How To Choose Your Rig
Updated: Mar 4, 2019
A lot of readers have been asking us for advice on how to make the transition into full-time travel, specifically in an RV. This is a big subject and in order to answer as many people as possible we’ve cobbled together this post. We’re currently working on some supplemental posts about the buying process (shopping, inspecting, negotiating, etc.), recommended renovations, and RV maintenance/upkeep. Please, keep the questions coming. It really helps us know what to write about.
If you’re thinking about making the leap to full-time RV travel you have a lot of decisions to make and the options for each of them are quite expansive (and growing by the day). The first thing you need to determine is what kind of rig you’re looking for. We encourage you to be a little flexible on this point. No set up is far and away better than all the others so if a great but unexpected deal falls into your lap—say a quality $4,000 Class C but you’re looking for a Class B—take it!
Here are some rig options, detailed from cheapest and least amenities to priciest and most amenities (obviously there’s some considerable overlap here based on specific amenities/renovations/etc.).
If you're not interested in reading a novel, and really just want to know the fruit loops rating of each rig, check out our entirely made-up and soon-to-be patented Fruit Loops Scale™ located at the bottom of each description. Fruit Loops means "dope," btw—as of right now.
Update: When we first published this guide the Fruit Loops Scale™ was color-coded (get it?). Since then Wix, in their infinite wisdom, has switched to a new blogging platform that includes extremely limited formatting options (color, among other things, is no more). Sorry y'all.
This advice is meant primarily for broke bums, like us, who don’t intend to let their empty pockets stand in the way of their adventures. If money is no object however—and that’s fantastic (we hope to get there ourselves one day)—you may find some of these prospective budgets laughable. This advice is based on people looking for used, potentially older RVs with good bones that may or may not require a little TLC to get on the road. If you can afford a brand new rig, most of the advice will still be sound, but expect to pay considerably more (often 5x) than the prices we’re discussing here. Also, are you single?
Truck Cap Camper:
If you’ve already got a truck (especially one with a cap) you could be on the road in about a month and for about $350 (take a glance at YouTube)*. Now for that little money you’re going to sacrifice most of the finer things in life. Expect a small bed made of 2x4s and plywood, some Rubbermade® storage, and a camp stove to heat up your canned food and whatever you feel comfortable keeping in your cheap cooler (if you want to double your budget you could splurge on a YETI® or one of their competitors—something we recommend highly if you’re planning on living this way full-time).
Of course, if you’re willing to spend a little more on a renovation (closer to the $1,000 range) you could actually make a very attractive and livable space for yourself (maybe even for a partner as well). The internet is full of examples of truck cap campers that have been transformed, with electricity, modular storage, insulation, carpet, and even toilets! Some of them even include plans and step-by-step instructions.
Note: If you don’t have a cap already, expect to spend anywhere from $1,000-$2,500 for a new one and $300-$800 for most used ones. We were lucky enough to snag ours for $200 from a similar model truck that was being sold on Craigslist. We contacted the owner and made an offer on the cap alone and he bit! Always worth a shot.
If you are buying a new cap consider purchasing the style with an actual door. Trying to close yourself into a truck bed is a bit complicated otherwise.
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*We’re actually thinking of outfitting Large Marge in the near future as a bug-out truck cap camper for some jaunts we have coming up in California/Utah/Mexico.
Slide-In Truck Camper:
Okay, prepare for a lot of parentheticals. Before we purchased Reba (our 22-foot, 1989 Yukon Wilderness travel trailer) we did a test run in a rented truck camper. We drove from L.A. to Big Sur, stopping in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and San Simeon along the way. It was a fantastic trip (a surprise birthday present for Lauren) and we had an incredible time, but the truck camper was a royal pain in the ass. Despite being brand new (we were literally the first to take it out) it just felt cramped All. The. Time. There was virtually no clothes storage (just a single small “closet”), the over-cabin bed was like being in a coffin (and don’t get me started on the skylight right above my face), and the shower was completely useless (we overflowed our grey water tank almost immediately after turning it on). Admittedly, we’ve learned a lot of tricks of the road since (like how to take a “bucket bath”) but I still wouldn’t go back. The issue with a truck camper is how limited your options are as far as customization is concerned. Unless you’re interested in gutting it and starting from scratch (much easier with a van) you’re pretty much stuck with the questionable decisions of the manufacturer (and the RV industry is notorious for questionable—and downright careless—design).
