About RVing: How to Buy a Fifth (5th) Wheel Trailer

All About 5th Wheels – The good (even great), the bad, and the downright ugly…

Or…Why are so many 5th wheel trailers built SO poorly?

ANDwhich manufacturers DO build a quality camper INCLUDING a relatively NEW 5th wheel manufacturer who is building an excellent camper.

5th wheel buying guide
Ok, ok, this isn’t one of the 5th wheels I’m going to recommend – but what better way to start off a 5th wheel buying guide article!

About me… I’ve been full-timing for nearly 8 years now and I’ve been an “insider” in the RV industry for about 5 years. I live the RV life! I’m a full-time traveler in a 5th wheel trailer and I even spend my winters in the Rocky Mountains where sub-zero temperatures are common! I teach skiing at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort – and if you’re in the area, I’d love to hear from you.

I truly enjoy the 5th wheel RV trailer I own. When considering all the various types of RV’s (fifth wheel, travel trailer, motorhome, etc…) for a full-time traveler, the fifth wheel makes the most sense (in my humble opinion!)

best 5th wheel trailers
There’s nothing like having a new 5th wheel camper pulled by a great truck!
1951 Spartan Mansion
Why did I include this? ‘Cause its cool!

Here’s Why – In a 5th wheel, you get lots of space (AND storage) even with a modest length trailer (mine is under 35 ft.) Towing a 5th wheel is far more stable than a travel trailer. Further, once you set up camp, you have a good, solid truck to travel around with.

One thing I’ve learned as I travel across our amazing nation, in many areas you’re only a couple of turns from dirt and gravel roads – and many of the best hot springs and waterfalls are miles up a washboarded and pitted unpaved roads. A truck is clearly the best mode of travel (or a 4×4) into such regions.

My F250 diesel will go (almost) anywhere – and the 5th wheel trailer I selected is a beast – fully designed for true 4 season living!

Think of what follows as a Fifth (5th) Wheel RV Buying Guide

As an industry insider, I have arrived at two important conclusions.

  • Far too many RV manufacturers simply “slap together” a trailer, put some “lipstick” on it (bells and whistles) and ask people to spend hard-earned money on something that will be nothing but trouble down the road.
  • Far too many consumers are focused upon the “lipstick” and not upon the actual construction, quality of materials, and engineering of the camper they’re considering. This is what allows the RV manufacturers to CONTINUE to get away with building inferior products. “We” consumers keep buying them!

Solid Advice: Do your research BEFORE plunking down your hard-earned money on any RV camper!

Before purchasing my current 5th wheel trailer, I spent two YEARS looking (hard) at the current crop of 5th wheels (new and used) before replacing my first 5th wheel. I was (at the time) working for an RV dealer in Wyoming – an experience that served to open my eyes to what MOST manufacturers are building today that they think “passes for” an acceptable 5th wheel – and – I was privy to seeing just how each manufacturer handled the multitude of warranty issues that arose.

When it comes to trailer build quality and warranty service, what I found was VERY disturbing. Unfortunately, the norm in the RV industry is performance WELL BELOW the expectations of MOST consumers.

At least when it comes to MOST products. For example, I know of very few people who would put up with the kinds of issues they mostly tolerate in their RV if similar issues were to occur in their car or truck.

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Before you get too depressed – I MUST point out – its not all bad news – but FIRST a little more of the ugly (bear with me – you NEED to know this)…

When it comes to 5th wheels (and travel trailers) I’ve seen more campers than I’d ever want that leaked (even when BRAND NEW), had slides fail due to underpowered slide motors (within months of purchase), had the underside of slides crack only to expose the interior wooden interior that MUST remain dry, had awnings fall off (due to poor construction – or downright lousy engineering), had the underbelly cover fall down, had the entire freshwater tank fall out, and more.

A fresh water tank collapsing in a Forest River trailer. I’ve seen photos of fresh water tanks DRAGGING on the ground!

I’ve seen “four-season” trailers that claim superior insulation – and when we removed the front cap (because the frame failed), all there was were 4 thin strips of “pink panther” batten insulation and the manufacturer passes it off as a “0 degrees F ready!”

Another all-to-common issue occurs when the manufacturer uses sub-standard tires, destined to fail within weeks or months after purchase and provides virtually NO protection of the interior of the camper so that when the inevitable blow-out occurs, thousands of dollars of damage occurs inside the camper resulting in weeks (or LONGER) in the RV repair shop.

