what mass market toy haulers are built for and that’s why we won’t be buying one.

      One bright spot is the new quasi-toy haulers that have a small garage (big enough for bikes or a workbench or motorcycle) located under a bed that raises up and down in the bedroom “upstairs.” These are being built with more of a residential appearance and with less of the sports bar look. Raptor, Montana High Country, Grand Design Momentum and others all have models like this now. It isn’t what you are looking for, but it is a step in an interesting direction for toy haulers in general.

      As for the weights of individual components in an RV, I think all you can do is make an educated guess. Visiting lots of dealerships and seeing a lot of rigs in person (and lifting the furniture) might help.

      As for a toy hauler brand, you might look at Aluminum Toyhauler Company. They have HUGE cargo capacity with open box models because they build trailers using aluminum instead of fiberglass. They are expensive but extremely well made. More about them here and in my Trailer Life toy hauler article here.

  8. Hello, thanks for the useful article. Like the post above, I’m struggling to find a list of makes/models with high ccc. My wife and I, plus two under 4, are considering going full time soon. We are looking for a TT or 5er with bunks, 1-2 slides, and 34 ft or shorter (total length) with a high ccc – 3000+ lb. Do you have any recommendations for makes/models? Could be new or used/older. Thanks!

    • We don’t have a list of recommended makes/models. If we did, we would be in a nice new rig ourselves now! (You can see our own struggles discussed here and here). The modern mass market trailer brands are a risky purchase. 50% of the people we have talked to who have purchased a brand new fifth wheel in the last 3 years (2016-2019) have had many major problems and are looking to sell their units after they fix them as best they can. You might consider a well built brand of yesteryear that folded or was bought out during the RV industry meltdown of 2008-2015: Alpenlite, Teton Homes, Excel, Hitchhiker (all out of business), or Mobile Suites, Carriage or Cardinal (before they were bought out). Arctic Fox and Outdoors RV have solid frames built in-house and can be purchased new. Cargo carrying capacity on those brands varies a lot by model.

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