Considering camping on wheels? Here is a list of pros, cons, costs, questions to ask, and a guide on choosing the right vehicle for you!
Whether you live in your car for extended periods, or just use a recreational vehicle (RV) for short trips, living on wheels seems to have many stigmas attached to it. Some might think you are down and out. I’m thinking of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, or the great Chris Farley line, “…I live in a van down by the river”. Some might think it’s gross. “Why not just stay in a hotel?” they ask.
On the other hand, others think it’s not real camping. They might accuse you of “glamping”. Others still might think you have to be old to drive a motor home. I’ve heard it all. However, regardless of whether you ride, tow, pop-up, fifth-wheel, jump in the back, go all out or go retro, going mobile can give you freedom to do things you never could before. All kinds of people use RV’s in some shape or form – mountaineers, skiers, rock climbers, cyclists, paddlers, retired travelers and families included.
Thinking about taking your adventures on wheels? Below is a practical guide with details to consider on the advantages of RV’s and how to select the right one for you so that you make the right investment choice for the most fulfilling adventures. Please note that while we’ve provided a good amount of information here, this is an overview and you should still do additional research as well as follow guidance from a reputable dealer to make sure your camping solution is a safe one.
Why go with wheels?
Reduced time and effort for packing and unpacking
When we took our first road trip after having a child, we went cross country to the Great Smoky Mountains. We used a luggage box on the top of the car to fit all of the baby stuff, and stayed at a few different hotels as we traveled. We also saw some friends in Nashville along the way. By the time we got back home we had unpacked and repacked everything 11 times.
When you go camping, especially if it involves a larger group or families with kids, etc., you will likely want a base camp of some sort. How do you set up that base camp? If you’ve done the car camping thing, you know how much work is involved in packing the car and then unpacking at the camp site.
I admire anyone’s determination to get outside, especially when I see a group setting up camp with lots (and LOTS) of stuff. I’ve witnessed groups pull up with trucks or trails loaded to the gills with things like a full-sized barbecue grill, furniture, huge tents, tables, Christmas lights, coolers, etc. Once they are set up, the site looks like a permanent residence. However, if this is you, you might want to consider easier options. Imagine instead simply driving up to your site and plugging in. You might also need to hook up a water hose, and you’re done.
Comfort and convenience for longer trips
Depending on what you decide to go with, your base camp on wheels might offer you luxuries that allow you to take more trips or longer trips. In a motor home, for example, you can get up and stretch or even use the restroom while you are driving. You can have running water, a space to sprawl out and take a nap, and appliances (i.e. refrigerator / microwave) to cook meals all without stopping. Think of the possibilities this might open up for you. You might even begin to prefer RVing over flying!
If you can sleep in your vehicle, you can take advantage of a multitude of cheap or free places to stay overnight. There is a plentiful supply of campgrounds and RV parks throughout the country. See the links below for examples of available campsite options:
There are many more, and some (like Good Sam) offer an app as well. These are much better to use than trying to find a place on Google maps. In a pinch or on a budget? You can also use parking lots, truck stops, rest stops, etc.
When in transit, the advantage of not having to unpack and repack your things is again a huge advantage. It is so quick and easy to find a spot, pull in for the night, and take off again in the morning. You might do breakfast on the road and get to your destination even earlier!
From campsite to campsite, you’ll see everything from a motorcycle and a small tent to a luxury motor home with a satellite for cable TV. Down below we’ll cover the diverse range of options to select from, starting with dirt cheap and then going to practical/utilitarian or even high class.
More flexibility to stay where you want
One of the bigger reasons to have a RV is that you can stay in more places. RV parks, and in a broader sense any place where you can park a RV, can actually be more plentiful than hotels in certain areas. If you like to visit wilderness destinations such as remote national forests or parks, RV’s can make more of those destinations accessible to you.
Extended stays / travel are both more feasible in RV’s as well. You can roam freely and much further when you have a fridge on board, for example. You often have considerably more room for gear / storage as well.
