In Europe, fifth wheel RVs are a rare sight. Until we started looking into travelling through Europe I think I’d seen about two, so how did we end up choosing to get one? Well, as with many things, nothings perfect so you have to pick the right compromise.
Campers in Europe
Motorhomes and Caravans are everywhere in the UK and Europe, they’ve been incredibly popular for decades and the industry appears to be getting bigger and bigger. Throughout the EU there are dedicated overnight parking areas, and in many countries, you can wild camp wherever you want, as long as nobody’s inconvenienced. As with everything in the EU, the rules are slightly different in each country, so you need to check what you can and can’t do before you enter them.
The vast majority of those vans are under 7m long and the European infrastructure is geared around them. Cassette toilets, tiny water tanks, and limited onboard power are part of the Euro camper experience and the campsites only put in what is necessary to support them. Why are European vans about this size and have limited facilities? Two reasons, roads, and licences.
European roads are, for the most part, small and winding. Many roads evolved from tracks laid down over hundreds of years of agriculture and trade, and the modern multi-lane or wide, spacious main road is quite a new concept. Roads that are too winding are regularly straightened out if they’re used as a major route by trucks, but this is usually only after years of incidents and public pressure.
That’s not too much of a problem, just stick to the big roads? Well, for obvious reasons, most campsites aren’t on those major roads, in fact, they’re usually sited in nice places well away from big roads and traffic, and sometimes that land is only available precisely because it’s relatively difficult to get agricultural equipment and lorries there on a regular basis.
While the industry might be getting bigger, the same cannot be said for the caravans themselves. In the UK especially, there are rules for caravans governing their length and width if towing with a regular car, and motorhomes are limited by weight limits on driving licences.
For the majority of people in the UK under 40, you can only drive a car up to 3,500kg with a small trailer of up to 750kg on a standard cat B driving licence. In order to tow a larger caravan (up to the max train weight of the car or 8,250kg whichever is lower) you can take an additional towing test (cat B+E), but overall, most manufacturers are trying to put out the biggest/most luxurious caravan they can that can be towed by the smallest possible car, and motorhomes are built to be as nice as they can without going over that 3,500kg weight limit.
There are exceptions for motorhomes, and for those willing to take £1,000 worth of additional training (cat C1), there are some motorhomes which venture above the 3,500kg limit, but usually not too far, maybe up to 4,500 or 5,000kg.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with regular caravans and motorhomes, but they all compromise on two major things to consider for full-time living: Space and Payload.
When we sat down and tried to really work out what we needed, we realised that interior space was very high on the list. While many people go on holiday with awnings and windbreaks to put out, we didn’t want to be limited to staying in places long enough to justify the time putting all of that stuff out and pulling it all back in. We wanted to be able to go somewhere, and just stay for how long we wanted, be it one night or a month. We also didn’t want to be outside in the pouring rain trying to gather everything up and get it packed away, because there’s no way we would be so lucky with the weather that we wouldn’t have entire weeks of rain.
Choosing a van
This is the process we went through to choose our van:
When we started looking at travelling around Europe, our initial thoughts were to get a nice big caravan and a big SUV like an X5. We’d had an X5 before and loved it, so why not get another, and tow a nice caravan with it? We started looking at caravans, reading and watching reviews and even visited a few local dealers. What we found was that most of them were small, but a few had reasonable space. We especially liked the Elddis Avante 866, a 7m long, 2.6m wide caravan that is just within the limits of the UK trailer rules. It’s pretty much the biggest caravan you can tow with a regular car.
But it’s still pretty tight for a family of 3 plus a dog to actually live in, and the payload (the stuff you bring with you) is just 179kg. You can get a small weight plate upgrade to somewhere just over 200kg, but that’s not a lot of stuff. When you consider a laptop weighs a couple of kilos, some plastic plates and bowls will weigh 3 kilos, plus cutlery, cups, clothes, cleaning products, towels, shoes, toys, television, educational materials and all of the other things that you need to bring with you, you’ll run out of weight before you run out of space.
When we spoke to owners and browsed forums, we found that those who cared about the max-weight limits ended up putting most of their stuff in the car rather than the caravan, which wasn’t what we wanted to do if we’re travelling from place to place, day after day; while many others just ignore the weight limits entirely and take their chances.
So caravans were out.