A “china-bomb” tire that blew on a Keystone after just a few months and less than 3500 miles travel. This actually happened to me with my 1st 5er – $3000. damage (inside the camper) AND 6 weeks in the repair shop.

I’ve seen new campers arrive at the dealership that smelled (badly) from formaldehyde! Not only is this NOT good for your health, but its a tell-tale sign that the manufacturer is NOT using real wood in the construction – instead of marine-grade plywood designed to withstand heat, cold and moisture; the manufacturer substitutes cheap particleboard (press-board) which is far less durable, warps when exposed to moisture, AND contains FORMALDEHYDE!

The underside of a slide on a 2 yr old Forest River trailer – the plastic material cracked exposing the interior.
The new owner removed the rest and is proceeding to repair. I’ve seen Keystone Montana and Avalanche 5ers with this exact issue – the “slideski” (underside of the slide) cracks and exposes the interior wood.

And yet, many consumers continue to purchase these campers because the manufacturers have “innovative floor plans” or a variety of bells and whistles (eg – over-priced fireplaces) to allure the naive buyer.

These same consumers are then frustrated when one (or more) of the above events detailed here occurs – and wonder then why their camper spends WEEKS or MONTHS in the RV service center.

How is ALL THIS MEDIOCRITY EVEN POSSIBLE?

The RV industry is largely UNregulated – lemon laws are NOT in place in most states and claims such as “4 season camper” have NO formal meaning.

This is ALL “by intent” as the RV industry has powerful lobbyists controlling you-know-who (the lawmakers.) It’s with that thought in mind, that Forest River (one of the two big “holding companies” that owns dozens of the most POPULAR manufacturers) wins the true booby-prize… Forest River garnered over $250,000. in fines from OSHA as detailed in this ABC News report. Incidentally, Keystone (of Thor – the other big holding company) came in second place with 15,000. in fines.

Help is Here…

I started a buying service designed to help folks get the right camper – and avoid all the potential pitfalls when buying an RV – at the best possible price. In general, when someone comes to me as a client of my Concierge RV Buying Service, I work with them to assess their wants, needs, and budget for a camper, my ultimate recommendation is almost NEVER to consider one of the many RV companies under the umbrella of either of the two big holding companies.

Do your research…

A word to the wise – many of the manufacturers under the “umbrella” of either Forest River or Thor do not “advertise” or promote their connection to Forest River or Thor. You have to do some real research online to find the relationship. I urge you – take the few minutes and search for who the owner of a particular rv manufacturer is before you seriously consider their camper for purchase.

When it comes to claims about RV campers – again for emphasis…

Since the industry is unregulated, KNOW that claims like “true 4 season” or “ready for full time living” mean NOTHING from most manufacturers. In fact, one of the absolute worst manufacturers advertises their 5th wheels to be the “best-insulated ultra-light 5th wheels.”

And, why “ultra-light” (as in “super light trailer”) is a good thing is beyond me! If you’re going to get a fifth-wheel trailer, get the RIGHT truck for your needs. To me that generally means a 3/4 ton diesel truck (or better.)

Do ANY 5th wheel RV trailers pass my admittedly stringent standards?

Short answer: YES

Before I get into specific manufacturers I recommend, allow me to address two issues: AFFORDABILITY and WHAT TO LOOK FOR…

When it comes to buying a camper, I live by a simple credo – IF you’re on a budget (and who isn’t), I’d rather see you get a well built, gently used camper than a “slapped together” brand new one.

In the world of RV’s and RV’ing, there are 2 “laws” to live by…

  1. All RV’s (ESPECIALLY towables) depreciate FASTER than a rock sinking in water, particularly in their first 2 years.
  2. Often people buy RVs with all kinds of grand plans for how they’ll use it – only to find that it turns into a giant paperweight on the side of their home. The end result, YOU can get a minimally used, “nearly new” camper for FAR less than the original owner paid!

Applying these two “laws”, and getting quite specific, if you have less than $50,000. to spend on a 5th wheel trailer, it’s quite likely you’re far better off with a used 5th wheel trailer than a new one. When we get to “Alan, which specific manufacturers do you recommend?” I’m about to go there! And… if the manufacturers’ new models that I recommend are beyond what your budget allows, then considering a used one that is just three or four years old is likely a very wise move. Even 10 years old in a few cases makes a lot of sense.

What matters MOST in a 5th wheel (or any RV Camper)?

