We started our full-time RV journey in 2018 with a 29-foot fifth wheel. We traveled the country with our Keystone Cougar, exploring 29 states and towing our rig to RV resorts, state parks, and even down plenty of dirt roads to epic boondocking locations. The fifth wheel was the perfect size to be our full-time home and office, but maneuverable enough to move every 1 to 2 weeks.
However, along the way we noticed we were missing out on some experiences with a larger rig and started admiring smaller RVs we encountered during our travels. After 2.5 years of full-time travel in our fifth wheel, we decided to change it up and purchased a smaller RV.
Types of Smaller Rigs
There’s a wide range of smaller rigs to choose from, each with their own pros and cons. Here are the most common types of smaller rigs:
Thanks to the social media-fueled #vanlife trend, vans are more popular than ever. From expensive Sprinter van builds, to more budget-friendly conversions, these vehicles are ideal for narrow navigation and stealth camping.
Small Travel Trailer
Tiny towables are among the most affordable small rigs. Travel trailers like teardrops, fiberglass, and pop-ups are great for lighter towing and a simpler setup.
Truck campers, cab overs, and slide-ins are small campers that go inside the bed of a truck. While most require a vehicle with a hefty payload rating, these are a great option for off-roading and easy parking.
Small Class Bs or Cs
These motorhomes are the best of both worlds, with most amenities of a bigger RV compressed into a smaller space.
Benefits of Smaller Rigs
Owners of compact rigs are usually seeking simplicity, flexibility, or adventure. There are a variety of reasons to choose a smaller camper—here are a few:
Some smaller RVs are as easy to drive as a car, making travel days a breeze. These rigs often fit in regular parking spaces. This gives small RVers the ability to pull over at any roadside attraction or enjoy the convenience of an RV for day trips. RVing in cities can be tricky in a big rig, but hassle-free for shorter vehicles. For those seeking the great outdoors, only small RVs can safely drive up more narrow mountain roads, or between trees in a forest.
Less space doesn’t always mean lower costs. Some high-end small RVs can exceed six figures. However, for the most part, smaller rigs are less expensive to purchase. They can also be towed by smaller, more economical vehicles.
Small campers also have more opportunities to save on the road. Lightweight rigs require less gas. Shorter RVs can often fit in tent sites, or take advantage of more free camping spots, decreasing campsite fees.
As camping becomes more popular, the most sought-after campsites are more difficult than ever to book. Gone are the days of a spontaneous national park road trip in a big rig. But the smaller your RV, the more campsite options are available to you. Short RVs are not limited by campground length restrictions and can take advantage of more non-traditional overnight options that don’t require reservations.
Minimalism and Ease
Larger RVs have the advantage of storage, but often require more setup. Small RVs embrace minimalism that allows for quick setup and breakdown, which means that shorter stays are easier. All RVs can face unexpected repairs and challenges on the road, but there’s usually less that can go wrong with simpler, smaller rigs.
Accessibility to the Outdoors
Many RVers choose small rigs because it gives them better access to more remote and less crowded spaces in nature. Public lands that are safer for big rigs to access tend to be more crowded and closer to the road. Smaller rigs can navigate to campsites that offer more solitude in the outdoors. Many small rigs are designed specifically to be more rugged or have a higher clearance to withstand off-road driving. Less interior space also encourages more relaxation and activities al fresco at campsites.
Tradeoffs of Smaller Rigs
No RV is perfect and comes with tradeoffs. Here are some downsides you should consider if you’re buying a smaller rig:
The most obvious sacrifice is less living space. Everything from beds to bathrooms to floor space to walk around, will be more cramped. There are fewer rooms and less privacy, which is a major consideration if you’re camping with others.
Limited Storage and Weight
You can’t bring as many things with you in a smaller RV. Small rigs have fewer cabinets and storage spaces, so you have to make some cutbacks in wardrobe, outdoor gear, kitchen items, and other areas. Not only are there limited places to put items, but small rigs have less weight capacity, so take care as you pack.
You’ll be surprised by how much can fit into a tiny layout, but not all small rigs have the appliances or amenities of a standard RV. Some lightweight rigs don’t include a shower, bathroom, oven, or fridge. Make a list of your must-haves before starting to look at small rigs.
While many little rigs have big boondocking capabilities, you may be limited in how long you can stay off the grid. A smaller rig often means smaller water and waste tanks, so plan accordingly.
Why We Downsized
We made the transition to a smaller RV in June, 2021. After a year of RVing during the pandemic camping boom, we wanted more flexibility to boondock and travel without extensive planning. Our older fifth wheel was also beginning to require a lot of maintenance, which made travel days increasingly more stressful.
Exploring the U.S. in a smaller RV brings more of the excitement and spontaneity of a road trip into our adventures. We also love boondocking and want to off-road with less stress.
After thousands of miles in a fifth wheel, we were ready to RV in a new way. Since our RV is also our full-time home and office, a small RV would be a tough year-round squeeze. We decided to keep our fifth wheel as a stationary home base in Florida and purchase a smaller RV for travel. After much deliberation, we bought a 2012 Lance 865 truck camper.
Truck campers are a unique type of small rig, and not suitable for everyone. For our needs, it was the perfect choice. We were used to towables, and wanted the option to leave our rig behind in a campsite. Despite their flexibility, truck campers navigate and park easily like a van. If we choose not to unload the truck camper, we can set up and break down in minutes.
The camper is simpler but it still has all our must-haves, like a wet bath and full kitchen. The combination of our truck camper with our high clearance truck makes boondocking easy. Most importantly, we already had a heavy duty truck to tow our fifth wheel, so we didn’t have to purchase a new vehicle for a truck camper.
Switching from a fifth wheel to a truck camper was a major adjustment. It’s certainly more cramped, and we have to be even more mindful to give each other space. Working in the truck camper is the trickiest part, but we try to utilize the outdoors as much as we can to give each other separate spaces throughout the day.
RVing in a truck camper has never been easier or more fun. We’ve been enjoying places that we couldn’t have traveled to with our fifth wheel, like urban breweries, friends’ driveways, and beachside parking. We’re currently planning a 2022 trip to Alaska, an adventure we probably wouldn’t have attempted in a fifth wheel.
What to Look for in a Small Camper
Every small rig is different, so here are some considerations to help you make your decision:
- Do you want your RV to be drivable, towable, or loadable?
- Why do you want to go small?
- What kind of experiences are you hoping to achieve with a smaller RV?
- What are your absolute must-haves? A bathroom? A certain size fridge? An oven? How many beds?
- What type of layouts do you prefer?
Above all, you need to physically look at and walk into lots of small campers to figure out what works best for you. You will learn what you like more quickly at an RV show or dealer versus looking at photos online. All RVs and spaces look and feel different once you’re actually inside them.
Now that we’ve traveled in both a fifth wheel and in a truck camper, we truly love both styles of RVing, and don’t think one is better than the other. There are pros and cons to any type of RV, and we’re thankful for the opportunity to experience both big and small rigs. While you can certainly boondock and have adventures in a big rig, we’re loving the ease and flexibility of RVing in our small truck camper.