with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Choosing a Full-Time Recreational Vehicle

Row of motor homes, photograph by Brent VanFossenChoosing a full-time vehicle isn’t like choosing a part-time vehicle. It is more like choosing a home. Since you will be spending more time in it than you probably did your home, there is a lot more to consider than even buying a home.

To help get you started, here are some things you have to take into consideration:

  • Must get you there
  • Must get you home
  • Must meet your travel terrain needs
  • Must meet your camping lifestyle (microwave, tv, or roughing it – living arrangements)
  • Must carry everything – equipment, people
  • Meet your budget?
  • Durable and lasting – bouncing kitchen and bed
  • Can you drive/pull it?

Must Get You There and Home

Your choice in your full-time RV is mostly based upon where you are going. If you are going to travel and then sit still for a few months or longer, like many snowbirds who spend the south in a specific campground during the winter and then spend the summer in the north, you can usually get a lighter-weight vehicle that doesn’t need to do battle over mountain dirt roads. But if you are going to be going where you will find mountain dirt roads, backroads, and more rugged terrain, then you will need an RV that will get you there and home.

Our 5th wheel trailer and truck camping in St Marks, Florida, a dry camping or boondocking spot with no electricity, water, or sewer.Your decision is also based upon how you want to travel, not just where. Do you want to be able to pick and go quickly, or will you stay in a place for several weeks before moving on? A Class C motor home will pack up and move much quicker than a large motorhome or trailer. Though, some modern large motor homes can pack up and move quickly, but they aren’t so “quick” to travel, being restricted by their poor backing up ability and size. A Class C motorhome and most trailers can park just about anywhere. A large motor home adores a pull-through campsite.

The terrain you will be traveling through also impacts your choice. Lighter weight RVs and trailers will handle just about any paved road, climbing easily through the American and Canadian Rocky Mountians. Large trailers and motor homes are often limited on the steepest slopes, especially at high altitudes where oxygen is thin.

Whichever vehicle you choose, seriously look at the map of your planned travels. Check the campground limitations in the areas where you want to stay. Do they have size or RV limits? Check altitude and terrain to determine if it will take a toll on your vehicle’s engine. Whichever vehicle you choose, just make sure it will get you to where you want to go and get you back.

Camping/Traveling Lifestyle

The size and type of recreational vehicle you choose is also based upon what you will be doing with your vehicle and your lifestyle. The “doing” are the hobbys, interests, and activities you will be participating in while traveling.

Are you a hunter, fisher, surfer, biker, boater, or a fan of other outdoor activities which require a lot of equipment? Then you have to have a vehicle that will carry you, your stuff, and the equipment and toys you need for your activity. Guns and weapons require security storage with locks, which tend to be heavy, so you have to make sure your vehicle will handle the weight of the storage. Fishing, boating, skiing, surfing, and biking require carrying boats, fishing gear, skis, surf boards, and bikes, all things that aren’t easily carried. Putting skis, fishing gear, surf boards, and fishing poles inside most RVs will take up valuable living space. Many people add special racks on the roof or back of their RV to carry this type of equipment. For those into cars, boats, and other things that just won’t fit inside your RV, consider buying a trailer or carrier to tow behind your RV.

A huge trailer with massive satellite dish and too much stuff in Alaska.Hobbies with less equipment can still take up space. There are many people who do quilting who travel on the road full-time, and they have to carry a sewing machine, fabric, books, and other materials with them and need to be able to store it all somewhere. Coin collecting seems small and contained, but when was the last time you picked up a coin book. They can be heavy. Equipment and materials which take up space and weight all have to be considered when choosing your RV.

Whatever you take with you, you have to find a way to carry it. The RV you choose must accomodate that equipment while still giving you living space.

Your living space must also accomodate your lifestyle needs. With all the technology available, many people are loading up their RVs with satellite dishes, satellite radio, TIVO sets, DVDs, VCRs, and even big screen televisions. Some large motorhomes have been known to host 3 televisions, one in the front over the driver’s head, one in the kitchen area, one in the bedroom. If you must have television, you have to find a place for it.

Same goes for your computer. Some people still feel they can’t live without taking their desktop computer with them, and maybe they can’t, but the price and power of today’s laptop makes desktops for travelers obsolete. Yet, along with your laptop, do you need a printer, full size keyboard, scanner, and other computer equipment? This all has to go somewhere and be stored safely for travel. So you have to make room for it.

