May 2019 – We’ve been on the hunt for a new fifth wheel trailer to replace our current one as our full-time home for a few years now, and in the last week or so we’ve been closing in on what we want.
It’s been a long and wild ride, but I know a lot of our readers have been going through the same roller coaster of emotions — from elation to frustration — in the search for an RV, so I thought I’d share a little about what we’ve seen and been thinking about in our own quest.
An RV home can be very warm and inviting and cozy.
Warm banana bread in on a cold morning…what could be better?
We love our life on the road and we have a cozy home, but our zippy and fun RZR out back has sent us on a wild goose chase for a way to bring it along and still enjoy all the comforts of home. Triple towing is a tricky business, so buying a toyhauler seemed like the obvious solution at first and our search began there.
The Luxe toyhauler is very high end.
We started our search without a budget in mind. We wanted to see what was available regardless of price, so we visited The RV Factory where the semi-custom Luxe trailers are built.
These trailers have 3.25″ wide walls with graphite infused styrofoam insulation, and they feature 8k lb. Dexter axles with 17.5″ wheels and disc brakes along with gorgeous cabinetry and top of the line everything.
Disc brakes are standard on the Luxe
These are such high end trailers that all the drawers have dovetail joints.
Dovetail joints on the drawers…sweet!
The interior of the finished toy hauler they had on display at the factory was bright white and sumptuous. During our visit, we ended up chatting with a Luxe owner at the factory who was getting a few minor repairs taken care of. He’d owned his trailer for six months and was very happy with it. We just weren’t sure we wanted to tow a trailer this heavy.
We submitted our ideal toy hauler floorplan to both New Horizons and Space Craft (we also submitted it to Featherlite which we discovered is no longer building toy haulers). Both companies expressed concern that our truck, even with its dual rear wheels and 4.10 rear end, might not be able to tow one of their trailers if it exceeded 40 or 41 feet in length.
Our design was likely in the 42 to 43 foot range, but despite several phone calls and one two hour long in-person meeting, we never got far enough in our discussion with either manufacturer for them to put the design in their CAD software and draw it out.
This made us look more closely at the mass market toy haulers which are all in the 42 to 45 range. They are a bit lighter than the high end rigs, if less durable, of course.
Clean and crisp white Luxe toy hauler interior
By far, the most ruggedly built trailer for its weight that we saw was the Aluminum Toyhauler Company fifth wheel trailer. These folks come to the toyhauler market from the stackable race car end of the trailer world. The ATC fifth wheel toy hauler has a truly massive cargo carrying capacity, but it lacks some of the other toy hauler features most RVers take for granted. When we visited the factory in September 2018, the ramp door didn’t convert to a patio. It may now.
Aluminum Toyhauler Company (ATC) makes a rugged but lightweight rig
The ATC is purpose built for outdoor enthusiasts who expect their equipment to hold up under harsh conditions. All the interior cabinetry is aluminum and custom made in-house, and the whole trailer can be power washed inside and out. There are no slideouts but future models may include them. They have a basic open box model that you can modify to your own needs, and they’ll install a garage wall if you’d prefer an enclosed garage.
ATC prides itself on having no wood in the rig — that way nothing can rot, no matter how wet ‘n wild it gets!
Another interesting tour was the Sundowner factory tour at their plant in Oklahoma.
These aluminum trailers are also really well built although they are using Lippert axles in the current builds (they used Dexter until a few years ago). Coming to the toyhauler industry from the horse trailer world, they are designed around a gooseneck hitch. The beauty of the gooseneck hitch is that the bed of your truck doesn’t have a big ol’ fifth wheel hitch hogging up all the space when you’re driving around unhitched.
Sundowner makes beautiful gooseneck hitch toy haulers
Sundowner builds its own entry doors and ramp door, and like ATC, their ramp door didn’t convert to a patio at the time of our visit. But it may at a later date.
