Are you in the market for a camper? If so, you’re probably neck-deep into RV research, including their basic construction and the various types of camper siding options.
If you’re just beginning your search, however, you might be wondering: What is RV siding made out of?
RV siding is typically made out of either aluminum or fiberglass; and while these are the most common materials used, not every RV is made the same. Fiberglass RVs are made from both laminated and molded fiberglass, while aluminum RVs can be made from corrugated or smooth aluminum.
RV siding material is an important aspect of your search, but it’s not the only element to consider.
So before choosing RV siding, it pays to do a little research on the different types of materials used to construct the exterior walls of your camper and learn about their costs and benefits, and ultimately – which RV siding is best.
Welcome to the amazing journey of RV construction; hold on tight, there’s a lot to know!
This is mainly because there are SO many RVs out there to choose from. Lucky for us, there truly is an RV for everyone with many different options for floor plans, features, and of course – siding construction.
As mentioned above, the two main types of camper siding materials are aluminum and fiberglass.
And yes, you can side your RV with just about any material out there: wood, vinyl, steel, etc.. however, you won’t really find those siding materials at a traditional RV dealer.
Indeed, there is a reason why aluminum and fiberglass are so popular: they are both lightweight and durable.
Nevertheless, not all aluminum-sided and fiberglass-sided RVs are similar.
Some RVs have corrugated aluminum (think: wavy siding) while others have smooth aluminum (yep, you guessed it: Airstreams). Likewise, fiberglass RVs are made with either laminated fiberglass or molded fiberglass.
These include most motorhomes, as well as Scamps, Casitas, and other similar trailers. And of course, each option comes with its own list of advantages and disadvantages.
Next, we’ll dive into the four most common types of RV siding construction: corrugated aluminum, smooth aluminum, laminated fiberglass, and molded fiberglass.
Let’s get started!
Different Types of RV Siding Options to Consider
Below are the four different types of siding that are typically used in RVs. While each one has its pros and cons, it’s important to remember that they are used for a reason.
Whether you choose an aluminum-sided RV or a fiberglass one, you can rest easy knowing that they are tried-and-true materials trusted by RV manufacturers throughout the years.
1. Corrugated Aluminum
RVs with corrugated aluminum siding are extremely common, and chances are, someone you know probably has one.
They are typically cheaper than fiberglass RVs because they’re less expensive to make. Even so, it takes more man-hours to build one of these rigs because of their construction.
In fact, RVs with corrugated aluminum siding are referred to as “sticks and tin” campers because they’re built similar to a house.
They typically have a wood frame, fiberglass or foam insulation, and aluminum panels lining the exterior.
Unfortunately, these rigs come with a reputation of being made with lesser quality materials; however, RVs with corrugated aluminum siding have many benefits.
Let’s take a look at the pros and cons.
Lightweight: Aluminum is actually lighter than fiberglass, and therefore RVs with aluminum siding are generally more lightweight – thus, saving you money at the gas pump.
Less Expensive : Due to the cost of construction, RVs with corrugated aluminum siding are typically cheaper than those with fiberglass siding. This allows more people to afford RVs and enjoy everything that RV life has to offer.
Easier to Repair: Because the exterior of the RVs are made with aluminum paneling, they are much easier to repair – especially if you plan on doing the work yourself. If the side of your RV becomes damaged, you can replace individual panels instead of having to remove an entire wall.
Decent Insulation: We all know that RVs aren’t the best structures for keeping out the cold, but the wood and padding behind the aluminum provide a decent amount of insulation. Some say, better than fiberglass-sided RVs.
Prone to Dents: Yes, aluminum is lightweight, but that also means it dents very easily. If you find yourself caught in a hail storm or you accidentally drive under low-hanging trees, your RV may not look as nice as it once did.
Lower Resale Value: Like I said before, RVs with corrugated aluminum siding have a reputation for being built poorly, and in some cases, this is true. Unfortunately, whether this is accurate or not, resale value is affected.
They Age Poorly: To expand on the last point, these RVs’ susceptibility to dents and dings doesn’t help their resale value either. One mishap or scratch and your RV may suddenly look much older and more beat-up than it actually is.
More Wood = More Chances for Rot: Lastly, because the frame is made of wood, any kind of water damage is bad news. It’s also harder to spot any water damage from the outside, as the aluminum siding conceals it very well. You may not even discover it until the interior damage is noticeable – and by that time, an entire wall might need replacing.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of smooth aluminum siding? Airstreams, of course! And Wally Byam knew exactly what he was doing when he founded the iconic company in 1931.
