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Pick The Perfect RV

January 1, 2003
Filed under RV & Trailer Reviews

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Now that youve scrimped and saved and are in the market for a new travel trailer, folding camping (pop-up) trailer or truck camper, you have an exciting process ahead of you. But before you set foot on an RV dealers lot, get yourself prepared. Its best to know exactly what youre looking for first and then have the salesperson take you to those units that best fit your needs.

A good place to start your research is on the Internet. Almost every recreational vehicle manufacturer offers information and photographs, and some include floorplans, of its product through its website. A Web search using the keyword RV should bring up hundreds of sites from manufacturers and dealers. Attending an RV show can also put you in touch with trailers. The advantage of going to an RV show is that you can take a good look at the products and make your own decisions about construction quality. You can also get a very good deal at a show if youre ready to lay down your cash.

Before you buy at a show or on a dealers home lot, however, you should do your homework. In addition to searching the Internet, the following suggestions can help you narrow the field before you start crunching numbers.

WHICH TYPE OF TOWABLE?

First, ask yourself what you really want? Do you fancy the roominess and creature comforts of a travel trailer, the low cost and outdoorsy feel of a fold-down camper, or the rugged, adventuresome spirit best captured in a truck camper? Decide which category of towable best fits your needs, and realize that your tow vehicle or future tow vehicle will be a determining factor, too. If you dont own a pickup truck or dont want to, then truck campers are not for you. Not sure which way to go? Lets start by looking at the unique offerings of each type of lightweight towable.

TRAVEL TRAILERS

Lightweight towables are hot. Over the past several years, nearly every RV manufacturer has scurried to gain entry into this very competitive, new marketplace. Buyers are blitzed with choices ranging from stripped-down versions of larger models to brand new creations. The variety of types and sizes gives buyers unparalleled options. Dont like one? Move on to the next. There are countless brands and hundreds of floor plans to chose from in the small travel-trailer class.

You can easily find the perfect lightweight travel trailer, especially with so many slide-out and hybrid (hard-sided, tent-bunk models) units now being built. Most models in this category are sold with all the basic creature comforts, some emphasizing galley amenities, sleeping accommodations or living space. In addition, scores of capable tow vehicles are available for this class of trailer, granting easier access to this lightweight trailer fraternity than ever before. The family SUV is likely a suitable tow vehicle.

FOLDING CAMPING TRAILERS

You probably know them better as pop-ups or tent trailers. Folding camping trailers serve as the most cost-effective way (most under $10,000) for a young family to get into its first RV. However, we frequently talk to people who have been tent-trailer owners for decades and who love them for the unique next-to-nature sensation that the folding camping trailer offers. Tent trailers are easily towed, and generally range in weight from 1500 to 3000 pounds. Mini-vans, compact SUVs and pickups, as well as some cars can usually handle towing a tent trailer.

It may be surprising to the first-time shopper, but a good choice of floorplans and features is available, even among these low-cost towables. Finding exactly what you want in a tent trailer may not be completely possible, however. Most pop-ups arent too sophisticated in terms of whats onboard, but then again, you probably wont miss the TV or microwave oven.

TRUCK CAMPERS

The rugged truck camper, often simply referred to as a camper, provides a generous mix of creature comforts and compact design in a reasonably priced package. This is the ultimate choice for those who like to get off the beaten path. Since the camper sits on the back of your pickup truck, it can go where other RVs most any vehicle, for that matter fear to tread. Heed our advice, though: A 3/4- or 1-ton pickup is the best choice for carrying campers; light-duty 1/2-ton trucks just wont cut it in the long run, and dont let anyone tell you otherwise.

Serious outdoor types love truck campers because theyre capable of reaching the most remote places, such as that deep-woods hideaway or that off-the-map backwater fishing hole. Plus, depending on your pickups Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR) and maximum trailer-weight (towing) capacity, its likely that theres enough power and carrying capacity to hitch a boat, jet skis, motorcycles, or snowmobiles to your tail for even more active pursuits upon arrival in camp. While some models of truck camper are surprisingly comfortable and livable despite their diminutive size, the tight space does take some getting used to and is often best suited for short trips.

Having decided which kind of towable is best for your needs, you can begin to further define your perfect RV. Answer the following questions, and you should be able to pare down the field to a handful of suitable models.

HOW MUCH MONEY?

Every other part of the decision-making process comes second to this key determination. Believe or not, the local RV lot wants more than a smile and a handshake to close the deal. Assuming your proverbial ship hasnt come in, financing is the way to go. You need to know how much money you can afford to part with every month. How much can you scrape together for a down payment? Find out how much the insurance will cost. Be sure to leave a little money in the budget for trip expenses, because youll still need dough for fuel and campground fees.

Good common sense regarding any big purchase applies here. Be realistic with your bottom line. Know what you can spend, and dont deviate. Looking outside of your price range will likely just leave you frustrated. Remember, theres an RV made for every budget. Put that motto to the test and you wont be disappointed.

WHOS COMING ALONG?

Most any travel trailer, truck camper, or pop-up works great for you and the spouse. However, for those traveling with the kids or friends, a careful examination of the situation must be made. Generally, the two-parent, two-child situation lends itself to most travel trailers, but many can sleep more than four. Truck campers may not work for a family with teenage kids, as the limited interior space probably wont sleep them comfortably. Most all pop-ups sleep more than four persons easily.

