We’ve sometimes seen 5th wheels referred to as “travel trailers.” But while both are towables, they’re actually not the same type of RV. In fact, there are some pretty significant differences between the two, so we thought we’d take a closer look at travel trailers vs 5th wheels, and point out what sets them apart from one another.
Run through this article with us, and you’ll have a pretty good understanding of the differences between 5th wheels and travel trailers.
- 1) 5th Wheels Generally Tow More Easily
- 2) 5th Wheels Generally Tow More Safely
- 3) 5th Wheels Can Have Multiple Levels of Living Space
- 4) 5th Wheels Have Higher Ceilings
- 5) Travel Trailers Are Usually Less Expensive
- 6) Travel Trailers Can Be Towed By a Wider Variety of Vehicles
- 7) 5th Wheels Must Be Towed By a Pickup Truck (A Substantial One!)
- 8) 5th Wheels Use Up the Truck Bed Space
- 9) 5th Wheels Overhang the Truck Bed
- 10) 5th Wheels Are Generally Easier to Maneuver than Large Travel Trailers
- 11) 5th Wheels Generally Have Very Large Storage Areas
- 12) Most 5th Wheels Are Large & Heavy, Which Impacts Fuel Economy
- 13) Many 5th Wheels Are More Aerodynamically Designed
- 14) 5th Wheels Generally Have More Luxurious Furnishings & Appliances
- 15) 5th Wheels Are Taller
- 16) Travel Trailers Are Easier to Drive Off-Road & to Remote Areas
- 17) Travel Trailers Allow Carrying a Dirt Bike, ATV, Kayaks, Canoes, etc. in the Truck Bed
- 18) Many 5th Wheels Have Built-In Generators While Most Travel Trailers Do Not
- 19) 5th Wheels Are Better Suited to Triple Towing
- 20) Travel Trailers Are Often Easier to Heat & Cool Evenly
- 21) 5th Wheels Can Have More Slide-Outs
- 22) 5th Wheels Can Be Harder to Store Due to Height
- 23) 5th Wheels Can Have Two Full Bathrooms
- 24) 5th Wheels May Have Multiple Large (Queen/King) Beds
- 25) Most 5th Wheels Are Long and Some National & State Parks and Other Campgrounds Have RV Length Limits Under 28’
- 26) Many RVers Find 5th Wheels Easier to Back Up than Travel Trailers
- 27) More Floorplans Available with 5th Wheels
- 28) 5th Wheels Feel More Like a Small House or Apartment on Wheels
- 29) Trucks Required to Tow Large 5th Wheels Make Huge, Fuel-Hungry Daily Drivers
- 30) Some 5th Wheels Have Extremely Limited Access Unless the Slides Are Out
- 31) 5th Wheel Hitches Are More Expensive
- 32) 5th Wheel Hitches Require Precise Positioning and Installation
- 33) Most 5th Wheels Are Relatively Large Rigs
- 34) Do You Have Experience with Travel Trailers and 5th Wheels?
5th Wheels Generally Tow More Easily
With the exception of some tiny travel trailers like teardrops, 5th wheels are generally easier to tow. This can be attributed to the design of the 5th wheel, and the kingpin hitch, which moves the load forward into the bed of the truck. That position, over (or near) the truck’s rear axle (instead of a traditional trailer hitch behind the rear bumper), makes a huge difference in handling and maneuverability.
In the same way semi-tractors are able to pull trailer loads far heavier than the weight of the tractor itself, 5th wheel RVs can be much larger and heavier than travel trailers, while still maintaining superior driving characteristics.
This brings us to the next significant difference between travel trailers and 5th wheels…
5th Wheels Generally Tow More Safely
5th wheels tend to be less prone to suffering from sway, mostly due to the design of 5th wheels vs travel trailers. Again, the weight distribution is a major factor here.
The design of a 5th wheel finds more of the weight distributed between the axles on the vehicle towing the rig. This means the center of mass is more forward, which helps to make the 5th wheel more stable to tow.
Now, this doesn’t mean that 5th wheels aren’t capable of swaying or even rolling over, but it does mean that the weight distribution leads to greater security/stability when towing a 5th wheel.
5th Wheels Can Have Multiple Levels of Living Space
Some of the most popular 5th wheel floorplans have the bedroom “upstairs” in the front portion that sits out over the truck bed. This level may also be an open living room, depending on the floorplan.
