Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Recreational Vehicles

So, I saw this picture on Facebook yesterday:

And my first instinct was to riff on silly campers and leave it at that. Then I thought about the trailer we're selling, and it just snowballed from there. You've been warned...

A Treatise on the Recreational Vehicle

Having had rather extensive experience with RVs, I thought I'd offer some thoughts and synopses for those who might be interested. I've had experience with three out of the five major types (no fifth wheels or truck slide-ins), and each one I've owned has left me wishing for the next type...

The Pop-up Camper.

The pop-up camper has several things going for it right off the bat. It's light - most mid-sized SUVs and minivans can tow even the largest pop-ups. They're inexpensive - even more so if you buy a used one. They can be maneuvered by hand into very tight spots. They can be used quite effectively without electricity or water. They don't need much in the way of maintenance.

Now, mind you, I'm talking about smaller pop-ups, the ones in the 8-12 foot box size. Some have gotten so ridiculously large that there's really no reason not to get a full-on travel trailer. For the most part, though, the above is true. We owned a pop-up from 1996 until we bought our travel trailer in 2007, so we have the most experience in this type of camper.

Now, the downside: You can't store very much inside (or outside, for that matter). We owned a 10-foot box Jayco pop-up trailer, and all we were able to store inside it was basic cookware and rudimentary gear. There's simply no room - we had a small bench on one side that had the water jug and cookware; there was a tiny cabinet under the sink that had dinnerware and cleaning supplies; and there was a small amount of space under the dinette, which was taken up by electrical cords, jacks, and a couple games.

This leads to another downside: You need to open the camper to put *anything* inside it. To prepare for a trip, you had to open the camper up, pack everything in, then crank it back down, hook it up, bring it where you were going, set it up, then do everything in reverse when you got back. You have to be *very* careful when packing gear into a pop-up, too - if you put too much gear in the back, it rides completely wrong on the tow hitch; if you put too much in front, it sits wrong and tries to steer your tow vehicle.

And, lastly, one of the bigger issues: No hot water, and no toilet. We solved this by getting a porta-potty for late-night emergencies, but the lack of hot water was a downer. Hauling all the cookware to the bathhouse to clean everything gets old after a couple meals.

Oh, and the capacity. That's a big one. The pop-up we owned had the two beds on the end (one queen, one full) and a small bed made out of the dinette. For the four of us, it was sufficient, but we were taxing it to the extent. We got rid of it when the kids were little (TheBoy was 6, and his sister only 4), and even then it was too small. And don't get me started about rainy days. Those were difficult. You pretty much *had* to go somewhere.

While I'm piling on... While it may seem nice that you can unzip all the curtains and get a nice breeze going, what it means in real life is that you have zero privacy. In fact, it's even worse, because you're on a podium. Anything you do is up for review. Oh, and if you want to change into a swimsuit? Ha! Good luck - you need to zip up at least half the curtains in order to do that.

Wear and tear. The good side is, there's very little to actually wear. You need to make sure the tires are in good shape and the lug nuts are tight, and you need to periodically make sure the axles are in working order. Lights are minimal - you only have to worry about turn signals and brake lights. That's the good side. The bad side is that over time, the canvas will rot. The lifting arms will give out. The floor will sag. This is pretty much a constant with all RVs, though.

The travel trailer.

For the past seven years, we've owned a 25 foot travel trailer. It has a queen bed, two bunk beds, one of the largest bathrooms I've ever seen in an RV, and pretty much all the bells and whistles you would want in a home you can move. Refrigerator and freezer (which run on propane as well as electricity). Oven. Three burner stove. Microwave. Both gas-powered and electric hot water heaters. A 15" flat-screen TV with DVD player. Double sink. Bathtub (tiny) with shower. 20' awning. Storage for camp chairs, fishing poles, etc.

We've been stuck inside on a rainy day - a downpouring rainy day at that - and been perfectly comfortable. We've gone camping when it was extremely hot and humid - and been perfectly comfortable. We keep gear it in pretty much year round - dedicated camping pots and pans, plates and plasticware, etc. There's a ton of storage, from the cabinets over the dinette (and the space under the dinette, too) to the closets flanking the queen bed (which lifts up for storage as well). There's bunk beds for the kids, and the dinette turns into a bed if needed for guests (we turn it into a bed and watch movies on it at night).

But the travel trailer has downsides, too. It requires a full-size, V8-powered truck to pull it. It's unwieldy - especially when you only take it out a couple times a year. It requires a certain finesse to back into a space. With the Dodge, I've had excellent luck towing the camper - I've never had it fishtail or get away from me or be blown around on the highway, but it is a risk. The trailer's brakes work fine, but need to be adjusted periodically - and you'll know it if the adjustment is off...

And there's a significant amount of maintenance involved - you need to winterize it in the fall so the pipes don't freeze; it gets covered to protect from rain and snow; the tires seem to pick up nails like magic and need patching. The awning needs to be carefully rolled up and dried if it is put away wet; the gas lines need to be blown out periodically. There's a good amount of work that needs to be done whether you use it once a year or 20 times.

