Explore the pros and cons related to switching to a smaller motorhome.
By Phyllis Hinz and Lamont Mackay, F175089
As travel writers and motorhome owners, wherever we roam in North America our home is always with us. After we decided to downsize from a Type A motorhome to a Type C, we’d meet other folks and tell them our story. Many of them would say, “We’ve been thinking about downsizing.” So, we decided to let others know what went into our decision, to share the benefits — and the possible downsides — of going smaller.
For 13 years, we traveled in a 40-foot diesel pusher. It was the size of a city bus. Thanks to the education we received at seminars held during FMCA Family Reunions and at other RV rallies, we learned how to maintain the RV and its many components. We carried that information with us, and even if we were not making our own repairs, we would have a good idea what was wrong and what was required to get it fixed.
The combination of our motorhome’s generator, inverter, and bank of batteries enabled us to be self-sufficient, energy-wise. Our huge holding tanks also helped to make it easy for us to boondock when in the desert or attending rallies without hookups. The size of the motorhome and the height of the windows gave us a sense of security.
We shared the road — and camaraderie — with the truck drivers, respecting their passing lanes while recognizing the sheer power of the weight they were hauling. Our air-brake system made a “psssst” noise right along with theirs, and we loved our engine’s exhaust brake. It not only extended the life of our brakes, but the sheer sound of it empowered us. We pulled a heavy SUV as our towed vehicle, four wheels down.
We both wanted to drive the motorhome, so to be fair we made a rule. If one drove into an RV park, the other drove out. We loved to brag that all we needed was an inch when backing that big motorhome into a campsite. Using walkie-talkies, one of us could talk the other into any space as long as there was an inch to spare on all sides.
We enjoyed the luxury of having a washer and dryer on board. We sometimes operated the dryer by running the generator as we drove down the highway. When we were connected to shore power, our 50-amp service was capable of running two air conditioners and a hair dryer at the same time. Our huge basement storage compartments made it possible for us to carry along everything we might ever need — a tool kit, buckets, a mop, spare parts, golf clubs, two grills, numerous patio chairs, tables, a ladder, a water softener, and even a snow shovel, just in case. There was so much room that we often would lose things inside the compartments. No matter where we parked, no matter what the condition of the campground or surroundings, it felt good to step inside at the end of the day. We treasured that motorhome and the lifestyle it afforded us like a favorite pair of jeans.
However, for us, there was a downside to the 40-footer. Because of its size, we often missed the opportunity to stop to take the perfect photograph, to find that spectacular subject for a travel article, to discover an area that would inspire a new recipe for our cookbooks, or to stop at a restaurant. Once we had to make a 50-mile detour, because performing a U-turn was impossible. On another occasion, we had to unhitch the towed car and back up in order to avoid a low-overhead bridge. The motorists behind us weren’t happy. Oftentimes, we would spot a gas station or grocery store that we wanted to stop at, but the parking lot would be too busy or the corners too tight for a 40-foot coach. If we did park in a public lot, our departure was susceptible to disruption if the smaller vehicles snuggled in around us. We always were aware of decorative shrubs and rocks placed at the entrance to RV sites.
We knew that one day we would downsize, because getting older would require it. Then we thought, why not downsize sooner, rather than later, and continue to enjoy this incredible RV lifestyle longer? Downsizing would mean no more missed opportunities for out-of-the-way photos, recipe inspirations, and restaurants. Plus, a smaller RV would be less expensive to buy, and we would save money on fuel, maintenance, and insurance.
After deciding the time was right to downsize, we put the Type A motorhome up for sale. We emptied the refrigerator, cupboards, closets, and basement, only to discover numerous items that had been enjoying a free ride for 13 years, one being the snow shovel. We cleaned and shined the interior and washed and waxed the exterior for the last time. We cried when the new owner drove her away.
With all the makes, models, and floor plans available in smaller motorhomes, our final selection came after a close look at our priorities. We wanted a shorter motorhome that could take us anywhere, with the maximum amount of open living space inside. We chose a 24-foot Type C built on a Sprinter chassis. It has a large slideout, no bedroom, and more sleeping areas than the Type A. We exchanged a “sleeps two, feeds four, and seats six” for a “sleeps six, feeds four, and seats six.”
