A Brief Survey of Live Aboard Vehicles

This survey shares information about live aboard vehicles, includes types of vehicles, sizes and costs of campers, travel trailers and mobile homes.
By Tom Marshall
March/April 1971
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Learn everything you need to know about live aboard vehicles.
Photo by Fotolia/Not Rich Ritchie


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Everything you need to know about live aboard vehicles, including the various types, sizes and costs.

Survey of Live Aboard Vehicles

Vehicles suitable for long-term residence can be classified by construction into three basic types and six subtypes:

Integral vehicles, where living accommodations and carrier are a unit. These include: "motorhomes" built from the ground up. Dealer-modified forward control van trucks. Old delivery trucks outfitted by backyard mechanics.

Campers, including: Slide-in campers which fit on the bed of a pickup truck. Chassis-mount campers which bolt to an open-frame truck.

Travel trailers which are towed by other vehicles.

Not included in this survey nor recommended to the potential nomad are "mobile homes" — house trailers so large as to require special tow trucks and State permits. Another drawback of mobile homes is their lack of self-containment. They must be parked in trailer courts where water, sewerage and electric connections are available.

Integral vehicles of all varieties have living space and driving controls in one compartment. This permits easy access, most efficient use of space and presents less wind resistance than a camper and truck having the same frontal area. The major drawback is less flexibility; the vehicle portion cannot be easily separated for trade-in or freight carrying.

Motorhomes include the largest, most luxurious and most costly of all land-mobile accommodations. Ranging up to 35-foot specially-outfitted buses, many are called and deserve the name "land yachts." They often include such equipment as 110 VAC generators, air conditioners and flush toilets with holding tanks. Built from the ground up in small quantities, motorhomes tend to be more expensive than campers or trailers having equivalent accommodations. They also have more design flaws in their running gear. Prices for new units start around $6000. The relatively few motorhomes on the road attract more attention than campers. This is a delight for some social metaphysicians but not for the serious libertarian. As designs mature and production quantities increase, motorhomes may become more attractive.

Volkswagen, Dodge and Chevrolet dealers sell new forward-control vans furnished with some living accommodations. The major advantage here is compactness including a low silhouette and light weight. This means easier parking, less wind resistance, better gas mileage and less concern with over-hanging tree limbs. Disadvantages include limited space and weight carrying capability, few transmission options, relatively little ground clearance, lack of stand-up room (unless an expensive bubble top is added, which increases height and wind resistance) and (presently) relatively high cost per space and equipment.

Home modified delivery trucks range in accommodation, quality and price from crudely furnished worn-out "bread trucks" offered for a few hundred dollars to well-outfitted, professionally rebuilt rigs with an asking price of two or three thousand. Potential advantages include a low initial price and a rugged, heavy-duty basic vehicle. Disadvantages: Most have a high rear-axle ratio (with only three-speed transmission) resulting in low cruising speed and/or reduced gas mileage and engine life. Many are 1 1/2 or 2-ton trucks which are more harassed by State highwaymen than are camper trucks of one ton and under. Resale may be difficult.

Campers utilize a proven mass-produced vehicle as carrier and, for this reason, presently cost less than comparable integrated vehicles. Popular as recreation vehicles, campers attract little attention, whether parked on city streets or prowling the wilderness. Weight-distribution, ground clearance and gear-ratios (often including wide range, four-speed transmissions) are usually suitable for off-the-road use. Vehicle and camper can be parted for separate use or sale. On the other hand, a camper with truck will usually be longer, higher and slightly heavier than an integrated vehicle with the same interior space.

The slide-in camper is the obvious choice for the man who must use his truck separately for business. But he may attract the ire of the State unless he suffers the additional expense of a "commercial" license; in fact some States will license a truck as a "pleasure vehicle" only if the camper is bolted down. The slide-in camper has little storage space; especially low-down compartments where heavy items can be stored without raising the center of gravity. Some of the larger self-contained campers, even when empty, will load a three-quarter-ton pickup of 7500 pound GVW (gross vehicle weight) close to its recommended maximum.

A chassis-mount camper provides more space in the same length and, if fitted to a one-ton truck with dual rear wheels, is a more rugged but less flexible rig.

