What Is a 5th Wheel Trailer?
Definition of a 5th Wheel Trailer RV
A 5th wheel trailer is a recreational vehicle (RV) built on a trailer chassis where the frame is coupled to the tow vehicle using a king pin hitch.
It is a camper towable that connects to the tow truck directly above the rear axle by way of a special fifth wheel hitch (not the same thing as a gooseneck!). This causes several feet of the connected trailer to hang over the tow truck, placing about 15 to 25% of the trailer’s weight on the rear axle of the truck.
Other names include a Fiver, 5er, or 5W. You can also spell it out, like “fifth” wheel (puh-TATE-oh pah-TAUT-oh).
Unlike motorhome RVs campers like Class C’s and A’s, you don’t drive a 5th Wheel camper. And no, you don’t generally need a special license to tow one!
5th Wheel RV Specifications
- Lengths range from 21 to 52 feet, with 28 to 44 feet being the most common.
- Width ranges from 8 ft (standard) to 8.5 ft (wide-body).
- Height varies from 9.5 to 13.5 feet, with most ranging between 10.5 and 12.5 feet (A/C included).
Driving an RV for the first time? Check out our guide to what you need to know about length, width, height, and weight!
Most 5th wheel RVs can fit 4-12 sleepers (6-8 standard). That doesn’t mean there’s room for everyone to sit down and eat at once, though!
5th Wheel RV Categories
Fifth wheel campers are available in all sorts of styles and sizes. The smallest 5th wheels have less than 6 feet of headroom and are just large enough to squeeze in a wet bath. The largest 5th wheels are built by custom coachbuilders, weigh tens of thousands of pounds, and must be towed with a semi-truck cab!
5th Wheel Camper RV Description
Fifth wheel campers are the luxury land yachts of the RV world. Many look too big to fit inside a campground – but somehow, the driver sweats it into place.
These campers offer split-level living. Most 5th wheels offer standup headroom throughout the entire camper, even in the front overhang. The rest of the camper offers generous headroom – up to 8 or 9 feet! Designers use the headroom for extra storage, attractive lighting fixtures, or double bunk bed layouts.
Unlike travel trailers, 5th wheels must be towed by a truck. And as you would find out from our 5th Wheel Towing Calculator, most are best towed with a three-quarter-ton truck (F-250, etc.) or bigger!
5th Wheel Chassis & Fuel Economy
Many RV manufacturers, like New Horizons, design or fabricate their own RV chassis frames. Others turn to big-box frame builders like:
Although Lippert is by far the most popular vendor. Some companies do their own design and outsource the fabrication; some outsource everything; some outsource nothing.
Research the history of your 5th wheel chassis! Some were built that were too lightweight to survive the rigors of cross-country travel, or allowed too much flex in the body structure.
Because 5th wheels are usually so tall, often 12-13.5 feet, they are not very aerodynamic. Expect fuel efficiency to plummet.
The silver lining is that, as a rule, the stronger the engine, the less impact aerodynamics has on fuel efficiency. So a one-ton flatbed will be affected less than, say, a half-ton pickup. Diesel engines are also generally more fuel-efficient than gas-powered engines.
- Average Tow Vehicle Fuel Economy (gas): 8-12 mpg
- Average Tow Vehicle Fuel Economy (diesel): 12-20 mpg
Who Might Want a 5th Wheel Camper?
5th wheels are a popular choice for full-timers and serious recreationalists. They offer prodigious floor space – you feel almost like living inside a house!
Because the nose hangs over the cargo bed of a truck, 5th wheels offer the most living space per foot of length of any towable camper.
Compared to travel trailers, 5th wheels tend to be heavier and roomier. Many have three, four or five slide-outs! Some offer two or 1.5 bathrooms. They come with big basement storage, tons of headroom, and every appliance under the sun!
In fact, there’s a whole sub-class of 5th wheels known as “luxury 5th wheels.” These campers are made by smaller manufacturers who specialize in the best of RV living. They’ll grant your every wish.
- Want a washer and dryer? Done!
- A toy hauler? Easy!
- Extra GVWR? Just ask!
- Hardwood floors? Excellent taste!
The trade-off, of course, is cost. Luxury 5th wheels offer the creme de la creme of RV living, but they can cost a quarter-million dollars or more!
