Recreational Vehicles for Beginners, Part One

Types of RVs


The term "Recreational Vehicle", or more commonly, "RV," describes approximately ten broad classes of highly-mobile residences, sometimes called "campers." Perhaps some RVs could be called "campers" but as you read this article you will learn that some "houses on wheels" are so luxurious it is difficult to call them a "camper." Recreational vehicles are unlike "manufactured housing" or "trailer houses" because RVs can either be towed or driven on highways without special drivers' license requirements or special permits. Most often, RVs are "self-contained"--such that the occupants can spend at least one or two nights living without utility services (electricity, water, and sewer). Therefore, most RVs will have freshwater storage tanks, a system for pressurizing or pumping the freshwater to the faucets, holding tanks for the waste water, 12-volt electrical systems and a bank of 12-volt batteries to provide power. Most will have an onboard propane supply which provides fuel for the cookstove, oven, furnace and, usually, the refrigerator. And most have some type of onboard bathroom facilities.


Teardrop Trailer

1) Tear-drop trailers.


These little trailers, often home-made, have been around for several generations. They are the smallest RVs available. Because of their very light weight, they can be towed by even small cars. I've even seen pictures of these little RVs being towed behind a motorcycle!


A tear-drop camper is very simple. Inside, behind the small door, is a wall-to-wall double-sized bed. Under the trunk-lid is a galley (small kitchen). The trunk-lid, when raised, serves as a canopy. There is no onboard bathroom.


Pickup Bed Camper

 2) Pickup bed campers.


Traditionally favored by hunters, the rig slides into the bed of a pickup truck. Placed atop a large four-wheel drive pickup truck, the camper can be easily carried to various off-road wilderness locations, which adds convenience for the hunter. When not in hunting season, the camper can be easily removed from the bed of the pickup and stored. One disadvantage is the unit provides precious little square footage for living space, and includes very few cabinets and closets. Often the unit does not provide a bathroom. Some modern designs incorporate slide-out rooms, which allow for more living space--but those units are similarly priced to the more-luxurious travel trailers. In the 1960s and 70s, this type of RV was more common but, in recent years, the pickup camper is marketed to a very narrow line of consumers, usually hunters.


Pop-up Camper

3) Pop-up campers.


These cute little trailers, available in several different designs, are most often built as half-tent and half-camping trailer (although some variations exist). The storage cabinets, kitchen sink, refrigerator, cook stove, water tanks, toilet, dining table and benches, hot water heater, and furnace are all built into the hard-sided lower portion of the rig. When arriving at the camping destination, the owner simply cranks up the roof and the tent-style walls appear. Beds slide on rollers from the front and the rear of the trailer, and the trailer "pops up" to a full, well-appointed camper. These little trailers weigh so little they can be pulled by the average family sedan, avoiding the need to buy a pickup truck. They are also the least-expensive RV to purchase. When towed behind an appropriate vehicle, the pop-up campers can be dragged to locations more remote than would be accessible other types of RVs except the pickup camper.


Other pop-up RV designs are similar, such as the "chalet," which offers hard-sided walls while maintaining the folding idea of this trailer.


But the pop-up campers, as cute as they are, have several disadvantages. Some parks, such as Yellowstone, do not allow RVs with fabric walls, due to the potential of a bear invading the space. Although they are outfitted with furnaces (and often air conditioners, as in the above photo), the fabric wall provides very little insulation value, so condensation is a problem in cold weather. Among the various types of RVs, they are the most time-consuming to set up when arriving at the campsite, and to tear down at the end of the camping trip. The interior compartment is inaccessible except when the camper is fully set up, requiring food and supplies to be carried in the tow vehicle until the rig is set up in the campsite. Onboard freshwater supply is very limited, and the bathroom (if provided) is a cartridge-type toilet, which makes life very unpleasant when emptying.


Travel Trailer

4) Travel Trailers.


This category has the largest available variety and seemingly endless floorplans. Small rigs, such as the one pictured above, can be towed by larger cars, most vans and SUVs, and almost any pickup truck. Some larger travel trailers (called "bunk-house" models) have essentially what is two bedrooms. Considering that the sofa usually folds into a double bed, and the dining table usually converts to a large single bed (or a bed large enough for two children), those bunk-house models could conceivably sleep at least nine people!


Some small travel trailers are "hybrids"--they have tent-rooms (similar to the pop-ups) which fold out, if needed.


Another popular floor-plan is called the "toy-hauler," which contains a garage at the back of the unit. When the "toys" (motorcycles, ATV's, canoes, snowmobiles, etc.) are unloaded, then bunk beds fold down from the walls, converting the "garage" into a second bedroom.


Yet another variation in this category is called the "park model" which eliminates all the rig's independent-camping features (water tanks, holding tanks, generator, batteries, television antenna, propane refrigerator, etc.) and presumes that the rig will always be docked in an RV park with full utility hookups. Many of those park models are more luxurious than the average home.


