Dropping a Fifth Wheel Trailer

Dropping a 5th wheel RV happens when the trailer isn’t properly secured in the truck-mounted hitch. The RV comes loose and falls on the truck bed, usually damaging the truck’s tailgate and bed rails. It happened to us - here’s how, options we had for repair, and how we came out of it.

How Did This Happen?

In one word; distraction.

The bigger picture is that we were:

  • Hooking up after not moving for 10 weeks
  • Tackling it as a duo - just MsBoyink and I
  • Dealing with some railroad ties under the RV front feet
  • Worried about a low-hanging tree that we had to back up and go around to miss
  • Hooking up while other people were around, watching and talking with us
  • Worried about getting out - we were on private property and had gotten stuck getting into this spot

We made two critical mistakes.

When I backed the truck up to the trailer and got out, I didn’t immediately latch the hitch.

And? We totally forgot to do a “tug-test” once hitched.

A tug test is when you latch the fifth wheel hitch, then get back in the truck, set the trailer brakes using the trailer brake controller, put the truck in drive, and try to force the truck and trailer apart. You leave the trailer landing legs just off the ground so that if the trailer does come out of the hitch they catch the trailer before it lands on the truck bed.

We always do a tug test. Always.

Except this once.

Sequence of Events

In our case the trailer stayed in place while I backed up 10’ or so, then pulled out to go around the low-hanging tree limb.

I drove another 100’ or so out of the yard. There was a small angled drive to get from the yard onto the road. That drive had a slight uphill slope and then a little “bump” to get up on the pavement.

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The slope and bump were enough to pull the trailer from the unlatched hitch.

What Was It Like?

I heard and felt a horrible screeching and crash and felt all forward movement stop.

I didn’t immediately understand what had happened. My first thought was that - even though I had walked this entire exit path - I had caught a tree branch with the trailer.

Getting out I realized what had happened and had that immediate mix of feeling angry and stupid all at once. My truck was ruined. The trailer was ruined. We were going to be homeless living in hotels trying to get this all repaired.

How Did We Recover?

I’ve been in a few car accidents and this was no different. It took a few minutes of “hanging my head in my hands” to deal with the shock and let the adrenaline subside.

I may have said a few swear words.

Then the logical “what do we have to do to get out of this” side of me kicked in.

We:

  • Chocked the trailer wheels
  • Extended the trailer legs to lift it off the truck
  • Carefully watched both the truck and RV for signs of further damage
  • Pulled the truck out a few feet to sort things out
  • Inspected the RV - opening the front compartments to see as much of the frame as we could
  • Inspected the truck for frame damage
  • Decided there was no frame damage on either unit so I drove the truck solo for a few miles, testing the brakes, feeling for shimmys, etc
  • Re-connected the trailer after deciding the truck was driving fine
  • Removed the damaged tailgate and put it in the back seat of the truck
  • Continued on our not-so-merry way

What Trailer Repairs Did We Need?

Once at our next campground I again got in every nook and cranny I could to inspect the trailer frame up front. 

I’m not a licensed RV inspector but I have done a fair amount of welding and fabrication and assumed any frame damage would be obvious.

Consulting the photos I took during our Wildcat Factory Tour I knew there were frame sections I couldn’t see without disassembling the front of the trailer.

From what I could see and from looking at the outer fiberglass I think the RV came through the ordeal unscathed.

What Truck Repairs Did We Need?

For the truck we filed another claim with Progressive. I suspected they might total the truck out - it is, after all, a 2002 with 180K+ miles.

After their initial inspection they decided to repair it by installing a new bed side and tailgate.

We scheduled a time, dropped it off, and hoped for the best.

The next day we got a phone call. The repair facility found additional damage that put the total cost of repair over the amount Progressive was willing to spend.

They totalled the truck out.

Dealing with a Totalled Truck

Basically, the insurance company figures out what the vehicle was worth pre-accident and offers you a check for that amount and they keep the truck.

They will also give you a “salvage amount” you can buy the vehicle back for, and give you a check for the difference.

I had done a bit of research using Kelly Blue Book to get a value on the truck to compare to whatever amount the insurance company came up with.

Our numbers matched pretty well.

The truck was worth about $8K. Salvage amount was $3K, so if we wanted we could get the truck back with a check for $5K.

No Brainer

It was a no-brainer for us:

  • The truck only had cosmetic damage
  • There was no way we were going to get another reliable tow rig for $8k
  • I didn’t want a truck payment

Besides, I just like this truck. It’s been a great puller. We’ve put 95K miles on it mostly towing and have never been stranded. I’ve come to appreciate the simplicity of the big-block gas engine and Alison transmission.

We took the truck back and got the $5K check.

