The Ultimate Guide to Common RV Jargon

If you're new to RV travel, you've got a whole new lexicon to learn. From breakaway switch, toad, and winterizing – to GVWR, gaucho, and courtesy parking, this list of common RV jargon will help get you started. 

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7-way cable: This is the cable from your trailer that connects to the tow vehicle to transmit braking and lighting signals. You’ll need to plug it in, and verify that the trailer lights/brakes are working, every time you tow. Sometimes called an “umbilical cable” or “7-pin cable.”

A-frame: The front section of a trailer frame that is visible, forward of the body. The propane tanks are usually mounted on it, and the hitch connects to it. Trailer lengths often include the A-frame, which is typically about three feet long.

Absorption refrigerator: Propane gas refrigerators are this type. Absorption refrigerators use a closed cycle which involves heating and condensing a special gas to remove heat. These refrigerators are silent, efficient, and can run on either electricity or propane fuel.

Airstreamer: Anyone who travels or camps in an Airstream. Airstreaming: The lifestyle of traveling in an Airstream.

Automatic changeover regulator: A device which automatically switches the propane gas supply in an RV from an empty tank to a full one.

Battery disconnect: A switch that cuts the power supply from the house batteries to everything except the propane detector. This switch is used when the trailer is in storage, to preserve the battery charge from parasitic drain.

Belly pan: The aluminum sheathing that covers the underside of an Airstream. It is riveted to the steel frame in sheets, and can be removed for repairs if necessary. The belly pan improves the aerodynamics of the trailer.

Banana wrap: An extruded aluminum trim that covers the transition between the curved belly pan and the aluminum body of an Airstream.

Basement: The storage area below the main area of a motorhome that is accessed from the outside. (Usually in a Class A or Class C motorhome)

Battery box: The container that holds the house batteries of an RV. In an Airstream, it may be hung between the rails of the A-frame or built into the body as a compartment.

Batwing: Name for the standard RV TV antenna, because it looks like a pair of wings.

Black tank: The tank where your sewage waste is stored.

Black water: Sewer water from the toilet, which in most RVs is held in a separate tank from gray water.

Blue tank (or “blue boy”): An external plastic tank with wheels that is used to transport gray water from your RV’s campsite to the dump station. Usually blue in color, hence the name. In Europe a similar tank is called a “Wastemaster.”

Boondocking: Camping without utility hookups (for water, electric or sewer), far from civilization. Sometimes called “dry camping” even though you still have the RV’s on-board water supply.

Brake controller: An electric device that automatically applies the trailer brakes in proportion to how much you are applying the tow vehicle’s brakes. It does this by sending varying voltage to the trailer’s electric drum brakes. More voltage means more braking. The brake controller is mounted in the tow vehicle on or under the dash (some trucks have them built-in).

Breakaway switch: A switch that activates a trailer’s brakes if the trailer becomes accidentally disconnected from the tow vehicle. Power to operate the brakes during an emergency comes from the house batteries in the trailer.

Bubble level: A device used for checking the levelness of the trailer when setting up camp. These are usually installed by owners near the A-frame, and sometimes are found atop the power hitch jack.

Bumper compartment: A storage compartment integrated into the rear bumper of an Airstream, used commonly for storing “dirty” items.

Cab over: The space that sits over the cab of a motorhome and typically includes sleeping or storage space.

Camper: 1. A person who is camping. 2. A slang term for a travel trailer. 

Captain’s chair: The driver’s seat of a motorhome. The captain’s chair often includes comfortable designs that make it more luxurious than a traditional vehicle driver’s seat.

Caravan: Most commonly used to describe a group of RVers who are traveling together in multiple RVs. Can also refer to a travel trailer (mostly a term used in Europe).

Catalytic heater: A type of propane heater designed for indoor use in a ventilated space. These heaters catalyze propane with nearly 100% efficiency, instead of burning it, resulting in heat and water vapor. Catalytic heaters are not offered on new RVs but are often installed by owners who frequently camp without an electrical hookup, because they require no electricity.

