I’ve been asked many times how I decided to buy my Alto and why I chose a trailer over a van or a Class A bus-type RV. I thought a lot about what I wanted, how much I had to spend, and what kind of things I would do on the road. I’ve tried to distill that year of learning and researching into some questions that will help you figure out what’s right for YOU if you are thinking of getting into Trailer Life.
What’s Your Budget?
It helps to start out with a rough idea of what you can spend on an RV. You may choose to finance it (and RV places are all too willing to help with that!) or pay cash outright for it.
Or, like me, you may not have any idea what these things cost. I was shocked to find out some of those big Class A buses can run you a half million dollars easy. Meanwhile, a basic HIker trailer is somewhere around $14,000. In between those two ranges is a myriad of choices to explore. What can your budget manage? Do you want to live with monthly payments or own it outright? Know your financial options before you go in to a dealer or talk to a sales rep.
Glamper or Backpacker?
If it’s raining outside, would you still heat up your coffee over the fire or would you just plug in an electric coffeepot while staring out the window at the downpour? If you don’t know the answer to this, you might want to rent one of those boxy RVs and try out the camping life before you commit to buying anything.
Some trailers are little more than a bed and kitchen storage. If you want an indoor kitchen or a shower, for example, put that on your list of “must have” features. Some people can go without a shower for a week, using the washcloth and basin method, while other people like a shower every day. Figure out where you stand on that because not every campground is going to have a shower. In this time of COVID-19, it’s been nice to have my own shower and not have to share space and clouds of steam with everyone in the campground.
If you’re thinking you want to boondock down rutted dirt roads and camp off-grid, those are things to decide before you buy. You will probably want a trailer with high-clearance, big tires, solar panels, and a big, fat battery. Something like this Hiker trailer would work, although it might be a bit small for some people.
Weekends or Months?
Figure out the most likely duration of your trips and if your “dream trailer” is really practical for that. You need to take more stuff on a longer trip, obviously, so having enough storage space is key to making that trip enjoyable (and not having to hit up the local Walmart to buy the stuff you didn’t bring).
Some people (I’ll raise my hand here) are minimalists, while others are not. I can live with 3 pairs of shoes and 2 pairs of hiking trousers, but that may not be your style. Eyeball how much of your current stuff you’d want to take with you and keep that in mind when looking at trailers. If you’re a gourmet cook and can’t live without a full set of pots and pans and Instant Pot-type gadgets, factor that into your storage needs, too.
Solo or Family? Pets?
A small trailer might work for 1-2 people for months, but if you’ve got kids and a dog, it probably won’t. I lived with five people on a boat in a space smaller than my trailer, so I’m clearly not claustrophobic or need a lot of space. But that’s just me.
Combining Your Answers
So let’s look at your answer to these three questions: camping style, camping duration, and number of people. They combine to help define the trailer that will work for you.
- A weekend glamping couple might love an Alto or a Happy Camper or an Airstream Nest. Small enough to tow with an SUV or light truck, and with (most of) the comforts of home.
- A family of four with a big dog who want to get away on the weekend might decide that something bigger is right for them, maybe a 21-footer or larger where beds are in plentiful supply.
- A solo glamper like me, in it for the long haul, might go for anything from a teeny Hiker or Little Guy trailer to a 17-foot Alto to a 32-foot Newmar Class A rig. It really depends on your style and your needs, especially when it’s your full-time house.
The size trailer you choose comes down to how you feel in a space (claustrophobic or not, for starters!) and if it has the features you need. Some people like to stand up inside their trailer, others want a big kitchen. Think about what matters to you. For me, a separate bed and table with a full bath (toilet and shower) were my non-negotiable features, so that eliminated a lot of trailers from my list.
Explore Your Options
It really pays to explore the options out there in trailer-land, especially if you haven’t really hung out with trailers before. I didn’t know anything about camping trailers before I started my vagabond life.
Two great ways to see what trailers might work for you:
- Scour YouTube for camping videos and reviews. Be warned, there are a ton of these videos, so search keywords are your best friend. The videos run the gamut from Prius camping (yes, Prius) to customized rigs that can run you several hundred *thousand* dollars.
- Visit the trailers you’re interested in. Before I bought my Alto, I haunted the RV sales near me and went to two of those big RV shows. Almost every weekend, I’d park down the street, walk in, and just start going inside the rigs for sale. Unless I walked into the sales office, no one paid much attention to me and most of the rigs are unlocked during the day so they are easy to check out. I sat in an rPod trailer to get an idea of how big an Alto was since there weren’t any near me. I sat behind the wheel of a Class B rig and realized it was too big and scary for me to start out with.
Most trailers also have Facebook groups or RVillage groups where you can get to know the ins and outs (ups and downs) of owning a particular model, as well as get help and advice before and after purchase. On Facebook, there is the Altoiste group (any interested person can join) as well as the Alto Owners group (where you must own an Alto to join).
Do Your Research
One caveat about trailer brands: do an internet search for the brands and models you’re considering. Find out before you buy if it is a maintenance nightmare or the design is unworkable. If you’re planning to work on the road, for example, a tiny kitchen table that doesn’t move up, down, or sideways may be great for meals but completely useless as a workspace. People who own trailers can be pretty vocal about loving their trailer or hating it, so do your research and learn from their mistakes before you fall in love with “the one.”
Check Your Fitness
One other thing to think about is your physical limitations. You might have a shoulder problem, and an electric tongue jack can be easier than a manual jack. Stepping in and out of the trailer might be easier with a outside hand grip as well as an inside one. Look at your candidate trailers and see how easy it is to get in and out of, how hard the bed is to set up and enter and exit, etc.
What Do I Recommend?
In the end, the trailer you pick is a very personal selection. My Alto 1743 works well for me and in the four years I’ve had it, I haven’t wanted to trade it in for anything else. Its small size means it fits almost any camping spot and it’s light enough I don’t need a V8 truck to tow it. I did want more storage space for things like my folding kayak and a portable dump tank, so the bigger storage of the Ridgeline took care of that quite well.
Which trailer is right for you? Only you can know the answer to that question. And half the fun is figuring it out, dreaming of the day you’ll have your own trailer, hitch it up, and hit the open road.
I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation- a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every states I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move.