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 a motorhome. 

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.

Fifth wheel
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 back up.

Another disadvantage is that when the motorhome engine needs service, the mechanic invades your living room.

RV Class A
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.

Motorhome Class B
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.

Motorhome Class C
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 Trailer
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.

5th Wheel Camper
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.

Popup Camper
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. 

Truck Camper
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 power.

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 main gate.

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!     -L.E.

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