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.

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28 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.

    • Miraz: I think I was more alert driving my rig than I’ve ever been flying the helicopter. I’m just not sure if that’s a good thing.

  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.

  5. Great article. I tell you, I’ve been witness to more than one tragic accident involving a travel trailer. Towing a big trailer is flat out dangerous and requires a skilled driver with no ego. Get cocky or careless and the results could be horrific. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to require specific training for anyone who will be towing a trailer over a given weight. It might be a little inconvenient, but it might also save some lives.

  6. GREAT READ! From a former Honda S2000 owner who’s looking into an RV someday (just not sure what type), it’s good info to have.

    Makes me realize if I do get a heavier 5th wheel instead of a lighter travel trailer, I’ll make sure my truck has the best tow and brake package I can get.

    • Definitely! Never go with the minimum if you can get something beefier. The 3/4-ton Chevy did pull the RV, but the 1-ton Ford I got later pulls it better. And brakes! So important to make sure they’re in good condition on the trailer and truck and that the interface is properly tuned. Good luck!

  7. We tow a 37 foot Winnebago Destination 16,000 lbs loaded, with an old fashioned 2003 Dodge one-ton Cummins Turbo Diesel. All we in Utah, California, Oregon, Idaho, Washington and Nevada is hills, mountains, snow covered ski resort grades, etc. We do not have a Jake brake and rely on the trailer brakes which I have adjusted very accurately to almost stop the truck. We go really slow down hill, 35 in a 50 MPH. We go less than 15 off road. This has served us for thousands of miles. The scary part was the trailer tires blowing out because they were under rated and offshore. We now have General “H” tires.

    • I’m getting ready to tow my mobile mansion south in a week or two. (It was for sale but no buyers yet, so it’ll become my winter home for a while.) I’m a bit worried about the tires; they’re the original tires, 5 years old now, and have at least 10,000 miles on them. Another friend with a similar fifth wheel had two tires blow out on a long trip last week. I’m hoping these are okay. Just replaced my Jeep tires and two truck tires — I’m tired of replacing tires!

      But you did bring up a very important point: keeping the speed down while going downhill. My truck’s tow package handles downshifting, but I hate to hear the engine revving up as we drive downhill.

    • I’m looking to buy a Winnebago destination,
      Do you like yours and would you recommend it. Thanks

    • I don’t have a Winnebago destination. I’m not even sure what that is.

      My recommendation for RVs is this: if you want to do a lot of traveling and be able to get in and out of tight spaces without a lot of effort, get something small and nimble. But if you want to take an RV and park it in an RV park or elsewhere for a month or more at a time, get something big and comfortable.

      I’m selling my big fifth wheel and replacing it with a truck camper. I’m tired of dealing with such a huge vehicle and want something I can travel with.

  8. Thanks for this blog! I’ve previously driven a 24-foot 5th wheel with my 3/4 ton Dodge diesel truck across country, which was quite easy. I sold that and am now trying to decide what (bigger) size to get next, because I’ll need to live in it a lot. I’ve said I’d like to stay under 30 feet, but I had started considering a bigger one until I read your blog about your 36-footer. The difficulty in slowing/stopping is pretty scary. I think now that I really should stay under 30 ft., with 28-29 probably being ideal. I know I want one that has two slideouts, too, which makes it heavier. So I will really pay attention to the weight! Thanks again.

    • I still have the RV and although I got the hang of driving it, I definitely want to downsize. Its size is preventing me from taking trips to places that simply can’t accommodate such a big rig. My fifth wheel is designed for long-term living and I simply don’t need that anymore. Would love to find a 26 foot fifth wheel. In the meantime, mine is for sale. Good luck in your search.

  9. While all of those concerns are valid, that is what an over-the-road professional truck driver goes through each and every day they are on the road.

    • No argument from me on that. For me, it was a huge deal, especially that first year. (I wrote this blog post in 2010.) I subsequently made the trip between AZ and WA 6 times and another few times between WA and CA. I know that still isn’t as much as a professional trucker does in a month or two, but when you consider that the average RVer has absolutely no special training to tow a rig like this, it’s pretty scary. I’d rather ride beside semis than a fifth wheel behind a 3/4 ton pickup like the one I used to drive.

  10. I’m stressed after reading this! We are in the process of buying an RV to park for a year (and live in it) before hitting the road. I’m glad I read this now so I have some time to think about these things before we get moving! Thanks for sharing.

