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Introduction to Fifth Wheel Trailers

The following article is a reprint from

Safety Issue

The fifth wheel type of trailer has been used in the trucking industry for almost 100 years because it is a safe way of carrying heavy loads. It’s safe because the hitch configuration allows approximately 20 to 30 percent of its hitch weight to be exerted on the front suspension of the towing vehicle. Because of its forgiving nature to the road and driving conditions, commercial truckers use the fifth wheel hitch configuration to carry extremely heavy loads. A fifth-wheel trailer will stick to the tow vehicle through thick and thin. In many adverse handling situations, a fifth-wheel trailer will actually enhance the ability of the tow vehicle to stick to the road. Whether in tractor-trailer rigs or in travel trailers, the fifth wheel configuration is popular because of its safety and handling capabilities.

Easy to Use

A fifth-wheel trailer is particularly popular with RVers who are full-timing because most of these RVers want to go as big as the towing vehicle will allow. The fifth wheel is easy to connect and disconnect from the truck. It’s relatively easy to back up. Its tendency to sway is much less than that of a trailer coach. Because it can easily carry more height, it allows for more storage space – something every fulltime wants.

What You Need

Now that we’ve gone through a litany of praises for the fifth-wheel trailer, let’s look at the big picture with a bit of objectivity. Fifth-wheel trailers are not for everyone. For one thing, you must have a truck to pull a fifth wheel. You cannot hook it onto a van, a sedan, or a pickup with a canopy. You cannot generally pull another car behind it. You cannot generally pull a boat behind it. You cannot generally let the family ride in it as you go down the road. These are very important limitations for some people.

Too Easy To Build

Because of the number of retired people who have taken up full-timing, hundreds of large and small RV builders are specializing in fifth wheels from 30 to 45 feet in length. Some of these builders have become very rich building cracker boxes of that size. Right now there are dozens of brands being produced that will not last 5 years without serious deterioration and severe frustration for the users. In addition to this problem, there are hundreds of relatively good manufacturers who are cutting corners on quality in places where the cuts are not easily seen because they feel they need to compete with the cracker box makers.

Weight Issue

The most serious problem is, of course, the size and weight of the fifth wheel trailers coming off the assembly line. Weights need to be limited because the axles, brakes, and tires have limitations. An example is that the most popular axle assembly has a capacity of 6,000 pounds. Unless you go to three axles, which is somewhat limiting in itself, you will be limited to a 12,000-pound maximum load on the axles. The hitch capacity on this example should be approximately 3,000 pounds (25% of axle capacity), which means the entire trailer should not weigh more than 12,000 pounds at the curb if you want a payload of 3,000 pounds. Weight of 12,000 pounds at the curb means that a manufacturer must limit a fifth wheel’s size to approximately 32 feet if it’s going to have a 12-foot slideout and a bedroom slideout. And to make it a bit more interesting, the walls and structure must be kept to a minimum to keep the unloaded vehicle weight (UVW) between 11,000 and 12,000 pounds – the average range for this size fifth-wheel trailer. Add the average personal payload for snowbirding or full timing at 2000 pounds and you’ll have a gross vehicle weight (GVW) between 13,000 and 14,000 pounds. This means that this 32-foot fifth-wheel trailer will need a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 15,000 pounds. And to top it all off, the manufacturer knows that there is no pickup truck made that is approved for towing 15,000 pounds.

Closing Thoughts

This introduction to fifth-wheel travel trailers should be just the beginning of your studies into techniques for choosing and using.

We hope that you, as a member of RV Consumer Group, contribute by sharing your experiences and observations. Making RVing safer and better always begins with you.