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RULE #1: The IS no perfect RV
Jim and I realized pretty early in the process of searching for a new 5th-wheel camper that no matter how much research we did now or in the future, we are never going to find the perfect recreational vehicle (RV).

Why? Not because we're too picky. We're picky, but not that picky.

No, it's because even the most expensive and well-built RVs -- whether they are half-million dollar Monaco motorhomes or top-of-the-line $150,000 5th-wheels -- are going to have some construction defects, warranty issues, and/or recalls at some point. RVs that aren't warranted for full-time use are bound to have even more problems if they are used very much.

RVs are a strange hybrid between a mobile home (that ends up pretty stationary) and a passenger vehicle but most RVs, especially the towable ones, aren't built with as sturdy materials and construction methods as mobile homes, cars, trucks, and vans. It's a wonder RVs last as long as they do, all things considered.

Ice Lake, San Juan Mountains near Silverton, Colorado

In this entry I'm going to share some of my tips on purchasing as perfect (for you) an RV as you can find. Some of these ideas are generic enough to be useful when you're purchasing a passenger vehicle, mobile home, modular house, or stick-built house, too.

My tips are by no means exhaustive. There are entire books and DVDs devoted to this topic. If you're in the market for a new RV, it'd be a good idea to read as much as you can find at the library, bookstore, or online before signing on the dotted line. I've got a lot of relevant personal experience but I don't claim to be an expert. Quite the contrary.

It's a jungle out there and you'd better be well-armed with information and a sound plan. That's why I call these my "rules of engagement."

Note: the photos in this entry are from a few of our RV travel destinations the past seven years.

RULE #2:  Know thyself

Whether you're a first-time RV buyer or a tenth-time RV buyer, you need to determine what your intentions are before you can logically determine what type of RV is best for you. There are as many kinds of "camping" and traveling in an RV as there are people.

You might be perfectly happy heading for the nearest lake in a little truck camper or pop-up tent trailer six weekends each summer and never touch the rig the rest of the year. Your running buddy might want a compact Class B to travel overnight to races a couple times a month and park at trailheads while hiking the Colorado Trail:

Tumbling stream and spring wildflowers along Seg. 25 of the Colorado Trail in the San Juan Mountains

Your best friend might want a travel trailer or 5th-wheel "toy hauler" to take his 4WD vehicles to a national forest three states away for a two-week vacation in the fall. Your co-worker might want a lightweight travel trailer to take her family to Alaska for a month. Your retired neighbors might want a mid-sized Class C motorhome to travel around the country several times a year to see the kids and grandkids. Your parents might want a comfortable, high-end 5th-wheel or Class A motorhome to live in full-time after selling their house.

Different strokes, and all that.

Ask yourself lots and lots of questions like these:

  • How often will I use this vehicle? how far will I be driving or towing it? for how long at a time? for how many years? If you really enjoy it, you may be spending more time in the RV than you originally planned. The reverse is also true.
  • Where do I want to camp? in town? in the woods? desert? high mountains? what are the roads like to get there? paved and smooth? rough and narrow with low-hanging branches?
  • What type of campsites do I want? dry camping (boon-docking) on remote public lands with no hookups? public or private campgrounds with some or full hookups? a five-star RV resort?
  • How much work am I willing to do to set up the RV at a campsite and get it ready to leave again? Towable vehicles usually take more time to hitch/unhitch than motorhomes, unless you're towing a vehicle behind your motorhome.
  • How many amenities do I need when I'm camping? can I rough it or do I need more comfort features? can I use the primitive toilet in a national forest campground (or dig a hole in the woods!) or do I need the privacy and cleanliness of my own RV bathroom? how much grey and black water will my RV tanks hold before they must be emptied (assuming you don't have a sewer hookup)? how much fresh water do I want to carry in the rig? how much kitchen counter space do I need? do I even need a kitchen, or will I be grilling meals outside?

