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Advantages and Disadvantages of RV Towing

That crowd of drifters you fell in with taught you the value of an RV.
That crowd of drifters you fell in with taught you the value of an RV.
Steve Shepard/iStockPhoto

Back when you were a traveling salesman, before you fell in with that crowd of drifters, you were perfectly satisfied with riding around in a comfortable car. You'd spend your evenings in anonymous motel rooms, watching local newscasts and noting the predictable similarities among the anchors. It's certainly one way to travel, but the road can offer so much more.

The drifters taught you the joys of driving and sleeping in the same place. The caravan of RVs you moved along with, like so much dust on the highway, was filled with campers of all types: motor homes, camper tops, fifth wheels, old Gulfstreams, travel trailers, converted buses, VW vans. You learned that living in a moving home is what it means to be free.

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Now that you're reunited with your family, you want to share that freedom with them. Your once-incredulous spouse can see -- finally! -- the importance of touring the great wide world as a family. And now you're happily shopping around for the perfect RV. But, what kind of RV works best?

Should you go with a motor home or a towed RV? Of course, there's are sub questions that fall into this category; for example, if you choose a motor home, should you go for the Class A, B or C? Or, if you opt for a pull-behind RV, is a travel trailer or a fifth wheel right for your needs?

We're not going to get into all of that here. Instead, this article will look at the pros and cons (or, as the title suggests, advantages and disadvantages) that towed RVs offer over motorized recreational vehicles. We'll help you get confidently back on the road again.

Need to get to town for groceries? Just unhook your fifth wheel and go!
Need to get to town for groceries? Just unhook your fifth wheel and go!
Sebastian Iovannitti/iStockPhoto

Before we begin to deflate your dream of purchasing a towed RV, let's take a look at the advantages they offer over motor homes. There are several, and perhaps the most important one is mobility.

When you make camp and realize you could use a few supplies for dinner, you need only unhitch and stabilize your towed RV to gain the freedom of an unfettered vehicle. A motor home can afford this same mobility, but requires you tow a separate car for quick trips; it's kind of like putting the cart before the horse.

In this same vein, travel trailers offer better gas mileage. While having the added weight of a fifth wheel or travel trailer in tow will lower any vehicle's gas mileage, a fuel-efficient truck will still generally get more miles per gallon than motor homes, especially Class A motor homes. A new model of this largest and most expensive type of motor home usually gets 10 miles per gallon. This can drop to about five miles per gallon with a used, 10-year-old Class A coach [source: RV Trader].

Towed RVs also offer a leg up over motor coaches in the realm of maintenance. If a travel trailer or fifth wheel requires maintenance, you need only drop it off at the dealership and leave the dealership in your coach vehicle. Since a motor home is both coach vehicle and RV, you're out of luck on both fronts if it needs maintenance. There's little to do except wait around the mechanic's shop and hope they have fast hands. If the motor home requires overnight repairs, you'll have to stay at a hotel -- probably one within walking distance of your mechanic's shop.

Cost is also a major advantage towed RVs have over motor homes. The bill from the mechanic in the last paragraph would likely run you much more if you own a motor coach, since it has an engine (and thus, more moving parts that require maintenance and replacement). Since they aren't motorized, both travel trailers and fifth wheels also cost less than most kinds of motor homes.

This lack of an engine also means designers of towed RVs can maximize space, allowing for more room families to sleep and hang out comfortably. Most of the space in typical motor homes is consumed by the engine and the cabin. Because of this, purchasing a motor home means you have to shell out more money for more space, or simply go without a little elbow room.

Hold on: It's not time to rush out and purchase a fifth wheel or travel trailer yet. Read the next page to learn about a few disadvantages of a towed trailer before you buy.

A neat set up for a travel trailer, sure. But with a generator, it would be super cold inside.
A neat set up for a travel trailer, sure. But with a generator, it would be super cold inside.
Jorn Tomter/Getty Images

Now you know about some of the benefits a towed RV, but fifth wheels and travel trailers aren't all roses and chicken soup. There are a few drawbacks you should be aware of before investing in a towed RV.

One of the biggest disadvantages of RV towing is the separation between vehicle and trailer. Whether you're towing a travel trailer or a fifth wheel, your coach and your RV are connected only by a hitch, and this raises a few potential problems. For example, if your RV is the subject of an attempted burglary, all you need to do is drive off. This is an advantage a motor home has over both a towed RV and a fixed house. (It's fairly difficult to move your house when someone is attempting to break in.) If your towed RV is being broken into, you'll have to exit the RV to get to your coach vehicle and make your getaway.

The separation between RVs and coach vehicles also becomes painfully apparent during bathroom breaks. With a motor home, traveling needn't come to a screeching halt to accommodate a tiny bladder. Since a towed RV is connected to the coach vehicle by only the trailer hitch, a passenger who needs to use the restroom would be forced to climb out of a window of the coach vehicle while it's traveling and shimmy back to the RV (and hope it's unlocked) to use the bathroom without stopping. HowStuffWorks -- and all other sane entities -- strongly recommends you not allow this aboard your RV.

Climate control can be another issue with towed RVs. When in tow, a fifth wheel or travel trailer is an empty shell, subject to external temperatures. Since climate control features are turned off during travel, a family can find a towed RV hot and stuffy or terribly cold inside on arrival, depending on the weather. Until the RV gets hooked up to an external generator and given a little time to cool off or heat up, tow travelers may find it best to hang out in the coach vehicle.

Travel trailers can be towed by any vehicle capable of towing the RV's weight. All that's required is a ball hitch to connect the trailer to the coach vehicle. Fifth wheels offer a greater challenge, since they require a special connection to the pick-up truck's bed. This offers more stability and control when towing fifth wheels, but it also means you have to purchase a pick-up if you don't already have one, and must invest in a costly hitch for the bed of the pick-up. What's more, because of the weight of most fifth wheels, not just any pick-up will do. You'll need a heavy-duty truck to tow it.

The need for a coach vehicle can also pose a disadvantage for towed RVs. The added weight can cause sway if improperly distributed. While motor homes --especially Class A coaches -- can be difficult to drive at first, they can't sway since there's no hitch to act as a joint between coach and RV.

Have a better handle on what you want? Pile your family into your RV and hit the road once more. Maybe you'll even cross paths with your drifter friends. You can also click to the next page to find even more resources on towing and other related topics.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Brown, Jerry. "Tow-able choices: travel trailer vs fifth wheel." New RVer. Accessed October 23, 2008. http://www.newrver.com/TTvs5er.shtml
  • Fairview, Frank. "4.5 secret reasons to buy a fifth wheel as your RV." Ezine Articles. June 4, 2007. http://ezinearticles.com/?4.5-Secret-Reasons-to-Buy-a-Fifth-Wheel-as-Your-RV&id=592515
  • "Choosing a full-time RV." Mac and Chris.com. Accessed October 23, 2008. http://www.macandchris.com/WhichRV.htm
  • "Everything you wanted to know about RVing." Poulsbo RV. Accessed October 23, 2008. http://poulsborv.com/custompage.asp?pg=faq
  • "The advantages and disadvantages of different RVs." Online RV Trader Blog. October 22, 2008. http://www.online-rvtrader.com/blog/the-advantages-and-disadvantages-of-different-rvs/
  • "Why choose a Class A RV over all other types." Bus For Sale Guide. Accessed October 23, 2008. http://busforsaleguide.com/a_choice.htm

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