And, while this applies for the next class as well, I'll get it out of the way here: The holding tanks. Oh, sweet merciful Vishnu, the horror of dumping the holding tanks. You have gray water (sink/tub water) and black water (toilet) that need to be accounted for. If you're lucky, you find a campground that has sewer at each site. If you're not lucky, you'll need to dump these tanks before you leave. If you're camping for a week or more, you'll need to make an arrangement to dump the tanks at regular intervals - this means either paying someone to clean them out, unhooking everything and bringing it to the dumping station, or (like we do) have a "honey wagon", a portable tank on wheels.

The travel trailer is definitely a recreational vehicle that requires two people. Hooking it up, maintaining it; all requires two competent adults to keep it running smoothly. If you're on your own, a pop-up is definitely easier (although if you're on your own, you can rock a tent real simple). Whether checking the lights, running anti-freeze through the water lines, or getting a cover up and over a 10' tall trailer, you will need a second person to assist.

Yes, it is as glamorous as it sounds...

The Motorhome.

For the purposes of this exercise, I'll consider all motorhomes the same. Categorically, there are four classes of motorhomes: Class B, Class C, Class A, and diesel pushers. Class B motorhomes are the Roadtreks that look like large vans; Class C motorhomes are the classic van- or pick-up-front campers; Class A's are your Winnebagos; and diesel pushers are the giant luxo-land-yacht-barges with better interiors than my house. Realistically, though, they vary only in size and accoutrements; essentially you're talking about a self-contained unit.

Growing up we had a very small Class C motorhome. It had a queen bed over the cab, the dinette turned into a queen bed, and there was a tiny twin bed over the dinette. We owned it for about 5 years, and some 25 years after selling it, my folks would buy a 31 foot Class A that I borrowed a couple times. I have the least experience with the motorhome, but sufficient.

The good points. One of the great things about the motorhome is that it can be, literally, ready to go at a moment's notice. You can pack it ahead of time, and when it's time to go, hop in, turn the key, and go. If you want or need a secondary vehicle (because, trust me, you want to be able to do more than cruise around the campsite on a bicycle and you do NOT want to unhook everything to run to the store for more milk), you can either get a hauler or simply have someone drive a car behind you.

Another side benefit, assuming you don't have one of the monster motorhomes, is that things like tailgating get a lot more fun. Jimmy Buffet with a class B or C camper would be AWESOME - imagine being able to bring your blender and have your own bathroom in the parking lot. We go to Renaissance faires in costume, and it would be killer to go down in a motorhome where we could change in the parking lot. If you tailgate for sporting events, a small class C would be rockin'.

And a class C makes a lengthy road trip into something fun. When I was five, we took a trip out to Minnesota to visit my mom's cousins out there. We took three days out and three days back and it was a simply AWESOME time. Having the bathroom in the back meant that we didn't have to stop as much, and having an on-board refrigerator meant that snacks, sodas, water, etc. were right at hand. This would be significantly expensive today, mind you...

Generally, travel trailers and motorhomes come in approximately the same size. Our trailer is about middle-of-the-road for size, and it matches a median Class C pretty well. They'll sleep about the same number comfortably (although the class C's have a built-in advantage with the bed over the cab). This leads, though, to a significant downside.

Cost. Even the smallest Class C motorhome is going to run you upwards of $60K. That's not even counting insurance, tags, title, etc. - remember, it's still a motor vehicle. For reference, our 25' travel trailer cost us $16K. My truck was $27K. That's $43K combined, for a truck that seats 6 and a camper that sleeps six. A *small* Class A or C will run $60K plus, and generally that will only sleep 4. Even a used (and I mean 10-15 years old used) motorhome will run you $15K+. If you start getting into the "1985 GMC van-front camper" on Craigslist, it's going to cost you more to keep running than it's worth.

Maintenance. In addition to the maintenance listed above for the travel trailer, you will also have to maintain a complete motor vehicle. If your state requires an inspection, you'll have to do that once a year. You'll have to arrange something for the winter, either pull the battery and drain the fluids or go out and start it periodically. Tires wear out fast and are expensive to maintain - especially when you start talking about 18-wheeler-like tires on the larger Class As.

 Oh, and gas... I took my parents' 31-foot Class A camper to Cape Cod one summer. It's ~ 200 miles round-trip, and when I gassed the RV up before handing it back, it cost me well over $200. With gas at $3.50 - $4/gallon, something that gets single-digit gas mileage (and middle-single digit gas mileage at that, I don't mean 9.4 MPG), it's pricey to drive a large motorhome.

Lastly, driving. While travel trailers are difficult to maneuver, a large motorhome is just as bad if not worse. While the trailer you have to worry about pivot points (Who's dragged his trailer over countless curbs? THIS GUY), on the motorhome you have to concern yourself with insanely wide turns - when you have a rig that's 33+ feet long, it turns like the U.S.S. Nimitz. A certain someone that happens to be related to me (but I won't name) has replaced both mirrors and a good number of lugnuts on his motorhome as a result of overbearing tollbooths and other immovable objects...

