Though a full-size pick-up truck can pull most 5th wheel campers, specific instances call for semi-truck RV haulers. A semi-truck RV hauler is more powerful and can even be safer, especially when you’re considering heavier and custom 5th wheel trailers.
If you’re not already a trucker, considering a semi-truck to pull an RV can be daunting. Let’s look at why you might want a semi-truck RV hauler, plus a few potential drawbacks.
What Are Semi RV Haulers?
A semi-truck RV hauler is a semi-truck that pulls a 5th wheel or travel trailer RV. Typically you would use it for longer, heavier trailers.
A semi-truck can sometimes haul a car on a deck behind the cab while simultaneously pulling a 5th wheel or travel trailer. You could also use the deck to store other small vehicles, cargo, or even an additional water tank. Only your imagination and budget constraints limit your options.
Truck Classes Overview
We categorize trucks by their class (1-8) and by category (light-duty, medium-duty, and heavy-duty).
Classes 1 through 3 are light-duty trucks. They’re primarily non-commercial vehicles that range from passenger vehicles (minivan, jeep, or extended-cab pick-up truck), but they can include smaller delivery trucks. These classes’ gross vehicle weight tops out at 14,000 pounds. A heavy-duty passenger pick-up truck would fit into this category too.
Medium-duty trucks compose classes 4 through 6. They weigh 14,001-26,000 pounds and include bigger delivery trucks, bucket trucks, and school buses.
Classes 7 and 8 encompass heavy-duty trucks. Class 7 trucks start at 26,001 pounds and reach a maximum of 33,000 pounds. Any truck over 33,000 pounds is a class 8, although there’s a special class 9 category for trucks that weigh up to 80,000 pounds.
Garbage trucks, city transit buses, and smaller semi-trucks go in the Class 7 category. Category 8 trucks include cement trucks, dump trucks, and the largest semi-trucks.
Can You Tow a 5th Wheel with a Semi?
Yes, you can tow a 5th wheel RV trailer with a semi-truck. There are, however, a few things to consider when doing so.
First, you’ll want to match up the kingpin coupling. This is the part that connects the trailer and the truck. The coupling is usually 2 inches, though it can be 3.5 inches. The 5th wheel trailer tongue has the kingpin, while the semi-truck would have the horseshoe-shaped 5th wheel coupling, which must be compatible.
Semi-trucks generally have different wiring connections for semi-trailers than 5th wheel trailers have. So matching them up might require some work, or you could find an adapter.
The 5th wheel camper’s tongue level must line up with the semi-truck as well. If they don’t align closely, the nose of the trailer will stick up or down. It can create dangerous driving situations, such as impairing control or causing trailer sway.
Also, the trailer and semi-truck must have the appropriate clearance for safe operation. Position the semi-truck cab so that the trailer doesn’t bump into it when turning. Also, make sure the trailer efficiently clears the semi-truck’s frame and wheels.
Can a Semi Tow a Gooseneck Trailer?
A gooseneck trailer and a 5th wheel trailer both connect to a pickup bed hitch. Most trailers and trucks use a kingpin or gooseneck coupling. The gooseneck version isn’t as complicated as a kingpin, but it’s also less robust.
Though people have developed adapters for a gooseneck trailer hitch to work with a semi-truck, most experts advise against it. Gooseneck couplings aren’t as smooth or stable as a 5th wheel coupling. It’s more likely to break or cause dangerous roadway situations.
This is another one of those cases where the saying, “You CAN do it, but SHOULD you do it?” comes to mind.
When Would I Need to Tow with a Semi-Truck?
Fifth wheels, particularly some of the custom models, can get extremely heavy when you start adding all the bells and whistles. They generally range between 5,000 and 16,000 pounds but can weigh well over 20,000 pounds. It takes a lot of power to pull and control such a beast, and semi-trucks do it very well.
With a heavy trailer, you’ll also need extra braking power to stop it safely, particularly when coming down a hill. A semi-truck RV hauler has robust air brakes and is heavy enough to support braking, providing a safe stopping distance for even the heaviest 5th wheel trailers.
Having a vehicle like a semi-truck that’s above and beyond the requirements to pull a heavy 5th wheel trailer means you’ll have better climbing power and stability.
Most semi-truck manufacturers designed the cabs for long days in the saddle. The cabs are usually roomy and can be decked out for comfort in ways that a pick-up can’t accommodate. A semi-truck often rides on air suspension, has comfortable air ride seats, and often features a refrigerator, microwave, and even bunk beds or a dinette.
