One of the most important considerations when choosing your 'Goldilocks' camper, is - naturally enough - size. Let's talk a little about the following physical dimensions:
Length matters. It affects the turning circle, ease of parking (storage, on site and on road), shipping costs (ferry and freight), the handling of the vehicle, and the stealth factor (more on that later). Length also dictates the essential living space, storage and - naturally - construction costs and thus price of the vehicle.
So what's a good length?
The answer to that very valid question depends upon your personal choice, taking into account the type of road trips you want to make. Weekends? Summer holidays? Full-timing? Dedicated campsites only or suck-it-and-see?
Do you want to wander around the highways of the USA and Canada? Then, no worries; you may happily drive around in 11 or 12m RVs (assuming you can afford the 100 - 200,000 dollars). Even most towns are accessible to these beasts. American supermarket car parks seem to be designed with these dimensions in mind, and some retailers even let you stay for free overnight (we have enjoyed many a midnight Walmart food-raid).
However, even in the USA, larger vehicles have shortcomings too. Many of my favourite campsites - along the US Highways 1 and 101, for example - are length restricted. Humboldt Redwoods State Park bans all vehicles greater than 24 feet (approx. 7,3m) in length. And believe me, Humboldt is not somewhere you should miss.
In Europe, longer motorhomes are a different proposition still. Most of the ancient sites (old cities, particularly the historical centres), are pretty much inaccessible to many conventionally-lengthy campers. Even if you can navigate the torturously narrow roads, good luck finding somewhere both legally and physically feasible to park. This is particularly valid now that emissions controls are in place for many cities; effectively banning or taxing private vehicles in designated areas. Of course, there's a good way around these issues: leave the motorhome at a site outside of the city, and take bicycles or public transport. There are some excellent examples of such campsites located just outside Europe's old cities.
By comparison, neither bicycles nor public transport options are generally convenient in the USA - cycling is a hair-raising experience in many US cities, and local public transport options can be extremely limited, albeit also very entertaining.
In San Francisco we have stayed several times at one of the few RV parks 'in the city' - Candlestick RV Park - which charges up to 100 dollars per night (2016 prices) for an RV space in a large car park, plus 12 dollars per person to shuttle into Chinatown! Believe me, it's too far to walk to town, and even public transport alternatives mean several short walks plus bus plus tram to reach the Embarcadero.
Outside the cities in Europe, the 'open road' can be somewhat less open than you might wish it to be, too. Some of the prettiest parts of England, for example, are in the far southwest (Cornwall and Devon), and many of the minor roads are bounded by ancient stone walls, or are else so old they have 'sunk' over the centuries well below the level of the high hedgerows lining the maintained routes. And did I mention the mountain roads of the Scottish Highlands and Islands? It is utterly impossible to turn around a 9 m camper in a field entrance on these roads! You can expect to have to rely upon the good will of others (fortunately abundant) to resolve opposite-direction conflicts, by waiting for other drivers to reverse to the nearest passing place.
However, if you're content to weave your way across local roads to the excellent French, German and Spanish autoroutes, then subsequently cruise down to your chosen Mediterranean camping park stroke children's entertainment centre stroke beach-side bar; well, a larger camper makes the perfect (relatively) mobile hotel.
Of course, if mega-campgrounds are not your thing, then you may well be more interested in farm sites, vineyard stop-overs, or just a quiet spot with a view over the ocean. There are thousands of officially designated sites in Europe that are free or very nearly free, from mountain tops to beaches to city-centres. These days, finding such sites is not difficult either, via well maintained websites, e.g. France Passion, Britstops, Fattore Amico (most European countries now have an equivalent scheme), and my absolute favourite, Camper Contact. And this doesn't even count all the 'aires' or 'stellplätze'.
In the USA, most State and National Parks offer very reasonably priced camping, plus BLM areas offer vast (and free) camping opportunities.
Failing all of that, there's always wild-camping (otherwise known, with subtly differential meanings, as boondocking or dry camping). Like the USA, Europe's a treasure trove of such opportunities. Don't believe me?
Yet wild-camping raises more challenges for the longer vehicle. A huge white box with a bicycle rack and drawn curtains does not easily blend in with the environment. Even taking up two spaces in a conventional car park pretty much restricts the maximum length to 9 m. A motorhome in the 5 to 6 m range has a far better chance of fitting into urban parking spaces, countryside lay-bys, or a discrete beachside track. More on stealth and wild-camping in subsequent blog posts.
The ideal motorhome length is a compromise between the benefits of more living space and the limitations of access. Our own personal experiences and considerations led us to the conclusion that 8 m was an absolute maximum, and that nearer 5 m would be ideal.
Perhaps not as significant as length, nevertheless the width of your preferred camper also has consequences for the compromise between living space versus road access.
Most European campers are in the range of 2.1 - 2.3 m wide. Note that in Europe it is not possible to register a camper wider than 2.55 m. US campers, with roads and parking spaces to match, are anything around 2.6 m. And all these measures exclude mirrors - something to bear in mind when you try to squeeze up a lane in the middle of an Italian city that narrows to 2.5 m, and you reasonably assume that your 2.3 m camper will fit. Thank you to my friend, Reinhard, for that lesson! How did he get out? Some friendly locals bumped cars out of the way so that he could safely reverse...
