Towable RVs like fifth-wheels and travel trailers are a great alternative to traditional motorhomes. They allow us to take the comforts and amenities of home with us, without giving up the luxury of a separate vehicle to cruise around in.
From big fifth wheels to tiny campers, a trailer and hitch can be found to suit any traveler.
But what is the difference between a fifth wheel and a travel trailer, and how do you begin to choose the right towable RV for your needs?
Fifth wheels provide a surprising amount of space, paired with a secure tow. On, other hand travel trailers are more versatile and tend to be cheaper, with options available for solo travelers and groups alike.
Travel trailer vs fifth wheel campers, which is better? It’s more of a question of which travel style is better for you living the RV Life. There is no “1 type fits all.”
So in this post we’ve taken a side-by-side look at fifth wheels and travel trailers pros and cons to see exactly what the similarities and differences are so that you can determine what style of trailer is the right fit for your needs.
What is a Fifth Wheel?
A fifth wheel trailer is one that is towed by a pickup truck with the use of a fifth wheel hitch.
Unlike a ball hitch used by other travel trailers, fifth wheels are a “U” shaped coupling component (the fifth-wheel) that is installed in truck beds.
This “wheel” rotates on the base and slides onto the trailer’s hitch head to connect.
Invented in the mid-1850’s, fifth wheels were originally used with horse drawn carriages. In these early days, it was comprised of a horizontal wheel placed on the cargo frame, allowing the front axel to pivot.
This technique was adopted to motorized vehicles in the 1900’s and has since evolved to suit the needs of the modern world.
What Is The Advantage Of A 5th Wheel Over A Trailer?
Fifth wheels have several unique features that make them awesome. Not only do they handle with ease, but their design also offers spatial benefits.
Let’s take a look at the features that make a fifth wheel awesome.
Fifth Wheels Are Easier To Tow
Fifth wheel hitches are a great option for anyone wanting a smooth and secure tow.
Fifth wheels are installed just over the rear axle of pickup trucks, which improves the way the trailer is towed in the following ways:
An even distribution of the trailer’s weight helps to keep all tires on the ground, particularly when traversing unpaved roads.
Reduced sway keeps the trailer from fish-tailing and instead keeps it following close behind the trailer.
Not only do these features increase safety, but they can be particularly favorable for anyone new to towing a 5th wheel trailer
The extended turn radius of fifth wheels allows you to make sharper turns, but it can also make backing up easier.
A greater turn radius means that the trailer has more freedom to move on its own trajectory.
This reduces the trailer’s sensitivity to oversteering while backing up because it requires more exaggerated and intentional steering.
This is especially ideal for anyone driving in city limits or wishing to park in crowded RV parks.
Because fifth wheel hitches are located in the center of truck beds, fifth wheel trailers extend over the bed.
This unique design adds room to the trailer by creating split levels and separate compartments.
Fifth wheel trailers generally also have a number of slides that can significantly increase the overall living and storage space of the trailer.
This added room may be ideal for families and groups who need a bit of privacy, or for anyone looking to reside in the trailer full-time.
What is a Travel Trailer?
Travel trailers, also commonly known as caravans or campers, are a broad category of non-motorized RVs that are towed behind vehicles.
They are made for dwelling (versus other trailers, such as enclosed cargo trailers, that are made to transport items), and use a ball hitch to connect to the tow vehicle.
What Makes a Travel Trailer Awesome?
There are so many different types of travel trailers that it is not difficult to find one that’s perfect for any need.
Whether you plan to travel as a single person or a family of five, travel trailers are an easy and often affordable way for anyone to experience the comforts of camping in an RV.
What makes a travel trailer really awesome is that even the smallest and lightest styles will include basic features and amenities, but they come in such a range that it’s possible to find a trailer to fit whatever vehicle you already own.
We’ve gathered this list of the different types of travel trailers available to give you a better idea of how the many styles of travel trailers make this type of RV awesome.
Pop-up trailers are awesome because they lend you the experience of sleeping in the great outdoors that you’d get from a tent, but with additional amenities such as:
Traditional styles expand upward and outward from a hard-bodied case to create seating and sleeping spaces enclosed by tent-like canvas and mesh.
For those who prefer a more enclosed space, but still want the leisure and flexibility of a compact trailer, a hard-bodied A-frame camper may be a more preferable version of this type of trailer.
Named for the triangular shape they create when expanded, A-frame campers offer a surprising amount of space and comfort for their minimal footprint.
Regardless of which model you prefer, pop-up trailers are awesome because they are lightweight and can be towed by nearly all SUVs and trucks, as well as many standard cars.
Teardrop trailers are another compact and lightweight style of trailer that can be towed by many vehicles.
Teardrop trailers don’t collapse, nor expand, and they are generally smaller than an expanded pop-up camper.
However, their unique design means they still contain many of the same features.
Teardrop trailers are awesome because they have a classic design that was popular in the 40’s and 50’s, often with the kitchen being accessible from the outside.
Most teardrop trailers also weigh under 1,000 lbs., making them one of the easiest types of RVs to tow with nearly any type of vehicle.
