Choosing a Full-Time RV
Read This First Disclaimer: I’ve written what I personally did, and/or my opinions. Don’t assume what I did was safe, and don’t assume it will work for you. Do more research, and make your own choices. I’m not responsible for your outcomes!
Some of the first questions Fulltime wanna-be’s ask are; What RV should we get? Motor home or 5th wheel? Diesel or gas? etc. Ask any of these in an online forum and you’ll get a lot of different opinions.
**Ultimately your personal likes and dislikes, along with your budget, will be the most significant factors.**
I’ll get you started by listing some of the advantages and disadvantages of each type, and I’ll talk about some of the reasons people chose one type of RV over another. I’ll also briefly go into the questions of: Gas or Diesel, New or Used, Extended Warranty or Not. We’ll also talk a little about safety, and other general topics. Naturally there will be exceptions to everything I say here. So you need to do more research and look at a bunch of RV’s and see what works for you. Go to an RV Super Center like LazyDays in Florida. You’ll usually see more RV’s than even the largest “RV Show”, and you’ll get to see a lot of used RV’s too.
Gas or Diesel
All else being equal, the Diesel engine is the choice by a wide margin. Diesels are heavy duty engines designed to pull heavy loads and they are far superior to gas engines for all but the smallest motor homes. In motorhomes the typical diesel has the engine in the rear, which makes it much quieter driving down the road.
Hauling the Weight
The cargo capacity of most diesel motorhomes is significantly more than most gassers. Although some diesels suffer from too little by flawed design it’s much more common to see a 35+ foot gas engine MH with under 1500 lbs remaining after fuel and water. Our current MH can carry about 9,000 lb of contents. Similarly the towing capability is often greater in a diesel. Most motorhomes are rated to pull most small cars/SUVs that are typically towed but if you want to pull something big a diesel is the way to go. The preference for Diesel also applies to pickup trucks towing large 5th wheels. Ask yourself this question; how many 18 wheelers burn gas? The answer is none.
Driving the Mountains
Beyond the rated capacities given above there’s also the question “how fast and how safely” that weight can be pulled in the mountains.. Our old 96 Fleetwood Southwind, even with a custom high performance Chevrolet 454 engine struggled on many mountain grades, and going downhill was an adventure as well. By contrast our 2001 National Islander, even with “only” a 330hp Cummings diesel performed significantly better in all respects. Not only does it climb those mountains easier, faster, quieter, and with less frequent overheating issues but it also comes down the mountains in a more controlled and safe way thanks to the exhaust breaking system.
Comfort and control
I’ve already mentioned that rear engine diesel motorhomes are quieter. They are also usually easier to drive. They hold the road with less steering input, ride smoother on air suspension, sway less in crosswinds and when passing or being passed by big trucks. They will usually turn a tighter circle, which you’ll come to appreciate when navigating in towns, parking lots, and so on. All diesels aren’t equal, some have design problems like too short of a wheelbase that reduce road stability. The RV Consumer Group publications mentioned later can help sort through this and other characteristics for both diesel and gas engine MHs.
Reasons you may want to choose Gas instead of Diesel
Remember, I said “all else being equal” diesel is the choice, but all else may not be equal! I’ve already mentioned that our first RV had a gas engine. We chose to go with gas because of money. We wanted an RV that would meet our needs, and that we could buy with cash to avoid debt. A diesel of the size we wanted would either cost much more or be much older (and the older the RV the more repairs needed). The financial and performance balance point for us was an eight year old 37′ gasser. Your situation may be much different. Some factors that shift the balance are whether you will be driving in the mountains. We do it a lot. If you rarely or never venture up and down seven percent grades the Diesel loses a little value. Similarly if money is a limiting factor and you need a newer RV for whatever reason – the warranty for example. For the same money as a 4 to 6 year old 40′ diesel you can have a brand new 38′ gasser.
The short version is; if money isn’t a deciding factor most RVers will be happier with a Diesel.
Here’s where i’ll get the most disagreements. Remember, these are just my opinions
Living Area: Excellent
5th Wheel trailers are the most “home like” of RV’s They have a high ceiling, so you can have a real ceiling fan if you’d like, full height cabinets in the kitchen, etc. They also have lots of floor space, especially with a couple of slides, and usually lots of windows. If you want to camp with “all the comforts of home” then a 5th wheel is a good choice.
