Wednesday, November 15, 2006

choosing a rig

(I came back to this entry in November 2012 and rewrote some of it based on what I’ve learned over the years living this lifestyle.)

One thing that holds some back is the initial cost. Go small. If you enjoy the outdoors, most of the time you will be outside—so why the big rig? You are not going to be in it all that much. A 17’ or 19’ trailer is plenty for a single person and 22-24’ will be comfortable for a couple. For camping, bigger is NOT better. And when you are in the rig, you’ll generally just be sitting down in your favorite spot. And surely you do not need a big rig so that you can haul more STUFF?!

Most start off with a rig way bigger than they need. If contemplating a large rig, be aware of all the complicated systems on board. There is more potential for problems and higher maintenance costs. It just seems there will be more time spent working on the rig or having the work done in a shop—fix this, fix that (while spending money). If you truly enjoy being out in Nature, the big rigs are pretty restrictive. No way are you going to get one down the narrow dirt roads and under low hanging tree branches, let alone double tracks getting to secluded spots. The smaller rigs open up vast areas for camping, exploring, and solitude. The various systems are fewer and less complicated leaving one with more time to be outside. Get away from the need to tinker with the rig as much as possible.

But you also do not want to buy a rig too small. Two people in a 17’ trailer is not going to work. For vacations or merely out on-the-road for a couple of months, it could be fun and people make it work. But for full-timing, forget it (in my most humble opinion). People do it, though, for one reason or another. I wonder how many finally bag full-timing or move to a slightly larger rig. I’ve seen a few small rigs that two people were living in—the trailers were pretty much stuffed (probably overloaded); two had a piddly, little table; the tow vehicles were jammed with bins and bags; three of the tow vehicles had roof racks; and two even had a cargo carrier hanging on a receiver on the back of the trailer. BUT, they all had a TV! Crammed and overloaded. Good grief. I need some elbowroom, not much, but definitely some. And a decent table (that is always up). Different strokes.

BUY USED. A new RV looses 40% of its value in 3-5 years so one’s payments do not even keep up with depreciation. A BIG waste of money. There’s nothing wrong with a three to five year old RV and you will be saving thousands or tens of thousands that can then be used for actual living. Besides, one can get into this lifestyle years sooner if you go ‘used’ rather than ‘new.’ Remember that many do not use their RV all that much, maybe 60 days a year—a two or three week vacation and weekends, especially after the first or second year when the novelty of a new RV wears off. So a 5 year old rig might not have all that much wear and tear. Another reason for buying secondhand is it can be hard to predict what you're really going to want until you're actually living on the road. The first year or so is a learning experience, so you might be enjoying the lifestyle but realize that you want a different type of rig: a class ‘B’ or ‘C’, or a different size trailer. My trailer and tow vehicle only cost me $11,000. Not much of an investment at all for getting into a new lifestyle. Remember, one of the best ways to save money is not to spend it. And if you find out that this lifestyle is not what you had anticipated, much less of your money will be tied up and much less of it will be lost when you bag it. An expensive first RV can easily become an expensive, and discouraging, first mistake.

If you will be using the RV year round, be sure to get a 4-season unit or at least one with good insulation. The small fiberglass trailers with just a little foam stuck behind the wall and ceiling covering are 3-season units. They work okay, however, if you hook up to electricity during the winter months. I’ve been staying in state parks in the winter and hook up to power for 2 or 3 months and dry camp the rest of the time. With power, I run a small ceramic heater. There are a number of ways to dry camp somewhat comfortably in a poorly insulated unit during cold weather without constantly running the furnace. You just don’t want to go into your first winter at the bottom of the learning curve. I only spent $7,000 on my trailer so I was not expecting all that much but if you are going to spend two or three times that amount, be sure to get a well insulated unit with some type of thermal windows

