Advice is a dangerous gift between friends and, since I’m friends with a lot of my regular readers, I want to approach this topic very carefully. First, keep firmly in mind that what you’re reading here are MY thoughts on what’s right for me. This isn’t necessarily advice that may or may not be right for your situation. If you want advice, read the book.
During our time on the road my thoughts and approach to RV living evolved. Yours will, too, that’s the way evolution works. Accept that your thinking might evolve in a completely different direction.
We Went Too Big
Our biggest mistake was going too big right out of gate. We bought an F-350 turbo diesel, which is a giant hog of a pickup truck that burned through expensive road diesel like candy at a Halloween party. We definitely had plenty of towing power but that came at a cost. It cost over $100 just for an oil change. It seemed like every other month something expensive was going wrong. Glow plugs, oil cooler, a leaking radiator and something called an EGR valve. Even at that other diesel owners said we were lucky. I will never own another diesel or a Ford anything.
We needed that big ass diesel truck to tow a heavy 5th wheel trailer. Loaded that beast weighed nearly 12,000 pounds. When you were going down the highway, you knew it was back there. Loading up anything that big takes time, safety is hugely important. You have to check all the tires, make sure your tanks are rigged for travel and properly connect the truck to the trailer and hook up the emergency braking features. That’s a lot of work and the greater the tow weight, the more time you spend on setting up and taking down. Traveling with a trailer that heavy really is not fun.
Our Camper Was Too Complex
Our fiver had two slide outs, which are potential trouble spots. It had an automatic awning and one of those automatic vent fans. You will have trouble with anything automatic and, if it stops working, most of the manual things to make it work are a real pain. The slide outs were a source of trouble and leaks, even though I worked at keeping the seals properly lubricated and clean. Slide outs add significantly to the weight and they don’t make that much difference in space. At least in the kind of space that’s really useful. They can also get stuck in the out position and you can’t drive with them out.
Our Camper Was Poorly Made
Our 5th wheel also had a rubber roof and leaked around the end caps, almost from day one. The rear seal leaked and ruined the flooring by the back window and cost almost $2,300 to fix. The front cap also leaked and that was another $900. We also had a leak in our water manifold that flooded the basement. $745 to replace all the flooring in the basement (that was part of the $2,300 rear end cap repair). To this day I hate any kind of rubber or fabric roof with a blind passion. But put a fiberglass roof on a 5th wheel and you add a ton of weight which means a bigger tow vehicle.
The problem is RV manufacturers assemble campers and 5th wheels in a time span of 20 to 35 man-hours. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for quality control or leak testing.
Smaller, Lighter, Stronger, Simpler
Consequently, my thinking has evolved along the lines of wanting a camper that’s better made, less complex, smaller and lighter. How your interior space is laid out is far more significant than how big it is. I mention Airstreams a lot because they are still, in my opinion, the gold standard of campers. Airstreams get more attention to the fit and finish during construction and get put through a storm room for leak checking. Most of them don’t have slides. Space is tighter but the aluminum construction makes them significantly lighter per volume of interior space. The downside is that Airstreams are really expensive. On the plus side, you can tow them with a smaller truck and they hold their resale value, so you have to look at the overall cost of ownership.
Once again, this is my thinking. What’s right for you might be totally different. Thousands of RV full timers get by just dandy with a rubber roof and don’t have nearly the leak problems we experienced. The difference between a camper with a fabric roof and an all aluminum Airstream is tens of thousands of dollars. Also, you might evolve to favor a bigger camper. You might go the opposite direction. That’s why you have to weigh the factors that are right for you.