Comparing 5th Wheel vs. Travel Trailer: What’s the Difference?

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If you’re considering purchasing a towable RV, you have two basic options – a travel trailer or a fifth wheel. While both types of towable RVs require a towing vehicle capable of pulling them, they differ in many ways. 

For starters, they’ll require different types of towing vehicles. The SUV equipped to tow a travel trailer may not cut it when towing a larger 5th wheel. After all, more living space and more amenities equals more weight to tow.

Price is also a distinguishing factor. Fifth wheels tend to be more expensive than travel trailers (You have to pay for those extra amenities somehow).

If you’re set on a towable RV rather than a motorhome, it’s important to understand the difference between fifth wheels and travel trailers.  

Key Takeaways

  • When choosing between a fifth-wheel or travel trailer, consider tow vehicle requirements, towing capacity, hitch types, lifestyle, and your family size.
  • Consider interior space & layout differences. The type of towable RV will inform ceiling height, floor plan style, and how many levels.
  • When comparing the costs of each, be sure to account for maintenance costs.

Tow Vehicle Requirements: 5th Wheel vs. Travel Trailer

One of the first things you should consider is how big of a tow vehicle you will need for your new RV. While both 5th wheels and travel trailers can be parked and detached from the tow vehicle, they require vehicles with different types of hitches and different towing capacities.

Hitch Types

In addition to their weight differential, a fifth-wheel hitch differs significantly from a travel trailer. Fifth wheels attach to your truck’s bed with a jaw hitch, where the entire front portion of the camper sits on the truck bed.  

Towing Capacity

Towing capacity refers to the maximum weight a vehicle can safely tow and is a critical factor when choosing between a fifth wheel and a travel trailer–especially if you don’t want to purchase a new towing vehicle for your rig. 

Typically, 5th wheels are heavier, weighing around 8,000 to 20,000 pounds, so you need the right vehicle with a higher towing and payload capacity. On the other hand, the average travel trailer typically weighs between 5,000 and 12,000 pounds, granting you more flexibility when it comes to the towing vehicle.

Image source (Pictured Above: Fifth wheel hitch)

Travel trailers, on the other hand, utilize a tow-behind ball and coupler-style trailer hitch. This means that, rather than sitting on the truck bed, the travel trailer connects to a ball hitch on the truck or SUV’s backend.

Image source (Pictured Above: Tow-behind ball hitch)

Suitable Towing Vehicles

Because fifth wheels are heavier and have a different hitch style than travel trailers, they will require different types of towing vehicles. Travel trailers, for example, can be towed with SUVs, Jeeps, or small to mid-size trucks, depending on how much they weigh. 

Fifth wheels, conversely, require either a one-ton, three-quarter-ton, or half-ton truck, such as the Ford F-150, F-250, or F-350, because of their weight and the type of hitch they use. Smaller and lighter fifth-wheels are towable with a mid-size truck, but larger fifth-wheels require a large pickup truck or small semi for towing. 

Towing Experience: Ease and Safety

How easily and safely you can tow an RV is another important factor when choosing your rig, especially for inexperienced drivers. Here’s a quick breakdown of the 5th-wheel vs. travel trailer towing experience. 

Ease of Towing

Although fifth-wheel trailers are often taller—and the total rig length is longer than that of a travel trailer—they’re much easier to tow. Because of how the hitch of a fifth wheel sits on the truck’s bed, there is less stress on the rear axle of the towing vehicle. The sleek and curved shape of the front end of a fifth wheel also generates less wind resistance when towing.

Travel trailers have a lower hitch attachment point than their larger counterpart, resulting in a higher risk of swaying. As such, even though they’re lighter than fifth wheels, they can feel heavier and shiftier as you’re towing them.

Maneuverability

In addition to being easier to tow, fifth-wheels are more maneuverable in tight spaces than travel trailers, thanks to their higher pivot point.

However, because they’re taller and longer than travel trailers, fifth-wheels are more susceptible to scraping against low-hanging tree branches as you’re driving on back-country roads or backing into a campsite. As such, you must be hyper-vigilant if you’re driving or backing a fifth wheel. 