Travel trailers provide the greatest flexibility and. like campers, relative economy. Important disadvantages: the small fraction of total weight on the (automobile or truck) driving wheels gives poor traction, severely limiting off-the-road capability; maneuverability is poor; parking space must be rented for extended stays in populated areas.

Running Gear for Live a Board Vehicles

For the live-aboard, the GVW rating should exceed the empty weight of truck plus camper by at least 2000 pounds to allow for equipment added, supplies, passengers and perhaps the tongue weight of a trailer. GVW will be limited by rating of axles, springs, rims or tires . . . whichever is least. Since tires or rims are most frequently the weak link, adding over-load springs does not necessarily increase GVW. Each axle of truck with camper should be weighed on a truck scale; a dealer's estimate is not sufficient.

Recommended options or additions: dual-rear wheels, or single rear wheels with extra-wide tires (10 inches to 12 inches) and rims; heavy-duty radiator; extra-large or extra gas tank (50 gallon total capacity is not excessive for a vehicle which will probably cruise ten to twelve miles per gallon); extra battery and jumper cables or switch; jack and lug wrench (not standard on all new trucks); spare tire (except, perhaps, if truck has dual-rear wheels and all wheels are interchangeable).

A test drive is recommended for any vehicle, new or used. This should include high-speed cruising (power, engine speed, stability), long hill climb (power, cooling), rough dirt road (traction, suspension, ground clearance, ruggedness).

Mobile Vehicle Sizes

Most campers and motorhomes are no longer than a Cadillac; however super-size vehicles are also available. While the additional living and storage space may be welcome, every foot of length over 20 feet means increasingly difficult maneuvering and parking, and attracts that much more attention. The large family might consider a camper PLUS a travel trailer.

Mobile Vehicle Materials

Most campers are built on a wood frame, with sheet-aluminum outside wall, vinyl-coated composition board inside wall and fiberglass insulation. Some, use an all-metal shell, metal-foam-plastic sandwich, or molded-fiberglass. These are usually lighter and/or stronger but more expensive. Recommended checks: adequacy of insulation on one hand, and ventilation on the other, for temperatures expected; finish of inside surfaces; ease of washing and resistance to scratching, especially around the stove.

Mobile Vehicle Furnishings

Since most campers and trailers are bought by those who only want to "get away from it all" on weekends and vacations, equipment is usually insufficient for living aboard; the nomad should allow an extra money for outfitting.

Standard on most campers and travel trailers: Propane-operated stove; water tank and hand pump; 12-volt lighting system (connected to truck battery); connection for external 110 VAC electricity; ice box; five-gallon propane tank.

Options or additions which may be worthwhile: stove with oven; 12-volt water pump and "instant" propane-burning water heater fed from water tank (not external connection); shower; chemical toilet (plastic bags will also do); furnace (wall or floor); extra propane tank; 110 VAC electric generator (driven by small gasoline engine); rear bumper/trailer hitch; "crawl- through" between cab and camper of chassis-mount.

Options not recommended: flush toilet (waste disposal problem, expensive, heavy, water-consuming); air conditioner (expensive, power-consuming, heavy, usual roof mount decreases stability and increases height); "walk-through" between and camper (expensive, requires extensive modification truck cab, and brings most of the other disadvantages of a motorhome with few of the advantages); gas refrigerator (expensive, heavy, reportedly will use five gallons five days — a block of ice will last almost as long.)

Cost of a Live a Board Vehicle

With rapid increase in demand, used rig — especially the more fully-equipped vehicles — are not especially plentiful or inexpensive. Depreciation has been low. A five-year-old camper in good condition sells for about one-half the price of a new one.

On the other hand many of the used offerings — perhaps originally purchased to satisfy transitory whims — show little wear, and often are better equipped than new ones. A few thousand miles of driving may also reveal design and construction flaws; like new houses, campers are plagued with poor workmanship.

Mobile Vehicle Registration

Hundreds of dollars in taxes can be avoided by choosing one's state of "legal residence". Oregon, for example, presently has no sales tax, and charges a flat registration fee for any "pleasure vehicle" regardless of size or value. Their motor vehicle department gives mail-order service; an Oregon "residential address" is required. Even if purchase is made in a sales-tax state, the tax can generally be avoided by "taking delivery" elsewhere. And the "visitor" with out-of-state plates is often less harassed.


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