A Ford Expedition pulling an Airstream RV trailer.

Trailers are the least expensive way to get into the recreational vehicle (RV) lifestyle. That’s because owners often need nothing more than the family SUV or truck to haul them. They’re much cheaper and simpler to get started with than a motor home, and they come in a wide range of designs, sizes, and prices.

Because the trailer can be removed, the SUV or truck that hauls it can be used year-round, rather than just serving solely as a vacation coach, as is the case with an all-in-one RV. Plus, the vehicle towing the trailer is likely to have modern safety features that are only just now arriving in some RVs, including forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, blind spot warning, and robust crash protection. Tow vehicles also provide the ability to safely travel with kids and their car seats, an option that is not always available in motor homes.

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Trailers also offer a lot of flexibility when you’re on a campground. You can unhitch the trailer, leave it behind, and use the tow vehicle to explore. This means you don’t have to pack things away inside the camper and disconnect all the power and water lines each time you want to leave the park, like you have to do when traveling in a motor home. And a tow vehicle will be a lot easier to handle when sightseeing locally, especially when navigating downtown roads, parking, and getting food at drive-thrus.

Still, there’s a compromise for that flexibility. Towing an RV trailer requires drivers to develop new skills that are very different from those needed to merely drive a car. A lot of space is needed to park a long tow vehicle and trailer combination. Learning how to reverse the trailer takes patience and practice. You also need to learn how to safely hitch and unhitch the trailer. Of course, you need to own a vehicle that is capable of safely towing the trailer you have in mind.

There are several types of recreational trailers to consider.

Folding or Pop-Up Trailers

Jeep pop-up trailer.
Photo: Jeep

Sitting only about 4 feet high when towed, pop-up trailers can be raised (by hand crank or electrically) at the campsite. Most have tentlike sides, as well as extensions that pull out of either end. Some brands, such as Aliner and TrailManor, have hard sides, providing more durability and insulation.

Length: 8 to 20 feet
Weight: 1,000 to 4,000 pounds
Sleeps: From two to eight people
Price: $10,000 to $30,000

Pros:

  • Least expensive type of trailer.
  • Can be very lightweight; the smallest ones can be towed by many cars.
  • Low aerodynamic profile helps fuel economy.
  • Pull-out end extensions, which typically house beds, create large sleeping spaces for what is a relatively short trailer.
  • Some hard-sided models can be put up very quickly.

Cons:

  • These often lack the luxuries of larger trailers, such as a private toilet (or any bathroom facility at all).
  • There isn’t much insulation from noise or cold.
  • Tent-sided models need more maintenance, and fabric requires replacement eventually.
  • Tent-sided models are prohibited in some campgrounds because of the danger posed by bears.

Travel Trailers

A Winnebego travel trailer.
Photo: Winnebago

Travel trailers are the most widely sold and most varied type of towable RV. They have solid walls and often feature a slide—a section of wall that either pulls out or motors out to provide more space inside when camping.

Travel trailers come in a wide variety of sizes and designs:

  • Small retro-inspired “teardrop” trailers that are essentially a tent and bed on wheels.
  • Small molded fiberglass trailers, such as the Casita and Scamp, have drawn passionate fan bases for their low-maintenance designs.
  • Midpriced trailers from companies such as Forest River, Gulf Stream, and Jayco offer a lot of space and features for the money.
  • The iconic Airstream has a distinctive aluminum body. Aerodynamic and low to the ground, these are easy to tow but are expensive for their size.

Smaller trailers typically have a single axle; larger trailers can have two (or even three). More axles increase towing stability and let you limp the trailer to safety in case of a single flat tire, but they can also add to tire replacement costs.

Many small trailers can be pulled by a midsized SUV. As trailers increase in size and weight, it is necessary to increase the capability of the tow vehicle. Make sure you pay attention to the key weights: the tongue’s and total trailer’s.

The tongue extends from the trailer and puts direct downward pressure on the hitch, so it’s essentially considered a payload. Then there is the weight of the entire trailer, which is how much the vehicle has to pull. Some vehicles may look appropriate until you factor in the added weight of passengers and cargo, including water in the tanks.

Many SUVs and trucks can be equipped with transmission coolers to ease the strain of a trailer on the drivetrain. Consider adding anti-sway bars or a load-leveling kit for a travel trailer, even a smaller one.

Inside a travel trailer.
Photo: Consumer Reports

Length: 8 to 40 feet
Weight: 1,000 to 10,000 pounds
Sleeps: From two to eight people
Price: $10,000 to $150,000

Pros:

  • Rigid walls provide some insulation from cold and noise compared with a pop-up trailer or tent.
  • Very little setup time.
  • Come in a wide variety of lengths and weights.

Cons:

  • Need a suitable tow vehicle, which may need to be larger and more powerful than you think.
  • Towing requires drivers to learn (and practice) some different driving skills.
  • Larger trailers won’t fit into small campsites.