Hint: It’s NOT the floor plan! Allow me to be quite direct here – if the floor plan is perfect and the camper is poorly made, what are you really buying?! What IS important is the quality of construction – how it’s built, the materials used to build it and more. Consider the following…

Specifics to look for when considering an RV Camper

Shortly after purchasing my Glacier Peak 5th wheel, I created two posts looking critically at my camper and explaining what I valued most about its design, engineering, and construction. I started with an analysis of the outside of my camper as that is where the game is won (or lost.) Here are a few things I looked for:

  • What kind of tires did the manufacturer use? Are they “china bombs” or a decent tire – eg: Goodyear Endurance, Maxxis 8008 are two brands I trust
  • What is above the tires to protect the camper from a blowout? (look for a metal plate, if not, you’re at great risk of damage in the interior
  • Are there shock absorbers on each axle?
  • How is the underside of the slide constructed? Fiberglass is a good choice and used by very few manufacturers.
  • Is the furnace installed with a 4 screw full-size plate? If not, if the furnace fails, you’ll be taking apart the interior of your camper to access the furnace for repair.
  • What’s inside the walls? Are they laminated? (this is good) Is there high-density foam block – at least 1.5 inches thick – for insulation? The alternative is rolled fiberglass and that is problematic on multiple levels.
  • Is the chassis built to custom match the floor plan? This aids in weight distribution and makes for a better tow. AND often allows for a large fresh water tank
  • How large is the fresh water tank? If you plan on any significant amount of dry camping, 70+ gallons is HIGHLY recommended.
  • How much plumbing is exposed outside of the underbelly – and the underbelly should be heated!! I look to see virtually NO exposed plumbing as in sub-freezing weather, its a big issue.
a well designed 5th wheel trailer
A full furnace plate – if the furnace ever fails, it is easily accessible through the removal of this plate
a well engineered 5th wheel trailer
The few inches of sewer pipe you see is the ONLY exposed plumbing under my trailer!
5th wheel trailer - shocks on axles
Shocks on the axles on my 5th wheel trailer – something I believe EVERY manufacturer should do!

You can see how much you can assess before you ever walk into a camper! And there’s more, both regarding the exterior and interior, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll leave it to you to contact me if you’re in the market and want more tips.

A quick note about ORV and my camper –

Clearly I was (and still am) a fan of Outdoors RV (ORV) as I own one and continue to be thrilled with its abilities and quality of construction. The only problem is ORV has abandoned their project to build full profile 5th wheels well suited for full time living. They still make two “mid-profile” models that are great quality but are best used for weekend / week-long camping. These models simply lack the storage space (particularly in the bedroom) and refrigerator size to be seriously considered for full time living.

Fifth wheel (5th wheel) buying guide
My full-time living, TRUE 4 Season, 5th Wheel Camper – I offer this as a great example of what to get – but – this particular trailer is no longer made.
Read on further for alternate recommendations…

Ok, Alan, since ORV isn’t making a full profile, full-time living, true 4-season 5th wheel at this time – got any other suggestions?

Yep, my “go-to” has been Arctic Fox who is owned by Northwood, the same parent company as ORV. Their 5th wheels have been around for years (a good thing as I often suggest buying a “gently used” camper as they cost FAR less than a new one.) Their construction is very consistent and they share many of the same construction and engineering attributes as are found in my camper. (Rather than rehash all the aspects of my camper that I view as important – you can click on the words “my camper” in the previous sentence and see what Arctic Fox is doing that impresses me.)

Arctic Fox 5th wheel - fifth wheel buying guide - highly recommended
Arctic Fox – a Northwood Company makes a high quality product

A note about Arctic Fox – and most of the others I’m about to recommend – you may have to travel to find a dealer. These are typically smaller companies and do not attempt to get into every dealer from coast to coast.

Vanleigh – a newcomer into the 5th wheel market is ALSO making a TRULY superior product (and they’re not the only one)…

I recently had a very enlightening discussion with an insider at Vanleigh – a relatively new 5th wheel builder, but a builder who is NOT new to the RV world. Vanleigh has its roots in Tiffin – a Class A motorhome manufacturer with a Class A reputation. I will (very soon) be sharing the complete results of my in-depth conversation.

High quality 5th wheel RV trailers. Vanleigh Beacon
The Vanleigh – Beacon – Look for a full analysis of their trailers in an upcoming post SOON

When it comes to high quality, well made 5th wheel trailers, I feel very comfortable with Arctic Fox, ORV, and Vanleigh. I know that each of these manufacturers also inspects EVERY trailer before it leaves their facility – this is FAR beyond the industry norm!

