Which is better for you, a travel trailer or a fifth wheel? That’s a question you can deliberate on forever. By comparing the two trailer types, you might finally be able to end this internal debate so you can proceed with your purchase. What are the differences between a travel trailer and a fifth wheel?
Here are some differences between travel trailers and fifth wheels:
- Passenger capacity
- Number of slide-outs
- Heating and cooling options
- Hitch Requirements
- Fuel economy
- Storage options
In this expansive guide, we’ll put travel trailers and fifth wheels head to head and compare them on all the important issues you care about most, including pricing and amenities. By the time you’re done reading, choosing between a fifth wheel or a travel trailer should be a clear, easy decision!
11 Major Differences Between Travel Trailers and Fifth Wheels
If you’re considering buying a trailer, it’s because you want to see the world. You’ll spend many long, sometimes arduous hours behind the wheel, so you want a trailer that’s conducive to that.
You can’t drive a travel trailer or a fifth wheel. Both will require a towing vehicle.
What kind of towing vehicle you’ll need for a travel trailer depends on the type of trailer you’re interested in. The term travel trailer is really a catch-all for trailers of all shapes and sizes, from teardrops to gargantuan trailers that rival some RVs.
If yours is a small teardrop trailer, then you can tow it with just about any towing vehicle, even a car. However, as small as teardrops look, they can add between 16 and 20 feet of length behind your towing vehicle.
That will take some getting used to when it comes to driving. You’ll have to practice in an empty parking lot, figuring out how to turn, stop, park, and otherwise maneuver in your rig.
What about those who are looking for a travel trailer for family camping? Then your trailer is going to be significantly larger, which means it will be longer as well (we’ll talk more about travel trailer sizing in the next section).
No longer is a car eligible to tow a travel trailer of this size. Instead, you’d need an SUV or a pickup truck, possibly even a heavy-duty truck capable of pulling thousands of pounds. After all, in the case of an Airstream, you’re talking about one heavy travel trailer.
Further, maneuvering becomes significantly more difficult, even with practice. You can’t squeeze into a single parking spot anymore. Your rig might take up an entire row, which means parking with care and precision.
All other driving maneuvers will require this same level of care and precision too. You’ll have to make your turns wide but carefully to avoid hitting other motorists. When braking, you’ll have to roll to a stop way earlier than what you’re used to.
Of course, you’ll adjust to driving your rig eventually, but you’ll always have to be extra conscientious.
Towing a fifth-wheel trailer is not necessarily easier. The fifth wheel includes a hitch that rests in the bed of a truck or a tractor. Since you’re not going to use a tractor as your towing vehicle (or at least, we don’t think you will), that leaves you with trucks as your only towing option.
That means that if you don’t already own a sturdy pickup truck that’s well-rated for its towing capacity, you’d have to purchase one.
Fifth wheels come in many sizes too, just as is the case with travel trailers, although you might see slightly less variety. The same struggles you could have with your rig when towing a travel trailer would thus be applicable when towing a fifth-wheel if not more of them.
Between a travel trailer and a fifth wheel, which is bigger?
As we explained in the last section, both travel trailers and fifth wheels are available in a range of sizes.
The average length of a travel trailer is between 20 and 45 feet. Fifth wheels on average are 32 feet but can be 36 to 40 feet long.
Thus, one doesn’t really have a size advantage over the other. Travel trailers can be smaller, but not by a huge margin.
Both the length and weight of a travel trailer or fifth wheel will contribute to your purchasing decision. After all, both play a role in how towable and thus maneuverable your trailer is.
The weight of your trailer will also determine which towing vehicle is eligible to pull it, as we talked about earlier.
Travel trailers, due to their size differentials, can weigh as little as 1,000 pounds all the way up to 9,000 pounds and over. If you’re looking at a standard-sized travel trailer, you can expect it to weigh about 5,200 pounds.
At such a heavyweight, using a car for towing is out of the question. Plenty of SUVs can tow well over 5,000 pounds, including models such as the Chevy Tahoe, the GMC Yukon, the Dodge Durango, the Ford Expedition, the Nissan Pathfinder, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
If you already own a pickup truck, then the towing capacity of these behemoth vehicles makes them a shoo-in for towing a travel trailer. Even a heavier travel trailer wouldn’t pose a challenge to a truck that can tow amounts close to 10,000 pounds.
