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Critics’ Choice: Best 5th Wheel Towing for $20,000

Looking for the best options in fifth-wheel towing? We’ve got hot recommendations for heavy-duty trucks, all for under $20,000.

Fifth-Wheel Fun

Pickup pulling a camper
Pickup pulling a camper

As we turn the page from summer to fall, those with a love of the outdoors naturally turn toward warmer modes of camping than spending a chilly night in a tent. For the ultimate upgrade in camping convenience, there’s the fifth-wheel camper. These recreational behemoths are practically a bungalow on wheels and offer all your basic amenities from a toilet and shower to stove top and fridge to sleeping space for the whole family. The only thing is, if you’re going to get a fifth-wheel camper, you’re going to need a truck capable of hauling upwards of 12,700-lbs. Hence this month’s Critics’ Choice challenge, to find a truck capable of towing our mobile domicile with a price cap of $20,000.  

Jesse Batson

2007 Ford F-350 Super Duty 

Shortlist

2008 Ford F-350 Super Duty
2006 Ford F-350 Super Duty
2006 Dodge Ram Pickup 3500

2007 Ford F-350 - carsforsale.com
2007 Ford F-350 - carsforsale.com

I clicked around for this edition of our challenge. Based on family recommendations (or, in some instances, complaints) and past experiences, I knew my pickup of choice was going to likely be part of the Ford F-Series, a Chevy Silverado, or a RAM 3500. As I was searching, I debated whether I’d choose a 2WD or 4WD. The 2WD trucks work fine on paved roads and have a higher tow capacity. Plus, they get better gas mileage. However, 4WD gets better traction on those low-traction surfaces.

Realistically, I’m not going to be going too far off the beaten path much, and I’m not going to be hauling my camper out in crappy weather too often. The occasional unexpected thunderstorm could pop up, but, generally, this truck would be for taking the fifth wheel camper to a popular lake on a long weekend, not along a winding, twisting path to forested seclusion. I live in a fairly flat area, too, so there aren’t likely to be many mountainous adventures.

2007 Ford F-350 6.0L V8 - carsforsale.com
2007 Ford F-350 6.0L V8 - carsforsale.com

Overall, I’d prefer to have the higher tow capacity of a 2WD than the traction a 4WD. That’s why I went with this rear-wheel drive (RWD) 2007 Ford F-350 Super Duty. It’s a Crew Cab long bed with dual rear wheels. The listing price is $20,000, so that’s at the top of the budget for this challenge. It’s also got 128,247 miles on it, but it appears to be well taken care of. According to the free vehicle history report available on Carsforsale.com, there were only two previous owners. A newer model with less mileage would be great, but that potentially means going higher than $20,000 as well. In cost-cutting times, I’ll make some compromises.

One area this truck doesn’t compromise on is power. A 6.0-liter V8 turbocharged Power Stroke diesel engine powers the vehicle with 325 horsepower and 570 lb-ft of torque. 2007 Ford F-350 Super Duty models come standard with a six-speed manual transmission, but this one is equipped with the optional five-speed automatic. The transmission is smooth and the brakes are solid on these models.

2007 Ford F-350 - carsforsale.com
2007 Ford F-350 - carsforsale.com

A fifth wheel weighing up to 15,000 lbs can be hauled with this F-350 Super Duty. The gross combined weight rating for it is 26,000 lbs. This particular 2007 Ford F-350 has a tow command package featuring a trailer brake controller that’s integrated into the braking system, allowing drivers to manually or automatically activate the electric trailer brakes and electric-over-hydraulic trailer brakes for better braking while towing.

If you’re in one of the 23 states where it’s legal to ride in a fifth wheel while the vehicle hauling it is in motion, then you may want to hang out in there. If you’re in one of the other states, however, there’s plenty of room in the cabin of this truck. There are a lot of high-end (for 2007) features, too. It doesn’t include GPS, so you’ll need to bring a fully charged phone or a GPS unit for directions. Still, a lot of the features included here are nice to have today.

2007 Ford F-350 - carsforsale.com
2007 Ford F-350 - carsforsale.com

The 2007 Ford F-350 Super Duty Lariat includes audio controls on the leather-trimmed steering wheel, automatic climate control, and power door locks. Simulated wood on the dash and door enhances the look while leather seats enhance the comfort. The driver has a six-way power-adjustable seat to get situated in, and the passenger has the same height, reclining, and lumbar adjustments. There’s plenty of cabin storage with a compartment in the rear center armrest, in the front center console, and in the door pockets. Keyless entry, a power sunroof, and running boards also come with the Lariat trim.

Front fog lights are included. Headlights are automatic. Even though the side mirrors aren’t power folding, they are powered for adjustments. There is a full-size spare tire mount underneath the truck. Overall, this 2007 Ford F-350 Super Duty Lariat is a powerful, sturdy truck that’s accommodating enough to make the long trek to a weekend getaway more enjoyable than not. Factoring everything in, it’s an older option, but a good one for the price.

Chris Kaiser

2009 GMC Sierra 2500 HD

Shortlist

2015 Ford F-250 Super Duty
2012 RAM 2500 Cummins Diesel
2009 GMC Sierra 2500 HD

2009 GMC Sierra 2500HD - carsforsale.com
2009 GMC Sierra 2500HD - carsforsale.com

Given the limited number of carmakers in the heavy-duty truck business, I knew my options in picking a fifth-wheel hauler were going to be limited to one of Detroit’s Big Three. When it comes to American pickups, the competition is fierce, and this leads to an uptick in quality for all three companies. The F-150, Ram 1500, and Chevy Silverado 1500 are all impressive trucks and so are their heavy-duty counterparts. It’s not hard to find a heavy-duty truck with the right specs to haul a 12,500-lb fifth-wheel camper, the real challenge was to find one you’d really like spending may hours covering many more miles in.

