Fifth Wheel Caravans

The concept for using a fifth wheel hitch for a road-based semi trailer has been around for nearly a century. The original idea arose to allow one person to couple a vehicle and trailer together. After learning about the stability benefits the fifth wheel hitch provides when towing, the RV industry in the US began using it for caravans in the late 1960s. This article balances the pros and cons of the fifth wheel caravan and discusses reasons for it’s growing popularity in Australia.
Created: February 2007
Revised: June 2007
Latest Feedback: December 2015

What is a Fifth Wheel Caravan?

Fifth wheel caravans have an extension on the front that extends over the tow vehicle and sits on a horizontal plate that looks like a wheel – hence the name ‘fifth wheel’. This wheel rests on the tow vehicle, usually in the centre and directly above the rear axles and provides the support for the caravan. Fifth wheelers are outfitted with a fifth wheel hitch, which is also known as a ‘gooseneck' hitch. The hitch arrangement makes towing easier by placing the trailer load in the centre of the tow vehicle instead of behind it. This creates a stable towing proposition with the opportunity of obtaining a lot more living space and shorter towing length in comparison to a standard caravan.

Typically, full-size pickup trucks or light commercials serve as the tow vehicle, although there are some companies that manufacture smaller fifth wheel caravans specifically designed for the Aussie ute.

History of the Fifth Wheel

The phrase ‘fifth wheel’ may have been used as early as the 1700s to describe the horizontal wheel that was used to steer horse-drawn four-wheel carriages. The term was also used in mechanical dictionaries in the 1870s to define it as ‘a wheel segment above the fore-axle of a carriage’. When it came to coupling, a fifth wheel prototype was patented in 1919 and subsequently used in Trailmobile semi-trailer trucks in America. The way railway cars are coupled brought about this idea and the need arose so the vehicle and trailer could be connected by the driver alone.

Fifth Wheel and RVs

Manufacturers of RVs or Travel Trailers as they are commonly called in America adopted the fifth wheel concept in the late 1960s, early 70s after realising its towing advantages. Since then, fifth wheel trailers were made bigger, with some up to 12.4 metres (40 feet) long with multiple slide-out compartments and resembling something like a house on wheels.

Australia in recent years has started to show a good interest in this fifth wheel concept and although many fifth wheel caravans (or RVs) are imported from the United States, there are a handful of companies that are manufacturing it themselves.

Advantages and Disadvantages

There are a few disadvantages associated with fifth wheel caravans but many of these issues are relatively balanced with the advantages. Probably the biggest case against the fifth wheeler is the fact that a more-or-less dedicated towing vehicle may be needed. Depending on the size of the fifth wheeler, the towing vehicle – if it be a pick-up truck, an F250 or a ute may have less space for occupants and storage than say a 4WD such as a Toyota Landcruiser. Another thing is that the hitch configuration is usually placed directly above the rear axle which leaves not much room for carrying any large items in the tray. Typically, the tow vehicle will have to have the fifth wheel hitch installed on the tray back, which may be of concern to brand new vehicle owners. Although similar to a tow-ball hitch, this is usually a removable component. Another downside, especially for large luxurious fifth wheel caravans – is the price tag. This, along with the large vehicle that’s needed to tow it, may be a little on the high side.

Now, depending on the way you look at it, some of these issues may actually be quite minor and it’s a matter of personal opinion that the advantages of the fifth wheel caravan far outweigh the disadvantages.

Advantages

The main advantage of a fifth wheel caravan is its towing ease and stability. In the case of a standard caravan resting on a common tow ball, there’s considerable distance between the tow ball and the rear axle of the tow vehicle. There’s close to 10% of the caravan weight resting at the extreme end of the tow vehicle and unfortunately this may cause a levering effect by placing more weight on the tow vehicle’s rear wheels, whilst taking weight off the front wheels. In some cases, devices such as stabilisers and weight distribution bars may be needed to provide more stability. A fifth wheel caravan however doesn’t need these devices because the coupling and weight distribution is already adequate. Around 20% of the weight of the caravan is placed directly above or slightly forward of the rear axle of the tow vehicle, while the rest of the weight is supported by the caravan itself. This setup leads to better traction, handling and stability. It also increases safety and eliminates pitching and swaying. Listed below are some further advantages for considering a fifth wheel caravan:
  • Since the fifth wheel caravan is around 1.5 metres over the tow vehicle and has no drawbar, the total length is up to 3 metres shorter than a standard caravan. This results in a shorter overall towing length without sacrificing living space.