Airstreams are made from a riveted aluminum shell, an aluminum frame, and spray-on insulation.
This allows them to be both light AND indestructible. The body of an Airstream will not rot if left sitting for years in your backyard – there’s no wood in the structure! (Okay, there is wood in the subfloor, but that’s to be expected).
While Airstreams are the most emblematic of the smooth-sided aluminum RVs, they are definitely not the only ones ever made.
You also may recall seeing different vintage trailers with smooth aluminum siding, as they were very popular at one point.
Built to Last: Because these RVs are literally a shell of riveted metal, they won’t leak and fall apart like more traditional RVs. How many times have you seen a vintage airstream sitting in someone’s yard looking like it hasn’t aged a day?!
Lightweight: As we discussed before, aluminum is very lightweight – and when it comes to Airstreams, their outer shell, frame, AND interior shell are all aluminum. Talk about weightlessness!
High Resale Value: At this point, investing in an Airstream or another comparable RV is almost like investing in a house. And if you buy and restore a vintage trailer like these, you’ll probably find yourself making money on the resale. This is because everyone knows: they last forever.
You Will Look Oh, So Cool: This factor doesn’t hurt the resale value, either! If you’re into RV life at all, you’ve probably seen those picturesque scenes of a vintage aluminum trailer with amazing views in the back. Yeah, Airstreams definitely have that cool factor, and it doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.
Expensive to Buy: As you might guess, riveted aluminum RVs are quite laborious to construct. In fact, Airstreams take two people (one inside, one outside) to insert each rivet. Couple this with their top quality materials and “cool-factor”, and you have one expensive RV (specifically, $188,100 for the 2023 Airstream Classic).
Expensive to Repair: If you find yourself needing to repair an Airstream, Road Chief, or a similar rig, prepare to pay a pretty penny. Replacing just one segment of an Airstream’s outer shell will cost $2,000 or more, and if you want to DIY it, the parts alone are in the hundreds.
Dents Easily: As we already mentioned, aluminum dents very easily, and if your RV’s exterior is shiny and smooth, just imagine how it will look after a hail storm!
Lower R-value: Because metal conducts temperature very easily, these aluminum-built RVs aren’t the best at keeping the heat in or the cold out (or vise versa!). Yes, there is a layer of insulation between the inner and outer aluminum shells, but they aren’t as energy efficient as other RVs.
Laminated fiberglass is one of the most common types of RV siding; especially in modern RVs.
In fact, if you see a camper or motorhome going down the road with smooth sides, it probably has fiberglass walls.
RVs with fiberglass walls have grown in popularity – mainly because they look so good.
They don’t dent as easily as aluminum and they hold up well as they age. Yes, you may see some cracked decals, but the structure behind it remains solid unless heavy damage occurs.
These RVs are usually made with an aluminum frame, and the walls are constructed with laminated fiberglass, luan wood, foam insulation, and another layer of luan for the inside wall.
If made well, this construction is very durable and lightweight. Moreover, because the frame is aluminum instead of wood, it will withstand water damage better than corrugated aluminum RVs.
In fact, you’ll probably be able to spot water damage pretty quickly. A sure sign that moisture has made its way into your walls is delamination, which happens when the layers of your RV wall separates, creating that wavy or warped look.
More Resistant to Water Damage: Again, because the frame is aluminum and the insulation is foam, there is less opportunity for mold and rot to make its home in your RV compared to “sticks and tin” RVs.
Water Tanks are in Located an Enclosed Underbelly: This is a fantastic perk of fiberglass RVs; the water tanks are usually enclosed underneath the RV (where the heat ducts are!). This makes RVing in cold weather a little more enjoyable, as your tanks and pipes won’t freeze as easily.
Higher Resale Value: Fiberglass RVs are known for being better quality than those with corrugated aluminum sides, and whether or not that is true, the resell value is generally higher for fiberglass RVs.
Doesn’t Dent as Easily: If you have an RV with laminated fiberglass sides: good news! A hail storm won’t damage your rig nearly as bad as it would an aluminum RV. This also goes for low-hanging branches, excited pets, and other small mishaps.
They’re Pretty: While aesthetics are purely subjective, most RVers seem to like the smooth, sleek look of fiberglass RVs (as opposed to corrugated aluminum), and this is probably why they have a much better resale value.
Heavier than Aluminum: While fiberglass is a durable, lightweight material, it’s not as lightweight as aluminum. Thus, laminated fiberglass RVs are usually a bit heavier than aluminum ones (and require more powerful tow vehicles).
