Are you considering going RV’ing for the first time, but don’t know where to begin? Does it all seem a bit overwhelming? Don’t worry. It’s totally normal.
There is a lot to learn to get started, but it’s totally do-able, and not as hard as you might think. Lots of people take up RV’ing daily, and you can do it, too. Here are some of the first things you will need to consider and skills you will need to learn as a new RV’er.
1. WHAT KIND OF RV DO YOU WANT TO RENT OR BUY?
There are a number of options and finding the right fit is key to enjoying your RV’ing experience.
There are 5 main classes of RV’s:
Class A – These look like large busses, just a whole lot fancier. These tend to be the priciest models.
Class B – These are vans that have been outfitted with everything from sinks to showers and toilets, but they are quite small.
Class C – These RV’s are built on a van chassis and are recognizable by how their tops extend out over the cab where the driver and passenger sit.
Travel Trailers – Travel trailers are completely separate units which are pulled by a vehicle – usually a heavy-duty truck for most models. That being said, there are “tear drop” and pop-up models that are lightweight and can be pulled by SUV’s and even some cars (depending on weight).
5th Wheel – Many people confuse travel trailers with 5th wheels, but they are quite different. Travel trailers attach to a hitch ball (just like a boat being towed) that is located on the back of a truck. 5th wheels, by contrast, have a design that rises up over the bed of the pickup truck and has a special 5th wheel hitch that must be mounted in the truck bed in order to tow it.
In order to figure out what works best for you, first consider whether or not you want to drive or tow your RV. If you want to tow, and I can’t stress this strongly enough, be very sure to consult your vehicle’s manufacturing specs to make sure that your vehicle is suited to towing an RV. If it isn’t and you do it anyway, at best you will damage your transmission and at worst, you could not have enough braking power and lose control at a critical moment. That mistake could be fatal.
You can find the weight specifications for the vehicle you want to buy or rent at the dealership. If you are buying through a private party, get the year, make and model of the RV and call the manufacturer. They will be able to give you the specs. Once you have the weight, call your truck manufacturer and find out about the tow capacity of your truck. Don’t forget to account for the weight of the stuff you will bring. If you are going out for a week, your load likely will be lighter than if you are full-timing.
2. WHAT LAYOUT SUITS YOU BEST?
Before making a decision on buying or renting an RV, visit tons of dealerships and take time walking through different models. It may sound silly, but take off your shoes and get up on the bed, stand in the shower, and take a quick seat on the toilet to make sure that all of these things are big enough for you. Don’t be shy. If you are going to be spending any amount of time in an RV, these are the things that will irritate you to no end if they aren’t comfortable.
Next, take a look at the kitchen/dinette/living room area. Figure out if you will have adequate room to prepare the food for you and any other people traveling with you without resorting to a blood bath over space. No matter which model you choose – barring perhaps the very, very expensive rigs that are out of the price range for most of us – it won’t be like having a full-blown kitchen. Accept that your space will be limited, but make sure it is functional. If you are traveling with more than 2 people, bring all of them and everyone get in and walk around at the same time. Get a good feel for just how much space each one of you will have.
3. KNOW YOUR HEIGHT!
Before you get out on the road it is critical that you know exactly how tall your rig is. I actually have a note on my dashboard that reminds me in feet and inches as well as meters (in case I’m driving through Canada). You rarely get much warning ahead of time when you are driving, as people who put up the signs for low clearance have probably never had to stop a large, heavy vehicle quickly. You won’t have time to think about it, so just put a note where you can quickly glance to see if you are over or under the bridge/obstruction clearance limit. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that you will quickly regret it if you have to recall it from memory and you are wrong.
4. MAKE RV’ING CHECKLISTS
It may sound silly, but make checklists for everything about your RV – and use them! These will save you headaches in a million ways. Common checklists include: things to bring, things to do before departure, and things to do upon arrival.
Are they tedious to follow? Yep – especially for people like me who hate doing anything in a linear fashion. Are they worth it – yes, and then some. Imagine taking off for a weekend trip and forgetting your water hose, or packing up to go home and forgetting to unhook your electrical cord or take out your jacks. Believe it or not, these things happen all of the time – and sometimes, they are costly mistakes.
5. PRACTICE DRIVING
Driving an RV is different and it can be challenging, but it is a learnable skill no matter who you are. Anyone can do it with a little practice. If you know someone who is willing to let you learn on their RV in a big parking lot, take them up on the offer. If there is a class on how to drive an RV, even better!
If neither of the above options are available, try to take out your RV and practice on your own. Bring some 5 gallon buckets or cones to mark out areas in a large parking lot. Practice making turns so that you clear your back wheels. Learn how your back end can swing up to three feet in the opposite direction that you are headed and learn to plan for that. This will help make sure you don’t take out a gas pump somewhere as you pull away from it.
6. LEARN TO BACK UP
One really critical skill to learn is how to back up. This applies to all rigs – even ones where you can’t back up.
