Tow car pulled behind a Class A RV

RVing & Tow Cars: Practical Beginner’s Guide (With Examples)

In RV livingby Christopher Schopf

Some RVers move from place to place every week or even every day.  These RVers usually aren’t hooking up their RVs every time they stop somewhere.

However, many RVers like to stop at different areas for extended periods of time.  For these people, it’s often easier to have a tow car.

There are a lot of options when it comes to tow cars and in this post, we’ll try to cover all of them.

The 3 Ways Of Towing a Car Behind An RV

Towing a car behind a motorhome or camper requires special equipment.  The type of equipment you need will depend on the type of towing you decide to do.

There are three options for towing a car. 

  1. The first is to flat tow with all four of your car’s wheels on the road. 
  2. The second is to use a dolly which lifts two of your vehicle’s wheels off the road while leaving the other two down. 
  3. The third option is to put your car on a trailer.  This can be an enclosed cargo trailer or an open car trailer.

Your options may be limited to the particular vehicle you are towing, your motorhome’s towing capacity, as well as your personal preference.

1) Flat Towing a Car Behind a Motorhome

Flat towing a tow car behind an RV

Flat towing is when you tow the vehicle with all four tires on the ground.  This type of towing can also be called dinghy towing.  Some people also refer to it as four-down towing.

Flat towing is the most popular method for towing a car behind a motorhome. 

This is probably because it is easy to connect and disconnect this type of tow vehicle and the only added weight comes from the tow vehicle itself.

The drawbacks to this type of towing are that it can add wear and tear to the vehicle and requires vehicle modifications.  Additionally, not all vehicles can be dinghy towed.

Wear and tear are added because your car’s wheels will still be on the ground and therefore they’ll have added wear while moving.

Also, your towed vehicles brakes will be hooked up to your motorhome’s brakes so that they can be activated at the same time as the motorhome.

This wears out your brakes faster and requires the use of extra equipment to work.

In addition to braking equipment and lighting equipment, you’ll also need a tow bar to attach your dinghy vehicle to your motorhome.

Vehicles with automatic transmissions often require the use of a dolly so this restricts the number of vehicles that can be flat towed.  Some automatic transmission vehicles can be flat towed but you’ll have to check with the manufacturer before doing so.

2) Dolly Towing

Dolly towing explained

Dolly towing is when your vehicle has two of its tires on the ground and two of them on a dolly.  This can be referred to as two-down towing.

The advantage of dolly towing is that you can tow your front wheel drive an automatic vehicle.  Additionally, you don’t need to modify the vehicle with a tow bar as the vehicle will be connected to the dolly instead.

The problem with dolly towing is that you cannot do it with a rear wheel drive, four wheel drive, or all wheel drive vehicle.

Also, when you get to your destination, you’ll have a dolly that you’ll need to store or leave out at your campsite.

Trailer Towing

Trailer towing offers an RVer the ability to tow virtually any vehicle that the motorhome can safely pull.

Also, it eliminates the additional wear and tears on the vehicle as the car never touches the ground during transport.

In fact, some people will pull cargo trailers with room for a car inside of them so that the car is completely enclosed during transit.  This basically gives the RVer enclosed parking wherever they go.

The drawback to this type of towing is that you have to own a trailer and you have to pull the added weight of a trailer plus a vehicle.

Adding a trailer to your setup means you’ll have yet another item that needs to be registered, inspected, and insured each year.

Pro’s & Con’s You Need To Consider

The first question people usually ask when considering a tow car is whether or not they even need one.

Having a tow car can be useful but it also comes with a lot of extra work.  It’s also an added expense that needs to be considered as well.

Let’s go over the advantages and disadvantages of tow cars so that you can decide for yourself.

9 Advantages of Having a Tow Car

  • Your motorhome can become a base camp
  • You may save money on fuel.
  • You may save money on maintenance.
  • It’s easier to drive and park.
  • You may save money on rental cars.
  • You’ll reduce your reliance on public transportation.
  • The tow car can be used as a backup vehicle.
  • You don’t have to store your vehicle.
  • You get to keep your insurance rate.

The Base Camp

When you have a tow car, you’re not relying on your motorhome as a form of transportation.  This allows you to set the motorhome up like a base camp.  The motorhome becomes more like a house that you can set up semi-permanently.