So, 5th wheels often have two separate levels of living space, with steps up into the upper level. Some newer floorplans even offer an “upstairs” at the rear of the fifth wheel, providing increased storage space beneath.
5th Wheels Have Higher Ceilings
Due to their higher roofline, 5th wheels generally have higher interior ceiling height than travel trailers. In fact, 5th wheels typically have the highest ceilings of all types of RVs. That makes it possible to include a ceiling fan in the main living area without the risk of walking into it! And that fan can be a big deal, as we’ve talked about the importance of keeping cool in your RV during the summer months.
Travel Trailers Are Usually Less Expensive
There are many different brands, models, and sizes of travel trailers, many of which are on the less expensive end of the spectrum. 5th wheels tend to be quite large, tall, and heavy, and are often well-appointed, making them more expensive than travel trailers on the whole.
Not that there aren’t exceptions to every rule, but in general, 5th wheels tend to be the higher-end RV of the two types we’re comparing.
Travel Trailers Can Be Towed By a Wider Variety of Vehicles
Depending on the size and weight of the travel trailer, many of them can be towed by a much wider variety of vehicles.
For example, there are small, lightweight travel trailers that can be towed with a minivan or an SUV.
On the other hand…
5th Wheels Must Be Towed By a Pickup Truck (A Substantial One!)
Most 5th wheels are tall, heavy, and large. As a result, they must be towed by a substantial vehicle. And regardless of size and weight, the design of the kingpin-style hitch that’s the hallmark of every 5th wheel does indeed mandate the use of a pickup truck for towing.
While it’s possible to tow some smaller 5th wheels with a half-ton truck, most models are too heavy to be towed by a truck that small. Those will require at least a three-quarter-ton truck for safe towing. And the largest 5th wheels can be absolutely enormous, requiring even more capability from the truck doing the towing. Of course, you’ll need to check the specifications of any truck and 5th wheel combination you’re considering.
5th Wheels Use Up the Truck Bed Space
A 5th wheel will use up the space in your truck bed, whether you’re camping or not!
When you’re towing your 5th wheel, the truck bed is taken up by both the bed-mounted hitch and the overhang of the RV.
When you’re not camping, the hitch (typically) remains in the bed of your truck (unless you remove the hitch whenever you’re not camping). So, even while using your truck as your everyday vehicle to explore, the bed of the truck isn’t as usable.
There are disappearing hitch mechanisms that can leave the bed of the truck completely flat and empty. But of course, they only allow full use of the truck bed when the 5th wheel isn’t connected.
5th Wheels Overhang the Truck Bed
While the loss of space in the truck bed may be a negative, there’s also a positive side to the 5th wheel overhanging the bed of the towing truck.
Not only does the overhang offer more living space in the 5th wheel, but it also means that the rig doesn’t extend as far behind the tow vehicle as it would if the overhang portion wasn’t forward into the truck bed.
Having a shorter overall combined length (truck + RV) improves maneuverability and overall stability on the road.
5th Wheels Are Generally Easier to Maneuver than Large Travel Trailers
Whether you’re driving, turning, or backing the rig, 5th wheels tend to be easier to maneuver than travel trailers of similar length.
This, of course, is not necessarily true with very small travel trailers. But comparing large, long travel trailers vs 5th wheels, ease of maneuverability would fall on the side of the 5th wheel. Again, that’s largely due to the location of the connection point between the two vehicles. Moving that point forward (the distance from a traditional trailer hitch to the bed-mounted kingpin design) makes for better overall handling and maneuverability.
5th Wheels Generally Have Very Large Storage Areas
That’s right – 5th wheels not only have more interior living space, but they also usually have very large basement storage areas as compared with the average travel trailer. While you still have to stay within the maximum allowed weights for both the RV and the truck you’re towing it with, 5th wheels allow you to bring more along for the ride.
Most 5th Wheels Are Large & Heavy, Which Impacts Fuel Economy
Now this one is relative based on the size of the travel trailer, so there may be some apples to oranges comparisons here. In fact, some 5th wheel owners who have also owned large travel trailers say fuel economy is about the same.
But in general, lighter-weight travel trailers will generally get better fuel economy than large, heavy, and tall 5th wheels.
The other thing to keep in mind is that 5th wheels tend to require heavier-duty trucks as tow vehicles, which also impacts fuel economy.
Many 5th Wheels Are More Aerodynamically Designed
The aerodynamics of a 5th wheel may offer some minimal help with overall fuel economy, but besides that, they definitely have a positive impact on issues such as trailer sway and overall driveability. Yes, there are also more aerodynamic trailer trailers out there. And there are some 5th wheels that have poor aerodynamics. But in general, more 5th wheels get the win in this department.