Inevitably at some point you will find yourself in a situation where you have to back up. It may be to get yourself out of a jam, or it may be to simply pull into your RV site. Be sure you are comfortable doing this alone and/or with a partner.
If you are pulling a 5th wheel or travel trailer, part of pulling into an RV space involves backing up. This is a skill you will use often, so it is worth every minute you can spare to practice. Besides, the confidence of knowing at least sort-of what you are doing is better than having no clue and then having to try to back in in front of a whole campground full of people.
Some people may be driving “un-back-up-able” rigs. If you are towing a vehicle behind an RV, then backing up is pretty much impossible. That being said, if you get yourself in a pinch and need an extra foot to make a turn, knowing how to back up just enough to get that extra space comes in very handy. So, get in a big parking lot and try to back up when you are aligned straight and then try it while you are in a turn. Learn how far you can go without jack knifing the vehicle you are towing. Again, better to learn when you can get out and look rather than when you are blocking several lanes of traffic.
I chose to install a backup camera on my RV for two reasons. First, it helps me see when I need to back into a space. Secondly, it lets me keep an eye on my tow vehicle while driving. This gives me peace of mind because I will be able to see if I have a blow-out on one of my tow vehicle tires and it helps me to see my tow vehicle wheels when I am rounding very tight corners.
The model I chose was the Rear View Safety RVS-770613 Video Camera with 7.0-Inch LCD.
Its infrared capability to help me see at night and large monitor were what made me interested in it, and its reviews were what sold me.
I couldn’t be happier with its performance and the support by the Rear View Safety team is great!
This is a wired model. I trust wired connections more than wireless. However, there are wireless versions if you prefer not to pull cable. Not being totally knowledgeable about wiring, I was able to install my camera with the assistance of the Rear View Safety technical support team and by looking up wiring diagrams for my RV online.
7. LEARN HOW TO PROPERLY LEVEL YOUR RIG
Leveling an RV is usually pretty simple and is very important to keeping your propane fridge from having very serious problems. Propane fridges are cooled by ammonia. In order for the ammonia solution to be able to evaporate, condense, and flow through the pipes correctly, there is a very narrow margin of degrees in which an RV fridge can be off-level for any length of time. Generally, 3 degrees side- to-side and 6 degrees off level front-to-back are the maximum allowable parameters. RV refrigerators usually start at around a grand and then increase in price, so it’s worth your while to level and protect it.
Leveling can be done a number of ways. Fancier rigs have automatic levelers, but most rigs must be done manually.
Manual leveling is typically done by placing blocks such as Camco Leveling Blocksunder the lower tires to get the rig mostly level.
Jacks are used for the fine tuning and stabilization part of the leveling process. Don’t make the mistake of using jacks alone to level an RV. Jacks should be used for stabilization and only a tiny bit of leveling. If you have to extend jacks too high to get level, they can (and will) fail. It has happened to me because I made this exact mistake. Scissor jacks are the most common type of jack used for RV’s.
My personal favorite are the Husky Stabilizing Scissor Jacks .
They are heavy duty and they mount right to your frame. I have used a few different brands of jacks, and I have found that the Husky Jacks are the easiest to deploy and are very durable.
8. BECOME FAMILIAR WITH YOUR POWER SYSTEMS
RV’s are critters that have two different power systems: 110/120 V like you have in your home and 12 V power which is quite similar to what you have on a boat. It is important to understand what each is capable of running.
110/120 V systems can run your fridge, your air conditioner, a hairdryer, a blender, or charge your laptop and phones. 12 V systems, on the other hand, are capable of running the lights installed in your rig, igniting the propane for your fridge when it is running on propane mode, and powering fans such as your bathroom / kitchen vent fans and your furnace fan.
If you plan to dry camp (sometimes called “boondocking) and will not be plugged into shore power (like at your house or RV park), then you have two main options to obtain 110/120 V power to run things like computers, blenders, and air conditioners. Your first option is to use an inverter to change 12 V power stored in your house battery into 110/120V power. The other option is to run a generator, which tends to annoy many people around you.
Whether or not using an inverter will be sufficient will depend on your power needs, whether or not you have solar to resupply your battery(ies), how man batteries you have (and their capacity), and the power of your inverter (for example, a 400W inverter will not run a 1500W hair dryer). If you need to run your generator, be sure that it is both allowed where you are (some places have quiet hours), and that you are as far away from neighbors as possible. A quick rule of RV’er etiquette: many boondocking people go out of their way to find remote quiet places. If you show up and park right next to them and run your generator all night, you probably will have a very angry neighbor.
Solar kits are available and can be installed by anyone who is a bit handy. In order to be sure you are getting enough power, you need to calculate your total power needs. For people wanting to just add a bit of solar to help keep their house battery topped off, a 200W system would be a good place to start.
My personal system is designed by Renogy. I’ve had very good performance out of my system and have recently upgraded to add another panel.
You can find a Renogy 100 Watt Solar Starter Kit here.
Remember to do your research on how much power you will need before purchasing a system, and plan ahead for expansion.
