Pickup Trucks 101: What Type of Trailer Do You Need?

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By Matthew Barnes

There are a variety of trailer types on the market today. And their purposes vary greatly, as do the ways they attach to a tow vehicle. In this first part of a two-part series we will cover trailer types that are used for leisure. This piece does not cover the differences between types of hitches (bumper pull, gooseneck, fifth-wheel) or trailer brake types (electric, surge, hydraulic); however, they will be mentioned. For many, choosing the right trailer so you can do what you love is all that's needed to start a memorable vacation, but if you need a quick refresher about towing terms and important issues, click here. Part two will cover work trailers.

Travel Trailers

Travel Trailer II

Travel trailers come in many styles and sizes. They are designed for use in well-developed campgrounds as well as in off-grid locations. They range in size from 10 feet long to more than 30 feet long. Travel trailers use the conventional bumper-pull connection/hitch style, and most use a 2 5/16-inch hitch ball. They can have single or multiple "slide-out" rooms that provide more living space inside the trailer without increasing their length. Most travel trailers available in the U.S. are for on-pavement travel and aren't designed for extensive dirt/gravel road travel; they will have a much shorter life if used in that kind of environment.

These trailers are excellent for towing behind SUVs since they don't require a pickup truck bed attachment. When towed behind a pickup truck they allow for full use of the truck bed for other cargo. Larger versions of this style of trailer will likely require a weight-distribution hitch for SUVs and lighter pickups. Even if a trailer does not require a weight-distribution hitch, such a hitch is a good idea as many weight-distribution hitches help mitigate trailer sway. These types of trailers can vary in weight from 3,000 pounds to more than 13,000 pounds.

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Fifth-Wheel Trailers

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Fifth Wheel II

Fifth-wheel trailers connect to the pickup truck via a fifth-wheel hitch and king pin located in the bed of the pickup. This style is similar to what big rigs use. Fifth wheels provide excellent stability and allow a larger trailer to have a shorter combined truck and trailer length. Fifth-wheel trailers vary in length from around 20 feet long to more than 40 feet. Like travel trailers, fifth wheels are mainly designed for use in well-developed campgrounds but can be outfitted to go off the grid. Also like travel trailers, most available in the U.S. aren't designed for extensive dirt/gravel road travel.

While there are "slider" fifth-wheel hitches and other variations that allow these trailers to be towed behind trucks with shorter beds, the best towing option is to use an 8-foot-long-bed truck. There are a few fifth-wheel trailers light enough that they can be towed with a half-ton pickup; however, most fifth-wheel trailers will require three-quarter or one-ton pickups. They also can accommodate a heavy tongue weight when compared to a bumper-pull trailer, which likely will require the higher payload of a heavy-duty truck, even if the trailer weight is within a half-ton's towable range. To tow the larger fifth-wheel trailers, a dual-rear-wheel truck (commonly called a dually) may be needed for added stability and payload capacity. These trailers have gross vehicle weight ratings in excess of 20,000 pounds.

 

Pop-Up Camping Trailers

Camping Trailer II

Camping trailers are also referred to as tent or pop-up trailers. They are generally much smaller and lighter than travel trailers and fifth wheels, but expand to create a comfortable living space. They range in length from less than 8 feet to more than 20 feet. They are great for towing behind mid-size pickups, small SUVs and even some crossovers.

With their smaller size, camping trailers are easier to use on tighter or narrower roads. Due to the expanding and closing feature of these trailers, they are generally less isolated/insulated from the environment than travel trailers and fifth wheels. They also need to be thoroughly dried out after being exposed to wet weather when they are in their expanded state. If closed and stored wet they can create an environment that promotes mold growth. Camping trailers range in weight from less than 1,000 pounds to more than 5,000 pounds.

Toy Haulers

Toy Hauler II

Toy haulers can be any of the previous styles of trailers, but with the addition of a garage area for most travel trailers and fifth wheels and/or a deck area for camping trailers and some travel trailers. On travel trailers and fifth wheels, the garage is generally enclosed on the back of the trailer with room for two to four ATVs, a small buggy or a side-by-side. The garage area often houses bunk beds as well. Toy hauler decks on most travel trailers and camping trailers are placed in front of the living quarters. Many toy haulers have storage tanks for extra fuel for the toys.