5th Wheels Generally Have More Luxurious Furnishings & Appliances
5th wheels tend to be more luxuriously appointed with regard to both furniture and other interior appointments, including appliances. In fact, you can even find a 5th wheel with washer & dryer, dishwasher, or even a clawfoot bathtub, kegerator, ultrasonic water vapor fireplaces, projector TV, and a bar!
5th Wheels Are Taller
As we noted earlier, 5th wheels tend to be among the tallest RVs on the road. This is great in terms of interior ceiling height, but also means that care needs to be taken when approaching overpasses, low-hanging tree branches, and the like. While a travel trailer may be great for squeezing into a forested campground with low, overhanging tree branches, a big 5th wheel would likely be at a distinct disadvantage there.
Travel Trailers Are Easier to Drive Off-Road & to Remote Areas
If you like to boondock way off the beaten path, travel trailers tend to be easier to take off-road out to remote areas.
While road manners are generally improved with a fifth wheel (largely due to the hitch and its location), off-road manners can be significantly worse. Taller (again, an issue with overhanging branches and side-to-side rocking), larger, and heavier, large fifth wheels are at a disadvantage when off-road.
There are actually travel trailers made specifically for serious overlanding, which is why we decided on a Black Series Camper for our upcoming winter trip down the Baja Peninsula to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Travel Trailers Allow Carrying a Dirt Bike, ATV, Kayaks, Canoes, etc. in the Truck Bed
As mentioned earlier, because the truck bed is taken up with the hitch and the overhang of a 5th wheel, travel trailers are king when it comes to carrying lots of adventure gear in your truck bed. That of course assumes that you tow your travel trailer with a pickup truck, which many RVers do.
We’ve even seen people carrying huge RV water bladders in the empty bed of their trucks to significantly extend their boondocking trips.
Many 5th Wheels Have Built-In Generators While Most Travel Trailers Do Not
It’s common for 5th wheels to come equipped with onboard generators, but most travel trailers are not so equipped. That requires boondockers in travel trailers who want generator power to purchase and use a portable gas-powered model (or a solar generator).
5th Wheels Are Better Suited to Triple Towing
For anyone interested in triple towing in areas where it’s allowed, (for example, towing a boat behind your towed RV), 5th wheels are better suited for this. The same hitch design and weight distribution that make 5th wheels themselves better handling vehicles also carries through to triple towing.
Travel Trailers Are Often Easier to Heat & Cool Evenly
Due to the multi-level designs of 5th wheels, they don’t tend to heat and cool as evenly as travel trailers do. This leaves open the greater possibility for hot spots and/or cold spots in 5th wheels.
5th Wheels Can Have More Slide-Outs
It’s not uncommon to find 5th wheels with 3, 4, or even 5 slide-outs. This certainly increases the interior space of the RV.
With travel trailers, it’s far more common to find one or two slide-outs. The reason for this is that a single slide-out can add as much as 800 pounds to an RV, so each additional slide-out can substantially increase the weight of the rig. Since travel trailers are more challenging to tow as they get heavier, weight savings tend to be more important.
5th wheels, on the other hand, are usually towed by a very substantial truck that can handle the weight of the RV despite multiple slide-outs.
5th Wheels Can Be Harder to Store Due to Height
While there are certainly smaller, lower models, the average height of a 5th wheel is around 13 feet. Not all storage facilities can handle an RV that tall, so there are fewer indoor storage options for 5th wheels than there are for travel trailers. The size considerations that affect larger rigs of all types can cause the same limitations for 5th wheel owners.
5th Wheels Can Have Two Full Bathrooms
This one makes some 5th wheels highly desirable for families. There are floorplans available that come with TWO FULL bathrooms as a standard feature. There’s plenty of room for a couple of bathrooms in a large 5th wheel, and many families and full-timers appreciate the option.
5th Wheels May Have Multiple Large (Queen/King) Beds
It’s not unusual to see 5th wheels with at least one king-sized bed as well as a queen-sized bed or two. Again, this is a reflection of the amount of space available in these large, multi-level RVs.
Most 5th Wheels Are Long and Some National & State Parks and Other Campgrounds Have RV Length Limits Under 28’
Some national and state parks, along with some older private campgrounds, have length limitations for RVs, often requiring that the rig is less than 28 feet long. 5th wheels can range anywhere from 25’ to 45’ long, making many of them too long for campgrounds with these limitations.