All that being said, we have since encountered truck campers that looked very livable. Cheap, old, projects can be found for as low as $2K. Anything decent will be around $5K. Expect to pay $10K+ at dealerships.
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If you’re looking to become Insta-famous (#vanlife) this is the option for you. In fact, we seriously considered this option ourselves but eventually decided that we just need more room for liquor bottles. Still though, being able to drive into town without unhooking, and being able to stealth park, are very attractive prospects from time to time. Maybe one day.
If you already own a van (with a little life left under the hood) this becomes all the more obvious. If you do not already own a van you can usually find a solid 2005 or newer Sprinter (or similar) for between $5,000 and $10,000 for a fixer-upper and between $7,500 and $15,000 for a clean, late-model, low-milage rig. While you can certainly convert any van, we suggest giving strong preference to one in which you can stand up (like a Sprinter®). This may not seem like a big deal as first but, trust us, you’ll wish you had after one week on the road. The good news is that due to the proliferation of internet shopping in the last several years shipping companies are going through stand-up delivery vans like the Catholic church goes through lawyers. They are usually retired after a given number of miles and for a good price (that metaphor works here as well). Despite the less-then-ideal milage they have usually been serviced regularly and maintained (at a dealership) and therefore can be expected to last quite a bit longer than privately owned vehicles.**
As far as converting one (“building out”) into a camper, the sky is the limit and the internet is breaking under the weight of tutorials added every day on this subject. A/C, heat, showers, TVs, built-in cooktops, sinks, and even wood-burning stoves are common features in modern van conversions. If you’re not exactly the Ty Pennington type you can sometimes find fully converted vans for sale but expect to pay a premium—especially if there is already a popular Instagram account attached (which will be included as part of the sale, no kidding).***
If you are the Ty Pennington type, expect to spend around $1,000 for a very basic build out and up to $10,000 to inspire maximum Insta-jealousy. Somewhere near the middle seems to be the budget of most current vanlifers (at least the ones on social media).
Editor’s note: The difference between #vanlife and just living in your van (i.e., semi-homeless) is a delicate distinction as you will discover if/when you set out on the road. Despite what the internet might suggest, most of those living out of their van these days are not young, hip urbanites but rather folks on hard times. The distinction really starts to get hazy when you notice both camps staying in the same parking lots and on the same patches of public land and utilizing the same free amenities. It’s an edifying realization that none of us is much different from the other. It’s a sobering realization however that not all of us live this way by choice. In our experience at least, that's the case as often as not. Be considerate. Be compassionate. Make friends and learn what you can. These guys are survivors and they often have some ingenious tricks for making life work on the road.****
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**Large Marge was a recently retired CalTrans (California road and highway maintenance) vehicle when we purchased her and she is pushing 300,000 miles!)
***instagram.com/wesvanderson is an example of this. The original owners are now the proprietors of the even more successful instagram.com/tincanhomestead—an obnoxiously cute renovated airstream that they wrote a book about and that, incidentally, is now also for sale, and also instagram.com/sugarhousehomestead. Don't even get us started on that one. Twee overload. We're jels.
****We did, however, run into one situation in Georgia where we gave a young couple a little money and a few rides into town and then had to leave camp shortly after when they got a little too solicitous. Be compassionate but also stay safe. Use your brain as well as your heart.
This is our current method of travel—and therefore the one we know the most about—so we will spend some time here. However, we are certainly not biased towards this particular set-up. It will not be the best choice for everyone. It made sense for us for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that we had just purchased a big reliable truck (which is a long story) that we really really liked. We didn’t want to go the in-bed camper route (see above). We considered a fifth-wheel (see below) but Marge’s towing capacity was right on the brink and we didn’t want to risk it. We’ve been burned by towing too heavy a load, which is how we ended up with Marge in the first place, and we didn’t want to go down that road again—and I do mean down. Furthermore, we really didn’t like the idea of losing access to the truck bed (we have expensive-ish bikes), so a bumper-pull TT just made the most sense for us.
There are numerous pros and just as many cons. What the hell, let's make a list. Note: many of the items on this list will be the same for fifth-wheel trailers. I’ve made notes where that is not the case.
You have a tow vehicle that you can take into town when necessary.
You retain access to your tow vehicle’s storage at all times.
You can pull some smaller models with an SUV (or even a car!).
Simple and straightforward.
You don’t lose your home when you need vehicle maintenance.
