Are you looking into the possibility of getting a fifth wheel trailer? If you are reading this article, then you are probably in what I call the “dreaming” phase of considering a purchase: you are just trying to check out whether this crazy dream of yours is even possible.
Or maybe you are thinking of renting one for a cool trip you are planning. Either way, welcome! And let me teach you the basics of what is required to tow a fifth wheel.
Fifth wheels are heavy! And that weight is something that you need to seriously consider when thinking about buying or renting a fifth wheel trailer. How will you get that thing around? Will you need a bigger, more powerful truck to tow it?
To safely tow a fifth wheel trailer, you need your tow vehicle to have enough towing, braking, and steering capacity. There is a huge variation in how much these trailers weigh. Some are built to be light, while others weigh enough to make the whole ground rumble.
There is also a huge variation in the towing capacity of trucks. While many trucks may look similar on the outside, they are very different under the hood. This is all because some are designed to have more power, more torque, stronger suspension, higher braking capacity, etc. All of this is to enable it to have more weight pulling capacity.
Since your goal is to safely tow the fifth wheel, you will need to match up the weight of the fifth wheel you pull to the weight that your truck can tow.
You Need The Right Truck / Trailer Combination
Driving with a trailer that is too heavy for your truck is stressful, both on you and on your truck. If you are pulling too much weight then you can be pushing the upper limits of your truck’s capacity for steering, braking, balanced suspension, acceleration, etc, and cause extra strain or overheating to your engine.
In short, you really never want to be pushing that weight boundary. So here we will take a look at how to evaluate the trucks and trailers that are out there to be able to find a perfect match.
Trailer Weight Variety
There are various sizes of trailers out there, and there is actually a huge range in their weights. From light to huge, they all tend to be pretty nice. But the larger ones do have more living space and can sleep more people, and can have some crazy features you’ve never even dreamed of (like a mini-garage with a ramp in the back for parking your motorcycles).
|Weight Range:||Below 10,000 lbs||10,000-14,000 lbs||Above 14,000 lbs|
|Sleeps:||2-5 people||5-7 people||6-10 people|
Fifth wheels under 10,000 pounds are considered lightweight. Some can even go as low as 8,000 pounds. These models usually come with a combined living room/kitchen area, a bedroom, and a bathroom. The Highland Ridge Light fifth wheel line is a classic example of fifth wheels in this weight class.
The living room couches can usually double as pull-out beds. A few models in this weight class do also include separate beds, though this is uncommon in fifth wheels this light. Some have tables that can also be converted into a sleeping space. Although you can usually sleep 5 or 6 people, depending on how creative you get with the couches and your floorspace, they are usually designed to comfortably house 2-4 people for full time living.
Trailers in this lightest class of fifth wheels can sometimes be pulled by a 1/2 ton truck (F-150 or Silverado 1500), as we will discuss later.
Middle Weight Trailers
This medium weight class covers a wide range of features and weight. Generally speaking, a fifth wheel is considered a medium size if its weight is between 10,000 and 14,000 pounds. These types of trailers can generally sleep, 5 to7 people. Examples of these types of fifth wheels include the Keystone Montana and the lighter models of the Dutchmen Voltage.
At this weight class is where you start to see more differentiation. Each trailer starts to branch out with what they want to do with their extra weight. Some people would prefer to use their extra weight to accommodate more people, while others would rather use it to haul a dirtbike or 4-wheeler (this is actually a thing, the Dutchmen Voltage actually comes with a garage of sorts, with a ramp and everything).
While the exact features do vary, these tend to sleep around six people and will almost always require you to be towing with a 3/4-ton truck.
These are the fifth wheels that are waaaaaay heavy. This category includes everything over 14,000 pounds. While it varies, the trailers in this category can sleep up to 8-10 people. One example is the Redwood Fifth Wheel line, which come in at about 16,000 pounds before loading any cargo or water. If you are going to be operating at this level you will almost for sure need a 1-ton truck like an F-350 or Silverado 3500.
Trucks for Trailer Hauling
You may have heard of these categories of trucks: 1/2-ton, 3/4-ton, and 1-ton. These labels are a relic from a long time ago when trucks could really only tow that much weight. A half-ton truck had a towing weight limit of one-half of one ton, or 1,000 pounds, a one-ton truck had a weight limit of one ton, or 2,000 pounds, and so on.
Since the 1960’s though, those days are long gone. Trucks have evolved way beyond these limitations. So, why do we still use these labels when talking about towing capacity? It is just because the names stuck, and today, they just refer to general classes of trucks.
When someone is talking about a half-ton truck, they are talking about a truck that is in the general class of entry-level, lowest capacity trucks. 3/4-ton refers to a medium capacity truck, and 1-ton refers to the class of highest capacity trucks.
|1/2 Ton||3/4 Ton||1 Ton|
|Towing Capacity:||Up To 12,000-13,000 lbs||~15,000 lbs||~19,000 lbs|
How To Determine Your Truck’s Maximum Towing Capacity
The truth is, there are all types of trucks out there, and the only way to really know for sure how much weight they can pull is to look at their official ratings. These can be found on the manufacturer’s websites, and on the inside of the driver’s side door of every truck. There you will find a sticker that will have lots of good information, including the maximum tow weight for the vehicle.
It is important to figure out the maximum towing weight for your exact model and configuration because such a wide variation can exist even within the same general models of trucks. For example, the 2019 F-150 can be ordered with any one of five different engines. All of these engines have different levels of power and torque. And consequently, they all have a different maximum towing weight.
The variation between the engines is actually pretty huge. On the lowest end, an F-150 equipped with the 3.3 Liter V6 engine can tow 7,000 pounds. But the 3.5 Liter EcoBoost V6 can tow 13,200 pounds! That is a huge range! So when people ask me, “Hey, so could my F-150 pull a fifth wheel?” my answer is always “It depends.”
