Aug 292010

I had a conversation with some friends the other day about the benefits of towing a car behind their motorhome, and if they were to do so, what type of car to buy, as well as whether or not to use a tow dolly, as opposed to towing all four wheels down.

I don’t see how any fulltimer, or even an extended time RVer, can handle not having a tow car, sometimes called a dinghy, especially if they have a very large motorhome. I have known several that tried it, and all of them have eventually decided that the hassles of renting a car wherever they stop are just too much to deal with.

Several years ago, one of our students at Life on Wheels was convinced that he could save money by not towing a car, while his wife couldn’t understand why they should leave their perfectly good car behind and rely on rental companies. This man is a retired accountant, who by his own admission is “anal” when it comes to keeping track of every penny spent.

They are subscribers to the Gypsy Journal, and we have kept in touch over the years. They towed their Saturn during their first year on the road, and the second year the wife gave in, and they left their car with their son, so their granddaughter could use it to go to college. Bill told me that at the end of their second year, they had traveled 274 miles more than the first year, and they had saved $300 by not towing. This included fuel mileage, the difference in tolls between their two axle motorhome and the two extra axles on a tow car, insurance and registration on the car (which the son paid while his daughter used it), and two annual oil changes on the car. They decided that for less than $1 a day, it just made sense to tow their car.

We have known some fulltimers who used tow dollies, and again, after a year or so, most of them have switched to towing all four wheels on the ground, with a tow bar instead of the dolly. At a big RV park like Elkhart Campground, it’s no problem finding a place to stash a dolly during your stay. But at a lot of the smaller places we frequent, such as Tra-Tel RV Park in Tucson, it’s pretty tight, and most RV sites will not accommodate a tow dolly.

As to what kind of car to tow, the choices are wide, and a lot of personal preference comes into play. For years we towed a Toyota 4×4 extended cab pickup with a five speed manual transmission and a camper shell, and it was a great vehicle. A couple of years ago we switched to an extended length cargo van with an automatic transmission, to carry our toys, and to make loading the papers easier when we get a new issue printed.

We use a Remco driveshaft disconnect, which can be a real problem occasionally. You have to lubricate the linkage three or four times a year, and if you forget, it will lock up and you can’t get it to engage. This necessitates crawling under the van, disconnecting the locking pin on the driveshaft disconnect, manually rotating it into place, and then putting the locking pin back in. We’ve also had the driveshaft disconnect get fouled and lock up after towing the van down dirt or gravel roads. It was a lot easier to simply put the Toyota’s gearshift and transfer case in neutral and take off.

We know fulltimers who pull  fifth wheel trailers with huge medium or heavy duty trucks, who also tow a car behind the trailer. They look like a freight train going down the road, and I would probably run over a mailbox or a fire hydrant the first time I tried to turn a corner in a rig that big. But the folks who have them seem to be able to handle them just fine.

We’ve also seen RVers who carry small cars, or Smart cars, on the bed of their trucks, between the cab and the front of their trailer. I just know I could do thousands of dollars worth of damage trying to load a combination like that up before I hit the road! But again, the people who have them seem to have it down to a science.

I’m curious, what do you tow, and how? Have you tried RVing without a tow car?

Thought For The Day – If you worry about what might be, and wonder what might have been, you will ignore what is.

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Nick Russell

World-Famous, New York Times Best Selling Author, and All-Around Nice Guy!

  25 Responses to “To Tow Or Not To Tow”

  1. Nick,

    We towed a dolly for the first long trip we took to Alaska and back, and used it occasionally after that but have since gone almost fulltime to towing with all four down. We like the tow bar best, it is quicker to hook and unhook, and although there are some restrictions on what kind of vehicle you can tow, we have pulled both a Jeep Cherokee and a Chevy Silverado behind our motorhomes with no issues yet. And as you mentioned with a dolly there is the “what do you do with it when you are not using it question”, for now we have answered that question by parking it behind our barn where there is lots of room.