Keep an eye out for Alliance RV – due out in January. They are currently designing a prototype and appear to be on the right track! Stay tuned for more news on this company.

A quick note about SKIRTING – IF you plan to spend a significant amount of time camping in cold weather, an RV SKIRT will help you save money on propane AND avoid a costly freeze-up. If you want to see who I went to for a superior RV Skirt – Click HERE.

I would love to be able to continue to recommend DRV – Mobile Suites and Jayco, however, both have been acquired by Thor and I’m concerned about each manufacturers quality control. I can definitely recommend earlier models from both of these companies (primarily 2017 and earlier.)

Other companies who are no longer in business – but made outstanding trailers include Teton, Carriage, Nu-Wa, and Excel are worth considering. Although these models are in many cases now over 10 years old, if they’ve been well cared for, they’re worth owning – and of course, can be bought for a fraction of what the original owner paid.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention Spacecraft and New Horizons – both build truly exceptional custom fifth-wheel trailers – but that comes at a premium. Its not hard to exceed $200,000. on a custom build from either AND the truck needed to pull it is not your “everyday” 3/4 or 1 ton diesel!

In closing, I truly hope this information has proven to be of value to you. If you’re in the market for an RV camper and want someone “who has your back”, my Concierge RV Buying (and Selling) Service is designed to protect you along with saving you time, money, and aggravation.

Fifth Wheel RV Buying Guide
An inspiring view at Juniper Campground – Ririe, Idaho

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27 thoughts on “About RVing: How to Buy a Fifth (5th) Wheel Trailer”

  1. Hi Alan, Have you heard anything or done research on LUXE?

    We have been looking at:
    Jayco Pinnacle
    Grand Design – Solitude
    Vanleigh – Vilano / Beacon
    Luxe Gold level models

    • Brien,

      About 2 yrs ago I did a comparison of the Ambition (Luxe’s little brother at the time) to Outdoors RV – the Ambition did not show well. Here’s my report – http://rvacrossamerica.net/glacier-peak-vs-augusta-rv-my-next-fifth-wheel/ In all fairness to Luxe, I should revisit their product and do for them what I’m about to do for Vanleigh. As to your list – are you looking new? Or are you open to used? (It will affect my suggestions.) Also – You may wish to explore my Concierge Buying Service – rvAcrossAmerica.net/buysell

      All the best,

      Alan Sills

      • Thanks so much for the fast reply! We are looking at both new and used. We are still a couple years away, but starting to look now and trying to determine what we like/don’t like. We will be full-timing and looking for a rig built for that level of usage. I think we’ll be doing a broad mix of campground and boon-docking. I’m a bit more focused on quality of the build and longevity of the rig at this point. For example, I’m researching independant suspension vs classic leaf sprung axles and the value these may bring. I’m all ears for any other key areas to research and focus on. Thanks again! Brien

  2. Alan, Steve Lehto, a Michigan lawyer with a youtube channel, has about an 11 minute discussion on an Illinois Supreme Court ruling against RV manufactures. The case involved “Vacationland” and maybe a way to hold dealers and manufactures accountable. Check it out.

  3. Looking to get bank into a fifth wheel, I think I’ve done my due diligence over the last few years. I’ve come to the conclusion that both ORV and Arctic Fox are well made compared to most. They are well insulated and have large tank capacities. They also make some closer to ’30 rather than ’40. I also like what I see in the Solitude and Open Range. Any opinion on these two brands?

    • Rick,

      Solitude is “not bad”, but in a head-to-head it fails in several key areas when compared to ORV/AF – example: no shocks, no protection above tires for campers interior; westlake tires instead of goodyears; slideski is not made of fiberglass. These to me are KEY FAILS. Open range is yet a step farther from ORV/AF.

      On the AF line, the 29-5 and 32-5 I believe are very close to the “ideal trailer”. Are you aware of my buying service, where I have your back and act as your guide by your side (and more)? RVAcrossAmerica.net/buysell

      All the best,

      Al

    • Its the term applied to the underside of the slide (its what rides on the rollers or whatever slide system exists to move the slide in/out. Many manufacturers use “OSB” (artifical surfaces) or worse under the slide and if the material cracks – it exposes the internal core/wood or whatever and then soon after it begins to rot and mold forms. Montana and Avalanche are two of the biggest offenders I’ve seen with this issue, but they’re certainly not alone.

