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What Is a Self-Contained RV? (You Ask, We Answer Series)

The great Billy Shakespeare once mused: “self-contained RV or non self-contained RV: that is the question”. 

Fine, maybe it wasn’t Shakespeare (I think it was my pal Bobby after a long night of drinking), but the question of what is a self-contained RV remains an important one.  

If you are a RV newbie or just someone who wants to learn a little more about the RV lifestyle, our “You Ask, We Answer” series will help you answer all your most pressing RV questions. 

So, What Is a Self-Contained RV?

Simply put, a self-contained recreational vehicle (RV) is a motorized vehicle that includes within it all the amenities and utilities needed without relying on a campsite or outside resources. 

A self-contained RV will typically include all (or most) of these operational features: 

  • Self generated electricity (typically through a generator)
  • Fresh water tanks for drinking water and showering
  • Mixed water (called “gray water” tanks) for sink and shower runoff
  • Sewer tanks (called “black water” tanks) for the toilet

The reason it is called a “self-contained” RV is that all your necessary living amenities are contained within your vehicle (makes sense, right?). This means you can go RV’ing or camping in locations across the country that do not have electric, bathroom or fresh water amenities. 

The majority of RVs across America and Canada are self-contained with the exception of campervans, which fall in the Class B RV category. . 

Helpful RV Definitions

 

Boondocking: RVing without the amenities found at RV parks or developed campgrounds such as sewer, electricity and running water. 

Class A Motorhome: The largest of the motorized RV classes. Due to its high-spec, residential amenities the Class A motorhome is widely considered to be the top-of-the-line RV.

Class B Motorhome Definition: The smallest of the three RV classes, Class B motorhomes are passenger vehicles (vans, trucks) that have been converted into a fulltime living space.  

Class C Motorhomes Definition: Built with a cabin chassis, Class Cs are the typical family-style motorhome with overcab sleeping area, small kitchens, bathrooms and a cockpit for the driver and front seat passenger.

Black Water Definition: Waste collected from an RV toilet, which is stored in the black water tank.

Full Hookup Definition: Campsites that have electric, water, and sewer outlets to allow you to maintain your RV while on site

Gray Water Definition: The water collected from the drains of RV appliances other than the toilet. Any liquid runoff collected from drains such as the sink, dishwasher or shower becomes gray water and is stored in the gray water tank.

 

The Benefits of a Self-Contained RV? One word: Freedom  

The best part about the self-contained RV is the freedom to travel anywhere you want at any time. With contained amenities that can keep you on the road for one day or one year, you can pick up and leave at the drop of a hat. 

Old RV Picture

To accommodate self-contained RVs, many state and national parks offer “full hookup” campsites. Full hookup sites are those that have electric, water, and sewer outlets to maintain your RV while on site. Electric hookups allow you to plug your RV into a power pedestal (or “shore power”) and power your electric RV appliances without using other electrical sources (generator, battery power, or solar power). 

Full hookup campsites will also have dump stations where you can dump both your black and gray water tanks as well as fill up with fresh water. 

The best part about the self-contained RV is the ability to not only camp at full hookup sites, but to go “boondocking” or camp at off-the-grid locations. Boondocking is camping without the amenities found at RV parks or developed campgrounds. It’s a quieter, more primitive way of camping that allows you to enjoy the beauty of nature without the crowds. 

A self-contained RV will allow you to access this off-the-grid sites or hard to reach places that typically would not be suitable for a non-contained RV. There are even dedicated online services like Boondockers Welcome or Harvest Hosts where self-contained RVers can stay on private lands and enjoy unique experiences. 

Do I Need a Self-Contained RV to Camp? 

Absolutely not. Let’s face it, self-contained RVs are a luxury that many of us can’t afford. You can expect to shell out $50,000 (on the low end) for a new self-contained RV, and that does not take into account hefty fuel and maintenance costs that accrue over the years. 

The major difference between self-contained and non-self contained RVs is (a) where you can camp or park your RV, and (b) how long you can stay out on the road for. 

Public Restroom
Public restrooms are a frequent stop if traveling in non-contained RV.

If you are taking a trip for more than a few days in a non-contained RV, you will need to park on land with access to amenities. Toilets, fresh water (and for most of us, showers) are critical if you want to live like a human being and not a feral forest cat. Luckily, most state and national parks will have these amenities. 

 

The other distinction between the contained v. non-contained RV is the length of time you can last on the road. Sure, there are people out there who can live for a year in their tiny Class B campervans, but that is the exception – not the rule. 

Some travelers in non-contained RVs make a living by stopping at truck stops, local gyms or service areas to take care of these basic amenities. It may seem romantic to live on the road like this, but it’s not for everyone. You can find yourself waiting in long lines, showering in unsanitary conditions or facing unwanted harassment. 

