5th Wheel vs Travel Trailer

More and more people are turning to recreational vehicles to meet their travel needs, and the choice of vehicles is quite extensive.

Apart from a conventional RV, there are other choices, such as a travel trailer or a 5th wheel trailer. Which camper you choose depends on your personal needs, but, in this article, we are going to look at two of the most popular recreational vehicles; the travel trailer and the 5th wheel.

We will examine some of the strengths and weaknesses of both types of vehicle and give some advice, especially to the beginner, on ways to decide which may suit your needs better.

Before we look at the advantages and disadvantages of each type of vehicle, let’s define what constitutes a Travel Trailer and a Fifth Wheel

5th Wheel vs Travel Trailer

Both of the vehicles discussed in this article are trailers. Both are designed to have living space inside, and their purpose is simple. You stock the inside with food, clothing, and other personal needs, hitch them to a tow vehicle and set off to explore the world around you. Owning and using one of these vehicles allows you to enjoy a nomadic lifestyle as you carry your home along with you, and all your personal needs are there when you want them.

These trailers are a good, and cheaper, alternative to the drivable RV, but they do not necessarily mean you have to give up your luxuries.

Here are some aspects of these two vehicles to consider when deciding which to purchase.

Appearance

The significant difference between the two types of camper is that the 5th wheel trailer looks as though a big slice has been chopped out of the front. This is because the trailer is designed to fit snugly over the back of a pick-up truck, so the front is stepped to allow for this connection.

Travel trailers come in many different sizes, but they all look similar. The front and rear of the trailer look-alike with the only difference being a little streamlining that is often found on the front of travel trailers.

Coupling the trailer to the tow vehicle

This feature is the main difference between the two types of vehicle. Both trailers use a very different type of mechanism to couple to the tow vehicle. This choice of coupling makes a vast difference to nearly all aspects of the trailer including size, stability, and on-road performance.

The travel trailer uses a conventional, horizontal ball and socket hitch that can be found on many luggage and boat trailers. The hitch is attached to the tow vehicle at the rear but NOT to the bumper. The hitch must be safely attached to the frame of the vehicle. This means that the hitch can be attached to almost any type of vehicle including sedans, SUVs, and pick-ups.

The 5th wheel coupling mechanism is attached to the bed of a pick-up truck and works in a vertical plane. The 5th wheel hitch is a large, usually trapezoidal mechanism that is fixed to the bed of the pickup truck. It consists of several pieces that include the mounting device and the hitch itself that lies above a set of supporting arms. The most frequently fitted type of hitch is a metal jaw, the “female” portion of the hitch, that is mounted to the bed of the pickup and closes securely around the “male” part of the hitch that is affixed to the underside of the trailer overhang. This is the safest and most secure type of hitch.

Installing the 5th wheel hitch to the pickup takes some serious work. The hitch mounting rails need to be securely fastened to the bed of the truck by drilling holes into the bed and securing strong steel components under the bed. The actual hitch then needs to be assembled and installed on the bed. These hitches can easily weigh in the region of 100 pounds, so some form of mechanical lifting assistance may be required.

After the hitch has been installed, you will find the hitching of the trailer in a 5th wheel configuration much easier than a travel trailer. The reason for this is that you can see the 5th wheel hitch in your rear-view mirror so reversing under the overhang and lining up the hitch is relatively simple. The ball hitch on a travel trailer is hidden behind the car, so you need to estimate where it is or have someone direct you (which can be risky!). The 5th wheel can always be hitched by yourself, but the ball type of hitch requires some fancy footwork, either by fitting a flag that you can line up on or having a spotter to help.

Another consideration is that the 5th wheel hitch remains on the bed of your pickup and that severely impacts your ability to carry a load in that space or use the bed as a working surface. While it is not difficult to remove, consideration must be given to the weight of the hitch when removing and installing it, and you must bear in mind the holes that exist in the bed of your truck. These holes must be treated with an anti-rust treatment, so your truck’s bed does not start rusting where the holes have been drilled.

The ball hitch used by the travel trailer is much simpler to install and weighs a few pounds at most. Most modern vehicles come with all the fittings in place for a tow hitch, so installing the actual ball and electrical components will be relatively simple. If you intend to travel with a trailer, you can make inquiries at the time of purchasing the vehicle, as the tow hitch is often offered as an optional extra. These balls can be fitted to any car, sedan, SUV, mini-van or pickup as long as it has the towing capacity for the weight of the trailer.

Tow Vehicles

In this aspect, the travel trailer allows for a far more versatile choice of vehicle. They are compatible with an extensive range of cars as the hitch is attached at the rear of the vehicle. The only consideration, as mentioned above, is the match of the vehicle to the size and weight of the travel trailer. If a pick-up truck is used to tow the travel trailer, the entire bed is available to carry additional camping gear such as tables and chairs.

The fifth wheel trailer is at a severe disadvantage in this aspect as it can only be towed by a truck of some nature. This is due to the receiver of the coupling that must be fitted to the bed of a truck and not to the rear of the vehicle. Additionally, as the front of the trailer sits snugly over the bed of the truck, it cannot be used to carry additional equipment.

