RV & Motorhome Jargon
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RV primer - know your RV jargon
Types of RVs
and RVing Q & A
|The RV jargon
Have you ever heard a late-night TV comic saying something like, "My buddy
is driving coast-to-coast in his mobile home."
One night I was watching Jay Leno when he shows the funny newspaper headlines, and he
thought it was hilarious when someone advertised an RV with "basement storage."
The late night comics obviously are way out of touch when it comes to proper RV jargon!
How is your knowledge of RV terms? On this page we'll present an RV primer. Know the
jargon, and soon you'll be chatting with veteran RVers over a campfire.
The RV basement
Of course it is hilarious if you picture an actual basement under the RV, and wherever
your would drive it, that basement would mysteriously follow! For the record, most of
today's RVs are built with the living floor raised above the chassis, which makes room for
"basement storage" under the floor. These storage areas are accessible from the
outside; some of them even go the entire width of the RV and are accessible from both
sides. There is an additional advantage - the living floor is high enough to be above the
tires, and so you have more living space available, with no space lost for wheel wells.
The only disadvantages, each time you enter the RV you have additional steps to climb,
plus the RV is taller overall, so when driving you need to pay attention to things like
low canopies in gas stations.
"Mobile" homes and "motorhomes."
Mobile home: the emphasis is on "home." A mobile home is a trailer. It has
no engine, and no steering wheel, therefore you will never see anyone driving
coast-to-coast (or anywhere else) in his mobile home. Mobile homes are built on wheels so
they can be towed (with a big commercial truck) to a trailer park somewhere. Once the
mobile home is delivered to the site, and connected to utilities, it will likely never be
moved again. Although it could be; the owner would then pay to have the utility
connections removed, and hire a big commercial truck to tow it to a new site. The purpose
of a mobile home is affordable housing - it's not a recreation vehicle.
Motor home: emphasis is on "motor." A motorhome is a recreation vehicle (also
called recreational vehicle). It has an engine, and a steering wheel, so it can be driven
to a new location whenever the owner desires. Unlike a mobile home, a motorhome has fresh
water tanks, and holding tanks for waste water, so that even while driving down the road,
passengers can use the facilities.
Travel trailers, 5th wheel travel trailers, pop-up trailers, pickup campers and class B
vans are also recreation vehicles. To be truly called a "recreation vehicle" the
unit should have fresh water tanks, waste water holding tanks, an icebox, something to at
least fold out into a bed, and heating system.
Some of the companies that build recreation vehicles, also build manufactured housing.
Fleetwood is not only the largest builder of RVs; they also build more homes than any
other builder in America.
What is a Winnebago?
Like Kleenex, Kodak, and Formica, Winnebago is one of those brand names which are commonly
used to describe the product. Winnebago is just one brand of RV but many people will say
"Winnebago" when they mean "motorhome." That's because in the 1970s,
the travel trailer maker Winnebago introduced an affordable, mass-produced, self-powered
recreation vehicle. Other trailer makers added motorhomes to their product lineup, but
Winnebago had such a head start that the brand name has become a generic term to describe
Campgrounds, RV parks, and trailer parks - what's the difference?
This is a tough question. Everyone has an image in their mind of a typical trailer park.
It's usually filled with manufactured housing, and people who live in those homes
year-round. Tenants pay monthly, and there may not even be an office on site; if there is
an office, it may not be open on evenings or weekends. Some trailer parks might accept
recreation vehicles for a night at a time, but it's rare.
An RV park, or RV resort park, is almost always privately owned, although some state parks
have fancy RV resort parks. The RV park caters to overnight or seasonal guests, and
recreation vehicles. They usually have a swimming pool, coin laundry, recreation rooms,
and often planned activities for children and seniors.
Campground is the hardest to define. I know of campgrounds which are accessible only by
foot - by hikers who bring their tents on their backs. I know of campgrounds on small
islands accessible only by boat. Some camping purists might argue that if the campground
permits RVs, it's no longer a campground.
Most camping areas in national parks, national forests, and state parks, are called
campgrounds even if they allow RVs. The sites tend to be rustic, with lots of room between
neighbors, room for kids to play, and allow campfires.
Privately-owned RV parks, especially those near urban areas, tend to have much smaller
sites, and local laws generally prohibit open campfires.
