Making the decision between a motorhome and a trailer is hard enough on its own. But even after you’ve decided that a towed recreational vehicle will serve your interests better than an RV with an engine onboard, there’s still another critical choice to make: travel trailer or fifth wheel?
Picking a Trailer Type
The two main types of trailers that are available are fifth wheels, which connect to a hitch in the center of a truck bed, and travel trailers, which are towed from the bumper. Both types of trailers have their own unique benefits, but only one option will end up being the right choice for you. In order to make an informed decision about which sort of trailer is best for your particular situation, it’s essential that you understand all the facts available about both fifth wheels and travel trailers. Each type of trailer has its pros and cons, and by understanding the advantages and disadvantages of both travel trailers and fifth wheels, you’ll be able to make a decision that you can stand by in the long term.
Travel Trailer Basics
While those that aren’t in the know generally refer to any type of RV that is towed behind a truck or SUV as a travel trailer, this term actually only refers to a specific type of trailer. A travel trailer is an RV that is hitched up to a standard bumper hitch that you see on many trucks and SUVs. Consisting of a metal ball that protrudes from the rear of the vehicle, travel trailer hitches are simple and easy to recognize.
Travel trailers are generally relatively short in height even though they can drag quite a long ways behind your vehicle. Even though they can vary widely in length and therefore also in weight, travel trailers are generally lighter than other types of trailers, meaning that towing a travel trailer usually doesn’t require as much power as is required for towing a fifth wheel.
In general, travel trailers are the least expensive type of RV in relation to their length, which can be great if you’re wanting to dip your toes into the world of RVing without expending too many resources. Light, versatile, and affordable, there’s a lot about travel trailers to like. But these types of RVs do have their downsides, as we’ll discuss later on in this guide.
Fifth Wheel 101
Fifth wheels look quite a bit different from travel trailers. While they share the key attribute of not having an engine with their travel trailer cousins, the first thing you’ll notice that’s unique about fifth wheels is the bulbous overhang at the front end of these RVs. Unlike travel trailers, fifth wheels connect to a special kind of hitch that’s installed in the center of the truck bed. The overhang at the front of a fifth wheel has a male hitch that connects to the female hitch installed in the truck. While travel trailers hitch up vertically, fifth wheels hitch horizontally, a design that comes with a number of compelling benefits.
Even when comparing fifth wheels and travel trailers of the same length, fifth wheels often seem roomier inside due to the split-level design. The area that hangs over the truck is usually the location of the master bedroom and it is reached by way of a small flight of stairs. Not only does having two levels make a fifth wheel seem larger than a travel trailer, but these types of RVs are also usually taller than their travel trailer equivalents, providing for extra headspace and a more open aesthetic. Because part of the trailer hangs over the truck bed, fifth wheel trailers don’t extend as far behind a truck as do travel trailers of the same length.
Despite all of these impressive benefits, fifth wheel trailers aren’t the clear winner when it comes to trailer designs. Fifth wheel trailers have certain detractors that may make you want to opt for a travel trailer, as will be made apparent later on in this guide.
One of the most striking differences between travel trailers and fifth wheel trailers is the way in which each RV hooks up to its towing vehicle. Travel trailer hitches look just like any other type of ball hitch, but fifth wheel hitches are so large and convoluted-looking that, at first glance, they don’t even look like hitches at all.
Fifth wheel hitches consist of a large, usually trapezoidal contraption that sits in the center of a truck bed. These types of hitches consist of a mounting mechanism, supporting arms, and the hitch itself, which sits on top of the arms. The most common type of fifth wheel hitch consists of a metal jaw that closes around the male hitch the protrudes from the bottom of a fifth wheel overhang. Other types of less-sturdy hitches consist of a slide bar that pushes across once the connection to a fifth wheel has been made.
Whichever type of fifth wheel hitch you end up using, installing one of these hitches is a serious endeavor. You have to start by installing mounting rails in the back of your truck, which requires drilling holes in the truck bed and attaching heavy steel components under the truck. You then have to assemble and install the fifth wheel hitch, which is removable but often weighs in excess of 100 pounds.
Once the arduous installation is out of the way, you’ll find that connecting a fifth wheel trailer to a fifth wheel hitch is much easier than connecting a travel trailer to a ball hitch. That’s because you can see the hitch in the rearview mirror while the ball hitches on travel trailers are universally outside of your field of view. While hitching up to a travel trailer generally requires a lot of guesswork and the presence of another person as a spotter, hooking a fifth wheel up to a hitch is generally something that you can do by yourself.
Even though fifth wheel hitches are easy to connect to a fifth wheel trailer, they aren’t without their downsides. Fifth wheel hitches take up a great deal of room in the bed of your truck, making it harder to transport cargo or use your truck bed as a workspace. If you do want to free up space in the back of your truck, you have to remove the hitch, which is easy to do in itself but usually requires two people due to the immense weight of most fifth wheel hitches.
Travel trailer hitches, on the other hand, don’t take up any room in the bed of your truck. Chances are, your truck or SUV is already equipped with a standard ball hitch, and, if not, these types of hitches are much easier to install than fifth wheel hitches. One of the great benefits of towing a travel trailer is that you can install a travel trailer hitch on many different types of vehicles while a fifth wheel hitch can only be installed in a truck. The most common types of vehicles to equip with travel trailer hitches are trucks and SUVs, but if you aren’t planning on towing a very long or heavy trailer you can even hook a travel trailer hitch up to the back of a minivan or jeep.
Conversely, if you don’t have a truck, your selection of potential trailers is limited to travel trailers only. For those that have a truck and simply can’t decide between a travel trailer and a fifth wheel, it’s important to remember that fifth wheel trailers have unique benefits above and beyond what we’ve already discussed, which will be made clear in subsequent sections of this guide.
