It’s All About the Layout

When I look back on all the decisions we have made as full timers, I definitely believe our decision to buy our particular RV was the best one.  Fours years after our purchase we are still really happy with our choice, and I thought I would write a little bit about that for those folks who are in the planning stage, or maybe thinking about purchasing a new rig.  I want to preface this post by saying that I am not promoting any particular type.  The discussions about what is “best” are numerous on the internet, and I personally I think most of those dialogues miss the point.  You won’t find an answer to “Class A versus fifth wheel?” in this post.  (The answer is: 5th wheel. – Lee) And I won’t be delving into new versus used.  (New. – Lee) My take on it is: buy what you can afford and like, and everything else is secondary.  So in that spirit, here are some things I believe you should keep in mind when making your selection.

Layout, Layout, Layout

More than any other factor I believe the layout of the livable space should drive your choice.  You might have the fanciest RV on the planet, or the most structurally sound, but if you can’t walk around in the interior space and feel comfortable, what’s the point? If your RV is someplace you hang out in part-time this may be less of an issue, but for those of us who live in these spaces full time, it’s a very big deal.  Especially because as much as you might think you will be outside most of the time (and we definitely thought that), for most people I know that is really not the case.  For one thing, no matter how much you like to chase the beautiful weather there are still cold/rainy days, and for another you still need a space to take care of life stuff, and you should think about those types of activities when looking at your floor plan. Where will I pay my bills, cook my meals, get dressed in the morning, or take a shower?  (My recommendations, in that order, are: At a desk, in the kitchen, someplace we can’t see, in the bathroom. This really isn’t as complicated as she’s making it sound. – Lee) These are all activities that will happen most days (Most days? I prefer you take a shower every day, even if I don’t. Otherwise you smell funky. – Lee)  and if you are fighting the space it will make them less pleasant.

Along those lines I would also think about the types of indoor activities you like to do for fun and what that looks like in the space.  If you spend a ton of time on the computer, think about desk space.  Like to watch TV? Where will you be sitting, and how big is the screen? Love to craft? Will you have enough space to work in? You get my point.  You should also think about how much you want to entertain, or have people come and stay with you.  What does the space look like with four people in it, or six or ten?  Trust me it is MUCH different than with two, and you should think that through before buying, unless you aren’t planning on having many people inside, in which case don’t worry about it.

Finally, please keep in mind that as nice as our “luxury condos on wheels” are, under the wrong circumstances it can be a very small space.  We are currently living in 400 square feet, and although most of the time that works just fine, there are days where we are just getting on each other’s nerves, and everything feels tight and cramped. Being able to sit outside absolutely helps in those cases and also using the bedroom as a separate place to hang out during the day.  Thankfully those days aren’t the norm, but they do happen, and that was absolutely a major factor when we bought our rig.

Storage

Everything is a trade off in an RV, and as much as many of us strive for a minimalist lifestyle we all still have stuff.  And you really need to think about where that stuff will go.  Clothes, dry goods (including spices), pots and pans, etc are all items that have to go somewhere, and there are limits to what people are willing to go without.  The same goes for the items that can fit in your basement, so try to be realistic about what you can bring with you.  Cabinet space is key here, because although you can get creative with capturing unused space or adding new cabinets, to a large extent you are stuck with what you buy.  Think about where specific things will go, and take that into account when making your purchase.

When it comes to this topic you also have to think about weight.  Most full timers are really good at fitting a ton of stuff into a pretty small space, but almost all of us (in fifth wheels at least) struggle with being slightly overweight.  Each RV has specific ratings and just because you can find the space for an item you can’t necessarily take on the additional weight. In all fairness this one is really tough during the buying process, because folks generally don’t know how much their stuff weighs.  My take on this was to get as much storage space as I could without giving up the layout I wanted.  Speaking of which, I wanted to specifically mention outside TVs/kitchens here.  I know some people love them, which of course is fine, but many people have them in their RV and never use them.  That space has to come from somewhere, and giving up that much room for features that you might rarely use is something to think about. Most RV’s are designed for the weekend user/tailgater and some really cool features have limited appeal for a full timer.  Again, some folks love their outside TV’s and use them frequently, but we intentionally chose a model that didn’t have that feature because we knew we would never use it. Just something to think about.