Standard travel trailers are hard bodied and come with all standard features, such as:
Travel trailers can come in all sorts of sizes, from 13’ micro-campers to luxury campers made to accommodate ten people.
Remember that the bigger you go, the greater towing capacity your vehicle will require.
However, with their many layouts and designs, it’s not hard to find a travel trailer for any budget and set up.
There can never be enough options when searching for the perfect camper.
Sometimes styles need to be combined to include all desired features, which brings us the hybrid trailer.
At first glance, hybrids look like standard travel trailers, but as their mesh and canvas-sided extensions expand, we see that they are crossovers of travel trailers and pop-ups.
These trailers are awesome for two main reasons. First, their design creates more living space without much added weight.
Hybrids allow you to enjoy the space of a larger trailer, but at a GVW that smaller trucks and SUVs can handle.
Hybrid trailers are also an awesome option for those who want the tent camping experience, but need more room than pop-ups can provide.
Hybrid trailers create a space where a whole family of night sky enthusiasts can enjoy sleeping under the stars, as well as the luxury of a morning shower and a full kitchen for breakfast.
Fifth Wheel vs. Travel Trailer: Similarities
Fifth wheels and travel trailers are similar in that they fall into a separate category from traditional motorhomes.
Although neither can travel on its own, the need for a second vehicle can offer a number of benefits.
Require a Separate Tow Vehicle
Both fifth wheels and travel trailers require a separate vehicle to tow them.
A potential downside of this is that it may mean a more expensive initial startup cost for those who do not already have a vehicle capable of towing a trailer.
Along with the trailer and tow vehicle, startup costs for both types of trailers also require the purchase of the proper hitch as well a few other possible accessories, such as:
Although pairing two vehicles may seem more expensive or complicated than purchasing a single bodied motorhome, there are benefits to having a detachable vehicle.
- Leaving your trailer at a campsite and exploring with just your vehicle gives you leeway to explore. Not only does it save money, but it also lets you traverse both rough terrain and crowded streets with more ease.
- Being able to separate the vehicles is useful if you experience mechanical issues on either. If your vehicle needs to go into the shop, you still have all of your stuff and a place to sleep. And if something happens to your RV, you still have wheels to get you to a hotel.
A fifth wheel will always require a pickup truck, and usually a large one to support the heavier weight of fifth wheel trailers.
Travel trailers, on the other hand, can often be pulled with smaller trucks and SUVs. This makes the average startup cost of a travel trailer cheaper than that of a fifth wheel.
Even when unhitched, a truck large enough to pull a fifth wheel may still feel large in bustling cities or small country towns.
They use more gas than many vehicles capable of towing travel trailers, and a fifth wheel hitch will take up the majority of the truck’s bed even with the trailer detached.
When it comes to tow vehicles, the versatility of travel trailers allows significantly more options than fifth wheels do and makes trailer travel accessible to more people.
Winner: Travel Trailer
Cheaper Than Motorhomes
A popular reason for choosing a trailer over a motorhome is the price difference. Trailers are often cheaper on:
Both fifth wheels and travel trailers will almost always be cheaper to purchase than their motorhome counterparts.
Since neither has its own motor, they also tend to have fewer mechanical issues, which is especially important when buying used.
Although the average of all trailers is cheaper than motorhomes, there is also a decent price gap between the cost of fifth wheels and travel trailers.
Fifth wheels are almost always more expensive than other travel trailers, and purchasing a truck large enough to tow a fifth wheel will also be more costly than a smaller vehicle.
Gas also tends to be cheaper for trailers. Many cars, trucks, and SUVs towing a small to medium sized trailer will get better gas mileage than small motorhomes.
This mileage is also significantly increased any time the trailer is detached and the tow vehicle is used on its own.
Fifth wheels and large pickup trucks can also end up with a gas mileage similar to that of even class A motorhomes.
Even though this gets better when the trailer is detached, a large truck will still get worse gas mileage than any smaller towing vehicle, remaining comparable to smaller motorhomes.
Insurance will almost always be cheaper for trailers than fifth wheel . The general rule of thumb is that, bigger vehicles come with higher insurance rates.
Paying for insurance on a motorhome can be quite costly, whereas choosing to tow a trailer means paying insurance on your tow vehicle and a separate, non-motorized trailer.
Without a motor, trailers cost significantly less to cover, and the combined insurance costs tend to remain lower than that of many motorhomes.
Although fifth wheels will likely still be cheaper to ensure than motorhomes of a comparable size, the rule of thumb holds true even for unmotorized RVs, and a fifth wheel trailer will generally cost more to insure than other travel trailers.
Winner: Travel Trailer
5th Wheel vs Travel Trailer: Differences
Both fifth wheels and travel trailers require hitches, but the hitches are quite different from one another. Fifth wheel hitches sit in the beds of pickup trucks. These hitches can be slightly faster to connect than standard trailer hitches, and the way the trailer tows tends to be more steady and secure than with standard trailer hitches.
However, fifth wheel hitches are big and intrusive, and require a large enough pickup truck to be installed in.