There are other smaller lifestyle items that need to be taken into consideration as you plan the size and shape of your RV. If you do a lot of cooking, then you will want your cooking materials to go along for the ride, like pots, pans, knives, cookbooks, steamers, and so on. If you will be traveling during a variety of seasons, warm clothes like sweaters, coats, and sweatshirts and pants take up a lot more space than shorts and t-shirts, so you have to consider the room needed for these things.

Make a list of everything you want to carry with you when you go. Then look at the different motor home and trailer options and storage spaces to see if there is a place for everything you want to bring with you.

RVs Move

I wish there was a way to avoid it. I also wish that air suspension systems actually allowed the vehicle to travel “on air”, but for now, gravity wins and RVs not only move, they bounce, jar, shake, rattle, swing, lurch, heave, vibrate, and sway. When in motion, everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, that isn’t tied down or locked up will answer the rule of gravity and for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If the RV lurches right, everything on the left will be on the floor, and usually broken.

Looking out the window while driving our trailer through AlaskaWhatever you put in it, must stay where it is and be safe from the shake, rattle, and roll. Sensitive computer and camera equipment can’t always take the slam dance of the road. Nor can a lot of televisions, microwaves, and VCRs. These need to be tied down and secured as much as possible while traveling.

If you will be traveling with fragile or sensitive equipment, consider choosing an RV with a good suspension system and room to properly and safely store your equipment, protected from the rigors of the road.

Also look at the layout of the inside of the RV. The most bounce is found at the back. Is this a good place for your kitchen, office, or bedroom? If you carry glass plates and glasses, they might not be able to take the impact of a kitchen in the back of the RV. The most stable area of the inside of an RV is in the middle, followed by the front. Think seesaw. The middle, over the wheels, will jar, but the front, and especially the back, will rise up and then slam down and keep bouncing until the ride evens out. Put your most delicate equipment over the wheels or towards the front to get the most stable ride.

The layout of the inside also impacts your lifestyle. A narrow hallway to the bathroom and bedroom can get crowded if more than two people will be in the RV. Walls separating sections within the main living area are nice, as they isolate the areas, but then can crowd you and make you feel claustrophobic if the windows are small. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you feel comfortable inside the RV?
  • Do you feel crowded?
  • When you put all your stuff inside, will there be room for you to move?
  • Can you move through the RV without difficulty?
  • Can you easily reach the storage areas and cabinets without strain?
  • Are there places where you will bump into or hit your head on?
  • Are the windows in convenient and welcome spots?
  • Are there enough windows and light for you?
  • Can you get in and out of the RV without strain?

This should start an avalanche of your own questions. Make a list and make sure that the RVs you look at answer these questions to your satisfaction.

Can You Drive/Pull It?

Visiting with a couple in their new fancy motor home, we watched an elderly couple back in their 5th wheel trailer and disconnect the truck. The man said, “If I don’t like this motor home, what do you think about getting a 5th wheel? Looks a lot easier. Just pull up, disconnect, and you are done.” I assured him that this wasn’t true and told him to watch closer.

The woman directed the man back into the spot. Then the two of them went to work. They had to put blocks down to level the trailer, but then the trailer was twisted, so the truck had to also be put on blocks. Back and forth they pulled and pushed the small trailer. When both were finally level, the legs had to come down on the front of the trailer. Wood blocks had to come out to set the front legs on in the soft gravel. Now that the front of the 5th wheel trailer was stable and free standing, it was time to disconnect the truck.

The man struggled with his beer belly to squeeze in between the truck and trailer under the 5th wheel to disconnect the electric and brake system, and then unpin the trailer hitch on the truck. He got back into the truck while the wife held the cables away from the truck so they wouldn’t hook, and the truck slowly pulled forward, then rocked from side to side as it cleared the trailer and then rolled off the leveling blocks. More blocks were added at the back of the trailer for the back stablizing jack legs and wheel locking chocks were set in place between the trailer tires to further stablize and lock the trailer in place. Between the front legs and the back stablizing jacks, the couple had to mess around with things to get the trailer level front to back. Then the metal trailer steps were manually hauled out and the trailer door unlocked, and the barbeque came out, and the awning unrolled and they were finally good to go.

