Motorhome vs Trailer

One of the most commonly discussed and, at times, argued topics is which is the best RV for a full-timer, a trailer or a motorhome. In most cases, the decision as to type of RV is based on personal preferences. While there is no “right” answer, I will attempt to address some of the issues that I feel make this both an important and a difficult decision.

Actually, there are two types of trailers suitable for use by a full-timer: the travel trailer and the fifth wheel. In case there is someone out there who is a popup camper fan, I don’t personally think they are a good choice for a full-timer. While the class A motorhome is the type of motorhome used most frequently by full-timers, some full-timers may find the class C motorhome suitable. In case someone is full-timing in a class B motorhome, I admire your spunk but don’t think most full-timers could deal with the limited storage and limited living space they offer for someone living in it 365 days a year. However, the choice between trailer and motorhome is much more significant than the choice between the specific type of trailer or the specific type of motorhome.

Based on my personal observations, I will attempt to briefly compare some of the pros and cons of trailers versus motorhomes below.

Mobility: To many full-timers, mobility is a key issue. If you travel extensively, a motorhome offers the most advantages. You are always in your “home”, even when you are on the highway. With an appropriately outfitted motorhome, you are able to stop for the night without ever leaving the vehicle. However, some full-timers move infrequently so mobility will be less of an issue for them. For these individuals, a motorhome will probably not be the best choice.

Living Space: Although the newer motorhomes may offer three or even four slide-outs, fifth wheel trailers typically offer more living space due to the increased depth of their slide-outs. The increased width of the unit with the slides extended tends to give a more spacious feel. While in motion, a motorhome with multiple slide outs can be somewhat confining. Many of the larger fifth wheel trailers have slide-outs that virtually touch when they are retracted. Allowing room to move around inside the motorhome limits the depth of slide-outs to typically 18″-28″. However, the extra space of large, deep slide-outs in some fifth wheel trailers can provide a house type environment with widths nearing 16′ when the slide-outs are extended and an overall square footage near the legal maximum of 400 square feet. Recently the laws were changed and motorhomes can now legally exceed 400 square feet, although trailers are still subject to that limitation. There are motorhomes currently available that are about 500 square feet with their quad slides extended. Motorhomes with the larger slides can make the interior feel quite cramped with the slides pulled in, just as a trailer with the slides pulled in.

Stairs: Travel trailers, at least those without multiple slides, tend to sit closer to the ground than either motorhomes or fifth wheel trailers. Thus it is necessary to climb typically only one or two steps to get into a travel trailer. Motorhomes, fifth wheel trailers and some travel trailers with large slide-outs sit higher above the ground and require climbing three to five steps to get in. Once in a travel trailer or a motorhome, typically everything is on one level without additional steps. Most fifth wheel trailers have an additional two or more steps to climb to get to the bathroom and bedroom which are typically over the hitch. The bedroom in some fifth wheel trailers is an additional one or more steps higher than the bathroom. This can result and going up and down steps a significant number of times during the day, even if you never leave the fifth wheel trailer. As you get older, stairs can get to be more of a hassle. That is one reason that Airstream’s Classic Travel Trailers have had such popularity with older RV’ers.

External Storage Space: Travel trailers and class C motorhomes typically lack the large external storage compartments offered by fifth wheel trailers and class A motorhomes.

Maintenance: The trailer has fewer “systems” to break than the motorhome. Remember that when your motorhome goes into the shop for drive train (engine, transmission, differential) repair, you may have lost the use of your home. The trailer allows you to replace the tow vehicle and thus the engine, transmission and differential without having to replace the living quarters themselves. I have had good luck with finding facilities that were willing to at least let us stay in the motorhome at night while it was in the shop being worked on. That would not be practical at most facilities if the repairs were of a significant enough nature that the motorhome was not able to be moved out of the service bay.

Purchase Price: The “average” motorhome is significantly more expensive than the “average” trailer. However, a large trailer requires a large powerful truck to safely tow it. Although the tow ratings of one-ton pickups have increased dramatically over the past 10 years, towing a trailer with a GVWR or Gross Vehicle Weight Rating over 16,000 pounds will exceed the limits of most one-ton pickups and may require the use of a medium duty truck to safely tow (although many are being towed by over-loaded pickups). The cost of a one-ton pickup setup to tow a heavy trailer can cost as much or more than many trailers and the cost of a medium duty truck can easily exceed the cost of most trailers.

Daily Transportation: A large motorhome requires the purchase of a vehicle to use on a daily basis. You may be able to use a large motorhome for weekend trips without towing a vehicle behind you but I can’t imagine trying to get by without another vehicle if you are full-timing. A travel trailer or fifth wheel trailer allows you to use your tow vehicle as daily transportation. However, the larger the trailer, the larger the tow vehicle should be. As the tow vehicle gets larger, its practicality of use for running errands decreases. If you want a mid-sized to small car to drive, you are generally limited to a motorhome. I have met a few people with medium duty trucks towing a 40+ foot fifth wheel which was in turn towing a small car although this is not legal in many states.

Comfort: Typically, a motorhome is more comfortable while traveling. At rest stops you can use the bathroom, make a cup of coffee and a sandwich without ever getting out of the motorhome. Some multi-slide fifth wheel trailers require you to open a slide to get to the refrigerator or, in some cases, even to access the bathroom. Once you are parked, the comfort of a trailer versus a motorhome is pretty much a tie.