While toy haulers seem like an efficient use of space, they have some downsides, not the least of which is the gasoline and exhaust smells from the garage can seep into the living area. It also can be difficult to keep the correct tongue weight with these trailers, as the weight of the toys is either at the front or rear of the trailer. Adding weight to the rear of a trailer reduces tongue weight, while adding weight to the front of a trailer increases the tongue weight. Toy haulers can have gross vehicle weight ratings at or around 5,000 pounds to more than20,000 pounds, depending on the configuration and trailer type.

 

Tear-Drop Trailers

Tear Drop II

Tear-drop trailers are typically smaller than the other trailer types and nimbler. Some are even small enough to be towed behind a motorcycle. Due to their compact size they are also popular with off-roaders and overlanders. Inside, they generally have a bed and a little bit of storage. The kitchen is often under the rear hatch outside of the trailer. Most tear-drop trailers don't exceed a gross vehicle weight rating of 5,000 pounds.

Boat Trailers

Boat Trailer II

Boat trailers most commonly use bumper-pull hitches, with some large boats requiring a gooseneck connection. The main difference with bumper-pull boat trailers is that they use surge brakes. Surge brakes have a mechanism in the trailer tongue that will apply the trailer brakes when the tongue is placed in compression, i.e., when the trailer is pushing the tow vehicle forward. Boat trailers often use a five-pin wiring connector instead of the standard four-pin or seven-pin connectors. The fifth pin is used to lockout the brakes so that they don't apply when the tow vehicle is in Reverse. Boat trailers can vary greatly in weight, but most boat trailers loaded with boats used for water skiing or wake boarding do not exceed 8,000 pounds.

Other Trailers

Tacoma Snowmobile II

There are a variety of other trailers such as flat decks, tilt decks, enclosed, and livestock trailers that are used for work activities. Many of these will be discussed in the second part of this series.

Summing Things Up

Trailers can be as basic as a cot inside of a cargo trailer or they can contain luxuries such as full-size showers, tile floors or granite countertops. Costs range from a few thousand dollars for bare-bones base models to more than $100,000 for well-equipped trailers with multiple TVs, a patio, a full-size refrigerator, multiple bedrooms and bathrooms, and high-end lounge chairs. You just have to decide what you want, need and can afford.

Manufacturer images; Cars.com photos by Matthew Barnes

 

Comments

I use EOH (electric over hydraulic) brakes on the boat trailer. It is nice having brakes on demand when backing down the ramp. I have to fool the electric brake controller, though, by wiring a resistor in line so that it thinks the brakes are electric.

Don't forget to check your hitch connections (ball connector, safety chains, wire harness), lights (brakes, running, signal and marker), tires (dry rot, tire age/ date code, weight rating), brakes (battery charge if electric), wheels (bearing condition, greased), tire pressures, etc.

Some people are using passenger (P-rated) or light truck (LT) tires on their trailers in lieu of specialized trailer (ST) tires. Some tire mfrs recommend de-rating the tire by 10% if using non-ST tires. For example, if the P tire is rated for 1500lb carrying capacity, it should be considered to be 1350lbs when used on a trailer.

Most trailer tires are designed to run at 65mph max. Check with mfr, as some can run higher speeds IF you increase recommended tire pressures.

Owning a travel trailer will cure you from wanting one---quickly

I ten times prefer the comforts of a Sleep Inn or Red Roof when I take the Silverado out on the big highway. Somebody else cleans the bathroom and makes the bed, not to mention it's nowhere near as much initial cost. Unless you do a TON of travel off road to the wilderness, the motel/hotel is the preferred option.

That Eagle looks pretty nice though.

As is clear, there's a lot of variety; the article only touches the highlights of each type because that variety is so wide.

Since I'm not one for family travel outside of the wife (and maybe dog) I simply don't need anything longer than about 20 feet, so any of the travel trailers or camping trailers fall within a comfortable range for towability. Camping trailers in particular not only consist of the pop-up style shown but also 'solid state' trailers and tent-style trailers that have no hard tub, only a lightweight aluminum frame and a few folding panels... literally a tent on wheels.