  2. Hi Nick,

    We tow a Honda CR-V using a Blue Ox Adventa. When we park, we remove all of the Blue Ox cables and store them in a Rubbermaid contained we refer to as the “Blue Ox box.” That way we can’t fall victim to a jerk who wants to steal something.

    Periodically, I clean everything and spray Corrosion X on all moving parts and dump the grit out of the storage container. We also carry two kneeling pads in the container to protect our knees when we kneel down on the pavement to make the connections.

  3. We started full timing in 07 pulling a trailer with two motorcycles on it. The winter months are just too cold for me to be riding a bike, so we now pull a jeep wrangler 4 down.

  4. We are on our fourth Jeep behind our motorhome. If you get the 4-wheel drive option, I is a matter of putting both the transmission and the transfer case in neutral, and you’re good to go. It is all done from inside the car, just 2 buttons or handles to move, no stopping to run the engine every so often, no limit on how fast or far you go, it is the only way to go!

    Only thing is, the Jeeps are heavy! Even the Liberty is nearly 4,000 pounds. That could be a factor.

  5. We have a class A and would NOT be without a towed vehicle. We tow a 4 wheel drive Jeep Liberty 4 wheels down. We love the ability to go 4 wheeling as well as have a car for town driving. We use a Roadmaster Sterling tow bar.

    It is really nice to be able to leave the coach parked at the RV campground and we are then mobile in the Jeep. We just don’t like it when you have to pack everything up to go get a loaf of bread or whatever. For couples, it allows me to go out shopping or to wash clothes and Peter can stay at the RV and have alone time for himself. Very convenient.

  6. We tow a 26′ utility trailer with the Suzuki in it. There are 2 kayaks, bikes, lawn furniture and a workshop in it. On the roof is the canoe. 65′ long and I handle it just fine. Boondocking we haven’t had a problem with parking but if we did RV parks that might limit us.

  7. Several years ago a very sage gentleman nodded wisely with a small grin when I declared that we’d chosen not to tow in our new full-timing lifestyle. He stated that not towing was fine and that he was familiar with several people who had tried the method we were choosing of renting cars upon reaching their destination. He also reminded me that of those who continued to remain on the road began towing within the first couple of years. Stubborn old man that I am, we have continued to persue the renting menthod for our first 20 months now of full-timing. NOW its time to stop renting and purchase our new tow vehicle. I refuse to acknowlege that Nick was right or anything like that, its just that we want to be like all you other folks. Nick, I’m listening. . . what else should I be doing? Does a nice Jeep sound OK with you? Something like the Blue OX fits my personality. . . don’t you think? All advice appreciate. . . some even followed. As always, oRV

  8. I spent two months without a toad when switching from a 5th wheel to a motorhome in 2007. I managed to get rides with friends, or park the MH in a large parking lot when shopping for groceries, but managing daily life and short trips was awkward. So I was happy when I found the 2006 Honda CR-V I was looking for and got it equipped with a Blue Ox tow package. I can handle hitching/unhitching fine, and love driving a little car around town and for day trips.

    For people looking for a vehicle that can be towed 4-down, Motorhome Magazine publishes a useful list of cars every year with manufacturers’ specs. The Remco device you use has been said to void the warranty on new vehicles.

  9. We started out with a tow dolly,but the more I handled the dolly the heavier it got. We now tow a Chevy Cavalier four down. Hook it up put it in neutral,no fuses to pull and it doesn’t register mileage on the odometer while pulling.


  10. We traveled for a year and a half in a motorhome small enough to fit into a single parking space if the rear end could hang over a curb. We didn’t tow anything behind it because we were moving nearly every day anyway so going shopping, do laundry, etc. were just more stops along the road. When we bought a Class A we also bought a Honda CR-V to tow. It’s a different way of travel and I miss being able to pull in anywhere any time in our little motorhome. But, this bigger rig sure is a lot more comfortable when we are parked and we like having all our stuff with us now instead of having some of it stashed in a storeroom. All of life appears to be one big tradeoff.