On the Road
There’s a big difference between travel trailers and fifth wheels in terms of dynamics on the road. In terms of how well each of these types of RVs pulls, all things considered, the fifth wheel is the clear winner. That’s not to say that travel trailers are hard to pull; on the contrary, pulling a travel trailer can be a breeze and these types of RVs have unique attributes for towing that should definitely come into consideration. But fifth wheels are undeniably more stable and more maneuverable than travel trailers.
There are a few reasons for the superior towing action of a fifth wheel. Being hooked up with a more heavy-duty hitch means that fifth wheels are more firmly rooted to the bed of your truck, leading to less sway and wobble caused by wind and road conditions. Also, even with the longest models of fifth wheels, the overhang over the back of the truck means that the butt end of a fifth wheel always extends less of a distance from the back of your truck than a travel trailer of equal length.
Partially due to this reduced length and partially due to the hitch design, fifth wheels are also more maneuverable than travel trailers. Travel trailers only have a certain degree of turning motion before the front corner of the trailer hits the back of the towing vehicle. While this can sometimes also be the case with fifth wheels depending on the type of hitch and size of the fifth wheel, in general you can turn a fifth wheel as far as 90 degrees to either side in relation to the position of the truck in order to make your way around difficult corners or back up into a specific position.
One category in which travel trailers have the edge on fifth wheels when it comes to performance on the road is weight. No matter what, a fifth wheel trailer will weigh more than a travel trailer of the same length. If you’re trying to make your way down muddy dirt roads or ascend an icy hill, that reduced weight can be a true lifesaver. While a 35-foot travel trailer will obviously be heavier than a 19-foot fifth wheel, travel trailers also therefore have an advantage over fifth wheels in terms of fuel economy. The lower weight of travel trailers makes it so that you expend less gasoline or diesel while in motion, reducing the cost to fuel up and potentially increasing your maximum range.
The Campground Life
When it comes time to pull into a campground to stay the night, you’ll immediately notice some serious differences between camping in a fifth wheel versus camping in a travel trailer. First of all, fifth wheel trailers are generally more spacious than travel trailers, something that you’ll truly start to notice when it comes time to set up camp for the night. If you’re traveling with friends or with a large family, you’ll notice that the overhang in a fifth wheel provides for a degree of privacy that is often lacking in travel trailers. Since the maximum length of fifth wheel trailers exceeds that of travel trailers, you’ll always have a greater capacity to entertain guests in a fifth wheel than you will in a travel trailer.
Some fifth wheels even have multiple enclosed bedrooms and bathrooms (Read this post on 5th wheels with 2 bedroom floor plans), making the more luxurious fifth wheel options seem more like miniature mobile apartments than RVs. Certain fifth wheel models are even equipped with storage space under the body of the trailer that can be the ideal place for hiding away camping equipment and inflatable watercraft.
Travel trailers, on the other hand, are the perfect option if you don’t mind being a little bit closer to nature without all of the fuss. While travel trailers are inevitably smaller and less private than fifth wheels, for those that want to relish being out in the great outdoors, a travel trailer might be just the thing. It’s important to note that not all fifth wheels are luxurious and not all travel trailers are small. Some travel trailers can be nearly as luxurious as top-of-the-line fifth wheels, but will always lack certain amenities like onboard generators.
Some things about staying at a campground are just the same whether you’re camping out in a travel trailer or a fifth wheel. Hooking up electricity and water follows the same general process no matter what type of camper you’re in, and stabilizing and disconnecting your vehicle from the trailer is a simple process no matter what type of trailer you choose. Fifth wheels generally have larger tanks than travel trailers, which doesn’t matter that much when it comes to staying in campgrounds but which can make a big difference should you choose to camp off the grid.
Boondocking Off the Grid
For some, the ultimate activity to engage in with an RV is boondocking. While certain types of people would shudder at the thought of leaving civilization entirely behind and striking out into the wilderness on your own, camping off the grid is the only way to go for certain adventurous RVers. Some people even select the type of RV that they want to camp in based on that particular model’s ability to rough it in the great outdoors.
Both travel trailers and fifth wheels have their advantages and disadvantages when it comes to boondocking. While fifth wheels have larger water and waste tanks, leading to a greater potential duration that you can stay off the grid, these types of RVs are also generally taller and sometimes wider than travel trailers, making certain backroads inaccessible.
Travel trailers are usually lighter than fifth wheels, making them easier to pull up steep inclines and thread through treacherous terrain. On the other hand, fifth wheel trailers are more stable than travel trailers, meaning that there will be less jostling back and forth as you make your way down poorly maintained dirt roads.
If you have a long, tall, and brand new fifth wheel trailer, you might want to think twice before taking it way off the grid into uncharted territory. All it takes is one stray branch to utterly ruin your camping trip by putting out a window or poking a hole in your roof. If you have a light and compact fifth wheel, that’s another story, but remember that the smaller your trailer, the less tank space you have for water and waste. When it comes to boondocking, the superiority of one type of trailer over another is truly a tossup.
Travel Trailers vs Fifth Wheels: The Bottom Line
Even though each type of trailer is better equipped for certain situations than the other, there’s no clear winner in the contest between travel trailers and fifth wheels. Fifth wheels generally make for better full-time residences due to their roomier interiors and impressive amenities. Plenty of people live full-time in travel trailers as well, but these types of RVs are more beloved by those for whom camping is more of a hobby than a lifestyle. Since a large and expensive hitch isn’t required to operate a travel trailer, towing one of these RVs is less of a commitment. When it comes time to select the right type of trailer for your situation, take accurate stock of your plans and needs and make an informed decision accordingly.