If you're considering a 5th wheel trailer for your RV set up, one of the most important things you'll need is a properly-installed 5th wheel hitch. That's the part that securely connects your pickup truck with that heavy trailer while you're towing. How do you get a 5th wheel hitch installed, though? And should you do that yourself?
Actually, installing a 5th wheel hitch on the bed of your truck is best reserved for the pros. Unless you have the proper training and tools, you should not attempt the installation yourself. However, it is good to know your hitch and understand what type you need and how it should be installed. It will help you make sure you get the right hitch installed properly.
This post will walk you through the basics of choosing and installing a 5th wheel hitch. We'll discuss the following elements -
- The pros and cons of installing a 5th wheel hitch
- Types of 5th wheel hitches
- The installation process itself
By the time you finish reading this, you'll be able to get a pro to install your hitch, knowing enough about it to make sure the job gets done right.
What is a 5th wheel hitch?
As opposed to the ball receivers used on bumper-type hitches, 5th wheel hitches use a circular mount positioned within a pickup truck's bed. A “kingpin” mounted on the trailer inserts into the hitch, and then the hitch itself locks the pin in place.
Because the hitch point lies within the truck bed, 5th-wheel trailers are designed differently than bumper-pull travel trailers. An elevated front end allows the trailer to fit into the bed. This means bumper-pull travel trailers cannot be used with a 5th-wheel hitch. You can also check out our handy overview of 5th wheels here.
So, what are the advantages of a 5th wheel hitch?
First, because the hitch point sits within the truck bed, a 5th wheel reduces the length of your overall rig; always a good thing. 5th wheel trailers are therefore easier to maneuver and park than a bumper-hitch trailer of equal length.
However, the main benefit of a 5th wheel is that they are less prone to dangerous sway as you travel down the highway. Because the hitch is larger and mounted within the truck bed, it provides a much more stable towing experience.
If you have ever been struggling against a strong crosswind with your travel trailer at 20 mph below the speed limit, only to be passed by a much larger rig that seems to be having no issues at all, it is probably because they are using a 5th wheel.
The last main benefit is that 5th-wheel trailers tend to be more spacious and well-built than a standard travel trailer. Of course, this is not the case for every trailer, but generally, if you are looking to live out of your trailer or spend more than the occasional weekend in it, a 5th wheel is going to be your best choice.
The cons of using a 5th wheel
There are some drawbacks to consider when you are choosing between a bumper hitch and 5th wheel setup.
First, your choice of tow vehicle will be limited (more on this below).
Hooking up and unhooking is also going to be more complicated than with a traditional bumper hitch.
Another drawback is space: 5th-wheel hitches take up all or most of the space within your truck bed, so you will need to pack most of your belongings inside the trailer. Luckily, 5th-wheel trailers tend to offer more cargo space than travel trailers.
Because of the added complexity, 5th-wheel hitches and trailers tend to be more expensive than a traditional travel trailer setup as well. This is definitely the best option for those wanting the safest, most comfortable trailer experience, not the cheapest.
Be sure to check out our more comprehensive overview of the pros and cons of 5th-wheels.
What types of 5th wheel hitches are there?
There are three main types of 5th wheel hitches:
- Slide bar
- Double jaw
- Single jaw
These setups offer different refinement levels at varying price points, but all provide a safe and secure towing option.
Weight ratings generally range from 12,000 lbs all the way up to 30,000 lbs. The main manufacturers of 5th wheel hitches include Reese, Pro Series, PullRite, Curt, and B&W, but many others make good, quality products.
Let's review the three types -
Slide bar jaw
As the least expensive option, the simple slide bar system is also the noisiest hitch type. As the name implies, a bar slides behind the kingpin to lock it in place. While this is a safe and secure option, this method allows the pin to move around more than the other methods, and the resulting noise will serve as a constant reminder of the trailer as you drive.
This Pro-Series 30128 5th Wheel Hitch features a four-way pivoting hitch and is self-latching, to things easier for you.
