What You NEED to Know BEFORE Buying Your Dream RV Camper
You are either here because you’re getting ready to buy your first camping trailer or you’re getting ready to upgrade from your current trailer. Hopefully you haven’t already purchased your RV and are finding out that the dealer forgot to let you in on a few KEY things you should know. A travel trailer gives its largest advantage by being separable from the tow vehicle. Your tow vehicle can be your everyday driver. When you get to a campground you can set up camp, separate your tow vehicle and use it to explore the area or just run errands without having to pack everything back up and disconnect from utilities. While you can tow a car behind a drive-able RV, your budget might not be big enough or you just don’t want the price and/or the added maintenance of the larger unit.
A camping trailer is an incredible responsibility with potentially amazing rewards. It can be your second home for a few months a year, or all year if you live or travel to warmer locations. No longer will you need to find a hotel and wonder if the maid really did change the sheets or if the last person hacked up a lung all over that room phone you just picked up. You can have a beautiful view from some of the most amazing parks and campgrounds instead of looking at the side of an industrial building from your hotel room.
So what do you need to know BEFORE you make your purchase? Here are 14 things to consider that will help you select a tenement on wheels and make your vacations (and getting there) so much more enjoyable.
Should you buy an RV?
This is a big one. The idea of camping in an RV is super appealing, but does come with more work than you may have initially thought. First off, there is the whole setting up and breaking down. It takes time. You will get much quicker as you get more familiar with your camper and things will get easier, but don’t forget that it exists. There is the general experience. Some people are just more content in a hotel while others are happier next to a camp fire even with the occasional bug swarm.
After you get through this list and make a decision on what you want to buy… GO RENT ONE similar to what you’ve concluded is your dream trailer. You should do this especially if you are a first time buyer or if you are upgrading (or downgrading) to a considerably different size or layout. A week-long trip or even a weekend may be enough time to tell you that it isn’t what you were expecting. You don’t need to go far, actually you don’t want to be too far from home if your trip turns into something less than wonderful. This is a small investment and you may spend a few hundred dollars, but trying to sell your newly purchased RV could cost you much more as initial depreciation can be 20% or more – not much different than buying a new car. With the cost a new camping trailer being $7,000 – $70,000 or more, it could save a whole lot.
Consider Your Tow Vehicle
While you may have thought your first question should what was the trailer you saw in your last daydream, the 20,000 lb fifth wheel with the halo around it really won’t work if you are planning on using your brand new F150. The vehicle you are towing with, your TOW VEHICLE, plays one of the most important parts in the equation. Knowing the specifications on your specific vehicle is essential and will require (sometimes exhausting) research. The things you need to know most are your vehicle’s weight (specific to the model and options), the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR), Gross Combination Weight Rating (GCWR) and Towing Capacity.
This is the maximum weight the manufacture recommends you tow with your vehicle. While this seems like a hard number, there are a lot of factors that need to be accounted for to get to this number, and in your search you should not be looking for a RV anywhere near this weight. At MOST you should have a trailer about 80% of this listed weight. Though your vehicle might be “rated” to tow it, it may not tow it well. We have to know that the body style, number of doors, bed length, 4×2 or 4×4 and even the axle gear ratio change this rating drastically. As an example we’ll use a 2015 Ford F150. A Two Wheel Drive Regular cab truck having a 3.5l V6 engine with a 141″ Wheelbase and a 3.73 rear axle gear ratio has towing capacity of 12,100 lbs. Change those specs for the same model and year to a Four Wheel Drive Super Crew Cab truck having a 5.0 V8 with a 145″ Wheelbase and 3.31 rear axle gear ratio and your rating just dropped to 9,000 lbs. We’ll use this 5.0l truck for the rest of our examples and assume our maximum trailer weight should not exceed 7,200 lbs.
Gross Combination Weight Rating. This number is the maximum rated weight of your entire setup (FULLY LOADED truck AND trailer). This number accounts for what your engine and transmission can pull as well as what your brakes can stop. Check and be sure what options are needed to reach this weight. The specs for the vehicle may have requirements that you use a trailer brake controller or have a special swaybar upgrade on your specific model to operate at this capacity. The GCWR for our example truck is 14,300 lbs.