Perhaps most of all you can be closer to nature. Sure, you might be able to get a lodge or cabin in or just outside of a national park. In our experience though the scenery, quietness, wilderness feel, wildlife, etc. are much more impressive in campgrounds. Imagine that perfect spot that comes to mind when you picture yourself on vacation. What does it look like to you? I see a hammock with a view of the mountains. When I have a campsite to myself this is a regular reality. I actually feel more immersed in nature, as though I had a perfectly placed cabin.
Seriously, just ask any RV owner how much they love it and chances are you’ll hear many good stories. As you look at the overall return on investment, you should include the fun benefits that come along with RVing. The considerable conveniences mentioned above can make your traveling more enjoyable. For you, buying a RV might really be about taking a step further into the outdoor lifestyle. Or, perhaps you love traveling while sleeping in your own bed every night. For us, the moment we step into ours it feels like we’re on vacation.
Cons of owning a RV:
In the interest of full disclosure, this isn’t for everyone. RV’s can be expensive (although, we’ll also cover some very inexpensive solutions for RVing below). You’ll need a place to store it. Perhaps it will fit in your garage, but if you buy something larger and don’t have room on your property you may need to rent a storage space for it. These can cost $50 to $100+ per month, typically.
Then there’s the maintenance. Even if you buy brand new, you will likely be fixing something on it right away. Think of it this way, you are potentially going to be looking at a house on wheels. Not only can RV’s come with stoves, microwaves, air conditioning, furnaces, plumbing, water heaters, etc., all of that stuff is bouncing around as you move down the highway. If you aren’t handy, and don’t want the headache of bringing it in for service, this may be a concern. On the other hand, many tasks can be “do it yourself” jobs if you have some tools and a little know-how. See below for more details on maintenance.
Lastly, there is a good amount to learn. Along with maintenance, you’ll need to get comfortable with driving and operating your RV. Despite all of this, using and caring for a RV can be fun. Anyone can do it, and the process often becomes an enjoyable part of your adventures.
Costs of RV ownership:
Along with your initial purchase, here are some of the other costs to think about. (Before you get too concerned about these, just know the next section is about SAVINGS which help balance out some of these costs.)
Gas mileage is the area many people focus on, and it will largely depend on the size/shape of your RV. In our experience, it’s mostly about wind resistance, not weight. If you have a pop-up, the drag is significantly decreased. However, the moment you attach a tall trailer behind you it’s like putting up a wind sail. In other words, for anything tall (trailers & motor homes) you can generally expect to get 10 miles/gallon or less for fuel efficiency. This is a big deal, because many people waste time and money trying to get around this principle. Even if you go with a lighter trailer, or a smaller engine for your truck / motor home, you probably won’t see any real difference in the mpg.
It’s much more important to buy something that meets your needs, has sufficient power to drive in normal traffic and can sufficiently handle steep hills or windy days. Going from gasoline to diesel engines, however, can make a greater impact. For example, you might get 8-10 mpg with a Coachman Freelander on a Ford or Chevy chassis, where if you go with an upgrade to a Mercedes chassis with a diesel engine you might get 14 – 22 mpg (14+ mpg for a motor home, and possibly 20+ mpg for a much smaller leisure van).
Again, if you are deciding whether to go with a v6 engine on your tow vehicle vs. a v8, we’d recommend a larger engine for towing tall trailers. Smaller trucks and cars won’t have the power you need, and you may actually get lower mpg. We’ve seen 6 mpg on a v6 towing a light trailer, where a large 6.0 liter v8 with a heavier load can get up to 10 mpg. Also, we haven’t seen fuel efficiency to be a major advantage for 5th wheel trailers.
If you compare RVing to owning a second property such as a cabin or time share, going with the RV will be less of an investment while offering significantly more flexibility. You can take your cabin with you!
Storage – If you don’t have a place to put your RV, you will need to rent a storage space for it. Depending on where you live, you may find storage to range from $50/month and up for an uncovered space to around $100/month and up for a covered space.