Looking into the garage of a Sundowner toy hauler
When a trailer is designed to use a gooseneck hitch, the height of the trailer is kept quite low. The Sundowners are around 11′ tall as compared to 13′ 6″ for most conventional mass market toyhaulers. This makes them more aerodynamic but also means the bedrooms are not standing height. They are more like the bedrooms in a truck camper.
Gooseneck trailers are designed this way because the arm of the gooseneck hitch is quite long, and the higher the trailer roof is, the longer this lever arm becomes and the more the roofline will sway from side to side as the trailer goes down the road, putting all kinds of lateral stresses on the frame.
Sundowner does a lot of custom and semi-custom work, and they will happily design a trailer that is 13′ 6″ tall and has standing height in the bedroom, but that is not typical of their designs.
One interesting thing with both the ATC and Sundowner trailers is that because they are coming from the stackable car trailer and horse trailer markets, their trailers sit quite low to the ground and the ramp doors have a shallow angle. This is great if you are driving your muscle car or sports car into the garage because the back end of the car won’t drag as you drive in. But it is less important for the folks with a rock climbing RZR that can drive up onto anything.
The cabinetry and finish work in the Sundowner is top notch and many different woods and fabric are available.
The gooseneck hitch means the ceiling is low in the bedroom, but that
doesn’t mean it can’t be romantic!
We also visited several mass market trailer factories in Indiana. At the time we were most interested in the Keystone Raptor and KZ Venom. We saw a beautiful Keystone Raptor 421CK at a dealership in Wyoming prior to going to Indiana. It was the first toy hauler we had ever walked into and said, “Wow. We could live in this!” However, the garage was only 11′ long and we’d decided we needed at least 12′ to fit our RZR and bicycles.
A KZ fifth wheel gets its flooring
The thing about toyhauler garages is that the patio doors and railings take up anywhere from 8″ to 16″ at the back of the garage when they are folded up against the closed ramp door. Also, there is a slope at the back of the garage floor that is about a foot long. It is there to extend the ramp angle of the ramp door so the ramp angle isn’t too steep. These two things combined can eat into the garage length by quite a bit. The 13′ garage might may have only 10′ 8″ of flat floor space, and that was typically what I saw with my tape measure in the various garages we looked at.
KZ fifth wheel walls and front cap get started
Also, if there is a side patio and some of it is built onto the garage sidewall, the garage will lose about 8″ of width where the side patio folds into the trailer.
Likewise, if there is a 2nd bath or half bath in the garage or living area, some of the garage floor space or living area floor space will be lost to the bathroom.
It makes a big difference in the livability and usability of both the garage and living space if the door to that half bath opens into the living area or into the garage. Whichever way it is, you don’t want to block the bathroom when you’re parked!
Some Heartland Road Warriors now have a moveable partition around the half bath that becomes a wall when you’re parked but folds out of the way when you need the extra inches for your toys.
KZ Durango. You don’t realize how huge the openings are for the slideouts til you see it like this!
Most toy haulers have a loft area above the garage that runs the full width of the trailer along the wall that separates the garage from the living area. It’s worth some thought to decide if you’d prefer the loft area to open into the garage or into the living space. It may also be possible to modify the loft wall on one side or the other post-purchase so you have access from both sides.
The sidewalls of the main part of the trailer are quite minimal!
We also visited the Highlander RV plant which is the Open Range toy hauler brand.
The Highlander toy hauler from Open Range
Open Range is owned by Jayco which is owned by Thor. The Highlander toy haulers come in at a lower price point than most. Jayco is known for employing Amish people on the assembly lilnes, and they really do. We saw their buggies in the parking lot and driving around the area.
Lots of Amish people work on the RV assembly lines
From what we saw, all fifth wheel trailers and toy haulers are in a very similar way that aims towards a specific price point. I don’t know that there is much quality difference from one mass market brand to the next since it seems the same overall manufacturing methods and materials are used in all the brands. Certain features are given different names in the marketing literature to distinguish each brand, but it often boils down to the same basic things.
