This aspect of our trip was grossly underestimated at the beginning. I chuckle now when I think of our first trip to a local RV dealer and our answer to his perfectly reasonable question: “What are you looking for and what’s your budget?” Our perfectly unreasonable answer: “We don’t know yet, and we don’t have one.” His perfectly reasonable response was to start us at the quarter million dollar models. While interesting, that was a waste of time.
What we discovered when we finally got around to doing our homework was that first of all, we actually had pretty specific needs, and those needs funneled us to a very narrow category of RV out of the tens (hundreds?) of thousands on the market. Secondly, buying the RV is just the beginning, as if you’re planning to tow a car, it’s not remotely as simple as just buying a car and hooking it up to your rig. I’ll save the process of how we arrived at our criteria for another (dry) post, but here’s what we landed on:
- Class A (possibly C) motorhome, under 35′ in length so that we could get into most national / state parks
- Bunkhouse configuration, so that each kid could have their own space
- New or slightly used
Based on these 3 criteria we were surprised to find that the massive field had been narrowed to only a few models, and we ended up going with a 2017 (new) Winnebago Vista 31BE, which we bought from a dealer in Cincinnati, based on a very competitive price and a good sales pitch. Keeper immediately tossed out “Davista” when we asked for name ideas, and we liked it. So evidently she’s female and Latin, or possibly Italian, despite the Iowa provenance.
As for our “TOAD” (towed car), this was in many ways more daunting than the RV selection. We first had to decide whether we were going to tow the car via a trailer, a dolly (two wheels down), or flat towed (four wheels down). Like most RVers I think, we arrived at the conclusion that flat towing is the way to go, but then you discover that a relatively small subset of the cars out there CAN be flat towed.
Ideally you’re towing a tiny, light car with a stick shift. That didn’t work for us because we knew we’d be driving the whole family around a decent amount. We needed it to be a bit bigger and more rugged. Again sparing you the agonizing process, we opted for a 2009 Subaru Outback with a manual transmission. This is possibly the most questionable decision we made. Not due to the type of car, but rather to the specific car and the dealer from whom we bought it. It has issues. But again, another story. I like Outbacks, I’m just not sure ours was the right call — jury’s still out. She doesn’t yet have a name.
With a TOAD comes the need for towing gear, which doesn’t come cheaply. You need a permanently installed base plate that fits your car specifically (this is the piece that mounts to the frame and connects to the tow bar — often the tow bar and base plate need to be the same brand), a tow bar, a “drop hitch” to bring the level of the hitch receiver on the motorhome down to the level of the tow bar, wiring and lighting for the car to plug into the motorhome, and a supplemental braking system, which is a means to apply the car’s brakes when the RV’s brakes are applied. I can’t be sure I made the right call on these, but after doing a good bit of research, my gut told me this was an area in which I didn’t want to skimp or cut corners for cost’s sake. This may be just me and I’m sure there are less expensive options, but I’m happy with what I ended up buying:
All together, these 3 items ended up costing about $2300. Installation of the base plate, which I opted for due to not having the right tools, plus the wiring for the lights, ran me about another $700. This was another decision I’m not sure served us best, though it seemed worth it at the time. The interesting thing about this installation was that I initially hired him to install both the base plate and the Invisibrake (which was a far more complex installation), and he told me after consulting with his boss that he wasn’t comfortable doing the Invisibrake installation, leaving me to do the trickiest job myself. I’m so glad he did. The Invisibrake is an excellent system which allows you to either drive or tow the car any time without installing/removing any equipment. It’s difficult to install in that in involves removing the front seat, drilling into the floorboards, running wiring through the firewall, tapping into existing wiring, and cutting and modifying the car’s brake booster vacuum line, among several other things. It was way out of my comfort zone. But if I hadn’t done it myself I’d have had no idea how it works and how to troubleshoot it. What’s more, doing the wiring for the Invisibrake allowed me to be completely comfortable doing other wiring tasks in the car and motorhome. This has paid dividends multiple times already, and as I write we’re only about 2 weeks into the trip.
Lastly, I installed a supplemental backup camera which I now find almost essential when towing. The factory installed backup camera is fine, but looks downwards and only comes on when you’re in reverse. This is as it should be, as when you’re backing up without a car attached, you want to see what you’re about to hopefully not hit. But it’s worthless as a virtual rear view mirror, which is the role that the supplemental camera plays. It has its own screen and shows both a panorama of what’s behind you (impossible to see otherwise) and the status of your TOAD.