A Beginner’s Guide to Travel Trailers : Everything You Need to Know

Beginner’s Guide to Travel Trailers

So, you’ve decided to give up the tent and buy a travel trailer. You’ve done enough sleeping on the ground and you’re ready to enjoy the luxury of a mobile cabin as you venture into the outdoors. Excellent choice! There’s nothing quite like waking up to a blue bird morning after getting a restful night’s sleep on your queen-sized bed and enjoying a hot cup of coffee brewed in a coffee maker you plugged into your kitchen outlet!

But before you down that first delightful sip, we need to discuss a few things. Travel trailers require a bit more upkeep and attention when setting up camp than tents do! Being a first-time travel trailer owner can be a bit intimidating, because there are a ton of skills and information that you need to master to get the full enjoyment out of your trailer!

Don’t worry though. We recognize that fact and have put together this beginners guide to travel trailers to help you spend more time enjoying your camper and less time learning as you go!

Choosing a Travel Trailer – Things to know about travel trailers

Choosing a Travel Trailer

Before you go walking into a dealership and pick out the biggest trailer you can find, let’s discuss a few key things first. In order to get the most out of your trailer, you need to think about things like:

How many people do you need to sleep inside of it regularly?

Travel trailers come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Each trailer is built with a specific person in mind. Are you going camping with your entire family and need enough space to house you, your spouse, your three kids, and two dogs? Or are you newly retired and looking to live cheaply while being able to tour the country in comfort? Pay attention to the size of trailer and only buy for what you need. Bigger isn’t always better, so try to get a trailer that will accommodate your needs best.

A great example of this is whether or not to get a bunkhouse model trailer. Many travel trailers come with different layouts inside. One of the most common is the bunkhouse. These come with bunkbeds in the rear of the trailer and a queen or full-sized mattress in the front. Bunkhouses are ideal for families with children as they provide separate sleeping quarters for everyone. 

Bunkhouses are less ideal for people without children as they sacrifice storage space for the bunks. Paying attention to this key detail will make sure that you’re buying the right trailer for your needs.

How much weight can your towing vehicle safely pull?

After you have figured out how big of trailer you need, it’s time to assess your towing vehicle. Each vehicle has a maximum towing capacity that under no circumstances should be exceeded. The towing capacity helps keep you and everyone else on the road safe, because it indicates how heavy of a load your vehicle can pull without experiencing catastrophic failure.

If you are unsure about your vehicle’s maximum towing capacity, start by conducting a short Google search to see what your vehicle’s make and model is capable of pulling. 

A more accurate way of determining maximum towing capacity is by using your vehicle identification number (VIN) to see what your specific vehicle is capable of towing. To locate it, look at the inside of the driver side door or at the bottom of the driver side windshield. Write the number down and call a dealership that is the same as your vehicle’s make. If you have a Chevrolet, you would call a Chevrolet dealership. If you have a Toyota, you would call a Toyota dealership and so on. Ask them to look up your vehicle’s towing capacity and give them the VIN. They should be able to tell you exactly what your vehicle is capable of pulling that way.

One last thing about vehicle towing capacity. Try to give yourself a 1000lbs buffer between your vehicle’s maximum towing capacity and the actual amount of weight you’ll end up towing. The reason why you want to go lighter than what your vehicle is rated to pull is that you’ll be more efficient in accelerating and braking, which will save your engine, transmission, and brakes in the long run.

Where do you intend to take your trailer?

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine where you envision taking your camper. Where do you want to go with it most of the time? How are the roads to get there? Are the campgrounds established or are they dispersed? Are there tall trees all over the place or is it pretty bare? 

All of these questions are meant to help you think through how big of a trailer you want to get and how appropriate it will be to take to the destinations you want to visit in it. 

Areas with winding, twisting roads might be less ideal to take a giant 5th wheel on, so a smaller bumper-pull trailer might do better. That overland trailer that you’ve seen your favorite YouTuber discuss over and over again might be a bit overkill if you only want to visit national parks and camp in KOA spots. 

Work through each question and be honest with yourself in where you intend to do the most camping before buying a travel trailer.

What do you plan on doing when you use your trailer?

Another important consideration to make is what you plan on using your travel trailer to do. Are you simply going hiking and don’t need to bring a bunch of gear? Or are you planning on using your travel trailer as a basecamp to gather around after a long day of riding ATVs and dirt bikes all over the place? This will help you determine whether or not to get a travel trailer with a bit of extra cargo room for bringing your toys along.

