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RV House Hunters

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

Follow along with a full-timing couple as they comparison shop for a new fifth-wheel to call home

After a dozen years of living full time in our 36-foot 2007 NuWa HitchHiker fifth-wheel, my husband, Mark, and I are looking for a new rolling home. Our 2016 Ram 3500 dually with a 4.10 rear-axle ratio can tow a heavy trailer, and our search has included both fifth-wheel toy haulers and conventional fifth-wheels. Since this is our home, we are considering all price points.

Among the most important features when shopping for a large fifth-wheel, especially for full-time living, are the braking system and the weight-carrying capacity. Although most fifth-wheels are equipped with electric drum brakes, on our current trailer we upgraded to electric-over-hydraulic disc brakes, and the difference in stopping power and braking modulation was monumental.

Wondering if full-time RVing is right for you? Check out Emily Fagan’s “Adventure of a Lifetime.

Formerly called net carrying capacity (NCC), cargo carring capacity (CCC) is defined as the weight equal to the gross vehicles weight rating (GVWR) minus the unloaded vehicle weight (UVW), full freshwater tanks, water heater and LP-gas cylinders, and optional factory and dealer-installed equipment and accessories. As full-timers who dry camp almost every night and fill the tanks with freshwater and propane as we travel, our ccc target is 3,000 pounds or more. We want the holding tanks in our new rig to be at least as big as what we have in our current fifth-wheel: 70 gallons fresh, 78 gallons gray and 50 gallons black. In addition, our other must-haves are comfortable living room seating, a small dining table big enough for two and an RV refrigerator that can run on LP-gas or electric.

Sizing Up the Market

A fifth wheel trailer in the early stages of construction at the K-Z RV factory in Shipshewana, Indiana.

During the Fagans’ tour of the KZ-RV factory in Shipshewana, Indiana, a number of Durango Gold fifth-wheels were in the early stages of creation before the slideouts were installed, and other freshly minted models awaited the finishing touches.
Photos by Emily and Mark Fagan

Our search for a new full-time fifth-wheel took us to Missouri, Oklahoma and Elkhart, Indiana, the heart of the RV industry, for factory tours. The highest end fivers and toy haulers are custom models by Space Craft, semi-custom models by New Horizons and the RV Factory, and slightly modifiable designs by DRV Luxury Suites. Disc brakes, 17½-inch wheels and axles rated at 8,000 pounds are standard features or factory options on these trailers, and the fit and finish can include things like dovetail joints on drawers, automotive body paint and a fiberglass roof.

drawers with dovetail joints are stacked at The RV Factory in Elkhart, Indiana.

The RV Factory in Elkhart, Indiana, builds high-end Luxe fifth-wheels. While touring the plant, the Fagans observed stacks of well-made drawers with dovetail joints.

These brands are extremely solid and well built, but all that fine quality adds up to a lot of weight. Aluminum siding in place of gelcoat fiberglass lightens a trailer considerably. Both Sundowner and Aluminum Toyhauler Company (ATC) offer rugged aluminum-sided toy haulers. The ATC fifth-wheel has an extraordinary ccc that exceeds 9,000 pounds, but it is a three-season RV. Sundowner offers a beautiful customizable interior, but these trailers are designed for a gooseneck hitch rather than a fifth-wheel hitch, and the bedroom ceiling is not standing height unless a taller unit is custom ordered.

We toured several more RV plants and found that most non-custom fifth-wheels are built in about three days, and the construction, appliances and systems are fairly similar across the brands at each price point. The relatively short list of options available to buyers is necessary to avoid slowdowns and complications in production.

While top-of-the-line trailers have thicker floor and roof decking, and some have 3-inch or thicker walls or a fiberglass underbelly, most larger non-custom fivers have thinner decking and 2- or 2.25-inch polystyrene-insulated walls. Spun fiberglass insulates the underbelly, front cap and roof, and the underbelly is usually enclosed with corrugated plastic. Many fifth-wheels have a furnace heat duct in the basement and/or 12-volt DC tank heaters to prevent the holding tanks from freezing. Some manufacturers place furnace ducts in baseboards under cabinets and the dresser and on stair risers because floor registers are prone to collecting debris and getting bent or broken louvers.