I was astonished when our guide pulled out an 8′ wide roll of a material that looked like aluminum foil and said it gave their trailer an extra R-14 of insulation throughout. All I could think is that there are aspects of RV manufacturing that are pure smoke and mirrors, and to me this was one of them.
This metal foil has been used to produce great insulating R factors in certain scenarios, but it has to have at least two inches of air on either side of it, among other things, for the insulating properties to work. When it is installed in such a way that is is flush up against the other layers of material in the wall or ceiling, that big R-factor vanishes.
“So, which hydraulic line goes to the curbside slideout? ’cause I think it’s leaking!”
Not all of what we saw inspired confidence.
Some of what we saw made it obvious why customers often have so many problems with their RVs, but our visit to the MORryde plant was an immersion in quality, much like our factory tours at Trojan Battery and B&W Hitches in the past. They had a cool toy hauler out front with their logo on it that was used for trade shows.
The MORryde tradeshow toyhauler
On the Independent Suspension assembly line, MORryde’s signature RV product, we saw axles marked “NH” and “DRV” for New Horizons and DRV. Those trailer brands offer the Independent Suspension as an option. How cool is that?!
An unpainted DRV waits for a MORryde Independent Suspension upgrade.
We had been visiting dealerships on a regular basis for several years prior to our Elkhart visit, and we continued to look at toy haulers after we finished our factory tours in Indiana. Road Warrior (Thor/Heartland) was a brand we looked into, and the 427, which is now the 4275, was a possibility in part because of the side patio and MORryde ramp door.
Unfortunately, my favorite floorplans were the older Road Warrior 427s that had a big sliding glass door going out to the side patio and a tiny fireplace/entertainment system that didn’t block the door. As the model years went by for the 427, the door with the big view onto the patio got smaller and the fireplace and TV got bigger.
The Grand Design Momentum 399TH has a nice big sliding glass door heading out to the side patio.
One thing that is very enticing about a toy hauler is the ability to put a workbench in the garage. Most bigger toy haulers nowadays have a 2nd bathroom with the door going into the garage, which limits the wall space for putting in a workbench if you are toting a big RZR.
Will a small 30″ workbench fit between the two doors in this Fuzion 429?
At first, the idea of two bathrooms didn’t excite us because it is a mammoth waste of space for a couple. But then we realized that with a 2nd bathroom you get double the black tank capacity because most designers place a black tank below each toilet to let gravity do its magic of filling the tank as the toilet is used. Some of them drain the little half-bath vanity sink into the rear black tank too.
It is my understanding that the DRV Fullhouse uses a macerator on the toilets to pump the fluids from both toilets to a single black tank, so adding a 2nd bathroom doesn’t double the black tank capacity in those trailers.
The more we did our own soul searching about what we really wanted in our new trailer, the more we realized that we couldn’t go backwards when it came to tank capacities. Our current Hitchhiker has 70 gallons of fresh water, 78 gallons of gray split between two tanks (50 for the shower and vanity and 28 for the kitchen sink) and 50 gallons of black.
Reducing any of these numbers would impact the way we live since we rarely get water or sewer hookups. Unfortunately, although most toy haulers offer over 100 gallons of fresh water, which is awesome, many have a bit less than 50 for the black tank unless they have a 2nd bathroom.
So the decision for us became a trade-off between living space (giving up part of the living area and/or garage to accommodate a second bathroom) and black tank capacity. Argh! Big black tanks do exist. The Arctic Fox 35-5Z has 65 gallons of black tank capacity with just one toilet.
The Keystone Raptor 421CK floorplan that we loved (except for the 11′ garage) was replaced with the Raptor 423 which has a 13′ garage. But it has just a 44 gallon black tank which contributed to taking it out of the running. Also, the designers took 2′ out of the bedroom to increase the garage length from 11 to 13 feet, and they turned the bed so it was “north/south” or parallel to the driving direction instead of being perpendicular to it.
Trailer designers are constrained in overall square footage for their designs by the RVIA (RV Industry Association). This group increases the maximum allowable square footage a little bit now and then, but for right now the limit is 430 square feet.