What many campers enjoy about a 5th wheel is that you get the spacious living of a Class A motorhome, but you don’t have to tow a second vehicle for local transportation. Best of both worlds.
5th Wheel Trailer Pros and Cons
- Easier and safer to tow than travel trailers, but requires more caution and skill than motorhomes.
- Easier to back up than travel trailers.
- Spacious, open floor plans suitable for full-time RVers and snowbirds.
- Provides more interior space per length foot than motor homes because it does not contain driving and engine compartments.
- Most storage space of all trailer type RVs.
- Tow vehicle doubles as local transportation.
- Requires a truck with fifth wheel hitch in bed.
- Large trailers require large tow vehicles!
- Driving and living compartments are separate. Living area inaccessible while moving.
- Generally cannot tow vehicle behind trailer.
- Larger models can be difficult to maneuver in tight spaces.
- On tall models top clearance can be a problem under low branches and structures. Problem compounded if carrying items on roof such as canoes.
- Most models require large storage area when not in use.
Key Features in a 5th Wheel RV
If you believe that “minimalism” is a dirty woke word and “excess” isn’t a thing, then you’ll love a 5th wheel camper!
Space to Spread out
Perhaps the 5th wheel experience can be best summed up as: Home when you want it.
An hour after pulling into a campground, you can extend your four slideouts, turn on the electric fireplace, set dinner on the kitchen island, and enjoy a family dinner on the U-shaped sofa lounge.
Or, more likely, you’ll tell those kids to scurry up into the loft room and “keep it quiet, you hear!” while you retire to the master bed and bathroom suite for some much-needed R&R.
Here’s a layout from Keystone RV, the nation’s most popular 5th wheel manufacturer, the company behind such series as Montana, Avalanche and Raptor. This is the Montana High Country 335BH.
Look how deep those slide-outs are! 5th wheels tend to offer the deepest slide-outs of any RV type. And notice the split-level living? The master bedroom and bathroom suite is “up a level,” whereas the living area, kitchenette and kids’ loft are on the main level and have extra headroom.
And yes, that’s a kitchen island. Necessary? Not really. Desireable? Oh yes.
2022 Keystone Montana High Country 335BH Floorplan
Now, consider this layout from Alliance RV, the 2022 VALOR 36V11.
It’s similar. But this is a toy hauler model (many 5th wheels are). As you can see, the designers allocated much less space to family seating area. In fact, most has been relegated to the garage.
Instead, the designers squeeze in a three-quarter bathroom. How wonderful! Now the kids have their own bathroom separate from yours! And there’s even a kids loft apart from the garage area.
This layout is better suited for a family on the go – and maybe one where Mom and Dad value their privacy!
2022 Alliance VALOR 36V11
But all the cool features may have distracted you from an important point:
Both of these campers weigh about 14,000 lbs empty with a 3,000 lb hitch weight. You won’t be pulling these with your F-150. Your tow vehicle will cost as much as your truck – and if you fully load up both, you may exceed 26,000 lbs GCVWR, and you may be required to obtain a non-commercial Class B license.
Sleeping and Seating Questions
- What size of bed (twin, full, queen, short queen, king) do I need?
- Am I going to sleep in the same bed as my partner, or will we need dual twin beds?
- Can we scoot to the end of a bed, or do we need to roll off the side?
- How much visual or acoustic privacy do we need? Will a curtain suffice, or a solid wall and a door?
- Do we need a TV in our bedroom?
- Do we need an adjacent master bath?
- Do we need a full-size bed for kids or guests, or will a murphy, sofa or bunk bed do the trick?
- Where will we eat breakfast, lunch and dinner? Do we need a breakfast nook in addition to the main living area?
- Do we need a separate table for office space?
- How many people need to be able to watch TV or eat a meal at once?
Cargo Carrying Capacity
Pay careful attention to the CCC of your 5th wheel! Unfortunately, fifth wheel chassis frames and/or axles are often loaded almost to the max at the factory. That only leaves you with a few thousand pounds of cargo. And if you plan to bring along a lot of stuff – especially anything like a weight set or dirt bike – that payload can be eaten up in a hurry.
5th wheels, especially ones over 28 feet, typically offer residential-style layouts and features, including the following:
- Full bathrooms (with standup showers)
- Full kitchens with residential double-door refrigerators and dishwashers
- Multiple televisions
- Kids sleeping lofts
- Kitchen islands with sinks
- Master bedroom suites
Only you can decide if these features are necessary for you.