Driveable vs Towable

I think most people make this decision first (we certainly did) and then move on from there, but in retrospect I don’t recommend that.  We know people who live happily in all kinds of RV’s and many who have live in multiple kinds.  There are offsetting pluses and minuses to each kind, and unless you have a very specific reason to prefer one over the other I would look at layout and storage first and then decide. During our original search I completely rejected Class A’s early on because they felt claustrophobic to me but have since been in several that I think I could definitely live in. Given our budget it is unlikely that we would have chosen something different, but I wish we had spent more time looking at them because who knows. (On the flip side, I desperately wanted a Class A when we started talking about this, but as soon as I started looking at them I completely changed my mind. I haven’t been inside one yet that I personally would be willing to live in. – Lee)

What I am cautioning against here is saying in your mind I absolutely have to have one or the other, especially if you are making that decision because you like someone else’s rig.  That’s human nature of course to see something someone else has and want it, but wanting something and living with it are two different things.  As much as possible, go into your choice with a blank slate, which I know can be tough, especially if you have lots of RVing experience. And I am not saying ignore what you know about yourself from previous camping, but recognize that casual use and living full time are two different things.  This was the one area where I actually think our lack of knowledge was a huge benefit.  But even with minimal experience, I closed my mind off to certain options early on and in retrospect that changed things.

Manufacturer

Lee might put this as the number one thing to look at, and in all fairness the two items above don’t mean anything if you don’t have a solid foundation, but I am not 100% sure a truly solid foundation exists.  All RV’s have issues and few of them hold up to the amount of use full timers put them through.  Whether you bought a used RV for $10K or a $250K version sooner or later you are going to have a mechanical failure.  If you are a handy person, you should definitely think about whether or not you can work on your own RV and what that looks like, but if you can’t then you should think about the manufacturer.  The problem is the RV industry is in constant flux and companies frequently go out of business or are bought out.  We personally know someone who was having a new rig built and during the build the company was bought out and a whole new crew came in and that had an actual impact on the build of their rig, and we know another person who owned a rig and the company went out of business two years later. Our original manufacturer, Open Range is now owned by Heartland Ridge and we have seen a difference in customer service since that happened.

Even if the company stays under the same ownership they won’t necessarily be helpful after the two year manufacturer’s warranty expires.  We had a suspension problem issue 10 days after ours expired and were flat out told we were out of luck.  This is where an extended warranty can be very beneficial, and I highly recommend one, but then of course you are trying to find good service centers while traveling, which for us at least has been a challenge.  My point here is many people seem to care about the name brand on the rig and that’s fine, but I wouldn’t give up layout or storage to get a specific manufacturer.  That’s just me though, as there are folks who swear by specific brands and if that really matters to you, fair enough.  Just please don’t think that will solve everything.

I would also add here to not be afraid of used.  We decided pretty early that we wanted something new and if we had to do it again I am not sure I would go that route.  We have met several people who bought wonderful “gently used” rigs and I think it would be fun to remodel one to my own specifications.  Yes, you run the risk of buying someone else’s problems, but since we stipulated all RV’s have issues, at least you theoretically have all the money you saved to address them when they occur. (I do not agree with this. While it’s possible to go over a used rig with a fine toothed comb to suss out any potential issues, for me I would never be comfortable with something used, no matter how gently. I would always be waiting for something to go wrong.  Also, other’s people cooties will be all over everything. – Lee)

Colors/Wood Tone

I know this is largely cosmetic, but it also the first thing you notice when you walk into someone else’s rig.  The wood tone/colors do matter, especially in a living space.  Darker tones can make the small space feel oppressive (at least to me) and lighter tones may not hold up well to extended use.  To this day one of my favorite parts of my rig is the color of the wood and that more than anything else makes the space feel warm and homey.

