Even though we spent almost two years RVing full-time, I hardly feel like an expert on the subject. Partly because Chris has done the bulk of the research into finding our two motorhomes and their physical upkeep, plus 100% of the driving. But also, the RVer blogs and social media accounts I’ve been following have a ton of great content I couldn’t begin to replicate. (I’ve shared my favorites below.)
However, recent questions from friends interested in RVing for the first time inspired me to write this post. Like any other new endeavor, it’s easy to succumb to information paralysis and uncertainty about how/where to start. My goal here is to share tips learned from our own experience, along with links to resources with more in depth information to help plan a first RV trip.
The advantages of RVing have become more pronounced during a pandemic: an RV is self-contained with kitchen, bathroom, and sleeping space. You can minimize interactions with other people and indoor environments. This is not breaking news… there’s been a good amount of press reporting on the growing demand. Which is something to keep in mind, as you may need to plan further in advance to find a suitable rental and available camping spots.
Let’s start with the basics: Types of RVs
- Class A: Looks like a motorcoach with the flat front, big windshield, and bus driver steering wheel. This is what we have. Class A’s are spacious and comfortable, but the larger size can be a challenge to drive and need additional planning to find suitable campsites, routes, and pitstops.
- Class B: #vanlife. Great for a couple people, although there are intrepid families traveling in customized vans. Class B’s – also known as camper or sprinter vans – are the best option in terms of ease of driving and parking, but they have limited interior space. If there is a bathroom, it is most likely a wet bath.
- Class C: this is the kind you see with “1-800-rent me” written across the side, with the overcab sleeping area. Great for families, providing ample interior space but more compact and easier to handle than a Class A.
- Travel trailer: tow hitch RVs, from tiny teardrops to vintage Airstreams to contemporary lightweight models. If you have a vehicle with towing capabilities, this gives you the freedom of having something to drive around while keeping the trailer stationary.
- Fifth wheel: similar to a trailer, but with the tow secured directly in a truck bed, allowing for more stable driving capabilities as well as more interior space in the RV.
- Pop-up Trailer: Also known as pop-up camper or pop-up tent. Easier to tow than a trailer, a pop-up is a closer experience to actual tent camping, with the benefit of being elevated off the ground. Similar to Class B’s, space and toilet/shower facilities are limited.
RV rental resources
There are different options for picking up the RV, having it delivered to your home, or even delivered directly to your final destination. If you’re just looking for a getaway, then honestly having the RV ready at your site is a great option, without the hassle of driving and setting it up. But if you’re looking for the full RV experience, or planning a multi-location trip, then having it delivered to your home can be worth the extra money for the convenience of being able to get all your stuff inside and organized without having to pack/unpack from your car.
We don’t have experience with their service, but see plenty of these rented Class C’s in our travels (and the people with them seem happy!). They may not be as cool as some of the ones available direct from owner, but they’re good for standardized options (including cleaning, sterilization, and household items), and it’s worth taking a look for availability and price comparison.
Types of Camping
There’s a huge variety of camping options, from private luxury RV parks for $100 per night, national and state campgrounds for $10 per night, free public lands, and everything in between. (Per night rates vary greatly by amenities and region, but on average we’ve paid $30-40/night for full hookups at private campgrounds.)
Boondocking / dry / dispersed / free camping offers the most in terms of wide open spaces and social isolation – and budget! But “dry” means your RV is self-sustaining – there’s no water, electric, or sewer connections. This is not our area of expertise, but the websites shared below have helpful info on boondocking and how to find designated free camping on public land.
Hookups is another RVing term that has nothing to do with drunken, single campers. “Full hookups” means water, electric, and sewer connections at the campsite. “Partial hookups” have electric, sometimes water, but no sewer. If there’s no sewer at your site, you’ll be introduced to the central “dump station”. (There are lots of YouTube videos on the subject. You’re welcome!)
Private campgrounds/RV parks can offer more in terms of amenities – store, laundry, pool, playground, activities – although keep in mind that these may be closed or limited during the pandemic. Private campgrounds can run the gamut from glorified parking lots, with RVs crammed together, to luxury resorts with spacious sites and cushy amenities.
State/regional/national parks are generally in rustic and natural settings, sometimes downright spectacular. For the most part overnight fees are less expensive than at private campgrounds, and sites with hookups may be limited. Many park campgrounds have a first-come-first-serve policy; if reservations are allowed they tend to fill up quickly, especially in the more popular destinations.
Below are images from a wide range of public and private campgrounds we’ve visited.
Yes, a camping trip is the perfect opportunity to immerse yourself in nature and unplug. But if you need to be able to get online (or just want to; no judgement here), then cell service is going to be a factor. First of all: many campgrounds offer Wifi, but the only thing you can depend on is that it’s going to be inadequate. With few exceptions, we’ve been able to use our Verizon hotspot to connect online while we work remotely.
The need for reliable internet is a big reason why we book private campgrounds over more remote parks that have weak to no cell signal.
(Pro tip from Chris: Cell service inside National Parks including their campgrounds is essentially non-existent and for good reason; better to take in the sights instead of having your or your kids’ heads down buried in electronics. However if, like me, you have to connect after tourism hours for work, we’ve found it more convenient to find RV parks just outside the parks where cell service is better.)