In many privately-owned RV parks, you will see both manufactured housing, and recreation
vehicles. The park owner depends on the year-round revenue from the owners of the mobile
homes. With that stability, the owner can go to his bank and get loans to make
improvements to the campground. Those improvements make the RV park more desireable to
RVers, so we should be thankful for year-round residents!
So what exactly is the difference between a trailer park, an RV park, and a campground?
There is no exact difference, and there are no two exactly alike. And that just adds to
the enjoyment of the RV lifestyle.
The term 5th wheel comes from the trucking industry. Take a look at one of those big
tractor-trailer rigs. Look at the tractor by itself, with the trailer removed. Notice that
the trailer rides on a hitch directly over the rear axles of the tractor. The trailer has
a "pin" and a flat plate which rides on a circular plate with a device to lock
the pin in place. For many years truckers have called the circular device a "fifth
wheel". OK, so most of these tractors have either 6 or 10 tires on the ground - so
why isn't it called the "7th wheel", or the "11th wheel"?
A fifth wheel recreation vehicle is towed by a pickup truck with a similar hitch mounted
in the bed of the pickup truck, directly over the rear axle. And yes, it's still called a
"5th wheel" even if the pickup truck has 6 tires on the ground.
What's a Slideout?
If you attend an RV show, just about every motorhome, just about every travel trailer and
5th wheel travel trailer, and even some pickup campers, will offer slideouts. You may have
a hard time finding a rig without slideouts.
So your rig is the normal width when driving down the road, but when at your campsite,
sections "slide out" to give you more living space. Some slideouts allow the
couch and dinette areas to extend about 3 feet. Other slide outs allow the bed to extend
by several feet, thereby allowing a true queen size bed, plus room to walk around it. Mind
you, a slide out will not give you any additional furniture, or any additional cabinet
space - only more walking space. In fact, before you buy it you should have the salesman
retract all the slideouts and see how the RV looks inside with all the slideouts
retracted. This is the amount of space you will have while underway, and in tight quarters
when you can't extend the slideouts, so you need to make sure the design still allows you
to still live comfortably when that happens.
Classes of RVs
As the name implies, a "motorhome" is a motorized RV. The advantage is that
everything is in one unit, and passengers can move about while the vehicle is in motion.
Backing is easier than with a trailer.
The disadvantage of a motorhome is that once you leave home, it's your only motor vehicle.
You set up camp at night, but next morning, you need to disconnect and use your only
vehicle for sightseeing. And so, many RVers tow a small car or SUV behind the motorhome.
The towed vehicle is called a "dinghy" or "toad" (as in
"towed"). And when towing a car, typically with a base plate, the motorhome becomes next to impossible to
Another disadvantage is that when the motorhome engine needs service, the mechanic invades
your living room.
Class-A motorhomes have a shape like a bus; in fact, some are built on a bus chassis. They
are either powered by a gasoline or diesel engine located up front; or by a diesel engine
in the rear. Class-A motorhomes come in lengths from about 22 feet to over 40 feet. They
typically have a double or queen bed in the rear, living area behind the driver's seat,
and toilet and kitchen area midship. Driver and one passenger sit up front, and if there
are additional passengers they can sit at the dinette or couch, and still have a panoramic
view through the large, bus-type windshield. In a class-A rig, the driver and passenger
seats can usually be swiveled toward the rear and therefore double as living room seating.
Class B motorhomes are generally no larger than a standard van. They usually have the roof
raised so that a person can stand erect inside, and yet they can be driven and parked
nearly everywhere a passenger car can go. The typical class B will have a small icebox, a
couch which converts to a bed, and a small toilet. They are great for weekend getaways.
Class C motorhomes are built on a "cutaway van" chassis. The nose looks like a
van, and the driver and passenger seating is the same as a van. Some people prefer that
driving position, as it feels like you are driving a smaller vehicle. The driver and
passenger can enter and exit their seats quickly without walking through the coach. The
driver seat is nearer to the road, with a double bed located above the cab. One
disadvantage of the class C is that passengers sitting at the dinette or couch can't see
through the windshield without bending over. In small class C motorhomes the cabover bed
may be the main bed, but longer motorhomes will have an additional double or queen bed in
the rear. The living area will generally be behind the driver, with kitchen and galley
midships. Class C motorhomes come in lengths from about 20 feet up to about 36 feet.
