What Is a Fifth Wheel?


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Even if you’ve got the most capable pickup truck on the market, there will be times when its trailer hitch just isn’t enough for the load you want to pull. Sure, you can keep piling junk into the trailer or the bed and hope for the best, but we both know you’re only kidding yourself. Rather than hurt yourself, kill your truck, or worse, kill someone else, you need a different hitch.

That’s where fifth wheel hitches come into play. These don’t hang out under your rear bumper but instead are installed in the bed, which gives much more safety and stability when towing heavy loads. They also open up a better turning radius for easier maneuvering of the trailer.

The Drive’s editors have been there and done that with trailer towing, and can tell you first hand that it’s a bad idea to rely on a traditional hitch for the heaviest loads. So let’s get rolling and find out what fifth wheels are all about.

What Is a Fifth Wheel? 

We’re not talking about your awkward habit of tagging along on your friends’ double dates here, though you might want to talk to someone about it—just not us. We’re talking about a type of trailer hitch that allows for the connection of a cargo attachment. If you’ve ever looked at the back of a semi-truck, you’ll know what we’re on about. It’s the U-shaped hitch where the large trailers are anchored. In pickup trucks, a fifth wheel is installed in the bed.

Is a Fifth Wheel Better Than a Standard Trailer Hitch?

If you’ve spent as much time laughing at car videos on the internet, as we have, you’re bound to have seen some poor sap pulling a direly overloaded trailer. As funny as they are, those videos actually serve the purpose of showing us why a fifth wheel is important. With heavy loads, the rear hitch gets pressed down, which can cause the weight over the front wheels to shift and reduce vehicle stability during towing. Fifth wheel hitches are installed between the rear axle and the cab of the truck, greatly improving the stability and driving dynamics of the tow vehicle.

Another major advantage of fifth-wheel trailers is that the point of rotation between truck and trailer opens up the ability to turn and pull the load from a much larger array of angles. Without the risk of jackknifing, the tow vehicle can be turned at a much steeper of an angle, allowing for easier maneuvering.

Can I Get a Fifth Wheel In Any Truck? 

No. You’ll need at least a half-ton truck like a Ram 1500 or Ford F-150, but it’s an even better idea to tow with a fifth wheel using a heavy-duty truck. The Ford F-250 and Chevy Silverado 2500 are both fine examples. This is because you need to have a truck with a gross vehicle weight rating that exceeds the weight of the truck and trailer tongue weight, which is quite a bit easier with today’s heavy-duty trucks.

The other thing to keep in mind is bed length. One of the benefits of a fifth wheel is that it opens up a huge range of rotation for the truck and trailer. Many large fifth-wheel trailers have an overhang forward of the hitch point, which can bang into the cab if the bed is too short.

How a Truck’s Payload Affects Fifth Wheel Use

It’s worth noting that the truck’s payload capacity plays a role in how much it can tow with a fifth-wheel and that the trailer’s pin weight should also be considered before hitching up to pull a load.

Fifth Wheel Terms You Should Know 

Get educated!

Half-Ton Pickup

The term half-ton is used to describe a truck’s payload capacity or the amount of stuff it can carry in its bed. Since a ton is 2,000 pounds, a half-ton would theoretically be able to haul 1,000 pounds, but modern pickups generally have much higher payload capacity ratings. The half-ton term is still used because of its familiarity with consumers.

Heavy-Duty Pickup

Heavy-duty pickup trucks have frames and components that allow them to tow and haul much heavier loads than their half-ton counterparts. These trucks could be considered three-quarter-ton or one-ton pickups. 

Tow Hitch

A tow hitch is a component that is connected to a vehicle’s chassis that allows towing a trailer. Fifth wheel hitches are located inside the truck bed, while traditional tow hitches are usually located below the rear bumper.

Gross Vehicle Weight Rating 

A vehicle’s gross vehicle weight rating, or GVWR, is the total amount of weight that it can safely carry. That not only includes the weight of a trailer or load, but also encompasses fuel, passengers, and the weight of the vehicle itself.

FAQs About Fifth Wheels 

You’ve got questions, The Drive has answers!

Q: What’s The Difference Between a Gooseneck and a Fifth Wheel?

A: Though they perform similarly, goosenecks are typically cheaper and less invasive to install and use than fifth wheel hitches are. This is due to the fact that gooseneck hitches are simple ball hitches that are installed in a truck bed, while fifth-wheel installations require large components that protrude from the bed. Goosenecks are used more for commercial and agricultural towing, while fifth wheels are used for towing things like RV trailers.

Q: How Much Does a Fifth Wheel Installation Cost?

A: Given the severe consequences of a poorly installed hitch, it’s probably best to leave the installation to a professional. Those jobs can cost anywhere from $750 to $2,000 or more, depending on the type of hitch and truck it’s being installed on.

Q: Can I Remove The Hitch?

A: Yes and no. Yes, you can remove the hitch, but in many cases, the rails and some components of the installation will remain. Newer hitch designs remedy this problem with systems that don’t obstruct the bed when removed, so do your research to find the right solution.

Let’s Talk, Comment Below To Talk With The Drive’s Editors! 

We’re here to be expert guides in everything How-To related. Use us, compliment us, yell at us. Comment below and let’s talk! You can also shout at us on Twitter or Instagram, here are our profiles.

Jonathon Klein: Twitter (@jonathon.klein), Instagram (@jonathon_klein)

Tony Markovich: Twitter (@T_Marko), Instagram (@t_marko)

Chris Teague: Twitter (@TeagueDrives), Instagram (@TeagueDrives)

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