A word to the wise: Since passengers are strongly discouraged from riding inside a towable while in transit (its unsafe, and illegal in most states), your tow vehicle, therefore, determines how many people can come along. Sleeping for six aboard your new trailer is only useful if the tow vehicle can get them all there safely and comfortably.

FLOORPLANS

Of course, pop-up and truck camper designs follow fairly standard layouts, but consider placement of the galley (is it adjacent to the dining table and fridge?), large windows, aisle width, the type and size of bedding keys to making the right choice. Many truck campers have full bathrooms and showers; some top-of-the-line tent trailers have cassette toilets and small showers. For travel-trailer customers, however, there are as many floorplans as there are fish in the sea. You can choose the number and types of bedding (master suites, bunk beds, sleeper sofas, convertible dinettes), and thats just for starters.

What about slide-out rooms? One of the marvels of modern RV-floorplan design is that even some of the smallest units are now equipped with slide-out rooms. Tiny trailers, pop-ups, even truck campers now feature them, granting owners more precious square footage. However, despite the liberating roominess offered, slide-outs are not without drawbacks. For starters, they cost more. More room generally equals more money. Furthermore, slide-out rooms often affect another bottom line; this time in your towables weight. The inclusion of a slide-out (or two), and any accessories for that matter, adds to the total weight of your RV.

WHAT DO I NEED?

As you inspect any new RV, ask yourself another question: Can I live here? Large amounts of time spent indoors is probably worth the investment of a bigger towable. A few rainy days in tight quarters can raise everyones annoyance level. Put your entire family inside the prospective trailer and start milling about. If you keep bumping into each other every time someone leans over to get to a drawer, you need more space.

Thinking about what you can live without when camping should break through a decision deadlock. Again, roomier and more expensive RVs reward buyers with added options and accessories.

How important is the galley? Do you cookout on a BBQ when camping, or is a fully stocked kitchen simply a must? A two-burner stovetop will work fine for those who grill outdoors a lot. A small standard fridge and a huge cooler full of ice can work as well or better than a larger optional freezer/fridge. Many small truck campers and pop-ups arent equipped with showers. Can you last the weekend without, or do you stay in places with campground showers? Keep in mind issues of interior and exterior storage (where will the bikes and fishing poles go?), as well the possible need for upgrades such as air conditioning, microwave ovens, stereo and TV options. If you do a lot of hot-weather camping, AC would be a good choice. Keep in mind that accessories add to the total weight of the trailer and often take away from the total allowable cargo weight, meaning tough decisions must be made about what stays at home.

WHATS ITS REP?

Unlike the automobile industry, limited to a dozen or so manufacturing giants and their subsidiaries, there are seemingly innumerable RV builders. A few RV companies can boast of 70 or more years in the business. Others started last week. Company XYZ might build every type of RV under the sun (motorized and towable alike), while another might concentrate on truck campers or folding camping trailers. Companies that specialize often do the best work. Every manufacturer brings something new and different to the table in terms of design or engineering. The question becomes who to trust to build yours?

At some point, the choice might boil down to an RV from company X or company Y. The prices are competitive. Each passes all your tests as far as livability. Even your dog seems impressed. I recommend letting the manufacturers reputation break the tie. Listening to the opinions of owners you meet on the road or in campgrounds can reveal patterns about a companys products, accountability, and commitment to the customer. Question those towable owners at the rest stop or gas station for their thoughts on their particular units. Go in the back and talk to the mechanics at the local RV dealerships theyll tell you what comes in for the most warranty claims and repairs. Read as many RV and camping publications as you can for the towable reviews. Go online and solicit opinions from members of various RV-related chat groups and message boards.

Many RV companies offer free tours of manufacturing facilities. Take advantage of such tours if you can. A look inside offers a window into the building process, giving prospective buyers a chance to see the RV constructed from the ground up. Is it particleboard or real wood? Is it assembly-line construction or custom-built? Staples or screws?

Hopefully, by now youve got a good idea of the kind of recreational vehicle you and your family need. And perhaps, a few brands or specific models have been selected as likely candidates. By doing a little homework and making some important decisions beforehand, you can shop smart and get exactly what you want when it does come time to lay down some cash.

Stay tuned for the next issue of Camping Life, in which well examine the real world of RV shopping and how to cut the best deal.

Top Ten RV-Shopping
Questions

  • Can you and your mate stretch out and sleep comfortably on the master bed?
  • Where will you store your gear? What about your clothes?
  • Is there adequate counter space in the galley for food preparation?
  • Drawers for pots and pans?
  • Can you stand up in the shower stall? Does the showerhead reach your head?
  • How large is the black (waste) tank? How many days will that last?
  • What are the capacities of fresh and graywater tanks? How long will that last?
  • Will my kids sleep together on a small converted dinette bed?
  • Do drawers and cabinets have latches so they dont fly open when driving?
  • Does the seating accommodate everyone if were all inside at once?
  • When all the beds are down, can everyone reach the bathroom without having to crawl over Someone?

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