With a new sense of freedom, we couldn’t wait to hit the road. The new motorhome takes us back to the basics of RV travel. We are touring North America in a home on wheels that has a smaller carbon footprint. We travel with less. The Type C is easier to heat, to cool, and to wash. We can stand on the front bumper and reach the top of the windshield. It is easier to park in restaurant, gas station, and grocery store parking lots. With the towed car hitched up, we don’t quite fill two parking spots end to end. We haven’t tested a fast-food drive-through yet, but we’ve come close. We fit into any campground or resort without being concerned about overhanging trees or fences. When there is only one very small site available at an RV park, we can take it. We can go nearly anywhere — under railway bridges, down narrow city streets, through tunnels, and along off-the-beaten-track roads. We used to judge a situation by looking at it and saying, “If a semi truck and trailer can do it, we can.” Now we say, “If that van can go there, so can we.”
In comparison to the Type A, the systems on a smaller motorhome are simpler. Because it has no automatic leveling jacks, we just drive up on blocks when necessary. We can start up the engine and drive away quickly and quietly without disturbing others. The new motorhome has no air bags to fill or jacks to lift, and we don’t have to allow the diesel engine to run until the turbocharger cools down when stopping after a long drive. We carry a smaller tool kit, because service centers are more readily available. This motorhome has less caulking to maintain, fewer black marks to scrub off, and a smaller windshield to replace when the stone chips become too numerous. If we ever require roadside service, the Type C will fit on a flatbed truck. No more anxiety about whether a tow truck driver will really know what modifications to make in order to tow the motorhome.
The gross combination weight rating (GCWR) of our new motorhome dictated that we downsize our towed car as well. We switched the SUV for a Smart car. A little extreme, but we were making a change, so why not make it fun? Like the motorhome, the smaller towed car also provides better gas mileage.
We no longer have the washer and dryer, but we find we are meeting some of the nicest people in campground laundry rooms. The 50-amp electric we enjoyed with our previous motorhome has been replaced by 30-amp service. To avoid electrical overload problems, we turn off any appliances that draw significant current, such as toasters and auxiliary heaters, before switching on the hair dryer. We do have smaller gray and black tanks, so we dump more often. Gone are the days of lengthy dry camping. The smaller fuel tank means we have to fill up at least twice during a long day of driving. This is not a bad thing, because it gives us the opportunity to stretch and put a snack together. As for the smaller storage areas, we are happy to travel with less. We take only what is needed. If anything else happens to be brought on board, we are forced to be creative. Our actual living space has changed very little. More importantly, by downsizing our motorhome, we have retained the immensity and diversity of the backyard we step out to every day.
So, have you been thinking about downsizing? We’re glad we did. It suits our needs. Our RV is still our home away from home, and now it’s not quite as much home to maintain. With the downsized vehicle, we have the ability to be more spontaneous when it comes to discovering new places, meeting new people, tasting new food, and taking on any adventure that may come our way.
How much money do you want to spend on an RV? A smaller motorhome is usually less expensive to purchase, to maintain, and to operate.
Are you a full-time, seasonal, or casual RVer? If you will be spending extended time living in your RV, can you travel with less space, less storage, and less stuff?
Do you prefer to stay in state or provincial park; small, intimate RV parks; or huge RV resorts? A shorter motorhome is easier to maneuver and can fit in tight RV sites, thereby making more locations and accommodations available. On the other hand, if you downsize, be sure to check out length and type requirements at upscale RV resorts, because some do not allow smaller motorhomes.
Do you like to dry camp? Smaller holding tanks in smaller motorhomes could have a direct effect on the length of time you dry camp.
Can you be flexible in order to find a workable floor plan? With so many floor plans available, downsizing can be a juggling act. For example, if maximum daytime living space is a priority, you may prefer a pullout sofa bed to a permanent bed.
Have you missed attractions, events, and scenery because your motorhome is too large to pull over without a plan or a place to park? If you enjoy stopping on a whim to take photographs, to sightsee, or to eat at a restaurant, a small motorhome makes spontaneity possible more often.
Are you prepared to stop more frequently for fuel? With a smaller motorhome you can get in and out of almost any gas station. You just have to do it a little more often.
Do you own or wish to tow a large, heavy vehicle behind your motorhome? Be sure to check out the GCWR for any motorhome you choose. In fact, with a smaller motorhome, you may choose not to tow a car at all. Either with or without a towed car, you will not have to worry about state or provincial length restrictions with a shorter motorhome.