Why a Starter RV is the Right Place to Begin Your Camping Journey

A used pop-up camper was our first RV.  This was our very first camping trip in her.
If you are considering a first time RV purchase, you may lean toward the easy and brand new camper.  I'm not going to tell you not to buy a brand new RV for your first purchase, but I do think that you should explore basic, starter models.  What is a starter model and why should you start there?  Today, I'm sharing 7 tips for that first time RV owner.  If you shop wisely, you will love your RV no matter what the size, design or age.  There is an RV for every budget and owner.  Now is the perfect time to shop for a model that will get you outdoors as soon as the temperatures start to rise this spring.

Why a Starter RV is the Right Place to Begin Your Camping Journey

What is a Starter RV?

The definition of a starter RV is going to be different for just about everyone.  I consider a starter RV to be something that provides basic amenities for camping.  For our family, a starter RV had beds, heat and air and a place to get out of the elements.  We were willing to forgo having a bathroom and use the bathhouse at campgrounds.  Some people consider the lack of a bathroom to be a deal-breaker.  Make a list of your needs and wants as you start the process.  These items should include the number of beds you need, cooking set up, heating and air and a bathroom.  Stick to the basics.  I consider a starter RV to be like a starter home.  A starter RV will get you into the camping lifestyle without making a large financial commitment.

We wanted a simple camper that would provide us a comfortable place to sleep at night.

What Is Your Start Point?

If you have been camping for a while in a tent, then basically anything is a starter RV for you.  You are familiar with setting up and takedown.  You may also like to camp quite a bit and want to camp more.  It is important to consider what you would like to start out doing as a camper.  Maybe you only want to camp a few times or weekends a year.  If camping is a brand new activity for you or your family, you may not even know how much you will even enjoy camping.  

I think it is important for anyone considering an RV purchase to factor in local campgrounds that you might use.  Having somewhere close to home where you could and would camp regularly might factor into your plans to use an RV.  Also, review how much actual time you have to camp.  If your schedule is filled with lots of weekend activities or you have limited vacation or free time, you may be making a purchase for occasional use only.  Your start point and plans to use an RV should be a factor in your budget.

RV renovation can be a big job.  We didn't know how much work we were getting into with our pop up camper.  We thought we were only making cosmetic changes.  We were so wrong.  The first thing we had to do was repair our water connection!

Reasonable Budget

The place where most first time RV owners get into trouble is the price point.  If you are shopping at an RV dealership, the plans for a small, cost-effective model can quickly go out of the window.  Monthly payments may seem cheap at the time of purchase, but you could easily lose money if you decide to sell quickly after your purchase.  Don't get caught in that trap.

Think about where you are starting as an RV owner and how much time you believe you can and will camp annually.  Allow this amount of time to help you build a budget.  The more you spend on your overall purchase, the more you will actually need to utilize your investment for it to be worth the price.  Camping should be fun and free-spirited and not a burden because of the price tag.

If you already love camping and know how much you camp annually now, you might want to invest a little more into an RV to get what you want.  Spending more should be reserved for someone who knows that camping is a loved activity and will be enjoyed regularly.  Even seasoned campers may want to only buy a small used model to start out.  It is hard to know what you want and need until you get into an RV.  Many RV owners trade-in after 3 to 5 years.  So even if you buy a model that feels cramped early on or you decide that you wished you had certain features, save that for a second model.  If you love the first RV, there will be a second one.  Don't go for broke the first time around!

The finished pop-up camper remodel yielded great results, but there were so many other things that we should have done first!  The canvas needed replacing and a side seam needed repairing too!

Reasonable Expectations

There are lots of "starter" RV's for sale online for super cheap.  These RV's can be a super big money pit!  That $1000 camper could cost you well more than $5000 to get it roadworthy.  At that point, you could have purchased a used model in better shape that was ready to go.

If you have followed anyone on social media that has renovated an RV, these projects photograph beautifully and inspire us to create these tiny homes on wheels.  I've remodeled pop up camper, and I can tell you it is a LOT of work and can cost far more than you think.  Before you jump into a project ask yourself if you can really do it.  If your goal is to start camping as a family, you might be stalled for months while you remodel a fixer-upper that you have purchased.  Make sure you don't get over your head with a huge project that kills your desire to camp.

I would recommend starting with an RV that is functional and practical.  Maybe the interior isn't your style.  That is okay.  If you start with something you can use, the cosmetic changes can be done over time while still enjoying time at the campground.  I've had more than one reader say to me that they are so tired of remodeling their fixer-upper and just want to camp.  Buy something you can camp in NOW!