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Interior Space and Layout: Comparing 5th Wheels and Travel Trailers

The biggest difference between travel trailers and fifth wheels is their interior space and design. From ceiling height and staircases to floor plans and layout, it’s essential to consider these differences when choosing the right RV for you. 

Multiple Levels

One of the key advantages of a fifth wheel over a travel trailer is that they have multiple levels, similar to a split-level house. This design provides more living space, making it ideal for families or those looking for more room to move around. 

Ceiling Height

In addition to having multiple levels, fifth wheels also tend to have higher ceilings than travel trailers.

On average, a fifth-wheel ceiling will be around eight to ten feet tall, with the exception of the upper level, which has ceilings closer to six to seven feet tall.

On the other hand, travel trailers typically have six to eight feet tall ceilings, which can give them a cramped feel. 

Cost and Value: 5th Wheel vs. Travel Trailer

Cost and value are key considerations when you’re planning to invest in an RV.

While fifth-wheel campers generally come with a higher price tag than both large and small travel trailers, they also typically have a higher resale value.

However, travel trailers are a more economical option, especially for those who prioritize a lightweight towing option as opposed to a gaudy fifth wheel. 

Initial Purchase Price

On average, fifth-wheel trailers cost anywhere from $40,000 to $200,000 brand new and $25,000 to $120,000 used, depending on the RV brand, size, and features.

Travel trailers, on the other hand, typically cost between $20,000 and $50,000 brand new and $5,000 to $35,000 used. 

With the higher price, you’ll receive more interior and storage space, higher ceilings, and more amenities, such as a full-size fridge and stove. However, you will often also require at least a three-quarter-ton truck to tow it, which typically costs more than smaller trucks. 

Resale Value

Although fifth-wheels tend to cost more upfront, they do a better job of retaining their resale value than a travel trailer. Therefore, if you’re planning to use your RV for several years and then resell it, it may be wise to invest in a fifth wheel. This is largely because fifth-wheels are made with higher-quality components than travel trailers. 

Lifestyle Considerations: Choosing the Right RV for You

Now that we’ve looked at cost, living and storage space, and towability, let’s look at how your lifestyle considerations affect the type of towable RV you should choose. 

Family Size

The size of your family plays a crucial role in the type of travel trailer you should choose. Because they have more space and living area, fifth-wheels can comfortably accommodate between four and ten people, while travel trailers often max out at six people.  

Desired Amenities

In addition to size and comfort, it’s also important to consider your desired amenities when debating between a fifth wheel and a travel trailer. In general, here are the amenities a fifth-wheel offers that a travel trailer simply can’t compete with. 

  • Multiple air conditioners 
  • Residential-size refrigerator 
  • Larger stove and microwave 
  • King-size bed in the master bedroom 
  • Multiple living levels 
  • More slide-outs 
  • Kitchen with more counter space and cabinets

Travel trailers, while more compact, can still provide a range of amenities and features to suit your preferences. However, these amenities, such as kitchen appliances, beds, bonus bathrooms, and air conditioners, are usually smaller, less luxurious, and made with lower-quality materials than those in a fifth wheel. 

Summary

By weighing the pros and cons of travel trailers and fifth-wheels, you should have no trouble choosing the towable RV that’s right for you. 

Part of the reason that people experience friction in the purchasing process is that they assume all towable trailers are one and the same. By simply understanding the differences between fifth wheels and travel trailers, you can slash the time you spend at RV dealerships in half.

Once you make your choice, it’s important to protect your investment by storing it in a safe, secure location. If you don’t have space at your home, consider using Neighbor, a peer-to-peer storage marketplace with great storage options for RVs of every shape and size. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is Better, a Travel Trailer or a Fifth Wheel?

Fifth-wheel campers tend to have more storage space, living space, and amenities than travel trailers, but travel trailers are more compact, lightweight, and affordable than fifth wheels. 

Are Travel Trailers Cheaper Than Fifth Wheels?

Because they’re smaller and have fewer amenities, travel trailers are usually cheaper than fifth wheels. 

What Type of Vehicle Is Suitable for Towing a Travel Trailer?

For towing a travel trailer, large SUVs and half-ton pickups are suitable vehicles.

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