Lake Tahoe and another alpine lake, Nevada

  • How much space do I need inside? can I climb a ladder and sleep on a thin mattress over the cab of the RV or do I need a "real" mattress, preferably king-sized, in a separate bedroom in the RV? how many people will be in the RV with me? is there room for all of them to sleep or will we need a tent outside? does this RV have enough room inside for everyone who will be with me if it rains three days in a row??
  • How long an RV can I safely handle on the freeway, in my neighborhood, in gas stations, and in campgrounds? Would it be easier for me to back up a motorhome or a towable camper?
  • What can I reasonably afford?

You get the drift. Ask yourself as many questions as you can think of before deciding which category of RV fits your needs, how big it should be, and which features are important to you.

RULE #3:  Try some RVs on for size

The next logical step is to figure out which categories of RV are suitable for the type of travel and camping you plan to do.

There may be several. In Jim's and my case, we could reasonably live in a travel trailer, 5th-wheel, or Class C or A motorhome on a full-time basis. We had already decided a 5th-wheel gives us the most space and other features for the money. Even so, we still had a long way to go before zeroing in on the particular coach we bought.

Based on your previous experience with RVs and your particular needs, you might already know exactly which category is best for you.

Colorful flowers above Lake Tahoe, Nevada

If not, there are several ways to narrow down the possibilities, including reading relevant articles, books, and DVDs, talking to people who have these types of campers, going on a weekend trip with a relative or friend who has the type of RV you're considering, renting one or more RVs for a few days to see what they are like before buying one, and starting to look at various brands and models at dealers' lots.

Trust me the more you know about RVs before you set foot on a dealer's lot, the better!! Go with an open mind, however, because you might learn a lot. It was a helpful salesman who told us that only two companies warrant their 5th-wheels for full-time use -- and it changed the focus of our search.

If you want either a new type of RV for you or one that is significantly longer than one you've had previously, it's a great idea to somehow practice driving it or a comparable RV before you complete your purchase so you can see how it handles and where it will go.

We know a guy who bought a large, expensive pickup and the longest 5th-wheel available, then discovered it was much too big to park in the typically short, narrow sites in the state parks he wanted to visit with his family. He also learned the hard way that his teenagers and wife weren't anywhere near as enthusiastic as he was about camping and he had trouble storing the rig on his property. He ended up selling it at a big loss in less than a year and gave up his dream, at least until the kids are gone.

RULE #4:  Prices are all over the board

There is a wide range of prices in every RV category, depending on size, construction, and features. For example, you can spend as much or more money on a high-end travel trailer or 5th-wheel as a motorhome. And that travel trailer or 5th-wheel needs a hefty tow vehicle, too!

Soft sunset over Galveston Island, Texas

Don't think that just because you have only a certain amount of money to spend on an RV that you can't choose from a particular category. Do your homework and maybe you'll find a less expensive but equally suitable rig in what you previously considered a too-pricey category.

RULE #5:  Do diligent research

The trick to finding as perfect an RV as possible and minimizing the risk of problems with it later on is to do a whole pile of research about manufacturers whose products you're considering buying and how they are constructed.

How do you do that?

  • diligent online research of the various companies: how long they've been producing the type of RV you want, how strong they are financially (e.g., are they about to file for bankruptcy and unlikely to be around when you need warranty work done?), what owners of those vehicles have to say after purchasing them (there are lots of RV forums and e-lists similar to the ultra running list I talk about), and other sorts of ferreting out information that consumers can do nowadays on the internet.
  • finding one or more neutral guides that rate RV companies. This is a lot harder than going to Consumer Reports to compare passenger vehicles! One comprehensive source we found was Eaton's 2008-2010 RV Comparison Guide, which rates 64 manufacturers and includes buying tips. We can't vouch for the entirety of this guide because we've seen only the ratings, but it's an example of the type of information that's available. (Carriage, Inc. is at the top of that one.)
  • checking the resale value of the brands and models you're considering (best sources are NADA online or in print, Kelley Blue Book in print). Just like passenger vehicles, some brands and models of RVs hold their value better than others over time.

