Comparing a 5th Wheel and a Diesel Pusher Motorhome

After 6 years in a 2007 34′ 5th wheel we moved to a 2005 39′ Diesel Pusher. Since the two rigs are from the same general timeframe I think they make for good comparisons. However, please understand that some observations are specific to these rigs – because of that our experience might be different than that of others. Both rigs were gently used by their previous owners. The motorhome only had 34,000 miles on it and the 5th wheel had been garaged and well cared for. The 5th wheel was a Hitchhiker II LS – a mid-level unit from a first class manufacturer. The motorhome is a Safari Cheetah, basically an industrial twin to a Monaco Knight – another mid-level unit. The 5th wheel was pulled by a 2008 Ford F350 with a 6.4 engine. As you read, remember that I am comparing our experience in these two specific rigs. Here are some observations on the two rigs.

Liveability: 5th Wheel
The 5th wheel has more storage and a better living layout. We did move the motorhome TV from over the driver’s area to over a couch on the side. It helped a lot. We originally thought the motorhome would have more storage but that didn’t prove to be true. It has less room inside and the bays don’t offer as much space as the big basement did in the 5th wheel. Things like heating and cooling are pretty much the same with either one.

On the road: tie
The motorhome is more comfortable and the big window up front offers the best view. However, it is also wider than the pickup making it feel like it is filling up the lane and requiring more attention on the road, especially in traffic or on narrower, rural roads. When towing the car the motorhome can’t be backed up. Generally, this isn’t a problem, but if you make the wrong turn somewhere the car has to be disconnected, the motorhome moved, and then the car reconnected. Not a huge deal, but a negative when it happens. Some people said that the ride would be much smoother, but we haven’t found that to be true with this motorhome, even with new shocks. Getting fuel was better with the pickup simply because it could be filled up when not towing the camper.

Landing in a campground: tie
The motorhome is easy to park. The backup camera makes backing into a site a snap. Also, since the motorhome doesn’t bend in the middle it is easier to situate. However, in an unlevel site the 5th wheel wins. It doesn’t care how high you have to crank the landing gear. With the motorhome, you can easily end up with the front wheels off the ground. Some people say that doesn’t matter, but in the manual that came with our rig it clearly says not to do that. Getting level can be a challenge even with the hydraulic levelers.

Local Transportation: Motorhome
With the 5th wheel, the daily driver is a big pickup – poor mileage and challenging to park in tighter spaces. We now pull a small car with the motorhome. A much better daily driver.

Maintenance – Repairs (engine/chassis side): 5th Wheel
If the pickup needed work, we could take it to most any shop that worked on diesel pickups while the 5th wheel was comfortably parked in a campground. When the motorhome needs work, we have to find a shop that works on big trucks that will also work on a motorhome. You see, some truck and trailer shops will work on motorhomes, some won’t. Then, while the work is being done the house is in the shop too. If that work includes an overnight stay arraignments have to be made for accommodations. In addition: work on the motorhome is almost always more costly than on the pickup.

Maintenance – Repairs (camper side): tie
Getting camper stuff worked on (or doing it yourself) is about the same on either one. Refrigerators, water heaters, awnings, etc. are pretty much the same. It is much easier to get work done by mobile techs on the camper side of the motorhome than on the engine side.

Cost of routine operation: motorhome
The motorhome gets about the same mileage as did the pickup when towing the camper. However, once in the campground, we drive a small car that gets much better mileage. Oil changes, etc. cost a lot more on the motorhome, but only have to be done yearly, making the annual cost about the same. Also, remember, the motorhome is only run when actually changing campsites, keeping mileage low compared to the pickup which is also a daily driver.

Storage accessibility: 5th wheel
I’ve already touched on this, but looking at it only from ease of access, the 5th wheel bay is much easier to use. All the bays of the motorhome are under the 4 slide outs. I wear knee pads and have to get down on my knees to reach into the bays. It is harder to get things in and out of the motorhome bays.

Propane: tie
The 5th wheel had two big removable propane tanks. A bit heavy, but taking them out and getting them filled was a reasonable amount of effort. On the motorhome the tank is built in. You either have to take the rig to a station and have it filled or you have to see if anyone is delivering (not all that uncommon in larger parks with long term residents).