Accessories: (with approx. costs)
Tool set ($150) – You’ll want to have some basic tools on hand. Ideally, a fairly inexpensive tool set with pliers, wrenches, hammer, etc. should always be with you. You may already have these items. However, you should also invest in a good torque wrench to torque the lug nuts on your wheels. Check your manual to find out what you should torque your wheels to, and then make sure you buy a wrench that can handle that torque rating. For example, if your wheels need to be torqued to 140 lbs., you’ll need a wrench large enough to accomplish the task.
Leveling blocks & wheel stops ($70) – A trip to Wal-mart is one easy way to get a set of Lynx leveling blocks and wheel stops. You can also order these online. The advantage of buying Lynx blocks is that they interlock, so they won’t slip when you drive onto them. We’d recommend getting two sets to adequately handle sites that are not level. If you have an upgraded camper, automatic levelers may come pre-installed. In this case, wheel stops are still a good idea but you may not need the leveling blocks.
Generator ($500-$1,000+) – This might or might not be required for your camping needs. Your RV may also come with one. However, if you want a generator back up for camping in areas without hookups you’ll want to factor this in.
Water hose ($20) – This is often included when you purchase your RV, but there are times when a spare comes in handy. There are often situations when you might need to combine the hoses to reach a hookup.
Sewer hose ($40) – This is often included when you purchase your RV, but like the water hose, you might want a spare to reach the drain or in a case where your first hose starts leaking.
Gloves ($5) – If you are a bit concerned about handling the sewer hose and dumping process, you might pick up a pair of neoprene gloves to make the process a little more sanitary.
Electrical cords / adapters ($5 – $25) – Your RV will likely come with the a shore cord, which will be your main source of power. However, if you find yourself in situations where you need a 30 amp or 50 amp plugin, but only have a standard 120v plugin, picking up an adapter for a few bucks is worthwhile. You may also want a standard extension cord for greater reach to plugins.
Mirrors ($60) – If you are using a vehicle to tow a tall trailer, and that vehicle is a car or small truck that doesn’t have large mirrors, you may want to use mirror extenders to have sufficient visibility. If you notice bigger trucks on the road you’ll see they often have mirrors that extend further out than normal. Try places like Amazon or Camping World.
General supplies (~$20) – These are insignificant in cost, but they are ongoing things to add to your shopping list. You’ll want to have a stock of septic tank-friendly toilet paper, a package of tank treatment to help waste breakdown in your black tank and some RV antifreeze (the kind that is safe to use in your indoor plumbing) for winterizing.
Savings from RV ownership:
Granted, there are costs in owning, maintaining and using RV’s. However, especially if you travel a lot, there can also be considerable savings as well.
Overnight stays – If your hotel stays average $100 / night, you’ll find significant savings with RV campsite charges which normally range from $15-$40 / night.
Food – Eating out 3 times a day can add up quickly. Consider your weekly grocery bills compared to your average restaurant check. We conservatively estimate $30 / day / person for eating out. So, if we spend $150 for a week of groceries that would compare to $630 (at least) for a week’s worth of restaurants.
Travel – Compared to flying, you might break even or actually save money. On a 16-day trip to Vancouver Island, we spent about $1,800 on fuel (we drove about 5,000 miles). We figure for 3 of us to by plane tickets and then rent a car for two weeks we could easily have spent over $2,000. Incidentally, we weren’t sure how driving that far would go, but we LOVED it. It was such an adventure to see that much of the country.
To summarize an overall cost scenario, we spent approx. $2,600 on our trip to the Pacific Northwest. Had we used hotels, bought airplane tickets, rented a car and ate out we would probably have spent thousands more (approx. $5600). As a side note, we can pack at least 8 people into our RV, so larger groups could save even more.
More factors to consider:
Maintenance – We won’t cover this topic in full detail here, but here are some of the things you may need to handle:
– Winterizing (you’ll likely need an air compressor to do this yourself)
– Oil changes
– Tire pressure
– Sealing shower stalls
– Tightening lug nuts
– Changing batteries
– Treating/cleaning water tanks
– Filling propane tanks
There are also great tutorials on YouTube on how to do these kinds of jobs. Think of it like owning a boat. You have to kind of enjoy tinkering with and caring for a boat. It’s the same way with a RV. Part of the fun is fixing it, getting it ready for your next trip, upgrading it, etc.
