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Motorhome or Trailer, which is best?

If that isn't a loaded question...

Fact is, there is no definate answer. It all depends on what your needs are. Of course, you knew I was going to say that.

After owning a Class-C motorhome, fifth wheel, and a pop-up tent-camper, I can provide my opinion at least from that perspective. Generally (and when I say generally, there is always the exception), the build quality goes from motorhome to 5th wheel to travel trailer, with motorhomes having the highest quality. However, "highest quality" in this sense does not really mean they are quality built, but simply they are not built as bad as the others. I suppose I should state motorhomes are bad, 5th wheels worse, and trailers the worstest.

If you spend any time chatting around the campfire, you will find horror stories from other owners' from slide outs not working, grease leaking on the brake shoes, mis-wired appliances, refrigerators catching fire, and so on... and this is for new rigs! And ask anyone if their black tank monitor is functioning after just a few uses, and you will get a no answer 99% of the time.

The sad truth is RV manufacurers are more interested in building it cheap than building it correctly. While it is true that some owners may have unreasonable expectations, it is also more true that the typical RV is junk. On one hand, these things do take a beating going down the road shaking themselves apart, but that does not explain all of the malfunctions and problems.

 

When we bought our motorhome, it was used... 2yrs old, and like new. And it was less than the cost of the kind of truck needed to tow a 5th wheel, so at the time it seemed a no-brainer.

However, if you do any kind of long term camping with a motorhome, you will need a tow car. There are a lot of issues here; everything from car insurance to the number of total vehicles you will have to be maintaining.

So in some sense, the cost of a pickup + 5th wheel (or trailer) is somewhat offset by having a motorhome + tow vehicle. So in our case, that initial "savings" in buying a motorhome was offset by having to purchase an additional vehicle (as we could not tow our Nissan Maxmia due to it's CVT). And that meant having to obtain licenses, insurance, and maintenance for a vehicle used primarily for towing.

 

Quality: And when it comes to quality, I have also come to realize that the more that the vehicle manufacturer makes vs. the RV manufacturer, the better off you are. If you own a motorhome and the rear wall falls off, you have lost your entire investment. But if the same thing happens to your 5th wheel or trailer, you have only lost half of your investment as you still have the truck which you can either sell or use to tow a new trailer. And the resale of especially a heavy duty (3/4T and above) pickup with a diesel engine is far better than what you would realize even with a diesel motorhome.

So whether you buy new or used, make sure you factor in all of the costs; inital purchase cost (for truck, trailer, motorhome, and tow vehicle if needed), annual costs in insurance, licensing, and maintenance. Finally, factor in resale value for the vehicle(s) you will be purchasing.

Like boats, RVs tend to have grossly over-inflated MSRPs (Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price). You should be able to get anywhere between 20 and 30 percent off the MSRP on a new RV. And in many parts of the country, you can get a better deal in different times of the year.

In the north, where RV'ing is seasonal, you might get a better price in the fall and winter than in the late spring. RV show pricing can also be quite attractive as manufacturers often provide extra incentives to dealers.

Driveability: From this perspective, 5th wheels are the easiest to tow, as opposed to travel trailers (however, they are harder to back up than a travel trailer). Don't worry, backing is a learned skill... and until you master it, you can probably find a pull-thru site.

Some motorhomes are barely controllable down the highway. The chassis manufacturer has no idea of how the RV manufacturer is going to modify their vehicles, and the RV manufacturer often cuts the frame in two to lengthen it, adds literally tons of weight on the chassis, and does nothing to match the suspension to the changes. They are either not qualified to do so, or do not care. It is not unheard of for purchasers of motorhomes to take a new vehicle to a specialty shop such as Cummins Bridgeway to fix what the RV manufacturer messed up. In fact, I had to add heavy duty swaybars to my Class C to make it driveable.

Case in point... my Class-C was pretty hard to drive, especially in a cross-wind. There were times when I literally had to "white-knuckle" drive... not good. Then I upgraded the sway-bars. Much better. It was still squirrely at times, especially in cross winds, but not white-knucke squirrely.

Room: Fifth wheels typically have the most room. As their hitch systems are larger and frames heavier (in relation to travel trailers), they can be longer and have more slides. The larger fifth wheel interiors having 400 sq.ft. is not out of the question... that's larger than the first apartment I lived in.

The larger motorhomes can rival or even equal the interior space of a fifth wheel, and it almost seems like a one-ups-man ship between the two type manufacturers to see who makes the largest.

However, if you compare a given length motorhome to a fifth wheel, you will find the fifth wheel will have more useable space. As well, it is typical for fifth wheels to have opposing slides in the living space - not something you will find often in either motorhomes or travel trailers.

Accessibility: Face it... we're getting older. As many older people RV, accessibility is, or will become important. Chief among these is the ability to climb Mt. Everest to get into your rig. Fifth wheels are bad for this, as you typically have two feet of climbing to do just to get into the coach, and then perhaps another 18" to get into the bedroom area. It's a split-level house on wheels.

Class A motorhomes (at least those made on commercial chassis) are the next worst culprits. However, they won't have the additional climb up into the bedroom area that a fifth wheel will have.

And the best rigs for your knees is either a travel trailer or even a Class-C. Our Class-C had two steps and was low to the ground. Perfect for someone that cannot climb a lot of stairs.

Intended Use:Perhaps this is the best determining factor for which type you choose. So analyze your needs... then analyze them again. I say that because your needs often change. Mine sure does. So what you pick out today might not work in a few years.

  • Are you wanting to travel - visiting a new place each day?
  • If you full-time, are you going to stay put for 6mo or be on the move?
  • Do you like to go into smaller campgrounds, such as the typical state park?
  • Of course, you have to figure in costs.

If you want to be on the go, a Class-C, or perhaps even a Class-B might be the best. If you are going from place-to-place, it takes literally 5 minutes to get the coach road-ready. And if you are on the move, you really don't need to tow a car. When we had our Class-C, we only took our toad (towed car) when we were going to stay put for a week.

However, if you are going to do some excursion, especially in areas where there are questionable roads, you might want to tow a smaller vehicle. This is where a towed RV has an advantage. You can drop the RV and explore with your vehicle. While your 3/4T pickup is a bit larger than a Jeep, it is certainly a lot smaller without the RV attached to it.

If you are going to stay put for 6mo, I would prefer a towable rather than a motorhome. I just can't see sitting somewhwere at a RV park for 6mo without "excersizing" the motorized vehicle. Owing boats for years, I can attest that the vehicle will deteriorate as much or more just sitting for months-on-end as if you used it every day.

In my state, the state park system is outstanding - with some locations on prime land. However, most parks are more than 50yr old, and built when the averate trailer was 17ft. It is going to be a challenge to fit a 40ft motorhome or fifth wheel into such a site. They are enlarging the campsites in the state parks, but it takes awhile.

Costs are also something to consider. Both initial purchase as well as operation. When we went from a Class-C to a fifth wheel, my wife wanted something larger, and I wanted something diesel. That pretty much sealed the deal to go with a towable and diesel pickup. We were able to buy both new for under $100k, and a new diesel motorhome would be $150k (Super-C) or more. We could afford a pickup/trailer, but I could not afford a diesel motorhome. And finally, as I mentioned before, the resale for a diesel pickup is a lot better than a diesel motorhome.

 


Last reviewed and/or updated May 10, 2017