What is a Fifth Wheel? — The Ultimate Guide!

Want to camp in a large, luxurious RV — the biggest, in fact, available on the market?

Want the freedom and flexibility of having an auxiliary vehicle along for the ride without having to worry about toting around a toad behind a motorhome?

Want access to all of that without spending the Miami-penthouse prices commanded by some Class A motorhomes?

If so, a fifth wheel trailer might just be the perfect option for you and your family. Fifth wheels, or 5th wheels, are one of the most common types of RVs you see on the road, and for good reason. They offer a great balance of luxury, affordability, and space. Whether you’re traveling with a large family and looking for as much leg room as possible or you’re just a solo adventurer (or cozy couple) who’d rather have all the creature comforts, in this article, we’re going to walk you through everything you need to know about fifth wheel trailers, from why they’re called that to how to install their unique hitches.

Ready to learn everything there is to know about fifth wheel trailers? Hold on tight — here we go!

What is a fifth wheel?

A fifth wheel travel trailer is a large trailer that requires a fifth wheel hitch to tow. Fifth wheels are heavy, and thus require a full-size, one-ton truck to tow them — and their unique hitch requires the coupling to be in the bed of the truck.

Fifth wheels are very popular RVs, and for a lot of good reasons. Given their super-duty hitches, they can be a lot heavier, which means they have a lot more available room and weight rating for luxury amenities and sleeping space. Most fifth wheels today also come with multiple slide-outs, which means the space can be expanded even further once you’ve set up camp.

Let’s take a closer look at the “5th wheel” part of the fifth wheel trailer. Why is it called that — and how, exactly, does a fifth wheel work?

Why is it called a fifth wheel?

Why is a fifth wheel called a fifth wheel?

It seems like a simple question — but the meaning behind the “fifth wheel” moniker does confuse some new campers. And the backstory is actually fascinating, and reaches back in history well before travel trailers were even a thing!

Old horse-drawn carriages in the 1800s actually had a fifth wheel, which sat horizontally and allowed the front axel to pivot. Although the present fifth wheel setup is very dissimilar to this old use of the term, the name stuck around.

Today’s fifth wheels operate using a sturdy fifth wheel hitch, which is heavy-duty enough to allow weightier loads to be pulled. The hitch is a U-shaped fitting, which sits in the bed of a pickup truck, and is connected via the trailer’s “king pin.”

Image via Amazon

Fifth wheel hitches tend to feel much stabler than traditional ball hitches, from the tower’s perspective, and also help cut back on trailer sway. These U-shaped hitches are required for fifth wheel travel trailers, so let’s cover how to install one into your tow vehicle.

How to Install a 5th Wheel Hitch

In order to install a 5th wheel hitch, you must first have a vehicle that’s capable of towing the weight of the fifth wheel trailer and accepting the hitch — which in just about every case means a full-size, one-ton truck, like a Ford F350. However, it’s always important to review the tow capacity figures of your tow vehicle as well as the weight ratings (like the GVWR) of your rig before you commit to either purchase.

Once you’re sure you’ve got the right set of vehicles — and a high-quality fifth wheel hitch — installation isn’t too difficult. It will take a little bit of time and mechanical know-how, though, so if you’re uncomfortable using basic tools you may want to outsource the project to a professional. (Psst: if you do, here’s how to find a trustworthy RV repair shop near you.)

Here are the basic steps to installing a fifth wheel hitch into your truck bed.

  • Remove the spare tire, which likely sits under the bed of the truck.
  • Position the front base rail of the fifth wheel hitch. Mark the first drill location, and drill a pilot hole to help guide you through the rest of the installation. Be sure to check the positioning of the pilot hole under the bed of the truck before continuing to drill the rest of the holes. You may need to enlarge the bolt holes already present.
  • Bolt in the under-bed brackets to start securing the fifth wheel hitch to the truck bed.
  • Bolt down the front of the fifth wheel rail.
  • Measure the 5th wheel hitch height, attach the 5th wheel legs, and position the 5th wheel rear rail. Repeat the drilling and bolting process for the rear rail and install any remaining bolts.
  • Torque all hardware and ensure the bolts are secure and tight before using the hitch to tow a trailer.

 You can also check out the YouTube video above, and be sure to run any questions you may have by an RV professional or the manufacturer of your hitch. This is definitely a situation in which it’s better to be safe than sorry!

Is a fifth wheel right for you?

Now that we’ve covered some basics about how fifth wheels work and even how to install the hitch in your truck, let’s backtrack just a bit. Is a fifth wheel the right option for you? How can you tell?

A fifth wheel is definitely a necessity if you plan to tow a fifth wheel trailer — which, as mentioned above, is a great RV option for those looking for a large and luxurious rig without paying Class A motorhome prices (or having to deal with pulling a toad). Fifth wheel hitches can also allow you to tow other large, heavy loads, such as large cargo trailers or even horse trailers.

