What is a Self-Contained RV (And Do You Need One?)

When searching for a recreational vehicle to rent or even buy, you may have come across the term "self-contained RV". Wondering what this actually means? After all, you expect an RV to have a kitchen, bed, and sitting area, so how much more "self-contained" can a rig get? We wondered the same so set out to research the question.

What is a Self-Contained RV (And Do You Need One?)A self-contained RV simply means one that has all of the utilities needed for its operation without relying on campsite facilities. That essentially means self-generated electricity (usually a generator) as well as water and sewer tanks. In the United States, almost all RV's are self-contained by definition, with the exception of some Class B motorhomes and truck campers.

So, do you need a standard self-contained RV? Or can you settle for a cheaper Class B motorhome? And how self-contained should your RV be? In other words, for how long should it be able to go without hookups? Let's dig in a little bit deeper to figure out the answer to these questions.

Why Choose a Self-Contained RV?

The meaning of a self-contained RV is one that can operate fully without any help from outside sources. A certified self-contained RV or motorhome will come equipped with a fully functioning toilet, water storage container which holds water for the toilet and shower, as well as a septic tank to take care of any waste.

The number one advantage of a self-contained RV is that it allows you to camp without relying on a campsite with hookups. Known as boondocking, this is where you stay somewhere overnight without connecting the RV to a source of electricity (shore power, for RV'ers), city water or a sewage system. Everything has to come from the RV - and stay in it.

The three essential ingredients for this are -

  • A fully functional electric system that can draw power from a large-enough set of batteries and/or from a generator.
  • A large-enough water tank that supplies all of your water needs.
  • A large-enough gray and black tanks that can collect both your excess gray water as well as waste.

Without these systems, you would have to do one of the following -

  1. Only camp in sites with full hookups where you can plug into the electric grid, hook up to water and dump your waste into the sewage system.
  2. Rely on the campground's facilities, using their public restroom and showers, as well as limit your use of electricity. When you park overnight, there’s no need to stumble out into the darkness at night to go to the toilet or brush your teeth.

How long can you be self-contained in an RV?

That depends on the size of your RV and just how self-contained it is.

How long can you go without an electric hookup?

The RV's house batteries can only take you so far. Not only are they limited in how much energy they can hold, but they also can't operate large appliances. That includes your air conditioning system.

That's why to be truly self-contained you need a generator too. 

How long you can go with the generator depends on the type of generator and your supply of fuel. Read more about RV generators here -

For How Long Can An RV Generator Safely Run?

Types Of RV Generators (And Which One Is Right For You)

And to learn more about the challenges of camping without shore power, make sure you read this post as well -

Boondocking: How To Get Electricity To Your RV Without Hookups

How long can you go without water and sewage hookups?

Clearly, that depends on two things:

  1. The size of your tanks.
  2. How much will you be using your water and bathroom?

In most situations, standard self-contained RVs can hold at least three days worth of waste before needing to visit a dump station. Dump stations are found at just about any RV campsite, or you can search for ones near you online.

RV'ers who boondock a lot invest in larger tanks, allow them to stay off the grid for longer. They also apply techniques for saving water while out there. If this is something you're considering, you'll find our post about how long you can shower in an RV interesting.

The Price of Self-Contained RVs

When you begin your search for an RV, you’ll immediately realize a price difference in self-contained RVs versus the non-self-contained models. Converted vans and truck campers, which are usually not self-contained, are much more cost efficient than the luxury RVs with lots of amenities.

Having said that, since most RV's in the US are self-contained, you have a huge variety of prices to choose from. A used travel trailer in good condition can be as cheap as $15,000. On the higher end, you'll find luxury motorhomes an 5th wheels that can cost well over $100,000.

Choosing a Campsite for a Self-Contained RV

With paid camping sites, you can choose between a powered site and a non-powered site. The powered sites - known as sites with full hookups - allow you to plug in your electronics and access a steady supply of electricity regularly. The non-powered sites won’t have any areas to change things. The powered sites will cost more money, and be an added expense to non-self-contained RV owners.

Read more: What does "full hookups" mean in a campsite?

And of course, you can rely on your RV systems to go for sites with no-hookups or even go out there and boondock free of charge. Boondocking doesn't have to be in the middle of a desert or forest. You can absolutely boondock - with no fees and no hookups - in an urban environment. Some people even boondock at Walmart!

Read more:

Where Can I Park My RV For Free? (7 Actionable Suggestions!)

Can I Park My RV At Walmart Overnight?

What to Look for in a Self-Contained RV

Self-contained RVs vary quite a bit in terms of luxury. As stated above, the bare minimum a self-contained RV will offer is a toilet with its water supply and waste container. As you go up in price point, you will find that most RVs provide the same amenities and comfort as an actual home. It could be worth the extra cash if you’ll be spending a lot of time on the road, or if you’re traveling as a family versus on your own.

If you’re looking for more of a home-feel with your RV purchase, worry not. Plenty of self-contained RVs offer full kitchens, a dining and lounge area, cabinet space, and your shower.

Do You Need One?

Again, in the US, most RV's are self-contained. The real question would be, can you settle for a Class B motorhome or a truck camper that are not self-contained - and should you.

The main drawback of these types of RV's would be their size. They are the smallest types of RV out there, which is why they are usually not self-contained. For families, they are almost never an option, leaving the point of being self-contained moot.

However, if you are a couple or a solo traveler, that's when the smaller RV's become an option. And this is where you need to ask yourself whether or not you're willing to travel without a bathroom or even running water.

Mind you, in the US, there are options for small RV's that still have a bathroom - which is usually the most essential of all utilities that people look for. Which is why we created this popular post -

What Are The Smallest RVs With A Shower And Toilets?

Hopefully, you found this post helpful and that we managed to clarify the term. Still, have questions? Leave us a comment below! And if you're in the early stages of learning about RV's, we urge you to read our detailed guide about the various types of RV's here.

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