How we find campgrounds
- Google maps search for both “campground” and “RV park”
- Campendium.com: comprehensive user reviews, including cell service. Ability to search by type of camping (e.g. boondocking vs full hookups), with up to date info on what’s open.
- Recreation.gov – for BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and NPS (National Park Service) campgrounds including online reservations where available.
Essentials: Use Maps satellite view
Check out the campgrounds in advance, aside from their website: Are the sites spaced out or crammed together? Are there trees and green space? Is the campground close to a major road, or railroad tracks? Are the sites Pull Through or Back In? It may not make backing the RV into a site for the first time any easier, but at least you can be prepared! And don’t hesitate to ask for help backing in; everyone’s been a newbie and most RVers are happy to share their hard won expertise.
Even if you’re able to make a reservation online, it’s still a good idea to call in advance to understand the current COVID-19 policies when it comes to checking in and what facilities may be closed. We always ask about cell service too.
The below images are from the same campground at Twin Lakes Resort in Bridgeport, CA. This was a small overflow site down the road from the main campground. The RVs are close together, but all face out to expansive views.
- Keep it small
As much as we love our giant Class A, there’s a steep learning curve in how to drive, operate, and set up/break down camp. I recommend looking for the smallest RV you’re comfortable with in terms of sleeping arrangements. Ideally, you’ll be spending most of your time outdoors exploring or just relaxing at your campsite. Another thing to keep in mind is that the longer your RV is, the more limited sites may be, especially at 35 feet or longer.
(Pro tip from Chris: Many National Park campgrounds cannot accommodate RVs longer than 35 feet, and some restrict length to 27 feet.)
- Keep it close to home
It can be very tempting to look at a map, think in terms of car driving distances, and add in destinations. But we’ve found that driving over 200 miles and moving every day, or even every other day, can be more stressful than enjoyable – especially for the driver.
For the first time out, and if you have a week or less, I’d think more about finding one or two destinations where you can stay put, explore locally, and enjoy the experience of RV camping without having to constantly pack up, set up, and drive long distances.
Given the surge in popularity right now along with changing restrictions, if you don’t have a particular destination in mind, try a search within a 200 mile radius to see what’s appealing and available. There are a lot of under-the-radar gems to find, it may just takes more time.
- Plan your route in advance
Compared to a car road trip where you can just plug a destination into your maps app and start driving, it’s good to view the whole route in advance with satellite, including planned pit stops that have adequate space to park and maneuver the RV. Note any narrow, winding roads, steep changes in elevation, and be prepared to take your time.
On a related note – know the height as well as the length of your RV, and be aware of height restrictions when it comes to tunnels and bridges. This is more of an issue on the east coast, where the general rule is to follow truck routes and avoid parkways.
- Figure out how it all works before you leave – and arrive before dark
Between your specific RV renter and YouTube, the more familiar you are with where things are and how they work, the more time you’ll have to relax and enjoy the RV. That includes understanding all the hidden storage space so you know what can fit where.
Even if you have an understanding of how the electric, water, and sewer hookups work, it’s no fun to have to park and set up in the dark. Departing by noon and keeping travel distance under 200 miles makes this easily achievable. It’s a lot more fun to be sitting around the campfire than messing with the sewer hose by flashlight.
- Plan your meals in advance
Once you get to your destination you’re not going to want to leave again just for milk. Especially without a tow car. Many campgrounds have stores for essentials, and some have cafes, but these may not be open during current restrictions. And even if they are open, if your goal is social isolation then you’re not going to want to be popping into stores for random items all the time.
You can start with what’s available in the RV – stove, microwave, fridge and freezer capacity – and if you already have a camp stove to bring along. I’ll be honest: as much as I aspire to it, we are not campfire chefs. We rely on simple stovetop meals, or takeout from local restaurants. If you do have a microwave available, it’s convenient to have ready meals like burritos or breakfast sandwiches available in the freezer, especially on a travel day.
(Pro tip from Chris: You must be connected to 30/50 amp shore power to use the microwave in most RV’s. It won’t run on generator or battery power.)
— DON’T FORGET THE COFFEE
— Fudge Stripe cookies are not only a great hack, they make better s’mores than the traditional graham crackers and chocolate bar with roasted marshmallow. Yeah, I said it.
- Don’t be afraid of overpacking
This is where you can take advantage of the (relative) space and convenience of RVing. You’re not limited to a suitcase that fits into an overhead bin. Bring the extra hoodie, rain jacket, and warm socks just in case. Pack enough clothes for everyone so no laundry needs to be done for at least a week. Bring multiple decks of cards and boardgames. Bring the binoculars, books, and beach towels.
When it comes to things like kitchen essentials, linens, and outdoor chairs, get a clear understanding of what is and isn’t included in your rental. I’m working on our own master checklist, let me know if you’d like a copy!
DON’T FORGET THE CHARGERS FOR ALL THE ELECTRONIC THINGS
A few of the RV/family travel blogs I enjoy for a ton of RV information and destination inspiration:
Happy trails! Feel free to leave a comment or send an email with any questions or feedback!