Dry camping: motorhome
This is only about our specific rigs but I have the idea is it more common than not. The motorhome has a big diesel generator, an inverter, and 4 6-volt house batteries. It has larger holding tanks too. There are ways to do all the above with a 5th wheel, but the motorhome is pretty much ready to go without any special add-ons (neither had solar of any kind).

In-motion convenience: motorhome (but not as much as you might think)
Prior to getting the motorhome we were told how great it would be for the passenger to be able to get up and move around while in motion. We haven’t found that to be the case. It is downright dangerous for anyone to be up and moving around while on the road. Sometimes we take advantage of a stoplight or a nice straight stretch of open interstate to get up and do something, but most of the time the passenger needs to stay strapped in.

Getting in and out: 5th wheel (but not as much as you might think)
There are more steps getting into the motorhome and they have to be navigated every time you go in or out whether on the road and traveling or stationary in the campground. On the other hand getting in and out of the pickup is just a bit harder than getting in and out of a car. Then, in the campground, there are fewer steps coming and going from the 5th wheel. However, this advantage is somewhat diminished by the additional steps going up to the bedroom and bathroom. I’m giving the 5th wheel the win here, but not by much.

Cost: 5th Wheel
Bear in mind that I’m talking about used rigs here. The cost of a big late model diesel pickup plus good 5th wheel is at least in the same neighborhood as a used low mileage diesel pusher motorhome of similar vintage. However, you have to then add in the cost of a small towed vehicle. Then, chassis-engine repairs will cost more on the motorhome. The price difference is offset a bit by the better motorhome resale value. The results are mixed – but I give a slight plus to the 5th wheel. Frankly, the startup on our motorhome has been very expensive for us as we found issues that had to be fixed. I’m counting those costs in with the purchase price – hopefully, these expenses will come to an end very soon.

Prestige: Motorhome
If you like compliments on your rig (and who doesn’t) the motorhome is the hands-down winner. I’ve had guys in a pickup truck pull up beside me in traffic and give me a thumbs up (never had that happen with the 5ver!). It isn’t unusual for people in campgrounds to complement us on our rig. Honestly, the first thing that got our attention about this motorhome was how good it looks. Apparently, a lot of people agree. This kind of stuff is no big deal to us, but it has happened often enough to convince us that it is more than a coincidence.

So the jury is still out
As you can see, at this point it’s a mixed bag. It would be untrue for us to say we haven’t missed our 5th wheel. Of course, after living in it for six years we knew all of its quirks – we are still learning the motorhome. At this time the thing we like best about the motorhome is the small car we tow – making it a pleasure to go sightseeing or just to run to the store. The thing we like least is how much more difficult it is to get work done on the chassis side of it. It is a much more difficult thing to find a shop to work on it and then to take it there as opposed to taking the pickup into the Ford dealer.

Note: this article is a work in progress. I’ll likely be back to add/edit items as things become apparent to me.

6 responses to “Comparing a 5th Wheel and a Diesel Pusher Motorhome

  1. Agree with most of your analysis. As you say, it’s based on your rig, and as we all know, each and every one, and every situation are so different.

    Loved our big Alfa Fiver, and F550 with hauler bed (extra storage.) It was literally a little apartment on wheels. The five years we lived in it while we were still working worked out to be a wonderful decision.

    Transitioned into our motorhome at a point where our travels were really picking up, and we were moving way more often. Best decision ever for us. Everything about travel day was easier, and having a bathroom onboard was the bomb.

    We were fortunate to have 3 full width, across the entire coach, basement storage bays, which we would highly recommend. From seeing our friends coaches with individual storage “compartments” up and down each side, I could see how that could make a huge difference in storage capacity between “basement” storage.

    We know each person has their individual preferences, but moving to the motor home was one of our very best decisions. Not sure we would have stayed on the road as long, or traveled as extensively, had we still been in the fiver.

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  2. Neither a 5th wheel nor a motorhome fit our requirements. We have two recumbent tricycles (terratrike.com). Neither a fifth wheel nor a motorhome with enough storage space are within our budget. We have a travel trailer. The Ford F350 diesel truck has a bed “cap” to provide weather protection to our trikes that are in the bed when the forecast indicates the possibility of inclement weather or while we are on the road. The trikes are a VERY fuel efficient means of travel while in the park (laundry, mail, etc.) and often around town. Also, I have trouble walking, but I am able to pedal with no problem.

  3. I read the whole thing. I was very interested in the comparison. I’m glad for you guys.

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  4. So does the other half feel the same way?

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