Choosing the Right Fifth Wheel Hitch – 2021 Buying Guide

Fifth wheel hitches are created for heavy duty towing. Standard design for the personal use of fifth wheel hitch is similar to that used by 18-wheeler semi-truck. Rather than exerting the tow pressure on a ball hitch that would crash under a heavy load, the 5th wheel hitch has a large flat plate that is attached to a similar plate welded to the trailer.

The two plates are joined by a downward facing kingpin, which is the pivot point in the system. They must be lubricated as they rub together while the tow vehicle is in motion.

The fifth wheel hitch is fitted in front of the rear axle of a pickup truck and is held in place by rails fastened to the frame of the truck. This allows the trailer’s weight to be spread across the truck’s suspension system.

There is a variety of options when selecting a fifth wheel hitch, and these can be shortlisted by focusing on the following properties and features of the tow vehicle and the fifth wheel trailer it will tow.

How Do Fifth Wheel Hitches Work?

The 5th wheel hitch is located in the bed of the pickup truck instead of on the bumper or rear frame. The added weight pressing down on the bed of the truck is therefore between the cab and the rear axle – not on the rear bumper as with ball hitches.

If you’ve looked closely at a big rig’s hitching mechanism, you’d notice that a fifth wheel hitch for pickups is just a smaller version. The head is the flat plate with a ‘jaw’ opening that funnels the trailer’s king pin in to where it is locked in place. This completes the trailer-tow vehicle connection.

The Best 5th Wheel Hitches

Let’s take a look at the best 5th wheel hitches on the market today.

B&W Companion

Definitely he best fifth wheel hitch to buy if you want a good amount of towing capability and reliability.

Pros

  • The design of the head allows it to fully articulate front to back and side to side.
  • Good articulation range for uneven terrain.

Cons

  • The hitch is heavy compared to lower-end models.
  • Installation may require more than one person to position the hitch.

Curt E16

A great fifth wheel hitch to consider if you don’t need a complete kit that includes the base rails.

Pros

  • The design of the hitch uses many industry-standard components (like the base rails), making it compatible with different accessories and mounts.

Cons

  • Comes as an incomplete kit.
  • Will need to spend more money on base rails.

Reese 20K Pro Series

The Reese 20K pro Series is a great fifth wheel trailer hitch that can handle up to 20,000 pounds.

Pros

  • Very flexible
  • Can be adjusted vertically for easier hitching
  • Good warranty

Cons

  • It fits only some trucks
  • Very heavy

Fifth wheel hitch can accommodate many accessories, including rails, an assembly/installation kit, a brake controller, a hitch lock, hitch cover and a guaranty for the equipment.

It may also be necessary to purchase a fifth wheel notch for the trailer head and tailgate with a lower clearance. Towing mirrors are suggested; many can fasten onto the existing mirrors to enable the driver to watch the trailer and make turns cautiously.

Choosing The Right Fifth Wheel Hitch for Your Need

The first step in selecting a fifth wheel hitch is to ask for the owner’s manual of the towing vehicle to determine its towing capacity. The next step is to ascertain the weight of the fifth wheel trailer the vehicle will tow. The weight should be smaller than or equal to the towing capacity of the vehicle.

Finally, a hitch should be selected based on its towing capacity, trailer weight, and a few additional desired features. It is also advised to check state laws for towing to guarantee compliance.

  1. Towing capacity and weight
  2. Measure truck bed length
  3. Determine if the truck bed has pucks
  4. Choose permanent or removable 5th wheel rails
  5. Select a style

Towing Capacity

Hitches are ranked by their Gross Trailer Weight (GTW) or Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR), which shows the total trailer weight (including the anticipated contents) that the fifth wheel hitch can carry.

It is the combined weight of the trailer plus full fluids, cargo, and propane. The fifth wheel trailer manufacturer will provide this number for you.

Experienced RVers have found, however, that this number is often listed by the manufacturers as optimistically low. Apparently it is a selling point for a fifth wheel trailer to be lighter.

So it is recommended you get the entire rig weighed at a public scale. Obviously you can’t do this beforehand, but after your rig is setup you should have it weighed.  That way you’ll know if there’s any necessary upgrades you’ll need to do.

Max King Pin Weight or Max Tongue Weight for non-fifth wheel trailers. It’s the weight pressing vertically down on the hitch when the trailer is fully loaded. This number is a percentage of the GTW and should also be provided by the trailer manufacturer. 

It is usually 25 percent.  For example, to get the max king pin weight for a trailer with a GTW of 10,000 pounds, you’d multiply 10,000 X 0.25 = 2500 pounds.

So in this example, your trailer – when fully loaded – would press down on your fifth wheel hitch with 2500 pounds of weight.

Why is the max king pin weight an important number? Because you do not want to exceed your pickup truck’s maximum allowable rear axle weight rating.

The Truck Bed Length

A short bed truck is six feet long. When a fifth wheel hitch is fitted in a short bed truck, the front of the trailer is near to the cab of the truck. Therefore, when taking a sharp turn, the trailer can come in contact with the cab and be a cause of both a safety hazard and damage.

Fortunately, there is a choice of a sliding hitch for short bed trucks. With a sliding hitch, when preparing to back into a campsite or approaching a sharp turn, the driver can come out of the vehicle and move a lever on the hitch to enable sliding.

