5th wheel vs travel trailer

I bought a Rockwood 25′ travel trailer a few weeks ago and I had to make the tough choice of whether or not to get a 5th wheel.  In this post I want to share some of the things that helped me make the decision.

But first, the quick answer: 5th wheels are better suited to the BIG trailers of 28′ or more.  Travel trailers have advantages that make it better suited for the trailers of 28′ or less.  Why?  Because 5th wheels tow better and have multiple levels and higher ceilings–all things that make it suited to a larger trailer.  Travel trailers are far less expensive, have more storage, and allow for a much larger variety of towing vehicles.

Towing Vehicle Seating

Obviously, the first consideration is if your towing vehicle is even compatible with a 5th wheel.  Since we have three kids, using a truck isn’t a great option.  It means all 5 seats in a truck would be taken up, and if we have another child, then we’d have to bring a car AND a truck/5th wheel in order to get to the camp site.  Not a great option for us!

Ease of Towing

The 5th wheel clearly wins this debate.  The 5th wheel design puts more of the weight centered between the axles on the towing vehicle, and brings the center of mass forward on the towed vehicle.  This makes towing a 5th wheel much more stable and secure.

Truck Bed Storage

One drawback to a 5th wheel is that it uses up your entire truck bed.  You might fit in a few little things, but you’re basically losing the truck storage.  If you want to bring an ATV, bikes, or other items, you will have to find another option.

We wanted our solution for an RV to be flexible to allow us to bring a canoe, or eventually an ATV or whatever hobbies we take up throughout the years, so a travel trailer was a better solution for us.

Cost

5th wheel trailers are PRICEY!  Frankly, I’m not quite sure what justifies the large price increase of a 5th wheel over a travel trailer.  It has a different connection and requires a little more engineering to get the raised piece above the truck bed, but I still don’t really understand why they cost so much more. If you’re still considering a fifth wheel, in this article I give 21 examples of fifth wheel costs, including the average cost.

Multiple Levels

5th wheels always have some steps in the interior cabin–usually to get to the bathroom and the master bedroom.  If you have a difficult time getting around, this is a consideration.

However, the multiple levels in a 5th wheel can also be quite nice for blocking sound and making each room feel a bit more private.

Total Length

Since a 5th wheel has a large area that overhangs the truck bed, it extends far less behind the vehicle while giving far more living area.  This makes it easy to get into smaller camping sites and maneuvering around town while still getting a huge living area.

Basement Storage

The exterior storage under the living area on a 5th wheel is often very larger.  You’ll often find a huge open cavity for storing larger items under a 5th wheel.  This is thanks to the multi-level design of a 5th wheel that opens space underneath.

Fuel Economy

Not only are 5th wheel trailers often very heavy, they have a much higher profile.  This usually reduces fuel efficiency of the towing vehicle by a bit.  When you’re already getting poor gas mileage, that’s an important factor to consider.

Ceiling Height

A 5th wheel almost always comes with significantly taller ceilings than a travel trailer.  If you’re very tall or feel cramped in a travel trailer, a nice ceiling height could really help.  However, remember that the ceiling height in a 5th wheel is higher in the living area, but LOWER in the bedroom.  So there’s no clear winner here.

Luxurious Features

Travel trailers eventually tap out on how much you can really fit in, because weight is always an issue.  Some 5th wheels are MASSIVE and have an incredible number of features that rival any motorhome, so if you’re shopping on the very high end and basically want a luxury apartment attached to your truck, then the motorhome is for you.

It’s gonna be tough to find a $150,000 or even $300,000 travel trailer, but they definitely exist in the 5th wheel arena.

Weight

5th wheel trailers are almost always significantly heavier than a comparable travel trailer.  Be sure your tow vehicle can support the bed weight and also the two weight of a 5th wheel before you buy.  An F-250 or a Ram 2500 often won’t be enough to handle a big 5th wheel. Here, you can find an article I wrote all about the average weight of a fifth wheel, including 18 examples.

Off-Roading and Boondocking

The travel trailer wins hands-down for boondocking and off-roading your way to a campsite.  A 12,000 pound 5th wheel attached to your vehicle makes going down a decline on a dirt road or an icy road a serious concern.

Also, 5th wheels are so tall that you’ll be ramming into tree branches on many boondocking camp sites.  I made the mistake of driving my pontoon boat down the tree-lined street in my neighborhood and did significant damage to the boat when I parked alongside the curb and the boat hit a tree branch.  Height is a serious concern when camping off the beaten path.

Hookup

Some people say that 5th wheels are easier to hook up than travel trailers.  I think this is generally true, but personally I haven’t had much trouble hooking up my travel trailer.  It’s really only a 2 minute operation now that I’ve practiced it. I wrote an article all about how a fifth wheel connects to a truck, including a guide on how to connect it. Find the article here. 

ATVs and Dirt Bikes

If you get a 5th wheel, you can’t bring along an ATV.  With a travel trailer, you can fit in an ATV, bikes or dirt bikes in the truck bed.  On a 5th wheel, the only way to do this is if you have a toy hauler 5th wheel. Here, you can find a list I made of the most popular fifth wheel toy haulers.

So if you think you’ll be buying or renting an ATV in the future, then a travel trailer is the clear winner.