      Al

  4. I have owned my ORV (Timber Ridge travel trailer) now for almost 2 years and about 20 weeks of camping (not full time RVers). One word to describe it. Built like a “tank”. Very solid unit. We too took 18 months in our search over all the medium / higher quality RV trailers. As Allen said, there is some shabby construction methods and materials out there, especially cabinets and interior trim.
    I had two friends who bought Rockwoods, after all the options added, they paid about what I paid for my ORV and I got MorRyde CRE 3000 suspension with Monroe shocks, 16″ Goodyear’s, 80 gal fresh, two 40 gal. gray’s, thermal pane windows. Huge 3500 lbs. cargo cap. One biggy, the slides walls on their units I can push in with my finger, ORV’s are made of the same 2″ boxed aluminum construction as the trailer walls, on “all” sides of the slide including roof and floor. Do yourself a favor and take the factory tour at ORV in eastern OR.

  5. I have read many of the RV horror stories on the internet, yet many of the full timers with YouTube channels rarely speak of RV issues. I have followed many for a couple of years.
    I do recall Ray , from LoveyourRV , recently replaced the floor on his slide out due to poor construction on his Cougar, but it was 8-10 years old I believe.
    Do you think that many don’t talk about it for fear of losing sponsorship or potential for one?
    As I think about a future purchase for full timing I have been all over the map.
    After reading about some of the horror stories I thought that the only solution was to to do my own van conversion until I realized I couldn’t live in such a small space!
    Thanks for getting me interested in 5th wheels again.

    • Steve,

      I can’t speak to what motivates or governs the comments made by other youtubers and bloggers. I can say that I have an engineering background. As such, I look at things from a perspective of how well they’re made – and being from Jersey, I call it as I see it! Glad you’re open to 5ers as there ARE some good ones being built. My personal favorite at this time (other than what I’m living in) is the Arctic Fox 32-5. When you’re ready, if you want a “guide by your side” and someone who has your back, I do offer a Concierge RV Buying Service.

      Al

    • Its a great camper, but with the north-south bed (means limited storage space in the bedroom) and smaller fridge/microwave, if I ever get an AF, I’d move to the 29-5 or 32-5. Mine is basically a 29-5 with a 2nd living room slide and a larger fridge.

      Al

  6. We currently have2011 Heartland Elkridge. We’ve been toying with replacing it with a used something but we’re very happy for the most part with the trailer. I didn’t see Heartland in any of heart of your article. Do you have an opinion on the Heartland?
    Thanks,
    Joyce

    • Joyce,

      Heartland is a Thor company. The Elkridge has 2 series – one is most definitely low-end, the other is mid-level. I like the older (like your 2011) mid-level campers. That said, Thor is a very “stern” bean-counter. The end result? Heartland suffers from the same issues as virtually every other Thor company – quality control issues and short-cuts in the build process.

      If you are interested in selling your Elkridge and replacing with new or newer, feel free to contact me (307 269 2546) and perhaps I can assist. Did you see the info I linked to about my Concierge RV Buying (and Selling) Service in the post?

      All the best,

      Alan Sills

      • Thanks Alan, We had issues in the very beginning; broken leaf springs and a window leak. Since then, all has been well. We definitely see some sloppy work on the inside but nothing that has affected our travel and enjoyment. We may be contacting you down the line. Thanks again.

    • Amen Steve! In the “A” world, I see Tiffin as tops. Newmar, Monaco, Winnebago as solid choices. Forest River less so (but not nearly as bad as their towable cousins) – what say you? Or do I need to do more research on the Class A world?

      • We are completely in agreement! I put Tiffin and Newmar in the same class, but I worry what Winnebago’s acquisition of Newmar will mean for the brand.
        We bought an older Country Coach to capture the “old world” quality and we’re completely satisfied!

  7. Hi all, here’s a plug for Alan’s buying service and our story. Our second hand 2010 Carriage Cameo is very comfortable (and nice!) and my wife and I are enjoying our third week as full-timers. We stay put in a residential RV park in the countryside 45 minutes away from our home we just sold. Alan was a big help to us and found this model for sale by a private seller near to us. We were also looking for an Arctic Fox at Alan’s recommendation, but the Carriage became available at the perfect time and we were fortunate to get it delivered to our site (by the seller) just one week before our home sale closed. We couldn’t be happier with the choice and our new lives. Maybe someday we’ll actually move it around and do some adventure travel. Until then, we will live vicariously through Alan. 😉 Good luck to everyone!

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