When it comes to starting a life on the road in an RV, or using an RV for the occasional getaway the options today are pretty much unlimited. I would say if you dream it there is more-in-likely an RV for you in today’s market.
Now to the nitty-gritty—the different classifications of RVs. When it comes to the classification of RVs, this is where most people have the most confusion and the most questions. There are five major classifications of RVs:
- Class A
- Class B
- Class C
- Travel Trailer
- Fifth Wheel
There are even more sub-classifications of the above, but to keep it simple, these are the five primary categories you will run into during your search. I’m sure some of you are saying, “What about truck campers,” which are campers that fit into the bed of a truck. Can you live a mobile lifestyle with a truck camper? Sure, I have never met someone doing it because it just isn’t practical. For that reason, I have chosen to leave that category off the list. Truck campers are primarily used for camping, fishing, and hunting.
In the descriptions below, I will include what I consider to be the most common size and cost for new RVs in the mobile lifestyle. I could go into the weeds outlining new, used, all the specific sizes, floor plans, etc., but it would just prove confusing. For that detailed information, you have to dedicate yourself to some good old-fashioned work and research.
There is no perfect classification for any one person or lifestyle. The class of RV you choose will depend on several factors such as:
- Size of family
- Amenities required
- Size of towing vehicle
- Self-driving RV versus towed RVs
Before I get started, I need to explain one thing: Most RVs today come with “sliders” or “pop-outs.” These are expendable units that actually slide out from the RV. These are of great benefit because they can give you a lot of extra room when they are expanded. The downside is that the extra room means extra money. Pop-outs don’t come free. Nonetheless, I would highly recommend getting an RV with one or more slider(s). I have owned RVs with and without sliders and having owned an RV with sliders, I will never go back to one without them.
Class A RVs
Let’s start with the big daddy, the Class A RV, sometimes referred to as a Motor Home. These are usually completely self-contained, meaning they have everything a normal house would have, including a power generator for electricity. These are usually thirty to forty feet long and cost between $100,000 and $500,000 new. Some can go for over a million. A perfect example is what you see people using at large sporting events when tailgating or what famous music bands use when touring. (See picture below.)
The Good Things About Class A RVs:
- Extraordinarily well-outfitted
- Lots of storage
- Big floor plans with sliders for additional room
- No towing necessary
- You get to pretend you are a rock star!
The Bad Things About Class A RVs:
- Terrible gas mileage
- Big, sometimes really big
- Can cause high-pucker factor when driving
- Often the most expensive of all RVs to maintain
- Usually requires a mechanic who specializes in Class A RVs
- A special class of driver’s license required
- People may think you are a rock star and ask you for your autograph
Class B RVs
These are what we called conversion vans when I was growing up. Think of a cargo van converted into an RV. Even though these bad boys are small today, they come with a big price tag, usually in the $75,000 to $125,000 realm. They are usually in the twenty-foot range in length.
The Good Things About Class B RVs:
- No tow vehicle required
- Small and easy to store
- Decent gas mileage
- Easy to maintain
- Suitable for normal parking spaces
- No special driver’s license required for operation
The Bad Things About Class B RVs:
- Smallest of all RVs
- Usually doesn’t come with pop-outs
- Most expensive when comparing size to price
- No rock star bedroom
- Cramped for two people
- Almost no storage
- You will wish you had more space
Class C RVs
Of all the RVs, this is the one most familiar to people. This is what most people rent or use for that summer camping getaway or cross-country trip. I consider this the go-between of Class A and B RVs. It is a little confusing because you would think this would be called Class B, and Class B would be called the Class C. Hey, I just report the facts; maybe someone in the federal government named them! The price range is pretty close to that of the Class Bs, but these will go from the mid-twenties to low-thirties in length, so they’re definitely bigger than the Class B.
The Good Things About Class C RVs:
- Bigger than Class B
- Better gas mileage than Class A
- Has some storage
- No special driver’s license required
- Does not require a tow vehicle
- Not as expensive as Class A to service
The Bad Things About Class C RVs:
- Usually not convenient for long-term living
- Does not usually fit in normal parking spaces
- Poor gas mileage
- Most unstable to drive, as compared to Class A and B
- At most, usually only one pop-out
Travel trailers are probably the most common RV used for people living a mobile lifestyle. People often confuse travel trailers and fifth-wheels. Even though they look similar, trust me these are very different animals in the RV arena. Travel trailers are often described as tow-behinds in order to differentiate them from fifth-wheels because you tow them behind your vehicle using your factory tow hitch receiver. I will describe the fifth-wheel differences in the next section.