Even the "teardrop" trailers now come in a surprisingly broad variety and they, like the camping trailers, can be towed by anything from a mid-sized pickup (or larger) to a motorcycle.

What we get will ultimately depend on what we choose as a tow vehicle. If I get a new Ranger, as I've almost concluded, then a larger teardrop to some form of pop-up is near certain. If I don't, then a more tent-type or lighter teardrop will be our choice. Either way, compact size and lighter weight will be more important than conspicuous luxury.

Awesome POP-UP.

Yeah, I like to clean up after myself, nothing like going camping and dealing with the GREAT OUTDOORS. It totally defeats the purpose of renting a room. Some people are just tacky.

The F-150 Eco-Boost will pull any size or weight trailer you wouldn't even know it's back there.
Everybody I know is ditching their Super Duty pickups for a F-150 with the 3.5 Eco-Boost cause it tows the trailer better and faster.

Local Ford Dealer has a trailer set up with 10,000 lbs weight to test drive it with a F-150 Eco-Boost and everybody is impressed.

Ecoboost, wrong, thats what Ford and the other brands want you to believe. If your going to tow trailers over 5k pounds, get a real truck-the reality is, 1/2 tons are for 5k and under. Most people who have pulled more than that over long distances will tell you the same thing. Occasionally you are ok, but if you are going to do it a lot and long distance buy a 3/4 or bigger.

Note-for tnt,gms,papa-this is not a bash on a Ford or any other brand, although I am sure you will somehow spin it that way.

-CT

what amazes me is every year in the spring and thru to fall in our area is the amount of travel trailer accidents and all seem to be driving a small SUV, 1500's and F-150's that are just to small to handle that size of a travel trailer, and don't see many accidents with a 3/4 ton or 1 ton trucks

@CT
Get over yourself. Did someone hire you to keep an eye on me?

Regarding 3/4 ton vs 1/2 ton I completely agree. With perfect weather and wide open road the 1/2 ton works but only a little. The heavier truck is the winner hands down.

People who think that pulling power is the only consideration haven't done much towing. Steering, chassis, brakes all separate the half ton from the HD. No contest.

Note-for tnt,gms,papa-this is not a bash on a Ford or any other brand, although I am sure you will somehow spin it that way.

-CT


Posted by: crunchtime | May 15, 2018 2:25:39 PM

That's a very astute observation.

@ CT and Frank

Really? I haven't posted all day but here we go!!

I agree totally with what both of you have said minus adding me!! I only bash when YOU don't listen

Second, Frank I agree with you, the Pop-up is the way to go, bc they are lighter, faster to use and set up, and easier to clean up and get going on the road.

What about adding full tank of gas, water on board trailer, all the food and goodies, clothes and all the other stuff we take. Then add extra propane for BBQ, throw in the bikes and toys etc for the kids. Just jack the hitch a bit more and load ur up, maybe a little more air in the tires. Now this is where a 1/2 ton pulling a 24' or larger trailer gets into trouble...overloaded and what about stopping. I upgraded tires added slotted disks with HD pads, better shocks, added another plate trans cooler. We don't carry water anymore and have cut down on all the extra we take. We will stop before our destination or leave just after un hooking and head to get water and groceries. I tow a 24' fifth with a 2500 gasser...it never pushes me around and I can stop pretty good.

I completely agree with papajim but what concerns me the most is that I also agree with CT and Frank on trailering and camping. What's happening to me?

People who think that pulling power is the only consideration haven't done much towing. Steering, chassis, brakes all separate the half ton from the HD. No contest.

Posted by: papajim | May 15, 2018 2:34:42 PM

Exactly. In an emergency maneuver, steering and brakes are the difference between a fender bender and a major accident.

Especially with the current trend of ever lighter half-tons. That weight reduction is really noticeable when there's a decent crosswind, a heavy rainstorm, or even light dusting of snow; a 5000lb half-ton is going to struggle. And with the advent of electric steering racks, I trust them even less in those situations.

@ Ecoboost Rules -- You sound like a old ford commercial .
Your a brain-washed pumpkin.
You really believe that crap.

LOL @ TNT,

You sure you didn't bump your head, your comments are to be negative. :D

I prefer a tent for camping. I can't see going out camping and sleeping in something half the size of my house with TV's and a toliet. Real men sleep on the ground.