I’m not a big fan of sliding windows, especially on trailers that do not have rain gutters over the windows to keep rain from coming in. If it’s hot and starts to rain, you have to close the windows unless you have window awnings. Not good. I prefer windows that tip out from the bottom for venting and shedding rain. Unfortunately sliding windows are the norm. If one has an electric hookup, it’ll be less of a problem but for campers off the grid, it can get toasty inside the rig. Be sure to install a 12V fan for times like this and hope the rain doesn’t last too long. I like to have my windows open so my next trailer will have windows I can keep open when it’s raining.
If you get a small rig, look for one with large windows. That’s one thing I really like about the Casita. If I am working at the back table, I sit on a stool facing aft and there is more window area to the sides and in front of me than wall area. It’s almost like working outside. Something I can’t generally do during the winter months. So, keep windows in mind while looking for a rig. I see rigs way bigger than mine and they have smaller windows. Unreal. If you will primarily be RVing you won’t want large windows since you will be staying in RV, state, national parks and the like. Looking out your windows will only give you views of RVs. The windows will have day/night shades for a hazy look of the outside. If you will primarily be disperse camping with no one around and views of wildlife and stellar scenery—go for big windows. I know, this probably negates a 4-season rig. But a well-insulated rig might be enough. I wonder if they have double-pane RV windows in large sizes.
Some stay away from aluminum wall studs, saying that the metal transfers cold in from the outside, as opposed to wood studs. I can’t see it as being that big a factor but I don’t have any education in this area so it’s just my opinion. I like the lightness of aluminum and think the metal construction would hold up better than wood over the years, as well as over thousands of miles of dirt roads. Again, this is merely my most humble opinion. (^_^)

I don’t regret starting off with a used 17’ Casita. But I’ve learned quite a bit having lived this lifestyle for a few years. If I knew then what I know now, I would have chosen a more practical trailer. Possibly an 18’ aluminum framed trailer with a slant front. I don’t particularly like the standard interior layout with a built in bed under the slanted front but I could live with it (or possibly make some changes to it). A key feature that a rig like this would have is insulation. I had insulation in my first two rigs and I surely do miss it in the Casita. I would have to research small, well-made trailers and check out manufacturer ratings before making a final choice. I’d also look mostly at northern manufacturers since they tend to make better-insulated rigs. Tom, someone who checks out my blog from time to time, emailed me that Artic Fox are 4-season trailers worth looking into. Thanks Tom. I looked at the Northwood site and the trailers sure seem to be well constructed for 4-season use. They discontinued their 19’ model, however, and presently their smallest model is 22’. Guano, a bit too long for me, but we’ll see. I read an article on a business site and learned that Northwood also owns Outdoors RV Manufacturing. Outdoors RV has some awesome rigs, including two 18 footers, the Back Country 18F and the Creek Side 18CK. If I were going for a 22–24 footer, I’d be in heaven!

Standard trailers are a foot wider than the fiberglass trailers so they feel much roomier inside (well, that’s a dumb statement since they ARE roomier). The 22’ (8’6”) Arctic Fox is 22” wider than the Casita (6’8”). This might compensate for the smaller window-to-wall ratio. These trailers also have a good deal more ground clearance than the small fiberglass trailers even when a fiberglass one is ordered with the extra clearance option (which is generally only about an inch or two [like why bother]). I’d like my next trailer to have leaf springs mounted over the axle and an off-road chassis. My Casita is proving to be too restrictive for my lifestyle. The roads I prefer are not maintained so ground clearance is much more of an issue to me than to most.
I’ve been on unimproved roads that I just could not get up with my trailer’s low ground clearance. I could have gotten up these same roads with a longer trailer that had decent ground clearance. Then I’ve been on narrow, twisty, rutty roads that there is no way I could have gotten up them with a longer trailer. Sometimes it’s ground clearance and sometimes length of trailer is the limiting factor. Other times it’s overhead clearance. More often than not (in my experience), one can get further in with say a 20-24’ trailer if it’s leaf springs are mounted over the axles. Then again, this is for my lifestyle. For most, hardly any of this would be an issue. Hey—just toss a coin.

