Buying a Travel Trailer: A Helpful Checklist to Help You Make the Right Decision

Picture of a travel trailer while going through a buying checklist on a dealer lot

This article may contain affiliate/compensated links. For full information, please see our disclaimer here.

Buying a Travel Trailer

In the world of camping there are many different options. Depending on your desired experience (and budget) will determine the type of trailer you purchase. You can get a camper that’s just an enclosure to sleep in and very basic. To being an extremely luxurious loaded out Recreational Vehicle that is your roaming house on wheels. Somewhere in-between that broad spectrum lies a very popular option, a Travel Trailer. When considering your personal wants and needs it’s important to have goals in mind but to also be flexible. Not everyone’s solution is the same. But, at the end of the day hold true to what you want, how you want to obtain it and most of all the type of experience you want to have with your trailer.

What is the difference between a Travel Trailer vs. a Camper?

So you might be wondering, just what the heck is a “Travel Trailer”? Isn’t it the same thing as a camper? What’s the difference between a Travel Trailer and an RV? To be perfectly honest, they are all different and also alike in some respects. As if it wasn’t already confusing enough! I’ll explain the primary differences at a very high level to cut through most of the technical jargon and to give you a clear understanding to grasp of the terms. Let’s start with a Camper.

Camper

A camper is the most common term used when it comes to camping. You may think well I’m going camping in a structure of some sort so yes, it’s a camper! Well, in general that’s a completely fair assumption. But, if you go to an RV dealer asking to look at campers, some will actually ask for clarification on what you’re looking for.

To put it simply, campers are small trailers (or in some cases can take up the bed of a pickup truck) and are strictly meant for a place to sleep while outdoors. Most campers do not have any type of storage and some have very little. A camper’s primary purpose is to offer some structural protection from the elements while being outdoors and camping, hence the term “camper”. They’re usually very budget friendly and lightweight. Keep in mind they offer limited storage, can be hard to maneuver and offer less amenities and comfort.

Travel Trailer

Travel trailers are essentially larger campers. They offer a lot of what campers do in terms of structural protection from the elements but offer more room, more facilities, more cargo space and can hold more people. Travel Trailers are larger than campers offering more space and are typically easier to maneuver. This however comes with some cons such as higher price tag and reduced fuel economy when towing.

Towing a Camper or Travel Trailer

Now that you have a general understanding of the difference between a camper and travel trailer, your specific situation now comes into focus.

Questions to ask yourself/Things to consider:

These are a couple of the questions you need to consider when choosing the best fit for you personally.

  1. Do you already own a vehicle you’re going to use to pull the camper or travel trailer?
  2. Do you know what the maximum weight your tow vehicle can tow is?
  3. Does your vehicle have a tow hitch receiver?

We have a 2020 GMC Sierra 1500 Denali Crew Cab with a maximum tow package on it. This truck is a beauty and we purchased it at the end of 2020. I was born and raised in Texas and my parents drove trucks and naturally I did growing up as well. Trucks offer many benefits like increased hauling capability, the ability to pull trailers and just flat out they look great! In the past fuel efficiency was something to be desired, however as of 2019, trucks have come a long way! Some can even rival smaller cars that get around 25 MPG! Knowing that we already have a truck prior to purchasing a travel trailer and that we both work remotely, so we would need working space in a trailer, we quickly decided that a camper was not the solution for us.

Me being the analytical and scientific thinker that I am, I needed solid facts and research to make my decisions. Where else to turn to but the Inter-webs (my wife’s term 😆 ).

I never really was a YouTube watcher but holy moly did this come in handy! I started searching anything from “Towing a travel trailer” to “Things to know before towing a travel trailer”. Well you get the idea, but it was a wealth of knowledge. Doing so allowed me to gather information from many sources! Then I compiled all of the information and organized my thoughts into lists.

I’m no rookie to towing trailers given my Texas roots. Honestly, I used to hook up and go without a thought of maximum towing capacity, Gross Vehicle Weight Ratings, and Payload capacities! Even though I’ve towed many trailers it was definitely an eye opening moment for me.

