A north Texas RVer refurbishes a fifth-wheel toy hauler to suit his wife’s special needs

Chuck and Terri Wilhite with scooters at Grand Canyon
Chuck and Terri Wilhite at the Grand Canyon.

My wife, Terri, has Parkinson’s disease, so any outing must be a planned event, especially trips that get us into the great outdoors. I recently retired, and since then I’ve been converting a 2015 Palomino Puma fifth-wheel toy hauler to accommodate my wife’s wheelchair and electric scooter, as well as her limited dexterity and lifting strength. We learn something new on each trip and keep an improvement list that, fortunately, is getting shorter.

Yellow graphic showing $3,000 Cost and ongoing time spent on projectOur fifth-wheel has one set of interior steps from the rear garage to the hallway and another set to the front bedroom. Installing carpeted (for traction) ramps over the stairs solved the access problem but blocked some cabinets and drawers, an inconvenience that was resolved by hinging both ramps, which allows them to be folded up.

Another inconvenience was that the main floor ramp blocked access to the kitchen due to the length required for a gentle rise of 30 degrees. Our solution was to lift the ramp for sink access, which initially required an able-bodied person but was later accomplished by a lift system for independent operation. After experimenting with ropes and pulleys, we settled on an electric strut.

Terri Wilhite on scooter behind rear ramp of toy hauler
An extension ramp and box lift lessen the ramp angle, making it easier for Terri to drive her compact mobility scooter up into the toy hauler.

A wheelchair with smaller wheels directly below the frame (i.e., no large external wheels) and a compact three-wheel Bobcat scooter both fit through the 30-inch-wide hall. However, turning from the hall into the side bathroom posed problems. Our solution was to remove the bathroom door, using the hall’s pocket door and the bedroom curtain for privacy.

Grab bars were installed along the hall, room entries and sink area to facilitate stability. Cabinet handles that were at wheelchair-contact height in the narrow hall were replaced with tie-straps.

See Related Stories: RV Makeover

In the master bedroom, there wasn’t enough space to maneuver the wheelchair or scooter with the bed platform in the middle, so it was repositioned sideways against the front wall. The platform was raised, and side rails were anchored to it to ease transfer to and from a wheelchair or scooter.

A custom headboard was installed with 12-volt DC and 120-volt AC outlets, a USB plug-in, and holders for a cup, phone and TV remote. Open shelves replaced the cabinets. The last bedroom touches were a small flip-up utility table and an open rack for hanging clothes, both of which leave floor space for maneuvering.

Terri Wilhite on rear ramp of toy hauler in patio position.
Chuck made a patio deck out of the toy hauler’s rear ramp using two heavy-duty Z-style stands, a fold-up rear rail and a 10-foot ramp with handrails. The deck’s rail and access ramp store overhead inside the RV.

One of the pleasures of RV camping is sitting outside and enjoying the view. To enable easy wheelchair access for this, I made a deck out of the toy hauler’s rear ramp using two heavy-duty adjustable Z-style stands, a fold-up rear rail at the back edge and a 10-foot access ramp with handrails, all of which takes less than 20 minutes of setup time at the campground. Everything folds up for travel on the walls and below the ceiling inside the RV.

After several shakedown cruises and a few long trips, we learned that a lift block and a short 3-foot ramp at the end of the tailgate makes a great difference in the ramp angle with only a two-minute setup. For overnight stops, this keeps a clear-passage aisle, allowing microwave and fridge access using tray tables for meals as the foldable table is blocked by the storage of larger scooters.

Terri Wilhite fixing meal in rear of toy hauler.
Terri prepares dinner on the flip-up table in the rear of the toy hauler with supplies in a plastic tub nearby.

Campsites and nearby terrain can be rough, sometimes too rough for standard wheelchairs or small electric scooter wheels. Gravel driveways or camp areas paved with large round (golf-ball size) stones will quickly trap a wheelchair, while small stones or pea gravel is OK. To help in that situation, we found a larger-wheel electric scooter that Terri transfers to when exiting. Unfortunately, this scooter can’t be used on the ramps or in the master bedroom due to the larger wheels and shorter turning radius, but it travels well in the garage.

My wife calls our F-350 dually tow vehicle the Behemoth due to the two-step requirement to climb in. Some additions were required to ease getting in and out including pull-handle straps on the passenger headrest, an extra pull-handle strap to extend the built-in front grab handle, a slip-in door handle for the door latch, and an electric sling-arm lift that mounts on the door hinges and is capable of a wheelchair sling-seat transfer to the passenger seat of the truck (two-foot lift) for use when she is too fatigued to climb in.

Collage of 12 photos showing Chuck Wilhite's RV makeover project


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5 COMMENTS

  1. Kim: They are piano keyboard stands from Amazon: Plixio Piano Keyboard Stand – Z Style Adjustable and Portable Heavy Duty Music Stand for Kids and Adults (Fits 54-88 Key Electric Pianos). I use two for balance, and the 500-pound capacity is fine for holding one side. They fold up almost flat and fit under/behind the couch for transport.

  2. Would like to know where they got the 10-foot folding access ramp with handrails. I have been looking for one like that but have had no luck.

    • Douglas: I bought them separately on Amazon and drilled 8 holes to assemble the L-bracket to the ramp. I unbolt the railings for transport. Jaxpety 10-Foot Aluminum Multifold Portable Wheelchair Scooter Mobility Ramp with Carry Handle, 120 inch. Current price: $265. Titan 10-Foot Wheelchair Entry Ramp Handrails Only. Current price: $579.

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