Keystone Passport travel trailer being pulled down a county road in Oregon.

First Time Buyer's Guide


Shopping for my first RV was fun and a little overwhelming. So many brands. So many floorplans.

Everything shiny and new. How could I pick just one, let alone the right one? For me, it came down to a roll of the dice as much as anything. But it doesn't have to be that way for you.

Now, five years later and almost an RV veteran, here are some questions I would ask myself before doing it all over again.

Does it fit my family?

Let's start with the basics, like how many beds you'll need to make everyone comfortable? Sure, in a jam, you can throw an air mattress on the floor or pitch a tent outside, but there are better alternatives. Most floorplans sleep two, three, or four. If your family is larger or you regularly bring relatives and friends along, then consider a bunkhouse camper model, some of which sleep upwards of 10.

Another consideration is the galley. Is the kitchen laid out the way you like it? Is there enough counter space? And, at a minimum, can the refrigerator store all the food you'll need for several days away from the supermarket? 

And what about the bathroom? Is one bath sufficient, or would a second bath make all the difference?

Where will I use it?

Another simple question, but one that will help you narrow down your choices, is where you will camp. Do you expect to stay mostly in campgrounds with water, electricity, and sanitary facilities? Or is boondocking or dry-camping in remote locations your jam?

If off-grid camping is essential to you, then pay closer attention to things like holding tank size, maximum battery storage, and RV solar system compatibility. Larger holding tanks and solar allow you to camp long term. Then again, if you're in a campground with hookups, then details like tank sizes and solar are not as important to you.

What will I tow it with?

The way I see it, you have two options—you can tow with your existing vehicle or buy a new one. Make sure the trailer you select falls within your vehicle's towing capabilities if you plan to tow with your current car or truck. You can determine your towing capacity by checking your owner's manual, manufacturer's web site, or talking with your auto dealer.

On the other hand, if you plan to buy a new vehicle to tow your camper, then you've expanded your possibilities, as virtually any travel trailer or fifth wheel camper is within your reach.

No matter whether you plan to tow with your existing vehicle or buy new, consider not only the empty weight of the trailer but the weight of all the gear you will store in it, which can quickly add up to hundreds of pounds. Also, be sure to equip your tow vehicle with a properly sized and installed hitch, hitch components, and supplemental braking system. 

How do I choose a floorplan?

Floorplan preferences may be the most subjective area of all in shopping for a new RV. Fortunately, RV manufacturers offer dozens of different floorplans with descriptive labels like RL (rear living room), RE (rear entertainment), RB (rear bath), and so on, with the expectation that one is perfect for you. You'll just need to find that proverbial needle in a haystack.

While online photos and 360° tours can help narrow your selection, I find that walking through the different models in real life works best for me. Spend an afternoon at a dealership checking out the inventory. Go to an RV show. Ask other owners what they like or dislike about their RV's layout.

How do I find the best RV dealer to work with?

While this might sound like heresy to some, it's not all about the price. In my opinion, a dealer that focuses solely on price may be shortchanging you in some other areas. A good RV dealer provides a valuable service, before, during, and after the sale. They will ask questions, walk you through the purchase, finance, and insurance process, and deliver professional service when the time comes that you need it.

I prefer to shop locally since my dealer supports my community with jobs and sponsors the kids' soccer team. My dealer knows me by my first name, and more than once saved my vacation when last-minute repairs proved necessary.

Do I really need to pay attention during the dealer walk-through?

The "walk-through" I'm talking about is that point in the delivery process when the dealer representative "walks you through" the interior and exterior of your new camper, pointing out in show-and-tell fashion the features and their operation.

Often, this is your first and best opportunity to get a detailed one-on-one tour of your new pride-and-joy. I get it, you're excited and raring to go camping, but try to pay attention.

Since it can be challenging to remember the details of everything you hear and see, I like to take short cell-phone videos during the walk-thru for future reference. Manufacturers like Keystone RV also offer a library of support material on their website.

What accessories do I need?

I think most RVers, especially guys, are gadget people. So, if you ask a group of experienced RVers what accessories they own, you would undoubtedly come up with a warehouse full of suggestions. But since your RV's storage is somewhat limited, let's start with the necessities.

RV-specific must-haves accessories include:

  • sewer hose and rubber or disposable gloves
  • drinking water safe hose
  • water pressure regulator
  • heavy-duty extension cord
  • surge protector
  • wheel chocks
  • leveling pads or blocks
  • covers for the roof vents
  • holding tank chemicals

Expect your inventory to grow as you run across new RV accessories.

What are the biggest problems RV owners need to be aware of?

"A house on wheels bouncing down the road" is how some people describe an RV. Now imagine your home's furnace, water heater, refrigerator, or toilet trucking down the interstate. Can you picture why regular inspection and maintenance of your RV is so essential?

Many of the inspection and maintenance tasks are easy to do yourself if you are so inclined. A few are best left to your dealer. The owner's manual supplied with your new RV will include a detailed service schedule, so take a few minutes to read through the manual and keep it handy. I find YouTube videos posted by some manufacturers and dealers a big help in my RV's DIY care.

In the end.

Sure, buying my first RV was a little scary. It's a significant investment, and I wanted to do it right. But the truth is that this sometimes-crazy shopping experience, shared with my partner, was a big part of the fun.

As they say, it's not the destination, it's the journey. I think that's especially true about anything to do with RVs.

My one regret? Why did I wait so long to jump into the camping lifestyle?

-- Jim Mac,