Towing Terminology

You may be thinking, “what the heck is he talking about right now?” Or if you know exactly what I said good for you, you’re a step ahead. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, not to worry I’ll explain those terms here. When you are considering towing a trailer of any kind you always need to keep these terms in mind! Below is a list of terms you should know and become familiar with but keep in mind this list is not exhaustive.

1.) Curb Weight

The curb weight is the total weight of a vehicle. This includes all fluids necessary to operate the vehicle, and all options in the trim level of the vehicle. This weight does not include any cargo or people inside the vehicle. If the vehicle was sitting parked on the street with nothing in it and no people inside; that’s what it would weigh.

2.) Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR)

Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) is the maximum amount of weight a vehicle can carry including all cargo and passengers.

3.) Gross Combined Vehicle Weight Rating (GCVWR)

The Gross Combined Vehicle Weight Rating (GCVWR) is the maximum combined weight of the vehicle and trailer. This weight includes with all cargo and passengers loaded in both the vehicle and trailer.

4.) Max Payload

Max Payload is the maximum weight your truck can carry in both the cabin and the truck bed.

5.) Gross Axle Weight Rating (GAWR)

Gross Axle Weight Rating (GAWR) – This is the maximum amount of weight that an axle can withstand.

6.) Conventional Trailer Weight Rating

Conventional Trailer Weight Rating – This is the maximum amount that a trailer can weigh when being pulled by the vehicle. The conventional term refers to traditional towing. Which is using a bumper pull trailer with a hitch receiver. The hitch receiver is mounted to the frame located under the body of the vehicle.

7.) Max Tongue Weight

Max Tongue Weight is the maximum amount of weight (trailer weight applied to the tow ball) that your vehicle can handle.

Terminology Recap

These are basic terms to know when looking to purchase a tow vehicle or considering what your current vehicle can tow. Every vehicle make is different in terms of where this information is located. Some places this information is located include: in the glovebox, drivers side door jam, or on the hitch receiver itself.

Some of the terms can be confusing at first. But once you realize the numbers are the absolute maximums your vehicle can handle its helpful. It also makes it pretty clear that you should stay well under those numbers!

Travel Trailer Terms Example

A good analogy to explain this is that you would never fill a glass up to the brim and expect to walk a considerable distance without spilling any. Kudos to you if you can! But, it’s a pretty unrealistic expectation. Similarly, you wouldn’t max your vehicle and trailer and expect to hit the road safely. For the safety of those around you it’s your responsibility to understand these numbers to tow a travel trailer safely.

Our Specific Situation

In our specific situation, we already own a tow vehicle that we are going to use. The next step was to apply the terms and numbers to our situation. Below is a snapshot of our truck’s numbers and it’s quite clearly laid out. We have a max GVWR of 7,100 lbs and a max trailer weight of 8,800 lbs.

picture of the towing capacity of the truck from GM
Truck trailering information

The max combined GVWR is 15,000 pounds. After doing simple math that tells us that the max values already do not match. For example, subtracting 7,100 pounds (Max truck GVWR) from the max combined weight of 15,000 pounds. This tells us that the maximum amount our trailer can weigh is 7,900 pounds. (Assuming our truck is at the max GVWR of 7,100 lbs.) This was a head scratcher for me so again back to YouTube I went. I found a great channel “Keep your Daydreams” and they have an associated blog as well here. This video was helpful and the spreadsheet was an excellent tool! It really helped to narrow in on our specific weights and what we could tow. (Spreadsheets are life!) Yes, I am a nerd and yes I love my spreadsheets…I have a spreadsheet for just about any occasion, just ask Heather!

Then putting our information together, with the aid of this excel spreadsheet I was able to run our exact numbers. (As shown below.) It’s easy to see that when we are hitched to a trailer with the maximum trailer GVWR and max hitch (Tongue) weight, we are left with only 588 lbs of payload capacity. (Recall from earlier that the payload is the total weight of cargo and passengers in the tow vehicle. ) Technically we are under our numbers that assumes the total weight of the trailer is 8,800 lbs. and we carry only 588 lbs. of passengers and cargo in the truck. I don’t know about you but I could probably say we have 588 lbs. of dog toys and Heather’s shoes and makeup so didn’t leave us much room for anything else!