Often more fuel-efficient than a motorhome, especially if you are pulling with an SUV/car or a late-model diesel truck (Chevy Cummins HD is a particularly popular choice).
Lower ceilings compared to a fifth-wheel (I’m 6’ and have never had an issue though).
Less stable than a fifth-wheel at highway speeds though this can be greatly mitigated with sway bar(s) and, if necessary, a weight distribution hitch (we have both and have never had an issue).
Combined rig can be quite long compared to a fifth wheel, negatively affecting turn radius and ease of parking, especially in reverse. If you have a modestly sized TT (25’ or less) this will likely be a very infrequent annoyance. We have a 22’ and have never had a problem. Just be smart and don’t accidentally drive into a parking garage. Duh.
Parking can be a bitch, especially back-in spots and especially in the beginning. Rest assured though, you will become a natural in no time. Check out some YouTube videos on “the scoop” or talk to a trucker friend if you’ve got one (and get one if you don’t).
In terms of cost expect to pay around $4,000 for a real project piece and up to $20,000 for a fair amount of bells and whistles (of course, you can always find a way to spend more if you want to). We purchased ours through Camping World for $5,000 out the door, including taxes, fees, inspection, replacement of several appliances, and a platinum membership to the Good Sam RV Club. Negotiate! (more on that in a later post). The cost was so low due to the fact that she was old—1989—and a bit of a project even after all the work done by Camping World. We set aside an extra $3,000 for improvements and repairs, which we ended up overshooting by about $1,000 by the end.
P.S. This post is NOT sponsored by Camping World or Good Sam.
Fruit Loops Scale™
If your truck is beefy enough to pull it, this is a great option. The ceilings are generally higher, making it feel more like a home. It’s extremely stable on the road, even at high speeds. The overall length of your rig is reduced considerably due to the ‘overlap’ with the truck bed, making maneuvering and parking much easier.
However, there are some drawbacks: You lose the bed of your truck (big one for us) and you’ll need a hitch to pull it, which will add about $1,000 to your purchase price.
Expect these to be slightly pricier than TTs, but not by much.
Fruit Loops Scale™
This is what most people think of when they imagine an RV, and it is the first real “motorhome” on the list. A Class C is often the perfect compromise between space and mobility. It’s big enough to be comfortable but often small enough to be your only travel vehicle. Going into town doesn’t involve the same risks/hassles as does going into town towing a TT or a fifth-wheel. Also, (and this was a big selling point for us initially) the living area is connected to the cabin (the, uh, driving part). That might not seem like a big deal if you’re new to the life but after your nth time of wanting/needing something that’s in the back while driving (an epi-pen, say, or a sandwich?) or trying to take a nap in a truck passenger seat (when you’re towing a fucking bed!) you’ll dream of the day when the walls come down and all is one. We flirted with Class Cs something awful for a while specifically for this reason. Here’s why we finally had a change of heart:
Every single Class C motorhome we looked at in our price range ($4,000-$8,000) was total garbage. They were old, high-milage, not well-maintained, smelly shag carpet, stoner-caves and (this is the most important) water-damaged. If you’re willing to spend a little more, say $10,000-$15,000 or you’re willing to shop for a loooong time until that great sub-$8k deal falls into your lap (and that does happen), then shopping for a Class C may be worth your time. Budget aside though, here are some other considerations to keep in mind:
If you need vehicle maintenance, you’ve just lost your home. Most Class Cs are simply Ford or Chevy vans with a camper body installed on the chassis, so they don’t normally require a special RV mechanic. However, their size may prevent them from being serviced at just any old shop i.e., if you have transmission trouble in the middle of rural Iowa you may not fit in the door of some local garages or, equally important, onto their lifts. This is not a deal-breaker in our minds (having vehicle trouble is not exactly a breeze while pulling a trailer either) but it should be considered with and against all other factors.
Fuel economy: It’s bad (like sub-10mpg). Especially the older models. And there’s no unhooking to go into town. You are permanently attached to a big, heavy, fuel-hungry, rectangular box at all times. Something to seriously consider, especially if you intend to regularly be in transit. Fuel is easily one of biggest, and occasionally our biggest, travel expenditure. Even a modest increase in fuel economy can be the difference between 6 months/1 country and 9 months/3 countries (though those both sound like amazing trips).