Models that can accommodate larger pieces of gear are called toy haulers. They come in all sorts of varieties, from trailers that have completely enclosed garages inside of the camper to those that have an exterior deck to strap down your toys. Take some time to weigh out the pros and cons of each before jumping on the first toy hauler you come across.

Travel Trailer Essential Gear Items

Beginner’s Guide to Travel Trailers

When you buy your first travel trailer, you’re going to end up buying a ton of extras to go along with it. These extras are going to range from trailer specifics to every day essential items that you should leave in your trailer only. Take a look at this checklist and make sure that you bring along each item on the list before taking off on your next adventure!

Items Specific to Trailer Function

  • 30 or 50 amp plug in (make sure you buy the one specific to your trailer)- for plugging into campground electrical hook-ups
  • Bubble level- for ensuring that your trailer is completely level. This is essential for keeping your camper’s components like the refrigerator and water systems working perfectly.
  • Leveling jacks- helps make sure that your camper is completely level. Most come with levels attached to the outside but bringing a set will help ensure that you’ll have a level camper, even if one of the attached ones gets accidentally ripped off while you’re driving.
  • Leveling blocks- makes it easier to level the camper as they raise the level of the ground to the bottom of the camper, making it so you don’t have to wind the levels as much.
  • Tire chalks- for keeping your camper from rolling away once you’ve detached it from your towing vehicle.
  • Outdoor rug- for wiping off your feet before entering the camper.
  • Generator- to help charge your battery if you are boondocking or can’t get a campsite with electrical hook-ups.
  • RV sewer hose- for draining your black and grey water tanks when it’s time to go home.
  • Fresh water hose- for filling up your freshwater tank.
  • Extension cord- gives you extra reach to get to an electrical box at a campsite or allows you to charge your camper battery at someone’s house whose nearest outlet is too far for your on-board cord to reach to.

Every Day Essential Items to Leave in Your Trailer

These items are pretty self-explanatory. The only thing that needs to be mentioned is that when you buy these items, buy them specifically for keeping inside of your camper. Don’t take them inside every time you finish camping in your travel trailer, as you’ll end up forgetting to bring it back out to the camper on your next trip. After doing that a few times, you’ll end up with quite the collection of extra gear for replacing all of the stuff you forgot at home.

  • Dishes
  • Kitchen knives
  • Silverware
  • Cooking utensils
  • Pots and pans
  • Cookie sheet
  • Napkins
  • Paper towels
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Bedding
  • Pillows
  • Flashlights
  • First aid kit
  • Small hand tools for minor repairs
  • Duct tape
  • Dirty clothes hamper

Tips for Safe Towing

Tips for Safe Towing

Alrighty, so you’ve got your trailer, you’ve got your gear, now it’s time to hitch it up to your towing vehicle and hit the road. Before you do that, let’s talk about some tips for getting from your home to your campsite safely. I’m sure that you can find all sorts of videos on the internet depicting some pretty horrific crashes involving trailers. The thing is, most of them result in people simply not knowing how to tow their trailer safely. Be sure you follow these tips so you and your new travel trailer can spend more time enjoying beautiful places from the campsite and not the junkyard!

Choose the correct ball size for your trailer hitch.

One of the worst things that you can do when hitching up your trailer is to use the incorrect ball size. The ball is the part that the trailer locks onto and if it is too big, your hitch won’t fit on top of it. This is less dangerous than using a ball that is too small. 

If the ball is too small, you run the risk of your trailer becoming unhitched when it goes over a bump. This can be a real problem, especially when you are moving at 70 mph down the freeway! 

Consult your user’s manual for the correct ball size for your trailer and be sure to stop by your local auto supply shop to pick one up.

Hook your trailer up properly.

Once you have the right equipment, it’s important to hook your trailer up properly. At the very basic level, you will have a hitch, a hitch pin, an electrical hookup, and tow chains that need to get attached to your vehicle to safely prep your trailer for hitting the road.

Start by opening up your trailer hitch by removing the hitch pin. Lift the lever that is on top of your trailer’s hitch to open the hitch up.

Back your towing vehicle up so that the ball is directly under the trailer hitch. Once it is in the right position, begin lowering the hitch onto the ball with the crank that is holding up your trailer.

After the hitch has been lowered onto the ball, lower the lever that you opened earlier to lock the trailer hitch onto the ball of your towing vehicle.

Secure the hitch to your ball by placing the hitch pin through the trailer hitch.

Now plug in your electrical system into your towing vehicle. Have someone stand behind the trailer to check that the turn signals and brake lights work properly. 