Once your base camp has been set up, you don’t have to worry about unhooking the sewer, electric, cable, and water connections until you leave.

You also don’t have to worry about leveling your vehicle more than once and you can leave all of your gear and personal belongings out on your tables.

Also, if you’re traveling with multiple people, some people will now have the option to stay behind while others leave with the tow car.

Fuel Savings

Tow cars are generally small and fuel efficient.

While your large class A motorhome may only get 8 miles per gallon, your tow car may get 40.  Read more here about fuel efficiency for your RV.

For people who stop at one place and then explore the area for weeks at a time, this can be a significant amount of money in fuel savings.

For example,  a couple spends a year traveling the country with their RV and tow car.  During this time, they use their tow car to drive 5,000 miles.

If they hadn’t had their tow car, they would have driven their motorhome those 5,000 miles.

Gas averages $2.50 a gallon right now.

5,000 miles at 40 miles a gallon comes out to 125 gallons of fuel.  Multiply this by $2.50 and you get $312.50 in fuel costs. 

5,000 miles at 8 miles a gallon comes out to 625 gallons.

Multiply this number by $2.50 and you get $1,562.50.  At the end of the year, you’ve saved $1,250.00 in fuel costs by driving your tow car.

Tow car pulled behind a Class A RV

Maintenance Savings

Small tow cars have small tires and small brakes and generally, all parts of the tow car cost less to maintain than they do in a motorhome.

A motorhome, on the other hand, costs a lot to maintain and not everyone can work on them.

When a motorhome breaks down it can be expensive but when a tow vehicle breaks down it usually isn’t that big of a financial burden.

When you bring a tow car, you’ll reduce the amount of use your motorhome gets and therefore you’ll reduce the wear and tear it receives.  Reduce the mileage on your motorhome’s brakes and tires and you’ll have to replace them less.

Driveability and Parking

A tow vehicle is always easier to drive and to park than a motorhome.

Tow vehicles are small and can fit into parking garages that many motorhomes cannot fit into.  It’s also much easier to drive a tow vehicle through crowded city streets than it is to drive a motorhome.

If you’re a hiker, you may find that having a tow vehicle allows you to access trailheads that a motorhome just wouldn’t be able to access.

It may also allow you to access off-road areas that your motorhome wouldn’t be able to access.

Reliance on Public Transportation & Rental Cars

When you have your own vehicle, you won’t have to worry about trying to find rental cars to use in your area.  Additionally, you won’t have to worry about trying to find trains or buses to get around the area.

Why does this matter?

It matters because public transportation isn’t always available and rental cars aren’t always easy to find.

For example, some national parks are very large and it isn’t practical to drive a motorhome around in one.  However, these national parks aren’t always close to car rental establishments.

Because of this, you may find yourself driving a few hours just to get the rental car. 

If you’re traveling alone, how will you get the motorhome and the rental car back to the national park?

Also, train and bus schedules may not always fit your schedule, so it’s nice to have flexibility.  Imagine you’re visiting a wonderful museum in a city that you’ll probably never visit again but you have to leave before seeing the entire museum because the last train is heading out soon.

The Backup Vehicle

Unfortunately, it is inevitable that your motorhome will eventually break down.  When it breaks down you could end up stuck living in or near a repair shop while you wait to get your motorhome fixed.

With a tow car, you won’t be stranded because you’ll still have a vehicle to use to explore the local area while your motorhome’s being repaired.

Also, if your motorhome suffers catastrophic failure, you’ll at least have your tow vehicle to drive you back home.

You Get to Keep Your Vehicle Without Storing It

Some people embrace the mobile lifestyle and never look back.  Others choose to embrace it temporarily before becoming stationary again.

If you plan on traveling for a few months to a year, you’ll probably want to keep the car you already have.  Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to pay to store it somewhere?

Keep Your Insurance

Did you know that if you completely cancel your auto insurance policies, when you renew they consider you to be a new driver?

I didn’t know this either and I found out the hard way.

When I went away for 6 months of military training, I figured I wouldn’t be driving and could save some money by canceling my insurance.

I came back home and went to renew my insurance and my rate jumped up by almost a $100.00 a month.  When I asked why they said that I had to start over as a new driver. 

Even though I’d been driving for several years, I ended up having to pay the same rate that a new driver would pay.

If you keep your car and your car insurance, you won’t have to worry about this happening to you. Here you can read more about RV insurance.

