9 Tips for Towing a Fifth-Wheel Trailer

Fifth-wheel trailers are known for their unique looks, which include a protruding front section. Although they have a somewhat odd shape, many of these trailers boast bi-level floor plans, meaning there’s plenty of room to bring your friends and family on your RVing adventures.

The reason they’re called fifth-wheel trailers has to do with the type of hitch that is required for attaching them to a pickup truck. The fifth-wheel hitch is sometimes also known as a heavy-duty hitch. Regardless of the name you prefer, this hitch connects near the rear axle on the truck bed. That’s why you have to use a pickup truck if you have a fifth-wheel. No other type of vehicle will work.

The coupling device is separate from the trailer itself and is attached to the hitch. That makes fifth-wheel hitches a little different than the average trailer hitch you may have used in the past. Due to this configuration, there’s a jaw mechanism within the hitch that holds the trailer’s king pin.

Many fifth-wheel trailer hitches can pull vehicles that are 24,000 pounds and up, so you certainly get a lot of leeway. Of course, this weight total does vary by manufacturer and hitch brand. All fifth-wheel hitches can pivot, so they can adjust to changing road conditions such as bumps, curves, and potholes.

If you’ve recently bought a fifth-wheel trailer, then you can probably have a pretty good idea by now that hitching these to your pickup truck isn’t exactly as simple as 1-2-3. In this article, I’ve provided nine handy tips for new fifth-wheel trailer owners who want to hitch their trailers successfully.

1. Don’t Exceed the Weight Limit

Before, I said many fifth-wheel hitches can tow vehicles at a weight limit of 24,000 pounds and more. You shouldn’t just assume your fifth-wheel trailer is within the weight limit. Once you hit the road, you’ll quickly find out your vehicle’s limit the hard way when your pickup truck can’t pull the trailer and the fifth-wheel hitch probably breaks for your efforts.

That’s why you must know the official weights of your trailer before you go. Why did I say “weights” instead of weight? Because there are two weights to account for: the weight of your empty trailer and the weight of the vehicle once it’s connected to the truck.

Luckily, it’s pretty easy to determine the weight of your empty trailer. Your trailer manufacturer should be able to provide such information to you. Check their website as well as your owner’s manual if they can’t. If you absolutely cannot find the info you need, then you can always rent a CAT scale to take your own measurements. This is an industrial scale that is used to measure heavy-duty items such as large vehicles. You can also use one of these scales to measure the trailer and truck weight combined.

It’s recommended you fill the fifth-wheel trailer with as much gear, equipment, passengers, and other essentials as you would if you were about to head off for a trip on the road. Then weigh it.  This will allow you to get the most accurate weight so you don’t overdo it when you connect your trailer to your truck via the fifth-wheel hitch.

You can also use dump or quarry scales if a CAT scale is unavailable in your area, but the latter is preferred among many trailer and RV owners for weighing their vehicles.

2. Understand the Effects of a Higher Altitude

Do you enjoy taking trips out to the mountains? If so, then you should be aware of how the altitude can impact your fifth-wheel trailer experience. The higher the altitude you drive, the more power the pickup truck’s engine must deplete. This is only the case if it’s a gas engine, though. If you have diesel pickup truck, you can disregard this section.

The formula goes like this: every time you elevate 1,000 feet, your truck’s gas engine has a three to four percent drop in power. The less power to the engine, the harder it is to pull the load that is your full fifth-wheel trailer, even with the proper hitch setup.

How do you avoid such a situation? It’s recommended you make some changes if you plan on driving at higher altitudes. For instance, you might want to get rid of some water or other gear you don’t need. If you know you’re going to drive mountainous terrain during your trip, you may want to skip bringing heavy gear altogether or stock up on essentials when you reach a grocery or convenience store at a more regular elevation.

You might also want to consider lowering your pickup truck’s gear so you can navigate this terrain with ease. If the incline is especially steep or high, change gears. You’ll be happy you did.