Semi-Truck Trailer RVs
In addition to towing a 5th wheel trailer easily, semi-trucks can also change the look. With the limits of towing capacity expanded beyond the biggest pick-up trucks, the sky’s the limit for your home-on-wheels length, features, and cargo.
Companies like SpaceCraft Mfg. build custom travel trailers, 5th wheels, and even convert semi-trailers into RVs. Having been building out semi-trailers for more than 20 years, SpaceCraft can build the home of your dreams on wheels, anything from 40 feet to 57 feet in length. Want the toy hauler of your dreams? This is one way to pull it!
Like SpaceCraft, New Horizons RV builds custom dream RVs, though they focus specifically on 5th wheels. New Horizons begins with three different models: Summit, Majestic, and Toy Haulers. Each has several base floor plans that the buyer can customize, which often increases their weight. This is where a semi-truck RV hauler might become a necessity.
A custom trailer is undoubtedly an appetizing option for someone like a trucker that likes to RV on the weekends or maybe is retired and moving into full-time RV living. With a custom build, someone with an existing semi-truck can have a custom trailer built to match it.
Pros and Cons of Hauling an RV with a Semi-Truck
Whether you drive a motorhome or tow a 5th wheel with a pick-up, there are pros and cons. Towing an RV with a semi-truck is no different.
Pros of Towing with a Semi
A semi-truck RV hauler generally has tons of power. You’re looking at 400+ horsepower, which means that you shouldn’t have capacity issues regarding the trailer you’re towing.
Semi-trucks are beefy and meant for large semi-trailers, so they would have no trouble with the heftier weight of a fifth-wheel camper that has a relatively heavy tongue. Plus, the aforementioned air brakes that most semi-trucks use should have no issue with safely stopping even a large trailer.
A retired semi-truck can equal huge savings over a heavy-duty pick-up truck. Even if a semi-truck has a few hundred thousand miles on it, it may not even be halfway through its life. They often last upwards of 1 million miles or more and usually cost less than a new heavy-duty passenger pick-up.
Don’t let the size of a semi-truck fool you. Despite it appearing to be a large vehicle, semi-trucks are pretty maneuverable, though overall length can affect that.
You might also be surprised to find that you’ll make fewer service trips in a semi-truck RV hauler because the oil and the wheels last longer than a passenger truck.
And don’t forget the comfortable amenities a semi-truck cab usually offers, as we mentioned above.
Cons of Towing with a Semi-Truck
As you might expect, there are a number of drawbacks to driving a semi-truck RV hauler simply due to the fact that you’re driving a semi over a standard pickup.
Hooking up the fifth wheel to a semi-truck is one of the most challenging parts. First of all, you might need a different hitch type than what the semi-truck already has, even if it’s the correct size.
Additionally, you risk damaging it when you back up and align it with the fifth wheel. A semi-truck’s power and weight make it prone to jerks as you shift gears, and you might apply too much pressure on the gas and break the kingpin.
As we said earlier, there’s a good chance you’ll need an adapter so that the trailer brakes and tail lights operate in conjunction with the semi-truck.
Driving A Semi-Truck RV Hauler
A semi-truck usually has a manual transmission, but shifting between gears is not exactly smooth like it is with a pick-up truck. The extra jerks and jolts could potentially damage a 5th wheel chassis. As a result, some manufacturer’s warranties won’t cover your trailer if you use a semi-truck to pull it.
Also, unless you plan never to leave the campground, you’ll likely need a separate vehicle for getting around. Semi-trucks are easy enough to drive without a trailer in dry conditions. But it’s not always practical to drive a semi-cab to the local grocery store.
Plus, it can be difficult to drive in adverse weather conditions without a trailer. The semi-truck relies upon the weight of the trailer to help make controlled stops. Without the trailer, the air-controlled brakes might lock in slick conditions.
A semi-truck can be a few feet longer than a full-size pick-up truck. In combination with its towing power and hitch placement, that means that the overall length could affect your maneuverability, particularly when turning. It can also be an issue when trying to fit into an RV park that doesn’t usually accommodate semi-truck RV haulers.
Semi-trucks also have abysmal fuel economy. You’ll be lucky to average 4 to 6 miles per gallon.