5 Disadvantages of Having a Tow Car

  • Reduced gas mileage.
  • May not be able to access some national parks.
  • Increased maintenance costs.
  • Additional travel considerations.
  • Additional equipment costs.

Reduced Gas Mileage

While you’ll definitely save money while driving your tow vehicle, you may lose money while towing it.  The reason for this is that your motorhome may end up becoming significantly less fuel efficient while towing.

For example, a small class C motorhome may get 12 miles a gallon when it isn’t towing a car behind it.  However, add the car and it may only get 7 miles a gallon.

With larger class C and class A motorhomes, this probably won’t be much of an issue since their engines are quite large and you may not see much of a drop in gas mileage while towing.

Read more here about how it affects your mileage to add a camper to your rig.

Accessibility Issues

Some national and even state parks have space restrictions at their campsites.  these restrictions apply to everything that will be at the site.

For example, a campsite may have a total length of 29 feet.  If your motorhome is 25 feet and your tow car is 12 feet, you won’t have enough room for everything.

Some campsites offer auxiliary parking and this won’t be an issue for you but others will not and you’ll have to find another place to park your vehicle.

Increased Maintenance Costs

Even though you’ll save money on motorhome maintenance, you may spend more on overall maintenance.  The reason for this is that you’ll have two vehicles to maintain.

In fact, if you decide to put your car on a trailer, you’ll have two vehicles and a trailer to maintain.

Additional Travel Considerations

Towing a car behind your motorhome can make driving and parking more difficult.

Also, as we said earlier, you’ll have to find campsites that allow you to have both a motorhome and a car at the site.

Some campsites will not have extra parking and if they do, they may charge you to use it.

Additional Equipment Costs

Towing a car requires special equipment as we looked at in the beginning.

Gas, Diesel, Or Electric Tow Cars?

With the increased range and availability of electric cars, people now have the option to choose whether or not they tow an electric car or a gas powered car.

There are advantages and disadvantages of both of these types of tow cars.

1) Electric Tow Cars

Advantages of Electric Tow Cars

An electric tow car has a big advantage over a gas car when it comes to fuel costs.  It costs less to charge an electric car than it does to fuel up a gas or diesel powered vehicle.

In fact, if electric is provided to your campsite for free then you can potentially fuel up your electric vehicle without any cost to you.

Maintenance costs for electric cars can also be lower.

For instance, an electric car can take advantage of regenerative braking.  Regenerative braking is a term used for the way an electric vehicle decelerates a car while passing the energy to the electric vehicle’s battery.  This helps increase the vehicle’s range and reduces wear and tear on the braking system.

Electric motors also have fewer parts and they don’t need oil changes.  This can be especially advantageous for travelers who plan on doing a lot of exploring.

Maintenance costs can also be reduced through fewer battery changes.  In fact, the batteries are so much more reliable than gas-powered car batteries that many electric car manufacturers come with an 8-year warranty.

You may also save money by buying an electric vehicle as many state and federal governments offer financial incentives and tax credits to people buying an electric car.

Disadvantages of Electric Tow Cars

The biggest drawback of an electric vehicle is that you will need to stop at places that have electric.

You can get around this by bringing a generator with you, but then you’ll need gas to power the generator so it negates any money-saving benefits you may have gotten from driving an electric car.

Another drawback to using an electric tow car is that you will have a limited range.  An electric vehicle can go further than ever these days, but you’ll still be restricted by your vehicle’s range before recharging.

Here are the ranges of some of the more popular electric cars on the market.

Tesla Model S – 335 miles

Tesla Model X – 295 miles

Tesla Model 3 – 310 miles

Tesla Roadster – 620 miles

Data collected from the Tesla website.

Chevy Bolt EV – 238 miles

Ford Focus Electric – 115 miles

Hyundai Ioniq – 124 miles

Nissan Leaf – 151 miles

Electric Smart Car – 63 miles

As you can see the range ratings of electric cars can vary dramatically so you’ll need to weigh the pros and cons of each vehicle before deciding on any one particular electric tow vehicle.  For example, an older electric smart car may only have a 63-mile range but it’s also the smallest tow vehicle you can buy.

A Tesla is one of the most expensive electric cars you can buy but it offers self-driving technology as well as a luxury interior.