This seems to be a bit of an arbitrary number, but it is an important one. When you see very long trailers with very shallow and short slide-outs, it may be due to this maximum square footage. Turning a perpendicular bed that’s partly in a slide-out into a “north/south” bed that’s parallel to the curb with no slideout eliminates a few square feet. The designer can then use those square feet somewhere else in the trailer, like lengthening the garage.
We spent a lot of time lying on these “north/south” beds and opening and closing the small wardrobes in the driver’s side slideouts. This type of bedroom was not as appealing as the perpendicular bed with the big closet in the front cap, but it is the predominant design these days, probably due to the square footage constraint.
Many toy haulers have a “north/south” bedroom where the bed runs parallel to the road rather than perpendicular. You can walk around a queen but a king goes almost to the curbside wall.
The biggest challenge in our search is that most dealers stock only a few toy haulers of whatever brands they carry. So there were several floorplans we wanted to see that we still haven’t seen, even after two years of traveling around and a visit to the factories in Elkhart Indiana. The KZ Venom 4012TK is an open floorplan U-kitchen design much like the Raptor 421CK/423 that I’d love to see. Maybe someday!
I’d also like to see a DRV Fullhouse, specifically the LX450. Until we began our search, I didn’t realize that even though DRV is not an independent company any more, they still allow some customizations to be made to their trailers. Working with a good dealer — we heard that Rolling Retreats in Oklahoma was outstanding — you can ask for all kinds of customized things and some might be granted.
I was very surprised when I found out that the factory would be willing to remove the 2nd bathroom and the dinette cabinetry in the Fullhouse LX450. I had other ideas for those spaces that would work better for us. But I have yet to see a Fullhouse toy hauler in person — they always seem to be at least 400 miles away and never in the direction we’re headed. And ordering any trailer without seeing something pretty similar in person first makes me uneasy.
The other thing that made the search particular frustrating is that all the folks selling toyhaulers also had regular fivers on their lots. So, although we couldn’t see the KZ Venom toy hauler we wanted to see, the dealer had the KZ Durango Gold 380FL available. We walked inside and instantly fell in love with the huge rear bedroom with its 2nd entry door on the driver’s side. This didn’t help our search for a toy hauler!
Where Raptors were sold we often saw Montanas, which are also Keystone products, and Mark fell in love wih the storage space in the massive pullout shelf under the raised living room in the Montana 3790/91. This was yet another reminder that If you don’t have a 13′ dedicated garage and you’re willing to go up to 40′ or longer in a trailer, you can get a really spacious rig!
And where Momentums were sold, Grand Design Solitudes were also on display. We both fell totally in love with the massive bedroom and walkin closet of the Grand Design Solitude 373FB. The twin vanity sinks and gargantuan closet were wonderful, and the big bright windows opposite the bed along and the window over the bed’s headboard were fabulous.
I’d never been in a fifth wheel where I felt I could spend happy daytime hours in the bedroom, but in that rig I surely could.
The Grand Design Solitude 373FB has a gorgeous bedroom suite with an enormous bathroom and walk-in closet
Good morning sunshine — the Grand Design Solitude 373FB bedroom has a wall of windows!
So, the toy hauler idea went out the window because we began to think we’d triple tow with something like this beautiful Grand Design Solitude 373FB. The only problem is that it is 41′ 4″ long and that would put us over the limit for triple towing in every state except for South Dakota where the limit is 75 feet!
Back to the drawing board we went where we revamped our search to be for smaller trailers. Suddenly, at long last, we were able to see an Arctic Fox 35-5Z after wanting to see one for a long time. This is a really well made trailer built on Northwood Manufacturing’s own in-house constructed frame with a traditional floorplan.
The great thing about Northwood Manufacturing / Arctic Fox is that they are the only trailer manufacturer left that offers a long list of options. All the others pump out identical trailers one after another except for a very few items the customer can choose such as dual pane windows, an onboard generator and exterior paint.