If you live a lifestyle in which towing heavy stuff is a fairly common occurrence, it may make sense to go with a 5th wheel travel trailer since you’ll use the hitch for other things anyway. But let’s take a moment to review what’s so awesome about fifth wheel travel trailers in particular.

What can you do with a fifth wheel trailer?

Fifth wheel travel trailers are great because they offer both the flexibility of a towable vehicle (in which you always have an auxiliary vehicle to drive around town, since you have to tow it), as well as the comfort and luxury of super-sized RVs. Fifth wheels often have multiple slideouts and extremely large interiors, offering up to a whopping 500 square feet of living space. (We’ve definitely been in urban apartments with less room than that!)

Fifth wheel trailers are great options for campers looking to full-time, especially since they frequently come with above-and-beyond amenities like full-sized kitchens (with islands!), bath tubs, washing machines and more. Even if you’re only a weekend warrior, a fifth wheel gives you lots of extra leg room to spread out and feel comfortable anywhere the road may lead, and if you have a family with children, a fifth wheel can give you the opportunity to provide a little bit of extra privacy (and many more options for sleeping surfaces).

In short, a fifth wheel trailer is a great option for a wide variety of campers for a wide variety of reasons, but it’s always important to consider your own personal camping needs when you’re shopping for a trailer. We recommend renting a few different types of RVs, including both motorhomes and travel trailers of different sizes, to really experience what they’re like to camp in before making a final decision. One easy way to do so? Using the peer-to-peer market at RVshare! Check out the RVs available in your area today.

Fifth Wheel Maintenance

All RVs require general maintenance and upkeep, and fifth wheels are no exception. They also have some specific requirements in order to ensure the hitch stays in proper working order.

Image via Amazon

One of the most pressing examples is the fact that the fifth wheel hitch needs to be lubricated regularly, which should be done with a specifically designed 5th wheel slider lubricant like this one.

While you’re lubing up your fifth wheel, it’s a good opportunity to check it over for any rust or other damage. Keep in mind that hitch is the only thing securing your rig to your truck, so you really want to be sure it’s in proper working order!

You’ll want to wipe away any old or existing grease that can build up on the fifth wheel fittings, because it can attract dirt and debris that can shorten the lifespan of the hitch. It’s especially important to ensure all that grease is wiped from the lock jaw, throat, and pivot points before winter comes, because it can freeze and keep the mechanisms from operating properly.

Along with maintaining the fifth wheel hitch, your RV will also need basic maintenance both inside and out. Here are some great RVshare articles to check out with how-tos and tips for this kind of maintenance:

Why choose a fifth wheel trailer over a motorhome?

We’ve talked a lot in this post about the specific benefits a fifth wheel can offer. But is it really a better option than a motorhome?

Class A motorhomes also come with lots of leg room, luxuries, and amenities. But here are some of the main reasons you might want to choose a fifth wheel instead.

  • As with any towable RV, with a fifth wheel, you don’t have to worry about towing a vehicle behind a motorhome, which can be tricky. You’ll automatically have an auxiliary vehicle with which to see the sights around town, since you need that vehicle to tow the rig in the first place!
  • Fifth wheels are the actual largest RVs available on the market, and they give you the very best bang for your buck as far as living space is concerned.
  • If you already have a tow-capable truck, a fifth wheel is a whole lot cheaper than investing in a Class A motorhome.
  • Fifth wheels do take a little bit longer to set up than their motorhome cousins… but that actually works out really well if you don’t travel often and are mostly looking for a full-time home. Once you have it leveled and the slide-outs out, your RV is a nice enough home you might even forget it’s on wheels!

Fifth Wheel FAQs

Let’s finish out this post about fifth wheel trailers with answers to some of your most frequently asked questions about them!

How does a fifth wheel hitch work?

As mentioned above, a fifth wheel hitch is a U-shaped hitch that fits in the bed of a truck. It works to allow you to tow large, heavy loads by connecting to the travel trailer’s king pin.

Can fifth wheels be converted to gooseneck?

If you have a gooseneck trailer hitch in your truck, you can convert it to fifth wheel — there are several different types of adapters available to make it relatively easy.

Are fifth wheels easier to tow?

While fifth wheels are definitely large and can be intimidating for those who are new to towing, they are also well-known for being stabler and having less sway than trailers pulled on other types of hitches, like the traditional 2-inch ball hitch. And fifth wheel hitches make towing very large, heavy loads possible!

What do fifth wheels weigh and how are they measured?

Fifth wheels can vary widely in weight, with the smallest starting at around 2,400 pounds and going all the way up to 24,000 at the larger end of the spectrum. That’s why it’s so important you have a seriously heavy duty truck — and a fifth wheel hitch — to tow them.

Like other trailers, fifth wheels are measured by their overall length as well as their various weight rating figures, like GVWR and dry weight.

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