Moving on to the average weight of fifth wheels, these are as light as 2,400 pounds and can weigh upwards of 20,000 pounds. That’s right; we didn’t misplace the comma there. We said 20,000 pounds.
Most fifth wheels you come across in your shopping journey won’t weigh quite that much. Instead, they’ll be in the ballpark of 12,000 to 15,000 pounds.
Remember, the average weight of a travel trailer is only 5,200 pounds. Even a lighter fifth wheel at 12,000 pounds has a 6,800-pound weight advantage over a travel trailer. One that’s 15,000 pounds weighs over 10,000 pounds more than a travel trailer at its standard weight.
Carting around such a heavyweight trailer majorly affects your rig. You can’t use even an SUV as a towing vehicle, as most bottom out at close to 8,000 or 9,000 pounds of towing.
Even some pickup trucks aren’t capable of pulling the kind of weight you’d require if you decide to buy a fifth-wheel trailer.
You’d need a specialty pickup truck such as the Ford F-150 with an EcoBoost 3.5-liter engine as well as the Max Trailer Tow Package to be able to pull 14,000 pounds.
The Chevy Silverado 2500 HD can pull approximately 18,150 pounds, so it’s another contender. The Ford Super Duty is said to be able to tow 20,000 pounds too.
Your options are few and far between though as that towing capacity is a lot to ask out of the average truck. Since you have to buy a specialty pickup truck, expect that your towing vehicle is going to be expensive.
Towing that much weight is difficult as well. Maneuvering in your rig will be slow going since you have so much weight behind you.
You must triple-check that your setup is secure before you hit the road, as a 15,000-pound trailer that’s jackknifed or come loose from its hitch can be very dangerous for everyone around you.
Both travel trailers and fifth wheels are meant for long-term traveling. They should feature livable amenities to make life in your trailer comfortable and enjoyable for the whole family (or group of friends!).
Let’s begin by talking about that all-important amenity in any trailer. You know the one we mean, the bathroom.
Travel trailers usually have at least one bathroom, although the inclusion of even that varies depending on the floor plan. Some trailers boast two bathrooms, but these are few and far between.
Fifth wheels usually include two bathrooms as a standard. If not, then they’ll have 1.5 bathrooms.
If you’re traveling with family in your trailer, you’re going to want more than one bathroom. It will allow for privacy so everyone is at ease.
Storage space is another important consideration when determining whether you’ll buy a fifth wheel or a travel trailer.
How much storage you’ll have afforded to you depends on the model and floor plan you select, but fifth wheels might have the advantage in this category.
Otherwise, both trailer types are large enough to accommodate at least one queen-sized bed, a bathroom nook, and a living nook with a couch and sometimes even a fireplace. You’ll have a full kitchen at your disposal as well with a fridge, a microwave, a counter, and even an overhead range.
Some people like camping alone, but not you. You’d prefer to have the company of your friends and/or family with you on your outdoor adventures.
Passenger capacity varies depending on the size of the travel trailer we’re talking about. A smaller travel trailer that’s 10 to 20 feet can fit maybe four or five people max. That would include yourself, by the way, so you’d only be able to bring three or four others.
For most families, that’s fine. If you like traveling with a large group of friends or you have a bigger family, you’ll need a bigger trailer.
Travel trailers that are 20 to 30 feet have the space to sleep at least seven people, sometimes more. That should be enough of a passenger capacity for even larger groups.
What about fifth wheels? These heavyweight trailers can sleep four to nine people depending on the size of the fifth wheel and the model. Again, you should have ample space to bring all your favorite people on your latest and greatest camping trips.
Number of Slide-Outs
Slide-outs are a handy feature, as they can make a space in a trailer that seems small become so much roomier.
Travel trailers usually don’t have many slide-outs unless we’re talking about a pop-up trailer. Those trailers are nothing but pop-up or slide-out walls to expand the size of the trailer. A standard travel trailer might have one or two slide-outs max.