I'm sure I'll think of a dozen more pros and a dozen more cons for all three types. I also didn't touch on the more boutique types, like fifth wheel (where the attachment point for the tow vehicle is in the bed of a pickup) or a slide-in camper (the ones that go on the backs of pickups). Basically, they fit in existing categories more or less (fifth wheels are still travel trailers, and slide-ins turn your pickup into a motorhome).

This is not meant to dissuade or persuade, but to act as a guidebook of sorts for anyone interested in obtaining a recreational vehicle. We've owned two of the three and used all three, and all have had their good points and their bad points. The pop-up was by far the easiest to store and move around; the travel trailer was the most comfortable and the most "like home"; and the motorhome was the most convenient.

A lot, too, depends on where you are, what your comfort level is with do-it-yourself, and how much time and money you want to invest. If you don't have to worry about winterization, a good chunk of the maintenance is taken out - of course, that means you're further south, which means more sun, which means replacing the tires, awning, and roof more often...

I could definitely see buying a small Class C camper once the kids are off to college as a vehicle for exploration. Something that could in a pinch be driven in a downtown area (not Boston/DC/NYC, but your average mid-size city) but we could stay in overnight with ease would be very cool. I don't see going back to a popup or travel trailer; not that there's anything wrong with either, mind you, just that I don't want that much work for my recreation.

Besides, I'm kinda digging just going tent camping with my son...

That is all.


Formynder said...

You keep using that word "camping". I don't think that means what you think it means.

Anonymous said...

A passing thought. Coming from the horse industry, I've always been puzzled as to why there aren't more goosenecks (not conversions, which are asking for trouble) out there for camp trailers instead of bumper-pulls. The goosenecks are so much more agile in tight spots and for long distance hauling much more stable. But then fishtailing with live cargo is a Really bad idea, not just a bad idea.

I suppose it is the learning curve issue with them and the expense of having to have a full-size pick-up? Not that the latter would be an unfortunate thing to have it seems to me...

Wolfman said...

Maybe it's the locale, but the majority of camp/travel trailers in the west are gooseneck hitch. This could be a side effect of the 3/4 ton pickup being a standard family vehicle out here. One nice thing about gooseneck trailers v bumper pull trailers is that the same amount of camper will pull shorter, since the front bed rides over the truck. As for the conversion kits, I don't know why thats asking for trouble. It appears most trailers of that style are built as fifth-wheel plate attached hitch, then a gooseneck adapter is bolted on. They may be problematic if one is swapping them on and off a lot, but they seem pretty stable out here.

And a word on slide-ins, as well. Slide ins have many of the limitations of the other small trailers, in bed count and storage, but their real advantage is in mobility. It takes about ten minutes to slide it into the truck, but after that it becomes just a topheavy load. I love mine for camping in unimproved areas (it was great in N AZ) where you wouldn't want to try and drag a camp trailer in.

lelnet said...

As for us, "motorhome" is going to be the only way to go, considering that the absolute top of the list of reasons to own such a beast is the ability of the non-driving party to use the restroom while the vehicle is in motion. (Pretty sure that'd be illegal with a trailer...and even if technically legal, you'd pretty much have to be Spiderman to safely move from the passenger seat of a tow vehicle to the interior of a trailer while both were moving at freeway velocities...and my wife is not Spiderman.)

The goal, you see, would not be "camping" per se, but rather balls-to-the-wall driving...the sort of driving where you only stop for long enough to change drivers, change fluids (black water out, white water in...or the human equivalent), or add fuel (again, either vehicular or human, or both at once).

The current fantasy trip, for example, runs (according to a combination of Google Maps and wikipedia) 8641 miles and would probably take us a month.

If I wanted to go _camping_, I'd just put a couple of tents in the back of the car! :)

doubletrouble said...

Good info.
I think we could see a CL.C in our future...

Ted said...

Another option not specifically mentioned is that you can easily rent one. We rented a 40 foot Class A for a 1,200 mile loop to Yellowstone, Glacier, the north and south rim of the Grand Canyon , Byrce and Zion NP's. The biggest plus is that you don't have to constantly check in / out of rooms pack and unpack. Everything moves with you. While other people were eating at picnic Tables with the files and the mosquitos in 95 degree sun we were cooling off with the AC on and the gen going 2 steps from the refrigerator filled with cool drinks.

But yes I can confirm that on a good day we saw 5 MPG. And crossing Monument Valley with a 50 mph Cross wind was NOT fun.

Borepatch said...

At the other extreme, there's this.

Ed said...

The video linked to by Borepatch points out a few good things about traveling light, especially in choices of tents that do not require ropes or lines.
When tent camping, take the rated occupancy and divide it by two. Get a four man tent if thee are two of you camping. A two man tent will usually work if you are by yourself. You want to at least be able to sit up in a tent.

abnormalist said...

Dont forget the beauty of the teardrop camper. Small, but meant as a more comfortable tent rather than a big trailer. Most of the nice parts of a the travel trailer, the pop up, while still being small enough to tow with almost anything (some are pulled by trikes).

Generally no toilet or hot water, but usually decent cooking under a screen house under the galley hatch.

Building a modified 5 person one for the family this year, wont be as plush as a traveler, but cheaper, and much nicer than the family tent.