There are 2 types of fifth wheel hitch installation setups: above-bed and below-bed. Above-bed being the most common aftermarket application because they’ve been on the market the longest. Below-bed setups are becoming increasingly popular because they are easier to use and have a cleaner look.
DIY Fifth Wheel Hitch Installation
As you’ll see below, it’s very possible to install a fifth wheel hitch on your own. There’s the rails that the hitch attach to, the frame brackets that attach to your truck frame, and the fifth wheel hitch itself.
You’ll be saving some cash on the install, but it can be a challenging process to install your setup. The most challenging part of installing a fifth wheel hitch is the drilling. Depending on if you get a custom or universal kit, you may have to drill into your truck’s frame.
However, no matter what type you choose, you will have to drill into your truck bed to install the rails. This part can tend to scare people away. So if you’re not comfortable with it, we recommend having a professional do the installation.
If you haven’t attempted a big installation like this on your own before, and you’re feeling nervous about it. We recommend reading through the steps below before making any decisions.
Reading over the general steps for a fifth wheel hitch installation will hopefully give you an idea of whether or not this install is doable for you. After you know all the steps for a basic fifth wheel hitch installation, you’ll be able to decide if it’s within your capabilities.
Don’t worry if you’re unsure which system to go with, because we’ll answer all your questions about fifth wheel hitches installation. We’ll give you helpful information such as the differences between above-bed and below-bed setups, and custom and universal.
How to Install a Fifth Wheel Hitch Like a Pro
3 Steps to Installing a fifth wheel Hitch:
- Measure and Mark Your Truck Bed for Bolts and Hitch Attachments
- Drill Out Holes for Frame Brakes (if Required) and Truck Bed Holes
- Bolt the Rails and Brackets in Place
The more detailed specifics of the a fifth wheel hitch installation will differ depending on your vehicle and what type of installation you choose. Custom above-bed, universal above-bed, or below-bed. Below I’ll go into more detail of these 3 main steps and give you some tips you can use to make the installation process easier.
Here’s a list of some common tools that are needed for the process:
- Torque Wrench
- Measuring Tape
Tips for a Smooth Installation
Before you start the installation process, here are a couple tips that will make the entire thing quicker and easier:
- Using a lift will help speed up the process and make it easier for you to access the underneath of your truck. However, most people don’t have access to a lift. In that case, we recommend using ramps or jacks to lift your vehicle to give you better access.
- Make sure that you already have your fifth wheel hitch with you before you begin this installation, as it will make lining up and installing the rails easier. This will also allow you to make sure you’ve installed the rails correctly and allow you to make necessary adjustments.
Disclaimer: The steps listed below are for typical installations to give you a feel for the process. This is by no means a step-by-step installation for every truck. For detailed installation steps for your truck, check the installation instructions included in the kit that you choose.
Measure and Mark Your Truck Bed for Bolts and Hitch Attachments
This is the easiest step of the installation, but it’s also one of the most important. In order to make sure that your fifth wheel hitch will fit correctly in your bed. You’ll need to make sure your drilling locations you’ve measured and marked are exact.
Because each truck is a little different, you should refer to your kit’s detailed instructions on where exactly to measure and mark for drilling. When you set the rails in place for measurement, make sure that the rails are centered in the bed on each side. So there is equal distance between the inside edge of the bed and the outer edges of the rails.
If the rails are not centered before you start drilling, you’ll have to drill new holes in your bed, which if we’re being honest, will not look great.
It’s very important to double, triple, and even quadruple check your measurements to make sure that everything lines up according to your instructions. And if your bed has a drop-in liner, you’ll either have to remove it or cut it to fit, otherwise you run the risk of your holes not lining up properly with the rails.
Drill Out Holes for Frame Brackets (if Required) and Truck Bed Holes
Drilling into your truck, whether it’s the frame underneath or the bed, can be a little intimidating. But if you take the right precautions and follow the instructions carefully, it’s step that can be accomplished successfully.
Whether or not you’ll have to drill into your truck’s frame (which can void a warranty on a new truck) depends on if you go with a custom or a universal installation. Custom fifth wheel kits are much easier to install because they use your existing mounting holes, so you don’t have to drill into your truck’s frame.
Unlike, universal kits, so the brackets bolt right on. We always recommend going with a custom installation if you have the option, however sometimes you don’t have a choice-mainly with older trucks.
If you choose a universal kit and must drill into your truck’s frame, be sure to take your time and follow the instructions exactly.
No matter which option you choose, you will have to drill into your truck bed. Once you’ve measured and marked the spots where your rails will sit, you will then have to make pilot holes where you’ll install the bolts to the rails. After you’ve drilled the pilot holes, we recommend checking underneath your bed to make sure that the holes line up with the frame brackets.
After your pilot holes are drilled and you’ve verified they’re in the right location, you can then enlarge the holes to the specified size.
Bolt the Rails and Brackets in Place
Remember how I said measuring your truck was the easiest part? Well, this might actually be the easiest part of a fifth wheel installation. You’ve already done the hard work to jack up your truck, find the precise measurements for your rails, and drill out the holes.
Now all you have to do is bolt them in place and torque them down!
All your hardware should come in your installation kit, and your torqueing specifications will be in the instruction manual. Once you’ve got everything installed, there’s only one place left to go from here: out of your driveway and on the road.
What Kind of Fifth Wheel Hitch Installation Do I Need?
What type of fifth wheel hitch installation setup you need all depends on what you want.
Do you want a clean, unobstructed bed when the hitch is removed?
Do you want to be able to tow a gooseneck trailer with the same truck you use to tow your 5th wheel?
Do you want to use the hitch you already have and just need to outfit your new truck to accept it?
