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Getting Started : Types & Choices

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Fifth wheel or travel trailer?
Russ and Tina DeMaris

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In the world of towables, the two classes most compared by prospective buyers are fifth wheels and travel trailers. Which one is better for you? There are a few variables that can make a difference.

First, the major difference between a "fiver" and a travel trailer are the hitch point. While a travel trailer attaches to a ball mount at about the level of the tow rig's rear bumper, a fifth wheel attaches to a special hitch system mounted close to the rear axle in a truck--most often a pickup truck, although we've seen flatbeds used for towing fivers.

Fifth wheel trailer
Here's where the first difference in your lifestyle comes in: A fifth wheel always requires a truck to pull, while you may be able to use other types of tow vehicles to pull a travel trailer. If your SUV or even a four-door or sedan has the rating towing capacity for the trailer you want, you're in.

Conventional travel trailer
If you opt for the fifth wheel route, you will have a considerable about of the truck bed's real-estate taken up with a fifth wheel hitch system. You won't be able to use a canopy to store things when towing, and if you decide to remove the hitch when not towing, it's a heavy thing, and not something to be undertaken lightly. Towing a travel trailer, you can have your full bed area available for storage.

From a lifestyle perspective, we've found by experience that a fifth wheel, foot for foot of length, provides more living space. Additionally, fivers are far more likely to have greater "basement storage" available in compartments accessed from outside the rig. Because the bedroom is often placed up over the hitch, the seeming "residential" feeling of a fifth wheel is often greater, the "feel" is more like home to us.

And yes, fifth wheels are an "easier" tow than a travel trailer. There's far less sway involved. If sway is a problem with a travel trailer, you can add on accessory sway control systems--at an additional cost. Backing a fifth wheel versus the travel trailer--is it easier? We'll just say, it's different. A travel trailer responds much quicker to steering commands than does a fifth wheel, so when switching from one to the other, your mind set has to make a change over. If you've learned to back in a travel trailer, be prepared to have to learn to pull a lot farther forward when backing your fifth wheel into the same spot.

Since some of the length of a fiver is over the bed of the truck, your overall combination length of tow vehicle and trailer is a bit less, which may be helpful if you RV to public campgrounds.

What about hitching up? Another big difference between the two. Hitching a travel trailer can be a maddening experience, particularly for those who have difficulty with depth perception. You can't "see" the trailer hitch from the steering wheel, and getting these two lined up without a "spotter" can be an agonizing issue. There are some clever devices available that make this easier, but with a fifth wheel it's easy to hitch up without devices or spotters. With the hitch in the truck bed, spotting the king pin on the trailer (the equivalents of a trailer ball and coupler on a travel trailer)is easy. With a little practice, even this squinty eyed writer could handle it in a flash.

So what's better? Well, it's all a matter of taste and lifestyle.

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