Chocks: Devices for preventing the trailer’s wheels from rolling when parked. These come in a variety of forms, ranging from simple plastic triangles to mechanical devices designed to be inserted between the tires on a tandem-axle trailer.

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City water inlet: The place where you’d connect a water hose to the trailer. When water is supplied by the city water inlet, you don’t need to use the trailer’s water pump or fresh water supply.

Class A motorhome: A large motorhome without a separate cab for the driver (unlike a Class C motorhome). Typically looks like a bus. Features often include slide outs and residential-style amenities, built-in generators, and luxury elements.

Class B motorhome: A smaller motorhome, Class B RVs – also known as “campervans” – are built inside a van body such as Mercedes Sprinter, Ford Transit, or Ram ProMaster. Most include a wet bath, galley kitchen, and sleeping space, but some do not include a bathroom at all.

Class C motorhome: Sized between Class As and Class Bs, a Class C is built on a truck or van chassis with the main part of the body “cut away” to allow a larger living area.

Clearcoat: A durable clear protective coating applied to new Airstream aluminum by Alcoa. Clearcoats have been used on Airstreams since 1964, but the current formulation started in 1999.

Cab: The place where the driver sits in a motorhome.

Courtesy parking: Overnight parking at a private home for free, rather than at a campground.

Curbside: The side of the trailer that faces the curb as it is traveling. In a boat this would be “starboard.”

Dinghy: The name for the vehicle that is being towed by a motorhome. Commonly referred to as a toad.

Dinette: The dining area of an RV that typically includes booth-style seating and a dining table. In many RVs this can be converted into sleeping space.

Dry bath: A bathroom with an enclosed shower. See wet bath.

Dry camping: Camping without the use of external hookups for electricity, water supply or waste disposal. Also known as boondocking.

Dually: A truck with two sets of wheels on each side of the rear axle, for carrying extra weight. Not to be confused with tandem axle. Duallies are not required for towing Airstreams.

Dump station: The place where you empty the contents of the black and gray holding tanks after you’ve been out camping.

Fifth wheel: A towable RV whose hitch connects inside the truck bed rather than on a truck hitch.

Fresh water tank: The built-in holding tank for freshwater. You use this water with the water pump when a “city water” hookup isn’t available.

Full hookup: A campsite that has connections for water, sewer, and 30- or 50-amp electricity.

Full-Timers: People who live in their RV full time or at least the majority of the time.

Galley: Another term for an RV kitchen.

Garage: Typical in toy haulers, this area is used for transporting outdoor equipment and usually has a ramped door for loading and unloading.

Gaucho: A couch that folds out into a bed. This term is mostly used in vintage Airstream circles.

GAWR: Gross Axle Weight Rating. The maximum weight allowed for any individual axle.

GVWR: Gross Vehicle Weight Rating. The maximum weight allowed for a vehicle (including all passengers, cargo, and fluids).

GCVWR: Gross Combined Vehicle Weight Rating. The maximum weight allowed for a tow-vehicle and trailer combination.

Glamping: A contracting of the words “glamorous camping.” Used to describe camping with lots of luxury amenities, decorations, and style.

Gray water: Used water from the sink(s) and shower. Gray water is stored in the gray water tank, which is separate from the black water tank.

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Hitch coupler: The mechanical clasp that secures the tow ball to connect a travel trailer to the tow vehicle.

Hitching: Connecting a trailer to a tow vehicle. This includes electrical connections, breakaway cable, safety chains, and proper adjustment of anti-sway or weight distribution devices.

Hitch jack: It’s at the front of your trailer, and it allows you to raise and lower the tongue for hitching and leveling. Also called a tongue jack.

Hitch lock: An anti-theft device designed to block access to the hitch coupler so that the trailer can’t be moved.

