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RV Show Survival Guide

by Grant
RV Show Survival Guide

So, you are thinking about getting an RV? If you’re not sure what you’re looking for, an RV show can be a great place to start. Attending an RV show allows you to see many models from several different dealers. It is a great way to figure out what’s available and what works for you without driving all over town. It can also be overwhelming. That’s why we’ve put together this RV show survival guide to help you through it all.

If you don’t know what to expect, going to an RV show can be frustrating. We attended several RV shows before we bought our first camper. Now, we’re here to pass along our tips to help you not just survive but thrive at your first RV show.

Updated January 2020

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Take your smartphone

I know this may be an obvious one but I’m going to include it just in case. You’ll want to take pictures. You may need to look up various information. The calculator may come in handy. If you get separated from the rest of your party you’ll need to be able to find them. Just do yourself a favor and make sure you have your phone.

Never go to an RV show hungry

Remember how we said RV shows can be frustrating and overwhelming? The best defense to this is to not let yourself get hangry. That’s hungry and angry, just in case you’re not familiar with the word!

RV shows are lots and lots and lots of very similar campers crammed into just about every available space. It will take a few hours to see everything. Eat a decent meal before you go and take snacks. Trust me on this… You will tolerate the process a lot easier if you are not hungry.

Yes, the show will probably have food for sale. There’s a good chance it won’t be anything great, though.

Consider the type of RV you want

At the RV show, you’ll see all kinds of RVs: motorhomes, fifth-wheels, travel trailers, pop up campers. If you’re not sure what you want, be sure to look around at the various features of them all.

What type of RV you should get is a very personal decision. We already had an F-150, so getting something we could tow was an obvious choice for us. If you don’t already have a truck, you may prefer to get a drivable RV.

Do a little research before you go to try to help you narrow down your options. At the very, least you should try to decide if you want to drive something or tow something.

Know your budget

The price of an RV can vary greatly, from just a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. You may be thinking you want something big and luxurious until you look at the price tag. Knowing your budget will help you narrow down your options.

As you might expect, the more money you spend, the more comfort and luxury you’ll get.

Know what you can tow before you go to the RV show

If you’re looking for a towable RV, know what you can tow BEFORE you go to the show. Towing a camper long-term, whether a travel trailer or a fifth-wheel, and doing it safely is a matter of math. You need to do your math before you go into the RV show. Unless you are planning on buying the camper you want and then buying the tow vehicle that can tow it, there are a few things you should become intimately familiar with.

Likewise, if you’re looking for a drivable RV, consider if you’re going to tow your car. If you’re looking for a large-ish RV, you probably will want to tow a car. You’ll need to know the weight of the vehicle. Also, be sure to consider how you will tow it. Some cars can be towed flat, others will need a partial or full trailer.

Taking our new RV home.
Knowing what your vehicle can tow can prevent you from making a costly mistake.

Determine your tow capacity

If you’re looking for a towable camper, here’s how you get your tow capacity. First, your vehicle’s advertised max tow capacity? Throw that number out. It doesn’t mean anything. If we went by what Ford advertises the max tow capacity of my truck, I could tow a 9,600 lb. trailer. That’s not really the case.

The first number you need is your vehicle’s Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR). This is the maximum allowed weight of the tow vehicle, the trailer and all of the cargo in both. For my F-150, that amount is about 15,000 lbs. The next thing you will need to know is the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR). This is the maximum operating weight of the vehicle without the trailer. For my truck, it is 8,200 lbs.

Now, it is time to look at the trailer: The first thing you will need is the curb or dry weight of the trailer. My Passport Elite 23RB is 4,747 lbs. and its cargo capacity is an additional  2,053 lbs. When it comes to estimating the cargo I have in the camper, I ALWAYS overestimate by assuming I am carrying the max weight. That way, if I am carrying a full load of water, I still have plenty of capability left in the engine.

Pulling our camper over Powder River Pass in Wyoming
Pulling our camper over Powder River Pass in Wyoming. Make sure you have more than enough truck for your trailer!

Now, it is time to do your calculations. For this, I use this tow calculator. When you add in your weight (be sure to add in everyone who will be riding with you and overestimate!). The calculator also allows you to factor a safety margin of up to 15%. With all of those numbers plugged in, I get a fully loaded trailer weight of  7,066 lbs. for my tow capacity. My trailer comes in at 6,800 lbs. fully loaded, so I am within my tow capacity, even with a 15% safety margin in there.

Having this number handy will help you immensely in dealing with salesmen. I have found some salesmen will try to sell you more than you can tow. Be firm on this number… unless you want to buy another truck.

Know what you want in an RV floor plan

I am going to let you in on a little secret… finding the right camper is less about finding the right model and more about finding the right floor plan. Many manufacturers have pretty much the same floor plan, so find the right floor plan for you and then decide which manufacturer. Choosing between them is all about getting the best deal and the little details.

The interior of our camper
The two big must-haves for our camper: a walk around queen bed and a couch instead of a dinette.

When we started out looking at campers, we knew we wanted a few things: We wanted a walk-around “real” queen bed (RV queen-sized mattresses chop off 5 inches off the end), a sofa instead of a kitchen table and a corner shower instead of a tub. We didn’t need or want bunks. We just wanted a small camper designed for a couple.

When it comes to a camper, buy what you are going to use it for regularly. If you have grown kids who might join you now and then on a weekend, I suggest getting a tent for them. If you know you are taking your teenage kids (or grandchildren) and they cannot sleep in the same bed without the start of World War III, bunks it is!

Don’t spend more money to get extra space in your camper “just in case” someone might come with you. It’s not worth it!

