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The Advantages and Disadvantages
of Recreational Vehicles (RVs) and Campers

Copyright November 1, 2010 by Robert Wayne Atkins, P.E.
All Rights Reserved.



Camper During the Great Depression During hard times there is a significant increase in the number of individuals and families who seriously consider living in a Recreational Vehicle (RV) or a camper on a full-time basis.

The purpose of this short article is to provide a balanced perspective on the advantages and disadvantages of RVs and campers.

  1. RV Park Monthly Rental Fee:
    At the current time the monthly cost to park an RV or a camper in an RV park is somewhere between $350 to $500 per month depending on the park itself. This will normally include a place to park the camper, one additional vehicle, the water, the septic service, and the electricity. It will not include propane but most parks have a propane tank refilling station near the park office where you can refill your empty propane tanks for a reasonable fee. It will also not include cable TV which will be an additional expense.

    Therefore when you consider the monthly expense of parking a camper at a traditional RV park then it may make more sense for the average family to rent a small apartment instead of buying an RV or a camper. Most small apartments have significantly more space that a big camper. Until you have actually lived in an RV or a camper for an extended period of time you will probably not appreciate the difference a "little extra space" can make in your family's emotional well-being.

  2. Engine or no Engine:
    • Engine: If you purchase an RV that has an engine then you will need to add that vehicle to your insurance policy. This is usually a significant extra expense that a family should avoid during hard times.
      You would also need to keep the RV engine and the transmission serviced and that is another expense you may not be able to afford.
      When you drive your RV you will also need to tow another vehicle behind your RV so you will have something to drive when your RV is parked. This towed vehicle will significantly reduce the gas mileage of your RV.
    • No Engine: Therefore my advice is to not purchase an RV with an engine but to purchase a tow-behind camper instead. You should read your current vehicle insurance policy because a tow-behind camper may be automatically covered under your policy in the same way a tow-behind boat trailer is automatically covered and a tow-behind "U-Haul" trailer is automatically covered.

  3. Standard Tow or Fifth-Wheel Tow:
    Even if you have the option to pull a fifth-wheel camper, you should consider the standard pull behind tow campers instead. A standard tow camper has a better resale value because there are not that many individuals who have the option to pull a fifth-wheel camper.

  4. Quality of Construction and Building Materials:
    Most new campers have the same general "new" appearance. But a quality built camper will still look really nice after a few years of use. On the other hand, a cheap camper will look like trash in a very short period of time. The upholstery on the sofa will begin to ravel and holes will appear. The carpet will wear down and look terrible. The linoleum floor will have a visible path worn in it. The wall paper will begin to separate from the wall. The wood counter tops and cabinets will begin to look really used. If you take the time to look at several "used" campers before you make your investment you will quickly become very knowledgeable about the differences between good quality and bad quality campers and you will know which "brand names" to avoid. You will also be able to determine if a used camper has been taken care of or if it has been abused.

  5. Plumbing:
    I suggest you get down on your hands and knees and look at the underside of any camper you are interested in. If there have been plumbing problems or leaks then they should be readily visible on the underside of the camper. One common problem with used campers is when the previous owner did not drain the water lines at the end of a camping season (or install a special RV pink antifreeze in those water lines), and the water lines inside the camper froze and burst in several different places during the winter months.

  6. Sleeping Accommodations:
    The most important feature of a camper is its bedding. Each person in your family will need a "permanent bed" that is big enough for that individual. No one in your family should have to sleep on a "convertible bed." A convertible bed is a kitchen table or a sofa during the day, and a "make shift bed" at night. You would not believe how uncomfortable a "make shift bed" is until you actually try to sleep an entire night on one of them. After one night you will have nothing nice to say about a camper convertible bed. Therefore please don't force someone in your family to sleep on one of those pitiful excuses for a bed. Instead, look for a camper that has enough permanent full-time beds for each member of your family.