Before and after photos of our pop up camper interior.

Know Pricing and Value

Used RV's can be priced all over the board.  Use a reputable source like the NADA RV Guide to explore pricing for models you are considering.  This will help you to determine if the asking price is fair.  The last thing you want to do when beginning your journey as an RV owner is to find yourself upside down in a bad financial decision.  It may take you a while to find that sweet spot.  Be patient.  There are many RV's out there for sale that owners just decide that they don't use and will part with for a good price.  Keep an eye out for these models.  Some are only a couple of years old and in perfect shape!

How much weight can your tow vehicle actually tow?  We could only tow 3,500 pounds with our Nissan Pathfinder Hybrid.  

Towing and Weight

Finally, how much can you tow?  Your tow vehicle can and will limit what you can tow.  If you have a tow vehicle that can tow a small RV (3,500 to 5,000), then stick to this weight when shopping.  I would NOT recommend purchasing a tow vehicle and RV all at once unless you absolutely have to do this.  Many SUVs can tow an RV.  You may not tow your dream camper with the vehicle you have, but I wouldn't get in too deep financially until you decide how much you can and will camp.

Also, if you buying a used camper, don't purchase a rig bigger than what you feel comfortable towing.  Our pop up camper was a breeze to tow.  If you are nervous about towing an RV, then get something small to start out with.  Our 23 foot RV is really at the top of our comfort zone.  I don't know that I could ever tow a huge rig.  It is very important to think seriously about this.  If you have never towed anything before, that 32-foot steal of an RV may be overwhelming once you hit the highway.  Your budget may afford you more RV than you can actually handle.  Just go smaller.  No one says you have the buy the biggest RV you can afford.

If you are fixing up an RV, how much work are you comfortable doing yourself?  I ended up repairing tour canvas to limp through our first year and replacing the canvas totally the second year.

Can You Find a Brand New Starter RV?

Yes!  There are RV's at every price point.  If you go the route of buying a brand new RV right out of the gate, I advise you to use a lot of restraint here.  Do your research ahead of time.  Set specific parameters at the dealership where you are shopping and don't get off track.  We just went through this process.  I was very specific and straight forward with the salespersons as we shopped.  I didn't ask to see huge rigs and let it be known that we only wanted something less than 25 feet.  There are brand new RV's that are at reasonable prices.  Grand Design has the Imagine XLS line with some great starter RV's that aren't so huge.  Plus there are other brands with smaller models that you could price and find at points for even less.  My cousin purchased a very basic Jayco model that he and his family have loved as a starter RV.

Our interior started out as very plain, but we could have camped with this setup.  We should have started with the exterior needs first!

Final Pointers and Advice

  • Stick to basic features and amenities in a starter model.
  • You don't need an RV that is nicer than the sticks and bricks home you own.
  • Unless you are a full-timer, there are many things that you can compromise on in an RV.
  • Bigger is not better.
  • Beware of fixer-upper models that would require a lot of labor and work.
  • Stick to clean models that need cosmetic changes if any so that you can get out and camp right off the bat.
I've created a starter camper checklist to help you sort through everything during the buying process.  If you have questions about buying a starter camper, I'd love to hear from you.  I encourage people to go for it if camping is a dream.  Make it a reality.  It is not as expensive or difficult as you think.  We love camping as a family and hope to camp more in the new year.

If you are considering a first time RV, you can see the products that went into our pop up camper remodel and our favorite camping gear on my blog.  I've tried to take the guesswork out of many of these projects.  I even have a page devoted to all of the projects that I have done since we purchased our pop up camper.

Until next time...

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  1. Where did you find that outdoor carpet? I love it!

    1. Hi! That rug is the best. You can find it on Amazon. I'm linking below. You can also find a link to it on my Camping Gear Page. Scroll up to the top and you will find it.



      Happy Camping!

  2. Great info here! Just starting our search for a pop up. Grew up camping in one that my parents remodeled in the ‘60’s. Husband is not a camper, yet. Hes willing to try pulling a pop up. How hard is it to replace those tiny fridges with a dorm size fridge/freezer? What are the electrical capabilities of most modern units?

    1. It is not hard to do at all! However, considering the size, you may be better off using that space for storage and investing in a really big roto molded cooler. Eventually that is what we wished we had done. If you want a fridge, its not a big deal and its super easy to do!


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