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What You Need to Know BEFORE Purchasing a Fifth Wheel


A fifth wheel is a great option when considering what kind of RV to purchase. If you need convincing, read these 10 reasons why you should choose a fifth wheel. However, if you’ve done any research at all on fifth wheels, you know that there are a ton of different options to choose from. This can make the process of purchasing a fifth wheel a little overwhelming. We were nearly clueless when shopping for our first fifth wheel. So I am here to help you avoid the same mistakes that we made. 

When shopping for fifth wheels, keep the following in mind and you’ll be sure to make the perfect purchase!

Your Reason for Purchasing a Fifth Wheel.

Are you planning to live in the fifth wheel full-time or use it for occasional camping trips a few times a year?

This question is important for several reasons. Living in a unit will obviously require you to put more thought into how comfortable you will be in the unit on a day-to-day basis. You’ll also want to pay more attention to the unit’s durability and the materials that were used in the making of it. You’ll want an all seasons unit and a fifth wheel that makes you feel most at home. Certain brands are known for manufacturing fifth wheels that are designed for full-time use, so you’ll want to research those brands. Be aware that these units tend to be heavier, requiring a more heavy duty truck, but are designed to be much more durable and more likely to hnew up to full-time use.

Fifth wheel at Picacho Peak State Park Arizona
Parked at Picacho Peak State Park in Arizona. Photo credit: FollowYourDetour.com

On the flip side, you won’t be as limited in your options if you buy a fifth wheel for occasional camping trips. Let’s face it, anything will be better than a tent! A trend in the fifth wheel industry is to make units that are “lightweight”. This is popular because they are ½ ton towable, which is a great feature for the occasional camping trip. And by the way, if you plan to be the occasional weekend warrior in your fifth wheel, consider renting it out instead of storing it. You can earn a lot of money and avoid a lot of storage costs!

How You Plan to Use Your Fifth Wheel.

How you plan to use your fifth wheel is the most important thing to consider before even beginning the hunt. Whether you plan to live stationary in your fifth wheel or haul it all over the country while moving destinations every couple weeks like me, you’ll need to carefully consider every aspect and feature of the fifth wheel you purchase. Don’t put all your trust in a dealership or salesperson. As a consumer, being well informed is the key to making the right purchase.

Length

Warning! When the time comes to go shopping for a fifth wheel, it’s easy to get carried away. The longer the unit, the more features it will have and the more likely you are to fall in love with it. We’ve seen everything from kitchen islands to living spaces with fireplaces, washing machines, and bedrooms with king size beds and a full sized closet. But each of these features come with extra length. While its easy to say “what’s a few more feet?” and justify adding those luxuries, its important to understand the impacts that length can have on your travel plans.

fifth wheel interior
Yes, this photo is the inside of a fifth wheel! Photo credit: Kelly Wimp with WanderingWimps.com

First of all, the longer the RV, the more difficult the towing becomes. That’s self-explanatory, but did you know that many parks and campgrounds have length restrictions? While it can vary from park to park, campgrounds inside national parks are notoriously unfit for big rigs. Unless you’re planning to be completely stationary or stay at RV resorts that can accommodate long RVs, don’t go too overboard with the length of your fifth wheel. Otherwise, it can be a challenge to find spots to park it. Once you’ve determined what length you’re comfortable with, this will greatly help you narrow down the units you choose to look at when fifth wheel shopping.

Weight

You may already own a truck or are planning to purchase one to tow your fifth wheel. Either way, it’s extremely important to understand how much weight your vehicle can safely tow. Unfortunately, making this determination is not as straightforward as you might think. There are a lot of different weights (and acronyms) to understand and check to ensure safe towing. This site is a great resource to get started on learning all of the different weights.

Here are the validations that we used to ensure that our truck could safely tow our fifth wheel trailer. In order to be safe, all of the following weight tests need to be true:

  • Truck’s Maximum Trailer Rating (from Manufacturer) > Trailer’s GVWR (from Manufacturer)
  • Truck’s Maximum Payload (GVWR – curb weight) > Trailer Tongue Weight (fifth wheel = 15-25% of GVWR) + Truck Cargo (passengers, luggage, etc)
  • Truck’s Reserve Axle Capacity – Rear (gross axle rear rating – curb weight rear axle) > Trailer Tongue Weight (fifth wheel = 15-25% of GVWR) + Truck Cargo (passengers, luggage, etc)

Along with your truck’s towing capacity, there is another weight you’ll need to take into consideration. Fifth wheels have a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR), but you’ll also need to determine the trailer’s Cargo Carrying Capacity (CCC ). Here is the formula for determining a fifth wheel’s CCC:

CCC = GVWR – unloaded vehicle weight – full fresh tank water weight – full LP gas weight.

Knowing your trailer’s CCC will allow you to determine how much weight you can add with all the belongings you plan to store in the RV. You will find a sticker somewhere in the fifth wheel that has all these numbers for you. Here is a photo of ours:

fifth wheel weight limits

When we do the math, we only have 1,012 pounds of additional cargo that we can carry inside. It’s surprising how quickly items can add up, so be sure to give yourself plenty of wiggle room. This was one of the mistakes we made when purchasing a fifth wheel. Take it from me, you won’t want to worry about weight every time you add a new item to your RV.

Hnewing Tanks

This is something we were oblivious to when shopping for our first fifth wheel. RVs have tanks that hnew fresh water, grey water (water drained from the shower, kitchen and bathroom sinks), and black water (toilet…enough said). The capacity of these tanks are especially important if you plan to dry camp, or “boondock” in your RV.

To give you an example, our fifth wheel has a 30 gallon fresh water tank. When we want to find free places to park and are willing to sacrifice hook ups, we can only last about 3 days with this amount of water. This means that we have to drain our tanks more frequently and fill up our fresh water every few days. So next time we are purchasing a fifth wheel, we will be looking for a unit with larger hnewing tanks.

fifth wheel hnewing tanks for dry camping
Boondocking in Salida, Colorado. Photo credit: FollowYourDetour.com

The rest is in your hands.

Choosing the fifth wheel that is right for you really comes down to your personal preferences, lifestyle, and needs. Length, weight, and hnewing tanks were three features we wish we were more aware of when purchasing a fifth wheel. Determining your needs regarding those features will help you narrow down the options you’ll have when you begin RV shopping. This is a great starting point. Once you’ve done that, it’s up to you to choose the layout, color scheme, and bonus features you like best.

I hope this article equips you with knowledge to bring to the dealership and helps you feel confident in the purchasing process. Let me know in the comments below if you have any other questions. Or, if you own a fifth wheel already, what are some tips you could offer? Are there things you wish you knew before you purchased your fifth wheel?

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