Travel trailers are the RV with which I’m most familiar. I have owned three of them, and I’m actually looking to trade up and purchase my fourth in the near future. For me, this was the most practical way to go as it fit my nomadic lifestyle the best. That being said, there are many ways to go in this lifestyle, so don’t rule out all the other options. They usually range in the eighteen- to the thirty-foot range and can cost from $15,000 to $90,000 new.
One More Option: Lightweight or Ultra-Lite Travel Trailers
There is one more sub-classification of the travel trailer I would like to bring up. I have owned two “lightweight” or “ultra-lite” travel trailers. Companies like to come up with different names, but if there is “light” or “lite” in the name, it is almost always referring to the overall weight of the travel trailer. Just like the name indicates, these trailers are lighter when compared to a normal travel trailer. These lightweight trailers have become more popular recently, as they are primarily designed to be towed by V6 SUVs or light trucks.
The upside is they are smaller and lighter; the downside is they can be pretty pricey and not necessarily designed for long-term living. I would categorize these as ideal RVs for families who are looking to go camping a couple of times per year, who don’t want to invest more money in a larger truck, and who have limited space to store a trailer. These are great trailers for people who want to explore but live in a more urban area. They are also great for people looking to test out the more mobile lifestyle, as they are easy to find and rent, and you don’t need a special vehicle to tow them.
They usually cost in the range of $12,000 – $25,000.
The Good Things About Travel Trailers:
- A huge variety from which to choose
- Come in lighter-weight versions that can be towed with a V6 vehicle
- Have most of the amenities of Class A trailers at a fraction of the cost
- Can be detached and left, thus freeing tow vehicle for daily use
- Low operating costs
- No engine, so if repairs are needed, you are not stuck
- No special driver’s license required
The Bad Things About Travel Trailers:
- Tricky to maneuver via towing
- Larger vehicles required to tow larger trailers
- It takes time getting used to, especially if you have never towed anything before.
- More time setting up and breaking down
- Need a separate generator to operate all electronics when no plug-in utilities available
OK, this is where it gets tricky for beginners—whether to get a travel trailer or a fifth-wheel. There are two primary differences when it comes to these RVs: size and how they are towed. As described above, travel trailers tow behind your vehicle usually using the factory tow receiver. A fifth-wheel uses a special receiver that is mounted in the bed of a truck over the rear axle. So instead of hitching it behind the vehicle, you hitch it into the bed of the truck. Because fifth-wheel trailers are attached to the receiver in the bed of your truck, they are better balanced and tow more easily. In addition, as the receiver is in the bed of your truck, the overall length of your fifth-wheeler and tow vehicle is reduced when compared to a tow-behind travel trailer.
People who live long term in areas and have a family usually prefer fifth-wheels because of their size and amenities. They usually range from thirty to forty feet in length. They are also much higher than a standard travel trailer, so the headroom is similar to a house. The additional size raises their cost to the $50,000 to $100,000 range.
The Good Things About Fifth-Wheels:
- Not motorized so can detach tow vehicle for daily use
- Much more space than a standard travel trailer
- Amenities are closer to a standard house, like a Class A RV
- Built more for families or larger groups of people
- No engine so not stranded if it breaks down
- No special driver’s license required
The Not So Good Things About Fifth-Wheels:
- Usually much larger than a travel trailer so harder to park and store
- More expensive to maintain than a travel trailer
- Requires a larger vehicle to tow—trucks only.
- Cannot be towed by anything but a truck
- Special receiver required so additional cost
- The receiver is in the back of the truck bed, restricting regular use of bed
- Usually cost more than a travel trailer
The Most Common RVs in this Lifestyle
The above sections were to give you a general idea of the different types of RVs. This is by no means an all-encompassing description of each. In order to determine what will work for you, you have to look at them in person. There are so many factors that are directly related to your goals and lifestyle, it would be impossible for me to cover then all. I would definitely recommend looking at each type of RV to become familiar with them before you purchase.
The majority of the RV types I will cover will be the travel trailer and fifth-wheel, as these are the most affordable and popular in the mobile lifestyle. That is not to say, there are not a lot of people using the other options, but also these are the two most common options I have encountered during my years living the lifestyle.
When it comes to what type of person chooses a fifth-wheel or a travel trailer, the pattern I have seen first hand is this:
- Fifth-Wheels – Mostly families choose this option.
- Travel Trailers – Mostly single or married couples without children choose this option.
But again this is not set in stone, but a general observation. Just as I usually see older retired people who choose Class A motorhomes, because they usually have more financial means to do so.
No matter which type of RV you select, I can guarantee you will experience years of enjoyment and for those looking to live in an RV long term a much simpler lifestyle.