A travel trailer or motorhome can offer quite similar camping experiences, yet very different driving experiences! After recently transitioning from a 26′ vintage Airstream trailer to a 27′ class A motorhome, we’ve been asked by a few folks to compare and contrast the driving experiences.
The truth is, only YOU can know what kind of RV you’ll enjoy the most, so do your research, spend a lot of time in and around them while shopping, and test drive several types if possible. There’s no “one size fits all”, and the RV industry reflects that all too well with their seemingly endless configurations!
While we know we’re far from experts, having driven and lived in an RV for only a year prior to making our switch from trailer to motorhome, we’re happy to lend a little of our knowledge by describing the major differences between the two RV’s we’ve lived in, as well as what we know about some of the types that we haven’t. We hope sharing our experiences can help others make the decision easier about the right mode of transportation for their lifestyle!
We lived in a vintage bumper-pull trailer for our first year as nomads. Even with a narrow (7’2″), relatively short (26′), aerodynamic Airstream paired with one of the best weight distribution and sway control systems available for our particular trailer, there were lots of white-knuckle moments while towing. That’s just the nature of pulling something larger than you, attached only by a ball hitch on your bumper. We don’t have the exact statistics to back it up, but in our time on the road we’ve seen a lot more accidents involving bumper-pull trailers than fifth wheels and motorhomes, largely because they’re so simple to use with almost any truck, and are typically cheaper and easier to come by, so there are more of them on the road. These factors mean the proper precautions often aren’t taken to 1) learn to drive them and/or 2) properly outfit the trailer and vehicle for safe towing.
In addition to your vehicle’s towing capacity, the trailer tongue weight, total trailer weight, a sway control and weight distribution hitch, safety chains, a breakaway switch, a hitch lock, and balanced weight loading are all critical items to check or have before towing a bumper-pull trailer. We also highly recommend the use of a remote tire pressure monitoring system like this, which alerts you to tire pressure and heat changes, and may gain you additional time to react before a dangerous tire blow-out occurs – an especially dangerous proposition with a single-axle trailer, but still scary and potentially damaging even with additional axles. These are a smart safety precaution that’s recommended with any type of RV though, motorized or towable.
We can’t speak personally for the driving experience of a fifth wheel, having never owned one, but they’re very popular because the tongue weight of the trailer is over the truck’s rear axle instead of at the back of the vehicle’s frame, so some potential for the trailer to sway is decreased. This increased stability also means fifth wheel trailers can handle more weight and be larger overall than a bumper-pull trailer. I wouldn’t take that to mean that a fifth wheel is any more safe than a bumper-pull, as either type of trailer (or a motorhome!) can be very dangerous in an unexperienced driver’s hands or if something goes wrong while driving.
A bumper-pull trailer, unless top-of-the-line like an Airstream or other luxury trailer, also usually costs less than a fifth wheel, especially when you factor in your more limited choices for a tow vehicle. You usually have to buy a bigger truck in order to tow a fifth wheel and have a special fifth wheel hitch installed in the bed. Alternatively, most pickup trucks and many SUVs come with a bumper towing package standard. Some smaller bumper-pull trailers can even be pulled with a car!
It’s possible, depending on the trailer, to get away with a smaller, more fuel efficient vehicle for towing a bumper-pull trailer. We grew tired of finding city street and garage parking for our full-size pickup, and bought a used V8 Jeep Grand Cherokee instead. Being that our Airstream weighed less than 5,000 lbs and the Jeep is rated to tow 7,500 lbs, we were well within the safe towing capacity of our vehicle. We enjoyed the ease of driving a mid-size SUV around to sightsee and run errands after disconnecting our trailer, compared to the larger, more cumbersome truck. That’s purely personal preference, though, and the trade-off was less stability while towing and less storage space after giving up the big truck bed.
When pulling a a fifth wheel, the truck and trailer operate more as “one” since the connection point is further forward in the bed of the truck. With the increased height of a fifth wheel over a trailer, though, high winds may become challenging because there’s more vertical wall surface area. Fifth wheels have been known to blow over in high straight-line winds, due to their height and higher centers of gravity.