On the exterior, automotive body paint looks best, is easiest to maintain and costs the most. Gelcoat is common at higher price points, while harder-to-maintain fiberglass is the norm at lower price points. Sleek frameless windows appear on higher end trailers, but the framed windows on lower end units are equally functional and may offer better ventilation. A heavy fiberglass roof is easier to maintain, but a lower end TPO or EPDM membrane can be upgraded later with an aftermarket roof system, like those from FlexArmor or RV Armor, that includes a lifetime warranty.

Livability Features

1) In the Fagans’ current fifth-wheel, the use of an 8-cubic-foot refrigerator, in lieu of an 18-cubic-foot model, nets a foot of counter space, a drawer, a lower cabinet with two shelves and an upper cabinet with three shelves.

2) When sizing up a prospective fifth-wheel, pretend to make a meal in the kitchen. Is there a place for all the dishware, cooking utensils, pantry items and appliances? Are there sufficient wall outlets and lights? Can two people work in the space at the same time?

3) Many fifth-wheel trailers, even ones designed for extended living, neglect to include kitchen drawers large enough for standard size silverware and utensil trays.

4) The trade-off for the convenience of a stacked washer-dryer is additional closet space. In their 12-year-old HitchHiker, the Fagans opted for extra room for coats and shoes rather than laundry appliances.

5) Make sure to sample the seating for size and comfort. Does it recline if there’s no shorepower? Can your feet touch the floor if your back is against the backrest? Could the furniture be replaced down the road?

6) A quick-release LP-gas fitting makes it easy to connect a standalone grill. If the fifth-wheel you’re considering has an outdoor kitchen, make sure the chef is happy with the height of the counter and cooktop.

The overall height and width of a fifth-wheel have a huge impact on how spacious or cozy it feels inside. Most fivers are 8 or 8½ feet wide and anywhere from 12½ to 13½ feet tall. The extra inches create high ceilings and an airy atmosphere but make the RV too tall to fit under some bridges and fuel-station awnings.

Getting the Feel for a Rig

When we walk through a prospective fifth-wheel, Mark studies the basement to make sure there is enough room for his tools and spare parts. Units with
a drop frame are built with the main floor resting on one pair of steel I-beams from the rear end of the trailer to the door, and the midsection resting on a lower pair of smaller I-beams from the door to the riser on the fifth-wheel overhang. This allows for a big basement. However, this design introduces additional joints and welds along the length of the frame that do not exist with a straight frame. The highest end trailers have steel gussets and extra vertical supports to strengthen the critical joints in this area.

While Mark checks out the basement, I study the kitchen and try to imagine making a meal. We prefer at least two work areas so both of us can function in the kitchen at the same time. Additional counter space for drying dishes is a plus. I like to keep our dishware, glassware and coffee mugs on an upper-cabinet shelf, which some toy haulers don’t have. Many RV kitchen drawers are smaller than standard-size silverware trays, and some pot-and-pan drawers cannot hold a large skillet. Finding a home for cooking utensils, spices, cereal boxes, cans and appliances is as important as finding wall outlets for the toaster, blender and coffeepot.

Together, we relax in the theater seats and sofa for a long time to determine if they will be as comfortable at the end of happy hour as they were at the beginning. Shallow slideouts in the living area of some models and floorplans require the front of the theater seats and/or sofa to rest on rollers that roll across the floor as the slide moves in and out. This makes it difficult to replace the furniture down the road, a concern for us as full-timers.

Similarly, queen beds in most fifth-wheels are the standard residential size of 60-by-80 inches, but king beds are either 70-by-80 or 72-by-80 inches, rather than the wider standard residential king size of 76-by-80 inches. This severely limits the choices for upgrading from the factory mattress to something more comfortable. If the bed is perpendicular to the direction of travel in a slideout (east/west), there is usually a spacious wardrobe closet in the front cap. If the bed is parallel to the direction of travel (north/south), a smaller wardrobe is often in a slideout. Some fifth-wheels have a rear bedroom that has a high ceiling and sizable closets.

Since we favor dry camping, a washer-dryer is not practical in our rig, plus we enjoy meeting people at coin-operated laundries. Installing a washer-dryer also takes up valuable closet space and means clothing on hangers must go elsewhere. We take a tape measure to RV dealerships to verify that closets are deep enough for hanging clothes on standard-size hangers. Some fifth-wheels have clever shoe storage under the stairs.