Lower R-value than Corrugated Aluminum Competitors: While this point is definitely up for debate, laminated fiberglass walls won’t typically have the same energy efficiency as “sticks and tin” RVs. This is because the aluminum frame, fiberglass, and foam insulation conduct temperature better than the wood and traditional insulation in corrugated aluminum walls.
More Expensive: As you might expect, fiberglass RVs are usually more expensive than their aluminum counterparts. This is because of the aesthetics, manufacturing costs, and durability of these rigs.
Unable to DIY Wall Repairs: Unfortunately, if major damage occurs to one of the sidewalls, you won’t be able to repair it yourself. Because the RV walls are created and laminated in a factory, you’ll have to turn to professional help for these projects (and it probably won’t be cheap!).
Molded Fiberglass RVs are in a class of their own. In fact, only six companies manufacture molded fiberglass RVS: Escape, Scamp, Oliver, Casita, Big Foot, and The EggCamper.
These RVs are very recognizable and are made by molding fiberglass into two sections and then sealing them together to create the outer shell.
The interior is then lined with insulation (a space-age “bubble” insulation or foam), and then an interior wall material such as cloth or another layer of fiberglass.
Molded Fiberglass RVs are unique because they don’t need a frame; the molded shell is sturdy enough to hold itself up (with some supports).
This construction provides both advantages and disadvantages when it comes to weight, durability, and size.
Resistant to Water Damage and Moisture Build-up: Because of the molded design, there are almost no seams – and thus fewer chances for water to seep in. The campers themselves are built with very little wood as well, so you won’t have to worry as much about the integrity of the structure.
Holds Up with Age: Like Airstreams, molded fiberglass RVs barely seem to age, and there are many older fiberglass campers on the road today. No doubt, buying a molded fiberglass RV like a Scamp or Oliver is a true investment because they last forever.
High Resale Value: To expand on the last point – since molded fiberglass RVs don’t seem to age, they keep their value! Therefore, you won’t have to worry about the depreciation that a typical RV experiences.
Lightweight: Because of the ingenious design of molded fiberglass RVs, there is no need for a frame! This cuts down on weight dramatically, as the entire shell is made of lightweight fiberglass.
Less Space Because of the Rounded Edges: This is a common complaint from Scamp, Escape, Oliver, Big Foot, EggCamper, and Casita owners. Because of the molded form, they have almost an egg-like shape (hence the name “The EggCamper”). This can impede both living and storage space.
Limited by Size: For one reason or another (possibly the rigid nature of fiberglass), molded fiberglass RVs max out at only 25 feet in length. In fact, most of these campers are between 17 and 19 feet, automatically excluding families who need more room.
Expensive: Considering the size of these RVs, they are considered rather expensive. For example, a 17 foot Casita starts at $25,000, while an 18 foot Oliver starts at $57,000. Yes, they are made to last, but you could save thousands of dollars if you decide to buy a corrugated aluminum rig of the same size.
It’s tempting to say one material is better than the rest (and I definitely have my own opinions).
However, the best camper outer wall construction is going to differ for everyone.
For example, someone who doesn’t want to blow their budget on a rig they will only use occasionally may opt for a corrugated aluminum RV, while a full-timing family may opt for a large rig with laminated fiberglass sides.
Likewise, a retired couple may enjoy the durability and low maintenance nature of molded fiberglass campers.
Another point worth mentioning is: It’s all how they’re made!
If you search long enough, you’ll find laminated fiberglass RVs that are poorly made and corrugated aluminum RVs that are extremely well built.
Therefore, comparing one material to the other is just one aspect to consider when deciding which RV is best for you – and usually, you get what you pay for!
Now we want to hear from you! Which type of RV do YOU think is best?
Aaron and his wife Evelyn have lived on the road since 2017, traveling the country in their Keystone Fuzion. They’ve sought adventure together for 5 years now and have done a lot of international traveling, including RVing in Mexico. Aaron is the co-founder of RVing Know How,where he shares their experiences and RV-related tips to make life better for other RV owners. If you’re looking for Aaron, chances are you'll find him either pedaling the backroads or hiking to sunset spots.
1 thought on “RV Siding Materials: Which Type is Best For Camper Exterior Walls?”
We are in the market for a travel trailer and this has helped me understand so much about the camper exterior. My husband is against a corrugated one but those seem to have the best indoor features. It’s good to know that there are some bad fiberglass campers and some good aluminum ones. Thanks for this article.