Guide to Buying an RV Part 1

Part 1 – What kind of RV should you buy?

So, you’ve decided you want to get out on the roads of America to camp, explore or live. Possibly you want to experience every national park, go to your favorite remote camping spot, or simply live differently. RVing provides all of this and more.

The ‘what’ part of the conversation is a multi-faceted aspect to an RV purchase.

  • What do you want to do in an RV?
  • What RV should you buy?
  • What type of RV should you buy?

We’ll revisit the first two bullets a bit later, as that’ll be a bit more relevant in those contexts. Our third bullet, what type, will be our focus for this section of our guide.

There are a great many varieties of RVs available to the adventurous souls looking to become RVers. All have plusses and minuses, but all will get you out into the world, off the ground and a bit drier, cooler or otherwise more comfortable than your traditional tenting experience. Let’s get into the major categories and discuss them a bit.

Drivables

The driveables category of RVs is immediately recognizable on the road as they have familiar shapes to other vehicles you’ll see – busses, vans and panel trucks. The similarities really end, though, at the frame they are built upon – with the exception of Class Bs. More on that in a minute. Another note on classes. You’d think that A, B and C would be in order of size and options. No…there is not rhyme nor reason to the designations. Welcome to RVing, it isn’t always logical.

Class A

Class A RVs are the bus category of RV. They are even referred to as busses by their owners. Many class A owners will tow a daily driver (called toads in RVer circles) so that they can drive around their destinations without moving their RV. Class A’s will also quite often give you the most capacity compared to other styles of RVs. That is capacity for gear, kitchen, food, water, people and all the other things. You will also get the greatest amount of towing capacity for vehicles, ORVs, boats or other trailers.

Class A’s come in two flavors, gas or diesel. You’ll find a lot of “gas is better” or “diesel beats gas” in the RVing community. We’ll not touch on what is better or worse because, as with all things in RVs, your specific set of needs and scenarios will determine what is best for you.

In the case of a gas class A, the engines are almost unilaterally at the front of the coach. They are typically 10 cylinder monstrosities that take standard unleaded gasoline from any gas station around. There is also a big advantage with a gasser in that it is like most other gas engines and so is easier and cheaper to maintain. You’ll find that many folks will also tell you that they are noisy on drive days, since the engine compartment typically sits between the driver and passenger. You can also expect the cockpit to be a bit warmer in the summer months as heat from the engine also finds its way into the coach.

The other style of class A is the diesel. They most often have their engines in the back, though there are some models out there that have the engine in front. If you hear them referred to as a diesel pusher, then you’ll know the engine is in the back. With the engine in the back, the cockpit will be much quieter and cooler in the warm months. You’ll also not have an engine hump between driver and passenger. A diesel also typically increases how much you can tow and can increase your cargo capacity.

Some options that a class A often comes with include:

  • generator (diesel in a diesel, often propane in a gasser)
  • fully enclosed water/sewer, often heated
  • an inverter to convert your 12V DC power to AC power for your devices
  • air bag suspension to improve your ride on the road

Class B

Also known as van conversions, Class B’s are one of the fastest growing segments in the RV industry. They are quite popular with younger RVers without kids (though I’m SURE you can find an RVer or three out there that have kids in a class B) and are getting quite stylish inside. Gone are the days of the old VW Bus Westfalia conversions that left you wondering whether you were going to break down and never move again.

Today’s class B’s are very different from the old Chevy van conversions of decades gone by. The chassis choices include everything from Detroit steel to Mercedes out of Germany.

Class B’s are really designed with the concept of a multi-use function mindset. Your dining area is often your bed. Your driver/passenger seats are often your living room seating or, in some cases, your dining area as well. Your bathroom will almost always be a combined sink/toilet/shower (aka wet bath). Your fridge will be dorm sized. Your kitchen will be small, as will be all of your cargo capacities.

Many folks LOVE van conversions because they can literally fit into almost any spot in a campground. You can park them in any parking lot and they are incredibly easy to drive on the road.

There is also a new segment on the market, called the Class B+. These newer styles often are slightly bigger than their predecessors, but not quite as big as a Class C.

Class C

A class C is very recognizable, just look for that van looking front end with an overhang over the cab. This class of RV is really your family camping vehicle personified. They typically sleep 4 to 10 people depending on the length and layout.

Much of a class C will also share some characteristics with a class B, convertible dining into a bed and convertible sofas. The chassis basis for most class C’s is a moving van or panel van, so they can carry more cargo, and the design and layout will directly impact how much. You’ll find your water/sewer are larger than class B’s and your fridge and kitchen areas will be bigger. Bathrooms can be a wet bath like a class B or can be split so that you have your shower separate from your bathroom areas.

Class C’s also can be powerful enough to tow a trailer, a boat or a car, depending on how big the RV is and how much engine it has. The base engine is usually a gas engine of the F350/3500 or F450/4500 varieties from one of the “Big 3” automakers. There are some diesels in the market as well as some that can edge into the F550/650 range (and similar sizing in the competitors’ offerings.)