Finally, you need to set protection for your trailer should it become unhitched accidentally while you’re driving. Cross the trailer chains under the hitch and connect them to the towing vehicle. The crossing makes for a small area that the hitch can rest in should it detach from the ball while you’re driving. This prevents the trailer hitch from nose diving into the asphalt and flipping or simply wondering off into traffic. 

Drive smoothly

As you drive, remember that you have an additional couple thousand pounds of weight on the back. You’re not going to be able to accelerate and slow down the same way that you normally do. For that reason, it’s important that you give yourself plenty of time to speed up and plenty of time to slow down.

This also applies to driving around curves. Most of the places that you’ll take your new camper will have some windy and twisty roads. Take your time. There’s no sense in rushing up or down a windy road with a trailer on the back of your towing vehicle!

Gear down when you need to.

A really important tip for getting the most out of your stopping power is to use your engine to slow down. This is especially important when going down steep grades, as you’ll burn out your brakes if you don’t gear down. 

Don’t believe me? Next time you spend some time on the road, especially when the road is really steep, notice the smell of burning brakes. Truckers that don’t gear down burn out their brakes and leave a terrible smell of burnt rubber up and down the highway. Some are even unlucky enough to have their brakes burn completely off, forcing them to take the runway truck ramp to save themselves and everyone else on the highway from a major traffic collision!

Consider the road conditions before taking off.

Road conditions are important to everyone, but especially to those who drive travel trailers. Icy, wet, and muddy conditions can be hazardous to drive through, so make sure that you keep an eye on the weather and your state’s department of transportation website for any road closures.

An additional hazard that you don’t really consider when you’re not towing a travel trailer is the wind. High wind areas are hazardous for large trailers as strong enough winds have been known to blow tall trailers (and the trucks towing them) right over. 

If the roads are too hazardous for when you plan to leave, be patient. Nowhere is so important that you need to risk your safety to get there.

How to Choose a Campsite

How to Choose a Campsite

Tent campsites and travel trailer campsites are two very different things. With tent camping, it’s easy to pitch a tent just about anywhere that it’s flat. With travel trailer camping, you need to consider how long the campsite is, how long your trailer is, whether or not there are hook-ups, reservations, etc. 

Be sure to take the following into consideration when choosing your campsite for your travel trailer!

Make sure that the campsite is long enough for your travel trailer.

The worst thing in the world is heading out for a weekend getaway only to find that the campsite that you thought would be long enough to park your trailer in is too small. Be sure to put in the time researching the area you plan on camping in before towing your trailer all the way out into the great outdoors!

Check out the website for the area that you plan on camping in. If there are RV parks nearby, that is a good place to start as they are designed specifically to accommodate a large variety of sizes of travel trailers and RVs.

If you are looking to get into the woods and would prefer to camp at a US Forest Service campground, be sure to look up the forest that you plan on visiting and researching the campsites that are available at the forest service campgrounds. 

Hook-ups or no hook-ups?

When you first start camping with your new travel trailer, you may be tempted to go boondocking right off the bat and not use any sort of hook-ups. This may stem from your experience with tent camping, which is completely understandable. You’ve gone camping with less than you have in your new travel trailer, so why not?

Well, I’m going to recommend that you try to stick to campgrounds with hook-ups first and here’s why. Your brand new to camping with a travel trailer, you spent a bunch of money on all of the features and components, so you should use all of them and test them out! See how power on demand and a steady, reliable water source changes camping for you. Enjoy your new purchase as much as you can!

The biggest risk that you run with not using hook-ups with your new travel trailer is that you can accidentally damage it in some form or fashion. You can leave the lights on too long and completely drain your battery. This isn’t just inconvenient, but costly as draining a battery all the way to zero will shorten its life in the long run. 

Camping at a campsite that has hook-ups is best for newbies that are just getting into camping in their new travel trailers. So how do you go about getting a spot with hook-ups?

Are reservations worth it?

As mentioned earlier, hook-ups are a must for new travel trailer campers. But the best (and in a lot of cases only) way to get a campsite with hook-ups is to reserve one in advance of your trip. In short, reservations are 100% worth it.

Now something to remember when looking for reservations is that you’re going to want to consider making one for your trip much sooner than you think. A lot of campgrounds accept reservations for up to 6 to 9 months in advance! And while you may think that is a lot of time, you’ll be surprised by how quickly reservations get swept up, especially for popular camp spots and popular times of year to go camping.