We found the Passport Elite 23RB at our first RV show and loved it. We looked at several variations of that floor plan but were hard-pressed to find a camper that fit our needs better.

Really check it out

We looked at a lot of floor plans and were very quickly able to rule out things we didn’t want. Spotting the windows on the back of a camper for bunks became almost second nature. Once we found a floor plan we liked, we spent some time in it. We sat on the couch, opened up the cabinets, laid on the bed, stood in the shower and generally spent time really getting used to the camper.

Grant checking out the under-bed storage of the 23RB. We ended up falling in love with this RV.
Grant checking out the under-bed storage of the 23RB. We ended up falling in love with this RV.

When you are done walking through the show, pick three or four models to go back to for a closer look. Really dig around and look at every nook and cranny. Take some pictures with your phone… especially the model number and price tag. That’s why you are at the RV show to begin with!

Don’t expect to buy at your first RV show

Buying an RV is a big investment. Even if you get something small and relatively inexpensive, you’ll still be spending a good chunk of money. Take your time, consider all your options and make the right decision for you and your family. What you think you want at first may change.

At your first RV show, you’ll learn a lot about floor plans, pricing, optional upgrades and much more. Don’t rush to a decision. We went to three RV shows and several dealerships before we were ready to buy.

Do your research

It is time to do your homework. Look online for reviews and prices. Sometimes, you can get a very good deal at an RV show by buying one of the floor models and towing it away at the end of the show. It saves the dealership time and money in terms of transporting the trailer.

Other times, you will find better deals elsewhere. Once we had decided on our model, we went to one last show to check it out in person and see if there was anything else we could find we liked. That particular show was a bust. They didn’t even carry the line of campers we were looking for.

Pro Tip: If looking for a particular camper, make sure the show actually will have that brand you are looking for. You can generally find this information online ahead of time.

Don’t be afraid to haggle

I know some folks get intimidated by haggling for the best deal, but, believe me, it is worth it.

After not finding the camper at the RV show, I got online and found a place about 30 miles north of the show which had one of the models we were looking for, but for a pretty high price. We went up and checked it out again in person. The dealer was happy to sell it to us, but not for the price we were interested in paying. I pointed out another dealer a couple of hours away had the same camper on RV Trader for significantly less, but he still wouldn’t budge on price.

So, we drove a few hours away and caught the dealer at the end of the day. This dealer had three of this model on the lot and was looking to get rid of them. I lowballed the price, not expecting him to bite. He came back with the cheapest price we found anywhere within about 400 miles.

Husky Centerline Hitch
We really like the Husky Center Line TS hitch for our camper. It does a great job.

I slept on it. The next day, I called him and told him if he tossed in a weight-distributing hitch, I was in. He agreed and the next Saturday, we came home with a camper. I might have been able to haggle a bit more out of him, but I felt I got a very fair price on what I got. How we know we actually got a good deal: When we got our first insurance bill, it was a lot more than we expected. It turns out the company had to charge us more for our coverage because they were not able to find any comparable replacement models for sale for within $10,000 of what we paid for it.

Buy your second RV first

One of the big pieces of advice I read when buying our camper was to buy your second trailer first. Bonnie and I were considering buying a “starter” trailer, but unlike a home, campers don’t appreciate in value. They lose value.

So, if you are thinking about getting in at a lower price point to see if you like the lifestyle, I understand, but it will cost you money in the long run. Every time you buy a new RV, it costs you money. It costs in terms of taxes, getting new equipment and depreciation on your old camper.

Get what you want the first time! If you’re really not sure what kind of camper you want or if you’re even ready to commit to RVing, trying renting a camper to check it out.

Read all about renting a camper with Outdoorsy.

A couple of tips before you buy:

Prep your vehicle 

Trailer Brake Controllers
I still have no idea why my Ford dealership thought installing a trailer brake controller that banged into my knee versus the one that fits in the console was a good idea.

If you know you are planning on buying a camper sooner rather than later, do yourself a favor: get your vehicle ready before you buy! We made the mistake of not having a trailer brake controller installed on our vehicle before we purchased the camper, forcing us to scramble to get one installed. I won’t go into the details, but it involved me getting very angry at the local Ford dealership. Eventually, I got what I was looking for, but it took a lot longer than it should have.

Figure out storage

If you live in a neighborhood with an HOA, check the covenants before you assume you can park your camper at your house. Many HOAs do not allow this, especially for long-term storage. If that is the case, you’ll need to find a storage facility or maybe a friend or family member with some space.

Couldn't help but stop to take a picture of the rainbow over our new storage lot after dropping off the camper.
I couldn’t help but stop to take a picture of the rainbow over our new storage lot after dropping off the camper.

Since we live in a condo, storing our camper at home was not an option at all. We found a great place just up the road from us. Unfortunately,  the weekend we bought the camper, the owners of the storage area were out of town. We had to get inventive with where we stored the camper for a few days. If you know you are ready to purchase a camper, get your storage space ahead of time. Trust me on this.

Final Thoughts on the RV Show Survival Guide

Going to an RV show is a great way to shop the different manufacturers, see tons of different options and get a good idea on pricing. Don’t let the excitement of the RV show sweep you up and put yourself in a bad position by making a hasty decision. With our RV show survival guide, you should know what to expect and not be overwhelmed by all the options.

Still on the fence about buying an RV? Check out this cost comparison of our road trips. Or consider renting an RV first. We recommend Outdoorsy for a more personal experience. Check out our article about our experience renting a camper van with Outdoorsy.

You can also read this article with more details about our experience buying our first RV.

Once you make your decision, be sure you check out our gear guides on outfitting your new RV, both interior and exterior and our Tips for New RVers.

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