Mabry Mill, along the Blue Ridge Parkway in southern Virginia

  • further research about the myriad of features offered and construction materials and methods used: e.g., what are the pros and cons of various types of frames? roofs? windows? suspension and other mechanical systems? refrigerators? etc.
  • talking with owners of the types of RV you're considering: how happy are they with their rig? what problems have they had? how well were they resolved? would they purchase the same make or model again? (If you're lucky, they might invite you inside to show you their RV but don't expect that favor; it's very risky to invite a stranger inside.)
  • thorough inspection of the construction of any RV you're seriously considering buying, as thorough as if you were purchasing a sticks-and-bricks house. Look at the caulking wherever you can see it inside and outside the rig. Open doors, drawers, and windows. Ask how things work, especially features that are new to you. Jim even crawled under some of them to check the undercarriages. Good thing, because he found some loose and missing screws attaching the polyester undercover to the coach we bought and the dealer was able to fix it before we took it from the lot.

RULE #6: Beware of first impressions

It's very tempting to fall in love with the superficial features of a new RV when you're traipsing from dealer to dealer.

Manufacturers try to make their RVs look as inviting as possible at first glance, sometimes covering up shoddy materials and construction. Dealers compound the problem by staging their rigs with the dining table attractively set with fresh flowers, placemats, and china (as if that's practical in an RV!), a popular magazine on the sofa, and fancy soap in the bathroom.

It's a page right out of the housing market. All that's missing is the scent of cookies baking in the oven.

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Before we discovered the DRV and Carriage brands we were smitten by some of the  layouts and appealing decor of lower-quality rigs. Those are fine for people who use them only a few weekends or weeks of the year but they aren't going to last for several years of heavy or full-time use. We learned that with the HitchHiker. Some of the 5th-wheels we looked at cost as much or more than those built for full-time use -- but no way will they last as long.

The same is true for every category of RV. There is a wide range of quality and price and they don't always follow a parallel track.

Unless you have an unlimited budget, you may have to prioritize your needs and wants. What is important to you? Do you really need plush furniture, gold-plated faucets, and a second kitchen -- or a rig with less glitz that's truly designed to last a longer time?

You can get high-quality construction and nice comfort and convenient features in the same rig but we recommend you start first with the way the camper is built and not how pretty it is inside. Even if you aren't going to give it heavy use, you'll reap the benefits every time you use it and retain a higher resale value when you eventually want to sell it.

RULE #7: There is no perfect floor plan

In addition to the fact that there is no perfect RV (all of them will eventually have problems), it's also nearly impossible to find the perfect floor plan. Just as with a "grounded" house, buyers usually have to make some concessions if the kitchen or bathroom, e.g., isn't exactly what they want. In fact, there is even less choice in the RV industry than with stationary houses.

And because of the current recession and the fact that it's the off-season for buying RVs, there are even fewer RV choices available. That definitely made our search more difficult this winter.

Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico

However, it's one of those "glass half-full" situations Jim and I saw those limiting factors as advantages to buying an RV now. The independent RV newsletters and websites that we read all sound more optimistic about a spring recovery for the RV industry than similar information we read and hear about the housing market. One of the big reasons we decided to intensify our search for a new RV this winter was an effort to get a better deal than we'd find if we waited until spring or summer when demand traditionally picks up. We figured the dealers would be more "hungry" for a sale in the dead of winter.

As frugal as we are, getting a better deal became more important to us than having more choices when manufacturers begin producing a wider variety of campers. We think we made the right decision to buy now.

RULE #8:  Length and weight: size matters

It's pretty obvious that the length of any RV you are considering has implications regarding fuel mileage, where you can store it, and where you can camp in it.

For example, our 34-foot HitchHiker wouldn't fit into some short and/or narrow public park sites. We nearly always made inquiries about the size of campsites before making reservations or driving out of our way to a campground. The smaller the RV, the more options you have for campsites. Our AT Adventure Run would have been cheaper and considerably less complicated if Jim could have parked a smaller rig at or closer to the trailheads when he crewed for me.