Self-Contained RV Comparison

There are 3 classes of RV (A, B, C) which are defined by their build, size and standard amenity packages. While Class As and Class Cs are typically self-contained, the smaller Class B may have some self-contained features (electricity, fresh water), but are usually not self-contained. 

Here is a quick chart to help you visualize each model of self-contained RV: 

  Class A Class B Class C
Length 22-45 feet 17-19 20-40
Sleeping Capacity 4-10 2 4-8
Amenities Toilet, Generator Electricity, Shower, Kitchen, Dinette, Roomy Sleeping Areas, Large Storage areas, Heating, A/C (1) Small sleeping area, Small kitchen area, Fresh water supply, Vehicle heating and A/C Toilet, Generator, Electricity, Kitchen, Dinette, Sleeping Area + Fold downs, Medium Storage, Heating, A/C
Drivability Moderate-Difficult Easy Easy-Moderate
Cost Luxury ($80k+)  Low-Moderate ($15k-$50k)  Moderate-High ($50k-$100k+)

The class A & C RVs include all or most of the residential amenities you will need for long journeys on the road – including, kitchen, showers, sinks, generator power and separate sleeping quarters. Of course, with all the self-contained features, the cost of these larger classes of RVs far exceeds the smaller and less equipped Class B. 

The van-like Class B will offer flexible mobility on the road, but lacks in size to be fully self-contained. The sleeping area will be a designated space in the back of the van and you may find a small area for cooking. Those traveling in a Class B will need to find alternative arrangements for bathroom, shower and large-scale electricity needs. 

Campervan picture
While they provide great mobility, campervans are not typically self-contained.

With their compact van-like design, campervans are made for function and flexibility. It’s the freedom of traveling lightly and cheaply without the “baggage” that ties you back to home. A campervan is usually ‘fitted out’ to provide basic accommodations such as a bed and small kitchen area, but not much else. 

Compared to larger class RVers that prefer taking the comforts of home on the road, campervan culture is more about the freedom that small living has to offer. The limited storage and supplies available in the campervan ensure that the focus of the experience is on travel.

 

The Modern Self-Contained RV

As modern technology evolves, campers are finding they can both live and work from the road like no other time in history. To meet modern needs, manufacturers are designing RVs that are smarter, more comfortable and more sustainable than ever before making the “digital nomad” dream a reality. 

The best part? The stigma associated with working from home has all but disappeared as tech companies like Microsoft, Twitter and Square gave employees the opportunity to permanently work from home during the COVID pandemic. Just a decade ago working from home was typically the domain of part-timers and working mothers, but now it has gone from the exception to the norm.

Here are some exciting trends we’ll see in the next decade as the industry shifts to meet the demands of a more modern camper: 

Electric Campers/RV 

We’ll see more and more electric RV models hit the market. The first electric Class C RV was released in 2019 and the highly anticipated VW electric microbus will launch in 2023. As the demand for clean technology grows, the next decade will see the market flood with electric RVs. 

The downside? Electric RVs are still expensive. Electric campervans are starting in the $50,000 range while full size electric Class C RVs are priced starting from $175,000 to $200,000. As the battery technology gets better and more electric RVs hit the market, we’ll certainly see that price come down over the next decade. 

Sustainability

As we look to conserve our natural resources, RV manufacturers are finding ways to make their new designs more and more eco friendly. For example, the incredible sCarabane has renewable resource features like solar tracking, multi-source energy harvesting and rainwater collection. Features such as these will allow campers to live off the grid for longer periods of time and with lessen the impact on the environment. 

Smart RVs

About a decade behind luxury vehicles, “smart” RVs are finally finding their way into the market.  Manufacturer’s like Airstream are incorporating smart technology into their vehicles allowing owners to monitor fuel and waste tanks, control heat/cooling, stop/start the vehicle and adjust lighting all by the touch of a phone. 

Self-Contained RVs: A Great Choice … If You Can Afford It

Self contained RVs provide the perfect mix of mobility and residential comforts that allow you to travel long distances. Forget airlines, buses or trains – self-contained RVs offer owners the freedom to pick up and travel at a moment’s notice.  

As Americans know, freedom comes with a price. The price for a new self-contained Class A or Class C RV will run you $50,000 and up and that’s before you get to supplies, fuel, maintenance and any upgrades you desire. The upside is there are plenty of used RVs on the market in great condition and if you are patient enough – you may just find one that finds your budget. 

If you are unsure about the RV life or worried about how to drive such a big vehicle, we encourage you to rent. Great sites likes RVShare and Outdoorsy allow you the opportunity to pick from hundreds of makes and models of RVs to suit your tastes. Take one out for a long weekend and see how it feels to hit the open road – we’re pretty sure you’ll like how you feel. 

We hope you learned something today about self-contained RVs. We encourage our loyal readers to leave a questions or comment below.  Until next time, stay strong, stay safe and … 

Easy Travels, 

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