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RV Trailers 101: A Simple Guide for First-Time RV Buyers

Beginner's Guide to RV Trailers

If you’re among the majority of prospective first-time RV buyers, welcome to the not-so-secret club. For decades, that club mostly consisted of retirees and crunchy, outdoor-loving travelers who’d rather spend their vacation time relaxing in nature than drunk on a Caribbean cruise. These days, however, more Americans than ever are itching to create their own Great American Road Trip. If you’re ready to take the plunge into trailer travel, we’re here to make the process a bit less confusing with a beginner’s guide to RV trailers.

To Tow or Not to Tow

Drivable motorhomes (known as “Class A” and “Class B” RVs) are one option, but these tend to be more expensive and only suitable for one purpose (e.g. you’re unlikely to take a 27-foot Winnebago on a grocery run to Target). For well-heeled and full-timing RVers, this can be the best option. These days, the living quarters of most drivable models are comparable to those of most modern, upscale apartments. For those who can afford it and plan to spend considerable time on the road, this is almost certainly the way to go.

The more versatile and less expensive alternative, however, is typically a towable RV travel trailer. This solution allows for hitching up when you’re ready to travel while still being able to unhitch and use your SUV or truck like normal. This is great when you’re at home and not traveling, but also after arriving at your destination. It’s far more convenient to detach the trailer and take just your tow vehicle into town for errands or to explore the surrounding area.

Read more: How To Safely Tow an RV

Pop-Up RV Travel Trailer

Shopping for Your First RV Trailer

If you’re shopping for RV trailers for the first time in your life, the process can feel intimidating. It’s not as difficult as buying a new house, but it’s harder than shopping for a new car. The most obvious things to consider include:

  • What’s my budget?
  • What style of RV trailer is right for me?
  • What size trailer should I buy?
  • Where can I store my RV when I’m not traveling?

The list of questions doesn’t — or shouldn’t — end there, though. If this is your first time towing anything, you also need to think about:

  • Is my current vehicle capable of towing the trailer I’m considering?
  • If not, should I buy a new vehicle or shop for a different trailer?
  • Will I need any new equipment (like a sway bar, a weight-distribution hitch, an electronic brake controller, etc.) to tow a trailer safely?
  • Do I feel confident towing a trailer?
  • What do I need to know to set up and break down my trailer once I get where I’m going?

The answers to many of these questions are unique to you and your situation. But, let’s explore the different types of RV trailers and the pros and cons of each. Once you zero in on the right kind of trailer, the answer to every other question will quickly fall into place.

Which Type of RV Trailer Is Right for You?

Like most things related to travel and the outdoors, there is no “best” RV trailer. The model that works best for you depends on the size of your family, the type of camping you prefer, where you’ll be taking it, and the capabilities of you and your tow vehicle. While some travel trailers defy categorization, most RV travel trailers fall into one of five categories. From the smallest and most basic to the largest and most luxurious, those are:

Pop-Up and Folding RV Trailers

Folding trailers are generally the lightest, most compact, and basic of all RV trailers. As the name implies, they collapse or “fold” down as short as 4 feet high. Coupled with sides that typically consist of a soft, tent-like material, they make for easy towing, in some cases by a mid-sized sedan. Some brands, like Aliner, add rigid walls, so they’re better suited for more extreme climates that require heat or air-conditioning.

The Good:

  • Inexpensive (some used models can be had for a few thousand dollars).
  • Extremely lightweight and agile for easy pulling, even for first-time RVers.
  • Aerodynamic profile with negligible effect on your vehicle’s fuel economy.
  • Available hard-sided models are almost as versatile as a traditional travel trailer.

The Bad:

  • Limited insulation from noise or extreme temperatures.
  • Most don’t have a private bathroom or any bathroom at all.
  • The tent fabric is not as durable and requires more maintenance than hard-sided alternatives.
  • Soft sides offer limited security from break-ins or wildlife (especially hungry bears).

