What Does Self Contained RV Mean?

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One of the appeals of RV living is the ability to go ‘off the grid’. Many future RV owners fantasize about the ability to park their vehicle anywhere and be completely sustained there for some time. This is often called ‘dry camping’ or ‘boondocking’. 

The type of RV you have, though, will determine if boondocking is possible for you. If you’re looking to have your RV disconnected from city water lines, you’ll want to find a self-contained RV. But what does self contained RV mean? 

A self contained RV is one that has a bathroom and tank system in place for holding water. While it may seem that every RV is self contained, smaller campers or trailers might not be. If your RV is not self contained, there are steps you can take to make it so. 

What Does Self Contained RV Mean? 

The meaning of ‘self contained’ RV is simple: a self contained RV has a toilet. It should also have a tank for water and waste products to go to from that toilet. It will have hookups to operate with outside sources, but it does not need them. If your RV can satisfy this most basic of human needs, it is self contained. 

If you’re on the road, or parked far from civilization, the last thing you’ll want to do is hunt for a bathroom. Obviously it is uncomfortable and inconvenient, but it can be unsafe, especially at night. 

In a non self-contained RV, you should always try to park somewhere near a bathroom. You cann park in a store parking lot, or in a campsite with full facilities. 

Types of RVs that are not self-contained include: 

  • Small travel trailers 
  • Campervans 
  • DIY campervans 

If you’re looking for a vehicle to tow behind your car, it will likely not be self contained. 

Benefits Of A Self Contained RV 

It goes without saying that the biggest boon of self-contained RVs is convenience. You have full bathroom access wherever you are in the world. At campgrounds, you don’t have to use the public bathroom facilities you’d find there. For people who are extra concerned about the cleanliness of campground toilets, this is a blessing. 

Having a self contained RV also makes it possible to live off the grid. You can travel far and wide for quite a while without needing any hookups, so long as your generator and tanks will hold. Because you’re not dependent on amenities, you have the pick of the litter when it comes to campsites. 

Are There Benefits To RVs That Are Not Self Contained? 

Certainly! There are some benefits to non-self-contained RVs, the most obvious of those being cost. Campervans and smaller trailers are often much cheaper than full sized self contained RVs. If you’re looking to hit the road in comfort without breaking the bank, you would benefit from an RV that is not self contained. 

Having an RV without a toilet and tank system is convenient in its own right. You don’t have to fuss over cleaning, dumping, or maintaining tanks. Without tanks to handle, you can spend more time enjoying the RV instead of worrying over the upkeep of it. 

Upgrading Your Self Contained RV 

On that note, the biggest downfall of self contained RVs are the limitations. There are several things that can go wrong when using a self contained RV, not limited to tank capacity, smells, and generator failures. 

However, there are a few ways you can improve the experience of a self contained RV while keeping it self contained. 

Add A Composting Toilet 

A composting toilet is a type of toilet that does what it sounds like it does; it composts human wastes. The process decomposes the organic matter and reduces it to a compost-like material. Microorganisms in the controlled environment of the compost toilet help to break everything down. 

There are usually carbon additives, like peat moss, coconut coir, or sawdust that is added on after use. Using these additives is what helps the matter to decompose. Even more than that, though, they improve the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, thus reducing potential odor. If you convert to a composting toilet, make sure you have a carbon additive supply handy. 

Converting to a composting toilet in your self contained RV will eliminate the need for a black tank, and help you save fresh water. In the space you used to have a black tank, you can instead install another grey tank. This means you have a greater capacity to hold water from the shower or sink, meaning you can camp even longer. 

A composting toilet will also reduce or completely eliminate the odor from the black tank. Because the waste is entirely contained, you don’t have to worry about foul stinks leaking through the tanks. 

Learn How To Conserve Water 

Using a self contained RV means you’re going to want to watch your water consumption. A self contained RV’s freshwater system starts in the white freshwater tank. This is a finite resource. The longer you want to stay on the road, the more conscious you should be of your water usage. 

Conserving water will make boondocking last a lot longer, and help your RV stay not just self contained, but self sustained. To save water, try taking shorter showers, using compostable plates and dinnerware that you don’t have to wash, and shower at gyms or truck stops when possible. 

Where To Dump A Self Contained RV’s Tanks 

No matter how conservative your water habits are, your black water tank will eventually fill up. When that time comes, you’ll want to find a place to dump your tanks. 

Most RV campgrounds will have hookups to dump your black and grey water tanks. Rest stops and gas stations will sometimes have dumping stations available as well. 

They say there’s an app for everything, and that includes dumping your RV tanks. Apps that will help you find reliable dumping stations are readily available and easy to use. 

While you’re dumping, it might be a good idea to clean out your RV tanks as well. The black and grey tanks put up with a lot of use, especially if you’ve been boondocking. They should be maintained to keep up a good quality of life in your RV.

If you don’t want to buy a treatment every time you’re ready to clean the holding tanks, you can always make one at home. 

What Is The Smallest Self Contained RV? 

If you want to enjoy the benefits of a self contained RV without having to hulk around a massive luxury vehicle, you’ll be on the lookout for smaller models. The general name you’ll want to look for is an RV Class B Motorhome. They’re considered the smallest self contained vehicles. 

These RVs are built similar to a van or small truck chassis. They’ll have a gasoline engine and an overall body between 16’ to 24’. Usually, they will be only slightly wider than a typical van. 

With a compact size, they’re outfitted with the basic amenities you’d expect from RV travel. You might find a compact compression fridge, single burner stove, and smaller storage spaces. It will have, however, the one thing that will make a RV self contained: a bathroom. 

Also called minis or mini motorhomes, these compact RVs are easier to drive, park, and are city friendly. The major disadvantage, besides space, is the need to dump the tanks more often. 

What Is A Self Contained Fifth Wheel? 

A self contained fifth wheel RV is an RV that is detached from the towing vehicle. It still has the full service of amenities, some even very luxuriously so. The difference is that when it is disconnected from a vehicle, it is stationary. 

Fifth wheel self contained RVs are typically heavier than a standard RV. They hitch over the axel of the truck, minimizing sway. On average, fifth wheel RVs offer more space for the price than standard RVs. 

One of the most notable benefits of a fifth wheel RV is the convenience. Once you detach the tow vehicle, it is free to be used as you need it. If you want to hit the drive-thru without having to wedge the RV into a tiny lane, just detach the car. Now you can zip up and down city streets as you wish. 

Another benefit is that if a mechanical error were to happen in an attached motorhome, you’ll have to find new accommodations while it is being repaired. If the mechanical parts in the tow vehicle malfunction, you can still live in the self contained fifth wheel while it is being repaired. 


Self contained RVs have all of the amenities needed to dry camp, or boondock, in your RV. This includes that most important facility of a toilet and tank system. If a camper or trailer does not have a toilet or tank, it is not self contained. 

The benefits of a self contained RV include convenience and the ability to park anywhere. You will not have to worry about whether or not a campground has a bathroom if you have a self contained RV. 

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