First, let’s go over one major “newbie” pitfall so you can be confident that you’ll be looking at the right options for you. Then let’s take a look at what fifth wheels and travel trailers have in common. We’ll finish up with a breakdown of how they’re different—the differences are ultimately what can help you decide what’s right for you.
Your Vehicle’s Capability
Choosing to go with a towable RV means you will need a second vehicle to pull it. The very first thing you want to think about is what vehicle you are going to us tow. If you don’t consider the limitations of your tow vehicle from the outset, you risk choosing an RV that your vehicle is not rated to tow.
There are only two options for a tow vehicle. You’ll either use a vehicle you already own, or tow with a new (or new-to-you) vehicle.
Do you already own a vehicle you would like to tow with? If so, make sure to only look at RVs that your vehicle can tow.
If you’ve decided you will be purchasing both a tow vehicle and an RV, you can look at all of the many towable RV options to get a feel for what vehicle you will need to get to be able to tow the RV you want. It’s probably easier to decide on your vehicle first and then further refine your RV search. For help regarding what your vehicle is rated to tow, take a look at this helpful towing guide.
Fifth Wheel vs. Travel Trailer: Similarities
With both fifth wheels and travel trailers you’ll be able to set down your RV and detach. The advantage there is twofold. On the one hand, if you’re an avid fan of the outdoors, you can explore with the benefit of the 4×4 capability your truck (or SUV in select cases) likely has. You’re free to explore backcountry roads without your RV holding you back. Even with your RV you will be able to reach more places than with the majority of motorized RVs.
If backcountry roads aren’t calling out to you, and you prefer RVing to explore cities, attend concerts, or sporting events, it’ll be easy to detach and explore the city in a regular-sized vehicle. This isn’t to say this is only possible with a towable RV, but in the majority of cases this capability comes at a lower price point than with a motorized RV.
Both fifth wheels and travel trailers offer many options that can get you in an RV and out adventuring at a relatively low price point when it comes to RVs.
Another similarity is the ability to sleep multiple people. Most travel trailers and fifth wheels are ideal choices for family travel or camping with guests. The majority of your options will sleep 4 or more people.
Fifth Wheel vs. Travel Trailer: Differences
Range in Sizes
Fifth wheels and travel trailers greatly vary wildly when it comes to length. With fifth wheels generally ranging in length from 25-45 feet, you’ll be committing to a fairly large rig. Due to their large size, they’ll require a more powerful truck to tow. Their large size, plus the “upstairs” master bedroom or living area, allow for fifth wheels to feel very much like an apartment. Fireplaces, washer/dryers, and dishwashers are not uncommon in fifth wheels. But what if you don’t have a truck, are worried about fitting in National Park campgrounds, or you want to tow something smaller?
Travel trailers are available in a greater range of lengths—ranging from 12-35 feet. You can just about get the same roomy feel of a fifth wheel with a large travel trailer, but you also have the option to go much smaller. The smaller options allow you to tow with a smaller vehicle, like an SUV. In other cases you may be able to tow with a mid-size truck rather than a full-size truck. Be sure not to choose a rig that’s exactly at your vehicle’s max capacity though. If you’re looking for something small and compact, the towable option for you will likely be a small travel trailer.
With the exception of small travel trailers, like teardrop campers, the consensus is that fifth wheels have the upper hand when it comes to driveability. A fifth wheel can be easier to maneuver and, in some cases, are even considered safer to tow. The main reason for this is where the hitch point is located in fifth wheels versus travel trailers. Fifth wheel hitches (located higher, in the bed of your truck) provide a better turning radius and also reduce sway while you drive. A travel trailer’s low hitch point means the wind will throw you around a bit more, and your turning radius will be larger than in a fifth wheel.
There are accessories you can purchase to reduce sway and improve stability if you fall in love with a travel trailer, however. Of course, travel trailers that are very small will be easier to tow and maneuver for most than the smallest fifth wheel.
Total Rig Length
If you are planning on taking your RV to nearby campgrounds most of the time, total rig length may not be a concern. Any time you have a rig longer than 24 ft., you should definitely double-check that a campground can accommodate you. Being that both fifth wheels and travel trailers are on the longer side, this is something you should do no matter which option you go with.
However, if you plan on taking longer trips with your RV, total rig length, meaning your rig plus your tow vehicle, will be something to consider. When you take longer trips you will need to stop for gas, stop for food, and likely make overnight stops outside of campgrounds. With a fifth wheel you will always be able to have the same roominess as a travel trailer at a shorter total rig length. When your RV is attached, you will need more space to park a 28 foot travel trailer than you would for a comparable fifth wheel (due to the hitch points).
This difference in total rig length comes into play when you are trying to take up less parking spots as you stop for food. This makes a difference when you try to maneuver in and out of busy, and possibly tight, gas stations along the way. Walmarts can nearly always accommodate even the longest total rig lengths overnight, but it does make life simpler if you can fit in just two parking spaces front to back, rather than taking up five across. The same with stopping for snacks or food. Most rest stops and Cracker Barrels can accommodate even the longest total rig lengths. But again, if you can fit into two parking spaces front to back, your food options will broaden.
Finally, your two towable options will differ in price. Travel trailers have the upper hand here—they’re least expensive way to start RVing.
Overall, travel trailers tend to be less expensive, partly because of the wider range in sizes that they come in. Another factor is that a fifth wheels will usually require a full-size truck while some travel trailers can be pulled by SUVs or mid-size trucks.
Enjoy the process of touring different fifth wheel and travel trailer floorplans. There are many to choose from and it can be fun to narrow down your choices once you know you want a towable. Remember to always keep your vehicle’s tow capacity in mind no matter what. Overall, a fifth wheel will feel like being in an apartment, but you will sacrifice some National Park campgrounds and some spontaneity. Travel Trailers at the small end of the spectrum can easily fit anywhere and will allow you more flexibility. If you decide to go big, fifth wheels do have some significant advantages when it comes to driveability and ease of towing. Find your perfect travel trailer or fifth wheel at rv.campingworld.com.