Learning to drive and operate a RV – You might be wondering if you are up to the challenge of driving and operating your camper. The type of RV that you buy will impact this in a variety of ways. For example, if you are towing you’ll need to learn to hitch up to your car, plug in the cord for brakes and lights, adjust your turning radius, and learn how to back up.
If you get a motor home, you may find it a bit easier to drive than towing a trailer. In our view, overcoming the larger vehicle size is easier to get used to than learning to tow a RV behind your car. A 30 ft. motor home is actually shorter than a SUV towing a 20 ft. trailer, so cornering and parking are less challenging. Additionally, you have much less to worry about without having to hitch up. Of course, if you tow a vehicle behind your motor home these advantages are negated.
The good news is you can learn and get used to using RV’s fairly quickly. Your dealer should initially walk you through the functions of your camper, and show you how to hitch up, turn on the water, plug-in, operate slides, etc. From there, it’s a matter of getting out there and practicing. It helps to write down the steps and go slowly so that you don’t forget a step. You may also find seminars available when going to RV expos or dealers.
The purpose of this post isn’t to provide a comprehensive how-to guide for ownership, but rather to give you an overview of what to consider and expect. This is a good place to get that process started. Hopefully these points at least summarize the areas you’ll need to think about, and give you a sense of what’s involved. You’ll likely want to make a list of things here that will require deeper research depending on your current knowledge and experience level.
Feeling overwhelmed? It can be a lot to learn at first. Over time, it becomes second nature and does not impede your enjoyment of the trips you take. Further, you can also try before you buy if you have concerns about your ability to handle the operation of a RV. Rent a camper for a weekend, and see how you like it!
Safety – Again, this is by no means a complete list of safety guidelines, but here are a few examples of the kinds of things that you’ll want to be aware of.
- Read the manuals – Everything that has been installed into your RV (appliances, safety devices, your generator, electrical, etc.) will have specs, details or manuals. You should have a binder or pouch for these, and you’ll want to store this somewhere safe in the RV. In many instances this material will provide you with guidelines on how to maintain and safely operate the various items and systems on board the camper.
- Use a surge protector – This protects you and the camper from things like power surges or poorly wired power pedestals. There are many options you can buy, but what we use is a device that can be plugged directly into the power source. It runs diagnostics on the pedestal for things like proper current and reverse polarity, and then allows the connection to be made to your RV. These can be easily replaced (we’ve gone through a few, especially during lightning storms). By the way, you might find it better to just unplug during storms and run on battery.
- Care for tires and wheels – Keep good tires on the camper, maintain proper tire pressure, and keep the lug nuts tightened to the appropriate torque rating.
- Purchase road-side assistance – Good Sam and other companies offer this for under $100 / year, plus some minor discounts for things like fuel and campsites may come along with the package . Imagine a single bill for towing your RV, and you can see how this will help you coast along with less worry.
- Monitor your detectors – Your RV should already have a propane detector and a smoke detector installed. It should go without saying that these need to be working. Make sure batteries are fresh, and again be familiar with your manuals. They’ll provide you with the specific instructions you need to follow in the event of a gas leak or fire.
- Plan your stops – Make sure you keep a close eye on your route. Not all roads are suitable for RV’s. Check for clearance under bridges and overhangs, avoid really rough roads or large dips, and steer clear of tight spots. When you pull into a Sonic, for example, you might see overhangs with a sign that reads “9 Feet Clearance”. That’s too short for a trailer or motor home! Turning around in a bank parking lot might be trouble. A large dip might cause issues for your hitch. The Good Sam app actually routes you around hazards using a mapped route, similar to how Google maps works. In general, it helps to drive intentionally (not making impulsive moves or decisions) and take your time. You should drive a bit slower than you would with a normal vehicle.