Traditional Travel Trailers

Airstream Caravel
Airstream Caravel

Traditional, hard-sided travel trailers are the most popular RV trailers on the road. The main reason is that this category varies widely in size, versatility, and design. They range from teardrop trailers to tiny, ultra-light trailers (like the fiberglass models from Casita and Scamp) to middle-of-the-road general-purpose models (think Winnebago) to swanky, luxurious alternatives like those offered by Airstream and Bowlus. All but the lightest models typically require a larger sedan or mid-sized SUV with increased towing capacity.

The Good:

  • Fully enclosed living space with hard-sided walls offers better insulation from sound and outside temperatures.
  • More secure than tents or pop-up trailers.
  • Minimal setup time (compared to pop-up RV trailers).
  • Available in a wide variety of sizes and designs.
  • Many models offer private bathrooms with showers.

The Bad:

  • Require proper vehicle to tow.
  • Larger models can significantly impact fuel economy.
  • Safe towing requires a learning curve for new RV owners.
  • Most luxurious models can cost more than a single-family home.

Fifth-Wheel RV Trailers

Keystone Carbon Fifth-Wheel RV Travel Trailer

One option available exclusively to pickup truck owners is to buy a fifth-wheel RV trailer. The unique design of these extends over the truck bed, making better use of the trailer’s overall space than most traditional travel trailers. They’re often larger and heavier than conventional towable RVs and require a special mount inside the truck bed to tow. Typically, this means having at least a half-ton pickup to accommodate the payload. The largest fifth-wheel RV trailers require a pickup with dual rear wheels (aka a “dually”).

The Good:

  • More spacious floor plans to accommodate a whole family — some offer a dedicated bedroom.
  • Much more closet and storage space than traditional RV trailers.
  • Usually more luxurious with residential fixtures, finishes, and amenities.
  • Fifth-wheel hitches make for more stable towing.

The Bad:

  • Requires special equipment, including a heavy-duty pickup truck with a proper towing setup.
  • Taller form factor can be tricky to tow under bridges and other tight spaces.
  • Limits the use of the truck bed with the trailer attached.

Toy Haulers

Dutchmen RV Toy Hauler

Toy haulers, sometimes called sport-utility trailers, are among the most versatile RVs on the road. They’re essentially traditional trailers with a fold-down ramp that leads to open, garage-like space for storing outdoor “toys” like ATVs, motorcycles, or just about anything, really. The front half houses living amenities like a kitchenette, fold-down bed, or a bathroom with a shower.

The Good:

  • More versatile, usable storage space than any other type of trailer.
  • Garage space can be used as a “porch” for festivals and other outdoor events.

The Bad:

  • Living space is limited when toting outdoor toys.
  • Heavier toys can severely affect balance and handling when towing.
  • Can require a special tow vehicle, depending on what you’re planning to haul.

Truck Campers

Though not technically RV “trailers,” truck campers are one alternative for buyers seeking a non-drivable RV. Because they slot neatly into the bed of a pickup truck, they’re among the most compact RV models. That smaller size, however, also makes for significantly smaller living quarters that are usually only suitable for two to three people.

The Good:

  • In-bed design eliminates the need for traditional “towing.”
  • Less of an impact on fuel economy than a towable trailer.
  • Allows for more extreme offroading or Overlanding opportunities.
  • Some purpose-built models fit perfectly inside factory pickup beds, like the Toyota Tacoma.

The Bad:

  • Tight living quarters.
  • Height can make it difficult for children and those with mobility issues to get in.
  • Semi-permanent installation can be a pain to remove.
  • Often as expensive as a traditional travel trailer.

Truck Camping in Mammoth Lakes, California

The Bottom Line

Most first-time RV buyers can only guess how they’ll use their first travel trailer. The only way to know for sure is to spend time traveling in and living with it, which is why your first RV probably won’t be your last. Recreational trailer owners notoriously joke about how many models they had to go through before finding “The One.” Once you’ve narrowed down your search, consider renting each RV model on your shortlist. Sites like Outdoorsy make it possible to rent the exact travel trailer you’re shopping, right down to the size and year. So, you can take your significant other, family, friends, and pets along for a weekend away to be sure the trailer you’re shopping for is the right one for you.

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