Holding tanks: Typically there are three of these in an RV: A fresh water tank, a “gray” water tank,” and a “black” water tank. Some smaller travel trailers have combined black/gray tanks.

Hookups: Power, water, and sewer amenities at a campground. Amenities vary by location, so always ask when you are making reservations. A “full hookup” means you have power, water, and sewer. Many state and national parks offer only power and/or water.

Potable water: Water that is safe for drinking.

Honey wagon: A truck or trailer with a large liquid tank on it that comes around to pump out the RV waste tanks.

Hose bib: A campsite faucet that delivers fresh water.

House batteries: The one or two batteries in a trailer or motorhome that supply 12 volt DC power when the trailer is not plugged into shore power.

Inverter: An electrical device that converts 12 volt DC power to 120 volt AC power. It allows you to run “plug-in” things like computers and lamps using the batteries when you don’t have shore power available.

Jack pad (or jack plate): A strong flat plate or other object that spreads out the weight of the hitch jack so it doesn’t sink into the ground.

Jake brake: The engine brake used on some diesel vehicles.

King pin: The round cylinder shaped piece that hangs down at the very front of a fifth wheel trailer. It connects to the jaws of the fifth wheel hitch in the back of the tow vehicle.

Leaf spring axle: A type of axle used on some trailers that incorporates multiple steel “leaves” to support the trailer axle. On Airstreams, leaf springs were replaced by the torsion axle starting in 1961.

Leveling blocks: Any block used to level the trailer side-to-side (under the wheels).

LPG: Liquified Petroleum Gas. Also known as propane.

Net Carrying Capacity (NCC), or payload capacity): The maximum weight of fuel, water, propane, and supplies that can be added to a trailer without exceeding the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR).

Newbie: Someone new to the RV world. If you’re reading this, you probably are one! Don’t worry, we’ve all been there.

Parasitic drain: Small power losses caused by electronic devices that are always “on.” For example, the stereo consumes a tiny bit of 12 volt DC power even when “off” to maintain the channel memory. A dual-mode refrigerator uses a small amount of 12 volt DC power even in “Gas” mode, to allow electronic ignition and power the circuit board.

Potable water: Water that is safe to drink. Only fill your fresh water tank with water that is potable. At dump stations, pay attention to the signs so that you use only safe water, not the water that is used for flushing out sewer hoses.

Power converter: Built into every modern travel trailer and motorhome, this device takes 120 volt AC shore power and turns it into 12 volt DC to keep the batteries charged and power all of the 12 volt items in your trailer.

Propane detector: A permanently installed electronic sensor that sets off an alarm if it “sniffs” propane gas. Usually mounted down low near the floor, since propane is heavier than air.

Puller: A Class A motorhome that has the diesel motor located in the front.

Pusher: A Class A motorhome that has the diesel motor located in the rear.

Pull-Through Site: A type of campsite that you don’t have to back into. This allows easy access for arrival and departure, and is a good starter site for newbies.

Receiver: The part of a tow hitch that is permanently attached to your tow vehicle. It “receives” the tow ball mount.

Regulator, gas: A device that reduces the pressure of propane gas coming from the propane tanks so that it is suitable for the appliances.

Regulator, water pressure: A device that reduces the pressure of water from the campground connection, to a level that is safe for the RV plumbing system. Some RVs, such as Airstreams, come with a water pressure regulator already built in.

Rig: Slang for an and tow vehicle combination. 

Roadschooling: The term full-timers use when they homeschool their children on the road.

Running gear: The parts of an RV trailer that allow it to roll, i.e., tires, wheels, bearings, and axles.

Safety chains: A pair of chains attached to the A-frame of a trailer. These should be criss-crossed and hooked to the receiver on your tow vehicle every time you hitch up.

Sewer hose: A flexible hose with wire reinforcement that’s only used only to empty the black and gray holding tanks. Also known as a stinky slinky. Wash your hands after you handle it.