This is another reason why I stated that towing at your maximum numbers is not a good idea! This tool was very enlightening for me. It allowed me to work this spreadsheet into a more usable case scenario based on our weight, weight of our dog, and all the gear we’d typically want to travel with. So, armed with this new handy dandy tool; I ran with it and input multiple scenarios according to travel trailers I found online.

What’s great about looking at travel trailers online is that you can go directly to the manufacturer and pull those trailer GVWR numbers and hitch numbers from their website. The just plug those into the calculator to see if what you like fits within your current configuration.

Personal towing decision

Given my engineering background I always like to be more safe than should be. So I chose to add in a factor of safety to our trailer GVWR. I’ll spare you the engineering technical definition but in layman’s terms it just means that the max weight for our system would be less than the manufacturer specified maximum weights. So in our case, 8,800 lbs. is our manufacturer designated trailer GVWR so I chose to take 80% of that as our max or about 7,000 lbs. My new combined GVWR could now be right around 14,000 lbs. and I knew I wouldn’t have any issue with safety, capability or legally being overweight. Using that new trailer GVWR we could now narrow in our focus on travel trailers that had a maximum 7,000 lb. GVWR.

Researching Travel Trailers

Once I had the numbers for my specific vehicle I relied on my spreadsheets. There was a multiple tab spreadsheet involved in making the final decision. Information on the spreadsheet included calculations based on the GVWR calculator mentioned previously and created several tabs that incorporated the travel trailer numbers, floor plans and links to view them.

In the grand scheme of things putting it together at this level of detail was probably overkill but it was very organized and it made it easy to have discussions to make decisions. We started searching the internet for some floorpan options and found Camping World to be one of the best options. They have a ton of inventory and they even have walkthrough videos that show you the floorpans.

Many of the videos are a bit sales pitchy but if you ignore that piece they’re great for doing a virtual walkthrough of a travel trailer. They even have tow guides that you can enter your vehicle make and model or VIN number and it will auto sort options that your vehicle can tow. Be sure to keep in mind the previous discussion about towing within your maximum GVWR numbers, though!

Travel Trailer Floor plans

So on to our spreadsheet with selected floorpans. We originally started out with about 10-15 options and watched a few videos. Heather had some pretty specific criteria in mind and lets be honest I just wanted a bathroom and a place to sleep and was more wrapped up in the style and being within our capacity limits. Once Heather and I sat down and walked through some videos and floorpans we agreed on a list of criteria that we wanted in our travel trailer.

Our Travel Trailer Wishlist:

1.) Two separate sitting areas

Since we would both be working remote, we didn’t want to be right next to each other all day everyday working!

2.) Storage

We wanted plenty of storage space. Most travel trailers are great at doing this and utilize space under dinette’s and sofa’s so this was pretty easy to find. We will definitely get creative about where things go and what makes more sense but having the organizational spaces to store things is huge!

3.) Trailer Length

I wanted to be under 30 feet in terms of a travel trailer just based on the research I did. Because the longer the trailer, the heavier duty your tow vehicle should be in theory. This is to help counteract any trailer sway you may experience. A fantastic YouTube channel I watched a ton of videos on is “Big Truck Big RV“.

This is not an exhaustive list but these were the big hitters for us that needed to be there. Our spreadsheet eventually dwindled down to 1-2 solid options for us. The first option was the KZ Sportsmen SE 241RKSE and the Forest River 23MK.

Common Travel Trailer Model Number Terms

You’re probably wondering what all the letters and numbers mean because that sounds like a whole lot of jibberish. It actually is somewhat of a code for Travel Trailer model numbers and letters.

The numbers listed in the model typically refer to living space of the enclosure in terms of feet. So, in the example about “241” would correlate to 24 feet and 1 inch of living space. The “23” above would mean 23 feet of living space, and so forth.