Because of the wide variety of floor plans and options, this category remains the most-common type of RV purchased. The rigs can be towed with any appropriate-sized vehicle outfitted with standard trailer-towing options.


Disadvantages are few if any. The only possible disadvantage I can find is the tow-ability. A bumper-pull travel trailer, even when equipped with modern stabilizing sway-bars, tends to occasionally give the driver of the tow vehicle a sense of "drifting"--especially at higher speeds or in strong winds. For this reason, many folks who regularly travel long distances towing their RVs will select the fifth-wheel category (see below), which eliminates the sometimes sloppy feel when pulling the travel trailer.


Fifth Wheel Trailer

5) Fifth wheel trailers.


For many people, especially for those who travel often, or who live in their RV for long periods of time, the fifth-wheel trailer (or "fiver") is the favored option. ("Fifth wheel" refers to the special type of hitch installed in the bed of the pickup truck.) It is no coincidence that over-the-road semi trucks always use a fifth wheel hitching arrangement. This is without doubt the safest and easiest type of hitch to maneuver. The fifth wheel distributes a significant portion of the trailer's weight over the rear axle of the pickup truck, thus "joining" the two vehicles, making them act almost as a single vehicle.


RV manufacturers are aware of the desirable characteristics of the fifth-wheel arrangement and, consequently, know that many folks who live long-term in their RV's tend to prefer the fifth-wheel configuration. Therefore, fifth-wheel trailers can often be very large, with multiple slide-outs, and luxuriously appointed. Many fifth-wheel trailers leave the factory with ceiling fans, washer-dryer units, large wardrobe-closets, ample storage space, theater-quality television sound systems, etc.


There are several disadvantages. These are generally the heaviest RV trailers manufactured and, consequently, require the tow vehicle to consume much more fuel. They require a dedicated, heavy-duty tow vehicle (an appropriate-sized pickup truck or a small semi-tractor truck). In the case of a pickup truck, the fifth-wheel hitch consumes essentially all of the available space in the bed of the pickup.


During sharp turns, the fifth-wheel trailer could conceivably make contact with the cab of the pickup truck, causing significant damage to both the truck and the trailer. Many people, especially the elderly and disabled, complain of the two or three stairs between the master bedroom and the remainder of the rig.


"Stealth" Camper

6) Stealth trailers, and custom travel trailers.


There is a growing trend among do-it-yourself types to renovate large cargo trailers into RVs. Because the exterior of these shop-built RVs tends to look more like a cargo trailer than an RV, they are often called "stealth RVs." There are at least two advantages, beyond the satisfaction of building your own RV from the ground-up. First is that the floor plan can be customized to the owner's particular needs. The RV industry has been slow in providing handicap-accessible floor plans, so many disabled folks can take the bare shell of a cargo trailer and design their own living space. 


Cowpokes following the rodeo circuit often order a custom-built horse trailer with living quarters at the front. Off-road motorcyclists and automobile racers often build living quarters at the front of their equipment trailers. I know of one musician who plans to renovate a large cargo trailer, incorporating a small sound-proof recording studio so, if the urge strikes, he can make music while camping deep in the woods.


But the second advantage discloses the reason renovated cargo trailers are often called "stealth campers." Because the exterior looks like a plain cargo trailer, owners can camp in almost any parking lot for a night without arousing suspicion. The only possible clue that this was not a standard cargo-trailer would be the presence of a roof-top air conditioner, if installed.


Class B Motorhome

7) Class-B Motorhome


As we move our discussion into self-powered RVs, or "motorhomes," we must understand that these categories are often not very clear, and have much overlap. A large B-Class motorhome may be more luxurious and have more living space than a small C-Class. However, we do well by understanding the three broad classes of motor-homes.


(Don't try to understand why the big motorhomes are "A-Class", the smallest motorhomes are "B-Class", and the mid-sized motorhomes are "C-Class." It makes absolutely no sense to me, either.)


The B-Class is traditionally manufactured on a heavy-duty cargo van, although some recent designs place this motorhome on a heavy-duty pickup chassis. This design provides the best fuel mileage of all the motor-homes, but sacrifices in floor space. There is usually no separate bedroom, and often the sofa or dining table must be converted every evening into the only bed in the rig. Bathrooms are very small and, often, the toilet is located inside the shower-stall, allowing the same square footage to be used for two purposes.


With the manufacturers now using slides to increase the available interior square footage, many of the new B-Class motor-homes are reasonably roomy and inviting. I have known married couples who manage quite well full-timing in the little B-Class motorhomes, but I think I would feel claustrophobic living in them.


Class C Motorhome

8) Class-C Motorhome.


C-Class motorhomes are easily distinguished due to the presence of the sleeping compartment above the cab. In smaller C-Class homes, that is the primary sleeping compartment but the larger C-Class rigs have a small bedroom at the rear, thus the cab-over portion becomes a secondary sleeping compartment, useful for families, for grandkids, or for those nights when you don't want to share a bed with your spouse.