Built-In Generators

Some 5th wheels (but definitely not all) have generators built-in.  That not only saves an additional purchase, but it’s more convenient and quiet.  I’ve never seen a travel trailer with a built-in generator.

Second Tow

If you plan to bring a small trailer with an ATV or a boat behind your RV, then a 5th wheel is a much better choice for the super long tows.  In fact, some states only allow you to tow something behind a trailer if your trailer is a 5th wheel.

Riding in the Towed Vehicle

In several states, it is legal to ride inside a 5th wheel while it is being towed.  It’s never legal to do so in a travel trailer.  However, seriously, this is a dumb idea.  Riding unrestrained in a towed vehicle is a recipe for disaster.  Don’t do it!

[x_blockquote cite=”Carl L from the RVForum.net” type=”center”] “(g) A person shall not drive a motor vehicle that is towing a trailer coach, camp trailer, or trailer carrying a vessel, containing a passenger, except when a trailer carrying or designed to carry a vessel is engaged in the launching or recovery of the vessel.”     “(i) Subdivision (g) does not apply to a trailer coach that is towed with a fifth-wheel device if the trailer coach is equipped with safety glazing materials wherever glazing materials are used in windows or doors, with an audible or visual signaling device that a passenger inside the trailer coach can use to gain the attention of the motor vehicle driver, and with at least one unobstructed exit capable of being opened from both the interior and exterior of the trailer coach.”[/x_blockquote]

Heating and Cooling

Many 5th wheel owners complain about uneven cooling in a 5th wheel compared to a travel trailer.  Even if the length behind the tow vehicle is the same, the 5th wheel has extra space over the truck bed AND the ceilings are MUCH MUCH taller.  Also, there are levels and stairs in 5th wheels.

The larger space combined with a more segmented area equals major troubles with heating and cooling.

This is not to say that every 5th wheel has the same problem.  Some certainly don’t, but many many 5th wheel owners complain of an extremely hot bedroom area in the upper level.

Backing Up

It’s tough to say whether backing up is easier on a 5th wheel or a travel trailer.  They act differently and you’ll hear people say they like one or the other, but there is no clear winner.

The difference is that a towed travel trailer tends to overreact to very minor movements in the steering wheel.  So until you learn not to overcompensate, you can end up with some wild angles when backing up.  The 5th wheel has the opposite problem.  It requires larger wheel movements to turn, so it often pushes the truck end too far one way and throws off the angle.

Pick your poison.

Slide Outs

It’s common to find 5th wheels with 3, 4, or even 5 slide outs, which substantially improves the “roominess” of your rig.  On travel trailers, only one or two are common.  The reason that travel trailers don’t usually have more than one or two slide outs is that each slide out weighs about 800 pounds, so it increases the weight of the vehicle, and travel trailers are more difficult to tow–especially when they are heavy.

5th Wheel Tow Receiver

Not only does a 5th wheel take up space in your truck bed when towing, it also takes up space when you’re not towing.  The 5th wheel tow receiver is a HUGE and HEAVY chunk of steel.  Either you have to go through a lot of work to remove it out of the truck bed after each trip, or you have to keep it in there and dedicate most of your truck bed to a tow hitch–always.

By contrast, the hitch for a travel trailer takes up no space at all (obviously).

Storage Units

If you purchase a covered storage unit to store your rig, you may find that your options are more expensive and limited since a 5th wheel is so much taller.  A travel trailer will fit under just about any commercial storage unit.

Two Bathrooms

Many 5th wheels have two bathrooms or 1.5 bathrooms.  If you have kids (especially girls….) then having two bathrooms is a really nice feature to have.  I’m sure there are many travel trailers with two bathrooms, but I don’t think I can recall seeing any.

My Conclusion and How to Pick

If I were ever to live in my trailer, I’d buy a 5th wheel in a HEART BEAT but for me I think that would never happen.  For me, flexibility was the most important option.  We have a growing family of 3 kids and we need the seating of an SUV for towing, so it was a no brainer that a 5th wheel was out of the question.  Towing for us hasn’t really been a problem since we bought a lightweight 25′ trailer.

However, 5th wheels have some INCREDIBLE features and advantages that will appeal to many.

When it comes right down to it, if you need better flexibility of your tow vehicle, want to save a bunch of money, and don’t plan on going more than 28′ then get a travel trailer.  If you want your trailer to be a luxury apartment with lots of separation, you have a huge budget and the exact right truck for it, then a 5th wheel is a great choice.

Rent Before Buying

If you’re considering buying an RV or Camper, I strongly suggest you rent one first to make sure it’s one you’ll really love.  Campers can be very large investments, and buying the wrong one can be a costly mistake.  RVShare is a great place for finding RVs and Campers to rent in your local area.

Photo of author

Author Anthony Foxx

I am Tony, an RV designer and RV developer. I create bill of materials for RV manufacturers for travel trailers and fifth wheels. I worked as a freelance transportation consultant for Lyft. As an RV development consultant, I create customization trees for RV manufacturers who want to offer a solution to prospective customers to design their custom RV with variant configuration. Apart from this, I sell in Indiana trailer hitches, hitch balls, goosenecks and weight distribution systems where I provide advice to customers who want to know which is their towing capacity, which hitch ball should they utilize and how to deploy a weight distribution system. I do my best to explain all these processes and their installation, in the Lifestyle edition of Business Finance News.

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