What It’s Like to Tow a 15,000-lb Fifth Wheel Trailer 1,500 miles

Or why I’ll never be a long-haul trucker.

I’m writing this from the relative comfort of the desk in my RV. I just completed a 3-1/2 day drive from Arizona to Washington State and am parked alongside a very large garage adjacent to a private heliport at a friend’s house in Auburn.

I’m resting.

The drive was a lot more difficult than I imagined. Difficult enough for me to blog about it. In detail.

No, I’m not going to give you turn-by-turn driving instructions and list the sights I saw along the way. No one really wants to read stuff like that. If you’re at all interested, you can read about the first two days of the drive here. I wrote that two days ago when I was still relatively fresh.

Instead, I’ll tell you why I’m exhausted and why I’m glad I don’t have to drive again tomorrow.

Towing: the Basics

My RV is a 36-foot long Montana Mountaineer fifth wheel. Because our 2001 Chevy Silverado 3/4 ton pickup already had a gooseneck hitch receptor on it, I converted the RV’s hitch to a gooseneck. Well, I didn’t do it. The folks I bought the RV from did it. It makes it a bit tricky to hook up — still not sure how I’m going to line it up when I need to hitch it alone — but it does keep the pickup’s bed free of a bunch of extra hardware.

The trailer is 15,000 pounds max gross weight. I didn’t weigh it before this trip — I wanted to, but didn’t get around to it. (There’s a scale at the local dump in Wickenburg, so it wouldn’t have been so tough. Weigh the truck alone, then weigh the truck with the trailer and do the math.) I don’t think it’s fully loaded, but I bet it still close enough to 15,000 pounds to make the weight debate moot.

The truck can pull the weight. Its manual says it can and it can. I push a button on the gear shift lever to turn on the towing package feature and the Duramax diesel and Allison transmission do the rest. It stays in a lower gear so I can get it up to highway speed and then shifts back down into a lower gear when I brake for engine braking.

It takes a while for the truck to get up to highway speed. Normally, the truck is remarkably peppy for a diesel. That’s one of the things I like about it. But add 15,000 pounds and it’s working hard. 0 to 60 takes about 30 seconds. If I’m on flat road. Add an uphill climb and I might not even get it up to 60.

Add a downhill coast and I’ll have trouble keeping it below 60. And that’s the problem.

The Trick is to Avoid Using the Brakes

Imagine a freight train barreling along at 50 miles an hour. Now imagine some idiot stalled at a crossing on the tracks. He’d better get his ass out of the car and hope his insurance is up-to-date.

I once spoke to a train engineer for Conrail in New Jersey. He told me that if there’s something on the tracks, they don’t even bother trying to stop. Why? Because they won’t be able to stop in time anyway. It could take over a mile for a freight train moving at cruising speed to come to a complete stop. Why? Because of the inertia of all that weight moving at cruise speed.

As I gained experience at the helm of my own personal freight train, I quickly learned that my main goal should be to drive in such a way that I minimized the use of the brakes. There are three reasons for this:

  • It takes a long time to stop — or even to slow down. The less often you need to stop or slow down, the better off you are.
  • Using the brakes wastes fuel. Look at it this way: you pump a lot of fuel through the engine at high RPMs in a lower gear to get the damn thing moving. If you hit the brakes, not only are you throwing away all the stored energy in your weight and speed, but the engine is going to downshift again and use more fuel at high RPMs to slow you back down. May as well punch a hole in the fuel tank and let it drain out.
  • Using the brakes wears down the brakes and works the engine. You have to press harder on the brakes to get a reaction out of them. That means you’re wearing them down more. And with engine braking, the poor engine is working hard even when you’re slowing down. Is that fair?

It’s the Stress that Exhausted Me

The difficulty in slowing down or stopping is where all the stress comes in.

The entire time I was driving, I was on alert. I needed to know that I had to stop or slow down before I had to stop or slow down. So I looked at every other vehicle around me — as well as traffic lights and stop signs when I wasn’t on the freeway — with a critical eye. Is that guy in front of me going to hit his brakes? Is the idiot next to him going to cut me off? Is that traffic light up ahead going to turn yellow before I get to it? Is that school bus up ahead going to stop?

Even when I was on straight, flat freeway with no other vehicles around me, I couldn’t relax. At one point, a dog ran into the freeway in front of me. A dog! Like that freight train engineer, I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop in time. If he didn’t get out of the road, I’d run right over him, just like a freight train. There’s no way I’d try to swerve at 60 MPH with all that weight behind me. I leaned on the truck’s horn. Fortunately for the dog, he ran back where he came from without becoming my victim.

So all day long, hour after hour, I was tensed up, fully alert and ready to react before I needed to. It exhausted me.

Now Add Some Mountains

The route I chose was mountainous. In Death Valley, I was 230 feet below sea level. Near Mammoth Lakes, CA, I was at over 8,000 feet above sea level. For three days, it seemed like all I did was climb up and down mountains.

Up wasn’t a big deal. Press the pedal and burn fuel in second or third gear, trying to maintain a decent speed so as not to annoy the people behind me. It didn’t matter if there was a curve up ahead — I probably wasn’t going fast enough to make negotiating it a problem.