Shower doors appear on higher end units in place of less expensive shower curtains. A few floorplans offer twin vanity sinks or even two bathrooms. Usually, a second bath or half-bath increases the black-water holding-tank capacity. We look around to determine where damp bath towels, dirty laundry, clean linens and bedding will be stored, and to make sure the medicine cabinet will hold the necessities. Skylights brighten the interior but heat up the rig in warm weather.

Keeping Things Simple

For us, an 8- or 10-cubic-foot refrigerator (24 inches wide) is preferable to an 18-cubic-foot model (36 inches wide) because it allows an extra foot of space along the interior wall for additional countertop and storage. When dry camping, a smaller refrigerator requires less frequent propane fill-ups than a larger fridge.

Pricier trailers use hydraulics to drive both the leveling system and heavier slideouts, while less expensive trailers rely on electric mechanisms. We like to operate our slides independently to avoid mishaps as they move in and out. However, most manufacturers control two or more hydraulic slides with one switch. The slides can be operated independently by going outside to open and close the hydraulic valves in an exterior compartment. Electric slideouts usually have one dedicated wall switch per slide mechanism located inside, which we find more convenient.

While traveling, we often stop for a bite to eat or a nap on the road. On these occasions, as well as when grocery shopping, we like to access the whole kitchen, bathroom and bedroom without opening the slideouts. This is a tall order for RV designers. With some floorplans, opening only one slideout provides good access, which highlights the importance of independently switched slideout mechanisms.

The Fagan's fifth-wheel trailer, truck, Razor side by side and utility trailer are parked under a sunset sky

Traveling with a Polaris RZR has ramped up the Fagans’ adventures but made their search for a new rolling home a bit more complex.

Some manufacturers have abandoned mechanical, wall-mounted slideout switches and light switches in favor of an electronic touch pad and mobile app that operate everything. We prefer keeping it simple with independent wall switches, not only to avoid a single electronic failure affecting all operations but also to keep from having to walk back to a touch pad in the middle of the trailer to turn on a light at the far end.

Many fifth-wheels have multiple TVs. One is enough for us, so we consider alternative uses of the wall spaces if we remove the extra TV(s).

Instead of an outdoor kitchen, we prefer having a quick-connect LP-gas fitting near the entry door to attach a standalone grill. Many outdoor kitchens stand so high off the ground that I’d have to raise my hand to chin height to stir a pot or stand on a stool while cooking.
Our search has been a great learning experience, and we’ve seen many beautiful trailers. However, we have not yet found a fifth-wheel to become our new rolling home, and we are looking forward to the rollout of the new 2020 models.

Side-by-Side in Tow

We no longer call our rig the Buggy. We call it the Train.

Our search for a new rolling home was complicated by the fact that we now own a Polaris RZR 900 trail-model side-by-side (SxS). We have been triple-towing the off-highway vehicle behind our fifth-wheel, and it hasn’t been as much of a challenge as we anticipated, particularly since we typically boondock. The downside is that towing the RZR restricts our travel to places that allow this configuration, unless we store the SxS and its utility trailer when in states that don’t allow triple-towing.

The Fagans demonstrate how thier Razor utility trailer can double as a patio

Towing their RZR behind their fifth-wheel, known as triple-towing, rather than garaging it in a toy hauler, gives the Fagans the option of using the RZR’s utility trailer as a raised patio when boondocking near OHV trails.

Since we like to travel with the RZR, our fifth-wheel search initially included toy haulers, but we are now leaning toward continuing to triple-tow the SxS and purchasing a conventional fifth-wheel because the living areas and storage are more generous and tend to feel homier.

An unexpected benefit of towing the RZR is that its trailer can double as an outdoor deck when we boondock. It isn’t attached to the fifth-wheel the way a toy-hauler patio is, but it does get us up off the ground.

Trailer Life columnist and frequent contributor Emily Fagan has traveled full time by RV and sailboat with her husband, Mark, since 2007. The couple’s photos have appeared on more than 25 magazine covers and wall calendars, and Emily’s lifestyle, travel and how-to articles have been featured in more than a dozen RV and sailing publications. Follow their adventures on their blog, Roads Less Traveled.

Emily FaganFifth-Wheel TrailersFull-Time RVingNew RVsRV Lifestyle

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