Slide-outs are rare in European motorhomes, but are de rigeur in the US. It's quite incredible how much relative living space can be generated by a 1 m deep slide-out across a 3 m lounge width. However, to extend a slide-out, the leg supports must first be lowered, which can be inconvenient. Even more inconvenient, not to mention embarrassing, is attempting to drive away whilst the slides are still out.
I have always been both delighted with and nervous of the big American slide-outs, in equal measure. What happens when the electrics fail and you can't then get the slide-out retracted? Yep - that's happened to us.
"Hello, err, our coach electrics have failed. But the fuses look okay."
"Okay, sir. Just drive on down to us in Alamogordo, and we'll have that fixed right up."
"Mm. That's the other thing..."
In essence, all the same issues with respect to room on the carriageway apply equally to width as to length. But car parks and roadside parking can be even more of a problem with a wide motorhome. It's a brave person who parks their 2.5 m wide motorhome by the side of the road on a dark evening in Europe.
Perhaps the key benefit of a wider camper is the consequent possibility of a space-efficient transverse bed. Or even, as in the case of our American experiences, a king-sized bed with space either side for your slippers and a sidelight!
There can be nothing worse in the world of motorhome camping than having to make your bunk up every night before you crawl into bed. If the width and layout offers the opportunity for a 2 m permanent bed, it's got to be worth the extra vehicle width. Of course, it's absolutely possible to find a camper with a north-south bed (sometimes in the roof space). But relying upon longitudinal bunks has the expected consequence for overall motorhome length.
In our personal assessment, a minimum width requirement ruled out the old Dubs (phew), therefore we decided to follow the rabbit, and look for something in the 2.1 m - 2.3 m range, with a permanent bed.
The height of your motorhome has several considerations; headroom internally, the overall exposure to wind, fuel economy, safe bridge/tunnel access, centre of gravity (and thus tendency to roll), stealth, security, as well as (indirectly) ground clearance and approach/departure angles (see below).
On the positive side of the scales, high campers offer the obvious advantage of good internal headroom. Being able to stand upright in your camper is not only a physical boon, but also offers some psychological relief too, else it's possible to start feeling a little like Ryan Reynolds. It's also worth pointing out that an exceptionally high ground clearance vehicle, despite being tall, still might not offer the head-space in the living area that you were expecting; unless your name is Samwise Gangee and you're used to living in a hole. And look what happened to him; he got stuck with a whining Frodo for 9 hours.
High campers often have a security advantage too. Windows may be out of reach and the lack of an easy vantage point might deter the opportunist thief in the first place.
However, height also has its negatives. A big, fat (no, I'm not still referring to Mr. Gangee) glass and steel wall rushing down the road does very little for the environment! Fuel consumption can be awful.
Tall sides make very good sails too; and, like a sailboat, the rather alarming consequence in high winds is to risk knocking the tall-sided motorhome over altogether. A capsize that you don't easily recover from.
Just before dusk, in the middle of the Nevadan desert, we watched as the dust devils danced across the barren but achingly beautiful landscape. We were heading east, along the aptly termed 'Lonely Road'. Sarah was driving and we hadn't seen another vehicle in the last hour.
"Hey, look, Sarah. That's a big one! Impressive."
(Sarah trying to stay focused on the road ahead):
"Isn't it coming this way?"
"Well, err, it might be. A bit."
Seconds later, the devil was on us; straight across the road. It hit the RV with a powerful broadside, and the sound of a blue whale gargling gravel. If you can imagine.
The nice, big, 11m American Type C, with lovely tall sides, reacted by seeming to bend at the knees, and we scuffled sideways across the road and into the opposite lane. For just an instant. Unfortunately, an instant timed to match the trajectory of an articulated truck coming the other way. The first vehicle for an hour. The truck didn't move, nor slow. No reaction at all.
In the next moment, Sarah had wrestled the beast back on to our side of the road and the truck slid past. There were a few choice Luton words spoken then, punctuated by apologies to the children in the back. That was about as close as we've ever come to a head-on collision, but I think our children remember that day more for the expansion of their vocabulary than the incident itself.
Dust devils are also known as 'chiindii' by the Navajo; spirits or ghosts of the dead. In Australia, the Aborigines call them 'willy-willies'; representing scary spirits or demons. My mother was born in Australia (sort of... long story for another time), and when I was a child, she recounted tales of the willy-willies she had seen in the outback. It took me until my teenage years to realise that not all Australians were flashers.
To be fair, the likelihood of being hit by a sizeable dust devil is about as remote as Nevada itself, but the lesson remains valid: high vehicles and higher winds? To be avoided as far as possible.
Incidentally; the anecdote above illustrates another point: tall campers simply don't handle well due to a high centre of gravity coupled with (normally) insufficient suspension and dampers. Often as not, they wallow like Samwise Gangee after a particularly heavy breakfast.
An analogous argument can be made for high vehicles and low bridges or tunnels: i.e. potentially awkward.
Somewhere around 2.9m maximum height is apparently good for Russia (don't know, never been there), and I suppose anywhere around 3.3m (less than 11 feet) will see you safely through most other normally navigable routes. But do watch out for the signs!
We decided to hedge our bets at around 3m.
Fair enough. That was length, width and height covered. Let's talk about weight in a bit more detail.
Samwise, over to you. [ed: bastard]