- Double check things – Think of a checklist that a pilot goes through before taking off in a plane, and be the same way with your RV. Before you drive off, double check safety chains on your hitch, make sure exterior doors are locked and interior doors (cabinets, fridge, shower, etc.) are secured, verify your brake lights and turn signals are working, slides are pulled in, counters are cleared, etc.
- Take your time – In general, rushing is a quick way to get into trouble.
Questions to ask:
Is a RV right for you? Ask yourself the following questions:
- Are you being held back from traveling more, or from traveling to certain places that you can’t access without a RV?
- How often would you use it? This may impact how much to spend.
- How will you handle the maintenance?
- Where will you store it?
- Do you envision RV-style travel as something you want to do long term?
- Will you need a different tow vehicle to handle the RV you want? It may be cheaper to buy a motor home than a new camper AND a new tow vehicle.
- What are your goals for using a RV (i.e. more comfortable driving for long trips, weekend camping getaways, family time, etc.)?
- What types of destinations will you go to? Mountainous areas or just the local lake? Rough roads to national forests, or just to RV parks?
- Will you move from spot to spot often, or just set up once per trip?
- Will your RV be a place to relax and watch TV, or will it serve as a basecamp to help you spend more time outside? In other words, do you really need that fake fireplace, or should you go with a more functional or basic unit?
- Do you want to bring friends or extended family? If guests are involved, you don’t want to buy something that has inadequate space.
Choosing the right RV for you.
There are MANY factors and options to consider in selecting the right camping style for you, such as budget, features, versatility, skill level, etc. However, try not to get overwhelmed by everything. The fact that there are so many variations you could go with is simply evidence of how much fun camping on wheels can be. We’ll try to help you make the right choice or at least narrow things down a bit. However, the truth is you could have a blast with ANY of these options, so don’t worry too much about making the perfect decision. Sometimes you just have to try it to know what it’s like! We’ll go from cheapest to most expensive, and cover many of the factors along the way.
Use your car!
Camping on wheels doesn’t have to cost you anything! It’s largely a mindset. If you have seats that fold down, or room in your vehicle to lay down, you can take advantage of campgrounds and RV parks just like anyone else. Of course, you could always add a tent or hammock as well, but the point is you may not have to make an investment in order to take advantage of the many benefits of going mobile. You can still use a space at a KOA while heading down the road, for example, and have access to facilities like restrooms and showers all while having the versatility of a small vehicle.
Tow a storage trailer
If you want to expand your sleeping or storage space beyond what your car can handle, you have a few options. Most if not all of these should be fairly light and easy to tow.
Storage trailers can help you in many ways. I often see scout groups or guides using a flat bed or contained trailer to hold large amounts of gear. You can also use this option for carrying larger items like bikes, canoes, coolers, etc.
Tent trailers can give you the option of storage as well as a tent that can be set up on top of the trailer. This gets you off the ground a bit, and you can pretty much count on a flat sleeping surface.
Tow a pop-up camper or tiny camper
If you want something that is larger or has more features such as a kitchen or bathroom, you may want to upgrade to a camper. Before you go further, we need to address some important factors when it comes to towing heavier loads.
The first thing to do is check your vehicle’s manual and look up its towing capacity. If you are driving a smaller car you may not be able to handle the weight of a trailer. Also, you’ll want to add some buffer into the equation. For example, if you have a larger SUV or small truck that can tow 5,000 lbs., you may want to limit yourself to trailers that weigh 4,000 lbs. or less. The reason for this is that you’ll add hundreds of pounds to your trailer in gear, luggage, and most of all water. If those water tanks (fresh, gray & black) hold 100 gallons of water combined, that’s over 800 lbs. of water! Basically, the rule of thumb is to allow about 1,000 lbs. of buffer between your towing capacity and the actual weight of the camper.