    • Don’t be stressed! Just be informed. Make sure your truck has enough power — including braking power — to pull and stop your rig. Be mindful of the additional height and length. Take your corners wide; extended mirrors can really help you keep an eye on those back wheels when you make turns. Drive carefully. Practice backing and parking before you need to do it. You’ll be fine. Hell, I was. I owned the rig for more than 5 years and took it on the road more than a few times. The blog post was about my first experience — I got a lot better (and more confident) with practice. Good luck!

  11. Excellent blog post! I’m researching fifth wheels now to purchase for a family trip along Route 66 and beyond after that. My husband will he doing all the driving, and I don’t want to make him crazy or more stressed with my anxiety, but the mountains, wet roads, and most especially the Cliffs, are a BIG concern. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    • Glad you enjoyed the post. PLEASE don’t use it to justify your fears, though. That was my first time driving the rig and I did it all by myself. I went on to take it back and forth between Arizona and Washington State twice a year for the next five years and then between Washington and the Sacramento area for two years. I got the knack of driving it pretty quickly. It actually drives easily, as long as you remember to go wide on turns. It’s parking that’s a bear.

      After my divorce, I realized the rig was overkill for one person and a small dog using it just a few months a year. So I downsized way down to a truck camper, which I really do love. All I have to worry about now is headspace — it’s about 12 feet tall on my truck — and I can park it just about anywhere.

      My recommendation on a fifth wheel? Go small rather than large. 24 to 30 feet is plenty big enough for a trip. Bigger than that is good for long-term living — which is what I bought my rig for all those years ago.

      Good luck. Enjoy your trip. On Route 66 in Arizona, don’t miss a meal at La Posada’s Turquoise Room restaurant in Winslow, Meteor Crater, a tour of Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff (on a clear night, if possible), and the burros in Oatman.

  12. Oh, I so wish more people could experience what you did, pulling that camper the first time. Maybe then, [some] people wouldn’t drive like jackasses around me, weighing 149,000lbs.

    I lost count, years ago, how many people have put their life in great danger, executing stupid maneuvers around me, for whatever their reason. Nearly a daily occurance, these days.

    Takes a loooong time (relative to a car or pickup) to accelerate and slow down that much weight. In reality, you’ll never the notice the extra minute or two, unless you are late for work or an appt, and stressed.

    Your experience with that 15k camper isn’t much different than semi driving- a 3/4-1t pickup barely has sufficient braking power on flat ground, with a heavy load in tow- the small brakes get hot fast. Looking for every possible conflict becomes normal.

    I’ve pulled heavy(!) loads with my 3/4t pickup, and I thought it was sketchier than running a semi. Exhaust brakes help. Nothing worse than smoking the brakes down a pass. Definitely pays to make sure all the brakes are in good condition, adjusted, and the trailer brake controller is set up properly.

    • I find that people seldom consider the drivers around them as they drive and a lot of folks new to driving a rig like mine (which I have since sold and replaced with a smaller truck camper setup) don’t realize that it isn’t like driving a truck without 15,000 pounds behind them. I learned by doing and, in hindsight, should have taken an easier route on that first trip.

      Thanks for taking the time to add your comments. I hope folks who read this blog post read what you’ve added and learn.

      Drive safe!

  13. Thank you for putting your experience on paper for others to read. My wife and I purchased a 41′ 5th wheel and a Ford F-450 to pull it. We are planning a cross-country trip from the Seattle area to northern Michigan next summer. Along the way, we’ll stop in San Francisco, mid-Colorado, San Antonio, upper Oklahoma, upper Arkansas and Jeferson City, MO to visit friends and family before heading up to Michigan. I’ve hauled the trailer for a long weekend, but not a ton of miles. Always good to read other people’s experiences and try to learn by osmosis.

    Thanks again!

    • Just remember to take corners wide, look ahead into any tight places you might drive to be sure there’s a way out, and consider how long it might take to brake, especially on wet pavement. I think those are the main things to remember when driving a rig that size. Good luck and drive safe! Enjoy the trip!

  14. Nice blog. Should remind people that while your truck maybe big enough to pull the rig it maynot be big enough to stop it. It’s a common oversight.

    • Good point! I think braking has two parts to it: vehicle capability and driver technique. I later towed the same vehicle with a 1-ton Ford and it towed (and braked) much better.

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