Gross Vehicle Weight Rating. This is the rated maximum weight for your vehicle. This is what the axles and suspension can support. This will include everything your vehicle can hold. Remember that will include passengers, supplies, gear and even fuel and options. Our example truck has a GVWR of 7,600 lbs. This means we do not want to go pack our truck heavier than this. If our truck weighs 4,800 lbs then we have 2,800 lbs of payload. That will go quickly.
The trailer also has its own GVWR. Pay attention to this for loading supplies into the trailer itself. If the GVWR of the trailer is 5,000 lbs and the trailer weighs 4,500 lbs you can only put 500 lbs of cargo into it!!
Now lets put this info to work for us:
We’re going to assume that we have 4 passengers (2 adults and 2 children) weighing a total of 650 lbs, a fiberglass cap (make sure you have all the accessories figured in that are on the truck) that weighs 170 lbs, 1,400 lbs of gear in the bed and a canoe on the roof rack that is 110 lbs. Our tow vehicle is now 7,130 lbs. Take our 14,300 GCWR – the 7130 for the truck = 7,170 lbs. You can see that we can only tow 7,170 with our setup and not the 9,000 lbs that the truck is rated to tow. Change this to 4 adults and you just possibly lost another 200 lbs. And that is at full rating, not our 80% recommended maximum. You need to learn and know these numbers. It is imperative for safety!! Don’t buy a trailer that is too big if you normally carry a lot of cargo in your tow vehicle. It is a recipe for disaster.
What tow equipment do you have on your tow vehicle?
Do you have a hitch and a brake controller or just a bumper mounted ball? Though you can usually add, change or upgrade your tow equipment, what is available may be limited for each specific vehicle. A ball mounted bumper hitch is usually good for up to 2,000 lbs (again CHECK YOUR VEHICLES SPECIFIC SPECS) of towing. So even though your truck has a 9,000 lb tow rating, if you are towing the trailer on the bumper you need to make sure you’re not overloading the specific setup you are using.
Most vehicles utilize a receiver hitch, or that little square hole on the back of the car/truck. You install the tow ball into this and then the trailer to the tow ball. That receiver has a different rating depending upon what class it is. The basic classes are 1,2,3,4 and 5, typically shown in roman numerals I,II,III,IV, V. Generally Class I is good for up to 2,000 lbs (200 lb tongue weight(TW) or the amount of weight that pushes down on the trailer hitch), Class II for 3,500 lbs (300lb TW), Class III allows for up to 8,000 lbs (with a 350-600 lb TW), Class IV is 10,000 lbs (600 to 1,000 TW) and Class V is 12,000 lbs (1,200 lb TW). Some Class V can be rated to 16,000 or 17,000 lbs. A class 1/2 usually uses a 1 1/4″ square opening, a 3/4 uses a 2″ square opening and a class 5 has a 2 1/2″ opening. Know what is on your truck/SUV. Again, you may have a 9,000 lb tow rating, but if you only have a class 3 hitch DO NOT EXCEED its rating. If you want to tow more than 8,000 lbs you will need to upgrade to a Class 4 hitch setup, if available for your vehicle.
A brake controller, without getting too far into it, senses pressure being applied to the brake pedal in your tow vehicle and sends a variable voltage through the trailer wiring to the electric brakes on your trailer. Not all trailers are equipped with trailer brakes and not all tow vehicles are equipped with trailer brake controllers. Some of the 3/4 ton and up pickups have them as standard options not, but most likely this is an item that needs to be added. Just because your car has a 7 wire trailer plug don’t assume you have trailer brake controls. Some states require a trailer has supplemental brakes no matter the weight whereas others don’t require trailer brakes unless the GVWR of the trailer is over 2,000 or 3,000 lbs. Check the regulations of your specific state.
Do you have a weight distributing hitch? Should you? With Sway control?
A Weight Distributing Hitch is a hitch that attaches to your trailer frame and tow ball that by design transfers the total weight and tongue weight of your trailer away from the hitch point and towards the trailers axles and front axle of the tow vehicle. It is meant to eliminate the tow vehicle from sagging in the rear, which can produce major handling issues while driving. You want your tow vehicle and your trailer to be level. If either is sagging too far down, it is an obvious indication that something in your tow setup is not right. The maximum tow rating of your vehicle may require you use a weight distributing hitch to reach the listed weight.