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This is where things get really sexy. Think of a Class B as a van conversion that requires no work on your part. The best currently in production are made by either Road Trek or Airstream (Mercedes van). Arguably, your uncle’s old Econovan with the airbrushed wizard on the side and the lumpy bed, mini-TV, and broken toilet in the back qualifies as a class-B, but things have come a long way since 1975 (not music though). The newest models have seamlessly integrated kitchens, bathrooms (including showers), sleeping areas, A/C, heat, secondary electronic systems, etc., etc., etc. The RV industry is notorious for being quick and careless and engineering their products just to ‘good enough’ (and often below). These indictments, however, do not extend to modern Class B motorhomes. Even if you’re not seriously in the market for a Class B, go to a major RV dealer and ask to tour some of their newest Class Bs. You will be amazed at how cool they are.
The benefits of a Class B are all pretty obvious. Compact, extremely-mobile, stealth, fuel-efficient, road-ready.
The big deterrent here is cost. These things are not cheap. Expect to pay between $100K-$150K for a new one!
That being said, older—but well-maintained—Roadtrek’s can still be found in the $10k-$20k range, sometimes even from the dealership with a limited warrantee attached. I often find myself cruising Craigslist for them until Lauren catches me and yells that we don’t need one right now and then she burns my fingers with a curling iron as punishment.
There’s also a huge community of Roadtrek enthusiasts and therefore lots of resources for owners—including websites, podcasts, marketplaces, and even meet-ups.
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This is, literally, the big time. Truth be told, we have never seriously considered buying one of these. We did, however, test drive one once because it was in our price range but we found out why it was in our price range about a mile down the road (among other things, the brakes didn’t work at high speeds). No more Class As for us.
That being said, the benefits are hard to ignore. They are huge. Some of them are larger than the houses the Lauren and I grew up in. Some—many, in fact—have washers and dryers. Some have bathtubs. Some have staircases and loft bedrooms. Some have fireplaces. They are, in a very real sense, homes on wheels.
The drawbacks however, are equally obvious. Their greatest strength is also their greatest weakness. Of all the mobile homes they are the most like home but that makes them the least mobile. They are hard to maneuver. Hard to park. Hard to not take down billboards. Fuel-efficient? Not by a long shot (look at how they’re shaped). You’re also not likely to want to take them into town that often, though some get around this with a “toad” (see below).
Also, if you haven’t already guessed, these guys are expensive (and you should be incredibly suspicious of those that are not). That being said you can occasionally find the odd Pace Arrow that someone is selling for a song just to get it out of their driveway but expect these to need some work, inside and out. Many of the more affordable ones you find have been stationary for some time: which is just as bad for RVs as it is for people.
Prices vary widely but expect to pay at least $20K even for a project. Road-ready examples will sell for around $100K, though $300K+ is not uncommon.
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Bonus Option — Converted Bus
If you’re really looking for a cool project consider converting an old passenger bus: Greyhound, Bluebird (school bus), etc. If we stay on the road much longer, this will likely be the path we follow. A gutted bus is a big empty canvas that you can fill exactly as you see fit. Think of it as #vanlife with no space restrictions. The benefits of that are obvious so I wont bore you here. Let’s talk about some of the drawbacks/considerations:
Price. This is certainly a consideration but maybe not as big a one as you think. Retired passenger buses can sometimes be had for a song. We were legitimately angry when Technomadia told us what they had paid for their bus (but check it out: technomadia.com). That being said expect to spend the large majority of you budget on the conversion. You might find an old Blue Bird for $4K or an old Greyhound for $6K but you can easily spend another $30K (much much more, in fact) getting it ready to move in to. At the end of the day (or the year or two, more likely) though you will have a one-of-a-kind, fully-stocked, home on wheels, customized specifically to the needs of you and your family. If you really want to dive in for the long term, and you’ve got the time, dough, and know-how (in your own head or for hire), this is a pretty cool way to hit the road.
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This is a smaller vehicle that you pull behind your motorhome (“towed,” get it?). This is a particularly good option for the owners of a Class A or a bus as neither of which are particularly errand-friendly.
Bring ‘em, but actually use ‘em, and be realistic. We made the mistake of bringing along our sleek and expensive road bikes (a mistake we have yet to rectify). We rode them regularly on the streets of Los Angeles, but found we didn’t have much use for them while camping in the wilderness. We spent our first four months on the road mostly set up in national parks and forests far from town or paved roads. Had we thought ahead, and traded our fancy bikes for mountain bikes we could have had a hell of a time. In fact, in NOLA, we parked for two weeks a stone’s throw from a nationally-recognized mountain bike course. As it stands, our bikes have mostly just taken up precious space in the bed of our truck (for which we built a special, in-bed, bike rack). Learn from our mistakes.