The Arctic Fox 35-SZ is built on a custom in-house frame and offers lots of choices for options
At Arctic Fox you can choose to have either one air conditioner or two. You can get an electric fireplace under the TV or you can have wooden cabinets in that space instead. You can opt for a 10 cubic foot propane/electric RV fridge, which gives you an extra foot of counter space and upper and lower cabinetry to boot, or a 12 cubic foot RV fridge or an enormous 18 cubic foot RV fridge. You can also get a residential 110v AC electric fridge.
This is awesome because there are some RVers, like ourselves, who would prefer to have more cabinet and counter space and let the veggies and beer fight it out for themselves in a smaller 10 cubic foot fridge.
Also, since we dry camp all the time, we power our 8 cubic foot fridge with propane 24/7. When we’re not using propane for heat and are just using propane to power the refrigerator, the hot water heater and the stove, we go through a 30 lb. (7 gallon) tank of propane every three weeks. In our experience, it is not always so easy to find places to fill our propane tanks, especially in certain parts of the country.
If we were to go from our current 8 cubic foot refrigerator to an 18 cubic foot fridge, we would more than double the amount of propane our fridge uses. We would probably go through that same 7 gallon tank of propane in about 9-12 days instead of 21 days. If the trailer’s LP tank compartment allows 5″ of extra height, then we might be able to switch to using the taller 40 lb. (10 gallon) tanks instead and we might make the propane last a little longer. But those big tanks are unwieldy to carry around.
Lastly, RV propane refrigerators are expected to last only about 8 to 10 years. A replacement 8 cubic foot fridge is around $1,400. A replacement 18 cubic foot fridge is $3,700. That’s a huge difference!
Even if you have an extended RV warranty (which is an excellent idea – here’s why), the warranty contract will cost a lot more to purchase if your rig has a big expensive refrigerator in it than it would if the fridge were a smaller cheaper model. After all, the warranty company has to calculate their potential costs if things in your rig (like the refrigerator) fail.
KZ allowed buyers to order trailers with smaller RV fridges and opt out of the electric fireplace until last fall, and that is one of the reasons we were so interested in the KZ trailers.
Many Grand Design Solitude trailers have a TV that lowers into a cabinet revealing a nice big window behind (on the right in this pic). This is fantastic for folks who don’t watch TV during the daytime.
Perhaps the biggest thing for us, though, is the tank capacities. Small tank capacities certainly rule out a lot of brands! The Grand Design trailers have excellent tank capacities, especially the toy haulers with a 2nd bathroom where you can get as much as 157 gallons of fresh, 106 of gray and 106 of black. Wow!!
No more lines for brushing teeth!
So, last week we were back to looking at toy haulers. We went to a dealership where we saw a Fuzion 429 which had a very cool walk-through kitchen layout with the sink set on an outside corner with long counters running along either side. There was tons of cabinet space and it had and an interesting country style decorative motif.
But the slide-outs were so shallow we would be challenged to replace the furniture if we ever wanted to because the fronts of the theater seats and sofa were all set on rollers to roll in and out with the slide room. The fronts of replacement furniture could be set on casters, perhaps, but it might look a little funny.
I’m not keen on being married to an RVs furniture just because it is on rollers.
One thing I’ve noticed with most of the Thomas Payne theater seats is that if I sit with my back touching the backrest, my feet can’t reach the ground. They’re about 2″ short. This is really uncomfortable! I’m 5’4″ but have fairly long legs for my height, so I imagine that most women would be in the same position. So, for me, replacing the furniture at some point is a likely scenario.
We prowled around other toy haulers, and as I stood in the kitchen of one and thought about where I’d put my dishware (I’d already resigned myself to storing pantry goods in the 18 cubic foot fridge because that’s where the bulk of the kitchen shelving was), I realized there was no cabinet in the kitchen for plates or glassware. Those would have to go in a drawer in the kitchen island or in a cabinet outside of the kitchen area.
A similar thing had happened when I stood in the kitchen of another toy hauler a few months earlier and opened the slim upper cabinet door above the sink. The shelf in there was big enough for just one coffee mug — as long as it didn’t have a handle — and no more.