But down…well, that’s another story entirely. The Chevy has never been a good coaster — my 1994 Ford F150 is far better at that — but add 15,000 pounds and gravity can turn anything into a coaster. I had to use the brakes going downhill just to prevent the speed from climbing higher than I could handle. The transmission did its part, of course, but that wasn’t enough on the 9% grade (not a typo) coming down into the Panamint Valley in Death Valley National Park. In second gear, with the engine red-lining, I was still pumping the brakes to keep the speed below 50 miles per hour as I negotiated curves on a two-lane road that hugged the side of a cliff.

You want to talk stress? I can’t imagine anything more stressful than that.

Add Rain

Actually, I can: wet pavement on those curvy downhill stretches.

The rain started on Day 3 and haunted me for the whole day. That’s the day I descended from the mountains in Northern California into southern Oregon. There was this one stretch just south of Ashland on I-5…a lengthy downhill ride hugging the side of a mountain with curves marked for 50 mph. Bad enough dry, but nightmarish when wet and surrounded by tractor-trailer trucks. Who the hell designs highways like that?

I’m an Arizonan. I don’t drive in rain because it doesn’t rain. When it does rain, the roads are slick because of oil accumulation. It’s terrifying. How slick were these roads? I didn’t know and I didn’t want to find out. I just struggled to keep my speed down, imagining the horrific crash if the trailer decided to slide a different direction than the truck was going.

Overreacting? Perhaps.

Reading this, you probably think I’m a sissy. But I have a lot of miles under my belt — I’ve driven clear across the country more times than I can count and have made 3-1/2 round trips from Arizona to Washington since 2005. I’ve driven everything from motorcycles to this rig, including hundreds of different rental cars.

But driving this rig was unlike anything else I’d ever driven. It wasn’t like my Ducati, which I could whip around curves by tossing my weight around. It wasn’t like my Honda S2000, which red-lines at 9,000 RPM and has just the tiniest bit of body roll in curves. It wasn’t even like the Chevy without its load, able to accelerate or stop quicker than you’d think a truck should.

Just the knowledge that slowing down or stopping was going to be so tough had me on edge the entire time.

And that’s what kept me safe.

But when it’s time to return to Arizona, I know one thing for sure: I’ll be planning the route with the straightest, flattest roads I can find.

7 thoughts on “What It’s Like to Tow a 15,000-lb Fifth Wheel Trailer 1,500 miles

  1. Wow! I was wondering what it was like to drive such a long way with such a huge trailer. I imagined you’d be tired, but I hadn’t thought at all about the stopping problem.

    I find just driving a car down winding narrow hill roads in rain a bit trying. Add in the weight and size of your RV and I don’t know that I’d be able to do it at all.

    I think it’s lucky you’ve had so much experience with flying where you already have to stay very alert.

    So glad you’ve arrived safely.

  2. Congratulations on getting there all ok! I spent 5 years driving HGVs (semi’s to you!) over here in the UK and in Europe, and they sure take some getting used to; but get a lot easier over time.

    The max weight for a HGV over here is 44,000kg (97,000lb), and the trailer is normally 13.6m long. Luckily the tractor units are built for it, and have 8 gears each with a half gear; and the jake brake was awesome. Couple that with a fairly hefty (generally Cummins) diesel engine, and newer trucks with automatic ZF ‘boxes and it started to get a bit easier – but boy o boy you had to be on top of your game. Anticipating what others were about to do was most of the game.. but over time it becomes your natural state when you get in to drive, and a lot less stressful.

    I remember the first time I took a HGV abroad (to Paris) and driving on the wrong side of the road threw me and put me back to being totally on edge again. But after a few trips it became natural. Same with when I had to drive a Belgian (left hand drive) HGV over on UK roads, a very odd sensation, especially reversing!

    • Craig: It’s good to know that semis have additional features to help with driving (and stopping). I can’t imagine driving on the other side of the road, though. But, for the record, the folks in Paris drive on the correct side! It’s the Brits, Aussies, and Japanese who have it wrong. ;-)

      I don’t know if I could ever get used to being on constant alert when driving. I know that when I took the truck WITHOUT the trailer attached to the supermarket the other day, it was a real pleasure to be able to press the accelerator or brake and get an immediate, substantial reaction. Still have about 120 miles to drive before I settle down for the summer in an RV park; will likely do that tomorrow or possibly Tuesday.

  3. Maria, I enjoyed your blog. We have been traveling in our 5th wheel and Motorhome as well, for the past 3 or 4 years and the 5th wheel driving can be interesting.
    We recently sold our Motorhome to a lady who asked about towing her boat with the Motorhome. When I found out the weight of the boat and trailer I told her that she would be able to pull the boat with ease but that pulling a trailer was not really the concern, Getting all that mass of vehicle and trailer stopped is the challenge.
    Enjoy the rest of the trip and fly safe,(in your helicopter)

    • Keith: Thanks very much. It’s good to read comments from someone who understands the potential problems of driving a rig like this. Yesterday, someone actually suggested manually using the trailer’s brakes for slowing down/stopping. Like I needed to add THAT to my stressful workload.

      I could easily live in this thing and wish I could go on the road for a few years — even with the towing stress. Being parked, with a full or partial hookup in a nice place makes this RV a box of heaven.

      Now I just need it to rain every other day in Central Washington all summer long so I can pay for it!

  4. Hello Maria, that’s incredible! In my country (spain) the max weight for a HGV is just 23,000kg and the trailer is usually only 7 meters long.

What do you think?