Storage: Good to Excellent
You’ll have a large storage area under the bedroom, and more interior cabinet space than most other RV’s. Generally less exterior storage space than a Class-A, but more than the other types. The primary exterior storage on most 5th wheels is a single very large compartment. This may have advantages and disadvantages.
Initial Cost: Good to Fair
If you already own a 3/4 or 1-ton truck to pull it with, a 5th wheel will give you good value for your money. Typically, a 5th wheel large enough for most couples to fulltime in can be bought for $30,000 to $100,000 new (you can spend $250k or more if you’d like), and $7,000 to $80,000 used.
If you also need to purchase a tow vehicle, the 5th wheel becomes less of a bargain, but still OK. An adequate tow vehicle will cost between $35k and $60k new, $5k to $35k used.
Ask an experienced RVer this question: ”What is the #1 mistake new RVers make when buying a 5th wheel?” Their answer will usually be “Too much trailer for too little truck”. Be 100% sure that, at a minimum, your tow vehicle is rated to pull the gross weight of your loaded (not empty) trailer, and don’t take the salesman’s word for it! See the next section about drivability, and also the general comments on safety near the bottom of the page.
Drivability: Excellent to Poor
Yes, a wide range of possibilities. A book could be written here. Properly set up, and matched to a great tow vehicle, a 5th wheel can be the easiest RV to drive. Overloaded, unbalanced, and towed by an underpowered, pickup truck with inadequate brakes they can be a disaster waiting to happen.
Bottom line, don’t skimp on the tow vehicle! Most large 5th wheels will require a 3/4 ton or 1 ton pickup truck. Some serious RVers tow with a Heavy Duty Truck (HDT) a converted semi tractor. These have an excellent ride, awesome power, and amazing braking. Think about it, they’re designed to tow 60,000 to 80,000 pounds. Hitch a 25,000 pound load to it and you’re climbing most hills at 65 MPH without downshifting.
Pulling a 5th Wheel with an HDT, MDT, etc. I know next to nothing about this subject, but here are some folks who know a lot about it. Jack & Danielle Mayer – http://www.jackdanmayer.com/ They travel with a Volvo 610 tractor pulling a 5th wheel. Their site is a great resource for anyone considering a HDT or MDT and Fiver combination
Traveling Comfort: Fair to Poor
A 5th wheel is one of the most comfortable RV’s when set up in a park. On the other hand, it’s one of the least comfortable while on the road. If you want to use it, you have to stop, get out, and walk back to it (think rain, dark, etc.). You need to pick a level spot, because you can’t level it out easily while it’s hooked up. After traveling for several hours the “climate” inside the RV may not be comfortable. Most don’t have a built in generator, so you can’t run the air unless you hook up an external generator. Yes, there are exceptions and work-a-rounds to all this, but this is the norm. Fifth wheels are not built for use en-route, they’re built for use on-site.
It may take some practice, but a 5th wheel can park in spots that many other RV’s of the same size could never get into. The location and degree of motion at the hitch is one reason, but maneuverability is only part of the story. Fivers have excellent ground clearance, so they can cross uneven terrain and back over obstacles that would rip out the bottom of most big Class A rigs. Yes, you still have to watch the axles, but the rear and front of the trailer is much higher than a Class A. Add this to a powerful truck, maybe a 1 ton 4×4, and you can go a lot of places where the only other rig you’ll see is a Pickup Camper. One potential problem is height. They can be very tall, so clearance under branches is sometimes an issue.
Ease of Setup and Hookup: Good to Fair
Setting up a 5th wheel isn’t too bad. Unhooking from tow vehicle is a breeze. Electric jacks make it quicker and less work. Drop the landing gear, crank down the jacks, put out the slides, and you’re in good shape, although it may take a little while for the interior climate to warm or cool to your liking. When it’s time to move on, hitching up is quick and easy. Lacking electric or hydraulic levelers changes the rating from “good” to only “fair”.
