Starting Out, Downsizing, Whatever You Call it – it’s Small!

Lately, we have seen a definite surge in the number of customers who are looking for what I lovingly call the “cute and cuddly” campers.  I think a lot of this has to do with the push on the tiny house phenomenon.  Once people see the amount of money that people spend on the tiny houses it finally clicks that buying a camper makes more sense.

However, there are pitfalls with people looking to fit a camper into the tiny house mold.  Most of their expectations are unrealistic.  Many of these people think that they can live in Nebraska (or anywhere in the upper Midwest) in a small camper.  What they don’t understand is that these campers for the most part are designed for 3 season camping, weekending and just touring.  We are finding that we need to try to educate these people about the water systems and the amount of propane necessary to live in this climate in the dead of winter.  Some see the light, but others prefer to keep that “ideal” of any camper or tiny house being capable of sustaining them during the winter months.

As frustrating as that might be, those people are probably the smallest number of customers that we see on a regular basis.  Once the television shows stop romanticizing the idea of tiny house/camper living and put out a show that is more realistic we will probably see a dramatic drop off.

Now onto the first timers or retirees who are looking to either get into camping or want to re-live their camping experiences from when their kids were small.  Usually these customers are a little timid about the whole pulling thing and want a small camper for ease of pulling.  This is a good way to start, but we always make sure that we ask how they plan to use the camper – weekends and vacations, or long term camping (such as snow-birding).  The majority of them are just dipping their toes into the camping experience and in their case the small campers are just the ticket. 

The customers looking for longer term camping are the ones where we usually recommend that they might want to consider a slightly larger one for their comfort for the long term.  It doesn’t need to be huge, but a 16’ trailer for 3 or 4 months might test even the strongest of relationships.

Right now, the manufacturers are answering the demand for smaller and lighter campers, and there are many choices.  However as with any RV purchase – not all campers are created equal.  Make sure to educate yourself on the quality levels of each brand of camper.  Once you have narrowed the brands down a bit, visit a dealer’s lot so that you can touch and feel the product.  The quality will tell nearly immediately when you see the quality of the furnishings, cabinetry and finishes both interior and exterior. 

Make sure that the dealer you choose to purchase from will take care of you and help educate you.  Many dealers that we hear of (particularly internet dealers) will point at the stove and tell you it’s the stove.  Point at the water heater and tell you that it’s the water heater.  We have found that mode of operation to be a disaster waiting to happen.  This is when most owners have the most problems by not understanding the water system or the electrical system.  We recently had a couple stop by on an emergency basis on the road who were unable to operate their water system, and couldn’t figure out why their appliances wouldn’t work properly.  Within a couple of minutes, the water issue was figured out by one of our technicians, and after speaking with the wife, I determined that no one explained the reality of dealing with a 30 amp service.  I pulled out a sheet that I had that showed the amperage of various household appliances and explained that you couldn’t plug everything in like you would do in your house.  Her face lit up, and she smiled.  It was the first time she actually understood.  This is when we were told that the dealer they purchased their motorhome from explained exactly nothing on the motorhome.  They did the point and tell demonstration, and these poor people were left to float in the wind so to speak.  The water issue ended up being something that dealer should have found during their prep of the camper.  This just is one story of buyer beware.  Not all bargains are what they cracked up to be.

Other dealers like ours care more and spend an hour or more explaining the operations of the camper and appliances as well as instruct you on the things you should do and the things you definitely shouldn’t do for a safe and happy camping experience.  If you can’t figure something out, they will show you and then allow you to do it yourself so that you can have a “physical memory” of the operation. 

Back to the “cute and cuddly” campers.  The other item that you need to thoroughly educate yourself on is what your tow vehicle is capable of pulling.  Each vehicle is given a towing capacity.  The best rule of thumb is to know your tow capacity and then match that with the GVWR on the camper that you are interested in.  If you are able to pull the GVWR (gross vehicle weight) or more of the camper, then you are home free.  Most of the small campers have a GVWR of 3500 lbs. to 5000 lbs.  Many SUV’s and smaller trucks are capable of pulling this weight.  The GVWR basically means that the camper can’t and shouldn’t ever weigh more than that weight.  That will give you plenty of room for cargo weight.

Here is the final category of small camper shopper – the customer looking to downsize.  Usually these customers are seasoned campers and currently own a fifth wheel or large travel trailer.  The most common complaint that they have about their current camper is that it is becoming too physically demanding, and downsizing is becoming necessary.  Others are looking at it from a budget constraint – newly fixed income, and the desire to purchase a smaller and more fuel efficient tow vehicle to save on fuel costs. 

My recommendation to these customers is to sell their camper outright if possible.  Once they are free of that, it opens them up to any possibility.  This is also the best way to get the best price for your camper.  Sometimes trading a larger unit in on a smaller unit will not be the best thing to do financially. 

Our dealership handles Lance which is a high end lightweight and small trailer.  The Lance product while not inexpensive is an extremely good value especially for the downsizer.  The quality level that they have become accustomed to and the lightweight and smaller camper that they desire.  One of the bonuses on the Lance product is the depth of their slideouts.  You would be amazed how much room that will add on even a 15’ trailer. 

We also handle Jayco which just introduced the Hummingbird product.  In 17’ and 18’ lengths, this retro looking camper offers original floorplans with slides and without.  The popularity of the Hummingbird has been overwhelming.  Even though we are in what we consider “off season”, we have been hard pressed to keep these in stock.  The look, the styling, and the comfort level is hard to beat.  The price is also a motivator.

Starcraft which is what I call a sister company to Jayco now has a small offering named the Comet.  Also retro looking and offering extra features over others in this size class it is possibly the wave of the future. 

No matter which of these brands that you decide on – you will be able to count on the fact that you have made a sound purchase and that these companies will stand behind their products and their warranties.  Have fun with it!  Look around and see for yourself.  Small is where the RV industry started and it is back, probably for good.  Enjoy the process, and start planning for your next adventure. 

Hook up to your cozy camper and hit the road!  You will love every minute of it!

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