While we try to avoid it, occasionally we have to drive in the dark and that’s never much fun. We find night driving a LOT easier (so far) with a trailer than a motorhome, though. The headlights are usually brighter on a vehicle, blind spot visibility is better than driving a big boxy motorhome (though that’s not always the case with bigger trailers than ours), and being lower to the ground makes it easier to see the lines on the road and any hazards in your path. With the trailer it was still very hard to see curbs and road signs near our rear corners as we made turns in the dark. In general, it’s just not a good idea to drive an RV at night unless absolutely necessary.
Things we enjoyed more about towing our trailer than driving a motorhome:
- Only one engine to maintain and gas tank to fill
- Better gas mileage (11-14 mpg versus 6-8 mpg)
- The bells and whistles of our vehicle’s cockpit were much nicer compared to lower-end motorhomes – heated seats, great air conditioning, a better sound system, a sunroof, quieter while driving, easy to get in and out of with driver and passenger doors.
- Narrower profile made it easier to navigate on tight roads and in the city
- Less planning required for gas stops and tight areas – it’s easier to back up and turn around in a pinch. In a motorhome with a towed car, you cannot back up with your car still attached!
- It’s quicker getting into back-in campsites on arrival – don’t have to detach anything first to back into your site (though we did have to loosen our weight distribution hitch, so it’s negligible).
- Braking the trailer was more responsive than braking a towed car because the brake controller (we had the Prodigy P3) is more sensitive, and is hardwired to the vehicle and trailer, so it’s much harder to have a failed communication.
The transition to a motorhome sure takes some getting used to! We went from driving a “normal” sized vehicle and towing all of our stuff in something larger behind us to driving something “oversized” and filled with all our stuff, while towing a smaller vehicle behind us. Whereas the trailer was a constant presence in our rearview mirror and always the primary thing on our mind, our vehicle being towed behind the motorhome goes virtually unnoticed for the most part when we’re driving, because we can’t see it except in our backup camera and can barely feel that we’re towing it. The lack of visibility makes it harder to tell when you’ve completely passed someone or how much space you need behind you to fully clear something (speed bumps, railroad tracks, etc). A backup camera that’s pointed far enough behind you to see the cars you’re passing definitely helps.
Initially, a class A motorhome just feels BIG, and ours is even on the small side at 27′. The increase in width was the primary change that really took some getting used to. At 8-1/2′ wide, it was almost a full foot and a half wider than our 7’2″ wide Airstream. That’s a big portion of those narrow country roads that we didn’t take up before, but definitely do now!
At 12′ tall in our new motorhome, we have to think a lot more about clearances than we did at our 9′ height previously. We purchased an RV GPS for this purpose, and now check apps like Allstays that show low clearance bridges and tunnels. We still aren’t used to how many low-hanging tree limbs we hit or those moments of panic as we creep slowly under low electrical lines!
We were drawn to, and test drove, some smaller motorhomes while we were shopping around, including a couple class B vans and some smaller class C’s, and found them to be more intuitive when it came to how much space we took up on the road and maneuvering turns. Several even felt as comfortable as a minivan or big SUV to drive. None of them had the space and cargo carrying capacity we want right now (especially with our three dogs), but we can see ourselves strongly preferring something that small in the future, especially if our travels take us where roads are tighter and fuel more expensive.
For a single person or couple who doesn’t have many pets or children (or they’re small), take a look at the new class B’s and C’s, and the smaller class A’s like ours. There are some really innovative models out there! We’d love to not need to tow a car too, but for now while we travel a lot for work, transport our dogs around, and have friends and family visit often, it’s a nice convenience.
The scariest thing we’ve encountered so far in driving a motorhome is definitely high wind. Holding the wheel at a 30 degree angle to keep from being blown off the side of the road is not our idea of a good time, but sometimes you can’t pick your driving days based on the weather, and it becomes a good arm workout instead! Being passed on both sides by semi trucks that create a wind tunnel around you also isn’t the most fun experience in the world, with so little clearance on either side. We did make a useful upgrade of adding a steering control device to our new Class A, which you can read more about here.
