Why Are They Called “Fifth-Wheel” Trailers and Campers?

I’m no mathematician, but if you look at a typical camper trailer, you’ll notice they have two or four wheels each. That’s why it’s boggling that these are called “fifth-wheel” trailers. After all, once strapped in, your vehicle and whatever it’s towing will have more than five wheels (unless you’re towing a unicycle). So why are these called fifth-wheel campers?

Truck Parked Next To Fifth-Wheel Camper
Truck Parked Next To Fifth-Wheel Camper | Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A brief definition of a fifth wheel trailer

In short, a fifth-wheel trailer is any trailer attached to the cargo area of a truck. They’re not necessarily towed using a trailer hitch but are mounted inside the truck’s cargo bed. If that doesn’t ring a bell, then picture a semi-truck. That trailer is mounted to the “cargo bed” of the truck and pivots on that axis. It doesn’t just hook up to the back like a U-Haul trailer.

Today, fifth-wheel mounts are large, “U” shaped devices that mount in the truck’s bed. Fifth-wheel trailers tend to be much longer than towable campers since they can be maneuvered easier due to where the trailer rotates. But the name “fifth wheel” actually goes way back to the origin of the technology.

Fifth-wheel trailers were used long before the automobile was popularized

Martin Rocking Fifth-Wheel Company Original Advertisement
Martin Rocking Fifth-Wheel Company Original Advertisement | Martin Rocking Fifth Wheel Company, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The design first came about in the 1850s, according to Outdoorsy. And it was called a fifth-wheel because the mounting point of the trailer was, quite literally, a wheel. It followed the same principles of a modern campers, being mounted in the cargo area of a buggy that would be pulled by a horse. The only difference is that the mount was more primitive, and couldn’t hold modern-day weights.

This technology improved stability and maneuverability. It allowed the towing vehicle (or horse) to move perpendicular to the trailer and make tighter turns. And that technology has created sturdier, safer trailers than your typical towable campers. So the only question left to answer is simple: is a fifth-wheel trailer right for you?

Should you buy a fifth-wheel camper trailer?

Truck Towing Fifth-Wheel Camper Trailer
Truck Towing Fifth-Wheel Camper Trailer | Universal Images Group via Getty Images

For starters, you’ll need a hefty pickup truck in order to use one of these. If you don’t have that, or don’t want to buy one, then these trailers aren’t right for you. However, if you do have a pickup, then you need to evaluate what kind of camping lifestyle you want to have.

If you’re going to be camping solo, you may just want a camper that slides into the bed of the truck. Those are smaller, and cheaper by a considerable margin. However, if you have a family to travel with, or want the extra space for a kitchen and bathroom, a fifth wheel makes sense.

Fifth wheels are ideal over towable trailers, which tend to sway more and can be unruly to maneuver. So if you want the largest camper set up that’ll still be drivable, consider using a fifth-wheel trailer.

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