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Just a few weeks ago, I was toying with the idea of renting an RV and taking a summer road trip. Today, I’m the proud owner of a 1990 Winnebago Warrior and more than 1,500 miles into a cross-country journey. Though the decision to buy an RV was admittedly a bit rash, I’m not the only person itching to travel over the summer while limiting exposure to COVID-19 (we are still in the midst of a pandemic, after all).
RV rental site Outdoorsy, for example, has seen an explosion of interest over the past few weeks. The company says its average daily bookings are up by more than 2,600% since late March.
But choosing an RV and hitting the open road is not a simple task, nor a decision to be made lightly. The first few days of my trip have been a bit stressful, not only because I’ve never actually driven an RV before, but I’m having to learn how everything works on the road.
So while I highly recommend renting or buying an RV and having the adventure of a lifetime, I urge you to also spend some time evaluating your options and understanding what RV life is really like. Below are 16 key tips from RV travel experts to help you out.
1. Choose the right rig for your lifestyle.
One of the most important decisions you need to make is choosing the type of vehicle for your lifestyle and travel plans. Generally, this means choosing between a Class A, Class B or Class C. Each are different sizes that fit different needs.
For most road trip purposes, you’ll likely want a Class C, said Matt Kirouac, co-founder of Hello Ranger. They’re not as enormous as a Class A (which are essentially luxury buses), and not as rugged as Class B (e.g., van life). “They’re a good, comfortable middle ground, both for families and couples alike,” he said. “Don’t bite off more than you can chew with an oversized RV that’ll give you anxiety when it comes to parking, navigating cities, gas stations, etc. Find an RV that gives you the space you need, without the excess.”
2. Rent an RV before you decide to buy.
Renting an RV for a short trip is a good idea before investing in buying one or renting one for a longer vacation, according to Lauren Keys, blogger at Trip Of A Lifestyle. “We took the model of van we purchased on a test drive from the dealership before we decided to buy one, just to get a sense of whether we could both drive it (and if a bed would fit in the back!),” she said.
3. Consider buying used.
RVs depreciate in value rapidly, so you might want to find an older model if you do plan to buy. “Keep in mind that the more bells and whistles it has, the more can go wrong,” Keys said. She added that most issues RVs face won’t be with the engine or other vehicle components, but with the extras that make it more livable.
4. Practice driving and backing up.
Dave Huber, general manager of River Run RV Resort, said the most common argument he witnesses among customers is when attempting to back up their RVs. “Practice and communication are key to avoid this breakdown,” he said. No matter what type of RV you rent or buy, he said, you should practice backing up and understanding your turning radius in an empty parking lot before you head out. A couple of key concepts to learn are offtracking and rear overhang, both of which can cause you to bang into or run over obstacles if you aren’t careful.
Second, if you’ll be traveling with a partner or spouse, Huber said you should also practice your communication. “You don’t want to start your camping experience with a breakdown in communication over backing an RV up,” he said. “Having managed campgrounds for many years, my wife and I made a pact upon our first purchase to work out simple and clear hand signals, specifically to help out backup communication.” If your rig doesn’t have a backup camera, there are great after-market options to fix this problem and they’re well worth the money, he added.
5. Drive slowly.
When it comes to driving, especially on highways, Kirouac recommended staying 5-10 miles under the speed limit. “Wind gusts hit you much harder than you’d expect, and the general ‘feel’ of driving on highways is much different than a car.”
Faster drivers may get annoyed with your speed, but that’s OK; safety is the most important goal, so let them honk and move along. Also, stay to the right and don’t go into the passing lane unless you need to.
6. Resist the urge to overpack.
“Just because you can fit everything in the RV, it doesn’t mean you should bring it all,” said Diane Vukovic, owner of Mom Goes Camping. Not only will you spend a ton of time unloading and setting up gear instead of relaxing and enjoying yourself, overpacking will also weigh you down and make for worse fuel efficiency.
7. Expect everything to take much longer than you planned.
Driving anywhere in an RV will take a lot longer than you anticipated. Not only will your average speed likely be at or below the posted speed limit, but on steep grades or winding roads, you might not get above 45mph. Driving an RV is also a lot more mentally and physically taxing than driving a car, so you may need more breaks than usual. “With breaks to stretch your legs, it could take you 10+ hours of driving to go just 400 miles,” Vukovic said.
8. Don’t expect a dirt-cheap vacation.
A lot of people choose RVing because it seems like a cheap way to vacation. “However, if you actually add up all the costs, including gas, per mileage and rental fees, campground costs, dumping costs and electric fees, it can end up being more expensive than driving a car and renting a motel each night,” Vukovic said. She noted that campground and dumping station memberships can reduce some of the costs, but only if you use your RV frequently and plan trips around these membership sites.
