It’s the best laid plans, they say, right? Like most of you, we’re jonesing to get back out on the road to travel. My wife and I knew that any plan to get back to travel would have to involve a few key points. First, it would have to check the boxes for our daughter’s anxiety. She’s dealt with anxiety since she was quite young and has developed some pretty amazing tools to keep it in check. But, germs are absolutely one of her major hot buttons. As she said when the COVID-19 pandemic started to pick up steam, “I’ve been training my whole life for this.”
We also knew that any travel would need to avoid airplanes for quite a while. While we view the risk as low getting on an airplane, we just aren’t willing to take that risk to travel. Lastly, we knew we had to make it fun for our youngest child. Our son still loves theme parks and “fun” stuff, with the definition of fun changing as often as the wind changes direction. We had our work cut out for us.
Our first trip was in a motorhome, something we’d never done before. Our goal was to try to experience some level of “normal” with a trip to Hersheypark prior to their public opening earlier this summer. All in all, it was 2020’s version of success. Our daughter spent a few minutes talking about how she found ways to manage her anxiety in an incredibly stressful situation.
With that trip under our belt, we decided to try renting another RV. Due to some of the failures we had on our first camping trip, we wanted to find a trailer for our next rental. That lead to all kinds of questions about what sort of truck we’d need to tow it, and it lead me to start drawing up a beginner’s guide to renting an RV. Our end goal was to figure out if our family could enjoy the RV life enough to actually buy one (and a pickup truck).
Our voyage would not go as planned. Strap in for a bit of a story.
Purchasing A Pickup Truck
Fast forward to the point where our family decided they wanted to take the camping plunge. I do plan to go through all the methods behind our madness of jumping into the camping world. It was clear to us that the best fit for our family was to purchase a pickup truck and a trailer as opposed to buying a motorhome. For starters, motorhomes can get pricey quickly. And, for us the biggest downside was that once you were parked at a campsite it was hard to get settled knowing that the only vehicle you had to go anywhere was also your house.
There are two primary types of RVs to consider if your plan is to pull one with a pickup truck, travel trailers and fifth wheels. Travel trailers come in various shapes and sizes and tend to be the smaller of the two varieties. These tend to be trailers that you tow with a typical bumper pull hitch. You’d recognize these as a metal ball that the hitch sits down onto. Now, there are weight distribution hitches and plenty of other gadgets to help with your trailer, but those are details for another day as well.
Not all pickup trucks are created equally, far from it. We planned to purchase a 1/2 ton pickup truck to pull the kind of travel trailers our family would comfortably fit in. These aren’t the smallest pickup trucks out there, but they’re also far from the biggest. There are a number of factors to consider when buying the right pickup truck and trailer, mostly revolving around safety.
One of the most important (and often overlooked) numbers is the payload capacity of your truck. This is different than towing capacity. What I quickly found in my research of pickup trucks is that you’re much more likely to run out of payload capacity before you run out of towing capacity. Without getting overly nerdy, payload capacity is all the “stuff” you can carry. This includes the people in the truck, anything you carry in the bed of the pickup truck as well as the “hitch weight” (also referred to as tongue weight) of any trailer. The hitch weight isn’t the total weight of the trailer. Actually, it’s not even close.
The number I saw widely referenced by pickup truck “experts” online was that you should figure 10% of the total trailer weight is your hitch weight. That’s a number that I probably should have verified before buying a pickup truck because it’s very, very wrong.
Finding the payload capacity of a truck can be a complicated endeavor. Dodge actually has a link where you can look up the towing and payload capacity of any Dodge truck as long as you have the VIN. That’s a super helpful feature. It also quickly illustrated that while the Dodge trucks look great inside and out, they really lack the sort of towing and payload capacity needed to pull a trailer. Ford has a combination water torture/Pythagorean Theorum/blueprint to the space shuttle approach to calculating towing capacity.
I can’t even begin to tell you how many hours I spent researching trucks. When it became clear a Ford F-150 was the best shot we had of finding a truck with plenty of payload capacity, I started calling dealerships to ask what the payload capacity was of certain trucks. You see, Ford doesn’t have one of those handy websites to check payload. In fact, it’s not even on the window sticker or other online details for the truck. The only place online you can find it is on a proprietary app that sales managers have access to (which only operates on Android devices). Only one dealership (out of about 25 that I contacted) had any idea this app existed. The rest of the process was me calling sales managers and begging them to have someone check random vehicles on their lot for the payload capacity, displayed on a yellow sticker on the door jam.
The vast majority of F-150 trucks in our configuration (with a Supercrew cab, 4×4 with a shorter truck bed) already chewed up payload because we opted for a 4-door truck versus a two-door. We figured for long trips the kids would want a real backseat. Then, when you add on options we had no desire for, like a chrome package and running boards you keep driving that payload number down. We found options like this standard on many, many trucks we looked at.