Safety: With the exception of motorhomes constructed from over the road buses, such as Prevost and Blue Birds, the trucks and vans used to tow trailers typically offer the occupants better crash protection. However, based on my personal observations, there is greater likelihood that a trailer will be involved in an accident than a motorhome. I have seen a number of trailers that overturned or jack-knifed forcing the tow vehicle off the road. The only motorhome I have personally seen involved in accidents were ones that were hit from behind (in one case by the towed car coming loose) and some that caught fire.

Driving / Maneuverability: This depends on your likes and skills. If you have experience towing large trailers and you enjoy it, a trailer may be your best choice. If you have limited experience towing large trailers or you find trailer towing to be an unpleasant experience, you may find a motorhome more pleasurable to drive. Remember that a large motorhome can be a handful to drive for some people. Wind and passing vehicles can move you around on the road with MOST recreational vehicle (trailer or motorhome). Large diesel pusher motorhomes and fifth wheel trailers towed by medium duty diesel trucks tend to track reasonably well. However, as you try to maneuver a large rig in a restricted space, it is obvious that skill and a great deal of attention are required. This is particularly true when the motorhome or trailer is 38′ or longer. Some of the older campgrounds were constructed when trailers were typically 25′ or less. That can present a real challenge to the driver of a 40′ – 45′ motorhome or fifth wheel.

Height: The height of a fifth wheel or motorhome can also pose a challenge greater than a travel trailer. While many travel trailers are about 10′ tall, most of the larger fifth wheels and motorhomes are 11.5′-13.5′ tall. Clearance can be a problem when you get off the interstate highways. Again, some of the older campgrounds never intended to see anything that was 12′ tall. I have had to dodge low branches at many campgrounds. If you have an RV with a rubber roof, a low hanging tree branch can rip the roof resulting in leaks if it isn’t repaired/replaced immediately.

Weight: A full timer is frequently plagued by weight limitations. Some of the larger gasoline powered motorhomes have only a few hundred pounds of weight carrying capabilities with several people on board and the water tank filled. The diesel pusher motorhomes and fifth wheel trailers typically have several thousand pounds of carrying capacity (but don’t make that assumption, verify the carrying capacity before you buy). You might be surprised how easy it is to add 3,000+ pounds of “stuff” to an RV. Travel trailers have less storage space and frequently significantly less carrying capacity. Of course, extra weight increases fuel consumption, all other things being equal. A light-weight frame and chassis are typically not a good answer for a full-timer. Most trailers and motorhomes are designed for occasional use only. Construction that may be suitable for occasional use will not hold up to tens of thousands of miles per year nor the stress and wear of full time usage. I have seen NEW RVs with cabinets falling off the walls and stress cracks developing from just being towed from the factory to a dealer half-way across the country. This type of construction would not be a logical choice for anything other than very occasional use. Travel trailers were the primary type of recreational vehicle sold until the 1970’s. Now there are only a handful of companies that build a travel trailers that will stand the rigors of full time use. Few travel trailers can match the Airstream for quality. Fifth wheel trailers and motorhomes run the gamut from poorly constructed to extra heavy duty. Don’t expect an entry level fifth wheel to hold up to heavy use as well as a Teton or King of the Road will (NOTE: the late 2000’s and early 2010’s were hard on the RV industry and Teton and King of the Road, two of the most expensive fifth-wheel trailer manufacturers have gone out of business). For those desiring a motorhome for full time use, I would recommend a diesel pusher. The chassis is much heavier on the diesel pushers than on the gasoline powered motorhomes and of course the diesel engine will survive the heavy loads for many more miles. Remember that not all diesel pushers are created equally either. There are now front engine gasoline powered RV’s that have chassis rated at 26,000 pounds. That is greater than some of entry level diesel pushers. However, some diesel pushers are rated at over 62,000 pounds Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVRW).

Holding Tanks: Most recreational vehicles have two wastewater holding tanks (one for black water from the toilet and one for grey water from the sinks and shower) and a fresh water holding tank. Travel trailer usually lose the holding tank size contest. 35 gallons is a large waste tank for most travel trailers. While some fifth wheel trailers and motorhomes have small holding tanks, many have waste holding tanks with a capacity of 50-100 gallons each, with a few exceeding 170 gallons each. Fresh water tanks in travel trailers are frequently 50 gallons or less. Fresh water tanks in larger fifth wheels and motorhomes may be 100 gallons with a few motorhomes having fresh water tanks of 175 gallons. If you always stay at sites with full hookups, tank capacity is not a large issue. If you stay at sites without sewer connections, you will quickly become aware of the benefits of large tanks. If you boondock, with no water, sewer or electricity, you will REALLY benefit from the large holding tanks.

Generators and Inverters: Few travel trailers have generators which make 120 volt AC power or inverters which convert 12 volt DC power from batteries to 120 volt AC power. Many fifth wheel trailers have generators, at least as an option. Most larger motorhomes come with generators as standard equipment and many also have large inverters (2000 watts or greater).

Driver’s License: Although requirements vary by state, the drivers license that most individuals get to drive a car will generally suffice for a one-ton truck or van towing a travel trailer or a medium sized fifth wheel. In many states, a higher class of drivers license is required if you are towing a trailer over a specified weight. In some states, you can drive a motorhome with a “normal” drivers license as long as the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating does not exceed a specified amount. A motorhome with a higher GVWR may require a non-commercial “truck” license. Note that many of the fifth wheel trailers used by full-timers and many diesel pusher motorhomes have weights in excess of some state’s limits. California residents have special license requirements to drive a motorhome longer than 40 feet.