It took about 45 minutes for them to set up their 5th wheel. I turned to my new friend. “How long does it take you to set up this motor home?”

“Once I disconnect the car, about 10 minutes.”

“And you just push buttons to level this thing, right?” He agreed and admitted that his expensive new toy certainly required a lot less energy than the 5th wheel and truck combination.

Can you handle the RV you are considering? If so, go for it. But think about it. When you go full-time, you aren’t buying for a couple week trip. You are buying for years. If we realized that 10 years later we would be still living in our 30 foot 5th wheel, we’d have definitely made some different buying decisions back then. A trailer is a lot of work, and it takes a strong back and arm to handle much of the work associated with moving and setting up this thing. Have the owner or salesperson take you through the setup and take down of the RV to see if you can handle all the work and effort involved.

Can you drive it? Can you pull it? Are you will to buy the right vehicle that has the power you need to pull the size of trailer you are considering? The heavier it is, the harder to drive. The longer it is, the more of a challenge to maneouver. Think this through thoroughly before investing in a full-time vehicle.

Before You Buy It – Rent

If you are thinking about buying a recreational vehicle, take a moment to consider how often you will really use it. Don’t allow yourself to be caught up in the fantasy of ownership as an initiative to look out your window and see it parked in your drive way and feel compelled to race out and go somewhere. Owning a recreational vehicle means work. It takes time to load up the food and equipment every time you go somewhere, and more time to clean it up and empty it when you get back. Everytime you stop and camp, a lot of work can go into setting it up and taking it down, hooking up water, electricity and dealing with sewer connections. You have to weatherize and protect it during the different seaons, whether in use or not. They require maintenance, tune-ups, lubrication and care and feeding just like your car and often more frequently, compared to the normal use of your average car. Trust us. Recreational vehicles might be for recreation but they are also a lot of work.

Parking our rented motor home around a huge tree in Madrid, Spain, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenBefore you buy one, rent one. Check it out by putting it into use. There are many places around the country that specialize in renting motor homes, vans, and Class C motor homes. With a valid driver’s license, you can rent one and test drive it for a weekend, week, or more. See how it feels. Does it really meet your expectations? How does it really work for you in the field? Do you enjoy being in it, or can’t wait to get out? Does it go to where you want to go and get you home or restrict your travels? Think about all the possibilities as you are using it, and see if it still appeals to you.

Another benefit to renting is the test of your patience, determination, and staminia. Traveling in a recreation vehicle is hard work, a lot of work, and requires endless patience. You just can’t pull out into traffic with a stomp on the gas pedal. You have to watch for an opening large enough to give you enough time to ease your way in. You gain a whole new respect for the distance required to come to a stop. Your internal driving map grows in size as you plan miles in advance each anticipated turn or exit, moving at slug speeds through traffic to maneover yourself in the right position. People stare at you, honk at you, shake their fists, and may even yell at you, but you are a logging truck on the traveling road and everything takes longer. It is very stressful. We remember driving to four gas stations on fumes trying to find one whose roof was tall enough to accomodate our trailer’s high roof line. Or getting stuck in rush hour traffic, unable to move over to get to our exit, and having to drive dozens of miles out of the way to circle back to the right road. It is a serious test of patience and stress level. Maybe this isn’t right for you. Before you invest thousands of dollars, rent or borrow and find out for sure.

If you seriously look at your life plans and photographic projects and past travel history and find that you would only do this two to three times a year, then rent and save the bigger ticket price on a recreational vehicle for a new tripod or that beautiful 600mm autofocus lens you’ve been dreaming about. Or stick to car camping with a new tent and comfortable sleeping bags and pads and travel nice and small and portable. We traveled in our car and tent for many years before investing in our trailer, and so can you. Choose wisely and safely.



    Posted April 17, 2005 at 1:33 | Permalink


  • Posted April 18, 2005 at 21:25 | Permalink

    It depends. This article is still under construction, but regarding your question, you rent an RV closest to your destination. If you are flying from overseas to somewhere in North America, then you would want to rent an RV closest to your arrival location. If you are in Europe, flying there from the US, then you will need to rent an RV there.

    There are many different companies that rent RVs, typically Class C motorhome/vans, or vans or small buses. Even some of the major car rental companies also rent RVs – so you will have to confine your search to the area in which you will be traveling. Good luck.

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