Why Are Fifth-Wheel Trailers Called That? 11153

There is a lot of jargon in the RV world. We have an article on that to get you acquainted if you’re not initiated. One term that you’ve likely come across but might not have totally understood what it means is “fifth-wheel” of “5th-wheel.” This is a type of towable RV that requires a large pickup truck to tow because of the type of hitch it uses.

The Fifth-Wheel Hitch

popular fifth wheel floor plans

The fifth-wheel hitch is a U shaped hitch coupling that fits in the back of the tow vehicle—usually, a pickup truck—and connects with the trailer. The spot where the trailer connects to the tow vehicle, in essence, acts as another point for the trailer to connect and rest its weight.

It’s also where the term fifth-wheel gets its name. Old carriages in the 1800s had an actual horizontal wheel, that allowed the front axle to pivot. The name’s use was continued with the modern day design for the pickup truck hitch.

It’s a similar design to the type of hitch that a semi-truck uses. This means it’s a very safe and sturdy hitch. It is one that can be used for large and heavy loads. The trailer has a “king pin,” which locks into the U-shaped hitch allowing you to safely pull the trailer.  For more information on hitches for RV’s, check out this page here, we have a variety of different products.

Why Is a Fifth-Wheel a Good Idea?

The fifth-wheel design comes with quite a few upsides. A trailer with a fifth-wheel hitch design will feel more stable when towing. It should not experience much trailer sway. This is due to the fact that the hitch weight is over the rear axle (the drive axle) of the tow vehicle, meaning the weight of the trailer is better distributed across the entire rig.

Also, the strong fifth-wheel hitch design provides a more secure connection than a typical ball hitch. This stronger connection and high level of stability mean most fifth-wheel trailers can be built with strong, sturdy, heavier, and often more luxurious materials and features.

If you want a towable RV and you want a true luxury model, you want to buy a fifth-wheel. Many fifth-wheel models come with solid wood cabinetry, king-size beds, and full-size appliances. These amenities are not included in travel trailers often partly because of weight.

What are the Downsides?

The first stems from the sheer size of most fifth-wheel trailers. Fifth-wheels are large and heavy, and someone who’s not used to towing could feel overwhelmed. That said, because fifth-wheels are designed for stability and maneuverability, they’re still usually easier to handle on the road than a trailer of the same size with a typical ball hitch.

The other big downside is that you need a full-size or heavy-duty pickup truck to tow the fifth-wheel trailer. Because fifth-wheels RVs 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-wheel trailers out of reach for many RVers.

It’s important to match the trailer to the truck you own. If you’re shopping for both an RV and a tow vehicle, check out our article on the subject for more information.


What are your thoughts on fifth-wheels? Would you want one? Leave a comment below. 

Why are fifth wheel trailers called that

8 Comments

  1. 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.

    1. Hi Gregg,

      Appreciate the comment. I’ve removed the reference to gooseneck so the article is more accurate. Thanks for the clarification!

      -Wade

  2. 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.

    1. Hi Rob,

      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.

  3. 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?

      1. 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.

  4. 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.

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