Maintenance & Repairs
If your semi-truck RV hauler breaks down, maintenance can be a hassle. You won’t be able to get repairs for a semi-truck at just any repair shop. You’ll need a business that works explicitly on commercial vehicles.
However, there are usually a lot of semi-truck repair shops along interstates due to the large number of semi-trucks on the road.
Finally, it can also be challenging to find storage. Depending on where you live, even if you have the space for a semi-truck on your property, your neighbors, HOA, or covenants might not allow it.
What Are the Legalities of Using a Semi-Truck to Tow an RV?
It is legal to tow an RV with a semi-truck but always check state requirements first. Some states have different laws about driver’s license requirements, registration, or towing length restrictions.
Semi-Truck Registration Requirements
You’ll have to consult the regulations in the state where you intend to register. Generally, it depends on the vehicle’s weight, but fees and rules can vary from state to state.
Unless your state allows for registering a semi-truck as an RV hauler, which would typically require specific modifications, you’ll register it as a commercial vehicle. This may also affect the driver’s license required to operate the semi-truck legally.
Semi-Truck Insurance Requirements
If you’re using the semi-truck for private use with no intent to use it for commercial purposes, the insurance process is the same as if you were insuring a privately-owned passenger car. So, it should feel very familiar, as you’ll provide the same type of information as you have for passenger vehicles.
Just be clear what your intended use of the semi-truck and trailer is so that you get the appropriate coverage should you ever need to use it.
Also, be sure to make sure any RV roadside assistance program you opt for covers your type of RV hauler.
Do You Need a CDL to Drive a Semi-Truck RV Hauler?
If you register your semi-truck as a commercial vehicle, you need a class-A commercial driver’s license (CDL).
If you’ve converted the cab to a legal RV and didn’t register it as a commercial vehicle, there will likely still be specific driver’s license requirements to operate a machine of this size and nature. Always check with various states regarding specific conditions.
What Is a Semi-Truck RV Super C?
Semi-trucks aren’t only used as RV trailer haulers. Some RV manufacturers build right onto a semi-truck frame! A Super C is a motorhome built on a semi-truck chassis. It has a diesel engine, just like a semi-truck tractor, but it’s a self-contained motorhome.
Like a semi-truck pulling a 5th wheel, a Super C has many of the same benefits: the powerful engine, mechanical abilities, and comforts. Still, it can be easier to drive, and there’s no hitching process.
And unless you’re using a Super C for commercial purposes, it’s typically easier to license as a private vehicle. It may also have less prohibitive driver’s license requirements than a commercially licensed semi-truck. But again, check for your state’s specific requirements.
Would You Drive a Semi-Truck RV Hauler?
While a semi-truck RV hauler isn’t always necessary, there are undoubtedly many positives. There can be up-front cost savings, safety considerations, comfort concerns, and more, adding up to it being a great vehicle for towing a trailer.
Of course, not everyone is cut out to drive such a vehicle, or you might not want to navigate many hurdles that come with using a commercial tractor for private use.
Then again, maybe you are or were a trucker that’s used to semi-trucks, so it might be an easy choice.
Like most decisions in the RVing world, it’ll come down to what you want out of your RV and how much you might be willing to step out of your comfort zone.
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Sunday 21st of November 2021
Do you get pulled in to weigh scales or inspection stations? Or have you been chased down by police for not stopping at scales ? Does california allow older HDT trucks in the state or refuse them entry due to their emissions rules ?
Mortons on the Move
Monday 29th of November 2021
If you are registered as personal then you will not need to stop at scales... technically yes you will be asked to enter, in fact we set off scales even with our normal pickup too. As for california you will not be refuesd entry and you can travel there, you just cannot register or set up residence.
Saturday 17th of July 2021
I find your articles to be very interesting and would just like to add my recent experience. When I decided to move up to an HDT vs my F450 dually, I did a lot of research, talking to current HDT owners and reviewing the blogs. I decided to register our truck and our 5th wheel in MT. They have zero sales tax on vehicles and depending on the county, no other "properly" taxes. The truck we selected had already been converted to single rear axle and a 12' bed with two storage boxes. It was already registered as an RV so no issues there. I shopped around for insurance and found several companies who specialize in handling HDT RV haulers and found no problem getting insurance. Most week's are automatic shift nowadays and it was no trouble finding a used semi with automatic transmission. My only issue was trying to find a used semi that had a bed already converted to load a smart car on the back behind the cab. There are several places throughout the country and one in Canada, that build the conversion beds for any capability you want and some will even buy a semi for you and build the bed for any capabilities you want. I agree with a previous commentator that 7-8mpg is more the norm for towing. Great article and all I would add is that if you have one of the larger, heavier 5th wheel trailers, once you try the semi, you'll never go back. Once you have the longer bed on the back it increases the length of the truck (mine is 27' long and a 25' wheelbase so the ride, even without towing anything is more than comfortable.
