Fifth Wheels

Fifth Wheels Vs. Travel Trailers

A quick comparison.

Most people know the difference between a motorhome and a towable. A motorhome has its own engine while a towable is hooked to a tow vehicle. Those new to the RV world are less sure about the difference between a fifth wheel and a travel trailer. They look similar and they’re both pulled by a tow vehicle. 

So what’s the difference? Basically, a travel trailer can be hooked to anything with a hitch on the bumper: a car, a van, the family SUV, a pick-up. As long as your tow vehicle can handle the weight, it can pull a travel trailer. A fifth wheel, though, is a very different animal. The fifth wheel hitch is too high to hook on the bumper of a tow vehicle, being designed to mount in the bed of a pick-up. If you’re considering a fifth-wheel, you’ll need a pick-up with a special towing ball mounted in the middle of your truck bed. 

You could safely decide whether you want to shop for a travel trailer or a fifth wheel based on this single bit of information. (We told you this would be a quick comparison.)

While a dedicated pick-up with a hitch in the middle of their truck bed is a deal breaker for many (especially those without a pick-up), a fifth wheel does have some notable advantages. For one, with the hitch well forward of the rear bumper, the foot print of the fifth wheel has an extra five feet or so of living space that sits over the truck bed. With a travel trailer the living space starts several feet behind the rear bumper.

Travel trailers can be trickier to maneuver, too, with the full length of the trailer riding well behind your tow vehicle. Happily, back-up cameras are available in many travel trailers and fifth wheel these days, enabling even the first time RVer to reverse in to a campsite like a seasoned pro. For those campers without this feature, aftermarket back-up cameras are cheap -$100 to $200 for a decent one- and installation is surprisingly simple. Back-up cameras have also improved spousal relations, eliminating the familiar spectacle of a fractious couple working together to reverse park an RV (“I said left! Not your left, my left!).

As far as features and amenities? There’s not much difference between today’s travel trailers or fifth wheels. Many manufacturers even offer the same model in both versions. Keystone RV, for instance, offers a Springdale travel trailer and a Springdale fifth-wheel. Until a few years ago, fifth wheels were considered the towable of choice for Snow Birds and Full Timers -people that traveled long distances for long periods of time with big, beefy, diesel pick-ups. However, that has changed.

New, smaller (and lighter) fifth-wheels are currently the fastest growing segment of the fifth wheel universe. While there’s still plenty of scale-busting fifth wheels on the market with tow weights in the 20,000 lbs. range, there’s also plenty of options well below 10,000 lbs. Granted, you’ll still need a vehicle capable of accepting the unique fifth-wheel hitch, but you can often get away with a typical, gas powered pick-up. The front portion of a fifth-wheel (the part that hangs over the truck bed), traditionally houses the master bedroom. In recent years, though, we’re starting to see front mounted living rooms, bathrooms and even kitchens. You’ll find the bathroom in a fifth wheel is usually larger than a travel trailer and in some larger models a built in washer/dryer is included. Many manufacturers will plumb and wire for after-market washers and driers, allowing you to buy and install your own.

Travel Trailer and Fifth-Wheel sales are very similar. 

With the trend toward smaller and lighter RVs in the last few years, the fifth-wheel market has done an excellent job at keeping itself relevant. We’re seeing lightweight metal frames starting to replace traditional (and heavier) stick-built wood framing. Composite type sheathing materials have also helped cut the tow weight of even the biggest Fivers. Shorter overall lengths have been helped by the increased usage of slide-outs. In fact, you’ll find some Fivers now featuring up to six slide-outs. Six!

You may want to consider a Fiver if you are considering SnowBird or FullTime travel. Even though there are numerous full-sized (and very popular) Travel Trailers on the market, some research on Fivers may be worth your time. If you determine that a new tow vehicle will be necessary, keep in mind that a motorhome may actually be less expensive. Like everything else, you’ll find there are pros and cons with both types of RVs. If you do your homework you’ll quickly find which approach will best meet your needs. Some campers like the fact they can move around inside their motorhome while traveling. Others like the convenience of having a separate and easy to drive vehicle when they arrive at their destination. Whichever option works best for you, quality of construction and customer service after the sale must remain paramount to your search.

So how do you find out which fifth wheels will meet your needs? How do you negotiate the best price? Questions like these and many others are answered in our best-selling guide: The Travel Trailer & Fifth Wheel Comparison Guide. 

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