The lightest fifth wheels can weigh in at about 8,000 pounds. So if you have the first model of engine that can only pull 7,000 pounds, then the answer would be no, you don’t have enough towing capacity. But if you have that second model that can pull up to 13,200 pounds, then the answer would be yes, your F-150 could pull a fifth wheel.
Dry Weight vs. Hitch Weight
When we are talking about how much weight a truck can pull, there are actually two weights we need to talk about: The dry weight and the hitch weight. The dry weight is simply the weight of the trailer before anything is loaded into it. This is the weight we have been talking about up to this point in the article.
The other weight, the hitch weight, is the weight that the trailer puts directly on the hitch of the truck. This is sometimes also called the tongue weight. Since most of the trailer’s weight gets placed directly on the ground via the trailer’s tires, the tongue weight is only a fraction of the total weight. You can generally safely assume that the tongue weight will be about one-fifth of the total weight of the trailer.
You need to worry less about this number because any truck that has enough towing capacity for a given trailer will almost always have enough hitch weight capacity to handle it as well. (But I mean, still worry about it because it’s important).
These are the first steps in shopping for a fifth wheel trailer. Once you know the maximum weight that your truck can tow, as well as the maximum hitch weight, then you will be able to know what types of trailers you can even consider buying. It will be much easier to go shopping for trailers once you know what your weight limit is.
But What If The Trailer You Want Is Not The Lightest…
So we have established that even some of the more basic trucks, such as the Ford F-150 and the Chevy Silverado 1500, can tow the lightest fifth wheels around (if your truck has the right engine). But most fifth wheels are GINORMOUS, I mean, they are incredibly heavy. While you can find some lighter ones in the 7,000 to 9,000-pound range, most will weigh in at about 10,000 to 14,000 pounds. If you are looking at buying or renting one of these, you may need a stronger truck.
This brings us to the next level: The “3/4-ton” class of truck. As discussed earlier, the term “3/4 ton truck” simply refers to a general category of medium-capacity trucks. Their towing capacity maxes out at about 15,000 pounds, depending on configuration, and they can pull many of these heavier fifth wheels.
The 3/4-ton category includes trucks like the Ram 2500, Ford F-250, Nissan Titan, Chevrolet Silverado 2500, and the GMC Sierra 2500 (if you haven’t figured it out already, Chevrolet and GMC are the same company and their cars are basically the same under the hood. They just have different designs and logos stamped on). While the exact maximums differ, these are all capable of towing in the neighborhood of 15,000 pounds.
This is the level where most people that own fifth wheels operate. While the newer 1/2 ton pickups can tow some of the lightest fifth wheels, the serious fifth wheel owners generally use a truck from the 3/4 ton category.
By now you can probably guess the types of trucks that fall in this category: The Silverado 3500/GMC Sierra 3500, Ford F-350, and Ram 3500. These trucks can tow in the neighborhood of 18,000 to 20,000 pounds. The strongest engine you can get with the Silverado 3500 can tow up to 23,000 pounds, and the strongest Ram 3500 can tow up to 30,000 pounds!
These are the types of trucks you will need if you want to tow the really, really big fifth wheels. The ones that weigh over 15,000 pounds. The ones with granite countertops, two fridges, two-sink bathrooms, bunk beds for sleeping ten people, and a garage for your four-wheeler.
Other Important Towing Details
Let’s get practical here. The following are bits of information that are just good to know when looking at purchasing or even renting a fifth wheel.
A long bed truck is simpler to use for towing a fifth wheel, but you can do it with a short bed truck if you install a slider hitch. The particular fifth wheel you use can greatly influence the turning radius you are able to achieve. Some manufacturers are very thoughtful in their designs and leave some extra space for turning on the front edges of the trailer. This helps improve your turning radius.
Another thing you should know is that diesel trucks generally have more power and are more popular for towing heavy loads. It can be done with regular gasoline trucks too, but diesel trucks are much more common for towing trailers this big.
And finally, when planning on how heavy your fifth wheel can be, don’t forget to take into account the weight of everything you will be putting inside. While manufacturers give the dry weight as a base weight, you need to take into account all of the water that will be stored in your water tanks, your food, dishes, clothes, luggage, and whatever else you want to pack into the trailer. This weight all adds up, and so you need to plan for it.
Manufacturers also list a “cargo weight” that describes how much of this “other” weight can be added. Taken together, the dry weight and the cargo weight is referred to commonly as the Gross Weight, and is technically called the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR). This number is the maximum amount that the trailer can weigh and still travel safely. So you will want to take into account this extra weight when looking at your vehicle and which trailers you will be able to tow with it.
Why You Shouldn’t Go Over Your Towing Max
And in case you feel tempted to think that you can get away with towing more than your vehicle’s maximum tow weight, let me just explain to you why it is so important that you get this right: vehicles that are pulling more weight than they were designed to pull are putting extra strain on their engine. This can cause it to wear down and break faster. This can also cause delays in your acceleration, which can be dangerous to the traffic flow.
You will also be testing the limits of your suspension and your braking. These are things you really don’t want to test the limits of, because they are what allow you to drive without flipping over and to brake safely.
On top of all this, if your vehicle is involved in any sort of accident while towing overweight, your insurance may refuse to help you out. Sure, they will feel really bad for you, but when it comes to money, they are less likely to cough up for something that may have been prevented had you been following the law.
It’s All Up To You
Fifth wheels are pretty cool, and even the smallest ones can make for a great space for your family to bond and build memories. Actually, in my experience, smaller is better when it comes to bonding.
With this basic information in place, you are in a much better position to make decisions about buying, renting, or just towing a fifth wheel trailer. Thanks for reading and have a blast!