The F-150 Eco-Boost will pull any size or weight trailer you wouldn't even know it's back there.
Everybody I know is ditching their Super Duty pickups for a F-150 with the 3.5 Eco-Boost cause it tows the trailer better and faster.

Local Ford Dealer has a trailer set up with 10,000 lbs weight to test drive it with a F-150 Eco-Boost and everybody is impressed.

Posted by: Ecoboost Rules | May 15, 2018 2:21:08 PM

HAHAHAHAHA
I can't stop laughing at that one.
Wow are you for real ???

Did that dealership have the pop up camper hooked up to the 150 and told you it was 10,000 lbs. Lol.

@ John,
Well sometimes I enjoy having the wife along, she isn't a man and doesn't sleep on the ground anymore. Got one with with tent sleepers only 19ft closed ( 27ft open) and 2800 lbs. So a little different from my Gunnison 2, might need to upgrade my backpacker now.

@mathew bamas
Quite a few different types of trailers and manufacturers in Australia . We tend too have Off Road as a category. Not just a jacked up suspension , more a specialised Chassis and substantial suspensions( think the Colorado Z2)
Here is a run of the mill Caravan manufacturer and a Off Road Model https://www.elitecaravans.com.au/caravan-off-road.php)
There are Camper Trailers, Hybrid Caravans, Caravan(12ft too 40ft), 5th Wheelers, Tear Drops. Some manufacturers just build Off Road Caravans, bit more substantial than the example

@michael bamas
Forgot too add we have many folding trailers
Here are some more Off Road Caravans. First example explains the Chassis and suspensions
https://www.caravanworld.com.au/features/1607/top-5-offroad-caravans-of-2015

@michael bamas
Forgot too add we have many folding trailers
Here are some more Off Road Caravans. First example explains the Chassis and suspensions
https://www.caravanworld.com.au/features/1607/top-5-offroad-caravans-of-2015

@longboat

Most ST tires are made in China and pure trash.
The ONLY advantage to them over a 10 ply LT style tire is that they flex more than just scrubbing off tread.

ST tires are lighter, more flexible, and more likely to suffer tread separation.

As a guy who has handled litigation against the American distributors of Chinese trailer tires, trust me, they aren’t worth the risk.

Oh yeah, ask Lippert about them if you need validation.

@ John

A flash flood in 1993 and a diamond back rattler in 1999, cured me of ground camping.

I sleep in a truck tent (in the bed).
Had a heavy rainstorm, the rain fly sheeted it off the bed sides and gate. (Imagine a tent in the bed, but the fly extends over the bedsides)
In the morning unsnap the rain fly, open the gate, put the poles up for a shade, sit on the gate and put your boots on. Life is great.

The F-150 Eco-Boost will pull any size or weight trailer you wouldn't even know it's back there.
Everybody I know is ditching their Super Duty pickups for a F-150 with the 3.5 Eco-Boost cause it tows the trailer better and faster.

Local Ford Dealer has a trailer set up with 10,000 lbs weight to test drive it with a F-150 Eco-Boost and everybody is impressed.
YUP, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xWN7o3yO9nI

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZXmbltLogms

true dat

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

Testing testin

I’m back!!!!

Thank you pickup trucks for allowing me to comment on this beautiful site. Go FORD !!!

Thank you pickup trucks for allowing me to comment on this beautiful site. Go FORD !!!

@ Frank

I'm not a negative person at all!

Just got a little upset bc certain people don't listen! Its done and over with. Nice campers to all!

As for trailering goes, the heavier the trailer...the heavier your truck should be! You want a huge camper, you need a huge HD/Super Duty truck.

TNT/PAPA/GMS-thank you for not turning this into a Ford bashing thread. You guys just impressed me.

-CT

@CT

give us a break and stuff it

I can play nice too :D

I'm old school. When I need to sleep on the road I just throw a blanket in the bed of the truck and call it a night.

You can still sleep in a tent and be off the ground. Try the Sylvan Sport, as an example.

"I'm old school. When I need to sleep on the road I just throw a blanket in the bed of the truck and call it a night." ---- Posted by: Red

Won't work in all parts of the country. In some places it actually rains often enough that doing what you recommend simply gets you wet as often as not.



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