    When you look at those permanent beds think seriously about how a person is going to enter and exit the bed, and how a person is going to change the sheets on that bed. You should personally lie down on every bed in the camper to test its comfort yourself. Each mattress should be in one piece and not two or three pieces that you push together to form a "make shift mattress." A bunk twin mattress should be at least three inches thick (four or more inches is preferred). If the camper mattress is unacceptable then you should measure the mattress itself and determine if it could be replaced with a standard twin mattress (38" x 74"), or full mattress (54" x 75"), or queen mattress (60" x 80"). Most camper "twin bunk" mattresses are 28" x 74" or smaller, and most camper "queen" mattress are 60" x 76" (four-inches shorter than a regular queen mattress). Therefore in most situations your only option would be to purchase a "new" camper mattress at a very high price from a RV dealer.

    If each person has his or her own permanent full-time bed then that person could lie down at any time for any reason in his or her own bed. If you deprive anyone in your family of this simple basic right then you will have seriously compromised that person's future happiness and well-being.

  7. Extended Slide Space:
    Some campers have one or more areas that slide out from the camper when it is parked. These slide spaces are pulled into the camper while traveling but extended when parked. If you are going to live full-time inside a camper then one or more of these extended slide areas will make a significant improvement in your overall enjoyment of your camper.

  8. Bath or Shower:
    Some campers have a small bath tub and some campers only have a stand-up shower. Some campers have the shower above a sit-down toilet. Even if you take a shower 99% of the time, I strongly recommend a camper with a separate small tub. The small tub will also have a shower head so you can still take a shower if you prefer, but it will also allow you to take a normal bath. For example, if you need to soak an arm or a leg in some really warm water, then being able to sit in a warm tub of water suddenly becomes a necessity and not a luxury. During a serious hard times event the tub could also serve as a convenient place to hand wash your clothes and bed sheets. You could hang a short clothesline above the center of the tub and you could hang your wet clothes so they could drip dry into the tub itself.

  9. Laundry:
    Most campers do not have a washing machine or clothes dryer. Even if you find a camper with a washing machine most RV parks will not allow you to use that washing machine because it will quickly fill up the small septic tank that you attach your camper's flexible drain hose to. Therefore you should be prepared to do your laundry once a week in a nearby coin Laundromat.

  10. Kitchen:
    Although each camper will have a slightly different kitchen arrangement, almost all of them include a table that will sit four people, a sink with two basins, a propane oven and top burners, a microwave oven, and a refrigerator. Due to space constraints the one thing that is usually missing is kitchen counter space. Therefore if you can find a camper with an open kitchen counter where you can prepare food then this will significantly enhance your enjoyment of your camper. Campers with slides in the center normally have a little more open counter space than campers without slides.

  11. Entertainment:
    Regardless of what type of entertainment sound system your camper has, the chances of your using it very often are pretty slim unless you live by yourself. The sound is normally transmitted to a speaker in each major living area and that means everyone has to listen to the same thing. Therefore, in my opinion, a more reasonable option would be to provide each member of your family with their own individual portable entertainment equipment with ear phones. This would allow each person the opportunity to be entertained in a manner that was most enjoyable to that person without interfering with anyone else. In addition, a flat screen Television and a small DVD player could both be permanently and securely mounted onto a wall across from the sofa. By mounting the Television on the wall you may be able to reclaim a small amount of counter space.

    (Note: One practical use for this reclaimed counter space would be for a stainless steel gravity fed water filter system, such as the AquaRain. You could pour water into the top filter compartment and later remove pure drinking water from the lower compartment. This could help to prevent a variety of potential health problems that might be in the water supply at the RV park where you are staying.)

  12. Air Conditioning:
    The air conditioning unit will be on the roof. The air conditioning vents will be in the ceiling of each room inside the camper. If possible, you should consider climbing a ladder and looking at the roof of the camper. While you are on the roof you will be able to clearly see the current condition of everything up there, including the roof vents above the bedroom and bathroom, the vent pipes for the water tanks, and the two antenna systems.