Most, but not all, weight distributing hitches come with sway control. Sway control acts to keep your trailer and tow vehicle in a straight line when driving down the road. Sway can be caused by improperly placing the weight in the trailer, but more commonly is cause by windy road conditions. When a trailer starts to sway, you generally feel the back of the tow vehicle move from side to side in an oscillating motion. THIS CAN CAUSE THE TRAILER TO PUSH THE BACK WHEELS (or the entire tow vehicle) OFF THE ROAD. This can be DEADLY!!
The general rule of thumb is if the trailer weighs more than 50% of the tow vehicle weight or is longer than 25′, you should be using some sort of weight distributing hitch and sway controller. Each hitch also has its own ratings, so just because you have your hitch/sway control from your 20′ trailer don’t assume it will work with your 30′ trailer. When in doubt, check with someone familiar and knowledgeable to help you get set up properly. This is too often overlooked. You need to be towing using PROPERLY SELECTED EQUIPMENT, not just within the ratings! Also, remember that the weight of the hitch, which can be 100 lbs, needs to be added to your truck weight. It all adds up.
If you didn’t realize how much your tow vehicle plays in your trailer selection, you should now. Being armed with that knowledge, you can figure out the maximum trailer weight your vehicle can tow and start looking at the trailers themselves. Remember a heavy trailer won’t handle the same as a lighter trailer. So don’t just go to the max weight because you can.
What size trailer should you buy?
Now that we are getting closer to an actual trailer selection you need to decide how big to get. Besides your budget, weight limitations and the fact that you probably want the most room to move around inside as you can get, it comes down to one fairly simple question. How much trailer are you capable of driving? Having a ten foot pop-up trailer on the back of your pickup is almost effortless. You don’t have to compensate much with turns and navigating. You can whip around a WAWA parking lot for gas without even thinking most of the time. (If you don’t know what a WAWA is, I feel for you.) You can probably see around the entire trailer just from the driver seat.
On the flip side, if you have a 30′ travel trailer, you need to watch cautiously for tight turns – too tight and you’ll be blowing tires out on that curb that jumped out of nowhere. Getting gas at anywhere other than a highway rest stop is like playing the game “Operation” except your tweezers are your truck and trailer, the metal openings are little cars MOVING around and getting in your way, and the buzzer is your insurance company laughing as they raise your rates for taking out the Mercedes you didn’t see parked in your blind spot. Use common sense when deciding on size. If you’ve never driven something that big, don’t assume you can. If you are afraid to drive it, you probably won’t.
Where will you store the trailer?
This could play a role in how large you go. If you own 5 acres and have ample space to keep the trailer at home, you may not need to worry about this. But maybe you live in an association, and you may not even be able to keep it at home.
You will need to research places to keep it, if there are size limitations there and what it will cost. If you are planning on keeping it at home, do you have enough space? Can you fit the 30 foot long Wonderwagon next to the garage? Is there enough room to physically move it to that storage space? Don’t overlook this simple question.
Different Types of RVs
This is going to be mostly dependent on your own preferences and limited by budget or weight ratings. The options are Pop-up, Travel Trailer, Toy Hauler and Fifth Wheel. There are of course also the self-contained motorhomes which include Class A, Class B and Class C vehicles. For the purposes of this article, we are going to focus on the rigs that require a tow vehicle.
Sometimes referred to as a tent camper or Pup. These are soft-sided campers that fold down into small and easily maneuverable trailers. They are generally the least expensive and lightest units you can get. They offer a step up from tent camping and can be found with many options. Usually they have a pull out bed on either side and a table that converts to a bed. You can find them with refrigerators, gas ovens, heaters, air conditioners and even bathrooms. Some have slide out rooms like the bigger trailers, but tend to be heavier.
The pros tend to be lower prices and lower weights. If your tow vehicle is a 2015 Kia Sportage with a towing capacity of 2,000 lbs, this may be your only option.
Cons can be lack of amenities and smaller floorplans. Refrigerators are generally small coolers with limited space, bathrooms (if equipped) lack privacy due to only having a curtain around them.
This is the most common RV. It is an enclosed trailer that is towed behind the tow vehicle. It has hard sides and connects to the tow vehicle by means of a hitch at the rear of the vehicle. Travel trailers, or TTs, generally offer more options and privacy than Pups. There are hybrid options that have fold out tent beds to give more room with less weight and keep the overall length down. You can get 12′ versions that can be towed by most pickups and small SUVs. They have enough floor space for a small family and offer plenty of amenities.