For this reason, shorter, smaller travel trailers tend to have a leg up in areas where the length or size of the RV is an issue.
Many RVers Find 5th Wheels Easier to Back Up than Travel Trailers
There’s just no way around it — there’s a learning curve to backing up ANY type of trailer. And while many will surely argue this point, most people who have handled both 5th wheels and travel trailers say 5th wheels back up more easily. That’s most likely due to the pivot point between the two vehicles being moved forward.
But there can be a downside to backing a 5th wheel. Cutting the wheel too far and “jacking” the RV too sharply to one side can, in some circumstances and setups, cause the front corner of the 5th wheel to strike the rear window of the pickup truck. That can also happen going forward in some rigs, but backing up is the most likely time for that to happen due to the amount of maneuvering often required. It’s also the time your attention will likely be more focused on more areas around all your rig, rather than just how tightly you’re turning.
Not all 5th wheel and truck configurations run this risk. But if your rig does, you need to be aware of the turning/angle limits that would cause the RV to hit the rear window. That’s because it will of course shatter the glass. You may want to consider alternative hitch options that can reduce or eliminate the possibility.
More Floorplans Available with 5th Wheels
Due to the multi-level designs and the ability to have anywhere from two to five slide-outs, there are a great many floorplans available for 5th wheels. With fewer slides, travel trailers have far fewer floor plans available.
Now of course, you may find the perfect floorplan available for your needs in any type of RV. If you’ve already spotted a travel trailer with a floorplan that seems custom-made for you, look no further. It only takes one!
5th Wheels Feel More Like a Small House or Apartment on Wheels
Since so many 5th wheels are very large and have multiple slide-outs, that can increase the living area significantly. This, combined with the multiple levels available in a 5th wheel, can make a “fiver” feel very much like an apartment or even a small house.
This is why 5th wheels are often the choice for full-timers (or as reasonably-priced stay-in-place vacation homes). As mentioned previously, they may even be equipped with lots of home-like equipment – everything from fireplaces to residential refrigerators to washers & dryers and dishwashers.
Trucks Required to Tow Large 5th Wheels Make Huge, Fuel-Hungry Daily Drivers
Because 5th wheels require larger trucks as their tow vehicles, owners of these large, heavy rigs are left with a daily driver that just might be a fuel-guzzler (as well as being more difficult to maneuver and park at the local grocery store). For some, this can present a significant difference between 5th wheels vs travel trailers, especially smaller models.
When you’re not traveling with your 5th wheel, or when your rig is parked at a campground and you want to explore the area in your ¾-ton dually, you’re going to feel the pinch of your truck’s heft at the pump.
Some 5th Wheels Have Extremely Limited Access Unless the Slides Are Out
There are some 5th wheel floorplans that you can’t even walk through at all unless the slides are out. For instance, if all the slides of your 5th wheel are in and your rig is stopped at a rest area or parked in your driveway, you might need to do some very fancy climbing just to enter the interior living space to grab something you need from inside the rig.
5th Wheel Hitches Are More Expensive
Although it does depend on the type of hitch being purchased and installed, 5th wheel hitches tend to be more expensive than traditional trailer hitches. They may also be more expensive to install.
5th Wheel Hitches Require Precise Positioning and Installation
A 5th wheel hitch requires relatively precise positioning and installation, which is why many people opt for professional installation. The location of the hitch needs to ensure that the pin of the 5th wheel is located precisely in relation to the center point of the tow vehicle’s rear axle. And you need to purchase the right type of hitch to ensure the front of the fifth wheel won’t impact/damage the rear of the truck’s cab when towing in tight places.
Most 5th Wheels Are Relatively Large Rigs
With a few exceptions, no matter what 5th wheel you choose, you’ll be committing to traveling in a pretty large rig. Again, 5th wheels run between 25 and 45 feet long and are up to 13 feet tall, and heavy, which is why they require a pretty powerful truck to tow them.
By contrast, travel trailers range in length from 12 feet to 35 feet, and aren’t as tall OR as heavy. So, depending on the rigs involved, size often represents a very significant difference between travel trailers vs 5th wheels.
Do You Have Experience with Travel Trailers and 5th Wheels?
If you have experience with both travel trailers and 5th wheels, we’d love to hear your thoughts on how each type served you and your family, and where you fall on the question of travel trailers vs 5th wheels. Drop us a comment below to share your perspective.
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