  11. When we switched from a 5W to motorhome in Oct 2000 we started with a Saturn 4 down. Towed great; but it was a little too small for us. Changed to a Jeep Grand Cherokee in Dec 2003, 4×4 with manual transfer case so there are no towing problems. I thought about a dolly once until I saw one that had gone too far onto the dolly when loading. What a mess that was! The other dolly drawback is if you go on toll roads you are charged for another axle. We have a Roadmaster Sterling tow bar with brakemaster breaking system for the jeep as well as a break-a-way connection for added safety. FMCA also publishes a list of towable vehicles each Jan. Their web site has the back several years as some vehicles will very year to year on what is towable and what is not. The 4×4 gives us the added options of going “off road” on added adventures!

  12. After we bought our small motorhome, we did one weekend camping trip without a towed vehicle. While we could have unhooked from electrical, water and sewer to go to various places in the park, we didn’t and just kept our roaming to what we could walk to.

    We planned on towing and we already had a vehicle that could be towed — a 2004 Honda CRV.

    We have a 2008 24′ Itasca Navion IQ. There are a lot of people who drive motorhomes the size of ours who don’t tow. Unlike larger motorhomes, they are easier to park and maneuver around and I do get it when people say they don’t “need” to tow, especially if they don’t go very far or very often with their campers.

    Besides the convenience of having a car along, though, is that using a car saves reduces the wear, tear, and mileage on the motorhome. We intend to keep our little camper for a long time and want it to last. While we don’t full time, we do take extended trips from our home in Arkansas and have gone on 4 long trips with this motorhome (1. Wisconsin, 2. Virginia, 3. Colorado, and, just completed, 4. out to Idaho and then back home via Wisconsin) as well as several shorter trips. Our camper has less than 15,000 miles on it and, without towing, would have significantly more than that.

  13. I agree 100% with your position, Nick. We started 15 years ago with a (well) used 22 ft. motorhome, bobtail. It was small enough to fit in most regular car parking spaces, as long as it could overhang in the back. Nonetheless, it bacame a pain to disconnect water, electric, etc. just to drive to the store for a loaf of bread, or to do local touring. We bought a dolly and used that for a short period, but found it a lot of work, plus the campground storage issue you mentioned. When we moved up to a (somewhat) larger 29 9 years ago, we bought a standard shift Subaru Outback, which we have towed four down for over 90 thousand miles, including several tripa across country, two trips to Alaska, and once to Newfoundland. No muss, no fuss, no bother. It hooks up and unhooks in less than 5 minutes, plus two more minutes for the Brake Buddy. No special towing requirements other than to double check that the transmission is in neutral, parking brake off, and steering wheel unlocked. Several years ago the two bars on our Roadmaster started binding badly, but I have since learned to spray them with silicone and wipe them down every time I disconnect. They now work smoothly. As you say, we all converge eventually on the 4 down towing solution.

  14. We tow a Toyota Matrix (manual transmission), 4-down, behind our motorhome. It has worked really well for us. Lot’s of usable and accessible storage space for a small car, and excellent gas mileage.

  15. Nick,

    Over the years we have pulled two Jeeps and now a CR-V all four down as I wanted to make it as easy as possible if my wife had to hook up. We use a Blue Ox aluminum tow bar to keep the weight low for easy lifting. As for renting a car, most of the places we stop do not even have rental agencies so it would require a major effort to obtain a rental vehicle for the time we were in the area and then return it. If you only go to major metropolitan areas it would not be a problem.

  16. This is a great post Nick and comment section. I will insist my wife read it too.
    We are preparing for our retired life on the road and had thought that renting whenever we needed an vehicle was the way to go, but obviously not as your fine readers have pointed out. I have read about the brake buddy in my reasearch but only Keith and Kathy mentioned it here.
    Is a BrakeBuddy required on all “toad” vehicles or just ones of a certain weight?