These are all common concerns when choosing a fifth wheel hitch setup. Here are the top 3 choices you’ll have to make about your fifth wheel hitch installation. Each decision depends on your truck and the type of hitch setup you want.
Factory 5th Wheel Prep vs Aftermarket System
Determine if your truck has (or will have if you haven’t bought it yet), a factory 5th-wheel prep package, or if you will be installing an aftermarket system.
Factory 5th Wheel Prep Package (Puck System)
A factory fifth wheel prep package is something you can add on when you’re purchasing your truck from a dealer. The big 3 truck manufacturers (Ford, GM, and Ram), all offer prep packages for their newer trucks capable of fifth wheel towing.
The prep package is not only a fifth wheel hitch, but it’s also a gooseneck hitch. The 4 outer holes are for attaching a specialized fifth wheel hitch. The middle hole is for a gooseneck ball.
You’ll easily be able to tell if your truck already has the factory puck system in the truck bed; just look for the 5 cutouts, or pucks, in your truck bed. If you have them, great! You can get a specialty fifth wheel hitch, or a rail adapter that’s designed to drop and lock right into those pucks.
If you don’t have any hitch installed in your truck, you’ll have to install an aftermarket fifth wheel hitch setup, which is where the steps we listed above come in.
An aftermarket setup includes frame brackets (custom or universal-fit), and above-bed or below-bed rails. Above-bed rails are universal, which means you can attach almost any standard fifth wheel hitch to them.
If you like the clean look of a factory prep package but not the price, you may have to option to install an aftermarket system like the Reese Elite Series Under-Bed 5th Wheel Kit with a Reese Gooseneck Trailer Hitch Head.
Custom vs Universal Installation
Decide if you want to drill into the frame of your truck (universal install), or if you want to only have to drill into your truck bed (custom install).
A universal fifth wheel hitch installation kit consists of two L-shaped brackets that attach to your truck’s frame. You have to drill into the trucks frame to secure these brackets.
Universal kits can take a lot (and I mean a lot) more time to install than a custom setup, and you’ll usually need some special tools to do it. If you decide to go this route, it will typically take 5-7 hours for the complete installation, mainly because of the required drilling.
However, we recommend preparing for a whole day’s work, especially if you’ve never attempted one of these installations before.
So why do people choose universal rails? Two reasons: price and limited options.
Universal rails and brackets are less expensive than a custom setup, so a lot of people opt to save some cash over time convenience. Universal kits are also a very popular option for older trucks (typically early 2000’s and older), because sometimes a custom-install kit isn’t available.
With a fifth wheel hitch custom-installation, however, you can just use your truck’s existing pre-drilled holes to install the brackets. You’ll only have to drill into the truck bed to attach the rails.
A custom installation will save you a lot of time and effort, so we recommend going this route, if possible, especially when doing the install yourself. Just make sure you check our fitguide to see which custom-fit install kit is guaranteed to fit your truck.
Above-Bed vs Below-Bed Rails
Decide if you want rails permanently in your bed, or if you want a factory look with under bed rails.
For an aftermarket system, you can choose to have the standard rails that are bolted on top of your truck bed, or you can opt for sleeker, more convenient below-bed rails. It all depends on your personal preference and available options.
Both of these options can be custom-fit for minimal drilling and an easier install. However, there are some obvious differences between the two.
An above-the-bed system is what you’ll see in most trucks with a fifth wheel hitch (only the brackets are installed below the bed on the frame, and there are 2 long base rails affixed to your truck bed). This is the less expensive route to go; however, you’ll have to keep those big metal rails in mind when tossing cargo over your bed rail.
On the other hand, a below-the-bed system is a very minimal, factory-looking option. There are a few different fifth wheel manufacturers that offer these systems, including B&W (which is also a gooseneck hitch and specifically designed for their B&W Companion hitch), and Reese’s below-the-bed system.
You might notice that Reese system does look a lot like a factory OEM system. However, the main difference is that it only has 4 holes instead of 5, because it’s only a fifth wheel hitch, and not a fifth wheel and gooseneck hitch.
So, if you like the factory look of the OEM prep package, and don’t mind spending a little more money, definitely go with this option if it’s available for your truck.
It’s necessary to decide on these 3 things ahead of time, as your choices determine what 5th wheel hitch installation you’ll go with. Let’s dive a little deeper into each question to help figure out which system is right for you.
Q&A Fifth Wheel Hitch Installation
How long does it take to install a fifth wheel hitch?
A fifth wheel hitch installation can take anywhere from 2-5 hours for a custom installation, and 4-7 hours for a universal installation, depending on your skill level. It’s best to set aside plenty of time to do either installation, and make sure that you have everything you’ll need ahead of time.
This includes your brackets, rails, hardware (that comes with the rails), and tools (such as a drill, drill bit, torque wrench, and sockets).
To save time on the installation, it’s also a good idea to purchase your fifth wheel hitch with your rails and brackets, if you don’t have a hitch already. This is will help when installing your bed rails and allow you to make sure that the hitch is compatible with your truck and new rail system.
Are fifth wheel hitch rails universal?
Most all fifth wheel hitch rails are universal. This means that almost any fifth wheel hitch can attach to above-bed rails. The exception to this is with trucks that have a below-bed factory prep package, where you’ll have to get a vehicle-specific rail adapter to use with universal rails.
However, the rails and the brackets that you use must be from the same manufacturer. So, for example, if you buy a new 2020 Chevrolet Silverado 3500, we don’t recommend buying new Reese custom brackets and using your old Curt rails. You would have to get Curt brackets, or just buy a whole new kit, as they may not be compatible or covered under warranty.