Along these lines accent colors and wallpaper are also a factor.  If you are talented you can change those things with time and money, but most of us live with what we originally purchased with perhaps some minor changes.  Keeping that in mind be very careful about bold colors.  Short term it might be fun, but can you live with it over the long haul? I would also add the color of the furniture to this category because in this small space the furniture really stands out. You might have a really cute couch that completely matches for example, but is it comfortable?  Going back to layout, if it looks great but you never want to sit on it, at some point you will probably want to change the furniture out.  When/if that happens will you be able to match the colors or will the color scheme continue to work without those accents.  Again, things to think about, and although in a perfect world we would have both, I would pick function over style every time.

Bells and Whistles

The last category are all the cute little features that we all love.  It’s tough because when you are looking for an RV these little touches really matter, but I would never pick a rig just for one little feature.  You may love that walk-in closet, pantry,  dishwasher, washer/dryer, bathtub, etc, but if the rest of the rig doesn’t work overall you aren’t likely to be happy.  As exciting as the whole process is, try to think about the mundane and practical.  It’s not as fun, but you will be happier for it in the long run. (My approach to things like this is ignore the “shiny”, you can appreciate it later, and besides shiny wears off eventually. Look for what sucks. If you can live with what sucks, you’ll be fine. This goes for rigs, cars, dogs, houses, spouses. It covers everything. – Lee) 

So these are my thoughts on the subject.  Despite everything I just said, buy what you want.  It’s your life and you have the right to live it however you want.  (If you screw it up and make a bad decision, we will all laugh and point. – Lee) But these are a few things to think about during the process, and if it helps in the long term it was worth taking some time to write it all up. I’ve been hesitant to even come close to this issue because folks do have pretty strong feelings about it, but new year and new rules, so I thought I would give it a shot.  As always, your mileage will definitely vary, and this is all just one person’s opinion..well two people’s if Lee chimes in! (As always, I feel I have brought a certain level of somber thoughtfulness and gravitas to the discussion. – Lee)


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First Time at an RV Show

Lee and I had read so much about RV shows on the various forum that we decided to take a weekend and drive to the Hershey, PA RV Show which is one of the biggest RV show in the northeast.   I travel quite a bit for work so had some free hotel points available and the drive was only 6 hours for us, so it seemed like a fun way to see what was out there.  We have been talking about 5th wheels as the next logical step in our adventure and this would be a great way to see most of the available new models in person, plus I had read the seminars were really great and you could find neat vendor items that weren’t easily available anywhere else.    We were pretty excited (you would have thought we were kids going to Disney World) and we ended up getting up and on the road by 4 am.  The drive was fine and put us down at the park by 10:30 which was really good timing.

We bought a 3 day pass for $30, which was well worth it since we didn’t have to stand in the long line as much on Saturday and off we went.  Our strategy was to walk the aisles and look at floor plans, then pop into anything that looked interesting.  This was pretty important as the grounds were absolutely huge and walking up and down into the steps into the RV repetitively can play havoc with the knees.  We are still pretty young and in good shape, but 10 hours walking in a day is not part of our normal routine 🙂  I also am a little claustrophobic, which can be an issue when dealing with some models.  So Lee was kind enough to pop in, and then stick his head out and give me the nod if he thought it was worth going into.  This really was incredibly generous as he must have saved me the steps on at least 100 models.   We really like the floor plan where the living room is raised and in the front and we looked at this type by all the manufacturers (hence the 10 hours per day of walking) and also liked one floor plan where the rear was a living room with a door.  As we walked we realized what criteria mattered the most to us.