A 5th wheel is best for:
- Snowbirds, or others who move infrequently and want comforts of home
- Boondockers who want a large RV they can take into remote areas
- Anyone who values living space above other factors
A 5th wheel is worst for:
- Vagabonds who are always on the go. If you travel every few days, or even once a week, and like to stop for lunch in the RV, then a 5th wheel will be a lot of work, and just plain not fun.
- Having to drive a 3/4 ton or 1 ton dually truck or larger around town all the time can get old (no hate mail please).
Class A Motorhome
Living Area: Good
Class A’s rank second to 5th wheels in living space and comfort. Ceiling heights are somewhat lower, but unless you’re over 6′ 2″ you probably won’t feel cramped in the typical Class A. Some motor homes do have higher ceilings. Be sure to look at height of the slides, if you’re tall! In some RVs I regularly hit my head on the slide and I’m only 5’11″.
Storage: Very Good
Modern motorhomes have huge exterior storage capability behind bus-like access doors around the underside. In fact, some have the physical space for you to store far more weight than the chassis is rated to carry! Interior storage is second to fifth wheels in most cases, but generally very good.
Initial Cost: Good to Fair
Based on personal taste, budget, and preferences, you can buy a Class A new from $70,000 on up to a Million or more, with typical units between $85,000 and $250,000. A used one in livable condition can go for as little as $20,000, but more usually between $30,000 and $200,000.
Of course, you’ll need something to drive at your destination. Most people tow a car, known as a “toad” because it sounds like “towed” – cute isn’t it? Usually this is a small car like a Honda. Some cars can’t be towed with 4 wheels down, it will damage their transmission. So if you don’t already own a towable car, you’ll have to either buy one, buy a tow dolly, or have your vehicle modified to make it towable (a company named Remco is the leader in this area). Either way is an expense, and tow dolly’s are a pain.
Another consideration (mentioned by a reader, thanks Doug) is the cost of the towing equipment can easily exceed $2000. Tow bar, brackets, lights, transmission modification (if required), supplemental braking system, etc.
One choice with a major influence on price is “gas or diesel”. The typical diesel RV will cost significantly more than its gas powered relatives new cost will start around $140k for Diesels and around $85k for Gassers. If cost isn’t a big concern, my recommendation is to buy a diesel. They’re more comfortable to ride in, they haul more weight, they can keep up with traffic in the mountains, they’re quieter (engine is in the rear) and the engine will last a long long time.
Lack of protection for occupants in a severe accident, especially a rollover, is a safety concern with many motor homes. This is a complicated subject, and there are both facts and opinions to consider. In general, motor homes built on a rail chassis are simply a box bolted to a truck frame and offer little protection for the occupants. You’ll find links for additional research in the general comments on safety at the bottom of the page.
Drivability: Very Good to Fair
A well designed diesel pusher, loaded within its rated capacity, is a pleasure to drive. An overloaded 10 year old gasser with bad shocks and worn bell cranks can be a chore! You do need to make some adjustments in your driving because of the physical size of some Class A’s. The 40 to 45 foot models are as big as a bus, so you must learn how to handle them. Diesel pushers generally have great brakes and the 6 speed transmissions make it easy to stay in the power band.
One item to be aware of; you can’t back up when you’re towing a car 4 down. There will be many situations where you need to consider this, for example, when getting fuel.
Traveling Comfort: Excellent to good
It’s very convenient in a Class-A to pull over and have lunch, get a cup of coffee, take a nap, or visit the toilet. You have access to the whole RV without ever going outside. Stopping for the night in a truck stop or rest area is safe and easy, again because you don’t have to go outside. You can use the jacks to level off if needed, and the climate inside is always as you like it. Although if it’s hot outside you’ll have to run the generator and big AC because the dash air can’t keep up.
When parked for the night if you ever feel unsafe you just pull up the jacks and drive away. All this convenience can be spoiled to some extent by poorly designed slides that make it difficult or impossible to access some areas, cabinets, appliances, etc. with the slides closed. Gas engine RVs, especially older ones, lose a few points in the comfort category because of noise from the front mounted engine and often inadequate suspensions making them more work to to drive.
