There is a lot of jargon in the RV world. One term you’ll come across, but might not be familiar with, is “fifth wheel” or “5th wheel.” Fifth wheels are a type of towable RV that require a large pickup truck to tow because of the type of hitch they use.
But why are fifth wheel trailers called that? Let’s explore that question, and a few other fifth wheel basics, to help you decide if this is the right type of recreational vehicle for you.
How They Got Their Name – The Fifth Wheel Hitch
Fifth wheels use a U-shaped hitch coupling that’s bolted or welded to the frame of your tow vehicle—usually a pickup truck—through the truck bed. The connection point, also known as a pin box, places the trailer’s weight directly over your tow vehicle’s rear axle.
While hitch technology has come a long way, this basic design is responsible for the fifth wheel name. Old carriages in the 1800s had a horizontal ‘5th wheel’ that allowed the front axle to pivot. The name’s use was continued with the modern-day design for the 5th wheel truck hitch.
It’s similar to the type of hitch used on semi-trucks, which means it’s safe, sturdy, and rated for heavy loads. At the front of the 5th wheel, there’s a “king pin” that locks into the U-shaped pin box in the bed of your truck, allowing you to safely pull the trailer.
For more information on 5th wheel hitches, check out the following resources:
- The Common Fifth Wheel Hitch Mistake New Owners Make
- Essential RV Hitch and Tow Basics for Travel Trailers and Fifth Wheels
- How to Hitch Up a Weight Distribution Hitch
- Download a Fifth Wheel Hitch Checklist
If you’re new to towing a fifth wheel, download or print and laminate this Fifth Wheel Hitch Checklist.
What are the Pros and Cons of Fifth Wheels?
Whether you’re looking for the perfect RV for weekend trips or full-time RV life, 5th wheels can’t be ignored. Let’s look at their advantages and disadvantages to help you find the best RV for your lifestyle.
The Advantages of 5th Wheel RVs
Fifth wheels come with several upsides, starting with more stability when towing. Fifth wheel hitches reduce trailer sway because the hitch weight is over the rear axle (the drive axle) of the tow vehicle, meaning the weight of the trailer is better distributed.
The hitch design also provides a more secure connection than a typical ball hitch. This stronger connection and high level of stability mean most 5th wheel trailers can be built with strong, sturdy, heavier, and often more luxurious materials and features.
If you want a towable RV with luxury amenities, a fifth wheel is an excellent option. Many models come with solid wood cabinetry, king-size beds, and full-size appliances. These amenities are not included in standard travel trailers, often because of weight.
For those of you that bring a lot of toys and recreation gear on your adventures, a 5th wheel toy hauler may be your best choice. Toy haulers are the perfect RVs for outdoor lovers because they are a home and a garage on wheels. You’ll have room for ATVs, dirt bikes, kayaks, or anything else that you like to haul on your adventures.
The Downsides of Fifth Wheel Trailers
The first downside is size. Fifth wheels are large and heavy, and someone who’s not used to towing could feel overwhelmed. But their hitch design still makes them easier to handle than a travel trailer of the same size with a typical ball hitch. Still, 5th wheel RVs are a great family option because they generally offer a large living area and plenty of sleeping space.
Just remember that longer trailers have a slightly harder time finding campgrounds. You’ll need to be aware of campground length restrictions when booking sites for your RV road trip. This is the sacrifice you’ll make to get a trailer with more living space and storage capacity than most.
The other big downside is that you need a full-size or heavy-duty pickup truck to tow the trailer. Because 5th wheel campers are often larger and heavier than a typical travel trailer, they require a more powerful truck. This also translates to a higher-priced truck, which can put fifth wheels out of reach for many RVers.
Weighing 5th Wheel Pros and Cons
So, how do you balance the need for an RV with ample living space with the desire for maneuverability? A lot comes down to personal preference, but asking yourself these questions will help you decide if a 5th wheel is right for you:
- How many people will you travel with? Traveling with four or more people requires the kind of living space and sleeping capacity that only larger 5th wheels with bunkhouse floor plans can provide.
- How comfortable are you towing? While they’re generally more stable than traditional travel trailers, 5th wheels still require care when towing. There are plenty of resources to help you learn how to safely tow a trailer, but you need to ask yourself whether you’re comfortable navigating this type of RV before buying or renting a 5th wheel.
- How often will you relocate? 5th wheels are great for establishing a basecamp for longer stays. You’ll retain your tow vehicle for supply runs and to explore nearby attractions, but smaller class B RVs are better if you’re constantly on the move.
- How much gear do you pack? One final benefit of 5th wheel trailers is a healthy amount of storage space. Even if you don’t opt for a toy hauler model, most 5th wheels boast a generous pass-through compartment for gear storage.
It’s important to match the trailer to the truck you own. If you’re shopping for both an RV and a tow vehicle, learn how to find the right vehicle to tow your RV before you pick a fifth wheel RV. If you already have a truck, use a Towing Guide to determine how much weight you can safely tow.
What are your thoughts on fifth wheels? Would you want one? Leave a comment below.