The larger TTs have options for slide out rooms that open up the floor space considerably. Many have separate bedrooms for privacy, bunk rooms with various options for families with children, bathrooms offer up vanities and showers (some even with small bathtubs). Kitchens can have full size residential refrigerators, stoves, ovens and even washer/dryers. Cons with TTs can be higher prices, more maintenance and larger sizes require a bigger tow vehicle.
These are similar to the Travel Trailer, but offer space to haul additional items. They are sort of a cross between an enclosed car trailer and a camper. The hauling area can convert to a bedroom or living space with drop down beds or couches. Newer models even have options to turn the cargo doors into decks and party rooms. These campers are great for people that want to take quads, dirt bikes or similar “toys” with them. These trailers usually weigh much more and require bigger tow vehicles and driving abilities.
Fifth Wheel Campers
These are generally the largest of the camping trailers. They have the largest floor plans, spacious interiors and come loaded with options and other rving luxuries. Fifth wheels typically include a variety of appliances and other fun gadgets. The biggest advantage to a fifth wheel trailer is that it connects to the tow vehicle by means of a special “fifth wheel” hitch that is located in the bed of a pickup truck. This hitch, located above the rear axle carries the weight of the trailer in an optimal location and doesn’t produce the sway that a rear hitch can experience. It is a safer option for the larger trailers. These trailers generally require the use of the largest dual rear axle pickups or even commercial truck setups. Newer ultralight models are being aimed for the half-ton truck market.
Just remember that an 8,700 pound trailer is not necessarily a good option with a 9,000 lb tow rating. The downfall to this type of camper is much higher pricing, loss of use of your truck bed for carrying cargo, and the added height of some of these campers will limit access to some areas. Also, pay attention for low bridges when planning your route of travel. You may not fit under it (DON’T FIND THIS OUT THE HARD WAY).
How many people will be sleeping in your camper?
While you may occasionally have an additional guest or two, how many people will be sleeping in the trailer on a regular basis? There are two general layouts for most camper trailers and drive-able RVs – a bunkhouse layout and a living space layout.
The bunkhouse layout generally offers additional bunk beds of some sort if you’re going to be camping with kids. This can be single bunks tucked next to the bathroom or a double set of bunks in the rear of the TT that slide out into a kid bedroom. Some of the rear bunk room options even offer upper bunks that fold up and allow for couches and entertainment centers below for a complete “playroom” escape. Pay attention to the model numbers when looking at these campers. They typically have a BH in the model number somewhere indicating this option.
For those not traveling with kids and looking for the most relaxing indoor space, the living space layouts can turn fill those spaces with couches and comfy chairs and provide more windows for sitting and enjoying the outdoors while still in the camper.
Research all of the options and see what you like the most. Make sure that if you choose a four bunk option and have 4 children, that you still have enough space for a larger table and more storage. Try to envision how comfortable everyone will be if it the weather is inclement and you need to spend the day inside, with everyone.
What brand should I buy?
There is not an easy answer to this one. All I can say is do your research. After you narrow down your camper to a size and model type, start researching each and every choice online. Look for reviews that include positive and negative aspects to the unit. Try to avoid strictly negative reviews, unless there are a lot of them. Don’t try to get a “cheaper” unit because its all you can afford for that size. Try to get the BEST QUALITY you can afford, and go smaller and with less options if necessary.
Campers are just walls and a ceiling that RATTLE down road behind you. Go too cheap and it WILL rattle apart. Steer clear of campers with reviews that point to water leaks. Most campers are constructed of wood. Water and wood equals rot. Usually quickly. Usually with HIGH repair costs. Try to talk to people with the specific model you are looking and and find out if they like it and how it has held up. Too much research here is never enough.
Where should you buy your camper?
When you’re getting closer to making the purchase, where you purchase the camper will play an important role in the entire experience. Most camper trailers usually only have a one year warranty. In talking with many camper owners, getting any of that warranty work done can be an adventure in its own. The RV industry doesn’t work quite as fluently as the auto industry, in that when you have a problem with your Ford, you can go to any ford dealer and get it covered.