The C-Class rigs are built on a specialized chassis. If you look closely at the cab of the motor-home, you can recognize that same chassis is often used on ambulances, small busses, and other specialized vehicles. These rigs have more square footage than the B-Class design, yet achieve slightly better fuel mileage than the large A-Class rigs. They are large enough to have respectable bathrooms and galleys ("kitchens"). They also offer the benefit of the two dedicated and somewhat-private sleeping areas (in the larger rigs).


This class of motor-home is often chosen by families--probably because of the two almost-private bedrooms. The motor-home's engine is sized to pull a small tow-vehicle behind the rig, allowing the freedom to leave the motor-home docked at the campsite and using the towed vehicle (or "toad") for excursions and errands.


There are few disadvantages. When camping long-term, it is sometimes desirable to have a second vehicle to make short trips away from camp. This necessitates dragging the second vehicle behind the rig as you travel. The cockpit ("cab") of the truck is not designed to be used except while driving, which prevents that square footage from being used for living purposes (the B-Class and A-Class motorhomes are designed such that the cockpit seats will turn around to face the living area when parked).


Class A Motorhome

9) Class-A motorhome.


A-Class motorhomes, in their classic shoe-box shape, resemble a modern passenger bus. Like the fifth-wheel trailers, the manufacturers often pack these rigs with options, making them very luxurious self-contained mobile residences. The sky is the limit, both in options and on the price-tag. Some will have two bathrooms. Most have an onboard washer-dryer. There is no way you could call these rigs a "camper."


A-Class motorhomes are built by the RV manufacturer from the chassis-up; hence the lack of a standard cab (which the B-Class and C-Class homes have).


Traditionally, these rigs were powered with a gasoline engine, which was located in a "doghouse" (the hump in the floor between the driver's seat and passenger seat). However, in recent years, the trend has been to build these rigs with a more-powerful diesel engine located at the rear of the unit (hence, the nickname "diesel-pusher"). Relocating the engine to the rear (usually hidden under the bed), substantially reduces the engine noise heard by the driver and passengers and also allows the square footage of the cockpit to become a usable part of the living room's square footage. The unit pictured above is a diesel-pusher--note the entry door located at the very front of the rig (indicating there's no engine there), and the lack of a grill across the front of the vehicle.


Large Conversion

10) Custom conversions.


Earlier, when I spoke of trailer-type RVs, I had to include a final category describing "all other" RVs built on trailer frames. Now, when I'm speaking of self-powered RVs, I must include a similar category. There are many types of conversion RVs on the road, including the expensive band tour-bus pictured above. Some folks will convert an old passenger bus or school bus into a very comfortable RV. Many folks convert cargo vans to very comfortable (but small) RVs. I have even heard people talk of converting old U-Haul trucks or UPS trucks to RVs, but I have never seen one of those conversions.


Final notes.


You now understand that RVs are built for almost every conceivable lifestyle. Folks who are into power-sports (motorcycles, car racing, snow-mobiles, etc.) will favor the toy-hauler travel trailers. Families who travel extensively might prefer a C-Class motorhome. A family making only the occasional weekend trip to the lake would probably be best served with a pop-up camper. Hunters would prefer a pickup bed camper riding on top of a high clearance, four-wheel drive truck. Snowbirds who move their trailer only at the beginning and ending of the season might prefer a park model trailer. Aging single men like me prefer an older-model A-Class motorhome, and newly-married couples might preferring zipping around the country in the sporty, more maneuverable, and fuel-efficient B-Class motorhomes.


When purchasing a recreational vehicle, spend some time thinking about YOUR particular lifestyle. The RV which works for me might be all-wrong for your lifestyle. My old A-Class motorhome has two large wardrobe-closets and two smaller shirt-closets, giving me the luxury of more closet space than I can use. I enjoy the separate bedroom, although I live alone. My bathroom setup, which has the shower in the hallway, works fine for me, but families will want the shower to be inside the bathroom and, thus, more private.


Island beds are much easier to make up in the mornings than the wall-to-wall beds which exist in some smaller rigs. You'll tend to think you need a large galley but, unless you are regularly cooking for a large group, you can adjust to the standard small galleys. Large-screen TVs and surround-sound, theater-quality sound systems are important for some but for others (like me) they are simply a waste of money.


So, pick what fits your particular lifestyle, then make time to regularly USE the RV.


Understand that dealers make a large profit on the sale of new RVs. Never pay the list price. Expect to negotiate at least 20% off the list price of a new trailer. I've known folks who purchased new trailers for 25% or even almost 30% off the list price. I've never purchased a new motorhome, but I suspect the markups are similar.


Also understand that new RVs depreciate very quickly. The average depreciation is 30% (calculated on the final selling price) the first year alone! The new RV will depreciate to half its final selling price, on average, in the sixth year of ownership. After that, depreciation greatly tapers off. (Therefore, it would be wise to purchase a well-maintained RV at least six years old.) Spend some time familiarizing yourself with RV market values using Craigslist or other sources, before you make a quick decision to buy.

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