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Depending on your noise tolerance, this can either be a constant nuisance or something you eventually get used to. This type of hitch also requires the driver to hop out of the truck and manually lock the pin, whereas some other types do not.
You can think of the double jaw, sometimes referred to as a dual jaw, as the middle-ground option. The two jaws clamp around the kingpin as it slides into the hitch, reducing the room for movement within the mechanism. This hitch type is quieter than a slide bar because of this more secure attachment, but it is not quite as refined as a single jaw.
The quietest of all 5th wheel hitches, single jaw hitches, also tend to be the most expensive. A single-piece, wedge-shaped locking mechanism holds the kingpin very tightly and provides a buttery-smooth towing experience. This also reduces the wear on your hitch and trailer, which is always a good thing. This also makes the single jaw the safest hitch type as it is less prone to failure from wear.
The Reese Towpower 16K Fifth Wheel Hitch with Kwik-Slide adjusts from 15" to 18" height with a square tube slider and pivot fore and after, and side to side.
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On which types of vehicle can you install a 5th wheel hitch?
A 5th-wheel hitch must be mounted inside of a truck bed.
This means there is no option for using one on your car, wagon, or SUV. But it gets even more complicated than that.
Most 5th wheel hitches cannot be used on short-bed trucks, but you can read a bit more about 5th-wheels and short beds here. The reason for this becomes clear as you think about how the 5th-wheel trailer is situated within the truck bed.
As the truck turns, that elevated part of the trailer gets closer to the cab, so it is important to measure and ensure your bed can accommodate your trailer. Another thing to consider is that, because 5th wheel trailers are generally larger and heavier than their bumper-pull counterparts, a ¾-ton or 1-ton truck is usually required as well.
That’s not always the case, though. As half-ton trucks are becoming ever-more capable, 5th-wheel manufacturers are starting to cater to these trucks. There are currently multiple options out there for 6.5-foot or even 5.5-foot beds.
Some hitches come with a slider mechanism that allows the hitch point to slide backward and allow the trailer to swivel without making contact with the truck cab. It is always important to make sure both your hitch and your trailer are suited for your bed length. And with many half-tons now capable of towing 10,000 lbs or more, there are 5th-wheel trailers that can be safely towed by these trucks.
Should you install a 5th wheel hitch on your own?
Unless you have been thoroughly trained, it is not recommended to install your own 5th wheel hitch.
The installation is a complicated process, and any misstep could cause your hitch to malfunction. And you definitely do not want anything to go wrong as you pull these extremely heavy trailers at highway speeds - both for you and everyone else on the road!
That does not mean 5th wheel owners shouldn’t be familiar with their hitches, however.
By learning exactly how the hitch is installed and how it functions, owners can ensure that their setup is functioning properly. Checking the system before and after every trip significantly reduces your risk of anything going wrong, and you can only do this if you know what you are looking for. So let’s dig into the process.
The Hitch Installation Process
1. Installing Rails
The first thing needed for a 5th wheel hitch is rails on your truck bed. These hold the hitch in place, so it is crucial to ensure these are installed properly and securely.
These rails also determine where the hitch will be placed, which should either be just over or in front of the rear axle.
2. Mounting the hitch
Bolts attach the rail to a bracket mounted to the frame underneath the bed. After your rails are in place, it’s time to mount the hitch. First, the hitch is placed over the rails; then, it is simply secured to the rails with properly-tightened bolts.
3. Hooking up the wiring
Next, your wiring is hooked up. Generally, a hole is drilled through the bed to allow a wiring harness extender to pass through. Then, the harness is connected to the truck’s factory connectors. Of course, you will want to install a brake controller if one is not already in place.
Again, you shouldn't attempt to install the hitch yourself. But now that you know how this works, you can make sure the right type of hitch is properly installed in your pickup truck.
Since we're talking about 5th-wheels, be sure to take a look at these posts:
30+ 5th Wheel Towing Tips For Beginners.