Example of how we spread out in rig. The pets are obviously very comfortable.
Choosing Your Rig
“We really like our tent trailer but in retrospect it might have been worth the extra to get a hybrid.”
“This is our second travel trailer. We bought one but within three months we knew it was wasn’t right for us so we traded it for this one and it only cost us $5000 in trade-in losses overall.”
“We started in a travel trailer but we soon found it was just too crowded so we upgraded to a motorcoach which is perfect for us.”
“I wish we had looked at fifth wheelers a bit more before we bought the motorcoach.”
“I bought a truck camper but it drove me nuts being in such a small space so I took it back after the first week and bought the Class B and I love it.
I wish I had a nickel for every time I have heard someone describe what they wished they had done before they bought their rig. I would be rich enough to buy a new rig for myself, preferably one already equipped for cold weather camping. The purpose of this section is to ensure you pick the rig that is right for you. No one but you can decide what is right for you. Don’t assume anyone knows what you want. Take the time to do the research in advance and look at the myriad number of types, sizes, subtypes, combinations and permutation that are possible. Consider the advantages and disadvantages of each type. Once you have focused in on a general type, then start looking at models and manufacturers. Once you have a general idea of the type and manufacturer(s) you want, start looking at floor plans and layouts. The very last thing you should do is go to an RV dealer and start wandering around. It’s far too easy find yourself being distracted by pretty upholstery and slick talk and end up leaving without the rig that is really going to suit your specific and unique needs.
Three Modes to Consider
When considering the rig of your dreams you must first think about the three modes of interaction that you will be living in with your rig.
1) Traveling Mode:
You will be spending a lot of time sitting in your rig driving. Consider where you will sit and where your fellow travellers will sit. Consider also how you will sit, who will drive and what everyone who will be driving will be comfortable handling. Will you need air conditioning or heating or both? Will you be driving up and down mountains? Do you normally like to travel to remote locations on bumpy gravel back roads or do you prefer those lovely big resort style campgrounds right off the interstate or do you plan to do both? Where do you like to camp? Many state parks have size restrictions on many or even all of their camping sites. If you like state parks, then maybe you should think about a smaller length of rig that will fit most of these restrictions. If you plan on boondocking (camping for free in a location not specifically designed for an RV) you will need to consider how much water you can carry and other potential restrictions. You also need to consider height issues as well. Is height a consideration? As with length issues, many trails into the deep woods of National Forests require passing under tall trees with low branches. Places with remote backwoods trails usually only trim back trees enough to allow the park ranger’s four wheel drive to fit under easily. We have also encountered many low bridges and tunnels in the USA and Canada, especially in the east, where historic buildings bridges are common. All of these will affect your rig size choice.
Consider also stopping by the roadside, pulling into a parking lot and the need to back up. The 56 foot fifth wheel that has every bell and whistle for stationary living is not going to be great fun to travel with if its too long to get into any gas station that doesn’t service semis and the driver has an irritable bladder that requires a rest stop at least once an hour.
RVers can save a lot of money by pulling over in a pretty park or roadside rest stop and eating in their rig (or at least from the rig) rather than in a restaurant. This is easy when the weather is lovely but what if it’s pouring rain or cold and there is a need to stop? What about a place to have a nap? I bring this up because we knew a couple with a stunningly beautiful motor coach with five pull outs. They found traveling in it expensive and it wasn’t the gas. They didn’t notice until they bought their rig, and got onto the road with it, that the kitchen and bedroom where inaccessible when traveling. The pullouts blocked everything when they were pulled in. They always ate at restaurants and used washroom facilities available at roadsides. The partner who cooked most loved having a break. The partner who managed the finances? Not so much. Walk in your potential rig with all the slide outs pulled in to see how well, or not, that will work for you.
Another issue to consider is ‘toy hauling’. What kind of large accessories will you want to bring along? We take a canoe and two bikes everywhere we go. For others, it’s an all terrain vehicle. Maybe you would like to have a motorcycle or you want to have his and her kayaks. I have met people who use a big bus style rig to live in and pull a trailer big enough to hold a precious antique sports car to drive when they arrive at their location. The sports car was the must have and therefore their rig of choice had to be able to pull the trailer that sports car rode in. Or maybe your life style just won’t be complete if you can’t bring your fishing boat. It’s important to choose a rig that accommodates your toys while in travel mode or you won’t be happy.
2) Short stops:
RVing means driving somewhere with your rig, stopping overnight (or after sleeping) and then continuing your travels again the next morning. I used to be one of those disdainful tenters looking down my nose at the folks with the fancy travel trailer. What did they know about real camping? Then one day I pulled into a state park at the same time as a family with one of those travel trailers. I was stunned to see that they could pull in, hook up to water and sewer and electric and be set up and enjoying themselves before I could get my stuff out of tightly packed car and get my tent set up. They were cooking their steak dinner over an open fire while I was still blowing up my air mattress. When it was time for both of us to leave in the morning, again, they were able to shut down, pack up and be on their way faster than me. I decided after that display of camping prowess that they actually knew a lot more than me about enjoying themselves camping. The set up and take down issue can make or break your experience RVing. Be sure you can live with set up and take down twice a day for short overnight stops while traveling. Since it is generally recommended to not put sliders out while boondocking in locations like a Walmart parking lot, you have yet another reason to make sure the floor plan in livable with all the sliders in.
