Thursday, July 27, 2017

Basic Types of RVs

While looking for my RV, I had some choices to pick from. The variety of camping trailers and self-propelled campers is kind of mind-numbing for some, so I'm going to list most of them and give some of the pros and cons from a prepper's perspective. Here's a link to some common terms used when describing campers.

Campers break down into two major groups, towed and self-propelled. Each of these groups has many sub-groups which are further divided by manufacturer and floorplan. I'll start small and progress through the sizes.


The simplest form of camper is the tow-behind hard shell. Often referred to as a “turtle”, these are a good choice for using when travelling solo or with a significant other because they rarely have accommodations for more than two people. 

Generally weighing less than 1200 pounds, they can be hooked up to any vehicle with a trailer hitch. The newer ones have more amenities than the one we had when I was growing up, which was little more than a rolling bedroom. These days you can find them with cooking equipment and heaters.

Easy to move but with limited interior space, “turtles” will keep you dry and protected from bugs quite well for a long time. They have very few moving parts, so maintenance is simple. Keep the bearings greased and the tires in good shape, and they'll roll for a long time.

If you want a bit more space, the next size up is the “pop up” or tent-trailer design. The small ones often open from only one end, deploying a canvas or nylon tent structure to create a sleeping area. Larger ones will have a central roof that moves up, exposing tent-like walls and shelf-like tented platforms that slide out each end. 

Because of the canvas or nylon tenting, this style is not as waterproof as a hard shell trailer, nor are they good at holding heat in or out. The life of the trailer is determined by the life of the canvas, which may last up to 20 years with good care. 

The popular Coleman pop-up campers have been around since I was a kid, and we spent a lot of summers living out of one. The slide-out shelves provide a roughly queen-sized bed space on each end, large enough for four people to sleep on. Inside the central area is a propane stove, small sink, ice box, and storage areas. Some floorplans will offer a table that folds down to make another bed, bumping the sleeping capacity up to six. Folding couches are an option that can increase bed space to eight people, which is usually too many in my opinion. Fairly light, these can be towed behind most rear wheel drive cars and pickups. Maintenance on the tenting and the various cables that move the roof and shelves can be a pain.

Need more room to stretch your legs inside? The next step up is a conventional tow-behind, with more options and floorplans than you can shake a stick at. Most of them will sleep 6 to 8 people in moderate comfort, while providing larger cooking and storage areas. Most of them will come with air conditioning and a heater, as well as running water from a 20-30 gallon fresh water tank and 12V DC pump. The sink may empty into a gray water tank, or it may just drain to a hose outside on the ground. Larger ones will have a simple bathroom with a black water tank to hold the waste until you get to a dump station (larger campgrounds and some Interstate rest areas are good places to find dump stations). 

This is about as small as you'd want to go if you're travelling with children in wet weather. Trust me, having two or three kids cooped up in an 8 by 8 trailer for a day or two will make sleeping in the rain look good. Having 20 feet or more of floor space to spread out in allows more breathing room and a lot more storage space than a small trailer.
Have a big family, or just want to take a small house with you? Now we're getting into the fifth-wheel trailers. Rivaling motor homes in amenities, you can get anything you want in a fifth-wheel, literally anything you can afford. Hot tub? I've seen them. Full bar? Yep. Nothing but beds? Those are called bunkhouses and can sleep up to 20 (common at remote construction sites). Want to take your snowmobiles with you but don't want to haul two trailers in tandem? Those are called toy haulers and will have a platform for loading your ATVs, personal watercraft, or snowmobiles on.

The floorplans are versatile because most of this class of trailer uses slide-outs to increase the floor space once you've reached your destination. Imagine being able to push your living room wall out 2 to 4 feet to make room for a larger couch and you get the idea behind slide-outs. The downside is that during travel, the slides are retracted and take up floor space. You're also going to need a good-sized (¾ ton or more) pickup with a fifth-wheel hitch in the bed, which eliminates using the truck bed for storage. Slide-outs use either a cable system or gears to move, and the overhanging weight will require the use of stabilizing jacks under the trailer to keep it from tipping over. Maintenance is key to keeping everything working properly.