Space is at such a premium in a toy hauler that the designers have to be super creative to make a living area that has both comfortable seating and sufficient usable storage.
Ironcially, Mark had skimmed through Craigslist before this last dealership trip, and he found a 2011 36′ Hitchhiker Discover America for sale. We walked inside it and knew we’d found our rig. It was just like the one we’d lived in for the last 12 years but with some important differences!
This Hitchhiker had factory installed 8k lb. Dexter axles with 17.5 inch wheels and disc brakes. This was huge!
Every new trailer we’d looked at so far, including most of the toy haulers, would require an upgrade to disc brakes and in many cases an upgrade to bigger axles too, and none but the highest end manufacturers offered those things as a factory installed option. Almost all the trailers had tandem or triple 7k lb. axles and 16″ wheels. Many were Dexter brand, which is terrific, but the cargo carrying capacities were really skimpy almost across the board.
One lovely 38′ fifth wheel had a mere 1,800 lbs of cargo carrying capacity. This would have to include fresh water, solar and battery add-ons and all of our belongings. Several toy haulers had just over 3,000 lbs. of cargo carrying capacity which leaves little room for food, clothes, lilnens, appliances and kitchenware once the 1,200 lb. toy is loaded and the 850 lbs. of fresh water and 450 lbs of fuel are put in the tanks (water is 8.3 lbs per gallon).
Hitchhiker Discover America – Looks familiar!
Besides the big axles, this old Hitchhiker’s 17.5″ wheels were a massive plus too. Bigger tires on fifth wheels are much less prone to problems caused by grinding the tread into the ground when making tight turns. Blow-outs are all too common with fifth wheel trailers, and although bad tires are often to blame, it’s also possible that the steel belts eventually fall apart under the twisting lateral loads induced by tight turns.
How funny this was, though. We’d come full circle and were right back where we’d started trailer-wise, more or less.
It was only after we began making calls to line up folks to replace the stained carpets and do a detailed cleaning so we could get our soon-to-be new-to-us home back on its wheels as soon as possible after the closing that we realized the handyman projects on an 8 year old trailer were feeling more like work than like fun!
That wasn’t what we wanted!
Totally stressed out, we walked away from the deal at the last minute. We felt better immediately.
There are some incredible deals to be found on the used market for highly regarded brands of yesteryear.
But buying used has its challenges too.
This whole process can be both exhilarating and depressing. Just like buying a sailboat or a house.
Our offer for our cruising sailboat Groovy was the 5th offer we put in on a boat over the course of a year. One deal went so far south we had to get the California Boating and Waterways agency involved. On another deal we paid $1,300 to get the boat surveyed (like a house inspection), and backed out when we got it hauled out of the water and saw the forest of seaweed growing on the hull.
But our persistence and careful approach paid off. In the end, Groovy was a much newer, cleaner and far cheaper boat than any of the others we’d made offers on!
In the RV industry there are very few structurally well built and cleverly designed new trailers out there, and going with a used one that was well built and beautifully crafted in its day years ago opens a whole new can of worms. For those who love renovating, it’s a great way to go. But not everyone does.
On our way home we decided to take one more look at some new fifth wheels just to change our mindset, so we pulled into a dealership and asked to see a line of trailers we hadn’t seen before.
Lo and behold, the first rig we walked into was fantastic. Holy cow! It had almost everything we wanted and the few things it didn’t have were upgrades that would be fun and exciting to do. Who woulda thunk?!
Home sweet home.
Is our search over? We don’t know, but we’ve got a hunch it is. We’re giving this latest idea a few weeks to simmer and we’ll let you know.
In the meantime, have faith that your ship — or RV — will come in. It’s out there somewhere. It just takes a ton of online research, dozens of walks through dealership lots and, more than anything, some heartfelt soul searching to find it.
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Related blog posts:
Triple-Tow or Toyhauler? How to Haul a RZR in the Full-time RV Life!
What Are the Most Important Features in a Full-time Fifth Wheel Trailer?
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