Another item to add to the list of considerations is general accessibility. What if you need to get at your tools on the road? Where will they be kept and how can you get to them if you need them in a hurry? During a short stop, can you access your toys if the perfect spot for using them presents itself but you really only can spare a couple of hours to stop and enjoy it? Can you get at your toys, load and unload quickly while in travel mode? Can toys be exposed to the weather while hauling or do toys need to be protected? If toys are mounted outside, how will that affect the airflow around the rig? I met a couple who had a lovely small car with great gas milage and hatch back that held all their camping gear. They were avid bikers so they bought a rooftop bike rack. Their gas milage dropped by one third. Getting their bikes off and on the rooftop carrier was such a pain they rarely bothered unless they were staying for more than a week. Don’t make the mistake of creating a rig design that is designed to cut into your enjoyment.
3) Long term stops:
Most people buy their rig to get somewhere, and then stay awhile. Whether your long term stay is two weeks or six months, you need to consider living in your rig. Assume you will be in this configuration for weeks to months at a time. Think of all the possible weather you might encounter. Hot, cold, windy, stormy and everything in between. While it is possible to put up with a lot of tight nuisances with your rig for a few days, can you do it for weeks to months? Can you survive living in it for a week of pouring rain or while you and the rest of the crew are down with a bad bout of flu? If you can’t, then you need to consider a different rig type or a different size of rig. While you are at it, imagine yourself making a quick trip to town to pick up a jug of milk. How exactly will you do that with the rig you have? Don’t forget your toys. Where do they go in this long stop configuration when you are not using them?
Freezing is an issue to consider all by itself. How will your rig react to freezing temperatures? If you plan on going up into the mountains or living in your rig full time how much cold weather will you be facing? Will you be spending spring and fall in the north somewhere? Will you want to wait until after Christmas to head south? If so, chances are you will encounter periods where temperatures drop below freezing, at least overnight. Will your rig be able to handle this? Are your water lines in a protected location that gets some heat from your furnace? What about the valves for dumping? Are they exposed to the freezing air so they will seize up on you? And what about your holding tanks? Are they heated or exposed? A holding tank won’t freeze up overnight if the temperature drops a little below zero but, what if your spend a week in the late fall where the temperature doesn’t rise about freezing? In that situation they will freeze solid if they can’t be warmed. Do you need to put out the extra money for an arctic package for camping in freezing temperatures? Can you just avoid the freezing temperatures? Can you drain the water from your rig so you don’t have any water in your system and live out of water in a 5 gallon jug sitting in the bathroom for a few days of freezing temperatures? Do you feel it is worth it to pay the extra for an arctic package that will allow you to camp nearly all year long? Can the rig be retrofitted for winter without costing as much as a whole new rig if you don’t go for the package now but might decide you want it later? While I am at this, make sure an arctic package is really an arctic packed that will actually make it through really cold weather and not just a few adds on for when the temp goes down to just a degree or two below freezing for one night. Our camper had a heating system that boasted it was good for extending the season due to underfloor ductwork but we still froze up solid one late November in British Columbia. (I will blog about that later.)
And then there is extreme heat. I have never had to deal with extreme heat. I know our trailer turns into a furnace at 30C without a breeze and open windows. I can’t imagine trying to get through an Arizona summer in it. If you are not heading north for the summer, you will need to investigate coping with heat just as much before you buy your rig.
Pull or Powered
Once you have considered and listed all the various ways you want to make your personal rig work for you, the first real decision to make is if you want a pull type rig that is towed behind a pulling vehicle or a self powered rig.
Advantages of the towed type rig:
One major advantage of towed rigs is that once you get there, you set up the towed part of your rig and you have your home base. You unpack your home base and settle in and don’t have to pack and repack every time you move within the area. You still have your pull vehicle to drive around in. If you like doing back country driving in hard to reach places and your pull vehicle is already a nice a pick up with 4 wheel drive, you’re set to go.
When you leave the campsite to go shopping or sight seeing you don’t need to worry about your site looking unoccupied. Many parks have a policy that if your campsite is empty you lose your campsite unless you have given official notice you’re coming back. With the twoed rig you are never left with the unpleasant job of having a fellow camper evicted because he mistook your empty spot for a vacant one. Towed types are also generally lighter overall than powered rigs so your travel gas mileage is potentially a lot less.
The biggest single advantage is your rig is in two separable packages. The trailer and the pulling vehicle represent two independent investments. If something happens you can replace either the pull rig or the pulling vehicle separately. You can also spread any upgrading into two stages starting with a fancy new pull rig and an older vehicle you already have, or vice versa.
Advantages of the powered type rig:
The greatest single advantage of powered rigs has to do with security. If you are boondocking and you feel threatened in your powered rig you can just walk to the front, start your vehicle and leave. There is no requirement to go outside and get into the towed vehicle. There is no hitch up procedure before you can escape.