As long as you can determine that it’s possible to tow with your vehicle, you can always have a hitch installed. Keep in mind that you also need to wire a plug into your hitch that will power the lights and brakes of your trailer. Companies like U-Haul can install hitches at a low cost, but you may want to have the RV dealer do the job. They’ll make sure you have a sufficient hitch for your set-up (vehicle type, trailer weight, etc.). They may recommend a weight distributing hitch. If so, DO THIS! It’s not an unnecessary up sell. You don’t want to be one of those people towing a trailer that causes your bumper to drag. Having the right hitch will make the trailer level while towing, keep the hitch even with your car’s bumper, and ensure that your ability to steer and brake isn’t compromised when you’re hitched up.
Smaller cars may be able to handle small trailers (often pop-up campers will work more easily than a larger trailer). Pop-up campers can use soft, fabric walls or hard walls that fold up accordion style. A-liners are A-frame campers that look like a triangle on wheels. They can fold up, be stored in a garage, and are easier to tow. They are much lighter, have dramatically less wind resistance, and still offer features like full beds, cooking appliances and toilets. These options are much better for gas mileage, and it can feel less intimidating to tow something that you can see over. Storage in your garage is possible as well, which allows you to store and protect your investment without having to pay for a place to park it when you aren’t using it.
Another possibility is a tear drop trailer. When you first see one, you might assume it’s essentially an enclosed bed on wheels. Granted, this is a tiny camper of extremes. However, it is hard-sided, still small enough for the garage, relatively fuel efficient, and you might be surprised to find that they also offer some additional storage, cabinetry, kitchen appliances, air conditioning, even external shower attachments. So consider all your options! These little guys can be pretty cool looking, and you can keep your Subaru instead of buying a big truck to tow with.
Tow a full-size trailer
A larger trailer can provide more space, storage, security (perhaps more bear proof, for example) and can be easier to set up. You pull into your camping spot, level, unhitch, plug into water and electric, and extend slides if applicable. There are still a few steps here, but it’s much quicker than the unfolding / cranking / assembly that comes with a pop-up.
You can get ultra-light trailers that are around 20 ft. long, and weigh around 3,500-4,000 lbs. These can potentially be towed by a small truck or even a SUV or van. As you get into longer campers that weigh 5,000 lbs. and up, you’ll probably want to have a good-sized truck. Tour through various models and think about your needs for storage, number of campers, features, etc.
The largest trailers are often 5th wheel trailers. If you are looking for maximum space and amenities, this is one way you could go. You need a sufficient truck, but this will allow a much heavier load so that you can have tons (literally) of storage for your stuff and enough amenities that will make you feel like you’re at home.
Purchase a motor home or conversion van
A conversion van or leisure van (or class B motor home) can be an enticing option for balancing versatility with features and fuel efficiency. You can drive it as your primary source of transportation and easily park, for example. You can have access to amenities while you’re driving, and you’ll likely have little or no need to tow. They are pricey, and you do sacrifice space and storage, so capacity and group size is limited.
The next step could be a larger sized motor home (class C like the picture above, or class A which is even larger and usually has a flat front). This option offers you access to amenities like a kitchen and restroom even while driving as well as the ability to expand to a larger space. You can tailor the size to accommodate your group and storage needs. This is likely the priciest option, however, and you may decide you need to tow a vehicle behind you in order to get around more easily once at your destination. That said, you can drive a RV around town pretty easily if it’s not too large. Parking is the primary concern. If you can fit into two parking spaces joined in a row, or find a spaces further away from an entrance, then you can still get around pretty easily.
As you can see, RV’s come with a wide range of options, sizes and costs to choose from. You can certainly camp without one, and of course there are limitations to RV’s. While they make great base camps, they certainly aren’t meant to replace the full outdoor experience of tenting or backpacking. On the other hand the advantages include significantly improving your driving experience, simplifying the logistics of travel, and giving you increased access to more places. Ease during longer trips and having that “cabin-like” experience where you can take your tiny home with you can also enhance your outdoor travel adventures. Once you have chosen an RV, check out our recommended RV gear! The accessories and other items posted here are things that we have used successfully over the years.
If you’ve tried it, how do you like RVing? Share your stories below or in a Trip Log!