Mortons on the Move
Thursday 22nd of July 2021
Thank you for sharing your experience!
Tuesday 13th of July 2021
I didn't know that semi-truck trailers and 5th wheel trailers have different wiring connections. I thought I could figure it out but I guess not. My experience is only with 5th wheel trailers so I'll need a professional to help me out.
Not So Free
Sunday 2nd of May 2021
One restriction in some states is air brakes. Some states require a road test and a "notation" on your license. It even applies to motorhomes with air brakes.
Sunday 2nd of May 2021
Hi Tom & Caitlin! Thanks for sharing this article.
I thought I would share just as an FYI to your readers, semi-trucks in the RV world are often referred to as HDT's (Heavy Duty Trucks). There are several FB groups for HDT's and a dedicated group on the Escapees RVnetwork forum for HDT's that goes way back before FB. That will probably make it easier for them to find info if they are researching this topic more and want to know if it's right for them. I think you guys did a good job of covering most the important things.
When we went full time 4 years ago, we actually started with a HDT (2000 Volvo 610 singled short) to tow our 42' Keystone Raptor Toy Hauler. I had never even towed a 5th wheel with a pickup truck at that point. We later downsized to a 30' 5th wheel with the HDT still, and then a dually pickup because we wanted a truck camper and the pickup just made more sense at that point. I had no idea how much the HDT spoiled me at the time and at times I really miss towing with a HDT. Even the 30' 5th wheel was really nice towing with it although that was pretty overkill, but that also made it so enjoyable. I really do miss the comfort while towing with the air ride cab & chassis, the much better stopping, and especially the huge fuel ranges. I had 200 gals on my truck (some have up to 300 gals) and I was pretty consistent 8mpg, sometimes I could tweak up to 9mpg, I had a range up to 1600miles. I will say I think your fuel mileage estimates of 4-6mpg are pretty low. Most HDT's with RV's (except for maybe the really big 5th wheels) get in the 8-9mpg. Some do better, some do worse, but I would expect 6-7 to be on the low side. I personally did better in my HDT than I do now in my pickup. Also since I had such a long range, I could often avoid filling up in expensive places or even expensive states like CA.
It is really common to use an air ride hitch on your HDT to protect your 5th wheel from the harsh suspension of a HDT. My 5th wheel rode better and smoother on the HDT with a Trailer Saver air ride hitch than it does now with a B&W companion hitch on my pickup. I end up with may more things moving now then I ever did on the HDT. It is often suggested to never tow a standard RV 5th wheel with the commercial HDT hitch since they often don't articulate side to side and put way more stress on the 5th wheel pin box. An exception would be if you are towing a high end Space Craft built on a Semi-Trailer frame. The ET hitch is often the considered the best air ride hitch for HDT's to use and they go up to pretty large sizes. An air ride hitch is able to absorb that back & forth motion when the HDT shifts gears so that is totally non issue. Most newer trucks have automated manual transmissions and they shift pretty amazingly smooth.
The cool thing overall about HDT's is they give you an awesome platform to do with what ever you want. There are some very creative HDT setups out there in the RV world. Some keep their trucks very short with a single axle so they are really maneuverable (more so than a pickup), some add a bed and carry a smart car sideways, or maybe motorcycles, or they stretch it out and carry something like Jeep Wrangler length wise on the back. Some turn their HDT truck with a large sleeper into a little mini weekend getaway camper so they can take it to those small state & national park sites that they otherwise couldn't get their large 5th wheel in. It's almost like carrying 2 RV's at once with you. It also makes a nice separate office if you are a couple with both people working.
There's a lot of versatility in setting up a HDT and for some people it makes a great choice.
Mortons on the Move
Friday 14th of May 2021
This is all excellent information! Thank you so much for sharing. We personally have been considering HDT for a long time. I have operated heavy-duty trucks and they make a 3500 feel like a toy :) This is all great info however and I will do some updating of the article.