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A Beginner's Guide to the World of RVing

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For Valentine's Day this year, my wife and I decided to give ourselves a gift for the future: a Travel Trailer.

We Were True Beginners

This is the first installment of what will hopefully become many, as we dip our toes into the world of RVing. My wife has no experience in RVing beyond what she has seen on various TV shows. I have limited experience in the arena, as my father had first an overhead camper for his pickup then later an actual RV, one of those a person drives from location to location. But having never actually owned one myself, I can honestly say that we are true beginners when it comes to the decisions involved in choosing which one to buy, the necessary upkeep, and the assorted requirements that go along with ownership.

We have our work cut out for us and look forward to learning and passing along any information we gain.

Should we go for this?

Should we go for this?

Or maybe this?

Or maybe this?

How about this?

How about this?

How It All Started

"What do you think about getting some kind of an RV?" This was the question my wife put to me, and this is what set our feet on the path to a new future—a path on which we actually get to travel and enjoy a different style of life. I've written elsewhere about my desire to show my family the country and about some of the short trips we've taken over the last couple of years. But this... this would allow us to spend more than a few days in a neighboring state; this would be a door to the entire country.

Monetarily, our future is looking better than it ever has. Our children are growing, and I am peering intently at a future when I can actually retire. And hopefully with that will come an unfettered ability to see the country at our own pace. At least, that's the plan.

A note here: It is strange to look into the not-so-distant future and realize that retirement is nearer than you thought.

So, we decided: We would take a look at what types of RVs were available in our area and investigate what would best suit our needs.

The First Decision: What Kind of RV to Buy?

Well, actually we had to make several decisions. The first decision was what type of RV we should buy. Would we go with a full-blown RV, one of those behemoth vehicles you see driving down the road? Or should we go with a smaller travel trailer, a pull-behind that would work with our Trailblazer?

More questions to consider: How much could we commit monthly to the payment? How much would we want to spend overall? How much trailer could our SUV pull? Where would we park it? What are we planning to do with it? How many of our children might be along at any given time? Do we plan for the maximum, the minimum, or somewhere in between? Where would we be going? Some parks have limitations on length within their boundaries.

These were but a few of the questions that we would need to answer even before we decided on what we would buy. So, first off is what type of RV to buy.

We knew that while a full-blown RV would be very nice, it would be beyond what we wanted at this time. We still have two children at home; one in college and one in middle school. So we weren't going to go crazy and drop a hundred thousand dollars on an RV. So, what else was there?

Pull-behind travel trailers and fifth-wheel trailers were both good options. However, unless we wanted to buy another truck to be fitted for a fifth wheel, we would limit ourselves to something we already had: an SUV. Our 2003 Chevrolet Trailblazer EXT is an extended body SUV, capable of carrying up to eight passengers. When we bought it several years ago, we still had all five kids at home, so this was a necessity for those moments when everyone would pile into the SUV to go somewhere. It is 4WD, so gets us around quite nicely.

Also, it is what is called a Special Edition, being a North Face Edition. Now in the beginning, I had no idea what the North Face was, so it didn't impress me a lick. It still doesn't, really, but I now know that it means that it came with a tow package, a somewhat stronger 4.2L six-cylinder engine, and the capability of towing a decent-sized RV. Now, that matters to me.

How Much Travel Trailer Can We Pull?

The first thing to do was determine how much our SUV could tow. Looking in the owner's manual I found its capacity as 5,700 pounds and the tongue capacity 400 pounds. This capacity has several factors that are important. Engine size, horsepower, and how heavy the SUV itself is are the most important factors. I never thought about the SUV's weight playing a part, but it definitely does. Because ours is an extended length, it weighs more. It is 4WD, so that adds more, also. The engine is slightly stronger, so this offsets the extra weight to a degree; but still, the total weight of our SUV makes it able to tow less than a similar vehicle that is not an extended version.

So, I began searching through the websites of various manufacturers to compare floorplans, total weights, lengths, and tongue weights. One of the factors we were looking at rather intently was a trailer with a slideout. This is a relatively new enhancement of the travel trailer that electrically slides a portion of the RV out to allow for more interior floor space. Unfortunately, this also adds considerable weight to the trailer, so unless we wanted to forego length for width, we wouldn't be going this route.

