What Does Self-Contained RV Mean? (And Are They Right For You)

When you think about all the different types and classes of RVs, it’s easy to get lost in the mire of terminologies.

And it’s understandable, as some can’t even agree on what an RV is!

But, before renting or buying your first recreational vehicle, it’s important to understand the difference between the types of RVs.

So, in this guide, we are going to focus on what a self-contained RV is, how it differs from other types of RV’s, and whether or not it is right for you!

What Is A Self-Contained RV?

A self-contained RV is a vehicle that provides all the functions one would need without relying on outside resources or campsite facilities.

This type of RV will typically contain a sewer tank, a freshwater tank for drinking, showering, etc, and an internal power system.

All these additions will prevent you from needing to plug into an electrical outlet, an outside water source, or a sewer line for a certain amount of time.

With the exception of some Class B motorhomes, the majority of RVs across America are self-contained.

Types Of Self-Contained RVs

There are two main variations of RVs: motorized and towable.

Motorized RVs are as they sound – a motorized vehicle and home in one. There’s no need for a vehicle to tow it. Though in some cases, especially with larger Class A’s, you may want to tow a vehicle behind it for easier traveling once you reach your destination.

A towable RV is also commonly called a travel trailer or camper. Essentially, you need to tow it with your own personal vehicle, for example, a truck or van. Travel trailers come in many different sizes – some self-contained, some not – depending on the options you choose.

With that said, let’s breakdown the types of motorized RV classes.

RV Classes Explained

There are three classes of motorized RVs: Class A, B, and C. Here are some ways in which you can tell them apart in more detail.

Class A

A Class A RV will be about 22-45 feet lengthwise and can comfortably fit up to ten people in larger models. It comes with all the essentials you would expect in a house, such as a toilet system, electricity, and fresh water from the faucet. Unfortunately, sometimes it can feel like you’re buying a second home because of how expensive they are.

Class B

A Class B RV will be about 17-19 feet lengthwise, with a more limited living space. They don’t typically feature toilets and freshwater systems, although they may come with kitchens, fridges, cooking equipment, and beds. Class B RVs are the smallest of the three classes, and they are the easiest to operate in all kinds of environments and the most cost-effective option.

Class C

A Class C RV will be about 20-40 feet lengthwise and fit anywhere between six to eight people. Some of them are self-contained, featuring freshwater and septic systems. They generally have heating, TVs and stereos, cooking equipment, and kitchens.

This is merely a high-level overview of the three classes of RVs. For more detailed information you can check out our guide on what an RV is and the different types. Just know when you’re buying a Class A RV, you’re mostly buying a self-contained motorhome. And even many Class C’s and even some B’s are self-contained, as well. It all depends on the options you get.

Is A Self-Contained RV Right For You?

So, by now we know exactly what a self-contained RV is. And we know all about the different types of RV classes.

When deciding whether a self-contained RV is right for you, it’s important to understand how you are going to be using it.

We can do this by asking ourselves three questions:

  1. Are you going to be traveling alone, and if not, how many people are you taking with you?
  2. Do you prefer to stay at full-service campsites, or do you like to camp off-grid?
  3. What is your budget?

Knowing the answers to these three questions will significantly narrow down your choices for the right class of RV and whether it needs to be self-contained or not.

For example, you probably wouldn’t purchase a Class B RV if you’re planning on vacationing with a large family. And there might not be a need for a large Class A self-contained RV if it’s just you and one other person who camps for extended amounts of time at full-service camping facilities.

Once you’ve honestly answered the above questions, you can refer to this comparison chart to see which type of RV – self-contained or not – might be right for you.

RV comparison chart

Keep in mind the prices reflected in this chart are averages and you can certainly find used models for much cheaper.

Now let’s look at some important considerations to keep in mind concerning self-contained RVs.

Self-Contained RVs: The Best Choice For Dry Camping

While a self-contained RV may require a higher investment upfront, the benefits that you’ll enjoy while camping are innumerable.

If you’re traveling from state to state, many unexpected events can occur, such as area-specific blackouts, forest fires, pandemic closings, and RV parks and rest stops in your map that might no longer exist. With a self-contained RV, you at least have a little breathing room to find a plan B.