While holding the brakes for the trailer but slowly driving forward, the trailer will slide backward around ten inches. Before you start driving normally, the lever must be moved again to lock the trailer in its place.

Towing in the extended position is not secure and is not recommended at highway speeds for a long period, but it is useful when wanted. There are automatic sliding hitches available on the market that avoid the need to plan in advance and manually slide the trailer back.

Although the sliding technology does increase the overall cost of the fifth wheel hitch, it is, of course, cheaper than purchasing a new truck.

Do you need to use your truck’s bed for other tasks when not towing?
If you do, you may want to consider a custom gooseneck hitch setup. With an under-mount gooseneck hitch, only a ball hitch sticks up – and even that can be removed when not in use. Otherwise you can disassemble a standard fifth wheel hitch, but the mounting rails on most models will still be bolted in the bed.

Well, that’s pretty much all the basic info you need for your fifth wheel hitch setup.  The following info is ‘extra’ information that you may find useful, although some of it is already covered above.

5th Wheel Hitch Installation

When a fifth wheel hitch is correctly installed and the trailer is attached, the truck bed will not bend under the weight. It is because the weight is evenly spread across the whole truck.

Installation of 5th wheel hitch is simpler and easier if a custom kit for the model and make of the tow vehicle is available. Without a custom kit, it might be necessary to weld components or drill holes in the truck bed.

The custom kit makes sure that the rails to support the hitch will fit in the existing bed holes. The availability of a custom kit will affect the decision to install it by yourself or under the supervision of an experienced mechanic.

It is also significant to consider the braking mechanism for the trailer and make sure that it is properly installed and performing before hitting the road.

How to Install a 5th Wheel Hitch Yourself

First off, regardless if you decide to install one yourself or get a professional to handle it, make sure that your tow vehicle can handle the extra weight. This can normally be found in the owner’s manual.

After you’ve learned your pickup’s bed weight rating (rear axle or “drive axle” weight rating) and any other pertinent info, you have a few choices:

  • If you absolutely need every square inch of your pickup’s bed when not towing, you’ll need a custom gooseneck hitch that will attach to your fifth wheel trailer. Note that goosenecks are usually for livestock trailers but you can get adapter kits to extend your trailer’s hitch to fit the gooseneck hitch in your pickup.
  • Most modern standard fifth wheel hitches (that have the standard “head” assembly – such as on 18-wheelers) can be disassembled and removed from your bed.  But unless it’s a custom setup, you’ll still have the mounting rails permanently in the bed.  Goosenecks, on the other hand, can be installed mostly under the bed with just a hitch ball sticking up through a hole in the bed (which can be removed as well).

You can purchase a universal, one size fits all fifth wheel hitch installation kit or one that’s customized for your vehicle. Obviously the latter would be a better choice, but it will cost more.

But if you’re ready, willing and able to get the universal mounted one to work for you, great.  Just be aware that you may have to do some welding and other customization under the truck bed.

Yep, the the custom kits are definitely the way to go, and many require no drilling or welding – with the holes in the brackets lining up with pre-existing holes in your vehicle’s frame.

Hitching checklist

It happens: You pull forward while leaving your fifth wheel landing gear down, or you drop the trailer onto your truck bed because you forgot to lower your fifth wheel’s gear first.

  1. Raise or lower the 5th wheel trailer to set the king pin to the correct height.
  2. Lower the tailgate of your truck (unless you have a special tailgate).
  3. Open the locking bar on the hitch.
  4. Back your truck under the trailer and engage the king pin of the fifth wheel.
  5. Secure the locking bar on the 5th wheel hitch.
  6. Test the hitch connection by merely putting the tow vehicle into drive gear.
  7. Connect the breakaway switch cable & umbilical cord.
  8. Check trailer lights & brakes.
  9. Raise the p/u tailgate.
  10. Raise the landing gear of the 5th wheel trailer.
  11. Remove the wheel chocks.

The fifth wheel unhitching procedure is basically a reverse of the hitching procedure. Take your time and do it right, otherwise you will make a mistake which could prove costly and dangerous.

The main thing is to never be in a hurry!

A fifth wheel trailer that is safely and securely connected via a fifth wheel hitch to a good tow vehicle drives very easy – especially compared to using a conventional ball hitch-pulled trailer. And when compared to the cost of driving a full-size motor home, it is a no-brainer.

Fifth wheel trailers enable you to travel cheaper – without giving up comfort and space. But they also make for easier towing.  After all, driving and maneuvering your rig is a big part of fifth wheeling fun, thanks to a 5th wheel hitch mounted in your pickup!

Conclusion

Fifth wheel hitches are excellent for heavy duty towing of a large toy hauler or recreational vehicle. It is essential to select a hitch that will comply with limitations of the particular model and make of the truck in which it will be installed and the weight of the trailer it will tow.

You need to consider how the hitch will be installed in the tow vehicle and whether the holes will be drilled to accommodate the rails that might be included with a hitch or if it needs a custom rail set. With a short bed truck, it is also significant to choose a sliding hitch to avoid safety issues and damage when turning corners.

Make sure you purchase the necessary hitch accessories as well, such as towing mirrors and lube plates, to ensure road safety and properly maintain the equipment.