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What Is A Fifth Wheel?

  • 4 min read

Key Points:

  1. A fifth-wheel is a special type of RV trailer. It must be towed, so it requires a full-size or heavy-duty pickup truck.
  2. A fifth-wheel gets its name from the hitch itself, which allows the unit to easily pivot left and right.
  3. Fifth-wheels are very safe and sturdy, easy to maneuver, can save you gas money,great for large groups, and are often more luxurious than tow-behind trailers.
  4. Fifth-wheels require a large truck to tow them, and some people may feel uncomfortable with the unit’s size, even though they are sturdier and easier to maneuver.

There’s a lot of terminology and camping lingo in the RVing world, and if you’re new to camping, it’s easy to get confused! In this guide we will be covering one of these commonly asked questions: What is a fifth-wheel?

What Is A Fifth-Wheel?

In the most basic sense, a fifth-wheel is simply a special type of RV trailer. The fifth-wheel has no engine (it must be towed), but gives RVers many of the same features as a motorhome.  A  fifth-wheel also has a different hitch than most RV trailers, and as such, a fifth-wheel typically requires a large truck to tow it.

To learn more about the types of RVs out there, check out our introductory article on RVing!

Why Is It Called A Fifth-Wheel?

Since a fifth-wheel unit typically has only four wheels, many people find themselves confused as to why this type of trailer is actually called a “fifth-wheel.” However, the answer is quite simple, and believe it or not, has nothing to do with the actual wheels of the unit. The “fifth wheel” of a fifth-wheel is simply the hitch itself. Because the hitch of a fifth-wheel is called the “fifth-wheel,” the entire unit has come to be called by the same name.

A fifth-wheel hitch gets its name from its backward-facing u-shape; however, the origins of the name can be traced back to the hitch’s original design, which was used for horse-drawn carriages in the 19th century. The original hitch design (similar to the modern design) mounted on a horizontally pivoting wheel, allowing the entire contraption to turn right or left on its own. So, the hitch itself is like a horizontal “wheel.”

The modern design functions in a similar way. In the modern design, the trailer slides into the hitch and is secured by a “king pin”—a mechanism that locks the trailer into the hitch, but still allows the trailer to move right or left as you turn.

Why Choose A Fifth-Wheel?

There are a few reasons you might want to consider a fifth-wheel over a regular, towed RV trailer:

  1. It is extremely safe and sturdy. Since part of the trailer itself is suspended over the bed of your truck, the weight of the trailer is more evenly dispersed, which means more safety and a smoother drive while on the road.
  2. It works best for especially heavy or large loads. The fifth-wheel’s design is similar to the hitch that a semi-truck uses to connect to a trailer; therefore, it can carry more weight than a traditional ball-hitch.
  3. It is easier to maneuver. Because part of the unit is located over the bed of your pickup truck, it is often comparatively shorter and easier to maneuver than a traditional RV trailer.
  4. It can save you gas money. When compared to a diesel-powered motorhome, you will likely end up saving gas if you use a fifth-wheel.
  5. Fifth-wheels are normally larger than traditional RV trailers, meaning that they’re great for larger groups of people or for those who want more living space.
  6. Fifth-wheels are often more luxurious than traditional RV trailers. This is because heavier, stronger materials can be used due to the fact that the connection from the trailer to the truck is more secure. For instance, many fifth-wheels will contain real hardwood, full-sized appliances, and king-sized beds, so if you’re looking for luxury, the fifth-wheel might be the direction you want to go!

How Much Does A Fifth Wheel Cost?

The price on many fifth-wheels can vary greatly depending on make, model, and size. Certain amenities can also increase or decrease the cost of your fifth wheel camper. For standard models, prices usually range from $20,000 all the way up to $150,000. The cost of your unit is completely contingent on how plush you want your unit to be and your budget. That being said, the wide price range of the various types of fifth wheel RVs allow for many different layouts and added features.

Disadvantages Of A Fifth-Wheel

Even with all its benefits, there are some downsides to a fifth-wheel:

  1. Most fifth-wheels are very large and heavy, meaning that you will need a full-size or heavy-duty pickup truck to tow it.
  2. Because of its sheer size, some might feel uncomfortable towing the unit, despite the fact that a fifth-wheel is normally more stable and easier to maneuver than a traditional RV trailer.

But if you already have, or plan to purchase, a large pickup truck and you don’t mind the unit’s size, a fifth-wheel is a great option for travel! 

On The Road Again

We hope that this brief guide has helped you to understand what a fifth-wheel is and why you might want to choose it over a traditional RV trailer.

Whether you choose a fifth wheel or some other type of RV (which you can learn about here), properly caring for it is also very important, which is why we've developed The Unique Method—our comprehensive guide for proper RV care—to help you avoid clogs and nasty odors on your camping trip! You can read more about The Unique Method by following the link above.

If you need further assistance or have any questions or concerns, please don't hesitate to reach out to us. We're, as always, more than happy to help!

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