Parking: Good to Fair
The problems with parking a Class-A are length, height, and ground clearance. Some smaller RV parks just don’t give you enough room to turn and back a 40′ motor home. You also have to watch for tree limbs above. Motorhomes can bottom out on uneven ground, especially if backing up hill and hitting their tail. Gas motor homes are the worst for this, with their long overhang behind the rear wheels. Longer RVs can “high center” over humps, when both tires are lower and the hump is in the middle.
One thing that helps greatly is a rear view camera. We have one, and by using it I can park the motorhome easily in most situations. But our RVs were only 37 and 40 feet. If you have one of the 45′ monsters just be aware that parking will be a chore in some cases. Newer motor homes may be equipped with sonar that warns you when objects are too close. Of course, there are more pull-through sites in newer parks, and you can usually find this listed in the Trailer Life Directory, or in the Big Rig Best Bets Campground Directory.
Ease of Setup and Hookup: Very Good to Poor
That’s a wide range isn’t it? A big factor is the presence or absence of a leveling system, either hydraulic leveling jacks, or air bags. On our old Southwind we had hydraulic levelers, and no slides, so we could be completely set up in under 5 minutes after parking. What takes us the longest is hookup and un-hooking of our toad. Hookup takes about 15 minutes, and unhooking about 5.
Most modern Class-A rigs come with hydraulic jacks, or an air bag suspension and leveling system, but if you’re being frugal you might be looking at an older coach without them. If you don’t have hydraulic jacks you’ll need to level your motor home by using boards or special leveling ramps under the tires. This can be a tedious and time consuming job, guessing how high to go, placing boards, backing onto them, checking level, repeating the process. If your parking spot is more than a little unleveled you’ll need to use a bottle jack to jack up part of your RV, and place blocks or jack stands under it. Not fun.
Alternative to a Class A: How about a Bus Conversion? I won’t go into details, but if a Class A is going to be your choice you should also investigate a bus conversions.
A Class-A is best for:
- Frequent travelers who don’t stay in one spot long, moving every week for example.
- Anyone who needs maximum outside storage capacity
- Anyone who wants to tow a small car vs. driving a large tow vehicle around town
- Persons with physical limitations, because of ease of setup.
A Class-A is worst for:
- Boondocking in remote areas with difficult access, they are just too big, too little ground clearance, no traction on loose surface, heavy, etc. They’re made for paved roads.
- Visiting smaller campgrounds, state and county parks, etc. especially if the RV is 40′+
- Snowbirds, who will drive it only once a year to the destination, and return. It seems a waste to pay for all that chassis and engine when you’ll barely use it. A better choice would be a 5th wheel stored at the destination.
Class C Motorhome
Living Area: Good to Fair
Class C’s are usually shorter and have less floor space than Class A’s, but they often make more efficient use of it. You’ll see couples fulltiming in a Class C, often the larger ones. Many come with slides too, which increase floor space. For a single person, a small to mid-size class C can be very convenient and feel “just right”. Note that some modern RV’s that are technically Class C are as large as a Class A, so pay more attention to the actual motorhome than what class it falls into.
Storage: Good to Fair
They usually have a few exterior compartments, and a fair amount of interior storage. If you won’t need the bunk bed that is often located in the overhead you can convert that to a large storage area.
Initial Cost: Excellent to Good
These can be a real bargain, but there are a lot of variables. A second hand Class C with no slides might be only $12,000. A new high-end model with 2 or 3 slides can easily be over $100k. As with Class A’s, the gas or diesel choice is available here too. There are fewer diesels, but the cost difference isn’t as great as with Class A’s. Go with the Diesel if you can afford it.
Toad or no toad? Some fulltimers with Class C’s don’t pull a toad. They drive the RV for major shopping, and some have a bicycle, scooter, or motorcycle on the rear bumper. This cuts costs too.
Class C’s are generally considered to be safer than Class A’s. One reason is the driver and front passenger seats are inside a modern safety engineered compartment with crush zones, air bags, etc. See additional comments on safety and links to more information at the bottom of the page.
Drivability: Excellent to Fair
See Class A above. Same story here; however, a class C is usually smaller, and you’re closer to the ground, so it’s more like driving a big pickup truck than driving a bus.
Traveling Comfort: Excellent to Good
Just like a Class-A it’s easy to use your RV for frequent stops as you travel. Everything I said about a Class A applies, including the possible negatives.
