What Is A Fifth Wheel Trailer? All You Need To Know About 5th Wheels

PublishedApril 10, 2020

If you are just learning about RVs you will come across some terms that make you scratch your head. 'Fifth wheel' has to be right up there at the top of this list.

Let's get your head straight. 

Fifth Wheel exterior

Fifth Wheel Trailer

What Is A Fifth Wheel?

A fifth wheel (also called a 5th wheel) is a style of RV trailer that connects to the bed of a pickup and has a characteristic rise, or step-up, to the front of the rig.

See the below feature to learn how a 5th wheel is different than a traditional travel trailer.

Because fifth wheel trailers must have an area in front of it to fit over the tow vehicle, its living area is not on a single level. 

You will have to climb a few steps to get up to the upper living area, which some people dislike.

Who Makes 5th Wheels? Which 5th Wheel Is The Best?

This upper living area is traditionally the master bedroom.

However, in some modern fifth wheel floor plans the front is an open living room.

5th Wheel Quick Stats:
  • Length: 19 to 48 feet
  • Sleeping Capacity: Up to 8 people
  • Slide-Outs: 0 to 6
  • Gross Vehicle Weight: 3,500 to 24,000 pounds
  • Retail Price: $18,000 to $225,000

*Above stats are approximate ranges just to give you a general idea

Fifth Wheel Trailer Pros and Cons:
  • Stable towing
  • Wide variety of lengths and interior appointments
  • Interior space is larger compared to travel trailer due to ceiling height (and often more slides)
  • Taller (sometimes much taller) than a bumper pull travel trailer
  • Some larger/heavier fifth wheels need massively sized tow vehicles
  • Long 5th wheels will not fit in many campsites

Ultimate Guide To RV Types

Confused about the different types of RVs? Click here to read our guide that explains the differences between the various RV styles.

RV Types

Fifth Wheel Trailer Construction

Apart from the step-up characteristic of a 5th wheel RV, they are constructed in the same fashion as a bumper pull travel trailer.

The foundation of the RV is a frame that has anywhere from one to three axles (depending on length/weight).

The living quarters (box) is built on top of the frame.

The living quarters are hard-sided and constructed using aluminum or wood studs, similar to a house.

Massive Tow Vehicle May Be Required

  • Larger fifth wheels can be very heavy and require a large towing vehicle to safely handle the size and weight this type of RV typically has. This means either a big dually pickup truck, or in some cases, a medium to heavy-duty truck (semi). Neither of which makes for a good daily driver, so this is something to consider.

The siding material is either single piece fiberglass panels (smooth wall), or corrugated sheet metal (a cheaper building material).

Wall insulation is made up of either foam sheets or fiberglass.

Roofs will be either a rubber membrane (most common), or molded fiberglass (higher end fifth wheels).

There are a couple of manufacturers of small fifth wheels that use a solid fiberglass outer shell to make their 'boxes'.

This results in a longer-lasting, more leak-resistant, and a tougher wall and roof structure.

These manufacturers are Escape Trailer Industries and Eveland's (Scamp).

5th Wheel Camper Interiors

5th wheel interior

5th Wheel Interior

Interior amenities include everything you will find in a full-featured RV.

They will include a full kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and one or more seating areas.

They are self-contained in that they have RV holding tanks for fresh water and waste water (both gray and black tanks).

Furnishing quality ranges from basic, utilitarian fixtures and furniture, to rigs with high-end kitchens with residential refrigerator, island sinks, comfortable lounge chairs, solid surface counters, and home theaters. 

There is an interior style and level for any taste. These interiors can be VERY alluring and the options are seemingly endless.

Just remember, the more luxuries a particular model has, the higher the price will be. Prices can get quite steep quickly, and can make your eyeballs pop out of your head.

5th Wheel vs Travel Trailer

While both 5th wheels and bumper pull travel trailers are considered 'RV trailers', there are some key differences.

So what is the difference be between a fifth wheel and a travel trailer?

Travel trailer profile

Bumper Pull Travel Trailer

5th wheel travel trailers differ from their bumper pull trailer cousins in the way that they attach to the tow vehicle.

You must use a pickup truck to tow a fifth wheel, as the hitch connects inside the bed of the truck via a kingpin and a fifth wheel hitch.

So rather than attaching to the bumper as is the case with 'normal' travel trailers, the fifth wheel attaches inside the bed of the pickup truck.

This different attachment points place the weight of the front of the trailer in a different spot on the tow vehicle.

This results in different handling characteristics, while reducing the overall size (length) of the pickup truck and RV.

Fifth Wheel hooked up

Fifth Wheel Hitched To Truck Bed

Towing a 5th wheel camper will be more stable than towing a bumper pull.

This is especially noticeable when you have a larger rig. There is no comparison towing say a 36-foot 5th wheel and a 36-foot travel trailer. 

The fifth wheel is hands-down more stable and more comfortable to tow. Simple acts such as turning are even different as the fifth wheel hitches react differently.

For this reason, you will see fifth wheels as long as 48 feet in length.

Bumper pull trailers top out around 38 feet (and this would be considered a monster of a trailer to tow - no thank you!).

A 5th wheel travel trailer also has the advantage of a shorter overall tow vehicle and trailer length compared to the same size travel trailer.

This is because the fifth wheel attaches inside the truck bed, therefore the front of the trailer sits over a portion of the truck.

The entire length of a bumper pull is behind the tow vehicle (thus a tow-behind trailer).

Fifth wheel trailer profile

Fifth Wheel

Say you have a 35-foot travel trailer and a 35-foot fifth wheel being towed by a 22-foot long truck.

The bumper pull trailer and truck combined length will be the lengths of the two vehicles combined, or 57 feet. 

But with part of the fifth wheel hanging over the bed of the truck, you 'lose' a few feet of combined length.

So the combined length of your 35-foot fifth-wheel and 22-foot truck will be closer to 53 feet. 

In other words, it is somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 feet shorter (at least 4 feet - depends on the bed length of the truck) then the bumper pull combination.

And yes, this makes a very noticeable difference.

Because the front of a 5th wheel RV sits above the truck bed, it will have a step-up near the front of the rig.

Where a bumper pull travel trailer will have its living area all on a single level, the fifth wheel trailer will have two levels of living area.

This results in a much taller overall RV.

Travel Trailer vs Fifth Wheel Height

Travel Trailer (L) vs Fifth Wheel (R) Height

The main (rear) section of a typical 5th wheel will be at a lower level, and as you approach the front of the rig, you will climb 2-3 stairs to an upper area.

As you can see, there are some very noticeable differences between a fifth wheel and a bumper pull travel trailer.

Stand-Out Features Of 5th Wheel Trailers

One of the big advantages of a 5th wheel trailer, as discussed above, is the increased stability while towing.

Due to the step-up front area of a fifth wheel, and the need to have enough headroom in this portion of the trailer for taller people to stand, the overall height of the RV is taller than a conventional travel trailer.

This results in a dramatically higher ceiling in the main living area.

All but the shortest/smallest fifth-wheel trailers have much more interior living space due to this higher ceiling. 

They just feel more spacious, and when you are living in your RV full-time, this is a welcomed benefit.

Fifth wheels come with at least one slide, which helps expand the living space.

You will find small and cheap fifth wheels with no slides, but these are the exception.

Multiple slides are very commonplace in a fifth-wheel trailer, with the biggest rigs having up to 6 slides. Yes, 6 slides!

5th wheel basement storage

5th Wheel Basement Storage

Exterior storage is one of the benefits of fifth wheel trailers.

Specifically the basement storage area under the front 'step-up' area.

On larger 5th wheel campers, this can be a significant amount of room to stash all your goodies (and to potentially overload your RV).

A generator to power 120-volt appliances is available on many larger fifth wheels.

This option will add a significant cost to the trailer but might be something worth having. 

Generators are located in the basement storage area under the front of the rig.

Fifth wheel generator

Fifth Wheel Generator

How Much Does a 5th Wheel Cost?

The better question might be 'how much do you want to spend'? 

The smallest/shortest 5th wheel that anyone in the six-foot-tall range would have a hard time standing up in can cost as little as $18,000 retail. 

You can spend well into the $200,000's for a new from the factory, custom, 48-foot luxury fifth wheel, loaded with all the options and luxury everywhere.

(But remember, never pay the asking retail price!)

With a wide variety of models and floor plans to choose from, as well as build quality levels, there is a 5th wheel trailer to fit almost every budget.

Why Is It Called A Fifth Wheel?

The term 'fifth wheel' has its origins from way back in the horse-drawn carriage/wagon days.

Horse drawn carriage

These four-wheeled vehicles were pulled by horses and used a horizontal wheel mounted at the front axle to allow this to pivot/turn.

The horizontal wheel was the horse-drawn vehicle's 'fifth wheel'.

When the mechanical truck replaced horses as the primary means of hauling goods via a trailer, this same fifth wheel concept was carried over (with a patent for the first of these being issued in 1916 to Martin Rocking Fifth Wheel Co).

These early trucks had four wheels touching the ground, with a fifth one mounted horizontally near the rear frame section.

Trailers attached to this horizontal fifth wheel via a king pin that was lifted over the fifth wheel and dropped into the center hole (coupling).