So we were looking for a lightweight, reasonably decent-sized trailer that could sleep more than two or three. It could not weigh over 5,700 pounds, and the tongue weight must not exceed 400 pounds.

And away we go!

This is what we decided on.

This is what we decided on.

The equalizing system we ended up with.

The equalizing system we ended up with.

What Kind of Hitch Do We Need?

So, we traveled to the largest RV dealer in our area, armed with information about our target style, size, and weight. When we arrived and spoke with a salesman, we found that although we were on the right track, there were other things to consider. It turns out that there is something he called an "equalizer" that allows for transference of tongue weight to the entire vehicle chassis so as to allow you to purchase a larger and/or heavier trailer. Not enough to allow us to get a decent-sized unit with a slideout, but larger nonetheless. He showed us several in our range, and we found one we liked.

So What Do We Buy?

The one he showed us and we really liked was a Coleman 274 BHS, which featured a semi-private master area, a couch that folds out into a bed, a dining table that also folds out into a bed, as well as a set of bunk beds. So if we wanted to, we could actually have six adults/children spend the night at once. Tight, but it allows for more flexibility.

It also had a microwave, nice-sized refrigerator, antennae for TV, cable hookups for TV, both interior and exterior speakers for the AM/FM/CD/DVD unit, a mini tub, a shower, toilet, and even an awning that extends out electrically. It also had a three-burner stove and an oven. It had heating throughout and air conditioning for those hot summer days. The beds are comfy, the seating ample, and altogether it seemed to us to be a good entry into the world of RVing.

And so, we forged ahead. We signed the documents, put our down payment down, and headed back home very happy.

However, the next day we received a call that put a damper on everything. Somehow, the bank was asking for a much bigger down payment than we had expected to put down. We decided we weren't going to put down the amount they were asking for—and that we would walk away. No square pegs in round holes for us anymore, which means we weren't going to force an issue: if God wants it to happen, it will. If not, okay.

The next day we got another call. They apologized for their mistake and said they were willing to knock a good percentage off the trailer if we agreed to come up a bit on the down payment. We hedged, hemmed, and hawed... and then they threw in the hitch system for free, which would allow us to tow the trailer with ease. That was a thousand dollars by itself. Well, we couldn't say no to that.

Tip: There is always room to negotiate whether the dealer wants to admit it or not. In our case, they dropped the price from the beginning price of $19,995 to under $14,000 and threw in the hitch system. I'll take that.

What's a Trailer Brake Controller?

And so we began our journey to bring home the trailer. First problem: We needed a trailer brake controller system. This trailer has electric brakes, which are a magnetic system of braking, as I understand it. Our SUV has it pre-wired into the 7-way plug for trailer lights and such, but there is no actual brake system in place. Back to the Internet!

Research led me to a local farm and home store that sells trailer accessories. I purchased one for less than $60 and began to learn how to install it. Once I dropped the panel under the steering wheel, I found that I would need a harness to adapt from the controller to the SUV due to the fact that some Trailblazers came with a plug-in panel for this and others only had wires in place. Of course, ours is wires-only. Back to the farm and home store, another $20, and a reasonably easy installation followed (thanks youtube!).

One of the Videos We Watched

What Type of Trailer Lock Do We Need?

We also knew we would want to protect our new trailer from theft. So more hours spent on the Internet watching videos, reading reviews, and searching for the best lock we could get. Incidentally, there are several videos where people have purchased various types and styles of locks and literally destroy them in order to show you which one is the best for your money. Some that looked impregnable were actually fairly easy to remove with nothing more than a crowbar. Others could be drilled out with a cordless drill, and still others could be hit with a sledgehammer and shattered.

In the end, we selected one called the Gorilla Lock. It is difficult to pick, as it is not a standard-keyed item. The key is underneath the unit as opposed to on the side or front, and it appears to be made of very strong steel. I guessed (yeah, I know) on the size as being a 2" hitch ball, and we ordered one. It was delivered to our door in less than two days! We opened the box, tried it out, and learned it was the wrong size. So on to my little trailer it went. We then ordered a size larger (2 5/16"), and it was delivered in two days once more.

