With pickups becoming ever more powerful, they can be better suited for towing than ever, but you'll still need something to hook the trailer to. Since the towed trailers have gotten larger and heavier in recent years, many have had to abandon the receiver-mounted trailer ball and put the load of the trailer tongue in the bed, where it really should be. Making the decision to go with the better setup may be easy, but if there's a real downside to gooseneck and fifth-wheel hitches, it's their cost and the relative complexity of installation, compared to a receiver hitch.
Most simply pick a hitch of their liking and then have a shop install it, which doesn't exactly lessen the drain on the wallet. We wanted to see for ourselves how involved an installation would be, if it's indeed a job best left to the professionals or if it's doable in the driveway.
After looking at what's available for late-model pickups, it became clear that an equally late-model gooseneck hitch can be a virtual bolt-on, while earlier vehicles may require a few holes drilled in the frame to accommodate the latest, most user-friendly hitches. Either way, holes must obviously be drilled in the bed's sheetmetal, but that certainly shouldn't prevent anyone from a DIY installation.
After doing our homework, we zeroed in on Valley Industries' Stow-A-Ball setup, in this case for '99-'06 GM pickups. This "Ball Hitch Head" has a removable 2 5/16-inch ball and is rated for a 30,000-pound trailer weight with a 7,500-pound tongue weight, which is more than adequate for our needs. A pull-handle in the wheelwell releases the trailer ball, which can then be turned upside down and stored in the same cavity, with nothing sticking up above the ribs in the bed, leaving it free and level for basic non-trailering uses. An Odyssey electronic brake control from Valley was chosen to slow the trailer down, mostly because of the Odyssey's great function, but also since the newest optional wiring harness (again, for late-model vehicles) makes the wiring a complete plug-in job.
With the Ball Hitch Head and the vehicle-specific Gooseneck Mounting System on hand, our first move was to give the non-cad-plated parts a coating of rust-preventing paint. A shop probably wouldn't do that, but we wanted the extra protection. Rather than watching the paint dry, reading the instructions was next. Once we knew that all the parts were indeed included and where they were supposed to go, it was off to the hardware store for a hole saw. The instructions called for a 3 3/4-inch hole, but we doubted that the Hitch Head would end up in the exact correct position, relative to the bed, so we bought a 4-inch saw instead, which can also be used for taillights and such later.
Expecting the install to take the better part of a day, we then made an appointment to have the bed sprayed with Line-X the following day. That way, the holes drilled in the bed would get a great rust-preventive coating on their edges before we installed the last parts. Most likely, a shop wouldn't do it that way.
Valley's instructions have torque values for the fasteners that matter, and minor adjustments are possible when bolting the hitch together. Heed the instructions, and measure twice, at least. You do want the trailer ball to come out through the hole you drilled in the bed, not close to it, and you definitely don't want the hitch to fail when towing something down the road. Leave the impact wrench in the toolbox. Yes, it takes longer to actually do it right, which a shop is less likely to take the time for, and installing trailer hitches is not the place to cut corners. Besides, when someone asks where you had the nice, clean installation done, you can say "Oh, I did that."
There are two common ways to tow a trailer with a bed-mounted hitch. The fifth-wheel is by far the most popular, being used on all commercial tractor-trailer rigs and also by the majority of pickups towing recreational trailers. Meanwhile, the gooseneck hitch is mostly used in farm environments and on horse trailers.
Either type is superior to a so-called bumper-pull, or receiver hitch, as they put the trailer's tongue weight slightly ahead of the rear axle. This makes them tow far better and they're usually rated for much greater trailer weights. Also, they generally allow jack-knifing the trailer to at least 90 degrees, aiding immensely in maneuverability. On the other hand, bed-mounted hitches require larger radius turns and can claim a fair amount of bed space.
So, why did we pick a gooseneck over the more common fifth-wheel hitch? Largely because the gooseneck's trailer ball is typically easily removed, or at least made to lay flat and out of the way, making the bed fully usable when not towing a trailer. More importantly, the trailer ball allows movement in both planes whereas a fifth-wheel usually only pivots in one direction. If all towing was done on flat ground, the fifth-wheel would work just fine, and even if the road had some ups and downs in it, the pivot would allow that movement. But get the tow vehicle and trailer a bit twisted up, and something has to give. This is where the gooseneck shines, letting the trailer move freely on the ball without binding-to a point, of course. Since many campsites that four-wheelers tend to take their trailers to involve a fair amount of twisting and tweaking between the tow vehicle and trailer, the gooseneck should be the clear winner on that point alone.
It does require more precision driving to connect a gooseneck hitch. Just like with a receiver hitch-mounted ball, the trailer has to be set down more or less right onto it-unlike the fairly foolproof "funnel" of a fifth-wheel that allows miscalculations of several inches in both planes.
Still not sure which way to go? OK, we'll add to the confusion. Some "gooseneck trailers" have fifth-wheel hitches, but the shape of the trailer makes it a gooseneck trailer. Also, you can buy adapters for fifth-wheel-equipped trailers that convert them to a gooseneck hitch.