RV Buyers’ Guide – Motorised or Towed Vehicle?


How to choose between a caravan and a motorhome

If you’re thinking about buying an RV, there are two important questions to consider early on. The first is what sort of lifestyle you want on the road, and the second is whether you want to tow a vehicle. There is a lot of terminology around the various kinds of RVs (A-Class, fifth wheeler, pop-top), but they essentially break down into two categories – motorised and towed – with each offering different benefits.

Motorised vehicles offer maximum mobility and are ideal for those who want the freedom of moving from place to place easily, or getting into more out of the way areas that might be less suitable for towed vehicles.

Towed vehicles are perfect for those planning to stay in one place for an extended period, and who want to set up and explore an area thoroughly.

To tow or not to tow?

The idea of towing a vehicle can be daunting for some. It also relies on you having the right sort of vehicle to manage the load you are towing, whether it’s a caravan, camping trailer or a fifth wheeler (see below for more details on these). It can take practise to manoeuvre your vehicle in and out of tight spaces (like that last allocated space at a campground!); you’ll also need to be confident on the open road and able to reverse down a driveway and into your garage at home or wherever you are storing it.

Happily, it is easier than ever to tow with confidence thanks to larger mirrors, automatic levelling devices and advancements in reversing cameras, anti-sway and fifth wheel technology; all of which have contributed to taking the terror out of towing, reversing and parking.

Towing an RV does mean that once in place, you’ll need to exit your vehicle (whatever the weather), to set it up, but then you can unhook your car and go off and explore. Towed vehicles can also be a less expensive option than motorised (depending on size and features) and the majority of caravans and light trailers can be used on a trailer WOF as long as they meet certain weight requirements.

Examples of towed vehicles:

  • Camping trailer: a compact trailer with expandable ‘tent-style’ sections. Some models can sleep up to eight people. Available with kitchens and seating areas.
  • Pop top: similar to a camping trailer but with an expandable roof that ‘pops up’. Being able to retract this makes storage simpler with lower clearance and offers less wind resistance while towing.
  • Teardrop: a compact and lightweight mini caravan, named for its distinctive teardrop shape.
  • Caravan: a larger vehicle offering kitchen, bathroom, dining and sleeping arrangements. Amenities vary depending on models.
  • Retro caravan: vintage caravans, often restored to high quality finishes.
  • Fifth wheeler: towed by utes or trucks with a special “fifth wheel” hitch, fifth wheelers generally have taller ceilings and more slide-out rooms. A frequent choice for those who like to live full time on the road. Sizes can range up to 12.2 metres.

Note: Caravans and fifth wheel vehicles often offer more usable interior space than motorised vehicles of a similar size, because no room is lost to the driver’s cab.

More about motorised

The benefits of motorised RVs include maximum mobility, good on-road performance, easy set-up and break down at each destination and the ability to move quickly in an emergency. With the exception of a bus conversion, motorised RVs drive like a car and can be driven on a regular car licence. They can also tow trailers or boats, so you can take any extras along.
If you’re travelling alone or with children, or have mobility issues, a motorised RV gives you easy access to the creature comforts directly from the cab, without having to go outside. And most motorised RVs can be registered as self-contained and are therefore eligible for freedom camping, meaning you can get off the beaten track, or closer to the slopes or the sand, and really explore New Zealand’s hidden gems.

Examples of motorised vehicles:

  • A-class motorhome: usually the largest and most luxurious motorhomes available. They are purpose-built on a heavy-duty chassis, such as a traditional truck or bus chassis and favoured by those who live on the road or like having all the comforts of home when they travel. If you want lots of space with all the bells and whistles, this might be the vehicle for you. Although its large size can also be a disadvantage and there are significant running costs.
  • B-class motorhome: the smallest, and often the most economical motorhome to run. They are compact, easy to manoeuvre and easy to drive. The smaller size means fewer amenities, so it is a matter of working out what you’re happy to travel with. B-class motorhomes usually sleep between two and four people.
  • C-class motorhome: the most frequently seen motorhomes. They’re built on a small truck or van chassis and sit somewhere between A-class and B-class in size. This type of motorhome will sleep between four and six people and may have an extension over the cab (a style known as a ‘Luton body’) that can be used as another bed or extra storage.
  • Van conversion: extremely popular in Europe for many years, panel van conversions have become more common in New Zealand, particularly with budget-conscious tourists. In recent years, more sophisticated van conversions have also become popular with older people downsizing.
  • Bus conversion: a former bus fitted out as a motorhome. These conversions were once very popular on New Zealand roads and frequently converted by home builders as a retirement project or sometimes custom-built to very high specifications by specialists.

The next steps

Choosing an RV to best suit your ideal lifestyle requires a great deal of thought and the ability to compromise, as no matter what sort of vehicle you choose, the space – when compared with a house or an apartment – will be limited. Consider your essentials and prioritise them. Handy starting points to consider include:

  • Who will do most of the driving and what are they comfortable driving? (This could influence the size of vehicle you look at)
  • How many people would you like the vehicle to accommodate? Will you travel regularly with friends or grandchildren, for example?
  • Do you want the comfort of an on-board bathroom, rather than relying on public facilities?
  • Are there extras you’d like to be able to fit in? Fishing gear, bikes, golf clubs etc?
  • Are you keen cooks? Is extra kitchen and dining space a must-have?
  • What sort of beds will you be most comfortable in?

Once you have drawn up an initial list you’ll be able to narrow your focus more easily and take the next step towards your adventure on the road.

More helpful reading:
Find your perfect motorhome
Which motorhome brand is for you?
A motorhome made to measure
Why buying a used motorhome could be ideal for you
FAQs when buying from Wilderness
Self-containment and certification – the ins and outs

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