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  7. How to Shop for an RV

How to Shop for an RV

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RV shopping can be an overwhelming experience, especially for first-time buyers. The towable market offers more options than ever, with models ranging from 1,000-pound teardrop trailers to 40-foot-plus, triple-axle toy haulers. When browsing at shows and on dealer’s lots, the RVs are not in their natural habitat, so it’s challenging to tour them and get a sense of what the towing, setup and livability experience will be like in the real world.

It’s not uncommon for first-time buyers to purchase the RV of their dreams, only to trade it in later because there wasn’t enough storage, the holding tanks were too small or it couldn’t fit into their ideal campsite at a nearby state park.

You can avoid becoming a statistic by taking careful stock of your travel and camping personality before you buy your first, or next, RV. Deciding in advance on the important things like weight, length and must-have features will keep you from getting sucked in by decorative touches such as pendant lighting, backsplash designs and farmhouse sinks.

Here are some of the most important questions you should ask, and answer, before deciding on the best RV for your travels.


It’s easy to be tempted by all the whizbang features on the latest RVs, but nothing will put a damper on your fun more than spending too much money on a trailer or buying one that’s too heavy for your vehicle to tow.
Photos: Stephanie and Jeremy Puglisi; Shawn Spence

What is my tow-vehicle situation?

Too often, first-time RV shoppers pick out their dream trailer or fifth-wheel without fully researching what they will need to tow it. After the purchase, they end up with too much trailer for the tow vehicle they had in their driveway. This can lead to unsafe towing conditions or an expensive (and unanticipated) upgrade to a larger vehicle.

Know your numbers inside and out before making a purchase. If you already own a tow vehicle, use reliable resources such as the manufacturer’s website, the vehicle identification number (VIN) or Trailer Life’s annual Guide to Towing to find the actual towing limit and payload capacity. Never trust the word of a salesperson or someone in an online forum.

If you will be purchasing a trailer and a tow vehicle, pick out the trailer first, and then find a suitable tow vehicle that will pull your dream rig with ease.


Before making a deal on any RV, know the numbers: tow ratings, cargo-carrying capacity, gross vehicle weight rating and, of course, your budget.

Am I a road-tripper or destination camper?

There’s no one type of RV adventure. Some people dream of crisscrossing North America, stopping for only a few days at a time before moving on. Others tow their rig almost every weekend to that same gorgeous campground just an hour away.

If you are going to clock a lot of road miles, the travel experience should be a major factor in your RV purchase. Consider that fuel stops will become more complicated with a bigger trailer, and you’ll have to plan routes in advance to avoid low clearances and other road restrictions. Heavier weight will also greatly affect fuel economy and drive up expenses. On the flip side, if you won’t be traveling long distances, these concerns are less important.


RV shows make it easy to inspect a whole fleet of RVs from different manufacturers. Don’t be shy.

What type of campground experience am I seeking?

Some folks prefer state or national park camping, some crave RV parks and resorts with all the amenities imaginable, and others dream of boondocking out in the middle of nowhere without another person in sight. Whatever your camping style, you need to find a rig that is
a good match.

If you prefer national, state and municipal campgrounds, the rule of thumb is to stay under 30 feet in length. Since hookups aren’t always available at public campgrounds, you’ll want appliances that can run on LP-gas and larger-capacity holding tanks. If you plan to stay at commercial campgrounds with full hookups, then go ahead and opt for an RV with an electric residential refrigerator, three TVs and smaller tanks. Boondocker wannabes would be wise to consider generators, onboard fueling stations (for toy haulers) and solar capacity for camping off the grid.


Step inside and take a seat at the dinette, stand in the shower, stretch out on the beds and mimic making dinner in the galley.

What gear do I want to pack in my RV?

It’s common for people to complain about a lack of storage space. Empty RVs sitting on the dealer’s lot often seem large and chock-full of drawers and cabinets. Only after purchasing do many folks realize they failed to consider where the grill, camp chairs, bikes and kayaks were going to be stored.

Try to develop a working list of the gear and toys you are looking to bring on your RV adventures. When RV shopping, clearly visualize where those items would go, both in transit and while parked at the campground. Pay particular attention to wardrobe space, storage for linens and toiletries, kitchen appliances and food. These tend to be common frustrations for first-time RV owners.

Lastly, don’t forget to note the cargo-carrying capacity (CCC) on each RV while shopping. The ccc is the difference between the unloaded vehicle weight (UVW) and the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR). Cargo-carrying capacity varies widely from trailer to trailer, so make sure any model RV you’re considering has the capability to handle the gear you plan to pack.


Manufacturers often send company reps to support dealers at the larger RV shows. If you want to know about a specific model, this is your chance to ask the experts.

How do I intend to spend my time while RVing?

There are RVs with every sort of configuration when it comes to living, dining and sleeping spaces. You want to buy a model that allows you to live comfortably on your terms. If you love spending as much time outside as possible, look for a rig with features like an exterior kitchen, outdoor shower, large awning and a propane quick-connect. If you are looking for an RV that offers all the comforts of home, shop for a well-appointed kitchen, comfortable furniture, and residential-style bathrooms and bedrooms.

What are my must-haves and nice-to-haves?

Just like with house shopping, there are usually some trade-offs that have to be made with an RV purchase. It’s rare to find that unicorn trailer with every single feature you wanted at your budgeted price point. That’s why it’s important to differentiate between must-have features and nice-to-have features.

Don’t make concessions on the things that are really important to you. Examples of these might be a separate master bedroom, dedicated beds for the kids, a bathtub, two exterior entrances and large tanks. If something will bother you every day, like converting the dinette to a bed and back, don’t compromise on that feature.

However, don’t get fixated on the smaller, less important details. Backsplashes can be easily replaced, and stereo speakers can be upgraded. Try to stay focused on comfort and livability instead of making decisions based on decor and other less important features.

There are so many amazing RVs out there for every type of person at every stage of life. The tricky part is finding your perfect fit. Take the time to think about how you want to travel and camp in the RV of your dreams. Then go find your match made in heaven.

RV Shopping Hacks

It may feel a bit silly, but buyers should mimic daily life when they are RV shopping. Ignore the side glances from your salesperson and always do the following things before purchasing any RV:

  • Lie down on the beds.
  • Sit on the toilet.
  • Stand and move around in the shower.
  • Sit the whole family down at the dinette.
  • Check the viewing angle of the TV(s).
  • Pretend to make a meal in the kitchen.
  • Bring in the slides to determine kitchen and bathroom access during travel mode.

You’ll also want to imagine how daily life will look in your RV. Can the whole family be comfortable inside on a rainy day? Is there a place for your dog’s food, bed or crate? Will family members be able to watch a movie without craning their necks? The trick is to find an RV with everything you want but not a heck of a lot more.

Know Before You Go

The number of models and floorplans at dealerships and shows can be mind-boggling, even for seasoned RVers. Establishing clear goals before setting foot on the lot can help shoppers stay focused on the things that matter.

Jeremy and Stephanie Puglisi
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