Key thing to remember here: this is not the overall travel trailer length, only the enclosure length. Typically a travel trailer is anywhere from 3-5 feet in addition to the living space. This includes the trailer lounge and rear bumper and in some cases a fold down storage rack.

Travel Trailer Layout Model Codes

The letters following the numbers also denote a general description of the layout of the travel trailer. There is an entire dictionary dedicated to what these acronyms mean. But, I won’t bore you with the full list. Here are a few common ones for the travel trailers we were looking into.

RK – Rear Kitchen

MK – Middle Kitchen

RE – Rear Entertainment

RKS – Rear Kitchen w/Slide

RL – Rear Living

RD – Rear Dining

RB – Rear Bath

Putting the numbers and letters together is an easy way to identify the kind of travel trailer you’re looking at. Once you look around at a few you get the idea and will better understand the layouts. It becomes easier to narrow in on what you want and not waste time looking at trailers that won’t meet your needs.

In our case we really liked the Rear Kitchen (usually these had the most countertop and overhead storage space) and the Rear Living (nice open living area) models. Now that we had models we liked narrowed down we could focus in on searching for them in our area. We wanted to make time to go look at them in person. Always a great idea to look at things in person, I’m not a sight unseen purchaser by any means!

Buying our Travel Trailer

We started scoping the RV dealers in our area and found some models we liked and wanted to see in person. Now, in the middle of all this we were packing our home & selling our home. So the time between all of the research and when we were starting to look at travel trailers in person was stretched out.

Once we had completed that phase of moving and relocating we were able to get serious about looking at travel trailers in person. We hadn’t been considering a used travel trailer just because it didn’t seem like there were many options out there, but then….we found an almost perfect fit for us! We found a Rear Kitchen model with an oversized foldaway sofa and a dinette all within our budget, overall length and weight specs! To be honest I was very excited to go look at this one because I knew we were getting a step above entry level travel trailer for an entry level price, so the value was there for me. It seemed like the perfect option!

Travel Trailer Walkthroughs

We made plans to go see the trailer the first chance we could. Once we got there it was evident the travel trailer was used just by a few blemishes and bit of dated inside but it checked all the storage and spec boxes. The travel trailer is a 2018 Forest River Vibe Extreme Lite 258RKS (remember those letter and number combos from earlier?). This travel trailer also had a few of our “nice to haves” like power stabilizer jacks versus the traditional hand crank ones and a front power jack, both of which save time and energy! Especially as we set out on our travels this summer, working remotely and moving every so often this was a huge selling point.

This trailer checked all the boxes for us. It has two separate sitting areas, an enclosed bedroom, and plenty of under and over storage options. Best of all this trailer fits within our 30 foot maximum length and 7,000 lb. Maximum weight requirement we have!

Purchased Travel Trailer Specs

So what do you think we did? Bought it of course! To give you a final number roundup of where we will be with this trailer and how much cargo capacity we will have, see below. Inputting over-estimated weights for passengers and cargo, our truck is at the max GVWR and trailer is under our imposed 80% of our trailer GVWR. Total combined GVWR is 13,473 which is under the 15,000 GCVWR.

Buying a Travel Trailer Checklist

To recap, here are the things you need to as yourself or consider when buying a travel trailer: (you can use this as your checklist to refer to later!)

1.) Type of RV: Do you really want a travel trailer vs. a camper?

2.) What vehicle are you going to use to tow it?

3.) Do you understand towing terms? Have you ensured your desired tow vehicle & travel trailer is a safe set up?

4.) What are your wants and needs? Functionally what floor plans make the most sense for you?

5.) What is your budget?

More RV & Travel Trailer Info:

Mobile Internet in an RV or Travel Trailer

RV Moving Day Checklist (with free pdf resource!)

Published by WanderLust in Real Life

I'm a 30 something living in the Midwest of the United States that loves every aspect of travel. Researching, planning, & of course actually going on adventures whether near or far.

One thought on “Buying a Travel Trailer: A Helpful Checklist to Help You Make the Right Decision

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: