What is a 5th Wheel Hitch?
Posted: May 27, 2022
What is a 5th Wheel Hitch?
So, you’re thinking about getting out and enjoying some time with your family. You can picture yourself sitting around the campfire with them, under the stars, with your brand-new home on wheels parked a few feet away. But how do you get there? In this blog, we’ll start with the very basics and answer the question: what is a 5th wheel hitch?
The simple definition is, a 5th wheel hitch is a type of trailer hitch used for towing 5th wheel trailers. If you've never seen one, picture the half-moon-type coupling mechanism you'd find on the back of a semi-truck. There are several styles of 5th wheel hitches, although they share some basic parts. A 5th wheel hitch is generally made up of a main body, a mounting platform such as rails or brackets, jaws to attach to the trailer coupling point and a skid plate (picture the semi-truck hitch). Some 5th wheels vary in style and design elements, but they're all made up of these common components, and also require a pin box for your trailer.
It is also worth noting that 5th wheel hitches are designed exclusively to mount in the bed of a pickup truck. This places the trailer's tongue weight directly over or slightly in front of the rear axle. This is unlike the more common receiver hitch, which mounts below the vehicle's rear bumper.
5th wheel hitches are perhaps most commonly used for pulling campers and RVs, and in fact, people often refer to both the trailer and the hitch itself as simply "fifth wheel," "5th wheeler" or "fiver."
This is a 5th wheel hitch:
How Does a 5th Wheel Hitch Work?
Using a 5th wheel hitch for the very first time may seem daunting. But don't worry! It's actually quite simple and a very secure way to haul your trailer.
A 5th wheel hitch is designed to couple to a kingpin –- the connection point on a 5th wheel trailer. The hitch is usually equipped with a set of jaws that wrap around the kingpin and allow for rotational movement as the truck and trailer turn. Most 5th wheel hitches are also equipped with a pivoting mechanism of some kind, accommodating for fore and aft movement of the trailer.
In other words, as the truck pulls the trailer around corners, over hills and even across bumpy roads, the hitch is designed to pivot and adapt as necessary to ensure a smooth towing experience.
Coupling & Uncoupling
Coupling a 5th wheel trailer to the hitch can require a precise touch. Opening the jaws (or locking bar, depending on the hitch design) with the handle gets it ready to accept the kingpin. Backing up your pickup to the trailer / pin box lets the jaws close around the kingpin. You need to make sure your truck and trailer are lined up correctly, both from side-to-side and up and down. Once the kingpin is fully seated in the head, the handle and jaws can be locked in place.
When you've arrived at your destination and you're ready to remove the trailer, the pull handle is used again to unlock the jaws and release the kingpin. The truck is then free to pull away from the trailer, and you are free to enjoy your campsite!
Watch It in Action!
Pros & Cons of 5th Wheel Hitches
Here is a list of advantages that 5th wheel hitches offer over other types of hitches and towing methods. We've also provided some disadvantages to help you make the best decision for your towing needs and lifestlye.
- Smoother, more stable towing compared to gooseneck hitches
- High weight capacity options - up to 30,000 lbs.
- Sliding options for short-bed trucks
- Great for RVs and recreation
- Convertible to gooseneck
- Heavy assembly can be difficult to move
- Relatively more expensive
- Permanent truck bed base rails (if you don’t have a puck system)
Parts of a 5th Wheel Hitch
Is it starting to sound like a 5th wheel hitch is the right fit for you and your crew? If so, you may find that the following lingo handy when shopping and learning more about 5th wheels.
The head of the 5th wheel hitch provides an immediate connection point for the trailer kingpin, being comprised of a skid plate, jaws and pivoting mechanism, as well as a handle for operating the jaws. Typically, the 5th wheel head is designed to move and articulate with the movements of the trailer to promote a smooth ride.
The pivot mechanism allows the hitch head to articulate with the movement of the trailer.
The jaws hold the kingpin securely in the hitch head. Some 5th wheel hitches use a locking bar instead.
The handle allows you to operate the coupling mechanism, opening or closing the jaws, as well as locking them in place for a secure connection.
The body is the central part of the hitch that provides the structure and foundation for the head and towing connection.
The legs attach the body to the rails, securing the hitch to the truck bed. Legs are a fixed mounting option, while a slider is an adaptable mounting option, specifically for short-bed trucks.
A Quick Note about Weight Capacity
Two important considerations when choosing a 5th wheel hitch are towing capacity and gross trailer weight. More than likely, your truck is rated for some kind of towing capacity; that is, the maximum weight it can safely tow. Gross trailer weight is the total weight of your trailer and its contents when fully loaded.
Any time you tow, you need to make sure that the gross trailer weight does not exceed the weight capacity of your truck or any towing component, for that matter. You are always limited to the lowest-rated component in your towing system. This could be your truck, hitch, pin box or some other piece of equipment in the connection.
As such, we recommend buying a hitch (and other components) that meets or exceeds your truck’s towing capacity.
Types of 5th Wheel Hitches
Economy 5th Wheel
This types of 5th wheel hitch is an economical option, providing solid towing strength but without the added design finesse and some of the bells and whistles that contribute to a more comfortable, convenient towing experience.
Lightweight 5th Wheel
This 5th wheel hitch is all about reduced weight, balancing impressive capacity while shedding unnecessary pounds. It boasts an easier installation, allowing just a single person to lift it in or out of the truck bed. It also puts less strain on your truck overall.
Traditional 5th Wheel
This is the quintessential 5th wheel hitch -- the classic model that most people think of when they think 5th wheel towing. It is comprised of the typical head, jaws, body, legs and so on, and it is usually available in a range of weight capacities.
Heavy-Duty 5th Wheel
Ideal for the largest of campers and a variety of commercial towing applications, heavy-duty 5th wheel hitches provide a towing capacity of 30,000 pounds. Some, like the CURT PowerRide, also come with extra features to make your experience truly professional-grade.
Differences between 5th Wheel & Gooseneck Hitches
5th Wheel Distinctives
It’s easy to confuse 5th wheel hitches with gooseneck hitches. By comparison, a 5th wheel hitch is noticeably larger and bulkier in the truck bed. It is made up of a head, body and legs, usually mounted on top of rails. A 5th wheel hitch also offers the possibility to remove the hitch to regain use of your truck bed.
In a 5th wheel configuration, the receiver or female end of the connection is on the vehicle side, while the attachment point or male end (the kingpin) is on the trailer side. This is opposite for a gooseneck setup.
Perhaps the most common use for 5th wheel hitches is towing campers and RVs. They are also well-known for enhanced stability and a quieter ride over goosenecks.
On the other hand, a gooseneck hitch uses a ball-and-coupler connection. Like a 5th wheel, a gooseneck hitch mounts in the truck bed. However, this type of hitch leaves more room for loading cargo when you aren't actively using the hitch (safety tip: take care if you load gear while using any hitch in your truck bed). Additionally, many gooseneck models allow the ball to be removed or inverted, giving you full use of your truck bed when you're not hauling your trailer.
In a gooseneck setup, the coupler is on the trailer side of the connection, while the coupling point (the ball) is on the vehicle side.
Common uses for gooseneck hitches include towing livestock, horse and flatbed trailers.
5th Wheel Hitch Mounting Options
Several mounting options are available for installing a 5th wheel hitch into any given truck bed. Each is designed for a different configuration, whether you have a short bed or long bed, a puck system or standard bed, or an existing gooseneck hitch.
Standard, Fixed Mount
The standard option for mounting a 5th wheel hitch is to attach it to the truck using fixed legs. The legs bolt onto the head and then drop into a set of rails that are installed in the truck bed. The rails are bolted onto the truck frame using brackets underneath the truck bed.
Fixed 5th wheel legs are typically used in long-bed pickup trucks because the longer bed style provides plenty of space for the overhang of the trailer.
Roller / Slider Mount
Like the fixed mounting option, the roller / slider option also uses rails to anchor the hitch into the truck bed. However, instead of a fixed structure, the slider allows the hitch to move rearward by several inches. This provides more clearance between the trailer overhang and the truck cab, helping to ensure adequate space for making tight turns.
A puck system is a more recent development in 5th wheel towing technology. It is a mounting system built into newer pickup trucks from the factory, specifically those with a towing prep package. The puck system kit is comprised of anchoring points to readily accept a 5th wheel hitch as well as gooseneck options.
If your truck is already set up to tow gooseneck trailers (i.e. it has a gooseneck hitch), you can use a gooseneck adapter to covert your hitch to tow 5th wheel trailers. This device drops into the gooseneck hole and provides a set of industry-standard rails that can then accept 5th wheel legs or a slider.
Alternatively, if plan to install permanent 5th wheel rails, you can also use a 5th wheel gooseneck hitch to tow both types of trailers. Similar to the gooseneck adapter, this type of hitch drops your existing platform (in this case 5th wheel rails), and provides a standard gooseneck ball to couple to a gooseneck trailer.
All that to say, whichever type of equipment you're starting with, if you want to tow both 5th wheel and gooseneck trailers, we've got you covered!
Common Accessories for Your 5th Wheel Hitch
The photographs, recommendations and approximations in this post are intended for demonstration purposes only and do not reflect the specifications of any particular hitch, tow vehicle, recreational vehicle or trailer. Always consult the manufacturer’s Owner’s Manual.