  • Price – we are not independently wealthy so anything above $70k was rejected out of hand (This may sound as a lot of money and certainly is, but we are considering this our vacation home and it would be tough to buy a condo in Florida for that money)
  • Weight – we are resigned to buying a larger truck but any weight over 18,000 and you are constantly watching what you carry.  I don’t want to vacation like that where you can’t boon dock in a national park because the fresh water you need weighs too much.  The models we liked were around 16,000 lbs which gives us an extra 5,000 lbs for stuff.
  • Separation – we love each other, been married for 25 years, but at times frankly we need to go to our separate corners.  Since I know in those situations Lee will grab the premium space, that leave me with the “other” area.  Unfortunately in 90% of the models this is a very small bedroom which is in front and not a great place (for me) to hang out
  • The feeling of claustrophobia.  I never realized I had an issue with this until we started looking at campers, but many models I walked in and walked right back out.  Kitchen islands for example (which are all the rage now) enhance the feeling of claustrophobia so any model with a kitchen island was out.  Low ceilings same thing, so any models with particularly low ceilings not possible.
  • Bathroom shower you can easily turn around in.  Don’t need a tub but the little seats so you can easily shave your legs a big deal.
  • Cabinet space in the bathroom.  So many models have almost none and the ones we liked had lots which was a huge plus.
  • Cabinets with full depth drawers.  I can’t tell you how many models we saw where you would see these fancy drawers and you would open them up and they would be shallow.  Made me crazy.

In short walking around was a great way to determine what really mattered and significantly reduced the choices.  We narrowed it down to 5 then 2 then finally 1.  The winner is the Open Ranger Roamer 386FLR .  Incredibly excited!!!

     

 

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Two cubbies with couches that become full beds which will be great if the girls all come to visit

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The TV hides behind the fireplace and there is a front window very rare

 

 

 

 

 

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A standard queen mattress will fit rather than a short queen.  The problem with short queens is you are stuck getting a RV specific mattress which are really expensive.

On the outside Lee loves that the propane tanks are 4 – 20# and they are on slide-out trays, the hard sewer case permanently attached and did I mention TONS of STORAGE.   We plan on trying seasonal camping next summer (leave your camper on the same site all season long) and the extra storage will allow us to avoid schlepping stuff back and forth.

In addition to seeing darn near every 5th wheel on the grounds, we also went to see some seminars.  I really enjoyed listening to the wisdom of folks who have been camping since the 1960’s and learned tons which I have shared in the lessons learned section below.  Combine all that with excellent meals at Bob Evans and Texas Roadhouse and we were VERY happy campers!!!  The only downsides were I had made arrangements to meet a couple I had “met” on RVForum.net (something I have never done before, but since every talks about meeting when they are at events together I decided to give it a try.  Despite tons of texts we were unfortunately unable to meet up which was a bummer.  Also we stayed in a Residence Inn using free points I had and it was a pretty crappy.   Normally I like Residence Inn’s but this one was not up to their usual standards.  … I should have known what I was in for when the clerk gave us room 113 on Friday the 13th 🙂  One positive thing though was I realized how much nicer it is to vacation in our camper then in a hotel and it really went a long way towards solidifying out decision.  I suppose in a way the universe was watching out for us.

Lessons Learned

Matching your truck to your trailer – Presenter Walter Cannon (on of the founders of RV Safety & Education Foundation)