Pond along the AT in Vermont

Equally important but less obvious to some buyers is the weight of a 5th-wheel, travel trailer, or pop-up camper if it will be towed by a truck, SUV, or van you already have. It's not so important if you're buying both the tow vehicle and camper at the same time but in either case you MUST determine the maximum weight you can safely haul with that vehicle.

Not only is this a critical safety issue for you and everyone around you on the road, it's an issue that will also affect the life of the tow vehicle.

Unfortunately, it's not real easy to determine the safe towing limit because there is conflicting and confusing information about dry axle weight, hitch weight, total dry weight, gross vehicle weight rating (GVRW), maximum loaded trailer weight, etc., etc.

In addition to that, RV dealers are notorious for failing to advise buyers if the trailers they want to buy weigh too much for the tow vehicle they have. Most of them just want to sell you an RV and despite what they say about helping you find the "right camper for you," their highest priority is making as big of a sale as they can. Period.

It's a definite example of "buyer beware." It's your responsibility to know how much weight your tow vehicle can haul. Even if the dealer says, "Oh, sure, your truck is built to haul more than that!" you still need to independently verify that.

The AT along Franconia Ridge, New Hampshire

No one -- NO ONE -- at any dealer has ever asked about our truck to determine if we could safely tow the RVs we were looking at!! And we've been to a lot of dealers over the last two years. This is an interesting article by an RV expert and former dealer about the phenomenon.

We had to figure it out on our own when we bought our Ram truck last year and thereafter when we were looking at new 5th-wheels. We knew the Ram would tow the HitchHiker safely but we really didn't know how much of a margin we had when it was loaded with our belongings and varying amounts of water (fresh, grey, and black).

Before we got the Cameo we weighed the truck with Cody and us in it + the HitchHiker on a professional truck scale, then unhooked the truck to see what the camper itself weighs. (That also told us what the truck weighs with us in it and a certain amount of fuel in the tank.) We had no idea we were carrying an extra 2,000 pounds of *stuff* above the total dry weight listed on the side of the camper and inside one of the cupboard doors!

Twiddling with the numbers in our Ram owner's manual -- taking into consideration the particular model, engine size, suspension system, tow package, etc. -- we determined that we needed to keep the dry weight of the Cameo at a certain limit, knowing that we'd be adding another 1,500-2,0000 pounds to it.

That's how we determined we needed to look at only the shorter Cameos. And because the Cameo we bought is heavier than the HitchHiker, we really need to be careful how much stuff we haul in it.

Early fall color along a creek in Maine

Keep in mind that weight doesn't necessarily correlate with the length of an RV. Because the Carriage and DRV coaches we looked at are generally built of heavier materials than other brands, we found that their shortest models were usually heavier than longer models of other brands. Usually, but not always.

My point is that it's super critical to know how much your vehicle can haul -- before you choose a new camper -- so you don't waste time or someone's life by getting an RV that's too heavy for it to safely tow.

RULE #9:  RV model numbers are often misleading

One thing we've learned about 5th-wheels seems counter-intuitiveinstead of exaggerating size like many products do, RV manufacturers use smaller numbers to identify their models than their actual length. Our 32.5UKTG HitchHiker was a good 34 feet long. We didn't realize that until recently, when we decided to measure it. When we mentioned it to a salesman, he confirmed that most RV manufacturers do this but he couldn't (or wouldn't) say why.

Even Carriage does this. Our 35SB3 model 5th-wheel is not 35 feet long. It's an inch short of 36 feet. Same thing with all their other model numbers. DRV Mobile and Select Suites are similar, about a foot off. Keystone Montanas are even farther off. A 3000RK is 35 feet long, a 3400RL over 37 feet. Their 3600-series models are the closest, at just over 37 feet.

Spring in Portland, Oregon

I'm not sure how important all this is and whether it applies to the other categories of RVs, but I just thought I'd give you a heads-up on this. It might make a difference where you store or camp your new rig if it's actually a foot or two (or more than three feet!) longer than you thought . . .

Continued on next page


Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2010 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil