Last month we explored the world of motorized RVs: motorhomes from Classes A, B and C to bus conversions. For some, a motorhome is just what’s needed. But there’s a whole other world of RVs to explore—non-motorized RVs.
What’s the lure of a towable or otherwise non-motorized unit over a motorhome? For some, the idea of one less engine to maintain is a big draw. For others, it is finances—non-motorized units generally cost less for equivalent living space. Perhaps the greatest difference is this: On arriving at camp and disconnecting or dismounting the RV from your truck, the RV stays at camp while the motor unit can run around on its own. Not only is there less rig to maneuver on the road, but also when some people want to stay at camp and others want to run about, everyone can be satisfied.
Let’s explore the world of non-motorized rigs.
Perhaps the most conventional of all non-motorized RVs are travel trailers. Some older ones may recall a time when these rigs were variously called “A-frame trailers” (for the shape of the hitch frame up front), or “bumper pull trailers” (for how they attached to the tow rig). No matter what you call them, travel trailers come in a wide range of sizes, layouts, and of course, price ranges. They can range from 12 to 35 feet, and you can expect new prices to run from $8,000 to nearly $100,000.
Living features inside a travel trailer range from Spartan to super-deluxe, though almost all have bathrooms and showers. Cooking isn’t usually a problem, as most come with a galley, although the smaller the trailer, the more tight you’ll find cooking space. Sleeping accommodations are comfy; some are even set up “bunkhouse” style, with bunk beds especially favored by the younger ones. Need more space? Some units come equipped with one or more slideouts that add floor space.
What you’ll need to pull a travel trailer is often directly related to size and weight. Smaller travel trailers can run along comfortably behind the family SUV, car or small pickup truck. Of course, you’ll need to have a proper towing hitch on whatever vehicle you use. More about that later. Many manufacturers are aiming for lighter trailers by using composite materials, making a wider range of trailers towable with six-cylinder vehicles.
While the industry prefers to term this special kind of travel trailer as a “sport utility RV” or SURV, we’ll have to bow to the people: toy haulers they are. With living accommodations like conventional travel trailers, toy haulers put a wall up at the end of the living quarters and reserve the rear end of the trailer for carrying ATVs, motorcycles, sand rails and the like. It’s like having a mobile garage. The rear wall drops down to allow you to roll your toys in and out of the RV. We’ve seen folks who have turned their toy hauler into a “shop” for their business, working on the road in the garage area of their rig.
Toy haulers range anywhere from 19 to 39 feet, and prices start at just over $10,000 and top out over $170,000, depending on size and amenities. Those amenities can include slideouts. If you don’t mind sleeping in the “garage,” some units will sleep up to eight.
By taking the garage along with you, expect that you’ll have a trade off here and there. Toy haulers generally aren’t as plush and spacious in the living quarters as their conventional travel trailer cousins, but they’re a good pick for those who want to take their stuff with them.
Pop Into a Pop-Up
Considered by some to be an entry-level towable unit, the pop-up, or what the industry calls a folding camping trailer, is a lightweight and inexpensive tow-behind that many families enjoy. As you might think, a folding camping trailer folds up or down, giving it a very low profile in the wind. They are commonly equipped with canvas or nylon sides. It’s like sleeping in a tent—but up off the ground. Plenty of fresh air, with some added conveniences.
Those conveniences could include galley facilities like a stovetop, perhaps even running water. Expect a dining table, and of course, plenty of bed space for the family. Their light weight and low wind resistance make them an easy tow for many family cars, including some smaller ones. They range from eight to 24 feet, and in price from $5,000 to $22,000. Larger pop-ups can sleep up to eight.
Expandable Travel Trailers
Cross a conventional travel trailer with a pop-up and what do you get? A hard-sided trailer whose ends pop out to give more sleeping space in a soft-sided room. Lighter than their conventional cousins, they cost a bit less, too. Built small to be towed by mid-sized rigs like SUVs and larger six-cylinder engine cars, the expandable trailer fills a niche in the non-motorized RV marketplace.
You’ll find the amenities of travel trailers here: galley, bathroom, entertainment stuff, but a bit more room for sleeping folks overnight. Sized from 19 to 30 feet, these units run from $10,000 to $30,000. Numbers vary, but the larger units can sleep eight.
A favorite among those who take long vacations or even live full time in their RV, the fifth-wheel trailer is a specialized unit requiring a pickup truck or specialized fifth-wheel pulling unit. The name comes from the manner in which the RV attaches to the tow vehicle. A special fifth-wheel hitch resides in the bed of the pickup truck, attaching to the fifth wheel kingpin on the trailer. By design, the “fiver,” as some dub a fifth-wheel RV, is built with a raised section up forward, giving you, in a sense, two stories. Many manufacturers put a bedroom area in the upper section, while a few place the living room aloft.
Like conventional travel trailers, fifth-wheels come with all the modern conveniences, but often add-on in terms of more slideouts—up to four in some cases. Having panoramic views from huge windows is not uncommon either. Adding to the allure for folks who spend a lot of time in their RV is added “basement storage,” or outside accessible storage compartments. A lot of stuff can be stored in these spaces.
When thinking about a fifth-wheel, keep in mind that in addition to needing a pickup truck to tow the unit, some states may have special license requirements. Once a fifth-wheel is over a given weight range, you may need a special endorsement on your driver’s license, so check with your state’s motor vehicle department for more information. In any event, if you meet your own state’s licensing requirements, you should be good to go with your fifth-wheel in any state, regardless of any endorsement requirement.
These non-motorized units don’t tow behind you—instead they slide into the bed of your pickup truck. A favorite among those who really want to get back off the beaten path, truck campers are hardy but comfortable RVs. If you want to tow a horse trailer or a boat, a truck camper is a natural because you can have your RV and tow your stuff too.
If you already own a pickup, a truck camper is a must to eyeball when you shop. Since the unit is carried in the truck bed, rough roads, narrow roads, and windy roads don’t phase it. While it’s a bit more difficult to “offload” a truck camper than to detach from a travel trailer or fifth-wheel, it can be done, leaving your camper as a base camp while tooling about in the pickup.
What about amenities? Although the space in a truck camper is likely to be less than in a travel trailer, you’ll still find plenty of amenities. You can cook in the galley, and many have showers and toilets, too. Sleeping in the “master bedroom” is done in the area above the cab, but there may be other places to sleep too, including a dining table that makes into a bed. Some units have a slideout or two, increasing the available floor space.
Sizes of pickup campers range from eight to 20 feet, with selling prices running from $6,000 to nearly $60,000. Don’t let sizes fool you though: Some manufacturers size their camper by the length of the floor—not including the cabover. Hence an 11-foot truck camper is quite large—hanging over the back of the typical pickup bed by three feet. By adding on the cabover length, you’ll find an 11-foot camper much bigger than you might imagine. You’ll find truck campers suitable for small pickups to one-ton dually units.
Thinking about a trailer or fifth-wheel? Remember you’ll need the appropriate hitch. If your vehicle doesn’t have one already, this is not an arena that we recommend “do-it-yourselfing.” A solid, safe hitch is essential, and a professional installation is critical. Understand too, what your vehicle is capable of towing. Don’t know? Talk to your tow vehicle dealer. We’ve found that relying on an RV salesman’s advice is not always the best way to know whether or not the rig he wants to sell you can be safely towed behind your unit.
Knowing the weight capacity of your pickup is also critical when shopping for a truck camper. Exceeding your pickup’s capacity with a loaded camper isn’t just a safety issue, it’s also real unnerving. We’ve known RVers who have put too much truck camper on their pickup and come away feeling like they’d been on a carnival ride. Again, if you don’t know your truck’s capacity, ask the truck dealer. n
Russ and Tiña De Maris are authors of RV Boondocking Basics, a how-to guide for RVing “off the grid.” Visit www.icanrv.com for more information.