  • Like all caravans and campers that can be towed, a fifth wheel caravan can also be detached at the camping destination, therefore freeing up the towing vehicle whenever you wish to explore around.

  • The chance your unhitched fifth wheel caravan would be stolen is quite unlikely because the thief would need a vehicle and hitch setup similar to yours.

  • A vehicle with a fifth wheeler in tow can turn a tighter circle than one towing a standard caravan. It is also easier during reversing because the fifth wheel caravan doesn’t move and jump from side-to-side.

  • A fifth wheel caravan can be hitched and unhitched much easier. Since it uses a turntable hitch instead of a ball and socket type, it’s simply a matter of raising the fifth wheeler close to the correct height and then backing the tow vehicle under the pin.

  • Because a fifth wheeler sits close behind the tow vehicle, less wind drag is generated leading to better efficiency on the road.

  • There are smaller fifth wheel caravans available for smaller vehicles such as the Toyota Hilux, Holden Ute and the Nissan Navara.

Types of Fifth Wheel Caravans

Large Fifth Wheel Caravans

Large fifth wheel caravans have a lot of the luxuries that's featured in modern homes such as: full entertainment suites with DVD and internet, shower and bathrooms, dining areas, kitchens and full sleeping quarters – with some comfortably sleeping up to 8 people. Fifth wheel caravans are typically bi-level designed, having the master bedroom above the truck bed that usually holds a large king or queen sized bed with a picture window at the rear to obtain nice panoramic views. Some have single or multiple slide-out sections, which are designed to move the wall outwards at the touch of a button and to increase the living space for that section.

Some gigantic fifth wheelers, especially the ones made in the United States like the Forest River Cardinal can be close to 40 foot long, with up to 5 slide-out sections and have an Unloaded Vehicle Weight (UVW) of nearly 6 tonnes. Now to legally tow something of this size, you would need a very large and powerful tow vehicle such as a medium-duty truck. Many of the larger fifth wheel caravans in Australia don’t normally exceed much more than 30 feet in length and depending on the aggregate towing weight, may be towed by vehicles such as the Ford F350, an Iveco Dual Cab light truck or maybe a Chevrolet 2500 HD.

Choosing the Tow Vehicle

If you already have a vehicle or you wish to purchase a vehicle to tow a fifth wheel caravan, it’s very important to understand all the legalities and performance of the vehicle. All vehicles have ratings based on power, torque, towing capacity and payload capacity, etc specified by the vehicle manufacturer. Vehicles should also have what’s called a Gross Combined Mass (GCM) limit, which is the total allowed weight of the tow vehicle plus the fifth wheel caravan when both are fully laden. All of these specifications need to be taken into account with the fifth wheel caravan manufacturer when working out whether the vehicle is suitable.

Drivers License

Another thing to think about is if a standard ‘A’, ‘B’ or ‘C’ class license is the minimum requirement needed to legally drive the tow vehicle. The passenger Class ‘C’ vehicle licence permits you to drive a motor vehicle up to 4.5 tonnes Gross Vehicle Mass (GVM). The current licence regulations are unified so they apply in all states of Australia.

Small Fifth Wheel Caravans

There are manufacturers in Australia such as Venture Fifth Wheelers that offer a smaller alternative to fifth wheel caravanning. These vans may be quite smaller, only measuring between 6.5 and 7.1 metres (21 and 23 foot), but many of them still have the amenities and luxuries of the larger fifth wheelers. The main difference is, they have been specifically designed to be legally towed by Australian utes. Some of these are listed below.
  • Ford Ranger / Mazda BT-50

  • Holden Rodeo

  • Holden Ute One-Tonner

  • Ford Falcon One-Tonner

  • Mitsubishi Triton

  • Nissan Navara

  • Toyota Hilux
These fifth wheelers have a specially designed chassis to suit these utes. They even allow the coupling to be installed over the rear axle in dual cab versions, whilst still retaining enough clearance to be able to do a U-turn in a normal street. Other advantages for considering a smaller fifth wheel caravan is that they are lighter and shorter in towing length. This not only provides a safer and more fuel efficient tow, but will also be welcomed in standard-size caravan parks.