Rain isn’t too much of an issue unless it’s a torrential downpour with standing water on the road. It was scarier with our trailer, because the tandem axle wheels had a tendency to slip and trailers can go into a spin and jackknife pretty easily. A motorhome is very heavy and relatively stable with such a wide and long wheelbase and dually back wheels (just don’t do anything stupid – it’s still not a tank!). We haven’t had the misfortune of driving in snow yet, but will report back when we have (any RVer knows that it’s inevitable despite the best planning). We’ll do our very best to avoid anything frozen on the ground if we can help it!
We haven’t been big fans of the braking system in our towed vehicle so far, mostly because it’s not as responsive and reliable as braking a trailer. It’s a wireless system, for one, which can easily experience interference from over 30′ away, and the braking device in the vehicle is a manual mechanism that pushes the brake pedal, which is prone to shifting out of position and needing adjusted. It’s a bit more nerve wracking to depend on that kind of mechanism in an emergency braking situation, compared to the hard-wired electric braking control of a trailer. We’ve had to pull over a few times after descending a long hill, hitting a big bump, or having road vibrations knock the braking system out of alignment, rendering it unusable.
The engine noise in many motorhomes is much worse than a car or truck towing a trailer, unless you have a very loud diesel truck you’re pulling with. Ours is a gas motorhome with a front engine, which means the engine is mostly under our feet in the driver and passenger area. At high RPM’s going up a hill, we really can’t hear anything else over the noise of the engine. If that bothers you and you have the extra money to spend, look for a diesel pusher instead with a quieter rear engine. Our priority was to be in an RV under 30 feet, which doesn’t exist (at the time of this article) in a diesel pusher. For now, we’ll happily deal with engine noise on hills to be in a smaller RV at an affordable-to-us price point.
We’ve already identified a few things we enjoy more about driving a motorhome over towing a trailer, though:
- The HUGE windshield offers much better views of the landscape as we drive.
- We can take turns working and driving more easily with a larger passenger area and the option to work at the dinette and spread out a little more. That means we can get our work done quicker on driving days, giving us more time to enjoy where are are when we arrive.
- There’s lots more room for the dogs and us to spread out en route.
- It’s great to be able to climate-control our living space while we drive instead of having to fix how hot or cold it is inside after we arrive somewhere (it wasn’t unusual for it to be over 100 degrees in our trailer when we drove long distances in warmer months).
- Knowing immediately that something fell over or out of a cabinet, or that the fridge came open before things roll around for a few hours and make an even bigger mess is great! So is not losing all our perishable food because the fridge door came open several hours earlier and we had no idea.
- Having access to our living area while driving also means we can make fewer bathroom and food stops. It’s awesome to be able to use our bathroom or make food while underway, though it’s not recommended for safety reasons (but let’s be honest, we all do it at times!) and you could feel a little seasick in the process.
- We feel safer when overnighting or street camping in cities – we can easily move somewhere else without ever getting out of the RV if we feel like it isn’t a safe place to be – or for any other reason, which may include security or law enforcement paying a visit.
- Much faster set-up and tear-down on driving days – which is often multiple times a week for us – and why we grew tired of the more tedious nature of trailer towing. Before, it would take us an hour or more to unpack/pack, unhitch/hitch, level ourselves using blocks, and manually stabilize the trailer. Now, we can leave more things sit out on counters or the floor while driving because there’s far less bounce and vibration in the living area. Leveling and stabilizing is usually as easy as pressing one button for the automatic hydraulic jacks, another button for the slide (if we even decide to do that), and disconnecting/connecting the car takes under 5 minutes. A fancy power awning sure is handy too when the wind picks up and you don’t want to go outside!
That’s the basic overview of our driving experience so far! We’re interested to see how we feel after a few more months of motorhome driving in various locations. Our next blog will be about the differences in living space and day-to-day use – stay tuned.