If you are just learning about RVs you will come across some terms that make you scratch your head. 'Fifth wheel trailer' has to be right up there at the top of this list.
Let's get your head straight.
What Is A Fifth Wheel?
A fifth wheel (also called a 5th wheel) is one of the types of camping trailers 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, their living space is not on a single level.
You 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:
Fifth Wheel Trailer Construction
Apart from the step-up characteristic of a 5th wheel RV, construction is similar to 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) sits 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 Required
The siding material is either single piece fiberglass panels (smooth wall), or corrugated sheet metal (a cheaper building material).
Wall insulation consists 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 camper outer shell to make their 'boxes.'
This results in a longer-lasting, more leak-resistant, and tougher wall and roof structure.
5th Wheel Camper Interiors
Interior amenities include everything you will find in a full-featured RV.
They will include a full kitchen, bathroom, bedroom with up to a king size RV mattress, and one or more seating areas.
They are self-contained in that they have travel trailer holding tanks for fresh water and wastewater (both gray and black tanks).
Furnishing quality ranges from basic, practical fixtures and furniture to rigs with high-end kitchens with a 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, making 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?
Attachment To Tow Vehicle
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.
These 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. It also reduces the overall size (length) of the pickup truck and RV.
Towing a 5th wheel camper is more stable than towing a bumper pull.
It's 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 thanks!).
Combined Length Differences
A 5th wheel travel trailer also has the advantage of a shorter overall tow vehicle and trailer length than 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).
Say you have a 35-foot travel trailer and a 35-foot fifth-wheel 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) than the bumper pull combination.
And yes, this makes a very noticeable difference.
Single Level VS Double Level
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.
A bumper pull travel trailer has its living area all on a single level. The fifth-wheel trailer has two levels of living area.
The result is a much taller RV.
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 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 feel more spacious, and when you are living in your RV full-time, this is a welcomed benefit.
Most 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 commonplace in a fifth-wheel trailer, with the biggest rigs having up to six slides. Yes, six slides!
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 high cost to the trailer but might be something worth having.
Generators 'live' in the basement storage area under the front of the rig.
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.
These four-wheeled vehicles were pulled by horses and used a horizontal wheel mounted at the front axle 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 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.
Modern-day fifth wheel hitches came on the market in 1926 with the kingpin and horseshoe coupling setup.
This arrangement features automatic hitching and unhitching due to trailer motion (once the lock is undone).
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 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 daily doesn't appeal to you, then a 5th wheel trailer might not be your thing.
There are many types and models to choose from, so whatever you go with, enjoy the journey.
Even if it's not in a 5th wheel.
Author: Marshall Wendler
Camp Addict co-founder Marshall Wendler brings his technical expertise to help explain RV products in an easy to understand fashion. Full-time RVing from April 2014 - December 2020 (now RVing about 50% of the time), Marshall loves sharing his knowledge of the RV lifestyle. Marshall spends the majority of his RVing life boondocking. He is the part of Camp Addict that knows 'all the things'. He's good at sharing his technical knowledge so you can benefit.