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RV shopping 101: A simple, yet complete guide for first-time RV, camper, and travel trailer buyers

Shopping RVs and travel trailers isn't easy. Here's everything to consider to find the right one for you

Long shot of the rear of an Airstream travel trailer being towed down a wide-open desert road.
Kai Gradert/Unsplash

If you’re among the majority of prospective first-time RV buyers, welcome to the not-so-secret club. For decades, that club consisted of retirees and crunchy, outdoor-loving travelers who’d rather spend their vacation time relaxing in nature than drunk on yet another Caribbean cruise. These days, however, more Americans than ever are itching to create their own Great American Road Trip, and that often begins with buying their own RV or travel trailer.

Shopping for RVs, in general, and travel trailers, in particular, can be a challenge, especially if you’re new to the game. It’s not unlike buying a new car, so it pays to know what to look for before you head to the dealership or to meet that random seller you found on Facebook Marketplace. If you’re ready to take the plunge into trailer travel, we’re here to make the process a bit less confusing with a simple yet complete beginner’s guide to RV travel trailer buying.

Pop-up RV travel trailer
Fabien Bazanegue/Unsplash

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 category includes everything from tent-sized teardrop trailers to slightly larger, lightweight travel trailers to full-featured, ultra luxe Airstreams. It’s a solution that allows for hitching up when you’re ready to travel and unhitching to use your SUV or truck like normal once you’re set up at camp.

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.

Young couple sitting outside a vintage aluminum travel trailer at night.

Shopping for your first RV trailer

If you’re shopping for RV trailers for the first time, the process can feel intimidating. It’s not quite 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 travel 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 safely 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. First, 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.

Close-up of the nameplate on a vintage Airstream Excella 500 travel trailer.
Drew Farwell/Unsplash

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 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

Aliner A-Frame hard-sided travel trailer isolated on a plain white background.

Folding trailers are generally the lightest, most compact, and most basic of all RV trailers. As the name implies, they collapse or “fold” down as short as four 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 , 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:

  • Soft-sided versions offer 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)

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 and ) 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 at least 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 traditional camping tents or pop-up trailers
  • Minimal setup time (compared to pop-up RV trailers)
  • Available in a wide variety of sizes, designs, and prices
  • Many models offer private bathrooms with showers

The Bad:

  • Require proper vehicle to tow
  • Larger models can significantly impact fuel economy
  • Safe towing practices require a learning curve for new RV owners
  • The most luxurious models can cost more than a single-family home
Keystone Carbon Fifth-Wheel RV Travel Trailer
Keystone RV

Fifth-wheel RV trailers

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 (a.k.a. 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 than typical travel trailers

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
Full-sized Dutchmen RV Toy Hauler setup at a desert campsite with campers in the foreground.

Toy haulers

Toy haulers, sometimes called sport-utility trailers, are among the most unique and versatile RVs on the road. They’re essentially traditional trailers with a fold-down ramp that leads to an 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, a fold-down bed, a dining area, 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
Modern white truck camper near a lake with a dog peering through the rear window.

Truck campers

Though not technically RV “trailers,” modern 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
Old RV parked in front of a mechanic's garage.
Brandon Mowinkel/Unsplash

How to inspect an RV or travel trailer before you buy

So you’ve done your research, figured out what type of travel trailer is best for you, and found a few available models to scope out. Now what? As with any big purchase — cars and homes come to mind — it’s critical to perform a thorough inspection before making the deal. Here are the key points to pay attention to:


  • Check the condition of the trailer’s overall structure, looking for any signs of damage, including cracks or leaks.
  • Inspect the seams and seals around windows, doors, and other openings for noticeable deterioration or wear.
  • Check the condition of the roof, paying careful attention to sagging, water damage, or loose seams.
  • Examine the tires for wear and ensure they are in good condition, properly inflated, and have adequate tread depth.
  • Look for signs of rust or corrosion on the frame and undercarriage.


  • Inspect the cleanliness and condition of the interior for odors, stains, or signs of water damage. This is often your best indication of how well (or not) the current owner maintained the trailer.
  • Test all the appliances, including the refrigerator, microwave, oven, stove, and air conditioning/heating units, to ensure they are in good working order.
  • Check the plumbing system by running the faucets, flushing the toilet, and checking for leaks or water pressure issues.
  • Test the electrical system by turning on lights, fans, and other electrical components.
  • Examine the flooring, walls, and ceiling for signs of damage or serious wear.

Of course, the best option is to hire a professional, like an RV mechanic, to do the inspection for you. Paying a few hundred dollars for their time could save you thousands in future repairs down the road.

Man soaking alone in a hot spring bath near a truck camper 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 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 for — right down to the size and exact model year — before committing to buy. 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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