Fifth-Wheel or Bumper Pull?

Lyle Ellerbee

For many RV’ers, this question is a burning issue. For others, it isn’t even on the horizon. It all depends on what kind of RV you’re in and what you’d like to move into.

For example, I’ve been towing travel trailers for several years. What is my next RV going to be? I’m planning to get a fifth-wheel toy hauler. Why? I want the toy hauler for the flexibility in the ways I can use it. I want the fifth-wheel version because of the floor plans which are not available in the bumper pulls. But, that’s just me. This article is about what you want.

By the way, the descriptive terms you’ll hear can be confusing. A fifth-wheel is a fifth-wheel. That’s what people call it. On the other hand, there isn’t one standardized term for the others. You’ll hear people refer to them as, “travel trailers,” “bumper pulls,” “tow-types” or a few other terms. For the sake of this article, I’ll use the term, “bumper pull” because it best describes the hitch location.

Now that we understand the terms, let’s look at the basic differences between the two. The most obvious difference is where the trailer is hooked up to the tow vehicle. The hitch for the bumper pull is, of course, located at or near the rear bumper of the tow vehicle. The fifth-wheel hitch is located in the truck bed over the rear axle.

The first thing that becomes apparent is that you won’t be using a car to tow a fifth-wheel trailer. The location of that hitch requires a truck. The bumper pull trailer can be towed by either a car or a truck.

There’s another factor about the fifth-wheel trailer that requires that a truck be used as a tow vehicle. The design of the fifth-wheel frame is such that it tends to be heavier than that required for a bumper pull trailer. That additional weight needs the strength only a truck can provide.

So, why do people choose one over the other? One reason is the size of the unit. The longer a trailer is, the more likely it is to be designed as a fifth-wheel. The smaller it is, the more likely it is to be a bumper pull design.

The main issue here is the stability of the trailer when it’s being towed. The pivot point (the hitch) of a bumper pull trailer is a few feet behind the axle of the tow vehicle. This can cause the trailer to exert leverage on the truck. The longer units need a good anti-sway hitch to keep the truck and trailer under control if you’re hit with side winds.

The pivot point for the fifth-wheel hitch is over the axle of the truck. There’s no way the trailer can exert leverage on the truck if a gust of wind hits it. That is the main reason why the longer trailers tend to be fifth-wheel units.

Another factor in the choice is the cost. The fifth-wheel units tend to be more expensive than a bumper pull trailer of the same size. That’s why most of the smaller, less-expensive units are bumper pull’s. They’re lighter and less expensive to produce.

There’s a huge difference in the amount of living space you get for every foot of space the trailer takes up on the road or in the camp ground. A bumper pull trailer that is 30 feet long will give you about 25-26 feet of living space. The rest of the length is the tongue sticking out in front of the trailer. As for overall length of the truck and trailer, that whole 30 feet is added to the length of the truck.

A fifth-wheel uses the length more efficiently. A 30-foot fifth-wheel will, in most cases, give you about 30 feet of living space. Because the hitch is over the rear axle of the truck, the amount of trailer hanging out behind the truck will be more like 24-25 feet. The combined length of the truck and trailer will be 8-10 feet shorter for the same amount of living space.

Most of the fifth-wheel trailers require at least a 3/4-ton truck as a tow vehicle. Most of the bumper pull’s can be handled safely by a 1/2-ton truck. The main reason for that is the amount of weight placed on the hitch.

Most of the bumper pull trailers are designed to put about 10% of the total weight on the hitch ball. Putting that much weight on a hitch 3-4 feet behind the axle works as a lever to lift the front of the truck. A good weight equalization hitch becomes extremely important as the size of the trailer moves into the medium or large sizes.

The fifth-wheel trailer is designed to put about 15% of the total weight onto the hitch pin which is over the truck axle. That amount of weight, by itself, requires a heavier-duty truck.

So, where does that leave you? If you already have a 3/4-ton truck or larger, your choices are pretty wide open. It comes down to which floor plan and price range work best for you.

If, on the other hand, you have a car or a small pickup truck, you’re pretty much limited to a smaller bumper pull trailer. Most of the cars and small pickups are limited to trailers weighing 3,500 pounds or less. Trailers that light aren’t going to offer a lot in the way of creature comforts. At the same time, they do offer an inexpensive entry point into the wonderful world of RV travel.

It all comes down to where you are and where you want to be in the grand scheme of things. The tow vehicle will dictate the size and style of trailer you are able to safely pull. If you want to pull something bigger, you’ll need to upgrade your tow vehicle.

The other main factor is, of course, your budget. It’s true that you can save a lot of money on your vacation travel if you travel light with a tent or, even, a pop-up tent trailer. Because hotel and restaurant costs can add up pretty fast, camping can be a real bargain.

However, there comes a point where you’re no longer camping to save money. You’re camping because you really enjoy the RV lifestyle. Let’s face it, a new 3/4-ton truck with a matching fifth-wheel trailer can easily approach $80,000 – $100,000! You can’t camp enough to save that much money!

So, as for the question of fifth-wheel vs. bumper pull, the bottom line is this: how much are you willing to spend? Most of the bumper pull units are at the low end to the mid-point of the scale. Most of the fifth-wheel units will start from the mid-point and range up through the high end of that same scale.

Where are you and where do you want to be?

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