Shore power: 120 volt AC power supplied by a power outlet at a campsite.

Slideout: An RV feature that expands once you’re parked to create more living space, usually in the living room and bedroom areas.

Stabilizing jacks (or stabilizers): There are four on most trailers and motorhomes, one under each corner. These are used to reduce the amount of “bounce” in the RV when camping.

Streetside: Facing forward, it’s the left side of the trailer. On a boat this would be “port”.

Stinky slinky: A common name for the flexible hose with wire reinforcement that’s used only to empty the black and gray holding tanks. Wash your hands after you handle it.

Sway control: a mechanical device that limits the turning motion of the trailer using friction. This is often built-in to a weight distributing hitch.

Tail Swing: The extra distance the rear end of the RV uses during a turn. The longer the distance between the rear wheels and the end of the RV, the larger the tail swing will be. It’s very important to know how much tail swing your RV has when turning corners in tight situations.

Tag axle: An additional axle on larger motorhomes that has heavier features in order to support additional weight.

Tandem axle: Two axles on a trailer, one in front of the other. A trailer with three axles is called a “triple axle,” not to be confused with the “triple axel” which is a kind of jump done in figure-skating.

Thermocouple: A temperature-sensing switch used in the ovens of older RVs. When the thermocouple is cold, it prevents gas from flowing.

Toad: A vehicle that is being towed by a motorhome. Also referred to as a dinghy.

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Tongue: The very tip of a trailer’s A-frame, where the hitch coupler is located.

Torsion axle: The type of axle used on Airstreams since 1961. This axle has internal rubber cords that function as the trailer’s “spring” suspension.

Torsion bars: Also called “weight distribution bars.” These are tightened to shift some of the trailer tongue weight to the forward of the tow vehicle.

Tow ball: A steel ball that is the pivoting connection between a tow vehicle and a trailer. Modern Airstreams and most other trailers use a 2-5/16” ball.

Towing mirrors: Special side mirrors mounted to the tow vehicle that extend much further out than standard mirrors. This gives the driver a much better view of things that are behind the RV.

Tow dolly: A small, two wheeled trailer used to attach a tow vehicle to the back of a motorhome.

Tow vehicle: The car or truck used to pull a trailer. A tow vehicle should have a brake controller and receiver installed, as well as have a tow rating or Gross Combined Vehicle Weight Rating sufficient for the trailer.

Toy hauler: An RV that contains space to haul recreational equipment such as ATVs, bicycles, or motorcycles within the RV itself. This is typically done through a garage-style setup or designated storage space in the rear of the RV. Toy haulers can be fifth wheels, travel trailers, Class As, Class Cs, or other types of RVs.

Travel trailer: An RV that’s pulled behind a vehicle using a hitch.

Triple tow: Towing a trailer and another trailer behind that, such as a travel trailer and a boat. Legal in only a few states.

Unloaded vehicle weight (UVW) (or dry weight): The weight of the RV without adding fuel, water, propane, supplies and passengers.

Vintage trailer: Any travel trailer that is 25 or more years old.

Weight distributing hitch: A hitch which incorporates a mechanical means to shift trailer tongue weight to the forward axle of the tow vehicle, thus evening the load and improving handling characteristics.

Wet bath: A bathroom without a separate shower enclosure. The entire bathroom becomes a shower as needed.

Winterizing: The process of preparing an RV for winter storage in an area where there are regular freezing temperatures. The process includes removing all water from the pipes and holding tanks and replacing it with RV antifreeze – a special kind of antifreeze that is OK to use in water pipes. The winterizing process also includes removing food and anything else that could spoil or be eaten by rodents.

Workamping: Generally refers to RVers exchanging work for a free campsite, utilities, and possibly a small wage. Full time RV-ers often do this to travel without extra expense.

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Adapted from The Newbies Guide to Airstreaming, 4th edition, by Rich Luhr

Image photo by Roadpass on Unsplash