I started researching options for repair. Initially I saw two solutions: an aftermarket flatbed or a replacement junkyard bed.

Toasted tailgate and bed side damage.

Toasted tailgate and bed side damage.

Toasted tailgate.

Toasted tailgate.

The trailer came off in the yard to road transition.

The trailer came off in the yard to road transition.

Main bedside damage.

Main bedside damage.

After 20 minutes with a heavy duty ratchet strap.

After 20 minutes with a heavy duty ratchet strap.

After the pro bodyshop guys took their turn.

After the pro bodyshop guys took their turn.

Truck with completed repairs and new fifth wheel tailgate.

Truck with completed repairs and new fifth wheel tailgate.

Not too shabby for a totalled truck.

Not too shabby for a totalled truck.

Aftermarket Flatbeds

We are in Texas. Every other truck has an aftermarket flatbed on it. I researched these like crazy.

There are a number of manufacturers for them and most offer steel and aluminum options.

I liked the look of the flatbed. It seemed like the truck would be handier - I could use any side of the bed for workbench.

Steel or Aluminum?

Contrary to my expectations a steel flatbed weighs more than the original bed.

We don’t have a dually one-ton truck so I didn’t dare put a steel flatbed on. I didn’t want to overload our 3/4 ton truck.

So aluminum it was.

Hitch Issues

The next issue was a hitch.

Many flatbeds come equipped with a gooseneck hitch, but we have a fifth wheel. However, there are options to adapt the trailer or the truck to tow a fifth wheel with a gooseneck hitch.

Trailer Adapter

On the trailer side there are adapters available. These bolt to the fifth wheel kingpin.

In reading different RV discussion forum threads about these there were concerns of stressing the fifth wheel frame in a way it wasn’t designed to be.

That stress could ultimately lead to frame failure. Not good.

Adapted Hitch

On the truck side B&W makes this Companion Hitch that mounts where a gooseneck ball goes, rather than in the typical bed-mounted rails.

The concern with the Companion Hitch on a flatbed is that flatbeds often recess the ball mount in a boxed-in area under some doors. When not towing you can close the doors to hide the hitch. That recessed area isn’t usually large enough to accommodate the Companion Hitch.

Fifth-Wheel Friendly Aluminum Flatbeds

So I needed to find flatbed manufacturers that designed the flatbed to accommodate a fifth wheel hitch from the get-go.

I found two.

Alumiline

The first is Alumiline. Their Gooseneck Style Flatbed has a fifth wheel hitch option.

If you select that option they include and install a fifth wheel hitch as part of the flatbed. I called and got a price.

A 7’ Alumiline aluminum flatbed, setup with a fifth wheel hitch and a few other options, delivered and installed would run roughly $4900.

We’d be able to sell our current hitch and recover some of that.

Highway Products

The other option I found was Highway Products. Their flatbed option for our truck started at $5800.00 - too rich for our budget.

Pull the Trigger?

I seriously considered the Alumiline option. The insurance check would cover the cost.

Barely.

One serious roadblock was the lead time - 4-6 weeks for the bed to be built and shipped.

Then there was the money.

Did I really want to spend $5K on outfitting a 14 year old truck with a new flatbed?

Nope.

Junkyard Replacement Bed

The next idea was to find a junkyard bed and have it installed and painted.

I started searching Craigslist and local junkyards using http://car-part.com/.

I found some beds in San Antonio and drove down to look at them. The junkyards wanted $700 - $900 for beds that had as much damage as what I had.

I found better-looking options, but located 4-5 hours away. I didn’t mind driving, but would have to borrow/rent a trailer, and find a place to store the bed until a body shop could fit me in.

The better-shape junkyard options cost more as well, so unless I could get lucky and find one in my color I was looking at another $1000 - $1200 to color match the new bed.

Adding up all the costs it started to get in the same range as a flatbed.

Whole Truck?

I hit Craigslist again - thinking if I could find the right used truck I could swap beds and resell the 2nd truck.

I found one candidate - a truck with damage to the passenger door and some mechanical issues. It was the same color as our truck. He was asking too much but I thought I might get his price down. I exchanged some texts with the owner, finally asking for a time to come see it.

I never heard back.

Time was ticking.

I still think if we weren’t living on the road and I had my old shop and tools this would have been the most cost-effective route. The right deal on a 2nd truck could probably net out to a free bed.

Meanwhile

The next-door neighbor at the RV park we’re at is a handyman. He’s building a house locally so has a number of tools.

I asked if he happened to have a come-along. I wanted to see what I could do about straightening up the bed side - just so the damage wasn’t as obvious.