Parking: Excellent to Fair
Class C’s are usually shorter than Class A’s and park much easier. The overhang in back isn’t generally as severe as some Class A’s have, so they clear obstacles better. They’re also usually not as tall as Class A’s or 5th wheels, so you don’t have to be as concerned about trees. They’ll fit into tight places and small spots in national and state forests, and they’re good for reaching prime boondocking locations, but not quite as good as a trailer and 4×4 pickup. For an example, read the blog of Tioga and George. George travels the west from Mexico to Canada, and he boondocks in all environments urban, rural, and wilderness.
Ease of Setup and Hookup: Very Good to Poor
Same comments as Class A.
A Class-C is best for:
- Frequent travelers who don’t stay in one spot long
- Solo travelers
- Boondockers who prefer a single unit to a trailer — or any RVer who wants a single unit vs. a Class A with Toad
- People on a tight budget, who want something new with a warranty
A Class-C is worst for:
- Anyone who needs a lot of living space or a lot of storage.
- Snowbirds with a single destination who move once a year.
Living Area: Excellent to Fair
You can buy a TT that’s 40 feet long with 3 slides, and it will have lots of floor space, but the ceiling will almost always be low compared to a 5th wheel.
Storage: Fair to Poor
Outside storage is minimal on most Travel Trailers. Interior storage can be good, depending on cabinet and compartment design, but will usually fall short of its 5th wheel cousins. Many people who travel with a TT also carry belongings in the tow vehicle.
Initial Cost: Excellent to Good
If you already own a suitable tow vehicle, a Travel Trailer will give you a lot of “bang for your buck”. Typical large TT’s run $20,000 to $45,000 new, and $4,000 to $20,000 used. As always, you can pay more.
If you need to buy a tow vehicle, you can pull a large trailer with less truck than a 5th wheel, sometimes a 1/2 ton pickup will do, and a 1 ton truck will pull any normal TT made. You often see good sized trailers towed by large SUVs. Safety can become a concern here, especially if the load isn’t balanced or the trailer brakes aren’t adequate or maintained.
See comments under 5th wheels above. Note that travel trailers in general are more prone to control issues related to hitch type, weight, balance, etc. See additional comments on safety and links to more information at the bottom of the page.
Traveling Comfort: Poor
For the same reasons as the Fifth Wheel.
These are some of the most difficult RV’s to back into a slot. Compared to a 5th wheel, the unit won’t turn as sharply when backing (based on geometry of wheels/hitch/etc.). Also, longer TT’s won’t fit into some smaller parks and ground clearance is often less than fivers.
Ease of Setup and Hookup: Good to Poor
A travel trailer is more difficult than a 5th wheel to back, hook up, un-hook, and set up. Having an electric tongue jack is a big help. Having electric levelers is better still. Lower end to mid range TT’s don’t come with either of these. Moving a large TT can be a real chore.
A Travel Trailer is best for:
- Snowbirds, especially on a tight budget
- Anyone who wants to tow with a 1/2 ton pickup or SUV
- Anyone on a tight budget who already has a suitable tow vehicle.
- Persons with physical limitations who snowbird. Modifications for accessibility are easier and less expensive than other RV types and the trailer can be stored at the destination location.
A Travel Trailer is worst for:
- Vagabonds who move frequently
- Very tall persons
- Persons with physical limitations who want to move frequently; setup, hookup, etc. can be a problem.
I’ve omitted Class B motor homes. These are large van conversions like the Pleasure Way, RoadTrek, and others such as Coach House, etc. I also don’t list pickup campers. Although some people do fulltime in these it’s not the norm. I only recommend considering one of these if it solves a major problem for you. For example, a couple decide to start fulltiming; he’s a wildlife photographer and she’s a freelance writer for nature publications. They plan to boondock exclusively in remote areas. The best choice for them may be a large pickup camper on a 1 ton 4×4. There are limitless examples. I’ve seen people fulltime in every RV imaginable.