9. LEARN HOW TO DUMP YOUR BLACK AND GRAY WATER TANKS
Clearly one of the less glamorous aspects of RV’ing is dealing with waste water. It sounds a lot worse than it is – if you do it properly. Done incorrectly, you could be in for a world of very serious yuck.
Step 1: Buy a box of disposable gloves
Step 2: Learn how to connect your hose to your drain and secure the other end of the hose to the dump site. This is best done with a screw-on connection.
Step 3: Learn to identify your black tank (toilet water) and gray tank (sink and shower water).
Step 4: Dump your black water first and then dump your gray water. The order is important. The gray water is cleaner and will partially rinse out your hose.
Step 5: Disconnect and rinse your hose with a non-potable (not for drinking) water hose. These are often found right at the dump area. Never, ever, ever use a hose marked “potable water” to clean your hose. Other people will be connecting this hose to their rigs to fill water that is often used in cooking and drinking. Most of the time potable water hoses are located several feet away from the dump site to prevent this very thing.
Pro Tip: Consider purchasing a Valterra Hydroflush like the one shown here.
It will allow you to hook up a hose to your drain and inject water into the pipes to help free solids that have gotten stuck on the way down as well as rinse your hose. This is one of the best purchases that I made for my RV.
10. GET A TRUCKER GPS UNIT
A great addition to make to your RV is to invest in a trucker GPS unit. This style of GPS device has several settings that are specific to large vehicles such as being able to add your height and weight. Trucker GPS units are programmed with many, ***but, not all***, low bridges and other structures that might interfere with RV travel.
My favorite one is the Rand McNally TND730 IntelliRoute GPS Truck Navigator.
I decided on it after exhaustive hours of research. Although it has its quirks (they ALL do), it has been reliable for the really important things I need to know when driving 49′ of RV and tow vehicle.
Remember that you should research routes in advance and always read signs. Don’t ever be too comfortable with relying on your GPS – they do make mistakes and do not have information about every single road. That being said, you will appreciate being notified that routes may not be advisable and that routes suggested will automatically take into account many of the things you will want to avoid driving a big rig.
11. CONSIDER BECOMING A MEMBER OF AN RV GROUP THAT FITS YOUR TRAVEL STYLE
There are a number of RV groups such as Passport America you can join that will help you to get discounts when you stay at RV parks.
If your style of RV travel is a bit more on the adventurous side, you might want to check out Boondockers Welcome which is a site that connects you with other RV’ers around the US and Canada who have property where you can stay for free. They even have a few members in Mexico, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
12. GET RV ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE MEMBERSHIP
It doesn’t matter if you are going just a couple of hours away or across the country. RV specific roadside assistance is a must. Towing of an RV can be very expensive, so it is a good investment to spend a few dollars on a good roadside assistance program such as Good Sam Roadside Assist either to help you with a flat tire or tow you to the nearest town. Be sure to understand your coverage so that you know what to expect should you need to use it.
13. USE DAMPRID
RV’s are very prone to developing mold and mildew under sinks, behind drawers, and in closets. They are not ventilated like houses, so air circulation is very poor in these areas. Older RV’s often have small leaks that are not visible which compounds this problem. The best way to control unwanted dampness is by deploying a product called DampRid throughout the RV. It’s relatively inexpensive and it can help you keep your RV in tip-top shape.
I have two favorite varieties of Damprid. The first is the DampRid Refillable container.
I recommend getting the kind without the charcoal because when the white part that absorbs the water dissolves, the carbon is left behind. If you don’t change it often enough, mold can grow on the charcoal.
The other one I like is the DampRid Hanging Dehumidifier for my closets.
It took me a while before I tried this style, but when I finally bit the bullet and bought a couple, I was surprised at how much water was in my closet spaces.
If you choose to purchase an RV and are not living in it full time, be sure to use DampRid when storing your RV. Check on it once a month if possible and replace as necessary.
14. CHECK OUT THESE GREAT RV BOOKS!
In preparing for my full time RV life, I read many books to try to get a head start on what I needed to know. There were two books that I found that were head and shoulders above the rest that I would recommend.
The RVer’s Bible: Everything You Need to Know About Choosing, Using, & Enjoying Your RV by Kim and Sunny Baker is a great resource for anyone who uses an RV. It covers in great detail everything from how to choose an RV, to an explanation of how the onboard systems function, to maintenance and storage, and then some.
It is one of the more thorough books that I have read and it is well-written and engaging. Additionally, it is broken down into bite-sized chunks, so you won’t be bored to tears reading a how-to manual for RV’s. Even if you have been a casual off-and-on RV’er for years, there is probably stuff that this book can teach you. Seasoned full-timers might pick up a few tips and tricks here.
The other book I found to be very helpful is called Living Aboard Your RV by Janet and Gordon Groene.
This book addresses a number of scenarios unique to full-timers such as how to transition to RV life full-time, choosing your RV, how to full-time with pets, safety and security, and how to get full-timers insurance. If you are thinking about becoming a full-timer, this is a great place to get started.