    While you are on the roof I suggest you gently touch the roof vents and the other plastic pieces to determine their condition. These items sometimes look like they are almost new but they may crumble or crack or fall apart when you give them a very gentle push because they were cheaply made and they could not withstand the sun and the freezing weather.

    (Note: In my opinion, during a hard times event it might make more sense to install several small 12-volt fans inside your camper for comfort instead of using the air conditioner.)

  13. Heat:
    Most campers are heated with propane. The heat vents are located in the floor of each room inside the camper. Depending on the outside temperature, the propane heater may use a significant amount of fuel during the winter months. The reason is because most RVs and campers are not very well insulated. Heat is lost through the windows, through the ceiling, and through the walls. And cold air drifts up from the floor and from around the doorway. One small electric space heater can improve the situation if your camper is properly wired to support the 1,500 watt load of one of these small heaters. However, they do consume a lot of power when in operation. If you try to install two or more of these electric space heaters then you will either overload and flip your camper circuit breakers, or you may catch the wiring inside your camper walls on fire which will quickly burn your camper to the ground. Therefore please resist the temptation to heat your camper with more than one portable electric heater.

    On way to reduce your winter heat loss is to install inflatable roof vent spacers inside the interior roof vents in the bedroom and in the bathroom. These inflatable roof vent spacers may be purchased at many RV dealers. The disadvantage of these spacers is that they completely block the roof vent which will eliminate all the exterior light and therefore they will darken any room or bathroom in which they are installed. This may be an advantage in a bedroom but it will probably be a disadvantage in a bathroom.

    Traditional Camper (Too Tall)
  14. Height:
    There are two height considerations as follows:
    • Inside Ceiling Height: The inside of the camper should be at least 6.5 feet from the floor to the ceiling. If you can find a camper with 7 feet of clearance from the floor to the ceiling you will probably "feel" more comfortable and less confined than a camper with a lower ceiling. The disadvantage is that it will cost a little more to heat this extra 6-inch space above your head. The advantage is that you will gain a little more space inside all your wall cabinets and all your closets.
    • Exterior Height: Carefully look at the total overall height of the camper. Most campers are constructed very low to the ground and you only have to climb one or two folding steps to enter the camper. However, other campers, such as the one in the picture on the right, are built on a frame high off the ground above the wheels and you have to climb three or four steps to enter the camper. These taller campers can be more challenging to park in some RV parks because of low hanging tree branches. They also have a much higher center of gravity which makes them more challenging on a curve at normal highway speeds. Finally, they will not fit under the roofs of some gasoline station refueling areas. Therefore I personally recommend that you do not purchase a tall camper that has its floor frame above the wheels. Instead you should look for a camper where the wheels take up some of the space inside the camper below the sofa, or kitchen table, or kitchen sink.


Conclusion

Before you invest in an RV or a camper you should consider how practical it would be for your specific situation. Please don't entertain "romantic notions" of how you are going to just love a more primitive life style inside a camper. After two or three days all your romantic notions will be replaced with the cold hard facts of reality and at that time you will probably dearly wish you had never invested your money in the camper.

A camper would not be as safe as an apartment or a home during a serious hard times tragedy event. A camper is very easy to break into and the thin walls of the camper will not provide any real protection from someone on the outside who decides to vent his or her rage on your family by shooting your camper full of holes.

Therefore, even though I wrote the above article to provide some practical things for you to consider, my personal conviction is that most families would probably be better advised to rent a small apartment during a hard times event.

On the other hand, if you have close relatives who live on a farm in a rural area, and they will allow you to park your camper for free on their property, and you can hook your camper up to their water and electrical systems for a small reasonable monthly fee, then a camper may be a viable option for a small family, or for a single person. However, you would still need to figure out how you are going to properly dispose of your waste water.



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