Note: I have had to modify the lock ever so slightly due to the trailer tongue being just a smidgen wider than the lock itself. No biggie; a few minutes with a Dremel tool, a couple of smacks with a rubber mallet to set it into place and all is fine. I do have to say that this thing is a beast! The steel it is made from is extremely hard. I highly recommend this lock.

Another issue or concern we had was that our driveway isn't level. It is an uphill slope that would require some firm chocks for the tires. In the end, we purchased two larger and two smaller chocks so on each side we can block each of the two wheels. As this is a tandem axle trailer, it has four tires, two to a side. With all four wheels blocked, it isn't going anywhere.

Our First Drive Home

So we headed up this past weekend to do our walk-through and bring it home. The walk-through took less than an hour and consisted of showing us how to operate everything, what type of cleaners to use, how to empty the waste water area, and such. I took copious notes and will transcribe them for us to keep and refer to in the future.

One item caught our attention: the fact that evidently, bugs of all types love RVs. On top, in the duct work, in the grates and filter areas, just about anywhere there is an opening on the exterior is a place we were warned to keep clean due to bugs setting up shop there.

The hitch system was installed, and we were shown how to connect it properly. It also has an anti-sway bar attached and we were advised to remove it before backing up as "it will fold up on you right quick" if you don't. The propane tanks were filled up for us, and everything made ready to go.

We purchased the trailer at Camping World, and as they are associated with the Good Sam RV Club we received a three-year free membership to this club. This means we get special deals at all Good Sam RV resorts, at any Camping World facility, and also on Internet locations. I found a massive book containing all RV campgrounds in the U.S. and was going to purchase it, but it turned we got it for free as part of our new club membership. Nice!

We hooked up and headed out. I can honestly say I was nervous, as it had been some 20-odd years since I pulled anything close to this size. I have driven a 30-foot-plus RV pulling a 20-foot boat on a trailer before, but that was when I was much younger and not smart enough to be nervous. I even drove it one night when there were gusts up to 80 mph perpendicular to our direction of travel and didn't think much of it. But that was then; this is now.

After only a short while of driving and adjusting the brake controller, I had the knack once more. Taking our time and only driving 60 mph on the highway to get used to the swing and sway, the semi trucks passing and the wind associated with them took a bit longer, but in the end, I was comfortable.

Driving through town and onto our street, the nerves came back. I mentally plotted the route I would take to arrive at home in the best position to back into our driveway. Once there, I got out and looked things over. Wide driveway, good. Moderate incline, bad. Power lines overhead, really bad.

But there was enough room, and it only took two tries to center the trailer on the driveway and chock the wheels in place before removing the trailer from the hitch. Once that was accomplished, we hooked up an extension cord so the refrigerator wouldn't run on propane and use up our gas. Then we all got inside of our brand-new travel trailer and looked it over thoroughly, flipping lights on and off, getting in the beds, opening up the sofa bed, and just getting a feel for it.

We will take a weekend shakedown trip in the near future somewhere nearby just to try it out. We can't wait!

Now What?

From there we continue moving forward, learning at every corner. What type of cover do we need to buy? How do we keep the rain gutters from tearing holes in the cover? Do we need covers for the wheels? Do I need to keep the battery on trickle charge whenever we aren't using the RV? Do we need to keep the tires on wood all the time or only when we are setting up shop somewhere? How long of a sewer hose do we need? Is it a good idea to buy a water-pressure regulator to limit the amount and pressure of water into the trailer? These and hundreds, if not thousands, of questions await us. I'm an old dog; do I have the ability to learn these new tricks?

As we learn and travel, we will be describing our adventures, both those enjoyed and those we learn from. I believe in allowing others to learn from our mistakes and eliminating that possibility from their trips. We are planning to make our first major trip sometime after school is out and will be traveling to Pensacola, Florida. The land between here and there is reasonably flat, so no mountains just yet for me, thank you. A stop in Huntsville for our son to experience the space program and museum there before digging our toes in the sand, swimming with dolphins (maybe!), and just seeing an actual beach. This is something my lovely wife longs to do, so off we go!

Next year, maybe Colorado! And from there, who knows?!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2016 Mr Archer

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