If you’ve got anything bigger than a van, bring ‘em. For a few hundred bucks you can put a sturdy rack on the front or back of your rig that you could roll your hog right up. We've even seen Harleys being transported this way. Again, we made the mistake of not bringing along Lauren’s 1980 Honda C70 (it’s sitting in storage back in Ohio). We recently purchased a 1985 Toyota CA50 here in Las Vegas, which we will most certainly be taking with us, mounted to the back of our TT. The convenience of having a small, fuel efficient vehicle at the ready cannot be overstated (in our opinion). Bring one if you can.
Where are you going?
Do you plan on spending most of your nights in the wilderness or in suburbs/communities/cities? If it’s the latter, you must take into account that many communities (and the number is increasing) do not take kindly to those living out of a vehicle. This is where the benefits of stealth come into play. You can manage this quite easily with a van you’ve converted yourself. It becomes quite a bit harder when you’re pulling a travel trailer or piloting a Class A.
What’s the weather going to be like?
Will it be hot? Cold? Just right? When we first set out it was snowing in Ohio. We spent one night in Columbus (in the parking lot of a Cabela’s) due to a shoot the next day and then drove due South until we stopped shivering. We made it all the way to Charleston, SC in one day. We then proceeded to “follow the weather,” as it were, until recently when we decided it would be a good idea to visit Vegas in July. Again, learn from our mistakes.
Consider how you’re going to heat/cool your rig and make sure to calculate those costs into your final assessment.
What kind of RVer are you?
This one might be a tough question to answer in the beginning, especially if you haven’t done much RVing yet. For instance, when we set out, we were certain that we would spend as little time as possible in RV parks, preferring instead to spend our nights boondocking for free on public lands and sitting by the campfire. We did this for most of the trip, and we still love it, but we’ve also come around to the undeniable benefits of RV parks: unlimited water, laundry, showers, cell service, WiFi, etc. After struggling for several months to effectively run a website while living in the woods (we had, simultaneously, three national cell carriers for a little while) we finally broke down and purchased two months at a small RV park in New Mexico and thought we had entered the promise land. We still love to boondock (and even just take a small tent into the middle of nowhere from time to time) but we supplement that with stays in civilization where we can really get some work done.
If you are planning on doing a fair amount of boondocking, you must take that into consideration when purchasing your rig. Smaller rigs are going to have a much easier time getting to remote locations but a much harder time staying there. Water is going to be your biggest bugaboo here, both fresh and waste. In a later post we’ll explain some ways to make the most of your water. With a little careful planning you can stretch a camping session out several days, even in a van.
That being said, don’t underestimate the issues involved with getting there. The National Park Service is criminally underfunded and understaffed and road maintenance is hardly a priority, especially to free and dispersed sites. Expect them to be unpaved, single-lane, and sometimes wrapping around a steep cliff. Wash-outs and craters that will pin a 4x4 are not uncommon sights. Think twice about bringing something you can’t turn around.
How far will you be driving?
Fuel economy seems like a peripheral issue until that day you realize how much of your travel budget is going out your tailpipe everyday. For an older Class C, expect something to the tune of 8mpg. That’s insane! If you’re planning on doing a lot of state hopping, seriously take this into account. A more expensive but more fuel-efficient rig (or tow vehicle) might actually pay for itself in short order and it’s easier on the planet meaning you’ll deny a few power lunches to the execs over at ExxonMobile. Win-win-win.
Still Can’t Decide?
Companies like Cruise America, Jucy, and Outdoorsy rent a wide range of motorhomes including vans. This is strongly recommended if you haven’t had much experience RVing. For instance: we had a romantic notion of touring the country in a truck camper until we spent two nights in one. Thankfully, it was just a rental and not the cause of an emptied savings account.
P.S. This post is NOT sponsored by Cruise America, Jucy, Outdoorsy, or any other RV rental company. Hmmm, maybe we should have asked though.
Okay, everybody, we hope that helps. As always, reach out with any questions, and stay tuned for more posts dealing with life after you decide what rig to purchase/borrow/steal.
Branden + Lauren