Other electric vehicle options offer a nice compromise between range and pricing.

Another disadvantage is that you may have trouble finding a mechanic to work on your electric vehicle.  For example, not everyone can work on a Tesla.  If you plan on traveling across the country, you may not be close to a Tesla dealer when your vehicle breaks down.

Some people may find the availability and the cost of an electric vehicle to be a large downside of using one as a tow car.  For example, you can buy a used gas car to tow behind your motorhome for a few thousand dollars while a new electric car will easily cost you $20,000.00 and up.

Examples of Electric Tow Cars

The Smart EQ FORTWO – This vehicle is the smallest electric tow car you can buy.  After federal tax credits, it comes out to $19,240.00 to buy.  It has a charge time of 3 hours at 240 volts and has a range of 124 miles.

The Nissan LEAF – This vehicle starts at $29,990.00 and with federal tax credits may cost you less than $23,000.00.  It has a range of 151 miles and can travel for 90 miles with only 30 minutes of charging.

The Tesla Model 3 – This was the most sold electric vehicle in 2018.  This vehicle is all wheel drive and has a zero to sixty of 3.3 seconds.  It has a 310-mile range and you may be able to take advantage of Tesla charging stations throughout the country.  It also has an Autopilot system which helps assist with driving.  These vehicles start at $46,000.00.

Smart car driving inside city

2) Gas and Diesel Tow Cars

Gas and diesel-fueled tow cars can be fueled from just about anywhere.  These vehicles are also inexpensive to work on when compared to electric vehicles and they are easy to find.

Gas and diesel vehicles are also much more prolific than electric cars.  Because of this, you’ll have many more options when buying gas or diesel powered tow cars.

Match your motorhomes fuel type with your tow vehicles fuel type and you have a built-in backup source of fuel to use.

Of course, this will require a tank and a siphon hose but these items are small and easy to travel with.

A gas tow car is the easiest tow car to work on with diesel being a close second.  In fact, the average backyard mechanic can learn enough about their gas vehicle to work on it themselves.  Store your tools in your motorhome and you may be able to fix problems as they arise.

7 Great Alternatives to Tow Cars

Tow cars are great but there are alternatives to tow cars.  These alternatives weigh less and can often be placed inside of the motorhome or even mounted to the hitch of the motorhome.

Alternatives come in the form of street-legal alternatives that can be driven on public roads and ones that cannot.

Street Legal

If you can legally register and insure a vehicle to be driven on the streets then it is a street-legal vehicle.

NEVs

The acronym NEV stands for neighborhood street vehicle.  These are smaller electric vehicles that generally cannot drive fast enough to navigate an interstate.

An NEV is a street-legal alternative to a golf cart.

It is useful for people who will be stopping in cities or communities where they’ll be able to access suburban or country roads with speed limits of around 25 miles per hour.

These vehicles can travel for about 20 – 40 miles before needing a charge and they can be charged from a standard 120 VAC breaker.

Motorcycles

A motorcycle can often be a great alternative to a tow car because it can be driven directly into the back of some motorhomes.  It is also capable of high speeds so you’ll be able to take it on the highway with you.

Scooters

Scooters are slower alternatives to motorcycles that are often light enough to mount right to the back hitch of a motorhome.

With these, you’d just roll the scooter up a ramp and onto a hitch carrier.  These are perfect for short trips around the city or campground and can be found in gas and electric models.

Campground Only

Golf Carts

If you just want to navigate around a large campground, your best bet might be to buy a golf cart.  Golf carts need to be towed on a trailer but you’ll be able to buy a smaller trailer to do so.

ATVs

An ATV is just a more rugged and often faster version of a golf cart.  Once again you could tow this on a trailer or you could buy a toy-hauler type motorhome.  ATVs are great for those looking for a more thrilling ride around camp.

Dirtbikes

Dirtbikes offer the speed and durability of a motorcycle but are typically not registered as street-legal and therefore can only be driven around private campgrounds.

Human Powered

Depending on your needs, you may want to skip the tow a mechanized vehicle altogether and go with one that you can power yourself.

Bikes

Depending on your level of fitness and the locations you’re stopping at, a bike might be the easiest option of all.  A bike can be driven through the suburbs and rural areas as well as through campgrounds.

It can easily fit inside a motorhome or it can be mounted on a bike carrier at the rear of the motorhome.