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.
Once you have a reliable tow vehicle, browse Camping World’s selection of fifth wheel travel trailers – both new and used.
What are your thoughts on fifth wheels? Would you want one? Leave a comment below.
Thank you for letting us know that fifth wheels have a U-shaped hitch coupling that is bolted to the frame of the pickup truck or any tow vehicle. I’m going camping with friends soon, so we need a fifth wheel to tow and use for our trailer. I’ll take note of this while I look for where we can get fifth wheels soon.
im looking for a wheel chair company that makes or sells 5th wheel trailers ,i have a f250 turbo deasil ford 3/4 ton ready to pull something big , like a toy hauler.so is there any takers.
Another downside of fifth-wheels is that for seniors developing mobility issues, it’s hard enough navigating one set of stairs into the rig without having to navigate another stairway inside the rig several times a night.
When we were shopping for our current rig, we did consider 5ers in the same size range because people told us they felt “roomier.” We never got that feeling, and having to navigate the extra “story” sent us back to bumper-pulls.
Whomever wrote this article has no clue what the hell they are talking about. 5ths are more stable, but not because of a lower center of gravity(these things are pushing the DOT limitations for height).
It’s becaus the tongue weight is directly over the drive axle of the truck and not behind the axle lifting weight off the truck’s front steer axle. Also, the higher tongue weight percentage makes the trailer stable because the weight of the trailer is more evanly distributed across the entire rig(truck and trailer)
Pay attention to where semi dry van trailer axles are? All the way back as far as possible, this gives the max tongue weight and most stability, it’s how a 16k lb day cab tractor can pull 80k load without issues of stability.
I am confused by the statement;
“It will likely not experience as much trailer sway if any at all. This is due to its lower center of gravity and stronger connection than with a typical ball hitch.”
How is a lower CG possible, when not only are 5th wheel trailers are taller, and the hitch point higher?
I read the article knowing what a fifth wheel was but not knowing why it was given that name. After reading an article titled “why are fifth wheel trailers called that”. I still don’t know. Please answer that.
Good article, one correction, a gooseneck hitch and a 5th wheel are not the same. (1) 5th wheel, reciever is identical to what semi trucks use to haul commercial trailers. A 5th wheel RV is the only towable trailer that (in California) you are allowed legally to have passengers ride in while in transit. (2) gooseneck trailers are normally used for livestock (horses, cows) and are not legally allowed to have passengers ride in them while in transit. This trailer hooks to a ball that is mounted in the back of your pickup truck over the rear axle.
The only resemblance between them is that instead of hooking up to the reciever under your rear bumper, they hook up to a receiver mounted in the bed of the truck. Other than that they are totally different.
Hi Ralph! You might find this article useful: https://www.rv.com/rv/6-wheelchair-accessible-motorhomes-travel-trailers/
Thanks, Henry! There are pros and cons to every RV, which is why it is always a good idea to test out a few to find the one that works best for your needs.
The extra stability is in part due to the connection being located over the rear axle. Trailer sway will effect the tow vehicle sway to a lesser extent.
I’ve reworked the paragraph in question to help clarify any confusion. I hope that helps!
Thanks for pointing out the lack of clarity in the article. I’ve updated it to answer this question. Basically, back in the 1800s, some carriages had a horizontal wheel on the front axle that allowed it to pivot. As technology advanced, the name stuck and is now used to describe this type of pickup hitch.
Appreciate the comment. I’ve removed the reference to gooseneck so the article is more accurate. Thanks for the clarification!