I sifted through Ford F-250s and Ram 2500s, and while good, their interior quality and features lists never quite go there. Naturally, I decided to look at the “fancy” offerings from GM’s “premium” truck brand, GMC. It wasn’t long before I narrowed in on 10-12-year-old Sierra 2500s. They could easily be found at or near our $20,000 price point. Finding one with less than 250,000 miles was also a major consideration since we’d want to get many years of service from our fifth-wheel hauler. 

2009 GMC Sierra 2500HD 6.6L V8 - carsforsale.com
2009 GMC Sierra 2500HD 6.6L V8 - carsforsale.com

It wasn’t hard from there to narrow down to a pair of 2009 GMC Sierra 2500 SLTs. And since big torque was the name of the game, both sported the Sierra’s optional 6.6L Duramax diesel V8 making 365 horsepower and, more importantly, 660 lb-ft of torque. This comes paired with a stout six-speed Allison automatic transmission. This set up allows this Sierra, in this configuration to tow up to 16,700 lbs.

And then it came time to chose which of the two 2009 Sierras I like best. The one in Oregon comes with new tires, bolt-on fenders, and rear seat entertainment for the kids or grandkids. All very nice. However, a quick look at the features list of the example from Iowa made it clearly the choice for our camping champion. Key items here included a 12-volt outlet, leather upholstery and wood trim throughout, automatic climate control, keyless entry, and a CD player. What this Sierra had that the prior lacked however was cruise control for those long stretches of highway, a Bluetooth enabled Bose stereo, and heated front seats with two memory settings for the driver’s seat.

2009 GMC Sierra 2500HD - carsforsale.com
2009 GMC Sierra 2500HD - carsforsale.com

The GMC Sierra 2500 is known for a quiet and comfortable ride and greater maneuverability when compared to other heavy-duty rivals. But what really makes the difference are the small things, creature comforts that make those camping adventures all the more restorative.

Jesse McGraw

2008 Dodge Ram 3500 SLT

Shortlist

2007 Dodge Ram 3500 ST
2008 Dodge Ram 3500 Laramie
2005 Dodge Ram 3500 SLT

2008 Dodge RAM 3500 - carsforsale.com
2008 Dodge RAM 3500 - carsforsale.com

So, we’ve got a fifth wheel camper that weighs just over 12,000 lbs and only a $20,000 budget to work with to tow it? Well, when it comes to heavy lifting, you have to go with a Cummins under the hood. Dodge trucks and Cummins diesel engines have worked together for a long time, and that trend continues still under the Ram brand today. We can’t afford to get a shiny new 2022 Ram 3500 with the ability to tow up to 37,090 lbs. on our given budget, but we can afford a third gen Dodge Ram 3500 that still has enough grunt from a Cummins to tow our goal weight and then some.

I found this nice 2008 Dodge Ram 3500 SLT dually with 241,776 miles on the odometer for $18,985. The quad cab interior is a bit outdated in terms of technology, but it’s clean, comfortable, and features enough seating for the whole family. The eight-foot bed is a bit beat up, but it has a bedliner and gives enough added clearance when hooked up to that fifth wheel hitch. Plus, it has a gooseneck already installed. That should make the setup process easier as you can just get a gooseneck to fifth wheel adapter and be ready to tow that heavy camper right away.

2008 Dodge RAM 3500 6.7L I6 - carsforsale.com
2008 Dodge RAM 3500 6.7L I6 - carsforsale.com

Powering this 2007 Dodge Ram 3500 is the Cummins 24-valve 6.7L turbodiesel inline-six that was brand new for 2007. It makes 350 horsepower and 650 lb-ft of torque and is noted as having ARP head studs installed. Diesel fans may scoff at my choice given that the lauded 5.9L Cummins was also available for the third gen, but don’t get your pitch forks out yet. For those not in the know, the 6.7L Cummins has some cons in comparison to the 5.9L Cummins.

For one, added emission components on the 6.7L have the potential to fail, whereas the 5.9L didn’t have any of them to worry about. The 6.7L also works with a variable turbo creating more boost pressure at low RPMs. More boost at low RPMs isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does generate more pressure in the cylinders and leads to more head gasket failures than the 5.9L experienced.

2008 Dodge RAM 3500 - carsforsale.com
2008 Dodge RAM 3500 - carsforsale.com

Enough of the negatives though, this 6.7L Cummins is still a great engine. This 6.7L features a higher compression ratio (17.3:1), larger turbo, larger stroke (4.88 inches), larger bore (4.21 inches), and puts out more power than the 5.9L. In terms of outright performance, the 6.7L Cummins is the better choice for heavy lifting. To really sweeten the deal though, this 2008 Dodge Ram 3500 deleted the emission tech, so fewer flaws and all the unstifled grunt to tow that heavy camper.

In the end, this 2008 Dodge Ram 3500 SLT sends that 6.7L Cummins power through a 6-speed automatic gearbox and on to a 4×2 drivetrain. This configuration allows this dually tow up to 15,750 lbs. stock – which is more than enough pull for our goal weight. With the emission components deleted, this truck probably well exceeds that max. That leaves some extra towing room to toss on some bikes, kayaks, ATVs, or whatever else you want to bring to really up the fun on your weekend getaway.

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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