I also like the Bambi by Airstream because I’ve always thought Airstreams had panache (I like having a rig that’s ‘different’). But even a 10 year old Bambi is still around $18,000. I’d seriously consider getting one if they were not riveted. A riveted trailer is not the best for primitive roads (although it’s easy replacing broken rivets). Besides rivets, I would not want another trailer with carpeting on the floor, let alone on the walls and ceiling. Good grief, what a dumb idea, and not just because I do not like vacuuming walls and ceiling. I also have no use for an A/C. I don’t do campgrounds in hot weather. I disperse camp and set up in the shade at altitude. If you do primitive campgrounds, remember you will have to run a generator for your A/C and you can get some scowls from campers who had been enjoying the quiet.
I also don’t want a slide-out. Sometimes I’m dry camping when temps go down into the teens and single digits. Slide-outs are not all that well insulated with a potential for leaks around the seals. RVers spend a lot of time in their rigs so they want slide-outs. If you’re primarily a camper, think twice.

I remember when I was getting into this lifestyle and was weighing the pros and cons of different rigs. It had to be somewhat small to get down dirt roads and under overhanging branches. The getting under overhanging branches kind of nixed getting a truck camper. They are too high (and a popup was not an option for a year-round camper). I would also have trouble living with the tiny windows. Some pull a vehicle behind a class C but I did not want two engines and two transmissions to deal with. Sometimes I stay at a camping spot for 2, 3 or 4 weeks. During that time I might have to make a run for supplies. With a small trailer, I can leave camp set up. With a class B or B+, I’d have to secure the inside of the rig for the road. If I had a class B, I would probably have a rugged, high-clearance 6’x6’ flatbed trailer built and sitting on LT tires. This would be for water jugs, a mountain bike, ladder, table, cat cage, and one or two large tubs with miscellaneous stuff. I would leave this trailer chained to a tree whenever I had to make a town run (probably).

For some, another option is a toy hauler, but not for hauling an ATV. Consider using the space for whatever you are into: music studio, jewelry or craft bench, woodworking, or storage for bulky, light-weight interests such as remote control planes.

It seems more people are going back to choosing trailers over 5th wheels; mostly campers but even RVers are moving that way. Trailers might not be as popular as 5th wheels but many who have a pickup don’t want to give up the back of the truck just to haul an RV. Trailers are also 2 to 3' lower than 5th wheels so there’s more overhead clearance if you are going camping in the woods. Trailers track just fine with a weight distribution or sway bar. With only a 17’ trailer, I’ve never experienced a situation when I wished I had one (even one night when I had to do a mega swerve around a black cow in the road!). Then again I redistribute the inside load before hitting the road. If I had a 22’ trailer, I would consider getting a weight distribution bar. Unlike towing a 5th wheel, one has a choice of tow vehicles for a trailer: a van, SUV, or pickup. This is good. I’ve had a 5th wheel and two trailers. I’m a trailer person. Well, that is, unless a god bestows an EarthRoamer on me.

Do not blow off the idea of a trailer just because you have never backed one up and think it will be too difficult. I’m not a fan of the ‘can’t do, give up’ mindset. An hour’s practice in a parking lot with the lines and two small soccer cones will have you feeling like you’re hot sh*t. Instead of soccer cones, one can cut 2 or 3 tennis balls in half with a hack saw and use the bright half-spheres as markers. Maybe you can even have the previous owner tow the trailer to a parking lot for you and give you a quick lesson. I’m sure there are all kinds of information on the web for backing a trailer. Probably even some videos on youtube. While practicing, be aware of how much you turn the steering wheel relates to how sharp the trailer turns. Some people find it easier to place one hand at the 6 o’clock position on the steering wheel when backing a trailer. Then you move your hand in the direction you want the trailer to go, rather than opposite. Whatever one is most comfortable with (If you’ve had a sailboat with a tiller, you’re good to go). One hour in the parking lot—and the confidence will be there. Also, don’t let the idea of setting-up and hitching the trailer put you off. Once you’ve been through it a couple times, you’ll be an ace. I could email you the steps but I’m sure this is also covered on various web sites. Always chock the wheels before unhitching and be sure the block under the hitch jack is lying level. If you get into camping off-the-grid, you will rarely come across a level spot so these two things are even more important.

For those who don’t want to deal with the occasional hassle of a trailer but still want to hit the unimproved roads, there’s a 4-wheel drive Ford class B van but it’s a popup which I wouldn’t want for a year-round rig. Chinook and Tiger make 4-wheel drive campers. There are probably other 4-wheel drive rigs out there.

One might want to look into versatile recreation vehicles (VRVs). They are a bit different, but for some, they might be the best choice.

Be sure to get a rig with an awning or have one installed. Get a manual one rather than electric if you will primarily be camping. Not just for shade but it helps keep the rig cool, keeps sun from heating up the back of the fridge, and offers a stellar spot to sit outside if it’s warm but drizzly. Be sure the awning seals tight against the trailer. Some awnings (like on a Casita) are attached to the trailer in only 3 spots and the awning is supported ½” from the side of the trailer. If you are sitting outside under the awning and it is raining heavier than a drizzle, you will probably get sprayed by rainwater coming down through the gap. An awning long enough to shelter the door and a window is best. If you are out in the open, roll up the awning if you will be away from the rig for a few hours in case a high wind comes up. Also, I’ve read about RVers driving down the road and a catch or spring at the leading edge of the awning breaks, the wind catches the end of the sprung awning and pulls it nearly off the rig. Not good. Whenever I break camp, I tie a length of webbing around the forward end of the awning and it’s bracket just in case something like this happens. The old Boy Scout thing.
I rarely extend the awning completely. Generally it’s just out enough to insert the middle support rod, especially if it’s windy and sometimes it’s extended less than a yard. If it’s windy have one supporting end-rod out less than the other so the awning is at an angle. This seems to let the wind flow over the awning with less flapping of the material. If the ground is good holding soil, I’ll stake (tent pegs) the support arms vertical instead of using the brackets on the trailer wall. Mine are only riveted on and so far I’ve had to replace three of the rivets.

The tow vehicle is just as important as the trailer. Keep in mind that full-timers who tow small trailers generally do not do so with a pickup. Pickups are somewhat impractical for this type of full-timing if one is out of shape. Most have a van or an SUV since, day-to-day, it is so much easier to get to your gear. Remember half your secured stuff will be in the tow vehicle. Sure there are some who tow with a pickup but most of them had one to start with and just chose to stay with it. Even many of these people eventually switch to something other than a pickup. I wouldn’t mind having a pickup but then again I would look at climbing in and out of the back as exercise. Most others in their 60’s wouldn’t look at it this way. If you go with a pickup, be sure to get one with a crew cab so you’ll have plenty of room for gear that can easily be locked up. For power, go with at least a 5.7L V8, especially if you will be in mountains from time to time or open desert and plains with stiff headwinds. Full-timers haul a few hundred pounds more weight than vacationers. Climbing mountain roads with the 6 cylinder I started with could drop my speed down to 25-30 mph at times. Not exactly safe if there is traffic, no passing lanes, and no shoulder to pull off onto. I also do not enjoy watching the temperature gauge climb close to the red. If I’m out in the open and fighting headwinds, sometimes my maximum speed is only 40-45 mph. I generally only cruise along at 50-55 but I don’t like it when I have no power in reserve. Most of the time I liked my ’91 Jeep Cherokee but there were definitely times when I felt more power would have been way safer. I eventually moved up to an 8 cylinder. If I were strictly a vacationer, I would have stuck with the 6. I suggest getting a ¾ ton tow vehicle if you will be full-timing even if you are only pulling a 17 or 18’ trailer. You might, at some point, move up to a 20–22 footer or if you are a couple, you’ll probably want a 22-24 footer right off.
As to gas mileage, if one goes the standard, boilerplate route of racking up thousands of asphalt miles each year and seeing the standard sights, gas mileage will be a factor for you. Being a camper, I couldn’t care less about gas mileage since a good deal of my traveling is between the roads—hiking boots, trail running shoes, and mountain bike tires. I generally put less than 6,000 miles a year on my tow vehicle.

If one is gong to pretty much stick to national forest campgrounds and state and national parks, a 2-wheel drive vehicle will work fine since you will be on graded and maintained roads. If you plan on getting out to secluded off-the-grid spots, snag a sturdy, high-clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicle to get you down the backcountry dirt and sand roads. Why get a small rig if you are not going to take it where big rigs can’t go? And that brings up another reason to buy used. If you are into camping, rather than RVing, you will be going down rough roads, double tracks, and across streams. The trailer can take a beating. If you have a new rig, you might be into babying it, which will really limit your access to some of the best isolated spots.
Also, if you plan to be out in the spaces in-between, consider getting tires with a bit more aggressive tread for the tow vehicle, maybe something like BF Goodrich Rugged Trail LT tires.

After one has lived the lifestyle for a year or so, he/she will probably have a pretty good idea if one wants to stay with it and what kind of rig would work best for the lifestyle. Then, if one cannot find a used rig of a specific brand and model, I can see buying a new one. An active couple can easily live comfortably in a 22 or 24 footer. I’d seriously suggest looking into the concept of ‘simple living.’ There are a number of informative sites on the web. The concept covers all aspects of life; it’s not merely about living in a small cabin out in the woods and growing your food. The more I practice it, the more I seem to have. I’m healthy and time rich.

Be sure to have emergency road service coverage. If you pull a trailer, make sure the tow truck will take both your tow vehicle and trailer to a garage and not leave your trailer sitting there alongside the road. I’ve had good luck with the Good Sam roadside assistance plan. Except for the annual fee, I did not pay a dime the three times I’ve had the Jeep and trailer towed to a shop.
I generally make it a point to not travel the asphalt on weekends. If one needs roadside assistance, businesses tend to be very busy on Saturdays and are frequently closed on Sundays. So if you are towed on a Saturday morning, it could be Monday or Tuesday until the shop can start to work on your rig. Not too bad if there is a spot where they will let you stay in your trailer but I’m not a fan of sleeping in a parking lot.

If you get an older rig and the finish is looking kind of drab, buffing compound can bring back a good deal of the luster. Look for the gray buffing compound rather than the red. If the finish is not too bad, polishing compound should be enough. Two things to remember when using these abrasives: do less than one square foot at a time and wipe it off immediately. The work is being done as you rub them on so use some umph. These compounds do not work like waxes. If you let them dry, you’ll have streaks and you will have to do that area over again. Apply with a back-and-forth motion rather than circular and use more compound than you would think, maybe a tablespoon for each small section (the stuff is real cheap). It’s a chore so I break it down so it takes me a week to do my small trailer. Use microfiber cloths to take the compound off. Wax the trailer twice a year to protect the surface.

(February 2013 addendum - On the following pages, I wrote about researching for my next trailer, which I picked up in May of 2013 > read the December 2012 entry, “back to NM, time for a new trailer, and pdf stories;” the January 2013 entry “defroster, trailer saga, Bordeaux, story for tomorrow and not gonna settle for less;” the February 2013 entry, “my first goat, record snow fall, bottle cutter, new tunes, decided, think different, and a thanks;” and May 2013 "one trailer, two trailers, one trailer." I wrote about looking for my next trailer, which I just bought (May 2013).

How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was?
Satchel Paige