Trailers have the very obvious disadvantage of not being able to use the space while
driving. If one person wants a cold drink, or needs to use the toilet, you need to pull
over and walk back to the trailer. In some states it may be legal for someone to sleep on
the bed in a fifth-wheel trailer while under way, but certainly not as pleasant as would
be sleeping in a motorhome while under way.
But a trailer has a cost advantage, especially if you already own a car or truck capable
of towing it. Plus, the trailer can be left at the campgound and then the family can use
the tow vehicle for side trips.
Travel trailers are towed by a large car or light truck. Care must be taken to match the
trailer to a tow vehicle large enough to handle the load, and the driver needs to learn
how to cope with the sway which will occur when overtaken by a larger vehicle. Backing up
is harder than with a motorhome. The floor plan of the travel trailer is the most
versatile of all, so you will find virtually every combination - bed in front, or bed in
back; bath in back, or kitchen in back. Travel trailers come in all lengths, from
about 16 feet to over 36 feet. Remember that the stated length always includes the entire
length from the hitch to the rear bumper, so your living area will be about 3 feet less.
Fifth wheel travel trailers can be towed only by a pickup truck, as the trailer sits on a
hitch in the truck bed. Since the hitch is located directly over the rear axle of the
truck, towing a fifth wheel trailer is much more stable than a travel trailer. Typically
there is a queen bedroom in the area over the truck bed. In some models the bedroom area
is high enough to stand erect. If so, the trailer will require about 12 feet of overhead
clearance (about the same as a motorhome). Other 5th wheels are built with a low top;
making it lighter and easier to tow, but the bedroom is crawl-in, not walk-in.
Although most have a bedroom in the front, a few have the living room or even the galley
up front. Fifth wheel trailers come in lengths of about 18 feet up to about 40. The dealer
can recommend a pickup truck and hitch suitable for the size trailer you choose.
Folding trailers, or pop-ups, bridge the gap between "camping" and RVing. They
are essentially a tent, but are far easier to erect than a tent. The big advantage is that
when folded, they tow very nicely behind a medium size passenger car or minivan. Young
families love them because they can be towed with the family car, and still get reasonable
gas mileage. They typically have two folding beds, an icebox, a camp stove, and maybe a
porta-potty. Most have a hard roof, but canvas sides. A few offer rigid sides, even though
they fold down.
Pickup campers are sometimes called "slide-in" campers and truck campers, because they slide into
the bed of a pickup truck, without adding any wheels or axles to the rig. There is
typically a double or queen bed located in the cabover area, and a full galley and dinette
area. And sometimes a small toilet and even smaller shower. Young families love them,
because they can often use the pickup truck as daily transportation year-round. They come
in various lengths, including some which extend about 2 feet beyond the rear bumper of the
pickup; and the stated length always includes the cabover part.
Some Q& A about RVing:
Q. How can a family camp for a week in a pop-up trailer when there is no shower and
only a tiny porta-potty?
A. Nearly every campground will offer toilets and hot showers. In fact, some people
rarely use their own shower, even in their big, fancy RVs, opting for the campground
showers instead. Why? The campground shower has a stronger flow of water, and won't run
out of hot water as quickly as will the 6- or 10- gallon water heater in an RV.
Q. I have noticed that nearly all motorhomes have a generator, but hardly any trailers do.
Why is that?
A. Even if the motorhome has factory air conditioning in the dash, on a hot day that will
not be enough to cool any passengers sitting in the rear, on the couch or dinette. And so
the roof air will need to be run as well, requiring the 110 volt generator to run along
with the vehicle's engine.
Since no one generally rides in the trailer while under way, it's not necessary to keep
the trailer cool, until you check into a campground, and plug the trailer into shore
And so the typical motorhome has an advantage in that it can be parked in the infield of a
stock car race, or a tailgate party before the football game, or in the boondocks, and
still be able to run the generator and air conditioner. I have seen a few 5th wheel
trailers with generators; they usually run on propane so that you don't need to carry
gasoline in the trailer.
Q. How much does it cost to stay in a campground?
A. Just as hotel rates are generally higher in big cities and near major attractions,
camping fees tend to be higher near major cities, and near theme parks. With some careful
planning you might find some very nice campgrounds where the nightly rate is zero! But
don't count on it every night, and don't even dream that it will be 2 miles from Disney's
Free campgrounds are generally in national forests, and Bureau of Land Management areas,
plus some Corps of Engineers areas. I've found Boy Scout camps in small towns where they
offer campsites with electric and water hookups for a $5 donation.