  17. Fulltiming for almost 7 years now with an older Jeep Wagoneer 4×4. Tow it 4 down with the transfer case in neutral and the auto tranny in park per the owners manual. Have a US Gears braking system on it.

  18. Chris, As Ed just noted, check out the US Gear supplemental braking system. Unlike the Brake Buddy, where you have to move about a large box to the car’s driver’s compartment (and store it when not in use), the US Gear just uses a pre-wired “plug” between the RV and the toad. The solenoid that connects to the braking system is mounted on the car’s firewall in our CR-V and covered by the interior carpet. Very clean set-up — no gloves needed. We also like the Roadmaster All-Terrain tow system which allows you to connect/disconnect easily if you are not exactly aligned or level. We bought them all online and had free-shipping and no taxes which paid for the installation of the US Gear wiring. In ’06 our Monaco product came pre-wired for US Gear. I understand other brands do so now.

  19. When I had the 5th Wheel(31′) I was very happy with driving around in the truck (2500 dodge cummins). But we wanted a larger unit and went with a 39′ Kountry Star diesel pusher. We are very happy with the 2006 Honda CR-V towed using the blue Ox system and a Brake Buddy. The Honda CR-V can be towed without modification.

  20. Hey Nick
    Hubby and I have been fulltiming for 5 years now. We have a 40ft 5th wheel toyhauler. We LOVE our lifestyle and this post just goes to show how many different ways you can fulltime. Fulltiming is awesome now matter what option you choose. We carry to full dressed cruisers in our toyhauler, and tow with an F-550. We have no problems using our truck with the weather isn’t suitable for the bikes.
    Love the postings……Hope to see you on the road….

  21. We did vacation travel with the HDT and a fiver for a few years. The truck was fine for most things we wanted to do. Then I saw an article about the smart, realized it would fit crosswise on the Volvo. It took a few months to confirm that I could get my hands on a European smart, this was 2005. Finally got confirmation I could get a gray market car imported, then I designed a deck and had it built.

    We have been carrying the smart since the spring of 2006, it’s not for everyone, but it has worked out well for us.

    We are here at the Gypsy Gathering if anyone wants to take a look.

  22. RV’d for 11 years(4 months of year and weekends) in my Class B….hauled a 49cc moped on a rack….loved it but traveled alone…
    RV’d for 1 year (about 4 months of years) in 38′ diesel without a car, but carried the moped……not as great as with the Class B
    RV’d this year (5 two week trips), towing a CRV with Roadmaster All Terrian and Blue OX brackets…..LOVE this….why did I wait so long…..I do this as a woman traveling alone

    check out my blog

  23. We bought our new to us Class C in April. It came with a tow dolly that had been used one time. After reading many negative comments concerning the dolly, we advertised it on Craig’s List and sold it in 3 days. We then bit the bullet and had a Roadmaster tow bar, wiring and an SMI braking system installed so we could pull our ’05 Honda CRV. The tow bar’s a cinch to hook up. The SMI system is great in that there is no box in the drivers seat and we only have two switches to move, lube the tranmission, and get on the road.
    We recently returned home after a 2 1/2 month 6200 mile loop around the US and I can heartily agree with all who say a dinghy is needed and are no troule to pull.

  24. This is our 11th year FTing. We started out with a 5th and 3/4 ton Ford pickup. When we bought the motorhome in 2002 we got a Roadmaster heavy enough to tow the 8,000-pound pickup. In 2004 we bought a Ford Explorer and Larry transferred the U.S. Gear from the pickup to the car and we still use the same Roadmaster towbar. Love these two products which only require some routine maintenance to remove road gunk.

  25. I propose to pull a Honda CRV behind a Fleetwood Discovery, 330 CAT pusher. Do I really need brakes on the CRV? It seems most jurisdictions do not require brakes on the two vehicle.

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