By the way, don’t confuse the term “residential-style” with “residential-quality.” The uncomfortable truth is that many $100,000 5th wheel campers are built with similar or identical components as $30,000 travel trailers.
(Psst. I dive deeper into this idea in this construction quality report from AskTheRVEngineer.)
5th Wheel Trailer Sub-Types
The 5th wheel trailer has two sub-types:
1. Fiberglass 5th Wheel
Most fifth wheel campers are double- or triple-axle monstrosities. But there are a few which are no bigger than a miniature travel trailer, such as the Scamp or Escape 5.0! Both these campers are built with a solid molded fiberglass shell.
For more information on molded fiberglass campers, read our guide.
There are other manufacturers building conventional 5th wheels the same size, just not fiberglass. These “mini” 5th wheels don’t have full headroom in the front nose. Manufacturers include Winnebago and KZ.
2. Toy Hauler 5th Wheel
Most toy haulers – that is, towable campers with a rear garage for adventure toys like golf carts, dirt bikes or ATVs – are 5th wheels. For more information on toy hauler campers, read our guide.
5th Wheel Major Manufacturers
There are about 30 major Class A motorhome RV manufacturers in North America.
Some of the biggest names include:
- Grand Design
- Redwood by Thor
- DRV Luxury Suites
For a full list of manufacturers, check out our comprehensive RV manufacturer’s list!
There are also dozens of custom coachbuilders who will design you a bespoke 5th wheel trailer, complete with cat towers, double queen beds, flat screen TVs on the ceiling, or whatever else your heart desires. They are not shown on our lists.
We’ve spotlighted a few brands below. These brands are either known for their popularity, quality, or innovation.
Keystone RV is an RV manufacturer based in the state of Indiana and has been in operation since 1996. The company is owned by Thor Industries.
Keystone RV is a mainstream RV manufacturer based in Indiana who builds many familiar Big Box brands of travel trailers, fifth wheels and toy haulers. Their Montana series is the archetypical American 5th wheel.
Keystone prides itself on industry-leading innovation and regularly partners with vendors to create new RV technologies. However, the company, like many big-box brands, also has a reputation for mediocre quality control.
Alliance RV is an RV manufacturer based in the state of Indiana and has been in operation since 2019. The company is owned by private ownership or family.
Founded by an ensemble cast of industry veterans and dedicated to building a better RV, Alliance RV builds luxury fifth-wheels and toy haulers. They’re big, bold, and built better than the rest. Did we mention they’re big?
DRV Luxury Suites
DRV Luxury Suites is an RV manufacturer based in the state of Indiana and has been in operation since 2003. The company is owned by Thor Industries.
DRV Luxury Suites (formerly known as DoubleTree) builds luxury 5th wheels and 5th wheel toy haulers. Unlike other manufacturers, DRV caters specifically to full-timers who don’t want to give up any of the conveniences of home.
Grand Design is an RV manufacturer based in the state of Indiana and has been in operation since 2012. The company is owned by Winnebago Industries.
Best described as “normal done better,” Grand Design took the market by storm upon its introduction in 2012 for its thoughtful design, topnotch quality control and value engineering. Their two 5th wheel model series are the Reflection and Imagine. Floorplans start at less than 5,000 lbs!
5th Wheel RV FAQs
Ehh … no.
Towable 5th wheel RVs are good for “dry camping” or “Wallydocking,” the art of self-contained camping without hookups. Thanks to their big propane, water and waste tanks, they can run off-grid for some time.
But they’re not good for true primitive camping or boondocking, which usually involves tight spaces and high-clearance roads. Plus, RVs are heavy, heavy, usually with double (or even triple) axles! They don’t work well on soft roads.
Plus, appliances on an RV are power-hungry. You’ll need a hefty generator to run your RV for 48-72 hours off-grid with full use of appliances. Many 5th wheels come with a powerful generator in the basement, but again, do you really want to listen to VROOOOM while camping under the stars?
No. You generally cannot triple tow with a 5th wheel camper.
Except for the smallest campers, most 5th wheels must be towed with a three-quarter-ton pickup or flatbed truck or larger. Full-profile (13.5 feet tall) 5th wheels over 14,000 loaded weight may require a medium-duty truck.
To help you answer this question, please took a look at these two resources: