The debate about Motorhome or Fifth Wheel trailer rages on in America at campfires, on the internet, and wherever RVers gather. It is especially contentious between folks living full-time in their RV’s. I have to admit I may be a little slanted towards Motorhomes because that is the only rig we have owned. I have looked at this issue very closely on many Facebook groups and internet forums over the last several years. Neither one comes out as a clear winner or loser wherever I have looked. It is with a fair amount of trepidation that I undertake this study of both sides of the ongoing great debate. My hope is that it may help someone make up their mind about which fits their needs better. No matter which you have, you will be towing something, be it towed car or trailer.
Fifth Wheel Trailer Pros
Without a doubt, the Fifth Wheel trailer provides the most homelike living experience of any RV. Equipped with as many as 5 slideouts, they open up to as much as 400 square feet or more. Island kitchens are commonplace and appeal to folks who like to cook with lots of countertop preparation space. Living room space with residential recliners and sofas look like a cozy cottage complete with fireplace and large entertainment system. Desks with computer storage are commonplace.
Classic Fifth Wheel styling places the bedroom up front over the hitch with center galley amidships and rear living room. Lately, there are models with the living room up front with a rear master bedroom. Opposing slideouts accommodate facing sofas or recliners. With the bathroom moved to the rear, there is plenty of space for large screen TVs.
With no engine, transmission, or cockpit area, all the space in a towable rig is useable for living and storage. The area below the front space is utilized as bulk storage as well as storage for batteries and LP gas tanks. It is a large space accessible from street or curb side. More storage is available in the bed of the truck towing the Fifth Wheel.
Usually, the total cost of a trailer and suitable truck are less than a Motorhome with a towed car. I say usually because there are so many different rigs that it is difficult to make an absolute statement. Insurance will also be less expensive for a Fifth Wheel trailer and truck.
Fifth Wheel Trailer Cons
The first issue that should face a Fifth Wheel trailer owner is matching it to a suitable truck. Or, if you already own a truck, obtaining a trailer that matches the capabilities of the truck. This involves matching specifications of the truck with the weights of the trailer. Unfortunately, dealers are usually no help here. The very best place I have found for help is http://www.fifthwheelst.com. Fill in the blanks formulas there will help you match up truck and trailer.
For folks just getting into RVing, maneuvering a truck and trailer is a new and often intimidating skill set. Backing any type of trailer into a campsite requires a lot of practice.
The tires that come standard on the majority of Fifth Wheel trailers are cheap China sourced ones that are bought in large quantities. There are many horror stories about multiple failures on the same trip. Those failures often result in damage to the trailer. These tires have the absolute lowest load rating for the dry weight of the trailer. Many folks end up replacing all the trailer tires with higher load rated tires early into the owning experience.
While many new top line Fifth Wheel trailers have automatic leveling systems, the majority have manual jacks that must be lowered individually. Jacks at all four corners must be lowered and the trailer leveled. Then the truck must be unhooked and driven forward. Usually, this truck is your only vehicle to tour and get groceries. Mileage unhooked is better, but not great either.
Hooking back up requires some pretty precise backing up to the trailer. Once the pin is engaged, it must be locked in the hitch. Otherwise, when you drive forward with the trailer, the pin separates from the hitch and the trailer slams down on the bed of the truck. This will leave some fairly serious dents in the sidewalls of the truck bed. I have seen many trucks bearing this mark of shame, so it must happen occasionally. I’m sure there is some damage to the trailer as well.
If the tow truck breaks down, what do you drive? Will a tow company tow your Fifth Wheel trailer to a campground? Check with your roadside service plan to be sure. Not all will.
The most widely publicized advantage to the Motorhome is the ability of the passenger to get up, use the toilet, get food and drinks from the refrigerator, and return to the cockpit while the rig motors down the road. While not the only advantage, it is a big one.
Most modern Motorhomes are built on heavy duty truck chassis’s. That allows for basement storage compartments down both sides and sometimes all the way across from side to side. This makes for a lot of storage capacity before getting inside the rig. The heavy duty frame also allows for the towing of a vehicle, also known as the toad. The toad can be a smaller high mileage vehicle for touring and shopping. If the Motorhome breaks down, you still have a car to drive.
The Motorhome driver sits almost on top of the front wheels. That makes for easy maneuvering. Most have at least a 50 degree wheel cut that makes it easy to back into campsites.
Many larger Motorhomes have either manual or automatic leveling jacks that are deployed from the driver’s seat. On a rainy night, a Motorhome owner drives into his campsite, lowers his leveling jacks, and goes to bed. He can hook up in the morning. The Fifth Wheel Trailer driver is going to get wet no matter what. This is a security issue as well. The motorhome owner can leave an unsafe area without leaving the safety of his rig. The trailer driver must leave the safe zone of his trailer to go to the truck to leave.
As many as four slide-out rooms make the Motorhome almost as roomy as the Fifth Wheel Trailer. Almost. Most newer Motorhomes also have built-in generators in case of loss of campground power or for boondocking.
The first big downside to me is initial cost of a Motorhome. You are paying for both an RV and a motor vehicle rolled into one.
Maintenance costs on a Motorhome are much higher than a pickup truck as well. The heavy duty chassis maintenance is the same as a commercial truck. Make it a diesel powered rig and the scheduled maintenance costs triple. 22 quart oil changes are at least $300 now. However, the frequency of required services like oil changes is much longer as well. Wheel bearings, brakes, compressed air systems, hydraulic systems, all require maintenance.
Now add in the cost of another engine in the toad and another whole set of maintenance costs. Vehicle insurance is higher for a Motorhome as well as adding insurance on the towed car.
Upgrading to a bigger or better Motorhome will cost much more than upgrading a Fifth Wheel trailer which can be towed by the truck you already have. It is also probably easier to sell a used Fifth Wheel trailer than a used Motorhome.
Motorhome or Fifth Wheel Trailer?
I’m sure there are more pros and cons for both types, but I am trying to put together a relatively brief synopsis of the controversy and possibly clear up some misconceptions. One big one is that when your Motorhome breaks down you have to stay in an expensive hotel. This is absolutely not true. In our years on the road, we have only had one hotel stay, and that was due to very cold weather and the fact that the repair shop only had a 20 amp drop for us. We opted for a 2 night hotel stay and then were right back in our rig. Most shops have at least power so you can stay the night in your rig. It will be in a service bay during the day and back outside at night. This has been our experience.