The best ally you can have when dealing with the manufacturer is a good dealer. Research the dealer you plan on going to to see that their customer service reviews are very positive. If the dealer doesn’t fight for you when you need it, it may become very expensive and frustrating. Keep the dealers distance in mind as well. You might be able to get your trailer for $500 hundred less from dealer A, but they are 5 hours from your home. Do you want to drive 5 hours to get warranty work done? Maybe dealer B that is 1 hour from your home is worth the extra few dollars.
Should you go to an RV show?
Absolutely. This can be the first and last place you go, not necessarily the same day.
Go to an RV show first to see what is out there. RV shows bring all of the dealers in an area to one location. RV dealers aren’t on every other corner like car dealers. They are generally very spread out geographically. One trip to an RV show can expose you to so many more dealers than you can even drive to in one day, let alone let you play in all of the RVs. The RVs on lots are typically locked and require you have someone accompany you, trying to sell you the whole time. At the RV shows, you can hop in an out of many brands and models without the sales pressure. (Let’s not forget all of the fun camping gear you can find from vendors at these shows!)
The recreational vehicles at the shows will showcase so many different options. See what makes you ooh and ahh. See what options are available in your price range. Talk to other people attending the show while you’re at it, ask them what they have, if they like it and why they’re looking at the model you’re in. Camper people, in my experience, are super friendly and more than happy to give their opinions. Not that you can’t trust the salesman, but he’s doing his job to sell you the camper.
If you are already set on a specific brand/model and have already researched the dealer, you may want to go to the show rather than the RV dealership to make the purchase. The manufacturers usually offer the dealers incentives to move units at the shows. These incentives are not available after the show. You most likely will just place a down payment at the show and then have to travel to the dealer to pick up the trailer and complete the transaction. You may even need to wait for the dealer to receive the camper from the manufacturer. If it is a popular layout/model you may be one of many people to purchase it, and the dealers may not have the trailer on their lot. Additionally, if you are flexible in deciding on two similar units from two different dealers, you can go back and forth between them to get even better pricing.
Will you need RV insurance coverage?
If you purchase a drive-able RV, you will absolutely have to get liability insurance for the camper. However, if you buy a camper trailer the rules are a little different. The liability on your trailer will fall to the vehicle towing it, and for most states that is all you legally need to get on the road. Now that is while it is being towed. If you store your trailer at home, your homeowners insurance may cover it while it is on your property.
If you finance your trailer, the bank may require you carry separate comprehensive insurance to cover the trailer if the damage happens when it is not at home or not connected to the tow vehicle. Be sure to check the state requirements where you live as well as contacting your insurance agent(s) to be sure you have what you need.
Are you mechanically inclined or handy?
While you can take your camper to a dealer to get it serviced or repaired, you may find that things never seem to break before you go on a trip. You are most likely going to have issues while you are traveling and using the camper. If you have a slide get stuck in the out position, can you figure out how to get it back in so that you can even tow it to the dealer for repair? If you end up with water leaking under your sink, can you stop the leak and patch it before it destroys your trailer? If you’re not particularly handy, you may want to be cautious with the options you choose to get.
Just remember, that a camper trailer rattles down the road behind you and things can loosen up and become issues no matter what quality the trailer is. Proper maintenance can go a long way, but sometimes it is not enough.
Should you buy a new RV or a used RV?
This will be something only you can answer. You will have to weigh the cost of the new unit to the used unit. Older campers require considerable more maintenance than a new one. Will the used camper need a new roof? How much will that cost? Is it really less than buying a new one? How are the tires? Look for soft spots as you walk inside of the camper. This may indicate the floor has rotted out and it is not an easy fix.
Rule out as many potential issues as possible before making your RV purchase.
Avoid Any Sign of Water Damage
One thing I can say, is if there is any indication of a water leak from the outside to the inside, STAY AWAY. Again, campers are usually made from wood. If the water has damaged the wood, it may be very expensive to repair, if even possible. Have someone else look over the camper, or see if you can have the owner (if it is a private seller sale) take it to a dealer to be inspected, even if you have to pay for the inspection. It may save you from buying a money pit.
Grab your flashlight and look for water damage, mold, cracks in any of the tanks, loose panels, bare wires, cracked or missing caulk, etc.
While I’ve heard that the happiest days of a RV owner is the day they buy their camper and the day they sell it, hopefully with proper research, careful consideration and a little common sense, all of the days in between can be filled with joy, happiness and many many wonderful memories. Happy glamping!!