Fifth wheels, by comparison, will feature upwards of five slide-outs and sometimes only three or four. Even if your fifth wheel only had three slide-outs, being able to open up the amount of available space in your trailer is going to make a difference in how comfortable you feel living in there.
Heating and Cooling Options
As you go down this list, heating and cooling is not something you want to overlook. You’ll be glad for sufficient heating on that unseasonably cold spring day. In the summer when the temperatures soar over 90, your travel trailer or fifth wheel needs excellent cooling.
Travel trailers are usually straight-across in their design. The lack of pop-ups allows for heating or cooling to travel linearly through your vehicle so that heating and cooling can happen uninterrupted.
You don’t have that same benefit in a fifth wheel. Although it varies depending on the model, of course, one of the top gripes that fifth-wheel owners have with their vehicle is the lack of reliable heating and cooling.
Since fifth wheels regularly have much taller ceilings than travel trailers and their shape is different, there are more spaces for heating or cooling to reach when you turn on your heater or AC respectively.
This makes it harder for the heating and cooling system to do its job. As a result, you can end up with dead spots where the heat or air conditioning never gets to. If you have to sleep in those areas, you can be in for some uncomfortable nights ahead.
Both travel trailers and fifth wheels require a hitch to hook it up to your towing vehicle.
Travel trailers often use receiver hitches. A receiver hitch hooks up to your towing vehicle at its rear. Then you’d insert a hitch accessory such as a ball mount.
Receiver hitches are available in five classes. Class 1 is for crossovers and cars. These receivers have a 1 ¼-inch receiver and can tow 2,000 pounds.
Class 2 is for minivans, crossovers, and cars, featuring a 1 ¼-inch hitch receiver. A Class 2 receiver hitch can pull 3,500 pounds.
Class 3 receiver hitches have a towing capacity of 8,000 pounds. Designed for trucks, SUVs, vans, and crossovers, the hitch is two inches.
Class 4 hitches for SUVS and trucks can pull 10,000 pounds. These receiver hitches also have a two-inch receiver.
If you have an especially heavy travel trailer, you’d need a Class 5 Xtra Duty receiver hitch that can pull up to 17,000 pounds.
Fifth wheels trailers don’t use receiver hitches. As the name implies, they use fifth wheel hitches. Fifth wheel hitches go on your truck bed and create even weight distribution across the vehicle.
A fifth wheel hitch features a skid plate as well so the hitch can turn as needed.
Both types of hitches are quite different. They can be challenging to install and hook up, but once you get the hang of them, you won’t struggle so much to rig up your towing vehicle and trailer.
The heavier your rig, the less fuel economy you get. You’ll find yourself stopping and paying at the pump frequently. You’re not necessarily paying more for gas, but you are buying it more often, so the costs add up.
Fifth wheels are less efficient in the fuel economy department.
A heavier travel trailer won’t be that much better, FYI, but smaller trailers should have better fuel economy compared to a fifth wheel.
When the RVing season inevitably ends, the question becomes where will you store your travel trailer or fifth wheel?
Both these vehicles are typically quite large, so storing the trailer on your property such as in a driveway is not feasible. You’ll more than likely have to pay for a commercial storage unit.
Throughout the off-season, you can visit your trailer every month or so and check it on, dusting off snow and debris so it’s cleaner when the spring arrives.
Although the amount of space a commercial storage unit can give you will vary, fifth-wheel owners have found through experience that most fifth-wheel trailers do not fit in even the largest commercial storage unit.
You’ll have to pay for specialty storage which is usually quite costly.
We saved what is arguably the most important consideration for last. How much will your vehicle cost?
The average cost of a new fifth wheel is $50,000. Lower-cost fifth wheels are priced at around $40,000, while the very high-end models cost upwards of $90,000 and sometimes more.
Travel trailers start at $11,000, with an average price range of $13,000 to $70,000. The bigger and more ornate the travel trailer, the more expensive, sometimes around $80,000.
Travel trailers and fifth wheels are both trailers, but they diverge in so many ways that they’re worlds apart. If you’re still not sure whether you’ll buy a travel trailer or a fifth wheel, rent one type of trailer for a weekend and then the other trailer the next weekend.
After spending adequate time in both trailers, you should find it a lot easier to decide which one is right for you!