I’ve also not listed Bus Conversions. Everything I said about Class A’s apply to a bus. In addition, they have more storage than almost any Class A, and they’re generally better handling on the road. They’re also usually safer in an accident. If you consider one, please join a “Bus Nuts” group and get some education and help. There are some wonderful bargains out there, and also some really bad conversions that will give you nothing but problems. I personally can’t tell the difference, and neither can you. Check out the Bus Conversion area on the Escapees forum as a good place to start.
Random Thoughts – Motorhome vs. Trailer
Fifth Wheel and Travel Trailer owners say it’s an advantage to have your living area separate from the chassis and engine. If you own a motorhome (Class A, B, or C) and have chassis problems, your “home” goes in the shop too because it’s all one unit, and you go into a hotel. With a trailer, if your tow vehicle goes in the shop your home can go anywhere.
We’ve experienced both with our Class A — we’ve lived in the parking lot of an RV repair shop for a week while they fixed our RV — and we’ve also been in a hotel for 9 days for an engine rebuild. Another thing to consider is frequency of repair. More things can go wrong with a motorhome because you have all the RV systems combined with all the chassis systems in one package. So you’ll likely be “in the shop” more frequently with the single motorhome unit than you would with a trailer.
An advantage of driving a motorhome and pulling a toad is that both units can move under their own power. If your motorhome breaks down you can unhook your toad and drive away. Some say the toad is a “lifeboat” in these circumstances. If you have a trailer, and your tow vehicle breaks down, you’re stuck until help arrives. Also, with a motorhome and toad, you and your spouse can go separate ways and meet up later (e.g. you go dump and fill with fuel, she runs to the grocery store). You can’t do that with a trailer and tow vehicle; although, if you add a motorcycle or scooter you can.
Choosing Brands and Models
After the type of RV is decided, your next task is to choose brands and models that you like, and that meet your needs.
Some RVers swear by the RV Consumer Group (RVCG) ratings. RVCG uses various methods, including volunteer inspectors, to determine quality, handling, safety, etc. of RV’s and publishes their ratings. You can buy CD’s or books or both. In addition to other information, they give ratings of “Full Time”, “Snowbird” etc. to rigs based on how well they believe they’ll hold up to different levels of use. These are a good source of information, but they are not the Bible! It doesn’t matter if XYZ motorhome is rated “Full Time” if it costs so much that you can’t afford it. Still, I would try to avoid low rated RVs, focusing on durability and safety.
You can find RVCG publications in some public libraries. Also, some RV Parks will have copies in their library (I know many Escapee parks do).
Safety – Last, but not least
Thanks to my friend Derek who suggested I include more information on RV safety issues. He pointed out there are two general categories of safety issues with any RV — design safety and user safety. I included some information in the individual sections above. Since this is a big topic, and I’m no expert, I’ll only make a few more comments and then give you links to other resources for additional research.
I suppose an unsafe person can find a way to injure or kill themselves and others whether they’re driving a Volvo or a Chevy Corvair. The Volvo just makes it harder. A list of unsafe actions would be very long, but here are a few that come to mind:
- Not wearing safety belts (and/or walking around while in motion)
- Riding in a towed vehicle; 5th Wheel, Trailer, Car, etc.
- Not maintaining tires, brakes, etc.
- Overloading or unbalanced load
- Traveling in a motorhome with contents not secured (items which could become missiles in a accident)
- Some links for additional reading:
Mac the Fire Guy (same nickname, different person) Articles on RV Fire Safety
In general, motorhomes, especially Class A’s, are not designed with the same safety standards, nor with the same safety devices and features, as modern passenger cars and trucks. Some motorhomes are safer than others. Class B and C motorhomes are generally safer than Class A’s. Within a motorhome class the safer RV’s are generally more expensive, but not always. Cost doesn’t necessarily equal safety. Between Class A motorhomes those with a monoque or semi-monoque chassis are generally safer than those built on a rail chassis.
Here are some links for further research:
Driving Tips: http://rversonline.org/RVOADrivingSchool.html
Motorhome Suspension and Handling: http://rversonline.org/ArtFAQ5.html
Many other articles: http://rversonline.org/RV4General.html
Class A, B, C: http://www.rv.org/class_A.htm
Fifth Wheels: http://www.rv.org/fifthwheel.htm
Please report to us any broken links you discover Thanks!