Fifth Wheel Hardware & Accessories

Fifth Wheel Hitch

All fifth wheel hitches installed in Australia must be compliant with ADR 62/01, which refers to the Australian Design Rules - Mechanical Connections between Vehicles. Fifth wheel caravans typically use a turntable style hitch installed on the back of the tow vehicle’s tray. A two inch king pin at the front of the fifth wheeler is commonly used to connect with the locking jaw on the turntable. A fifth wheel hitch is rated according to the weight of the caravan to be towed. Popular hitch ratings are: 16K (or 16,000 lbs), 18K, 20K, 21K (Hijacker) and 22K (Reese).

The turntable style hitch is much easier to couple and uncouple - just like a semi-trailer – it’s just one movement. This hitch is ideally positioned around 50mm in front of the centre of the rear axle so a small amount of the weight of the fifth wheel caravan is transferred to the front wheels of the towing vehicle.

Sliding Fifth Wheel Hitch

This is a popular device used in the United States when there’s limited space between the rear axle and the back of the truck cabin - which is quite evident in some dual cab utes. Under normal driving conditions, the sliding fifth wheel hitch is in the ‘front’ position and is situated directly above the rear axle. When a tight turn needs to be made, the hitch can be moved in the ‘back’ position to create more room so the front of the caravan doesn’t hit the vehicle cabin. These units are designed to handle normal towing speeds in the ‘forward’ position only and may sway if left in the ‘back’ position. Although these devices are usually manually operated, there are sliding hitches such as the SuperGlide fifth wheel hitch that automatically moves the caravan away from the cab while making turns, allowing up to 90 degree turning without stopping. An automatic sliding fifth wheel hitch has not been around for that long and may be undergoing trials in Australia. Although for now, manual sliding ones have been around, tested and comply with the Australian Design Rules (ADR).

Electric Brakes

If the caravan weighs between 750kgs to 2000kgs Gross Trailer Mass (GTM) – then efficient brakes are required on at least one axle. The caravan industry has its own 1600kg limit for 10 inch electric brakes on a single axle. Since fifth wheel caravans may easily exceed these weights, anything over 2000kgs is required by law to have brakes on all wheels, they must be capable of activation by the driver and a breakaway switch must also be fitted.

Breakaway System

These kits are designed to automatically apply the electric brakes and brake lights on the fifth wheel caravan in the event of an accidental separation from the tow vehicle. Once activated, they keep the electric brakes and brake lights applied for around 20 minutes. They generally have their own power supply, which charges via an auxiliary line while driving, or it can be charged externally with a battery charger.

Fifth Wheel Caravan Considerations

US Import or Australian Made?

The fifth wheel caravan industry is a small but growing industry that has started to gain acceptance and appreciation for its many advantages such as towing stability. The Australian vehicle market seems to be following the footsteps of the United States with our love of 4WDs and utes. We are even starting to import some of the bigger 4WDs such as the F350 and the beefy Chevrolet range of pickup trucks, which – for their size, are quite inexpensive and subsequently commonplace in the US. This is one of the main reasons why fifth wheel caravans are so popular and are as common as standard caravans or travel trailers as they call them.

When considering importing a fifth wheel caravan, one must consider that it will probably not meet obligatory Australian Standards, particularly in regards to the gas lines and fittings and the mains voltage where they use 110–120 volts, instead of the 220–240 volts we use in Australia. Non-compliance could cause some complications if for example an insurance claim needs to be made.

If you wish to enquire about fifth wheelers, contacting your local RV centre is a start. Especially if it is has ‘RV’ or ‘Recreational Vehicle’ in its name, should give a good indication that they sell fifth wheel caravans as well as the standard ‘travel trailers’. These units may be imported directly from the United States and before they place a ‘For Sale’ sticker on it – should have already been converted. These conversions, if it be structural, engineering, coupling, safety appliances such as fire extinguishers or utility conversions such as gas and electricity should already meet our Australian Standards – although it would be wise to ask.
There are a handful of Australian companies that design and manufacture fifth wheel caravans for our conditions and environment. Some of these companies as mentioned earlier, have specifically designed fifth wheel caravans for the Aussie ute, whilst other companies offer a bigger solution. Some companies even offer a package deal, which may include a light truck with their fifth wheel caravan.

There are benefits for both Australian made and imported models so shop around and find out as much as you can. Balance the pros and cons, research and ask our forum audience. Get some consumer reports on individual makes and models and study which ones hold up the longest and have the best resale value. Compare prices so you can be sure you are getting the most features for your dollar. Also find out about nationwide warranties so you can travel with the peace of mind knowing that, should you need it, you can get service from a variety of locations around Australia.

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