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Deciding on the Right Tow Hitch
Tow hitches are required to tow towable RVs. (Is that enough “tow” for ya?)
As you start shopping for the right RV, it will take some time to figure out the best set-up. If you decide upon a towable RV, they require a tow hitch to attach the RV to your tow vehicle. Generally speaking, the type of RV you purchase will determine the type of hitch you need.
If you already have a tow vehicle, you may decide to find an RV that will work with that vehicle. Or you may go the opposite route and choose an RV and find a vehicle suitable to tow it. Before deciding, it may be helpful to figure out what your RV options might be in both scenarios.
For tow vehicles, a pickup truck is more versatile than a van or SUV. Pickup trucks can tow tiny trailers and fifth-wheels, and just about anything in between. Whereas a van or SUV can only pull trailers.
There are three types of tow vehicle hitches: “bumper pull,” a “fifth-wheel,” and a gooseneck setup. Below are some advantages and disadvantages of each to help you decide which is best for your setup.
Tow Hitch: Bumper Pull
Bumper pulling, or pulling a travel trailer, can be a bit of a misleading term. It is possible to tow from the actual bumper of a pickup truck, van, or SUV with a hitch gall. However, these type of hitches are often only rated to pull up to 3,000 pounds. Making them only useful to tow lighter tear-drop and pop-up trailers.
Most tow vehicles can have a hitch receiver installed which attaches to the frame of your vehicle. Also known as a “bumper hitch.” This type of hitch can increase the tow capacity of your tow vehicle, allowing you to pull a heavier trailer.
Your tow vehicle can have this type of hitch receiver factory installed or installed aftermarket. Some places, such as U-haul or an RV service center are able to install these.
Your tow vehicle’s manual will indicate the max tow capacity. It is important to never attempt to tow anything greater than that number. Doing so creates a safety hazard and increase wear and tear on your RV and tow vehicle.
Tow Hitch: Did You Know?
Near the hitch receiver you are likely to see some electrical connections. The most common ones are 4-way and 7-way pin connectors. These let you plug your trailer directly into your vehicle. Plugging your trailer into your vehicle lets you use the trailer lights, brakes, blinkers, etc.
When you are first looking at bumper pulls, also known as ball hitches, you’ll find that there are four sizes available: 1&7/8”, 2”, 2&5/16” and 3.” Most RV’ers will be using a 2&5/16” set up. Depending on the hitch, these are rated to tow between 10,000 and 30,000 pounds. This more than qualifies to to most travel trailers. Many companies sell ball mounts with three different size balls on the same unit. Other ball mounts even have a hook attached to the fourth side. These options these offer value and versatility.
- Lots of Storage Space in Tow Vehicle – When you have a bumper pull hitch, you don’t take up space in the bed of your truck or need to make alterations to the bed of the truck. This allows you to use your truck bed or additional storage. Just keep in the payload capacity of the truck in mind so you don’t overload it.
- Available to Wider Selection of Tow Vehicles – Travel trailers tend to be lighter in weight than fifth-wheels. Additionally, the hitch required to tow a travel trailer is often lighter than those required to tow a fifth wheel. As such travel trailers are towable by a variety of tow vehicles. This makes a bumper pull setup more viable for a wider variety of vehicles.
- More Economical Than Fifth Wheel Setup – A bumper hitch setup is often cheaper than a fifth-wheel hitch set-up.
- Limited Tow Capacity – While certain bumper pull setups may permit your tow vehicle to handle more weight you are still more limited in this area than with fifth-wheel or gooseneck setup. Even if you have the components to pull more weight with a bumper hitch, your tow vehicle may not have the towing capacity it would with a fifth-wheel or gooseneck setup.
- Less Maneuverability – You’re much more likely to have trouble in windy situations and more have issues with sway. Sway is when a trailer moves or swings from side to side while going down the road. You may have a larger turning radius as well. Also, the way weight is distributed within your trailer is of more importance with a bumper hitch, due to the possibility of sway.
- More Involved Setup – The process of hitching and unhitching tends to have a few more steps and take more time than a fifth-wheel or gooseneck setup. You’ll also need to use tow chains. Not the end of the world but it is an added step and more equipment.
- Potentially Less Safe – A bumper hitch is commonly believed to not be as safe as a fifth wheel hitch. This is a hard one to qualify. There are many more travel trailers and bumper hitches out there on the road. Additionally, most people towing travel trailers do so infrequently or on a part-time basis, so they may be less experienced or knowledgeable on proper set-up. This increases the odds that if something were to go wrong it is more likely that a bumper hitch was involved. That being said, things can go wrong with all setups so take this disadvantage with a grain of salt.
Tow Hitch: Fifth-Wheel
Fifth-wheel hitches are pretty fascinating. (Are you sensing a little bias here?). The technology used to pull an RV fifth-wheel with a pickup truck is the same used by semi-tractor trucks. In fact, semi-tractor trucks can pull fifth-wheel RVs. We’ve seen a few people with this setup and Ian is a little jealous of them. Even though he says he has no experience driving a semi and doesn’t even know if he’d like it.
The kingpin is attached to what you are pulling, i.e. the fifth-wheel RV camper. Now, the fifth-wheel hitch itself can vary a bit from brand to brand but the basic idea is the same. The fifth-wheel hitch has a jaw mechanism that holds onto the kingpin allowing you to tow the RV. With this setup the weight, also known as the pin weight, of the RV is usually right over the rear axle. Whereas on a bumper pool it is on the rear frame of the truck.
Now the first thing you’ll probably notice when you start shopping for or researching fifth-wheel hitches is that each one seems to have a slightly different way of securing or latching to the kingpin. Ian doesn’t think that this is something to get too concerned about.
If you find a hitch that makes you feel nervous or unconfident, keep looking as you’re sure to find another that makes you feel secure. The most important is to buy a fifth-wheel hitch that is rated to pull the weight of your RV. While there is no need to break your budget, make sure you are purchasing one from a reputable seller.
The Fifth-Wheel Tow Hitch We Purchased
In case you were wondering, for our own personal use, we decided to purchase a Demco hitch. This was because Demco sells a model that converts a gooseneck ball hitch into a fifth-wheel hitch. Our truck came with a turn-over gooseneck ball already installed in the truck bed so this was a great option for our tow vehicle.
You may also want to consider purchasing a new fifth-wheel hitch. When buying a used hitch, it is impossible to know if the hitch was properly maintained or if it was ever overloaded. These things are crucial to safety, not just yours but those on the road around you as well.
From our personal research we would recommend purchasing a B&W, Curt, Reese, or Demco hitch. That’s not to say another hitch may be a bad but. Those are just the companies we trust the most after many many hours of reading about and watching videos on the fifth-wheel hitches.
The fifth-wheel tow hitch attaches to the bed of your pickup truck in either one of two ways. These ways are know as the rails or the puck system.
Puck System – The puck system is relatively new and has only been around since about 2010. This type of systems tends to be factory installed on new pickup trucks. Puck systems are also manufactorer specific and are not interchangeable. This means, for example, that the puck system from a Dodge will not work on a Ford.
Rails System – The rails system can be installed either at the factory or aftermarket. Additionally, you are able to use just about any brand of hitch with a rails system setup.
- Higher Tow Capacity – Tow more weight, such as a larger RV. While there are some large bumper pull trailers, you will find that most fifth wheels are larger, have more living area and weigh more than most travel trailers. You still need to check weight ratings and capacities to make sure you match the right hitch to the right RV and truck combination.
- More Maneuverability – The weight of the fifth-wheel sits on the truck leading to a smoother ride compared to a bumper pull trailer. Additionally, you will experience less sway compared to a bumper pull. As with travel trailers, it is important to be mindful of how weight is distributed in your RV but fifth-wheels tend to be more forgiving.
- Less Complicated Hitch Setup – Hitching and unhitching from a fifth-wheel tends to be a little less involved when compared to a ball hitch or bumper pull. This can vary a bit based on the model and make of your hitch but they are usually very user friendly and straightforward (at least if you go with one of the brands suggested in this article).
- Potentially Safer – This goes back to the comment made about sway when using a bumper pull. There is less sway with a fifth-wheel hitch. As a result, many RV owners find that fifth-wheel hitches are the safer type of tow hitch. That being said, travel trailers are safe if towed correctly. So be sure to do your own research on this.
- Less wear and tear on your tow vehicle – Fifth wheels take advantage of a pickup truck’s payload and distributes the weight in such a way that cause less wear on your truck’s components.
- Less Storage Space in Tow Vehicle – These types of tow hitches take up space in the bed of your truck; with a bumper pull you keep all of your truck bed space. Fifth-wheel hitches are rather large and take up space right in the middle of the truck bed. With a long truck bed there is still room for a long profile toolbox behind the cab. However, if you have a short bed truck you will need a sliding hitch to account for the short length. Sliding hitches take up even more room in the bed of the truck. You may read posts where people say they can safely tow a fifth wheel with a short bed truck without a sliding hitch. Again, do you own due diligence to determine which type of two hitch is best suited for your RV and tow vehicle.
- Very Heavy – A fifth-wheel hitch is going to deduct at least 80-100 pounds from your payload capacity and probably more. Tow hitch weight needs to be factored in when matching the right hitch to the right truck to the right RV.
- More expensive – The price can vary obviously from brand to brand, and from model to model, but expect to spend somewhere around $1,000, give or take several hundred dollars for a reputable model.
- Alters the Truck Bed – A gooseneck or fifth wheel hitch setup will alter the bed of your truck and some people may not like that.
Tow Hitch: Gooseneck
This is going to be the shortest of the three sections. Gooseneck hitches tend to be for farmers and those pulling horse trailers. Which isn’t the focus of this post but we wanted to mention them anyway.
Instead of a large fifth-wheel hitch in the bed of your truck you have a gooseneck ball installed in the bed, above the rear axle. A gooseneck tow hitch can be fixed or turn-over style. Fixed gooseneck hitches stay put. While turn-over, or hide-a-ball, style gooseneck tow hitches are able to be tucked away allowing you to have full access to the bed of your truck. The advantage of this type of hitch, even with the fixed style, is that you have a lot of useable space in the bed of your truck.
For RV applications, you are buying the same RV’s you would be purchasing to pull using a fifth-wheel hitch, but you have to modify them. The kingpin for fifth-wheels is attached to what is known as the pin-box. To use a gooseneck ball, you will need to replace your factory pin-box with a gooseneck pin-box. As such, they are not compatible with all RVs. Some state that shims can be used but this may not be a safe option.
They are also more expensive than a fifth-wheel setup and can have an airbag that has to be inflated and deflated each time you hitch up. They will give you back more of the storage space in your bed but for us (and we had gooseneck ball already installed in our truck when we purchased it) it just doesn’t make sense but the option is there.