Another perk of reserving your campsite in advance of your trip is that you can choose the style of campsite that you want. For a lot of new travel trailer campers, this is a great thing because you can reserve a pull through spot instead of settling for a back-in spot. Pull through spots allow you to park your travel trailer easily by simply driving through your spot and stopping where you want your trailer to sit. No need to back in at all!

How to Properly Setup Camp

How to Properly Setup Camp

Now that you’re completely geared out, hitched up, and know where you’re going, it’s time to set up your camp for the duration! This will take a bit of practice to get good at, so take it slow and remember to follow all of these steps so that you have a successful camping trip over time. If it takes you a while to figure out, don’t stress it! Remember that the key to any good camping trip, just like the key to any good house, is a solid foundation. Do it right and you’ll be able to stay in your spot comfortably until it’s time to go home!

Backing in

This is one of the most challenging parts of owning a trailer of any type. I’m going to give you the best advice I know with backing in a trailer and it’s this: 

  • Turn off any music you have going on and roll down all of your windows.
  • Have your passenger hop out and guide you into your spot.
  • Place your hand at the bottom of the steering wheel.
  • Turn your hand in the direction that you want the trailer to go.
  • Make small adjustments and go slowly.
  • Don’t be afraid to start over to get it right.

Be sure to be patient with yourself and your partner. You’ll both get better at communicating as you go camping more and more, so remember to be kind to each other when first starting out. Backing in a trailer is a complex thing to do and it takes a lot of practice to perfect it.

Chalk the wheels

Once you have your trailer backed into your spot, it’s time to chalk the wheels. Wheel chalks help keep your trailer from rolling away once you unhitch it from your towing vehicle and are necessary to have in place before you unhitch or put up your stabilizers.  

Unhitch the trailer

After you have chalked your wheels, go ahead and unhitch your trailer. This is an easy step, since you basically just reverse everything that you did to hitch it earlier.

The only thing to keep in mind is that the front jack that raises and lowers the trailer is going to need to get adjusted when you begin leveling your camper. 

Put down your stabilizers and level the camper

Once your camper is unhitched, it’s time to put down the stabilizers. Most campers have stabilizers on the underside of each corner of the camper. Start by placing a small section of 2×4 wood on the ground and lower each stabilizer so that it is just touching the wood.

Inside the camper, you should have your partner monitor a bubble level that is showing how level the camper is. The partner needs to communicate to the person outside how level they are front to back and side to side so that the camper is 100% level. You achieve this by adjusting how much the stabilizers are pushing the trailer off of the ground and by raising and lowering the front jack.

Leveling is important because it ensures that your systems will work properly. Camper refrigerators are especially dependent on a level camper as they use gravity to cycle the refrigerant throughout the system. If the camper is unlevel, the refrigerator won’t work as efficiently as it is supposed to and could also lead to unnecessary wear and tear on the unit.

Plug into your hook-ups or generator

Now that you’re level, hook your camper up to power. If you followed the advice earlier and reserved a campsite with hook-ups, follow the directions that are on the electrical box or ask the camp host for assistance if you have a hard time connecting your camper to it.

If you’re camping in a spot without hook-ups, set up your generator outside of your camper so that you can easily turn it on when you need it. Keep in mind that there may be quiet hours at the facility you’re camping at, which will restrict when you can run your generator. 

In general, try to run your generator sparingly and only run it before 8:00PM and after 8:00AM. Being courteous to your neighbors is important as the people camping near you came out to enjoy the quiet solitude of nature, not to listen to generators hum away at all hours of the day!

Open any slide-outs.

Once you’re all hooked up and level, open your slide-outs to open up the space inside of your camper.

Turn on your refrigerator

Many campers rely on propane to power their refrigerators. If you have a camper that has a refrigerator that is powered by propane, be sure to turn your propane off when you are traveling. This will prevent any accidental propane leaks or fires while you’re on the road.

After you’ve gotten to your campsite, turn on the propane and your refrigerator so that your food can start cooling down again.

Put out your camp furniture and outdoor rug.

Now it’s time for the finishing touches! Throw out your outdoor rug and set up any camp chairs and tables you have to make your new campsite feel as homey as you can. Now kick up your feet and enjoy the fruits of your labor!

Travel trailer Tips for Packing Up Camp and Going Home

Tips for Packing Up Camp and Going Home

All good things must come to an end. Work responsibilities and kids going back to school make you wish that you could stay at your campsite for so much longer, but alas, there is no avoiding it. To make packing up less painful, be sure to follow these helpful tips so that cleaning up is easy when you’re all done.

