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Buying a travel trailer: Guide to making the right choice

Buying a travel trailer is not a simple task, nor is it too difficult. Common sense should prevail. Don’t get carried away your first time. Rule No. 1: Don’t buy a trailer too big for your tow vehicle.

Size matters when you’re buying a travel trailer

1956 Shasta Travel Trailer and 1956 Chevrolet 210 Handyman

1956 Shasta Travel Trailer and 1956 Chevrolet 210 Handyman. (Photo by John Gately. Some rights reserved.)

When we purchased our first RV 15 years ago, we knew nothing. We were novices.

We bought a 2000 Fleetwood Prowler travel trailer, 24 feet in length with a base weight 4600 pounds, from a consignment lot in Fort Myers. The trailer was like new, used once, even smelled new, the layout was perfect and we got a very good deal.

At the time, we were driving a 1998 Ford Explorer Sport, the two-door version with a six-cylinder engine and a factory towing package. Maximum towing capacity of 4880 pounds.

“You’ll have no problem towing this trailer,” the genial salesman told us. “Car manufacturers always under-rate their vehicles’ towing capacity so you have room to spare.”

We took the trailer on a shakedown cruise to a campground in Venice. All was well. We returned home to Deerfield Beach. All went well. That little Explorer really performed.

The following week, we loaded the RV and struck out on a three-month trip up the coast to Maine. I learned quickly the standard calculation for travel weight should include an additional 500 pounds per person.

That pushed the trailer’s weight up to 5,600 pounds. The trailer’s gross vehicle weight (GVW) was 6,100 pounds, but remember, our maximum towing capacity was 4,880 pounds. 

Our Explorer and trailer swayed every time an 18-wheeler passed us on I-95. I just thought this was par for the course. We got to Virginia on 9/11, forcing us to detour west over the Blue Ridge Mountains to I-81. 

We struggled up long hills both in Virginia and Pennsylvania before we hit the relatively flat terrain of New England and back to the coast in Maine. The Explorer performed, but it was a real strain.

A month later, on our way out of Bar Harbor, the Explorer’s transmission blew. Thank God for AAA RV Plus! We were towed that morning to the Ford dealer in Ellsworth, where they installed a rebuilt transmission on the spot. The service was amazing, and we were back on the road by late afternoon.

When we got home, we ibought a new F-150 SuperCrew with a 5.4 liter V8 and a towing capacity of 8,000 pounds.

The Explorer would live another 13 years, forever to be lovingly called our “tractor.”

The F-150 didn’t need a new transmission until 2015, and I’m still towing a trailer with it in 2020, 18 years after we bought it.

Lessons learned about weight:

  • Take GROSS VEHICLE WEIGHT seriously. There may or may not be a manufacturer’s “cushion,” but don’t count it in your calculations.
  • 500 pounds per person is very real when you consider all the gear, pots and pans, dishes, clothing, TV, microwave and other appliances, I learned that the base (net) vehicle weight on my trailer DID NOT include the refrigerator and stove!
  • Figure AT LEAST 1,000 pounds leeway for climbing hills and mountains. Keep in mind that gravity dramatically increases the pull weight of the trailer when you are climbing.
  • Check the combined gross vehicle weight listed for your vehicle, and stay well within the limits. Everything you carry counts, including kayaks on the roof, people and gear in the vehicle.
  • Weight distribution hitch

    Weight distribution hitch

    A weight distribution hitch is damn near required for every trailer over 2,500 pounds. Some misrepresent these hitches as “anti-sway” bars, but they are not. They are levelers that evenly distribute weight to the wheels of your tow vehicle and trailer, stabilizing the track while  keeping all the weight off the rear wheels. Read more.
  • After the trailer is hitched to your vehicle, pull onto a flat surface and make sure the combination is perfectly level. Adjust the weight distribution hitch until it is.
  • Go to a weigh station and make sure the combined weight is within your limits, as well as the manufacturers limits.

And one more thing: If you break down for any reason, you want to have AAA-Plus RV or its equivalent. My plan allows towing up to 100 miles for both the tow vehicle and the trailer. It’s a bit expensive but well worth it, if for nothing but peace of mind.

Shop around and ask questions

We are now shopping for a new travel trailer. Most of the sales people we’ve talked to so far have been very frank about vehicle and trailer weight, but only after I look at the weight limits posted on the trailer and comment on it.

By law, those weight limits must be posted on the trailer. If you are buying a used trailer, make sure you know the weight limits. If somebody removed the weight label, don’t believe anything they say. Do your own research.

While late-model trailers are generally lighter in weight than their predecessors, keep in mind that a single slide-out adds 1,000 pounds to any trailer.

We plan to get shorter trailer (21 feet), no slide-out, with a base vehicle weight under 4,000 pounds, including appliances. Our dream of a slide-out has been dashed.

Our F-150 SuperCrew is still going strong after 180,000 miles, but we expect only another year of service, and new trucks are astronomically expensive. The truck we bought for $26,000 in 2002 now costs $45,000.

Think ahead and decide what you can afford when your tow vehicle breaks down.

More hot tips:

Tandem wheels are safer because they not only distribute the trailer weight, but you have a safety cushion in case of a blow-out. Most trailers under 20 feet do not have tandem wheels.

Electric trailer brakes with in-vehicle control are essential. Otherwise, you are putting too much stress on your vehicle’s brakes. You will still go through brakes, but you can extend their life.

Nice to have:

Consider adding an electric lift for the tongue, if it’s not already part of your trailer package. Hand-cranking the trailer every time you stop gets old fast. Dealer installed, the lift will cost about $500 extra.

Most late-model trailers have electric awnings. Consider making it a requirement. There are few things more miserable than hand-cranking your awning in a windy thunderstorm. Fact is, those winds can seriously damage your awning and it will cost $600+ to replace. An electric awning allows you to push a button whenever you leave the trailer for a shopping trip or all-day kayak adventure.

A walk-around bed with a curtain is sweet. The temptation of price and space is a bed crammed sideways into a corner. When your partner gets up in the middle of the night, everybody gets up.

What you don’t need:

Hydraulic stabilizers, at least not on a trailer under 30 feet. On larger rigs, they help level the trailer, but you can easily level any RV on uneven ground with the electric jack and inexpensive leveling blocks

Keep in mind

  • Ask the salesman a lot of questions. Make a list before you go.
  • RV’s have huge mark-ups. Never pay full price.
  • Take your time and buy the trailer you need the first time.
  • Consider renting an RV first, just in case the family doesn’t dig it as much as you do. 

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Saturday 27th of May 2017

My wife and I just purchased our first Travel trailer from Camping World in Idaho. We were under the impression it was new and when we signed our paper work we found out it had 8,000 miles on it. The dealership was representing the Trailer as new. On our paperwork it says new and the DMV Title form it also says new. My first question is what classifies a travel trailer as new, and if it is 2 years old, how does it have 8,000 miles on it already. Also in the state of Idaho, representing a used product as new is illegal. Is our Contract null and void due to this? I am not sure how old this post is, but I hope I get some answers. Thanks

Bob Rountree

Monday 5th of June 2017

This is a great question. Seems to me, any rig with 8,000 miles is used. Have you asked the dealership for an explanation?

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