After looking at literally hundreds of trucks I finally found one that had a really high payload number in the configuration we needed. I was all set to sign the paperwork with the dealer when I realized the truck didn’t have any running boards. With smaller kids, getting up into a pickup truck can be a bit of a bear without running boards or a step. Were we back to square one? I think the sales manager was ready to kick me out of the dealership at this point, but he lead me to a back room where there were boxes and parts stacked everywhere. He showed me a pile of very basic, black running boards. The sales manager explained these were the cheap stock running boards that people buying new trucks had the dealership take off and throw away so they could install big, chrome ones that they liked the looks of better. He told me I could have a set for free if I’d just buy the truck. A scale appeared out of nowhere and we weighed the basic running boards. 20 pounds apiece and we were in business!
The Plan Blows Up When We Try To Buy A Trailer
Brand new truck in hand, we went back to the rental company that we had used throughout the summer and found a used trailer that we really liked. It was a bit bigger, with the added benefit of a bonus half bathroom to go with a full bathroom. If you’ve listened to me talk about family vacations in the past, you’ve probably heard me talk about the value of a hotel suite or connecting rooms. We don’t live in one bedroom and share one bathroom at home as a family of four. So, when we don’t have to do that on the road, we prefer more space. The same held true looking for a trailer.
I pulled our brand new pickup truck up to the rental place and the staff there helped me hook up the trailer we were considering for our purchase. Our plan was to take it for a long weekend and make sure we liked it, then close the deal when we got back. The hitch weight on the trailer was listed at roughly 900 lbs. which would leave us a few hundred pounds of extra payload capacity to make sure we were operating safely. How much extra? Well, we’d need a set of truck scales for that. This was another learning experience. After learning from some smart folks in Facebook groups, I set out for a truck scale with the family loaded in the pickup truck and the trailer in tow. This was our ideal setup that we would roll out with for camping trips, a perfect test for the scales.
Per the instructions I had, I did my three different passes over the truck scale and grabbed my scale tickets. Initially everything looked good. As we drove and I tried to crunch numbers in my head I wasn’t sure. An hour later we arrived at our campsite for the weekend and I sat down to do the math. As smoke poured out of the sides of my computer, I plugged in all the numbers to a very detailed (and very useful) spreadsheet I found on Facebook. I checked the calculations. And, I rechecked them. Then, I just stared at the numbers. I posted them to Facebook, surely someone would find my math mistake. Alas, no mistake. The hitch weight of the trailer we wanted to buy wasn’t 900 lbs. It wasn’t even close. It weighed in around 1500 lbs. or WAY over the limit our truck could tow safely.
Our return trip home was thankfully short. We drained all the water out of the tanks in the trailer, dumped all the trash we could and put as much weight at the back of the trailer as possible. To some degree, the trailer is a like a see-saw when it comes to hitch weight. By moving weight to the back, behind the rear axles, we could take some of the weight off the hitch. We arrived home safely, our plans for a new (used) trailer dashed.
Finding The Right Trailer (Oh, And About That Second Truck)
I bought a hitch weight scale which is a fairly reliable way to check the hitch weight on a trailer. It’s not perfect, since you’re measuring the trailer on its own, with all the hitch weight resting on the pin. Positioning of the scale can cause the number to vary by about 10% in one direction or another. When I took it to an RV dealership in our area, what I found kind of shocked me. I weighed four trailers that were all supposed to be within the range of what our pickup truck could tow. Three of the four trailers weighed more than the manufacturer’s advertised weight. Two of them were comically high, in some cases hundreds of pounds heavier. It became pretty clear that I couldn’t rely on the manufacturer’s info. And, since the dealer told me the weights didn’t matter, I also needed a new dealership.
It didn’t take long to realize that we’d be pretty limited in the size of trailer we could pull with the truck we had. It was a painful miscalculation. We absolutely could have downsized the trailer, but camping was already something I was on the fence about. As I started researching a bigger pickup truck, I learned that the price difference on 3/4 ton and 1-ton trucks. I drove both trucks and found that both had a similar ride. They were bigger and definitely weren’t as smooth a ride as the 1/2 ton truck we bought. But, the advantage of upgrading the truck was that we would be able to pull a lot more trailer.
We got a little lucky since the demand this past summer for pickup trucks was through the roof. The Ford dealership we purchased the truck from actually worked pretty closely with us. We did end up losing a few thousand dollars, most of which was the rebate on the F-150 we purchased. A painful unnecessary expense, but since we were in waist-deep it seemed to make sense to wade in just a bit deeper. With the extra size, and expense of an F-250, we were able to upgrade from a travel trailer to a “fifth wheel”, a much bigger trailer.
The Final Two Pennies
The last 9 months have been a blur in so many different ways. I started typing this article a number of times and never managed to finish it. It’s done now, but there are so many other RV adventures (and horror stories) to share with you guys. Stay tuned for more of the craziness. For now, happy to answer questions. I may not be a huge fan of camping, but our family loves it. There are so many details I’ve learned along the way to consider. Hopefully, my mistakes can save you some money if you’re taking the plunge into the RV lifestyle.
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