Dump your black and grey tanks as soon as possible

Your black and grey water tanks are full of all of your wastewater from your trip. There really isn’t much sense in towing it around, so it’s best to dump as soon as you can. You can’t dump where every you please, because that would result in a biohazard and contamination of local water supplies! So where do you go?

Most state and national park campgrounds offer dump stations at the campground, making it very easy to get rid of your wastewater responsibly before hitting the road. If you’re not camping at that state or national park, don’t worry! You can still use the dump station by paying for the entry fee to the park and for using the dump station.

Shake out any dirt from your outdoor rug

Shaking out your rug will keep it nice and clean for many uses down the road. It will also prevent getting a ton of dirt inside your storage areas of your travel trailer, which can be really difficult to clean out. 

Once it’s shaken out, roll your rug up and store it neatly inside of your travel trailer for its next use!

Sweep out the inside as thoroughly as possible

The inside of your camper should be your next focus. Sweeping out all of the dirt inside is a must as it will ensure that your camper stays in good working order for years to come. Excess dirt can get lodged in vents and light switches, causing your interior components to break down too early. A good sweeping should take care of any excess dirt and keep the inside of your camper looking fresh at the end of every trip.

Stack any clothing or extra gear that you don’t intend to take out of your camper near the door

To make it easier to bring all of the things you intend to take with you that you don’t want to leave in your camper, stack it all towards the door. This is especially important when you have a camper that has slide-outs. 

If you fail to move your things inside of your camper to the front, you’ll end up having to open the slide-outs to get to your stuff. This may be a minor incontinence, but when you just get done driving home after a great time camping, you don’t want to be messing around with slide-outs anymore. You just want to be done and chill out! 

Save yourself the hassle and stage your stuff to be taken inside near the door.

Leave your campsite better than how you found it

After you have completely cleaned up your camper and you’re ready to hit the road for home, be sure to take a few minutes walking over your campsite. Pick up any trash that you see whether it was yours or not. Pull burnt cans and garbage out of the firepit if you see any. 

Try to leave your spot better than how you found it. By doing this, we can all do our part to making sure that the great outdoors can continually be enjoyed for years and years to come!

Common Maintenance

Common Maintenance

After you have gotten home and unpacked your travel trailer, it’s important to go through these common maintenance items to make sure that your camper will last for many years. Some of these things need to be taken care of after every trip, while others are things that need to be taken care of only once or twice a year. While they may seem annoying to deal with, maintaining your camper will ensure that it will continue to deliver comfortable enjoyment for many more trips.

Every Time You Go Out

  • Wipe down the sinks and bathrooms.
  • Drain your freshwater tank.
  • Recharge your battery.
  • Hose down any mud or dirt that has accumulated outside.

Once a Year

  • Winterize your water pipes.
  • Clean out your water heater.
  • Test the battery to make sure that it’s still holding a charge.
  • Grease the slides on your slide-outs.

Once Every Couple of Years

  • Grease your wheel bearings.
  • Consider replacing tires, depending on how worn out they are.

By doing these easy things, you’ll ensure that your camper will stay in tip top shape year after year. You’ll protect your investment from frozen pipes, peeling paint, fried electrical systems, and burnt-out wheel bearings. 

Most of these common maintenance tasks are easily completed on your own, but in other cases, you may want to take your travel trailer to a certified dealership to do work on your camper for you. 

Wheel bearings is especially important to get done professionally, since they will require that your camper get jacked up to remove the wheels for greasing. If you have the ability to do it yourself, great! But don’t underestimate how well the service professionals will take care of your travel trailer.

Final Thoughts

Alrighty! You’ve made it to the end of the guide and you’re now ready to take your travel trailer to the ends of the Earth! Remember to follow the tips listed in this guide to ensure that you have a great time, no matter where you go.

A really fun way to make plans and track your progress is to put stickers of all of the places you’ve been on the outside of your travel trailer. National parks are a great place to start making your sticker collection on the outside of your trailer. There are tons of them all across the US and give ample opportunity to park your travel trailer at any one of their campgrounds. 

Reserving a spot is easy. All you need to do is go to reserveamerica.com and input your desired location to find campsites that are available in the area you want to visit. Remember to book a campsite well in advance of when you intend to visit to guarantee your spot! Where will you visit first? Let us know in the comments below and tag us in any posts you make on social media! We’d love to see your adventures!

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Picture of Lisa Hayden-Matthews

Lisa Hayden-Matthews

An avid Skier, bike rider, triathlon enthusiast, amateurish beach volleyball player and nature lover who has never lost a dare! I manage the overall Editorial section for the magazine here and occasionally chip in with my own nature photographs, when required.
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