3. Be Prepared to Reroute Your Exhaust Pipe

Some pickup trucks have straight-routed pipes around the back. The location of the exhaust pipes will depend on the make and model of your vehicle. If your pipes are straight-routed, you can expect they will make a lot of noise as they scrape against the fifth-wheel trailer. Before you had a trailer, your truck’s exhaust pipe may never have been an issue, but now it’s driving you crazy.

What can you do? Some truck owners will reroute their exhaust pipes. The steps you’ll follow to do so will depend on the type of truck you have. On this forum for Jeep Wranglers, one poster chipped down the muffler flange. Then, using welding equipment, they changed the angle of the pipe to 90 degrees.

This Ford Bronco forum poster moved their exhaust pipe so that it now protrudes out of the back of the vehicle by one of the rear wheels. This did involve cutting out a hole in the chassis of the truck, so you would need heavy-duty welding or drilling equipment for this job.

Obviously, if you make the modifications to your vehicle per the two examples above, you are going to void any warranty your pickup truck may have. You probably also won’t be able to resell the vehicle unless you find another RV enthusiast. Both those points are worth keeping in mind as you decide whether it’s worth it to reroute your truck’s exhaust pipe.

You should also know that the above jobs likely involved sharp blades and hot temperatures, and thus could be dangerous if you attempt to do them yourself. This is especially true if you’ve never modified your vehicle before.

4. Don’t Set It to Overdrive

Overdrive is a setting in most pickup trucks. If you’re hauling a fifth-wheel trailer, then you might be very tempted to use overdrive. After all, it alleviates the amount of wear and tear on your truck over long trips. You also get less noise and improved fuel consumption.

This is all because the engine is working with fewer revolutions per minute or RPMs. It all sounds good and kind of common-sense, right?

Not so much. Many RV and fifth-wheel trailer owners recommend not relying on overdrive if you can help it. Automatic overdrive is fine if you’re driving just your pickup truck. Once you add the weight and size of the fifth-wheel trailer, though, and then set your vehicle to overdrive, it can put some serious strain on the transmission. It’s running on seek mode, which eventually leads to overheating.

That kind of transmission strain could mean a stop at the mechanic’s that will derail your whole road trip.

5. Keep Your Lug Bolts In Mind

Lug bolts are what hold your fifth-wheel hitch together. These can become loose with time and use, so you will have to pull over and look at the state of the lug bolts every now and again. How often you do so is up to you. There’s hardly any such thing as too often. If your vehicle is parked and you want to see how the lug nuts are holding up, that’s fine. Otherwise, prioritize this check on a 100-mile basis.

Besides making sure the lug bolts are tight, you should ensure they’re lubricated as well. Always keep some WD-40 or other lug bolt lubricant in your trailer so you’re ready to spray your bolts at a moment’s notice.

6. And Tire Health, Too

RV and trailer tires, although they’re large and often quite mighty, do not last forever. You must beware road hazards like nails, rocks, sticks, and other debris that could lead to flats. This pertains to both the tires of your truck and your fifth-wheel trailer.

You should also get into the habit of testing the trailer tire pressure. If you’re not going that far on your journey, then read the pressure ahead of your trip and once you arrive to your destination. If you plan on driving across several states or even going cross-country, make it a point to gauge the pressure every morning before you start driving again.

If it’s been a while since you’ve driven your trailer, you should still get out there and test the tire pressure at least monthly. Once it’s time to pack it in for the off-season, one of the first things you should do before you leave your trailer is look at the tire pressure once again. You should also repeat this once you get your trailer back in the spring. Expect to have to fill up the tires with air at that point.

This all may seem like a bit much, but being religious about testing tire pressure like this will prevent annoying and potentially dangerous tire issues. Both underinflated and overinflated tires can explode, which leaves you in a rather unfortunate predicament.

7. Learn to Use Your Mirrors (Again)

Your truck has side mirrors and a rearview mirror that you probably rely on pretty often, right? Now when towing a fifth-wheel trailer, you’re not just using your mirrors to see what’s to the side and back of your truck. You have to account for your trailer, too, and make sure you have enough distance to turn and do other maneuvers.