Passengers

As a travel trailer can be towed with almost any reasonably sized car or SUV, you can carry several passengers as well as haul the travel trailer behind. This is not the case with the 5th wheel trailer as you must use a pickup truck, limiting the number of people that you can carry, unless you have a double-cab pickup. A double-cab will allow you to take additional passengers but will add considerably to the length of the combination.

Size of the trailer

In most cases, travel trailers tend to be smaller in size than 5th wheel trailers, which are sometimes used for full time living. Also, they are lighter in weight and tend to have lower roof lines. These attributes help regarding fuel efficiency since the tow vehicle can be smaller as well. Having a lower roofline is also a benefit when it comes to height clearances, and this type of trailer will fit under most road bridges. The major drawback is the length of the vehicle as the trailer is hitched to the rear of the tow car.

As a 5th wheel trailer must be hitched to the bed of a pickup truck, these trailers tend to be larger and heavier, with higher roof lines. This can present problems with clearance, especially on old bridges. The overall length of the vehicle is, speaking in general terms, shorter than with travel trailers as a part of the trailer lies over the bed of the pickup.

Road Safety

The 5th wheel trailer is significantly more stable on the road than a travel trailer. Travel trailers are inherently unstable and prone to sway due to the hitching mechanism. This sway can be exacerbated by poor packing in the trailer, especially if more weight is placed in the rear than the front. The sway can make driving in heavy winds dangerous, and in wet, snowy, or slippery conditions great care must be taken not to allow the trailer to start swaying. There are some devices, such as the PullRite and the Hensley Hitch, that will partly mitigate this tendency to sway, but it cannot be entirely eliminated.

Another concern with travel trailers is that the trailer and tow vehicle can jackknife on the road. This situation arises when the travel trailer swings around and collides with the side of the tow car. Jackknife situations often occur in wet or slippery conditions when the trailer starts to sway, and the driver cannot bring it back under control, causing the trailer to swing around completely.

The mechanism used to hitch the 5th wheel trailer to the pickup is inherently more stable due to the secure mechanism attached to the load bed of the truck. This means there is less possibility of the trailer starting to sway and ending up in a jackknife situation.

5th wheel trailers are more maneuverable than ball hitched trailers. This is partly due to their design and partly due to their shorter length. With a travel trailer, hitched via a ball, the tow car can turn only a relatively short distance before the front corner of the trailer makes contact with the rear of the towing vehicle. This can also happen to a 5th wheel trailer when hitched with certain types of hitch, but generally speaking, the tow car can turn 90 degrees before you run the risk of a collision between car and trailer.

Living Space

As 5th wheel trailers tend to be larger than their counterparts, these trailers will provide more living and packing space. Often 5th wheel trailers allow for more than one level to accommodate separate rooms for indoor living. Most 5th wheel manufacturers allow for many choices of floor plan, solid lumber cabinets, modern sound and entertainment systems, USB charging points, high-powered microwave ovens, full-size fridges, ovens, ducted furnaces, and many more features to make your 5th wheel as comfortable as your home.

Travel trailers are smaller and tend to have only one large room that contains beds, sometimes a bathroom and a small cooking area along with storage lockers. The floor plan in a travel trailer may have a fixed bed, but many rely on the seating areas to be converted to beds when required. Small microwave ovens are fitted in many travel trailers, but there is no space for large fridges, ovens and other luxuries such as washers or dryers.
Tall people may well find the 5th wheel arrangement more to their liking as it provides more headroom. Travel trailers tend to have lower roof-lines so tall people find standing up inside a bit of a challenge.

Packing space in travel trailers is largely limited to the cupboards and lockers inside and the space in the nose cone. On the other hand, 5th wheel trailers have a surfeit of packing space inside and often there are large storage lockers underneath. This means that bicycles, jet skis, and other luxury toys can be transported at the same time.

The multi-level arrangement of a 5th wheel may pose difficulties for people with reduced mobility. The flatter floor space of a travel trailer may make it easier for people with difficulty moving around.

Another consideration, especially with guests or a family, is that 5th wheel trailers often carry larger water and waste tanks. This can be a boon when stopping overnight outside of a campsite and trying to provide toilet and shower facilities for several people.

Parking

Generally, travel trailers will have a much easier time fitting into campsites. They will be able to park in the majority of sites, due to their smaller size and height. 5th wheel trailers require a great deal more room, and many campsites are unable to accommodate them comfortably.

One thing that many drivers find difficult is reversing with a trailer, as the towed vehicle behaves quite differently to the towing vehicle. Neither of these trailers is very easy to reverse, but the 5th wheel can be easier as it does not react quite as quickly as the hitched trailer. Parking and reversing either of these vehicles will require practice, and once you have mastered one, it does not mean that you have mastered both. They have their own quirks, and you will need practice with both should you swap from one to the other.

Once at the campground and parked, the setting up of the trailers is no different. Both will have to be hooked up to electricity and water, and the stabilization of the trailers is similar. Both will have to have their stabilizing legs lowered so that the trailer stands as close to level as possible.

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