Choosing between a fifth wheel and travel trailer
July 16, 2021
As experts in fifth wheels and travel trailers, we know people love towable campers because they don’t have an engine to service compared to motorized units. Eliminating the upfront cost of the engine can free up some budget for additional options on a towable unit. The sheer variety of sizes, prices, floorplans and flexibility to detach the tow vehicle for daytrips or runs to the store is also really appealing.
When it comes to choosing between travel trailers and fifth wheels, the differences aren’t as stark. Don’t think of it as fifth wheels being ‘better’ or travel trailers being ‘better’; it’s more about fit, which kind of trailer best suits how you want to travel. That brings us to a couple rules you should always follow when shopping for an RV.
STICK TO YOUR PRIORITIES
Decisions on things like interior décor and options may come down to weighing “wants” vs. “needs.” Vinyl seating, stain-resistant flooring, outdoor amenities, or residential-level décor may all make you say, “I want that,” but stay focused initially on the things that make you say, “We’ll definitely need that.”
Take into consideration how you plan to use your unit and how you like to camp. Love spending most of your time outdoors? Maybe you can forego extra bells and whistles on the inside of your RV and look for outside kitchens or entertainment centers. Then again, if you have an antsy bunch who like plenty of options to keep everyone busy on a rainy day, extras on the inside might be the right choice.
CHOOSE YOUR FLOORPLAN CAREFULLY
Here’s some insider info for you: There’s a saying in the business that floorplans sell RVs. While not entirely true, it speaks to the importance of choosing the right one.
Take into account the type of camping you enjoy most; whether you’ll be making weekend adventures or longer hauls, and the activities that fill your trips will help determine your storage needs. Then, think about who will be traveling in the RV most often–you and your spouse, other couples, the kids and their friends? Is it important that the kids have their own area? Answers to questions like these will help you decide on sleeping capacity. Don’t forget the kitchen. Whether you prefer to cook inside, outside or fireside will determine your culinary needs.
HOW YOU’LL TOW
As for choosing between fifth wheels and travel trailers, the conversation starts with towing. Unlike the traditional ball and socket hitch used by travel trailers, fifth wheels connect to a hitch inside the bed of a pickup. This gooseneck area up front gives fifth wheels a different shape than other trailers. Fifth wheels have a larger turning radius and some added stability when towing since the connection is centered over the truck’s rear axle and the center of gravity is closer to the tow vehicle.
If you already have a tow vehicle with one hitch or the other, your decision may be clear. Otherwise, you can learn more about what it’s like to tow a fifth wheel or travel trailer and read in-depth explanations of weights, connections and everything else to look for when deciding how to tow.
Now, let’s dig into some of the other practical differences between fifth wheels and travel trailers.
LONG HAULS OR QUICK GETAWAYS
The fifth wheel is ideal for extended stays. In addition to the extra living space, thanks to the gooseneck area positioning above the hitch, fifth wheels have some of the largest water, battery and waste capacities, requiring less upkeep and attention while on the road. While there are exceptions, travel trailers can be quicker to set up and tear down, generally have systems and capacities and are more suited for frequent stops or shorter trips.
Smaller travel trailers sleep two, while larger bunkhouse models sleep up to ten comfortably. If there’s a particular layout or RV feature you’re looking for, inside or out, you can likely find it on one travel trailer or another. There are tons of weight options, varying from a few hundred pounds up to several thousand. Fifth wheels will always have their signature shape, giving them a smaller range of possible sizes and space.
PRIVACY AND MULTIGENERATIONAL TRIPS
The bi-level construction of a fifth wheel allows for up to three distinct living spaces. You, the grandparents and kids can each have your own space. If you’re traveling with very young kids, there’s the bonus of allowing the kids to nap in one room or play video games without disturbing them as you go about your day. More and more travel trailers are available with bunkhouses that offer a similar feel.
In the case of many travel trailers, you’ll have a choice between aluminum and fiberglass sidewalls, an option you don’t always have when it comes to fifth wheels. Both have their pros and cons: aluminum models are generally less expensive (potentially welcome news for someone looking to try out the RV lifestyle) and easier to repair in case of damage; fiberglass walls are flat, making them easier to maintain, plus they’re lighter and more aerodynamic.
Fifth wheels’ shape allows for more storage, inside and out. Their height and sometimes wider bodies allow you to find a great balance of living and storage space. You’ll often find more and deeper cabinetry and closets as well as large pass-through exterior storage that’s accessible from both sides of the coach. You can fit large outdoor gear for the campsite or activities in these exterior spaces. Since a travel trailer doesn’t hitch up to the bed of your truck, you always have the bed of your truck or SUV truck available for additional gear.
If you’re tall or looking for a lot of living space, the fifth wheel’s shape naturally allows for more height inside the coach and multiple levels with stairs. Fifth wheels are also available with multiple slideout rooms (as many as five), which make for an even more open, residential experience. There’s often just a different feel when you walk inside travel trailers and fifth wheels for the first time.
Since travel trailers are available in shorter lengths and lighter weights than fifth wheels, you can choose from many models that almost any campsite can accommodate. This is important, both in terms of campsite reservation availability and navigating the occasional tricky turn. The same can be said if you’re looking to dry camp outside of formal campgrounds. You’ll be able to access more natural sites comfortably with a travel trailer.
Travel trailers are also a little more mobile at camp. If you’re looking to explore different regions, a travel trailer provides you an extra bit of flexibility once you get there. Detaching your tow vehicle and heading out and about is relatively simple with most travel trailers. There’s no need to tie things down to get your unit ready for the road or fully pack up your campsite every time you leave.