Relying solely on your side and rearview mirror to get the job done when towing a trailer is not smart or safe. These mirrors aren’t designed to encompass the length and width of a trailer in addition to your pickup truck.

What you should do is buy extended mirrors. You can get the kind that attach over your current side mirrors with very little work on your end. If you need to take these off at any point, it’s quite easy to. These types of mirrors are recommended for the part-time fifth-wheel trailer owner who spends more time on the road without the trailer.

If you’re a serious RV enthusiast, then you can always look into getting extended mirrors permanently installed over your side mirrors. A professional truck technician will take out the front doors’ inside panels to make room for these mirrors. Of course, you can still use these side mirrors even if you’re not towing a trailer.

8. Don’t Fight the Wind

You’ve just set off on your first trip towing a fifth-wheel trailer. You have new mirrors and you’ve followed all the other tips on this list so far. You’re ready to go. Outside, it’s not the nicest day. In fact, it’s a little windy, but you don’t think this should deter you. After all, it’s not raining or snowing, so what’s the harm in setting off, right?

You’d be surprised. Depending on the intensity of the wind, you might have more trouble on the road than you had anticipated. Strong winds can threaten the stability of your fifth-wheel trailer setup. Not only that, but you could find your gas mileage is now decreased as your truck has to strain and work harder to get to your destination in windy conditions.

So how windy is too windy? Many experts recommend taking a break if the winds are at least 30 miles per hour and up. Of course, that’s quite a strong wind, and many motorists—RV owners or not—probably wouldn’t feel too comfortable driving in such conditions, either.

If you absolutely must be on the road when it’s that windy, then do be prepared to pay more at the pump. You’re going to have to fill up your gas tank more often, which means you’re wasting money unnecessarily.

9. Practice Makes Perfect

You may know your pickup truck inside and out, but it’s hard to anticipate what driving will be like once you hitch several hundred or thousand pounds of metal to your vehicle. It’s going to feel strange for the first couple of days, that’s for certain.

Instead of getting a feel for driving with a fifth-wheel trailer once you’re already on the road, make it a point to practice a few days before you embark. You’ll be so much happier practicing in an empty parking lot than in a tight, four-lane highway with other motorists.

It’s going to feel a little silly doing this, especially if you’ve been driving for a long time, but you’re going to want to go over all the basic driving maneuvers. These include turns, braking, parallel parking, K-turns, and backing up. Not only do you have extra weight now, but you have extra length, too, so you have to make sure you can drive safely with it. It’s certainly within your best interest to practice, then, as well as in the best interest of other drivers around you.

Once you feel comfortable towing your fifth-wheel trailer, then you can set off for your first road trip.

Conclusion

A fifth-wheel trailer attaches to a pickup truck via a fifth-wheel hitch. Pickup trucks are the only vehicle compatible with this hitch. Of course, even the most experienced drivers will find that everything feels different when towing the heavy weight of one of these trailers (they can be thousands of pounds!).

That’s where these nine tips come in handy. I really do recommend, above all else, that you practice until you feel comfortable taking your fifth-wheel trailer on the road. This can take hours, days, or weeks, but that’s okay. Don’t rush things. After all, everyone’s safety should be your priority, and you can’t drive safely until you familiarize yourself with your trailer.

Wind and high altitude are the natural enemies of a fifth-wheel trailer, as they threaten to kill your gas mileage. The noise of this setup can get annoying for some drivers, too, which is why they may opt to reroute their exhaust pipe. Just as a fair warning once again: tinkering and modifying your pickup truck could void any warranty from the dealership.

Owning a fifth-wheel trailer is exciting. Some people try these trailers before buying an RV while others stick with trailers for life. No matter your preference, by taking the above precautions, you’ll be ready to hit the road. Have fun and be safe out there!

About the Author

Nicole Malczan

Nicole Malczan is a content marketing writer and freelancer. She's applied her knowledge of marketing and SEO to many clients over the years, ranging from foodservice to facilities management and currency exchange. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, baking, and music.

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