9. Keep safety front of mind.
Vukovic said that your RV should be equipped with a smoke detector, carbon monoxide detector and, if you use propane, a liquid petroleum gas detector. Check that these are working and have fresh batteries before you set off. You’ll also want to inspect the fire extinguisher. “Make sure everyone knows where it is located,” Vukovic said. “If you’ve never used a fire extinguisher before, this is a good time to give yourself a refresher — and teach your older kids how to use it while you are at it.”
10. Know the terrain ahead of time.
Once you’re ready to head out, consider the condition of the roads and general areas you plan to travel to. “If you’re going to the mountains, the wide turn radius of larger RVs and travel trailers may prove extremely difficult to navigate around tight turns,” Keys said. She noted that weight limits and overhead clearance are other factors to keep in mind when planning your route.
11. Know the size of your rig.
Find out both length and height, and then write it on a Post-it note and put it on your dashboard, said Carrie Andress, a community support specialist for Boondockers Welcome. “This will help when you might encounter a low bridge.”
12. Follow the “2/2/2” rule.
Constantly driving your RV during a long trip can be exhausting. Jason Miller, who co-runs the RV travel sites Getaway Couple and RV Masterclass with his wife, recommends following the “2/2/2” rule for planning travel days. “This means that you plan your trip so that on driving days, you drive no more than 200 miles, arrive by 2 p.m. and stay for at least two days,” Miller said. “This eliminates the stress of constantly moving and allows you a full day to decompress and explore.”
13. Use an RV-specific GPS system.
Google Maps will show you the best ways to get from Point A to Point B. But it won’t necessarily show you the best route to drive an RV. You’ll need to avoid certain hazards like low bridges, steep grades or propane restrictions. Miller recommends using an RV specific GPS like the RV LIFE app to avoid situations in which you might have to turn.
14. Make sure your generator works.
Your RV can get very hot inside, especially if you’re traveling during the summer through states such as Arizona, California and Florida. That’s why it’s crucial to make sure that your generator is working properly before hitting the road, as it will power your air conditioner between RV parks or places where you can plug in, Kirouac said. He added that it would be wise to bring along a fan unit or two. “Another good idea, once you’re stationary somewhere, is to cover all windows with blankets or window coverings of some sort (reflective materials are especially great). This will shield you from direct sun and keep it from heating up your RV.”
15. Keep your tires in top shape.
Blowouts are no fun, especially if one happens to a front tire. Maintaining and replacing tires is key to staying safe on the road. “Your tires need to be inspected before you venture out on any long adventure to assure they have the proper amount of air to carry the weight of your load and to go the distance you will be traveling,” said Cindy Baker, a travel advisor with Inteletravel. Keep in mind that even if the tread looks great, you may still need to replace tires that are too old. Sitting around with exposure to heat and dry air can cause the walls of your tires to break down, so plan to replace them every five to seven years.
16. Figure out where to stay.
When it comes to figuring out where to park for the night, you have many options ― some more pricey than others. RV parks will be the least budget-friendly, but they also offer the most amenities. In addition to hookups, you may also enjoy luxuries such as Wi-Fi, pools, playgrounds for the kids and even dog parks.
Many campgrounds also offer RV spots, sometimes with electric and/or water hookups, and some without. If the campsite takes reservations, it’s a good idea to book one as soon as possible, as there are a limited number of spots that can fill up fast during peak months.
Bionca Smith, who documents her travels on Instagram @offthegridwithakid, suggested camping at state parks. “They’re scenic, quieter and a lot cheaper than campgrounds,” she said, adding that camping during the week is best since the grounds won’t be as full.
Andress also suggested looking for money-saving camping options and services like Good Sam, Passport America, Thousand Trails, Harvest Hosts and Boondockers Welcome. Campground fees can add up, so joining a member service can help save you money.
If you really want to go low-budget, there are many free options available, too. This is known as “boondocking,” or camping in areas other than established RV parks and campgrounds. Keep in mind that there will be fewer amenities available ― probably none. Overnight parking is available at many Walmarts, Cracker Barrels, Camping Worlds and truck stops such as Flying J and Loves (always ask permission first).
Be careful about parking on streets ― many cities have laws against parking oversized vehicles overnight without a permit. You can use the RV Parky app to find parking options near you and read reviews from other users.
And no matter where you go, it’s always a good idea to share your location with a few loved ones, Smith said. You can allow your friends or family to keep tabs on you using easily with an iPhone, Google location share, or Life 360.