You also won’t need to worry if the campsite you’re gunning for has an electric hookup or water source. In the camping world, this is called dry camping or boondocking, where a self-sufficient RV goes out of the reach of power companies, public water supplies, and modern sewage lines. While dry camping is admittedly temporary, it’s still one of the rare pleasures that this increasingly digitized world can’t provide.

For the best dry camping experience, make sure your RV comes with these three essentials:

  • Water tank: A sizable clean water tank for drinking, showering, etc.
  • Black & gray tanks: A black water tank and a gray water tank that will separately hold your sewage and used water from the shower and sink.
  • Power source: An internal power source, whether that be some form of a gas, generator, or powered by batteries. Or a combination of all three.

A self-contained RV will have all of these covered

Important: You will still need to stop at a full-service campsite or dumping station periodically to empty your back and gray tanks responsibly and to replenish your clean water tank.

Water, Sewage, And Electric Setups

Now that you know what it takes to go dry camping, it’s time to talk about capacity, since this is the main factor in how long you can stay without needing freshwater or a dumping station.

How long you last on the road will depend on how many people stay inside your RV, how often they use the water and the bathroom, and, of course, the size of your tanks.

Typically, a self-contained RV will last 2-4 days until you need to go to a dumping station. Even though that’s a large allowance of time compared to non-self-contained RVs, you still need to plan your campsite visits on your trips.

As far as batteries are concerned, self-contained RVs can burn through them rather quickly. Large AC systems, major appliances like electric stoves and fridges, as well as internal water systems all play a part in consuming battery power, so a fuel-powered generator is often your best choice. A portable generator can give you about 9 to 20 hours of power, but a built-in model can sometimes last for days.

Some people opt to install solar panels on their RVs. While this is admittedly a more expensive option up front, the benefits in the long-run make them worth considering. Quality panels can last for 25 plus years, and they come with a surge protector that will shield your RV from electrical overloads and short circuits. Plus, who doesn’t like a little clean, free energy!

Self-Contained RV Price Ranges

Even though self-contained RVs are decidedly more expensive than standard campers, they have a surprisingly broad price range.

You can buy a used Class C campervan in good condition for about $15,000, but if you have a big budget for camping burning a hole through your pocket, you can buy a new luxury Class A model for more than $600,000.

Like all vehicles, self-contained RVs come with a base model, but most people choose to add or subtract amenities according to their needs. A brand new Class C base model starts at around $80,000, complete with a water system and septic tank. Brand new Class As such as the Newmar Dutch Star, rated the best overall Class A RV, starts at $500,000!

As you can see, the price varies wildly. And even the time of year can affect the price of an RV. So, it’s best to shop around and find a model that checks as many of your boxes as possible at a price you can comfortably afford.

License Requirements

Most RVs only require a standard driver’s license to drive. However, in some states, you will need a commercial driver’s license based on the size and weight of your RV. Most states require a commercial license if your vehicle is over 26,000 lbs.

For example, according to Outdoorsy:

  • Maryland: Requires a Class B non-commercial license for RV’s over 26,000 lbs.
  • Michigan: For a 5th-wheel plus a trailer behind that requires a recreational double “R” endorsement along with your regular operator license.
  • North Carolina: Requires a Class B license for a single-vehicle over 26,000 lbs. Or a Class A license for a combination of vehicles that weigh over 26,000 lbs.

You typically have nothing to worry about, however, since the average weight for RVs is:

  • Class A: 13,000 – 30,000 lbs
  • Class B: 6,000 – 8,000 lbs
  • Class C: 10,000 – 20,000 lbs

But, you’ll definitely want to check with your local DMV to ensure you are properly licensed.

Should You Get A Self-Contained RV?

Ultimately, the choice is up to you! As we discussed above, you’ll want to consider how you plan on using the RV and your budget. Self-contained RVs provide some of the best living options the camping world has to offer.

So, if it is needed to fit your style of camping and it fits within your budget, a self-contained RV is an excellent choice!

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