What is a Fifth-Wheel Hitch?

Jessica Shea Choksey | Jul 05, 2022

America is home to the open road and RV adventures of all kinds. An alternate RV experience to the traditional self-powered motorhome is a fifth-wheel hitch, a popular system for towing large, heavy campers and semi-trailers with a pickup truck serving as the "fifth wheel." Towing experts recommend a fifth-wheel setup for medium- or heavy-duty recreational use as it offers high stability, affordability, and space.

2021 Ford F-450 Super Duty Limited Front Quarter View Action Towing Fifth-Wheel Horse Trailer

Why Choose a Fifth-Wheel Hitch and Trailer?

Fifth-wheel trailers are great options for campers and road trippers that need upscale amenities like full-sized kitchens, washing machines, and more. For weekend warriors and large families, a fifth wheel provides lots of extra room to spread out and feel comfortable for days at a time.

Also, a fifth-wheel hitch can maximize a driver's towing power. Being a heavy-duty system, a fifth-wheel hitch will enable a tow vehicle to carry much heavier loads than a traditional tow bar hitch setup.

The Fifth-Wheel Hitch Setup

Fifth-wheel trailers are heavy and require a full-size, one-ton (heavy duty) truck to tow them. Their hitch requires the coupling to be in the bed of the truck. The fifth-wheel hitch is a large solid plate shaped like a horseshoe. The whole assembly is securely attached directly to the pickup truck's frame.

The U-shaped hitch will have the center of the hitch plate near or directly over the truck's rear axle. With this setup, the weight of the trailer is more adequately supported. This setup also grants more stability and less trailer sway than traditional ball hitches.

The trailer attaches to the hitch by way of a king pin—a heavy-duty downward-oriented component that slots into the hole in the middle of the fifth-wheel hitch plate. Once the sides of the hitch plate have secured the king pin, a strong pivot point is established for maneuvering and making turns. The king pin also makes coupling and decoupling easy.

How to Install a Fifth-Wheel Hitch

To install a fifth-wheel hitch, you must first have a full-size, one-ton truck. Always review the towing capacity figures of your vehicle as well as the weight ratings of your rig before proceeding with a hitch installation.

Once your towing limits are known, installation can begin. The task requires some mechanical knowledge, but it's not overly complicated. For some, hiring a professional may be the right way to go. Reviewing these installation steps may better inform such a decision:

  • Remove the spare tire, which likely sits under the bed of the truck
  • Position the front base rail of the fifth-wheel hitch
  • Mark the first drill location and drill a pilot hole to help guide you through the rest of the installation
  • Be sure to check the positioning of the pilot hole under the bed of the truck before drilling the rest of the holes
  • Bolt in the under-bed brackets to start securing the fifth-wheel hitch to the truck bed
  • Bolt down the front of the fifth-wheel rail
  • Measure the fifth-wheel hitch height, attach the legs, and position the rear rail
  • Repeat the drilling and bolting process for the rear rail and install any remaining bolts
  • Torque all hardware and ensure the bolts are secure and tight before using the hitch to tow a trailer

Fifth-Wheel Hitch Maintenance

Fifth wheels require general maintenance to ensure the hitch stays in proper working order. First and foremost, the hitch requires regular application of a lubricant. A periodic check for any rust or other damage is also essential to help keep the hitch operating correctly over time.

Another regular maintenance item is wiping away any old or existing grease that can build up on the fifth-wheel fittings. These parts are prone to attracting dirt and debris that can shorten the lifespan of the hitch. It's vital to ensure that all grease is wiped from the lock jaw, throat, and pivot points before winter arrives. Without this winterizing step, the grease can freeze and damage the hitch mechanism over the cold months.

Fifth Wheel vs. Motorhome

Like fifth wheels, motorhomes also offer lots of leg room and amenities. What makes a fifth wheel the better option between the two? Here are a few of the benefits:

  • With a fifth wheel, you don't have to worry about towing a vehicle behind a motorhome. You'll automatically have an auxiliary vehicle since you need that vehicle to pull the rig in the first place.
  • Fifth wheels give you just as much space as a motorhome and, in many cases, more.
  • If you already have a tow-rated truck, buying a fifth-wheel trailer is considerably more affordable than purchasing a motorhome.
  • Towing a fifth wheel uses much less gas than a motorhome. So, it's more economical to operate and more eco-friendly for the environment.

Summary

A fifth-wheel hitch is a great RV option for those looking for a large rig without paying motorhome prices. Fifth-wheel hitches can also allow towing other heavy loads, such as cargo and horse trailers. A fifth-wheel hitch promises to be a valuable asset if you live a lifestyle where towing heavy stuff is commonplace.

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