Most national park and national forest campsites do not have electrical hookups, and so a
typical rate might be $8 to $15 per night. A typical state park campsite with electric and
water hookups might run $15-$25 per night. Private campgrounds usually offer electric and
water and sewer hookups, and often include the use of swimming pool, and the rates might
run $18 to $40 per night. Private campgrounds in really popular tourist areas might even
run $55 per night or more. (But before you gasp for air, consider that the hotel a mile
down the street charges $150.)
To really find out what it's going to cost, I suggest you map out an imaginary vacation -
and then buy a campground directory and select the kind of campground you'd like to stay
in and do the math.
Q. My RV is self-contained. Why can't I just park it and sleep anywhere I please - by the
side of the road, or in a Wal-Mart parking lot?
A. Most communties have an ordinance against sleeping in motor vehicles within city
limits. If you park on a church parking lot, or Wal-Mart parking lot, you are on private
property, and you need the permission of the owner. Wal-Mart has received a great deal of
publicity over a company policy, as some store managers permit RVers to park overnight as
long as they do not create a problem for other shoppers, and as long as there is no local
law prohibiting it.
Some private campground owners have complained that while they are required to pay taxes
based on the number of rentable RV spaces they have, and they are required to have sewage
treatment plants, and all sorts of permits, Wal-Mart doesn't pay any of those fees. It's
not fair, they say.
For the most part, it hasn't been a huge problem for Wal-Mart. But I have heard of a few
RVers who will spoil it for everyone. One RVer bragged to a Florida newspaper that he
camped free at a Florida Wal-Mart all winter. Another rumor is that an RVer parked right
up next to the store, and then unplugged the Coke machine and plugged his RV into the
outlet. Wait for a few thoughless RVers to dump their holding tanks into the drain fields and drive up on leveling blocks,
and we'll see a quick end to the Wal-Mart free campgrounds.
Q. What about overnight parking in a highway rest area, or a truck stop? The truckers
sleep there, why can't RVers?
A. Nearly all states prohibit "overnight parking" as well as "camping"
in highway rest areas. Truckers don't always park all night - they might sleep a couple of
hours and are on their way. An RV could probably do the same, but don't put down your
awning and put out your furniture - that's camping.
Flying J truck stops in particular are often mentioned as favorites for RVers to park free
overnight. And they probably are the cleanest and safest truck stops nationwide. But how
comfortably will you sleep, with all the activity of trucks coming and going all night?
My opinion is that it's great knowing that you have a self-contained RV, and that in an
emergency, when every public and every private campground is full, you could park in a
truck stop or food store parking lot. I've done it. But I never sleep very well, knowing
that at any moment I might hear a knock on the door from law enforcement. It's worth every
penny I spend, for a safe and quiet site in a campground or RV park. The day I feel that I
can't afford to go RVing unless I can park free every night - is the day I give up RVing!
All the RV and camping links you will
ever need (over 800 and growing) right here:
Basic and advanced RV advice
RV news headlines (RV-info home page)
Our RV primer - know your RV jargon
Basic RV information - for beginners and RV veterans
Technical RV information - maintenance & towing
RV safety issues and educational seminars
Getting online - on the road. Our own primer on this topic.
Communications on the road - cellular, computers,
RV magazines - in print
RV news e-magazines, electronic only (no print edition)
RV discussion forums & chat rooms
Buying, selling, or renting the RV
Chassis & engine manufacturers
Tow vehicles, pickup truck and van manufacturers
RV emergency road service plans
Specialty vehicles (recreation vehicles modified
for commercial or handicapped.)
Classified ad websites for buying or selling your RV
Gadgets and accessories for your RV
RV gadgets and accessories
- equipment for towing a trailer, or pulling a car behind a motorhome
RV parts & accessories dealers
Joining and socializing
RV clubs for specific brands of RVs
Personal RV sites - stories from everyday RVers
Enhancing the RV lifestyle
Working while RVing, volunteering, campground hosting
History of the RV
Fun stuff, free stuff
Planning the trip
Take a road trip
Mapping and phone directories
Paging, voicemail, 800 numbers, long-distance calling cards
Campground searches (online, not print)
The great outdoors - camping, hiking, outdoors
Attractions, places to visit
Fuel - gasoline, diesel, propane
Comparisons of costs between states
....And if you still haven't found it....