For many RV’ers, this question is a hot topic. For others, it is not even on the horizon. It all depends on the type of RV you are in and what you would like to move to.
For example, I’ve been towing travel trailers for several years. What will my next motorhome be? I’m thinking of getting a fifth wheel toy transporter. Why? I want the toy carrier for the flexibility in the ways that I can use it. I want the fifth wheel version because of the floor plans that are not available from the bumper pulls. But, it’s just me. This article is about what you want.
By the way, the descriptive terms you will hear can be confusing. A fifth wheel is a fifth wheel. That’s what people call it. On the other hand, there is no standardized term for the others. You will hear people refer to them as “travel trailers”, “bumper pullers”, “trailer types” or some other terms. For the sake of this article, I’ll use the term “bumper pull” because it better describes the hitch location.
Now that we understand the terms, let’s look at the basic differences between the two. The most obvious difference is where the trailer connects to the tow vehicle. The bumper pull hitch is, of course, located on or near the rear bumper of the tow vehicle. The fifth wheel hitch is located in the truck bed on the rear axle.
The first thing that becomes clear is that you will not be using a car to tow a fifth wheel trailer. The location of that hitch requires a truck. The bumper pull trailer can be towed by car or truck.
There is another factor about fifth wheel towing that requires a truck to be used as a towing vehicle. The fifth wheel frame design is such that it tends to be heavier than required for a bumper towing trailer. That extra weight needs the strength that only a truck can provide.
So why do people choose one over the other? One reason is the size of the unit. The longer a trailer is, the more likely it is designed as a fifth wheel. The smaller it is, the more likely it is to be a bumper puller design.
The main problem here is the stability of the trailer when towing. The pivot point (hitch) of a bumper towing trailer is a few feet behind the axle of the tow vehicle. This can cause the trailer to exert a lever on the truck. Longer units need a good anti-roll hitch to keep the truck and trailer under control if they hit you with side winds.
The pivot point of the fifth wheel hitch is on the axle of the truck. There is no way the trailer can exert influence on the truck if a gust of wind hits it. That is the main reason why longer trailers tend to be fifth wheel drives.
Another factor in choosing is cost. Fifth wheel drives tend to be more expensive than a bumper pull trailer of the same size. This is why most of the smaller and less expensive units are bumpers. They are lighter and less expensive to produce.
There is a big difference in the amount of living space you get for every foot of trailer space on the road or in the campground. A bumper towing trailer that is 30 feet long will give you approximately 25-26 feet of living space. The remainder of the length is the tongue sticking out in front of the trailer. As for the overall length of the truck and trailer, that full 30 feet adds to the length of the truck.
A fifth wheel uses length more efficiently. In most cases, a 30 foot fifth wheel will give you approximately 30 feet of living space. Because the hitch is on the rear axle of the truck, the amount of trailer hanging behind the truck will be more like 24-25 feet. The combined length of the truck and trailer will be 8-10 feet shorter for the same amount of living space.
Most fifth wheel trailers require at least a 3/4 ton truck as a towing vehicle. Most bumper pullers can be safely handled with a 1/2-ton truck. The main reason for this is the amount of weight that is placed on the hitch.
Most bumper towing trailers are designed to place approximately 10% of the total weight on the hitch ball. Putting that much weight on a hitch 3 to 4 feet behind the axle works like a lever to lift the front of the truck. A good weight compensating hitch becomes extremely important as trailer size moves toward medium or large sizes.
The fifth wheel trailer is designed to place approximately 15% of the total weight on the hitch pin that is on the axle of the truck. That amount of weight, alone, requires a heavier truck.
So where does that leave you? If you already have a 3/4 ton or larger truck, your options are wide open. It depends on which floor plan and price range work best for you.
If, on the other hand, you have a small car or truck, you’re pretty much limited to a smaller bumper pull trailer. Most cars and small trucks are limited to trailers that weigh 3,500 pounds or less. Light trailers won’t offer many amenities. At the same time, they offer an inexpensive entry point into the wonderful world of motorhome travel.
It all comes down to where you are and where you want to be in the grand scheme of things. The tow vehicle will determine the size and style of trailer it can safely pull. If you want to pull something bigger, you will need to upgrade your tow vehicle.
The other main factor is, of course, your budget. It’s true that you can save a lot of money on your vacation trips by traveling light with a tent or even a pop-up trailer. Because hotel and restaurant costs can add up pretty quickly, camping can be a real bargain.
However, there comes a point where you are no longer camping to save money. You’re camping because you really enjoy the RV lifestyle. Let’s face it, a brand new 3/4-ton truck with a matching fifth wheel trailer can easily approach $ 80,000 – $ 100,000. You can’t camp enough to save so much money!
So as far as the fifth wheel vs. Flip the bumper, the bottom line is this: how much are you willing to spend? Most bumper traction units are at the low end to the midpoint of the scale. Most fifth wheel drives will start from the midpoint and work their way up to the upper end of that same scale.
Where are you and where do you want to be?