How Fifth Wheel Trailers have ruined RVing
Today, about 85 percent of all RVs sold are towables. At the low end are popups and short (24 feet or less) travel trailers. Many are lightweight, cheap, and can be towed easily by the family car. What this means is that anyone of even modest means with an SUV, lightweight truck or even four-cylinder automobile can own an RV.
Camping World and many other dealers will gladly finance even the least-expensive trailer for 12 to 15 years (and 20 years on some), which is far beyond the life expectancy of most. Plenty of naive buyers fall for this, and I suspect most regret it later for reasons I have explained elsewhere.
In the RV industry, as in every other American manufacturing business, “bigger is better,” which in the RV world can also mean “more new gizmos and gadgets is better.” Every year RV manufacturers try to outdo their competitors with new features. In the process of doing so year after year, they have created “mobile homes” — vehicles as suitable for “living” as traveling. I am referring mainly to towable RVs, although luxury motorhomes fit the bill, too.
Today’s large fifth wheels and travel trailers are so comfortable they could easily be compared in how they’re used to “mobile homes” of yesteryear. The difference is that present versions can be easily moved from place to place with a pickup truck or other passenger vehicle. It was a big deal to move a mobile home: They were designed to stay in one place, and usually did.
Think about the RVs (travel trailers mostly, and early motorhomes) from the mid-20th century: They were downright primitive. Few people could live in one full-time without sacrificing most creature comforts. And few did. Oh, yes, there were trailers back then that were used as homes, and they could be easily towed from place to place. But when residents of many low-end parks became labeled “trailer trash,” the vehicles were rebranded as “mobile homes.” Today, they are known as “manufactured homes.”
Fast forward to today. Even an $80,000 fifth wheel trailer can be equipped with multiple slide-outs, a residential refrigerator, fireplace, big screen TV, outdoor kitchen, heated floors, soaking bathtubs, wine cooler, built in vacuum, washer and dryer, dishwasher and, increasingly, two bathrooms. They’re as comfortable as most traditional homes or condos — and at a fraction of the cost — and they come fully equipped with all basic appliances and furniture. And no property taxes to pay, either!
In 2016, shipments of fifth wheel trailers surpassed Class A motorhomes almost four to one. In 2017, shipments climbed to more than 4.5 to one. In January 2020, fifth wheel shipments were nearly five times greater than motorhomes. In other words, of the two most popular full-timer rigs — fifth wheel trailers and motorhomes — the popularity of fifth wheel trailers is growing faster.
The reason: They sell for far less than a motorized RV and, per foot, offer more living space. Of course, with no engine they are far less expensive to maintain. The federal government, by the way, allows the owner of any self-contained RV to write off the loan interest the same as if it were a home mortgage (check with your accountant).
Even though shipments of conventional travel trailers are far greater than fifth wheels, from my observations, fifth wheel trailers are overwhelmingly more popular with full-timers. It’s easy to live in one without sacrificing any creature comforts. The advent of the toy hauler option meant abundant storage space, serving much the same function as a garage back home. You can, with one of these RVs, “take it with you,” as many full-timers do.
RV manufacturers, by adding new creature comforts every year, have made the RVs so comfortable that people who might have otherwise bought a vacation cottage or second home at the beach or in the mountains buy an RV instead. Why build a second home that doesn’t move, when you can buy one (fully furnished, of course) that’s equally comfortable and for far less money, that you can move on a whim to the ocean, a mountain lake or into the warm desert in the winter?
Or maybe you could just park your home in a senior retirement park, maybe one in the Southwest or Florida in the winter and then back up North in the summer. Not a bad life. . .
RVs are, by definition, made for “temporary living.” That’s according to the RV Industry Association. Yet they are now being advertised as “full-time ready.” Some insurance and extended warranty policies will not cover full-time living. That will likely change, but for now any new full-timers should read their policies carefully. Thousands of current full-timers who believe they are insured are not. In an accident they could lose their life savings.
Also, a comfy fifth wheel trailer is almost made to order for families where the breadwinner travels. That means pipeline workers, wind machine crews, or construction workers on temporary assignments. An RV can be a comfortable home for traveling nurses and for entrepreneurs who can work from anywhere because of modern communication technology. There’s no need for a worker to leave his or her family behind at home and rent a motel or apartment. With the RV, he or she can bring the family along wherever an assignment awaits and then easily move on to the next one.
The downside for you and me to this ease of mobility for temporary workers is that RV parks across America, once popular with RV travelers, are now heavily occupied seasonally or even year-round by these nomadic workers who need a space with full hookups. In some cases, as I have noted before, companies rent an entire RV park for their workers. The result is that just dropping into an RV park on a whim for RV “travelers” is far harder: Reservations, often far in advance, are necessary far more often than not.
So when I say fifth wheel trailers are “ruining” RVing, I am not talking about the RVs themselves. Frankly, if I weren’t so nomadic by nature, I’d buy a fifth wheel trailer as my only home.
No, I am referring to a fifth wheel’s incredible comfort, and how appealing it can be to make one your home — not for recreational purposes but for living purposes. And because so many fifth wheels are being sold for “living” — for RVers who travel to camp or see the sights, available space in RV parks is increasingly unavailable. The idea of “going where you want when you want” as advertised by the RV industry a big, fat joke — a leftover slogan from yesteryear that should be retired.
Of course, full-timers live in motorhomes and traditional travelers as well. But when I look into my crystal ball, I see more full-time RVers opting for fifth wheel trailers in the years ahead.
And it’s these RV owners’ long-term occupation of RV park spaces that I believe will ruin RV travel for those who travel with the purpose of “going where they want when they want.” I see the future of RVs being more as about RV “living” than RV “traveling”.
NEXT SATURDAY: I’ll sum up my thoughts.