He had both a come-along and a heavy-duty ratchet strap. I parked next to a large tree and we went to work. In about 20 minutes time we had the bedside looking pretty straight again.

I wondered - if a couple of amateurs using trees and ratchet straps could get half the repair done, what could some professionals do?

Maybe I didn’t need a complete bed.

Honey Creek Paint and Body Shop

I went up the road to Honey Creek Paint and Body.

I showed them the truck and described what I wanted - repairs “good enough” that I wouldn’t get “ah - you dropped the trailer” comments from every RV park we’re in from now on.

They caught on immediately and wrote up a quote for ~ $1K in body work. I scheduled it out on the spot.

Amazon Purchases

Honey Creek recommended I just purchase an aftermarket tailgate. They thought it would be easier and cheaper than trying to find a good original replacement tailgate and paying to get it color matched.

Since this repair approach would leave some extra budget I decided to order both the tailgate and some other items to dress the truck up again.

I ordered:

New Tires

I also ordered a new set of tires from the closest Discount Tire. We’ve always bought from Discount Tire because they have so many locations and offer free inspections and rotations for the life of the tire.

I chose the same Bridgestone Dueler Revo 2s that we have had on the truck since being on the road.

The old tires were nearly four years old and had 57K miles on them - not bad for towing fulltime and not a formula I wanted to rethink.

How Did We Come Out?

The bodyshop had the truck for 3 days. They were able to get the bed siderail looking great.

It takes a practiced eye to see the bodywork and the new bed rail caps both cover up a lot and draw your eye away from the spot.

The bed itself is still sunk a bit in the rear corner - maybe a 1/2” if you look close. They improved it from where it was but said realistically the only perfect fix would be a replacement bed.

With the new tires, new wheel centers, new tailgate, and bed caps all on, the truck is looking pretty spiffy again even if it it is a little scarred from the experience.

So - A Salvage Title Now?

So here’s the weird thing.

Last I understood how the automobile “totalling” process works we should be getting a salvage title from the insurance company, right?

They aren’t doing that.

We had to send them a photo of the title for the claim processing but they are not re-titling the truck.

Insurance Options?

At the moment we are down to basic “PLPD” insurance. No more collision coverage.

We do plan on revisiting insurance options now that we’ve got the repairs figured out. Ideally I’d like collision coverage “doors-forward” but don’t expect them to be that flexible.

Lessons Learned?

Together with some other work-related stuff going on this has been one of the most stressful periods since we left the suburbs in 2010. The research I’ve detailed here ate up most of a week - time I really should have been focusing on our business.

I can’t even say we’ve learned anything new. Rather it’s been a neck-snapping reminder to:

  • Do not get distracted while hooking up
  • Talk through the process with each other
  • Make no assumptions about what others have done
  • Encourage them to double-check your work
  • Remember there are good people everywhere you go
  • Remember why you wanted to live this way, and to choose to keep at it over again

Thanks To

We didn’t get through this ordeal on our own. Our thanks to:

  • Our neighbors Carter and Debbie for offers of help when we dropped the trailer
  • Our neighbor Spencer for his tools and efforts to straighten the bedside (in reality, doing most of the work)
  • The Shanks family for transportation to and from body shops
  • The folks at Texas281 Campground for allowing us to do some repair work on-site
  • Twitter suggestions for where to buy replacement parts

Your Worst Experience?

Have you had an experience that made you re-think your decision to travel? What was it, what did you decide, and why?

Read More

If you’re the type to rubberneck at accident scenes you can also read about our truck break-in in St. Louis.  If you’d rather focus on the positives read about a recent meetup of over 20 suburbia-ditching families in Texas.

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19 Comments Dropping a Fifth Wheel Trailer

  1. Picture of Huck WachHuck WachMarch 16, 2016

    Youch!!  Thanks for the reminders.  I had heard that everyone wants to chat when you are hitching up…and then found its true.  And it always seems like we’re rushing because it’s close to check out time.  This could easily happen to us.

  2. Picture of carla freemancarla freemanMarch 16, 2016

    Remembered your STL story….we know about that neighborhood. We lost over 600.oo in backpacks once down south grrrrr! Thx for hookup reminder….I’ve rudely run off yackers at hookup time. Now we have some new gadget so can’t drop it.

  3. Picture of JenniJenniMarch 16, 2016

    So here is the one thing I do not get:  ALL RVers know the “don’t get distracted talking while hitching up” rule.  I mean like, EVERYONE, gave us that warning.  So why do other RVers still try to talk to their neighbors while they are clearly hitching up????? 

    Honestly, I think they new tail gate looks pretty fly. 

  4. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael BoyinkMarch 16, 2016

    I gotta say - I never wanted a fifth wheel tailgate.  I used the stock tailgate so often as a workbench I didn’t want to give it up.

