As part of our new Monthly Features section (see the menu bar above), we are starting a “Camper in Training” series. This year the 12 posts will serve as a primer to camper ownership, with tips for getting your first camper, hitting the road, successfully caring for the new rig, and maybe even a few tips on what NOT to do with your camper. If you’ve been contemplating buying a camper, hopefully this series will help empower you to make the leap into the wonderful adventure of camper ownership!
So where to start? It is RV show season and there are lots of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter posts about all the new RVs and trailers hitting the market. RV manufacturers reported that they made and shipped more campers this past fall than they have for many years. But before you take the plunge and buy your first camper, there are five questions you need to consider:
1) What is your primary objective for your new camper?
If you were to go to different campgrounds (public, private, RV resort) and ask people in each campground what are their favorite activities to do with their camper, you will end up getting a dozen different answers. People use their campers for everything from traditional family weekends at a local campground to living in them full-time on the road. Some people park their camper and never move it, while others never visit the same place twice. Some people take all the comforts of home in the camper, while others pack light and nimble.
Camper manufacturers know the market is wide and diverse, and if you think buying a car is difficult with all the many options … wait until you start looking at campers! To narrow the field of campers, you need to ask yourself the following questions:
- How many people will be camping with me on MOST trips; how many adults versus children?
- Do I want to camp so I can be “one with nature” or do I enjoy the amenities of home?
- What time of year will I most likely be camping (i.e. summer trips only, summer with occasional fall/spring excursions, or heck no … we want to go any time the woods calls us!)?
- Do you plan to camp in mostly developed campsites with water and electric access or do you plan to get away from the crowds into remote areas (i.e. boondocking)?
2) What type of camper will suit your needs best?
If you took some time to answer the above questions you are ready to head over to GoRVing and use their Compare RVs feature to learn about the different types of campers. This will point you in the right direction for the type of camper that meets your needs. (Once you do that, come on back and read on. :))
The next step is to make a list of absolute must haves for your new camper. For example, here are some of our non-negotiable items:
- Dedicated beds for each kiddo (we don’t want to have to collapse the table or couch into a bed)
- Larger holding tanks than our current camper
- Outside storage compartments for power cords, leveling jacks, etc.
Other things you might consider are whether you want an outside kitchen, a standard-sized shower, power awnings, etc., as well as what type of construction you want your camper to have.
If you can, I highly recommend going to an RV show. It is an opportunity to see many of the major manufacturers in one place at one time. I have another post here about how to get the most out of an RV show.
3) How much can your tow vehicle haul?
This is a key consideration! I can speak from experience that max tow ratings of vehicles are there for a reason! Over the years I have become far more conservative on this issue. Our first camper I towed with a Honda Accord and although it was rated to tow the tiny pop-up, in hindsight it probably was not the best idea. We also towed our second pop-up with a mini-van and on one trip we decided to take seats out of the van because we were pushing the weight limits. These are personal examples of technically being within the weight limits, but realistically if there was a need for emergency braking or accident avoidance, would the rig have handled well … probably not. So at this point in my camping career I always err on the safe side and I cringe when I see a camper going down the road that appears to be taxing its tow vehicle.
Here are some terms that will be helpful as you evaluate what size camper your vehicle can tow:
- Unloaded Vehicle Weight (UVW) or “dry weight” is how much the camper weighs without gear, water, propane, batteries or accessories.
- Cargo Capacity is the weight of all gear, water, propane, batteries and accessories.
- Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR or GAWR) is the max amount the camper should weigh (add the UVW and cargo capacity)
- Hitch weight is how much weight your vehicle must be able to support at the hitch point as this weight is not supported by the trailer axles.
- GCWR is the total weight of vehicle, camper, gear, hitch, etc. (basically everything going down the road with you)
- Max Tow Rating is not a suggested or rounded number; if exceeded, you will void your warranty and potentially be driving an unsafe rig.
- Hitch Class: Not only must your vehicle be able to tow the camper but you also must have a properly mounted hitch that has a sufficient rating. I knew someone who had a vehicle that could tow 5,000 pounds but only had a Class 1 hitch that had a max rating of 1,500 pounds. If he had hooked up a trailer above 1,500 pounds, the hitch may have failed under the load.
- Trailer Life Magazine has probably the most comprehensive set of tow vehicle weight ratings: Trailer Life Tow Ratings.
- Changin’Gears.com has a more exhaustive list of terms than I have included in this post.
- Mark Polk from RVEducation101.com has a good article on tow ratings.
- A reputable camper dealer should be able to help you, but I would talk to the service department as well as the sales department. I have had several salesmen tell me “Don’t worry about that GVWR on this model, nobody ever puts that much cargo in their camper … just worry about the dry weight.” Always ask to see the sticker on the side of the camper to verify if your vehicle can tow that model.
4) Where will you store the camper when you are not using it?
Another consideration that some families have to think about is where to store their camper. Our most popular post on the website continues to be A Series of Unfortunate Events where I chronicle major mishaps related to parking the camper in our side yard.
Others do not have a side yard or driveway space for a camper. Some neighborhoods have covenants that will limit where you park the camper and even if you are allowed to park it in the driveway. So here are things to consider:
- Do I have a level spot to park the camper and how big is that space?
- Is my driveway going to allow me to get the camper to that spot (We only have 2 inches of clearance on the back bumper when backing ours in; RV Circus has a great post on getting theirs into a tough driveway!)
- If I have a housing development covenant:
- Do I have garage space to fit a camper (usually limits you to a pop-up, A-liner, or Trail Manor)?
- Am I willing to pay a monthly fee to park the camper at a local storage facility?
5) Am I really prepared to: hook the camper to the tow vehicle, back the camper into a site, level the camper, dump my own sewage, do basic maintenance and routine cleaning?
For many of you this list has you thinking check, check, check, and got it. But my cousin once shared a story about a guy who bought a truck and camper … but then returned it (at a huge loss!) within days after he realized he had to do all the dump station activities.
If the thought of all the skills needed to use a camper seems a bit overwhelming, hang in there! With a little coaching and few tutorials you will be able to safely (and mostly easily) do all of these tasks. Many of these topics are the types of posts that you will continue to find in this Camper in Training monthly series, so come back each month as you get ready to embark on the journey of a lifetime with your new camper!
Thanks for this great article. We are looking at our very first camper and planning to live in it as we sell our house in MD and move across the country. Reading your articles is helping us think things through.
Hi Penny–thanks for stopping by and reading! So glad the article was helpful–good luck in your camper search! 🙂