A more recent segment of the class is the Super C. These RVs are typically built upon much larger chassis and have a front diesel configuration. Think the really big panel vans and, in some cases, they look much more like a semi-truck cab than your standard class C.

Other Drivables

There are many other types of drivables out there as well, so you aren’t limited by the “standards.” Here is a short list of other types, and is by no means exhaustive”

  • Truck campers – these are the ones that sit in the bed of your pickup and hang over your truck’s cab
  • Expedition vehicles – these can be as simple as an SUV conversion, a delivery truck conversion or full on custom masterpiece for going out into the great wild without worrying about scratching your paint, 4WD recommended
  • Skoolies – school bus conversions are having a renaissance as a newer generation are looking for alternatives for RVing

Towables

The towables market segment is rather large and has a huge amount of variety. The main types you’ll find in towables are fifth wheels, travel trailers, tent campers and a whole SLEW of other small trailers. The advantages of a towable are that you can unhook your tow vehicle and go explore without having to bring another vehicle.

Fifth wheels

If you are in your mid-life, it is quite possible that your grandparents owned a fifth wheel and spent winters either in the southwest or Florida. They have been the go to towable for longer term stays for decades. This guide is being written as we speak from a fifth wheel.

Fivers, as they are called by some in the RV community, are nicely self contained units, really designed IMHO, for couples to spend more time at their destinations. That’s not to say other RV types aren’t used for longer term stays, but fifth wheels are a great combination of interior space and outdoor storage. Our experience has shown that fifth wheels seem to be a bit easier to level (at least newer ones) but that comes with a standard and well-known “wobble.”

This class of RV has an incredible range of sizes, options, and layouts. You can literally find nearly ANYTHING you might be looking for. In recent years, even your smallest fifth wheels can have slide outs, greatly increasing your living space. Many now come with outdoor entertainment, outdoor kitchens and fairly large storage. You can even get residential refrigerators in many brands.

One of the fastest growing segments of the fifth wheel market is the toy hauler. TH’s essentially give you a garage…you can store your small car, your motorcycle, your ORVs or any slew of toys for your recreational needs. These spaces also often convert the ramp into an outdoor deck, and many folks use the garage as a remote office to extend their travel if they are fortunate to be able to work remotely. TH’s come at a cost and that is in weight and length. You’ll need quite a beefy truck to tow it.

Travel trailers

Probably one of the most typical entry points into RVing is the travel trailer. Travel trailers were the bread and butter of early RV manufacturers, long before even drivables. The market for TT’s is huge and they can range from the very small to nearly fifth wheel in size and options.

Travel trailers are about taking the whole family out for a get-away, with slide outs and almost every seating surface convertible to a bed for someone to sleep upon. These units are really designed as your base of operations for those extended stays out in national parks and other camping destinations. As such, they don’t always offer a lot of extra cargo capacity or storage space. Newer units are certainly getting better in both these categories, though.

One of the great advantages of travel trailers is that you can find some that you can tow with your car or SUV. This adds a HUGE level of flexibility for those that can’t invest in both an RV and a truck to tow it as may be the case for fifth wheels. There is a whole movement of building ultralight travel trailers (and to an extent, fifth wheels) to enable greater options when you have weight limitations in your tow vehicles. That said, you can also find yourself in the same weight categories as a fifth wheel and then you have to really pay attention to the tongue weight since travel trailers are pulled on the bumper.

Tent campers

Also known as pop-ups, tent campers have been a mainstay in RV towables since the beginning. They are a nice option since they aren’t taller than your vehicle, they expand out at your destination to give you quite a bit of interior space, and they continue to give you the feel of tent camping but being off the ground and in a real bed!

Just as with other styles of RVs, tent campers come in a variety of price ranges and option packages. They are nicely towable behind cars and small trucks which, as with travel trailers, provides a huge amount of flexibility. You can fit practically anywhere and experience more outdoors just by their very design.

Storage and cargo capacity are much smaller in a tent camper. Since they fold in on themselves, there isn’t a lot of internal storage. Typically, you can get racks for the top so you can carry your toys on top during your drive, freeing up space in your tow vehicle for your family and friends to join you.

One downside is, they are basically canvas and screens; so if you camp in wet climes, you’ll want to be sure to pop it up and dry it out as soon as you can to prevent mold and mildew.

Other Towables

The towables category probably has the WIDEST range of other towable styles. Far too many to list, here are few:

  • Tear drops – this segment has really exploded over the last decade or so
  • Cargo trailers – some manufactures are making cargo travel trailers, and there is a whole segment of home builders in this space
  • Expedition trailers – these are all in one boxes that are a Tetris game of storage with fold out tents that get you off the ground
  • Foldables – these are hybrids of the popup camper that may have a tent camper component or fully hard sided, they are like the origami of trailers

What type suits you?

Deciding what type of RV best suits you isn’t just what type, that’s just part of the decision making process. We all have types we THINK will work best, often based on visual aesthetics and desires. But then, that is what the rest of this guide is for: helping you fill in those gaps so you can make the best informed decision possible.

Don’t miss part 2 of our guide where we’ll discuss the buying process.

Thanks for joining us on our journey!
Brian