2021 Ford F-150 pulling an Airstream RV trailer.

Traveling by RV is a resurging trend amid the coronavirus pandemic, with families seeking an escape while maintaining social distancing. A motorhome or travel trailer allows you to see the country without the need to use public lodging, restaurants, or even restrooms.

“We are noticing increased interest in the lifestyle both virtually through online resources and resuming interest in states where dealerships are open when compared to when the pandemic began,” says Sam Jefson, a spokesman for Winnebago Industries, maker of Winnebago and Grand Design motorhomes and travel trailers.

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 motorhome, and they come in a wide range of designs, sizes, and prices.

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Because a trailer can be removed, the SUV or truck that hauls it can be used year-round rather than 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 just now arriving in some RVs, including forward collision warningautomatic emergency brakingblind spot warning, and robust crash protection. Tow vehicles also provide the ability to safely travel with kids and their car seats, an option that's often not available in motorhomes.

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 motorhome. And a tow vehicle will be a lot easier to handle when sightseeing, especially when navigating downtown roads, parking, and getting food at a drive-thru.

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 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's capable of safely towing the trailer you have in mind.

Approach this aspect with care, as it's very easy to buy more trailer than a vehicle can comfortably handle. (Learn more about what you need to know before you use your pickup to tow.)

There are several types of recreational trailers to consider, outlined below.

Safe Practices for Traveling Now

The RV lifestyle has social distancing built in, but there are times when you'll be around other people.

"RVing and boating are great ways for families to get back out and enjoy the enrichment that comes with active outdoor lifestyle activities,” Jefson says. But he adds that campers should follow guidelines from federal and state governments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in determining when and how to use an RV.

Traveling in an RV always involves certain logistics, such as scheduled maintenance, park reservations, route planning, and stocking up on provisions. But during this pandemic, you may need to be more methodical and self-sufficient.

Darryl Saunders, a traveler who pulls a 27-foot Airstream Globetrotter, shared several tips with Consumer Reports from his recent experiences on the road:

  • Plan your stops. Park closures, restrictions, and crowding are all factors now.
  • Double-check your reservations to make sure they are still valid.
  • If you're traveling to a destination for a certain attraction, make sure it's open. Saunders mentioned that a place he wanted to see (Sequoia National Park) was closed.
  • Plan ahead for food. Many businesses are now reopening, but there are still restrictions. And remember that you won't be able to go through a drive-thru with a large trailer.

Many travelers recommend checking with RV parks about their amenities because some, including restrooms, laundry facilities, and on-site convenience stores, may be closed. Ask about specific rules regarding social distancing, which can have an on impact on pool usage, playgrounds, and campfires.

Restrictions vary by region, and they'll certainly change throughout the year. They may include the need to self-quarantine after traveling in certain states. Check the restrictions for your state and those you plan to travel through, because they could have a significant impact on your plans.  

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 a campsite. Most have tentlike sides and 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: 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 the 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: 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.
  • A wide variety of lengths and weights.

Cons:

  • A suitable tow vehicle is required, which may need to be larger and more powerful than you think.
  • Towing requires drivers to learn (and practice) 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 the 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 by the factory to handle a heavy payload. A handful of manufacturers make smaller fifth-wheels that can be easily towed by smaller trucks, such as Escape fiberglass trailers. It's common to use a heavy-duty truck to tow a fifth-wheel. If you're shopping for 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 the engine, the 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. They usually have an enclosed garage in back, 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. 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 the 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 usually 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 $50,000

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. In other words, pace yourself and do your research. 

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

2021 Ford F-150 with Airstream travel trailer.

What to Know About Towing

There are so many vehicles to satisfy your inner adventurer. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports expert Mike Monticello explains to host Jack Rico what to know about getting these beauties from point A to point B.