The fifth wheel hitch pin and coupling arrangement allowed the trailer to pivot independently of the truck.

Fifth wheel hitch example

Modern Fifth Wheel Hitch

Modern-day fifth wheel hitches were introduced in 1926 with the king pin and horseshoe coupling setup.

This arrangement features automatic hitching and unhitching due to trailer motion (once the lock is undone).

Ultimate Guide To RV Types

Confused about the different types of RVs? Click here to read our guide that explains the differences between the various RV styles.

RV Types

Conclusion

There you have it! You now know the answer to the question "what is a 5th wheel trailer?".

Is a fifth wheel right for you? That depends on so many factors.

Such is the case with the wonderful world of RVs.

If you want the most residential feeling RV full of amenities, then a fifth wheel camper is a great choice.

If the idea of towing a monster RV down the road, and then being stuck with a large, often cumbersome pickup truck to drive on a daily basis doesn't appeal to you, then a 5th wheel trailer might not be your thing.

There are many RV types and models to choose from, so whatever you go with, enjoy the journey.

Even if it's not in a 5th wheel.

Marshall Headshot

Camp Addict co-founder Marshall Wendler brings his technical expertise to help explain RV products in an easy to understand fashion. Full-time RVing since April 2014, Marshall loves sharing his knowledge of the RV lifestyle.

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  • Hello Kelly and Marshall. My husband,Roman and I are learning. We just sold our old travel travel and are looking to upgrade. We have an F-150. We would like a 4 season 5th wheel. We have spoken with Ford and for our vin number max. weight we should pull is 9000 lbs. The research I have done does not show any. We know a 5th wheel is safer. Any help and advice would be appreciated. Thanks in advance. Enjoying your website.

    Diana Nowak

    • Hi Diana,

      Thank you for kudos on the site! As far as pulling a fifth wheel with your F-150, we don’t recommend this. There aren’t many fifths you will be able to tow safely with a tow capacity of 9,000, especially not a four-season fifth-wheel. They are typically not the lightest fifths. Most fifth wheels weigh between 7K and 20K pounds. Then they weigh more than that once you load them up.

      You should not be pulling a 7K fifth wheel with a tow capacity of only 9K. You will be sadly underpowered.

      Try to stay a good bit under the max tow capacity of your tow vehicle. You would be better off getting a truck with a tow capacity of 15k or so (a heavy-duty truck) and get a 10K lb fifth.

      Trust us, it sucks to be underpowered, and it also strains your engine.

      Good luck!

  • Hi Kelly and Marshall, My wife and I have recently retired and are looking into purchasing a 5th Wheel Trailer. I have been reading on your site extensively and have purchased the RV Consumer Group information you recommended. We have somewhat narrowed down our choices to either a Northwood Arctic Fox Grande Ronde or the Grand Design Reflection or S-Series. We are leaning towards the Arctic Fox as it looks to be a sturdier frame and I like the 4 stars across all areas especially the safely rating. If possible I would like your thoughts on Generators and some thoughts on the Arctic. We will not be doing a lot of boondocking initially however, after 28 years of Naval Service I like to be prepared. So would you recommend purchasing a unit with the Onan Generator already installed or one of the portable generators you recommend. I would definitely run the AC as our daughter lives in the Houston TX area and it gets extremely hot. Thank you both for any assistance and I look forward to hearing from you.

    • Hey Jim,

      Arctic Fox by Northwood Manufacturing is a great brand and you are smart to be looking at them. Given the choice, I’d definitely go with them over Grand Design. I believe they are built to take the 4-season extremes better – not that any RV handles extreme cold and hot well, but they do better than most.

      Also consider Outdoors RV fifth wheels. Outdoors RV and Northwood are sister companies. Same ownership group. Both made in La Grande, Oregon. Both very high quality, four-season RVS.

      Oh, to get a built-in generator or not (assuming it’s an option for the floor plan you want). Well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?

      Sure would be nice to press a button and have all the power you’d ever want while you are boondocking. AC at the touch of a button. Sigh, yes that would be great.

      HOWEVER, it is a considerable up front expense. And how often would you really need that? And would a portable generator be good enough (most likely not for running AC unless you get a large one, but would be good enough for everything else).

      Would you be parked at your daughter’s in the Houston area, or at an RV park? I guess the question is, would you be plugged into shore power? If so, then you wouldn’t need the generator to run AC, right? So maybe you don’t need a generator for AC, and therefore might not need the expense of a built-in one?

      So many questions. So many options. And yes, you probably won’t get it 100% right the first time around. Just do the best you can and do the research like you are doing.

      Hope that helps!

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