When you decide to get an RV for a full-time lifestyle like ours, or just for going on vacation, the options can be overwhelming. Ultimately, you will make your decision based on many factors and long consideration but hopefully, I can help lay out your options and sift through the choices.
The approach I recommend is this.
- Learn about what options are out there
- Think about what your desires and limitations are
- Find the option that best fits your desires and limitations
Your Options: A Taxonomy of RVs
I think understanding RV options is best approached as a taxonomy: a series of subdivisions of related vehicles. The first division is between two large families: Trailers and Motorhomes. Each has unique qualities, and within each family, there is a huge range of options.
Trailers: This is any RV that you tow behind another vehicle. When towing them you ride in the tow vehicle. When you arrive at a location you detach and set up your trailer, then roam around in your tow vehicle as desired.
Advantages: The trailer has no engine to maintain, so if your truck is in the shop you can still live in the trailer. You can park the trailer and take your tow vehicle nearly anywhere in the back-country. Usually inexpensive if you already own a tow vehicle. Ideal for short drives with long stops.
Motorhomes: These are RVs which have their own power and which you drive from place to place. You can even tow another trailer or small vehicle behind many motorhomes.
Advantages: Faster set up and take down of your campsite, can be as easy as just parking. If you tow a small car, it can easily go into urban areas where a large tow vehicle or your RV cannot. Passengers can be in the RV while on the road. Ideal for long drives with short stops. They are generally easier and perhaps safer to drive than most travel trailers.
Type of Motorhomes
Motorhomes have three main types and a few sub-types. The divisions are primarily based on the type of vehicle frame the motorhome is built on. Most folks think of them as just Small (Class B), Medium (Class C), and Large (Class A). They cost more than a similar sized trailer because they include an engine and driving controls.
Class A motorhomes: These are based on a large bus or commercial truck chassis. They are the largest motorhomes and most often resemble a large bus. The driver tends to sit high in the front of the vehicle with large windows. They tend to be very tall, very heavy and have the most room inside. They are also the most expensive type of RV you can buy.
Advantages: They are the largest motorhomes with space enough for distinct rooms inside. They often have a great selection of amenities. They tend to give the driver a great view of the road and scenery.
Among class As there are some distinct Sub-types: The Diesel pusher, and the Conversion.
Diesel pusher: This is a Class A that has a diesel engine at the rear of the vehicle, much like a commercial or tour bus. They cost considerably more but have a quiet and powerful engine giving you a luxury ride. They also tend to be very fancy due to the high price bracket they occupy.
Conversion: This is when someone takes a school bus, semi-truck or similar vehicle not originally meant as an RV and turn it into one through customization. The more money or time you spend, the nicer it tends to be. Often popular with the budget minded and the do-it-yourself crowd. The advantage is either that you save a lot of money or can customize it any way you can imagine.
Class B motorhomes: You might think class B is the medium size but this is not the case, they are the smallest motorhomes. They are built on a van or short bus chassis. Accommodations tend to be cramped and amenities limited, but they maximize mobility compared to other motorhomes.
Advantages: They can often go down roads, tunnels and the like that larger motorhomes can’t. You can generally park them on a city street if needed. Super easy to park and set up. They are by far the easiest type of RV to drive.
Class C motorhomes: Class Cs are the middle of the road motorhomes. They are typically built on a heavy duty truck chassis. Often they are as tall as a Class A but generally not nearly as long. They typically have a full range of amenities, but space is fairly limited inside with a single room + sleeping loft.
Advantages: You get a full featured living space at a lower cost than a Class A and easier to drive than a travel trailer. Tends to be the sweet spot in the motorhome world between price and amenities.
Truck Campers: A truck camper is when you take a normal truck, and buy a camper that sits in the truck bed. The camper can be detached (with some effort) and sit by itself while you drive the truck away. Sizes vary as widely as the size of the truck the camper fits in from light trucks to super-duty trucks. Space in the camper tends to be similar to a Class B or small Class C, but amenities are often more limited and overall quality/durability tends to be lower.
Advantages: You get the ease of driving found with a Class B or Class C but can detach the camper as you might with a travel trailer and take the truck off roads or up steep grades for adventure. They also can be pretty inexpensive if you already own the truck.