Travel trailers use a ball hitch that may be located on the bumper of a truck or SUV, or connects to a vehicle’s rear receiver hitch.
These hitches are non-intrusive and take up no useable space on your vehicle.
Although fifth wheel hitches make for a more secure tow, small relatively low-cost additions to a ball hitch can provide the same security.
Weight distribution hitches can help to keep your tow vehicle and trailer level, while sway bars can help to prevent the trailer from fish-tailing.
Both require a few extra steps when hitching up a trailer to a tow vehicle, but an additional minute or two while hitching up is well worth the space saved in the tow vehicle.
Winner: Travel Trailer
Fifth Wheels Are Bigger Than Travel Trailers
Fifth wheels will almost always be larger and more spacious than travel trailers.
While travel trailers tend to be anywhere from 12-35 feet long, fifth wheels average at 25-45 feet.
There are often multiple rooms and bathrooms and significantly more storage space.
Due to the way fifth wheels are hitched over truck beds, they end up having a split-level floor plan.
This alone creates a division of space and an added degree of privacy.
Fifth wheels also tend to have multiple slides extending each space, whereas travel trailers usually only have one or two slides, if any at all.
The size and layout of fifth wheels will give you and your family or travel partners room to stretch and to get some alone time.
Winner: Fifth Wheel
Travel trailers come in many sizes, but will always be limited to one floor. Fifth wheels, on the other hand, are unique because of their split-level design.
This is a great feature for anyone in need of real privacy. Whether you are a family traveling with teenagers, or a mixed group of friends and couples, having separated sleeping areas can provided needed space to make your trip more enjoyable.
A split-level floorplan is also often a desirable feature for those looking to travel or live in their trailer long-term, as separate spaces mimic the feel of a brick-and-mortar apartment more than many traditional trailers can achieve.
How a space is organized affects how we live and interact in it, which is why there are so many floorplan variations available for both types of trailers.
Despite this variety, fifth wheels offer a level of privacy that no other travel trailer can.
Winner: Fifth Wheel
The more a trailer weighs, the greater of a tow capacity your vehicle needs and the more expensive traveling will be.
Because fifth wheels tend to be larger and have more slides, they also tend to weigh significantly more than travel trailers.
If you happen to already have a truck that can tow a fifth wheel, this may not be much of a concern.
However, this additional weight is not well suited for traveling off the beaten path, nor for smaller trucks to tow.
Winner: Travel Trailer
Everyone uses their RVs differently. Some use them on short trips a few times a year, while others decide to call them home.
Some prefer a simple design that’s easy to hitch up and go, whereas others enjoy the luxury of having an entire home on wheels.
You know you’re getting all of the space and luxury you could want with a fifth wheel, whereas it takes a large travel trailer to even get close.
Travel trailers cover your basic creature comforts, but will generally still feel like a camper.
In contrast, fifth wheels can feel like actually apartments on the inside, many even containing a king bed and master suite.
Winner: Fifth Wheel
Travel Trailer vs 5th Wheel: 4 Considerations Before Buying
The only way to pick the perfect towable is to first understand exactly how you intend to use it. Be sure to take into consideration key factors such as:
If you are at all being frugal or looking to get the “best bang for your buck”, you probably want to look at travel trailers.
Due to their size and the overall towing setup required, fifth wheels will almost always be the more expensive option.
Where You Plan to Park
Fifth wheels are usually fine at established camp sites and RV parks, but are not ideal for any boondocking that may require some off-roading to get to, nor for small campsite and tight spaces.
Some larger fifth wheels may even be too big to stay at national parks.
Anyone who wants to get off-grid and keep some spontaneity in their travels will generally have an easier time doing so with smaller and lighter travel trailers.
Do you want to bring your dirt bikes with you when camping? What about the pair of kayaks you just bought, or maybe your three Great Danes?
Towing a fifth wheel requires a truck, and it requires nearly the entirety of the truck bed to be consumed by the hitch, leaving you and your passengers crammed into the truck cabin.
While this works for small groups, larger groups may get crowded and may even need to bring a second vehicle.
Whether you travel with family or friends, a larger group of people will require more room and more storage space.
While larger travel trailers may have enough room for everyone to lay their heads, only fifth wheels offer an added level of privacy with their split-level layouts.
Is a Fifth Wheel or Travel Trailer Right for You?
Whether a fifth wheel or a travel trailer is the right type of RV for you will depend on how you plan to use the RV.
Although the larger size of fifth wheels adds a significant amount of weight, the spatial layout and separate levels are unique in the RV world.
Those who travel with big groups, those who want to travel in luxury, and those who plan to live in their RV full-time will enjoy the unique qualities of fifth wheel trailers.
Travel trailers, on the other hand, take the lead in versatility and accessibility.
They can get close to the size and storage space of a fifth wheel or motorhome, or they can come compact and ready to be towed by a family car.
Whether you’re shopping for your first RV, wish to camp in secluded destinations, or have a limited budget for your travels, there is a type of travel trailer that’s perfectly suited for your needs.