    But - the added visibility in the rear-view is nice.

    It’s low enough to step over to get in the bed. If I lower it I can stand in the notch and still use the bed as a workbench.

    I’ll bet half of their sales are from trailer drops though!

  5. Picture of Doug CurdDoug CurdMarch 17, 2016

    I’ve been following your adventure with great interest.  Not ready to ask my own family to ditch, but that’s another discussion for another day…

    I just wanted to thank you for your candor and being willing to share your mistakes.  Too many folks in real life, and maybe especially on the internet, paint a rosy “everything is awesome” picture of their lives.  Watching you share about and recover from adversity makes you ‘real’ and that is refreshing.  Thanks!

  6. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael BoyinkMarch 17, 2016

    Thanks Doug!

    It IS really easy to just write about the good times and highlights. We have fallen into that trap at times too.

    But I think some of the most valuable lessons in life (and life on the road) come from adversity - so we do try to present a balanced view.

  7. Picture of Norm H.Norm H.March 18, 2016

    Sorry you had this experience, but thanks for sharing both sides to the RV life.  Stuff happens, just as it does while living in sticks and bricks.  Thinking about a 5er myself, so learned a lot from this post.

  8. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael BoyinkMarch 19, 2016

    Thanks Norm - glad to hear it was helpful.

  9. Picture of John HugginsJohn HugginsMarch 19, 2016

    Michael, you have done a really nice job on this blog post and it can be quite helpful to other RVers with 5ers. With your permission, we would like to feature this on an upcoming Living the RV Dream podcast segment. We can help to get the lessons learned out to a wider audience. I don’t have to use your name if that is your wish.

  10. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael BoyinkMarch 19, 2016

    Hey John - thanks for the comments and feel free to share with attribution.

    I’m over the embarassment - if our experience helps another RVer avoid the hassle then so much the better!

  11. Picture of John clicknerJohn clicknerSeptember 05, 2016

    Dropped mine while camping at disney fort wilderness. Did’nt hurt the trailer but my bed sides did have a small crease where the trailer landed. I built an aluminum flatbed for my truck.

  12. Picture of Alvin longAlvin longSeptember 10, 2016

    lots of great in formation ! I just finished a round the country trip, from Amherst NH to Oregon-Washington state and back with many stops along the way ( the whole thing took 3 month and 16 K of driving) I never once forget to or failed to tug with the landing gear about 4” so avoided that, NOW, if I just would not get distracted making right turns I would have NO damage at all!! Happy Trails to You !!

  13. Picture of Gregg WhitmoreGregg WhitmoreOctober 05, 2016

    Thanks and sorry you had that experience. I drove 18 wheelers for my career and the tug test is sorta the Holy Grail of “Things to Do, Always!” Any truck driver that claims his trailer ” just came loose, Officer” is guaranteed to not have done a tug test. A driver was burned alive, seat-belted in his tractor that had jumped over a bridge rail, suspended by just the king-pin to the trailer that got hung up on the bridge rail above. Happy Trails.

  14. Picture of Justin JustinJanuary 31, 2017

    Great read!  Is that a Michigan plate?  If so,  why is there one on the front? Is that just your preference,  or did we miss something and we are supposed to have one due to the trailer?

  15. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael BoyinkFebruary 01, 2017

    @justin: Yes, it’s a MI plate and no, you aren’t required to have one. We choose to because it’s a vanity plate.

  16. Picture of KatrinaKatrinaSeptember 05, 2017

    It just happened to us! It was our first time out this labor day weekend. My dad was helping me hook it up to leave- He said it was ready to pull, but I didn’t double check it myself. I pulled away and heard a loud crash! Really messed up the truck some…

    I was feeling really defeated, like I was in over my head. Thanks for this post, makes me feel a little better if seasoned veterans can make this mistake too.  It won’t be a mistake I will be repeating.

  17. Picture of Michael BoyinkMichael BoyinkSeptember 05, 2017

    Hey Katrina -

    Sorry to hear your first time out was such a bummer. You just joined the club early…;)

  18. Picture of stevesteveNovember 24, 2017

    My wife and I are starting preparations to go full time RVing and I’ve been doing a lot of research online.  I remember seeing a 5th wheel hitch or an attachment that helps to protect the truck and 5th wheel in this kind of situation, but I don’t remember what it’s called and I can’t find information on it again.  Have you heard of such hitch/accessory?

  19. Picture of Crissa BoyinkCrissa BoyinkDecember 11, 2017

    Steve,

    I think I know what you’re talking about, but I can not for the life of me remember what it’s called. I hope you are able to find it.

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