ATV motorhomes: This is something of a new subcategory of motorhomes. These are specially built RVs that have high ground clearance, large tires, and powerful engines. They are designed to drive off-road into the back country. Generally, you sacrifice living space and styling for the greater mobility and durability the vehicles are designed for. You will also pay a pretty penny for such vehicles as they are generally not mass-produced.
Advantages: You can take your home into the backcountry with you.
Types of RV Trailers
With a definition of anything you can tow, trailers come in a dizzying array of sizes and options. I’m going to limit myself to those that are designed for living or camping in rather than anything you might tow on an outing. I’m going to tackle these starting with the largest, and moving to the smallest.
5th Wheels: The name of these refers to the type of hitch they use. A 5th wheel hitch sits in the bed of a truck and the trailer sits down on top of it. This type of hitch is very stable and can support a lot of weight, thus, 5th wheels tend to be the largest and most luxurious trailers you can buy. A large 5th wheel can easily have more room than a Class A motorhome with multiple rooms, king beds, fireplaces, the works! The bigger the trailer, the bigger the truck you will need to safely tow it and the fewer places it will fit.
Advantages: The range of interior options in 5th wheels is staggering. Some are set up to contain motor-bikes or jet skis. Some have decks that fold out. Others can sleep a dozen people. They are also easier and safer to tow than a travel trailer due to the special hitch.
Park Models / Classic Travel Trailers: This is a pretty wide category but it covers anything bigger than a teardrop but which uses a traditional end to end hitch. Generally, these travel trailers have a full set of amenities like toilet, kitchen and some kind of shower. They may have slide outs and can be pretty roomy, though generally smaller than their 5th wheel counterparts. The bigger they are, the trickier they are to tow. A really big travel trailer is probably the most challenging RV to drive safely.
Advantages: Compared to 5th wheels which require a truck, you have more choice in tow vehicles, especially if it’s a smaller trailer. This often means more options on where you can travel. If you do have a truck you can use the truck bed for storage as the hitch is under the truck bed rather than inside of it. You also generally have all the comforts of home in a classic travel trailer.
Teardrops and Ultralights: These are trailers that generally but not always forgo amenities like kitchens and bathrooms and focus on a sleeping area and perhaps a place to sit. Typically they have a single area that is multi-purpose. The designs are often quite clever and economical.
Advantages: You can often tow them with a small SUV or larger car rather than a Van, Truck, or heavy duty SUV. They are small and thus easy to tow. Gas mileage may actually be pretty decent as where most trailers are in the 5-10 mpg zone. They can often be parked in a normal camping space that has road access.
Expandable Trailers: These are trailers that are very small when being transported, but fold out or expand when parked to provide a place to rest and sleep. Amenities are typically very limited, normally just sleeping or sitting accommodations though sometimes a very limited camp kitchen is incorporated. The real weakness here is their flexible design means limited insulation and weather resistance. They fill the void somewhere between a trailer and a tent.
Advantages: They are very easy to tow, and thus you can tow them with nearly any type of vehicle. They can also be stored in a garage or yard when not in use instead of lurking in your driveway. They can also have a fair bit of interior space compared to their weight and so may be roomier than a teardrop style trailer.
Special Category: Tiny Homes
Tiny homes have gained a great deal of popularity and a good number of them are either built on some kind of trailer chassis or can be mounted to one so that they can be moved from place to place. They can be difficult to discuss simply because there is such a huge range of designs on offer. Some easily transported, some only with great difficulty.
Typically the advantage of such a home vs a trailer or motorhome is that they are built more like a real house. They feel like a house and have sturdy insulated walls like a real house as where most motorhomes are a challenge to keep warm in the dead of winter of cool in the height of summer.
The real disadvantage is they are not generally built to travel. They are made of heavier materials and are often not balanced for towing considerations. This makes towing them both more difficult and dangerous. That said, they come in such a staggering range of styles and features you may well find one that is designed to be towed and yet retains the style of a small home.
So many options!
Whew, that’s a lot of different types of vehicles. Now you may instantly see the one that sounds great to you, or it may be a bewildering mess of possibilities. Either way your next step is to do some self-assessment on what your needs and desires are.
Continue reading: Continue to Part 2