We looked at motorhomes next, but what you get with a motorhome is an absurdly high priced van, combined with a caravan on the top. You do get a lot more payload usually, but you pay the price in space. Even a 9-10m long motorhome is no bigger inside than the caravan we had looked at, and you have to pack everything up and bring the whole thing when you want to go to the shops. We thought we could live with that until we started looking at safety.
In the UK, all children have to use car seats until their over 12 or over 135cm tall, so we’re looking at our 5-year-old daughter needing a child seat for quite some time to come. Unfortunately, motorhomes aren’t geared up for child seats. A few vans (mostly VW conversions) offer ISOFIX connections, and when we looked in 2017, no manufacturers were taking up the ISOFIX option that was offered by Alko, one of the major European chassis manufacturers. This is primarily because of the space and weight issues from earlier, an ISOFIX mount point needs angled metal braces direct to the chassis, all of which get in the way of cupboards and storage and weigh a lot – so nobody wants to make that compromise.
So what about just using the seatbelt? Well, for the moment, motorhomes are essentially exempt from crash testing, and only a few notable manufacturers like Bailey bother to do it at all. When Bailey first started crash testing their motorhomes at 40mph, essentially the entire thing was destroyed. Not only were many of the crash test dummies fatally injured, but major appliances like the oven and fridge ended up travelling through the cockpit. Those seatbelts that are attached to the chassis with a few welds proved 100% useless as the vehicle deformed around them.
So regular motorhomes were out.
Then we found fifth wheels, a seemingly perfect blend of space and payload along with the safety of travelling in a modern and safe(ish) pickup truck. While a rare sight in the UK, there are certainly a few passionate people who are using them on a regular basis both for short breaks and for full time living. There is even a manufacturer or two dotted around!
As always though, there are compromises. Fifth wheels neatly circumvent some of the regular caravan rules due to their hitch mechanism, but they still fall under a different set of trailer rules which were tightened up in 2014. These rules mean that if your trailer puts down more than 3,500kg on its axles, then you’ll need thousands of pounds worth of modifications to be able to pull it legally around the UK including things like anti-lock brakes. Any additional weight will have to go through the hitch of the fifth wheel onto the tow vehicle.
These rules limit the number of fifth wheels which you can actually tow around the UK to the fabled ‘half-ton’ sized trailers, designed for towing on smaller US pickup trucks like the F150 and Ram. However, the trailers still weigh a lot, and push those pickups to their limits, and again, you better not go over the 3,500kg tow car limit or you’ll need to take another driving test or two.
The answer to all of these issues is either getting a lighter fifth wheel or uprating a lightweight pickup truck to handle the load. There are options available to uprate the payload of pickups like the Nissan Navara and Ford Ranger to let them carry 1,000kg in the bed while still towing 3,500kg along behind them, giving you the ability to legally and safely tow around a 4,500kg fifth wheel trailer.
The only other major compromise for fifth wheels is what makes them attractive, their size. Most imported fifth wheels are 9-10m long, which makes them about as long as a big motorhome, but with an added tow car, they’re problematic when trying to get into some (maybe a lot, we’ll find out) campsites. They’re also very tall, ours is 3.6m tall, so are more likely to foul branches or not fit under trees on sites. Finally, they’re limited in terms of wild camping (known as boondocking in the US) as in most places, disconnecting the tow vehicle or pushing out the sides is a definite no-no in overnight parking areas.
The final choice
Our final decision was made on a long weekend trip to the NEC. Tired of trying to balance the compromises of all the vehicle types we could use, we travelled up to the Motorhome and Caravan Show at the NEC to see everything in one place. After a whole day trying out caravans from major manufacturers and motorhomes up to the £150,000 price point, we left the show feeling pretty disappointed. We still thought that the Avante 866 could work as a caravan, but we weren’t happy about it.
On the way back we had planned to stop in at a fifth wheel dealer to get our first look at a fifth wheel in the flesh and were blown away. We weren’t prepared for the size of them despite the pictures, videos, and technical specifications, and when we left, we knew that we had to have something that size if we were going to full-time on the road.
Still to find out
What we’ll find out over the coming months/years will be how easy it is to tour with a fifth wheel camper, the places we can go and the changes that we need to make in order to keep everything livable.
As we started out, everything is a compromise. In choosing the fifth wheel we’ve compromised on wild camping, sites we can fit onto and the cost of fuel! But hopefully, those aren’t too bad and are made up for by the space and flexibility of our upcoming lives.