Hybrid or Expandable Trailers

Hybrid or expandable RV trailers increase sleeping space without the downsides—the added length and weight—that come with getting a bigger trailer. They do that by combining the hard-sided body of a conventional travel trailer with the pullout end extensions typically found on a folding trailer. This design can let you use a smaller tow vehicle while still providing enough sleeping space and amenities for the whole family.

Length: 8 to 26 feet
Weight: 2,500 to 5,500 pounds
Sleeps: Four to eight people
Price: $10,000 to $40,000

Pros:

  • Extra sleeping space without added length and weight.

Cons:

  • Takes more setup time than a typical travel trailer.
  • Tent-sided material needs to be maintained, and fabric may need replacing eventually.
  • Doesn’t do as good a job at blocking sound in noisy campgrounds as fully hard-sided trailers do.

Fifth-Wheel Trailers

A Ram 3500 pickup truck pulling a fifth-wheel trailer.
Photo: Ram

Fifth-wheel trailers are designed to be towed by pickup trucks. The front of this type of trailer extends over a pickup bed that has a hitch that sits beneath the forward quarters; the trailer slides into place in the pickup truck bed.

Fifth-wheel trailers are generally large and heavy, requiring at least a half-ton truck equipped from the factory to handle a heavy payload. A handful of manufacturers, such as Escape fiberglass trailers, make smaller fifth-wheels that can be easily towed by smaller trucks. It is common to use a heavy-duty truck to tow a fifth-wheel. If you are shopping for both a trailer and a tow vehicle, consider a pickup truck with dual rear wheels (often referred to as a “dually”) to pull the largest trailers for better stability and payload capacity. Look at the specific capabilities on the truck you own or plan to buy, because truck cargo and towing capacities can vary widely depending on engine, cab configuration, and transmission gearing.

Winnebego fifth-wheel trailer interior.
Photo: Winnebago

Length: 20 to 40 feet
Weight: Typically 7,000 pounds and up, excluding a few small models
Sleeps: Four to eight people
Price: $20,000 to $150,000

Pros:

  • Provide more living space for their towing length.
  • Fifth-wheel hitches tend to be very stable for towing.
  • Typically has a dedicated bedroom in front.

Cons:

  • Often needs a heavy-duty truck.
  • Tall height might not fit under some bridges.
  • The truck bed’s use will be limited when you’re towing.
  • Not many truly small fifth-wheel trailers are available; “lightweight” ones typically weigh at least 7,000 pounds.

Toy Haulers or 'Sport-Utility Trailers'

A Winnebego Spyder toy trailer.
Photo: Winnebago

Toy haulers or “sport-utility trailers” can come in any travel trailer type. Typically they have an enclosed garage in back of them, designed for carrying motorcycles, ATVs, or other outdoor playthings. A ramp is built in off the back of the trailer, letting you drive these toys out of the trailer. The ramp itself can often be used as a porch once the toy is unloaded.

Length: 18 to 40 feet
Weight: 3,000 to 10,000 pounds
Sleeps: Four to eight people
Price: $10,000 to $150,000

Pros:

  • Lots of storage space.
  • Provides garage space to keep things dry or store tools.
  • Garage can be used for additional sleeping space or a room to hang out in.
  • Unique porch functionality.

Cons:

  • Shrinks available living space.
  • Putting heavy ATVs or motorcycles at rear can hurt trailer balance and handling.

Truck Campers

Truck campers slide into the back of a pickup truck’s bed—no towing needed. Often they stick out over the top of the truck’s cab to increase living space. Lightweight “expedition style” models typically have tentlike fabric sides that pop up to add headroom.

The key for truck-camper owners is having enough payload capacity. Some pop-top lightweight models fit into smaller trucks, but the typical hard-sided truck camper is too heavy for a half-ton truck, unless that truck is carefully optioned to maximize payload. Most owners tend to use heavy-duty trucks.

Length: 6 to 12 feet
Weight: 1,000 to 3,000 pounds
Sleeps: Two to four people
Price: $15,000 to $40,000

Pros:

  • Compact and easy to drive; not much bigger than the truck itself.
  • Allows for off-roading adventures.
  • Some specialty models fit in midsized trucks, such as the Toyota Tacoma.

Cons:

  • Not much living space.
  • It can be a high climb to get in.
  • Typical hard-sided truck campers require a heavy-duty truck.
  • It can be a hassle to install and remove from truck.
  • Often expensive for their size.

Bottom Line

No matter which recreational trailer or RV you buy, take time making your decision. A common adage is to “buy your third trailer first” because many people who stick with this hobby go through two or three RVs before they find the right fit for them. In other words, pace yourself and do your research. 

You can accelerate that process (and hopefully save grief and money) by renting an RV before you buy. That helps you sort out which kind of floor plan and which features are important for your type of camping and your family.

People standing outside an Airstream trailer.
Photo: Airstream