How Camper Towing Works

A family enjoys dinner outside their camper at the Antelope Valley RV Park.
A family enjoys dinner outside their camper at the Antelope Valley RV Park.
Steve Liss/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Does your idea of roughing it involve carrying a 40-pound (18-kilogram) backpack full of gear, hiking to the middle of nowhere and setting up a tent? Or do you consider a hotel without room service to be an adventure? For many of us, the answer is somewhere in between -- we enjoy travel and adventure, but we don't want to give up all the comforts of home in the process. If this sounds like you, a camper might be the perfect way to satisfy your needs.

Buying or renting a camper gives you the mobility you'd need to travel across the country. In the United States, some families use campers to take trips coast to coast, exploring various parks and sites of interest along the way. While a camper might be a hefty investment up front, in the long run using one can save you money on lodging if you travel by car often.

S­o let's say you've decided you want to buy (or rent) a camper for a trip that will take you across hundreds of miles of open road. There are many things you'll need to take into consideration before you choose a camper. For example, do you own a vehicle that has the capacity to tow a camper? If not, you'll need to buy or rent a vehicle that has the proper tow rating for the camper you want.

Campers come in all shapes, sizes and prices. Some campers are full recreational vehicles (RVs). But the campers we'll be looking at in this article are meant for towing. Some provide little more than a mobile shelter that will keep the elements off your back. On the other end of the spectrum are luxurious campers that have full bathrooms with showers, entertainment systems, fluorescent lighting, separate bedrooms and even ceiling fans. The kind of camper you use will depend on three things: your budget, how you feel about towing a large camper behind your vehicle and your desire for comfort once you get to where you're going.

We'll take a closer look at the different types of campers in the next section.


Types of Campers

Campers come in all shapes and sizes.
Campers come in all shapes and sizes.
Les Graves/Fox Photos/Getty Images

There are three main types of campers: travel trailers, folding camping trailers and fifth-wheel trailers. Within each category you can find basic models that have very few amenities to luxury models with lots of extras. Manufacturers use a range of materials when building trailers. Some use sturdier materials like aluminum and steel while others use fiberglass or plastic. The material determines both how well the camper can withstand the elements and how heavy the overall trailer will be. Let's look at each type of trailer in turn.

Travel trailers attach to a trailer hitch mounted on the back of a tow vehicle. They range from 10 to 35 feet (3 to 11 meters) in length. Many have an expandable section called a slideout. When parked, you can pull this section out to increase the living space inside the camper. Larger trailers can sleep up to eight people comfortably. Typically, travel trailers can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 [source: RV-Coach Online].

Folding camping trailers are lighter and smaller than travel trailers. While the base of a folding camping trailer is made of sturdy material, the upper walls and top of the trailer are flexible. This allows you to collapse the trailer into a compact shape before towing it to your destination. Once you reach your destination, you can expand the trailer to its full size. Some folding camping trailers are large enough for six people to share. They are less expensive than travel trailers, ranging from around $4,000 to $25,000 [source: RV-Coach Online].

The third type of camper is a fifth-wheel trailer. Fifth-wheel trailers are the hunchbacks of the camper world. The upper half of the front of the camper extends over the back of the tow vehicle -- usually a large pickup truck. The bed of the truck must have a special hitch installed -- called a fifth-wheel or gooseneck hitch -- to pull a fifth-wheel trailer. This trailer design tends to be more stable and maneuverable than other trailers. They range in price from $15,000 to $150,000 [source: RV-Coach Online].

Basic campers may only have a few amenities. But on the other side of the scale you can find features such as:

  • Electrical systems (usually 100-125 volt systems)
  • Entertainment systems (LCD televisions, DVD players, video game consoles)
  • Propane gas supply
  • Stoves and other cooking appliances
  • Refrigerators
  • Water tank systems, toilets and showers
  • Heating and air conditioning systems (usually only found in travel trailers or fifth-wheel campers)
  • Power generators
  • Ceiling fans

Let's say you've made up your mind on the kind of camper you want. What do you need to know about towing a camper before you set out on the open road? Find out in the next section.

Camper Towing Tips

A classic teardrop camper is about as simple as campers get.
A classic teardrop camper is about as simple as campers get.
Michael Westhoff/iStockphoto

Before you hook up a camper to your tow vehicle, make sure your vehicle is rated for towing. Your owner's manual should have a section that tells you how heavy -- and in some cases how large -- a load the vehicle can tow safely. Don't exceed that limit -- should something go wrong, you might not be able to claim your insurance.

When you attach the camper to the tow vehicle, make sure you connect all safety chains or lines. You'll need to hook up and check the camper's wiring. Test the brake lights and turn signals before you go on your trip.

The most important tip to remember when towing a camper is that practice makes perfect. Towing a large object can turn even the simplest of maneuvers into a tricky situation. It's a good idea to get some experience towing your camper in a large open area such as an empty parking lot before you hit the road.

Here's a short list of maneuvers you'll need to practice:

  • Making turns - If your camper is wider than your tow vehicle, you'll need to learn how to take turns without hitting the curb or crossing too far over the edge or center of the road. If you aren't careful, your camper could clip trees, signs or other objects.
  • Accelerating and braking -Towing a camper increases the mass of your overall vehicle. As the mass of an object increases, so does momentum and inertia. That means it takes more energy to accelerate and to brake. You'll need to allow yourself more time and distance when slowing or coming to a stop.
  • Backing up -Perhaps the trickiest maneuver is backing up while towing a camper. You may need to learn this skill in order to maneuver in and out of camp sites. If possible, work with another person who can direct you while you're backing up. Use hand signals to communicate with one another. When backing up, put one hand on the six o'clock position on your steering wheel. To back up in a certain direction, move your hand in that direction. Just take your time and pay attention to your surroundings.

If your camper is wider than your towing vehicle, you should invest in some towing mirrors. These mirrors either replace or extend your existing side view mirrors and give you a wider view behind you. Without these, you may not be able to detect cars approaching you from the side or the rear.

A folding camper
Dan Driedger/iStockphoto

Check the local laws before taking your camper out on the highway. Some states have very specific restrictions on towing and may require you to install towing mirrors or other safety equipment. If your travels take you into another state or country, remember to read up on their laws and regulations as well. Nothing ruins a trip quite like having law enforcement ticket you for violating traffic laws.

One thing you should always look out for w­hen towing anything is trailer sway. Trailer sway refers to the frightening scenario in which a camper or trailer begins to move left and right as you tow it. Unchecked, trailer sway can cause you to lose control of your vehicle. Using the tow vehicle's brakes or steering to get out of a sway can often make things worse. Try to avoid accelerating too quickly, particularly while going downhill. If your camper begins to sway, don't panic. Apply your camper's brakes if it has a separate brake system. Gradually come to a stop off the side of the road. That will give you a chance to see if there's something you can do -- such as shift the load inside the camper -- to reduce its tendency to sway.

Keep these tips in mind and you'll be well on your way for an exciting adventure. Happy travels, campers!

To learn more about camping and other rugged activities, explore the links on the follow page.

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More Great Links


  • Cook, Miles. "How to Tow a Trailer." Edmunds. (Oct. 13, 2008)
  • "Types of Folding Campers." (Oct. 13, 2008)
  • RV Coach Online. "Types of RVs." (Oct. 13, 2008)
  • RV for Sale Guide. "Motorhome and camper types." (Oct. 13, 2008)