  • Pulling and towing are two totally different things.  You can pull many trailers with many trucks but can you safely stop it at 70 mph??
  • GCWR = Gross Combined Weight Ratio
  • GVWR = Gross Vehicle Weight Ratio  (for a diesel truck this info is found in the diesel supplement of the owner’s manual)
  • GAWR = Gross Axle Weight Rating
  • Payload = weight trailer resting on the truck bed or hitch
  • Truck GVWR = base weight + options (ie: 4×4 weighs extra) + hitch + weight of passengers, firewood, tools, bikes, etc
  • The way I understood it (and I am by no means an expert)  the weight of a 5th wheel is essentially divided into thirds.  One third on the rear axle, one-third on the front axle, and one-third on the hitch pin (payload).   Your towing safety can be fine in one single area but not fine in another.  Indeed according to RV Safety.com, over 50% of the vehicles weighed are over weight.
  • When assessing your safety you MUST look at the weakest link and make sure ALL areas are safely rated.    RV  Safety weighs vehicles using full -time RV’ers across the country and will help provide an assessment.  In addition, we spoke to Peter from Ford at the event and he is VERY helpful in educating us about towing safety.   We met him in the safety seminar (which he used his lunch break to attend) and then talked to him later and he was absolutely amazing.    He worked with us once we picked the trailer to help us determine what Ford truck will work.  That being said, everyone (including  Walter and Peter) stated salespeople lie about this issue all the time.  Whether they are truck salespeople or RV salespeople, they often tell you the towing ratios are fine to make the sale.  The only way to be sure is to an independent source weigh both truck and front and rear of trailer and do an assessment.
  • Make sure you have a full tank of fuel when weighing the truck
  • Make sure you take into account the weight of a full tank of waste water (8 # for every gallon of waste water) and/or fresh water especially if you are planning on boon docking.
  • Finally, don’t listen to me on this.  Visit RVSafety.com and research with the experts.

Extended Living in an RV – Bob and Cheryl Marx

I was really curious as to what a “snow bird” couple would say about spending extended periods of time in an RV.  Since we are going seasonal next summer and thinking about maybe taking a two-week cross-country trip I was dying to hear the wife’s perspective.  Unfortunately Cheryl didn’t speak at all, but she did answer one-on-one questions at the end.  Some of this doesn’t apply to us, but I found it fascinating anyways and there were some awesome tips.  Well worth the hour and a half plus it was nice to sit for a while and take a break for all that walking.    

  • Prescription emergency options
  1. Local Pharmacist can mail them if they are not narcotics
  2. National chain’s will fill them in a remote location (Walmart, Walgreen, etc) as long as they are not narcotics
  • Check with the campground to see where the closest medical facilities are in case of emergency
  • Carry hard copy medical records with you if going on an extended trip.  Medical facilities will NOT accept electronic copies on a flash drive due to virus issues
  • Mail forwarding
    1. Give prepaid envelopes to a family member or neighbor and have them forward mail (cost roughly $5.50 a week
    2. Post office has a snow bird mail forwarding service $25 to sign-up and $15 a week
    3. Escapees Club out of TX offers a mail forwarding service for those folks going on extended cross-country trips
  • Every year check your RV for weight and/or clutter.  You collect things in an RV just like in your home and in such a small space it can quickly get out of control.
  • Carry different credit cards than your spouse so if either the wallet or the purse are stolen you can cancel those cards and still have access to credit if away from home.  Great tip!!!
  • Check fuel prices from state to state as state taxes can make a big difference and fill up before leaving the cheaper states even if you are not on empty.   For those who smoke the same would go for cigarettes.  Gas and cigarettes were WAY cheaper in PA than in NY so we stocked up on both prior top leaving Hershey to come home.
  • RV specific GPS’s are great.  You can type in the type of vehicle you have and it will route you accordingly and show fuel and gas stops that are appropriate to your size along the way.  Lee was looking at one of these and did not buy one, but after listening to Bob rave about his we are going to get one.
  • Check local papers for restaurant coupons if you get tired of cooking, you can get some great deals
  • Agree to driving time up front and stick to it.  If you can only drive 5 hours a day, plan your route accordingly.
  • Many people  don’t make reservations at campgrounds in advance when in “traveling” mode because they don’t want to be held to a schedule.  We are going to try that for the first time on the way back from Minnesota in a couple of weeks.  Will let you know how it goes.
  • Try to finish traveling by 2pm every day if possible.  Not only do you have a better shot at getting a prime campsite, but you miss the rush hour traffic.
  • Only use encrypted wireless for any sensitive information (ie: banking websites).  This one seems obvious but honestly never really though about it much.
  • If you want to meet people put four chairs out at your campsite.  This was a great piece o advice because if someone comes up to chat you can invite them to sit down and I guess this is camper code for let’s chat!!!

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