The Camper Field Guide: What to Know When Shopping for a Trailer

So, you want to hit the roads with a camper this summer? If you’re thinking about buying one, you already know that there’s a lot more than wanderlust that goes into the decision. We’re taking a look at the most important factors to consider when you’re starting the process.

Know what type of trailer you want

The term “recreational vehicle” (RV) has evolved to describe many different types, from smaller, simpler trailers to luxurious, class “A” motorhomes. There are several main types to consider if you’re looking for a trailer-style camper, and the size and function can vary widely. This list doesn’t include options like motorhomes (where the engine is onboard). With the options here, you’ll have to bring your own engine. Here are some of the most popular camper styles:

Travel trailer: This is probably the type of trailer you think of when you think of a tow-behind trailer. There are a variety of floorplans, shapes, and sizes out there, so you’re sure to find one that has what you’re looking for, at a weight your vehicle can tow.

Fifth wheel: This option involves fitting the trailer into the bed of a truck. You’ll likely need to have or purchase a heavy-duty truck, like a Chevrolet Silverado 2500, Ford F-250, Ram 2500 or similar. While it might take more initial work to get your truck fitted and ready to pull a fifth wheel, many say it handles and rides much better than a travel trailer.

Toy hauler: If you plan to bring vehicles along on your adventure, this is the option for you. Its large opening and ramp door is designed to accommodate an ATV, snowmobile, motorcycle or other small vehicle in the garage area, leaving space to relax in the living room and bunk areas. Plus, when you set up camp, you can unload your gear and convert the garage into extra indoor space.

Pop-up: Lightweight but still spacious, the pop-up is an option for smaller families and those willing to do a little bit of setup. Some require more manual work to get it ready to camp in, while others are motorized, or have a combination of both elements. This is one of the smallest options, so it’s easily towed by most SUVs or light duty trucks.

Know how much weight your vehicle can pull

When it comes to selecting a camper size, there are several factors to consider. Unfortunately, you could be limited by the size of your vehicle. For example, a fifth wheel won’t work if you’re using a large SUV to tow. On the other hand, you may not need to shell out the extra money for that new, heavy-duty truck for a smaller trailer.

You’ll want to locate the sticker inside your potential new camper that lists several weights. The information can be overwhelming, but rest assured, all those acronyms are pretty straightforward. You’ll find several weights relating to the various states of the camper (loaded, unloaded) and for specific parts (axle, hitch, etc.). You can find plenty of helpful guides like this one to help you demystify these numbers.

Your next step is to figure out how much your vehicle is capable of pulling. For this, Camping World created this handy calculator. You can search by year, make, model and trim level, or even by VIN number for more specific results.

Know what type of camping you want to do

This might sound rather obvious, but you could find yourself in a real pinch if you’re not prepared. Looking to get off the grid? Great! That means that you’re going to need large tanks and a method of producing your own electricity. Maybe that means solar panels and larger, clean, gray and black water tanks, which will all add more weight to your load.

If you’re mainly planning to stay in campgrounds and RV parks where you’ll have easy access to essential resources, you won’t need all that extra weight and space dragging you down. You’ll want to know this before you start shopping because if you don’t, you might end up ill-equipped for the type of camping you’ve got in mind.

Power sources, the size of water and holding tanks, and your method of heating and cooling are all things you need to consider well before you start looking. They’re determined by the type of camping you want to do.

Do you want a new or used camper?

Of course, the largest factor in this decision is your budget. That might also vary depending on the size and amenities you’re looking for.

When you’re buying a used camper, you won’t get the same warranties and protections you’d get buying new. However, you also won’t be paying a markup like you would on a new car.

You’ll need to factor in repairs or maybe even renovation for some trailers. However, if you’re willing to do some work, you can make a used trailer look even better than new! It all depends on your budget, time, skill and tastes. But don’t let some bad fabric upholstery or tacky wallcoverings be a deterrent in your search for a used RV – there are plenty of ways to make it look and feel your own.

If you’re considering a used camper, it might be worth getting an inspection, which could give you a better idea of what may need to be repaired.

What kind of budget (and how much time) do you have for maintenance? 

Just like the vehicle you’re using to tow, the camper itself is going to need periodic maintenance. In some ways, it’s like having a whole other vehicle to service. Your time and money spent on maintenance will vary widely. But don’t let that overwhelm you –it will be well worth your time!

You can expect to spend more on servicing an RV than your car. The parts themselves are more expensive. For example, if you blow a tire, you’ll need to replace it with a special towing (or ST) tire with stiffer sidewalls to stop your load from swaying behind your vehicle.

Also remember the camper has all those things that make it feel like a home-away-from-home, with things like a hot water heater, air conditioning, plumbing and even smoke alarms. Those things will all take time to maintain, and money to repair or replace. You may also have to winterize your camper and find a place to store it when not in use. Those are all things to consider in terms of costs and time commitment.

Luckily, engine maintenance won’t affect your trailer as much as it would a motorhome. However, you might need more frequent oil changes, tire rotations, or brake work on your towing vehicle if you’re logging more miles on it.

Happy camping

No matter what you end up choosing, you’re sure to have fun on your many adventures. There’s a good reason why the phrase was coined “happy camper!”



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