A powered vehicle is usually a single unit and is also much easier to drive than towing something bigger and longer. There is no concern with the fact that you are hitching something to something else with a hitch in the middle. Turning is easier because there is no trailer following. Driving up and down hill in your self powered vehicle means not dealing with the extra weight of a trailer and preventing swaying, jack knifing, fishtailing and other potential accidents.
When you have a self powered type rig, you can also choose to pull something. If your ‘must have’ toy includes a speed boat for waterskiing then attach it to the back of your powered rig and go. If the powered rig is a larger one, it’s possible to tow a regular car. (There is one exception. In some states you can put a trailer behind a fifth wheel. In other states you can’t so investigate that carefully.) There’s just something not cool about showing up at a theatre production with a big old diesel four by four truck of the type required to tow a large fifth wheel. If the rig is a motor coach type, then it’s possible to bring along an ecofriendly hybrid to use once settled in at a long term camping spot. Depending on how much driving is required once you park the big rig, the money saved by having a small car for local travel may be more than the gas savings of the lighter pull type rig for getting there.
In the dealership:
Once all of these possible factors have been taken into consideration it will be time to start rig shopping. Your shopping should start on line not in a showroom. Check reviews on the manufacturer and the models. Look at the various floorplans and options. If you are buying a pull type rig be certain you write down exactly what you can safely pull for your model of pulling vehicle. Talk to your banker about a loan first. Chances are your banker will give you lower interest rates than what the dealer will offer because those loans are profit makers for the dealers and the profit comes from higher interest you will pay. You may choose the dealer’s loan because it is for a longer term than your bank can offer but check this first with your bank. Set your budget in advance and have a payment scheme worked out before you enter the showroom so you know if what the dealer is offering you is better.
Investigate what should come standard with your vehicle. We got a very low price for our travel trailer but the dealer (now out of business) charged us extra for batteries that should have been part of the standard package according to the manufacturer. He also charged us 50% more for those batteries than if we had just purchased them ourselves. Be well armed with pertinent information long before you go near a real rig.
When you see the sticker price ask what extras will be added to that base price. Extras that dealerships will try to add are long term warranties, special coatings to prevent rust and yellowing and all kinds of profit generating options you either may not need at all or that will be cheaper to purchase elsewhere. Our crooked dealer offered a “diamond coat” to prevent yellowing on all new trailers for a mere $2000. Their advertised price for doing the exact same thing to an older trailers was $950. When I asked about why it would be $1005 less to drive out, turn around and drive back in than do it before leaving, they had no good answer. I skipped the diamond coat and twice a year I do a good hand wash and wax. Examine all these extras carefully and don’t sign until you are sure.
A warranty may or may not be worth it. Ours has paid for itself. Being in our rig full time and putting a lot of miles on it, we figured it would. The main way it paid for itself was whenever we called they would connect us to an expert advisor who got us to do things like check fuses and avoid an expensive service stop and the costs and stress of interrupting our travel plans. They also covered most of one major repair. But many warranty plans are not worth it. If you only plan on a few weekends each summer you may not put enough miles on your vehicle to make use of the warranty. Also a warranty won’t cover do-it-yourself expenses. You can easily void your warranty if you aren’t careful about servicing exactly as recommended with a fully certified dealer on the manufacturer’s schedule. That may cost you more than you can save by doing maintenance work yourself. Consider the extended warranty very carefully.
The most important part of choosing a rig is that there are so many varied types that the perfect one is out there. There is no one right answer for everyone. What is perfect for you is not going to be perfect for someone else. The more time you spend considered options and researching your choice the better the fit will be and the happier you end up. You will also save money. So take the time to do it right. And once you find your perfect rig, enjoy it to the fullest.
Who will be driving?
Where will we camp most often?
What kind of roads will we drive most often?
What will we use to travel to places nearby but too far to walk to?
Total of all
Cargo in pull vehicle
Cargo in towed vehicle
Fresh Water storage
Grey Water storage
Black Water storage
Pull vehicle (if separate)
Towed vehicle & Pull Vehicle
Pull Vehicle along (if separate)
Number of seats required
*Toy space (list must have toys such as bikes and fishing equipment and where they will be stored)
Emergency tool/First aid access
Gas fill ups
Roadside stops with no facilities
Roadside stops with picnic facilities
Emergency toilet stops without facilities
Toy stop (short term with unloading and reloading of toys)
Set up before bed
Take down before travel
Water (food and drinking)
Must have services at overnight stop.
Long Term Stops
Likely length of long term stay
Short trips (as in for groceries or to go sightseeing)
Weather (how to handle)
Cold (down to freezing)
Cold (below freezing)
Daytime fair weather location all participants
Daytime bad weather location all participants
Cooking (inside propane)
Cooking (inside electricity)
Floor plan must haves
Floor plan would prefer but could sacrifice
*Toys refers to grown up toys to enjoy while camping and can include motorcycles, bicycles, fishing equipment, off road vehicles, canoes, kayaks, and guns depending on your lifestyle choices.
Our first rig was a tent and a car. Watching others set up in their travel trailers convinced me that tents were not for me.