The smallest of this class is the pickup camper. Usually something that slides into the bed of a pickup, with a portion protruding over the cab of the truck, this class of camper is akin to the “turtles” in amenities and floor space. Low-profile models will have a roof that hinges up or rises to expose a canvas wall similar to a pop-up camper. The lower profile reduces wind resistance and increase your gas mileage.

Beds are usually over the cab of the truck (very limited head room and not a good choice for claustrophobics), a table that knocks down to form a bed, and maybe a bench that can fold out into a bed. Propane stoves and small sinks are common in the older ones; the newer ones can have a bathroom (with clean, gray, and black water tanks), refrigerator, and queen-sized bed. They won't fit in short-box pickups and many of them will extend a couple of feet out the back of the bed of a full-sized (8 foot bed) truck. 

You're carrying your home with you, but it's hard to leave it somewhere if you want to go shopping without it. Watch the weight if you're driving a ½ ton pickup, as some of these are over 1500 pounds when empty. Low maintenance and sturdy, they'll last a long time.

Motorhomes come in three sizes, commonly called classes, and the classes are a bit confusing. All three classes come with the basic stove, sink, beds, and at least a toilet. Most of them are self-contained, meaning they don't need to be hooked up to any utilities. They carry their own water, waste storage, and power generation. The variety of floorplans and the quality of the interior designs is amazing.

Class C is in the middle, and is a van that has been chopped off behind the driver's seat and had a pickup camper melded to it. Lengths run from 20-30 feet. These are easy to spot because of the bed space that protrudes over the driver's cab (which is obviously a van front end). They are moderately comfortable to stay in, but not the most comfortable to travel in. Fuel mileage and power usually suffer from the high roofline and extra weight being added to a standard van. They don't handle cross winds very well, and they tend to waddle down the road if the suspension is worn or wasn't designed properly.
Class B is the smallest. It's basically a conversion of a standard, cargo, or high-capacity van. The roof is usually raised to provide headroom and windows are added and moved to fit the floorplan. It normally sleeps 2 or 3 people, is comfortable to travel in and is designed for short stops on long trips. Models that start as cargo or high-capacity vans have engines and transmissions better suited to handle the extra weight, so handling and fuel mileage aren't as bad as a Class C.,38,58784,1990-Airex-Class-A-33-foot--bartlett-.htm
Class A is the big boy league, with some being built on stretched out heavy van frames, others using a fire truck chassis, and the really big ones starting out as a bus frame or custom made. Lengths vary from 25-50 feet.

Newer ones all have slide-outs, some as many as four of them, to increase the square footage. Prices on new ones start at $100,000 (and go up to well over a million), and used ones tend to hold their value if they are well-maintained. Smaller ones are normally gasoline powered, with the the Ford 6.8L V10 or the GM 8.1L V8 being common today (it was the Ford 460 and GM 454 for many years). The larger ones are have diesel engines, usually mounted in the rear (hence the term “diesel pusher”, since the engine is “pushing” the RV). Gas vs. diesel is almost as contentious and Ford vs. GM: gas engines are easier and cheaper to maintain, but diesels last longer; diesel fuel stores better than gasoline, but costs more; diesel engines create more torque, but in a narrower band (this is why a gas-powered pickup can get by with a 4 speed transmission, but a diesel works better with a 6 speed).

Last but not least is the catch-all category custom builds. I've seen everything from food trucks to Metro buses turned into campers. Some are well-done, others look like Bubba should have found a better tin shed to put on wheels. There are too many variables to cover here, but there are plenty of examples on the Internet if you're interested in exploring this option.

I have driven commercial vehicles for many years and recommend training, or at least practice, before a first-timer puts a Class A on the road. Having a Commercial Driver's License (CDL) helped when I got the RV added to my vehicle insurance. Most people aren't used to having their taillights 30-40 behind them or the shear weight of a vehicle this large. Stopping distances are on par with a tractor-trailer, not a car. Tires are normally duals (two per side) and need special attention paid to inflation pressure. My Class A RV has a “tag” axle to carry the extra weight. A tag axle is an additional axle attached to the frame but not the driveshaft; it carries weight but doesn't provide traction or braking. Tag axles also like to drag a bit if you turn too sharply.

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