Roll up your sleeves and get ready to face the grease.
We’re assuming you’re not here for instructions on a basic ball mount hitch. No, that would be too easy. We’ll cover the installation of a fifth-wheel hitch, which is far more popular with the RV crowd. You’ll save some serious dough and get familiar with your hitch by following these simple, step-by-step instructions.
First, why DIY?
If you pay a mechanic to install a fifth-wheel hitch, prepare to spend at least $600. This allows for an average pay of $100 an hour and four to six hours of labor, before any associated costs.
Suppose you paid a highly-skilled, efficient mechanic who knows your vehicle and your specific hitch like the back of their hand. Let’s also assume the mechanic has all the necessary tools ready to go. The mechanic might be able to finish the job within two to four hours, but still, that’s a few hundred bucks you can use to take your honey out on the town.
You may be able to save money by buying the hitch through your local auto shop and bundling in the cost of installation. But we’re willing to bet you already have the hitch, and it’s too late for that.
RVing is not a cheap hobby or lifestyle, and the costs can add up quickly. But beyond the cost savings of the DIY route, we believe it’ll serve you to get up close and personal with your hitch and learn how it works.
Now, ask yourself four questions.
Before you get down and dirty, make sure you’re fully prepared. A little elbow grease never hurt anyone, but there are risks involved with installing hitches. Avoid these risks by asking:
- Do I have the right hitch for my tow vehicle? In some cases, you can buy a hitch specifically designed for your vehicle, and that’s a beautiful thing—but universal hitches are also available. The key here isn’t that you pick a specific brand or style, but that you keep within your safe weight range. Today’s heavy-duty trucks and SUVs have great towing capacity, but you’ll need to understand how the trailer weight and tongue weight relate to this capacity. If you want to haul more without exceeding your limits, you may want to skip the fifth-wheel hitch and try a weight-distributing hitch or a gooseneck hitch. These give a bit more freedom and offer special features, like added sway control.
- Did my hitch come with the necessary hardware?
If you have a used hitch, check and double-check that you have all the nuts and bolts. If you’re missing anything, go buy it.
- What’s in my tool chest?
After reading the installation instructions that came with your hitch, make sure you have every tool they recommend. It’s not okay to substitute here—treat the instructions as the final say. Some commonly used tools are:
- Heavy-duty drill to drill holes in the bed of your truck for the hitch. You can usually use a 1/2-inch chuck handheld drill.
- Standard wrench set in both box-end and open-end styles. You’ll need sizes up to 3/4-inch. Air impact and torque wrenches are ideal if you can get your hands on them.
- Socket wrench with a set of 1/2- to 3/4-inch drives.
- Electrical wiring kit with electrical tape and a stripping and crimping tool.
- Jacks and jack stands for raising your tow vehicle, as needed.
- Will I have to make major modifications to my tow vehicle?
You may need to cut into the bumper, drill holes in your truck bed, or remove the exhaust system—all in the name of the almighty hitch. A universal hitch is more likely to require extra labor, but even a hitch that’s specifically designed for your tow vehicle may need these additional tweaks.
Fifth-wheel hitch installation checklist.
Follow this step-by-step checklist to install your fifth-wheel hitch. Please review your manufacturer’s instructions and defer to them if there are any differences.
- Raise your tow vehicle using jacks and jack stands.
- Allow your vehicle to cool completely.
- Decide where to place your hitch. For the best weight distribution, place it as near to the center of your truck bed as possible.
- Make any necessary modifications, like cutting the bumper and/or removing the exhaust system.
- Remove the plastic lining if you have one; you can’t install rails over a plastic liner.
- Drill holes into the truck bed, if necessary.
- Drill bolts and attach brackets for the rails.
- Anchor the rails to your frame.
- If it’s not already assembled, put together your hitch above the rails according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Align your hitch to the rails and secure it with your hardware.
- Install any electronic components, such as the brake controller, according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Close encounter of the fifth kind.
Bravo, traveler! You faced the grease head-on and came out on top. You’re ready to connect your RV to your newly installed fifth-wheel hitch. And you’ve tamed your hitch and made it your friend—a friend you can trust to carry your most precious cargo.
And hey, you saved hundreds of dollars in the process! Doesn’t get much better than that. Enjoy your new hitch, and we’ll be here to help you with the ins and outs of your upcoming RV escapades.