We’ve discussed the RVs you generally don’t want to buy for full-timing in Part 1 and what we call the minor leagues, RVs you might want to consider but aren’t the most popular options, in Part 2. Remember, this is all subjective and personal wants and needs may skew your search in other directions. This advice, or maybe this summation of our research, is good for most RVers but not all. Take it as intended. A guide from which to begin your own search.
So we’re in the big leagues now, class A motorhomes and fifth wheels. These are arguably the most popular choices for full-time RVers and with good reason. When your camping or taking short trips, size can take a back seat. When your looking to live full-time in an RV, size is a major consideration for most folks. Even the biggest RV is tiny when compared to your average stick-built home.
Now most folks who choose the RVing lifestyle are looking to simplify and downsize. You wouldn’t think so looking at those giant rigs they drive but even the biggest RVs are well under 500 square feet, or less than a typical one-bedroom apartment. Moving you 2000 square foot life into 400 square feet means you will downsize, like it or not. But part of the appeal of RVing is being able to move and live a more simple life. You can go where the weather is more hospitable and the world becomes your living room, so to speak.
That being said, many RVer’s also like their stuff. I know from reading blogs that RVers bring all manner of luxuries along with them. A meat smoker, motorcycles and even a hot tub!! That’s where big class a motorhomes and fifth wheels really shine even though you will still have to make some hard choices about what’s most important. They both offer tons of storage, relatively. Plenty of room for hobbies, tools, sporting gear and more. You’ll have to downsize but you won’t have to give up everything.
But size has it’s disadvantages too. Size means you’re banned from some RV parks and campgrounds. Size means getting to those off-the-beaten-path boondocking spots is tougher. Speaking of boondocking, however, these big rigs have big storage tanks, can carry lots of batteries, solar panels, generators and more letting you stay out longer. Some have 100 gallon or larger water tanks! You can shower in the middle of nowhere with all that water.
Though these monsters are big and relatively roomy, they each have their own distinct advantages and disadvantages. To help us choose, I put together a list of features including which rig, motorhome or fifth wheel, came out on top if either did. I was actually surprised how many categories one of these rigs didn’t provide a significant advantage over the other and it came down to taste. Of course, your mileage may vary.
Size – Both are big but here the fifth wheel might edge out the class A. Were talking living space, not storage or length of combined rig. Without a cockpit, fifth wheels can have more space are a bit less “linear” in their interior design.
Storage – Here, the class A wins. Motorhomes usually have more storage. You might find this not always to be the case but these are generalities. Motorhomes usually have a “basement” under an elevated floor. Fifth wheels general don’t but often provide a large behind the hitch. But both can feature cavernous storage areas. Water and waste tanks matter but you’ll find such variability that neither option clearly wins.
Drivability – This is important but kind of a toss up. Do you want a big tow vehicle and a small trailer (toad) or a relatively smaller tow vehicle and a big trailer. Both rigs are big and cumbersome. Don’t drive into an area you aren’t positive has a room to turn around! The advantage might go to the class A because you can unhook the toad and drive it around separately if needed and that has other advantages, like scouting potential boondocking locations.
Gas Mileage – So, the truck/fifth wheel gets better mileage generally than a motorhome/toad configuration, but most miles driven will be on the truck or toad instead of the RV and generally the toad you tow will get better mileage that a big diesel pickup. Advantage class A. Of course, our choice of toad, a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, doesn’t get much better mileage that a diesel truck but currently gas is cheaper than diesel.
Setup – It’s easier to set up and take down a motorhome. With auto leveling, push a button and your done, more or less. It’s harder to detach and hitch up the fifth wheel and they might need support under the front end as well. Class A gets the nod but neither are especially hard, especially when compared to other options. Don’t get me started on tent trailers!
Cost – OK, here’s where things get muddy. With all the used rigs out there and the variability of toads you might want to tow, who knows? But lets talk apples to apples. A new fifth wheel costs less than a comparable motorhome, a lot less, because your not buying the drive train. A typical small SUV you might tow costs significantly less than the big pickup you need to haul a fifth wheel. Together, the fifth wheel/truck combo is less expensive generally but as soon as you get into the used market, who knows what you might find. Deals abound.
Maintenance – Fifth wheel is the clear winner. Both rigs have the same general RV systems (water, electrical, generators, etc.) so that’s wash. But the motorhome/toad combo has two engines and drive trains to maintain versus one in the truck/fifth wheel combo. Plus, when your motorhome is in the shop, you may not be able to live in it. You can live in the fifth wheel when the pickup is in the shop and that can save some money, though it’s not a major concern.
Second Vehicle – Fifth wheels require big trucks to haul them. Generally 3/4 ton or larger, dual rear wheels, etc. and you don’t have much choice (Chevy, Ford or Dodge). With a motorhome, you can tow whatever you want. A car, SUV, motorcycles, classic cars, a Jeep, your Ferrari, etc. Motorhome wins.
Now there are a lot of other factors to consider but these, to us, are the important ones. We might have missed a few but after all the exhaustive analysis we’ve done, there is no clear winner. Both rigs have advantages and disadvantages. Both will serve to majority of full-time RVer’s well. It starts to come down to personal preference and needs. If you already have a big truck, a fifth wheel makes sense because you’ve already got the tow vehicle. If you want to tow a special vehicle, say a Jeep, then your only real option is a class A.
We’re opting for a class A. We like the idea of towing a smaller, more nimble vehicle, a Jeep in our case. In fact, we just bought a new Jeep so we’ve solidified that choice to some extent. We could always sell the Jeep and change our minds but we love Jeeps and we’re willing to choose our full-time RV based on that alone. That choice, however, isn’t a tough one. We like class A’s better anyway and as we’ve illustrated, either choice is a good one.
One last thing. You may have noticed I didn’t talk about the gas vs. diesel motorhome debate. I’m not touching that argument. Honestly, either is fine but gas motorhomes are less expensive usually. Obviously, fifth wheels don’t’ have engines so it’s not a concern and I’m definitely not discussing gas vs. diesel pickups. That’s an even more contentious debate. 😉 Do your research and pick what works for you.
So there you go. The major leagues. Fifth wheels and class A motorhomes. Two sides of the same coin, really. Both will serve a full-time RVer well but it really is a personal choice. Do the math, so to speak, or just go with your gut but either way you won’t go wrong. In part 4 of this series, we’ll be talking about what to look for in a full-time RV and then in part 5, the finale, it’s all about boondocking and how to choose a rig that will do that well. But before that, I’m going to show off my new Jeep and talk about why Jeeps are the toad of choice for many RVer’s.