We confess: The entire TravelAwaits team enjoys daydreaming about amazing North American RV trips. But a few of us have never rented a rig before.
While we’ve got the skinny on picking the best RV and campground for your trip and are eager to put our RV renter’s checklist to good use, we decided we needed to ask seasoned RVers for their hard-earned lessons on the things you really need to know before renting an RV for the first time. The insights they share do not disappoint.
1. Don’t Do This With The Toilet
Kelly Beasley of Camp Addict told us, “Be careful not to have the overhead fan in the bathroom on when you flush. It will suck the smell right out of the toilet and into the RV. You will regret that one right away!”
Izzy Nicholls of The Gap Decaders told a related (and far more eventful) story that will drive home the importance of knowing what all the indicator lights, especially those in the bathroom, mean before hitting the road.
“Years ago, we thought it would be great to try out the van life and rent a motorhome in the UK. It was becoming a really cool thing to do. We wanted to pretend that was us for a couple of weeks. We had no idea what we were doing at all and didn’t really think through the whole self-sustaining thing -- you know, that thing where you carry around all your waste in tanks until you can empty them?”
“A few days in,” she recounted, “a little light was winking at us from behind the toilet. Green lights are okay, right? We waited for the light to turn red and then pulled out the small tank, which in Europe they remove and take to a special point for emptying. As we pulled out the cassette, the lid, no longer being held in place, popped off and three days worth of fermenting contents flew out with force and covered us. We stood, unfortunately with our mouths open, looking at each other in disbelief for a few moments, trying to understand why we were dripping with sewage. The smell was indescribable, but it was nothing compared to the embarrassment as we trundled the cassette, on its little wheels, to the toilet-emptying point covered in bits of decomposing toilet paper, smelling like a public water closet that hadn’t been cleaned for months. We found out later that the green light means Empty now; the red light means Beware of an explosion!”
Now, thanks to Izzy, you will not forget to ask the RV rental company or owner what each and every indicator light means well in advance!
2. Watch Your Clearance
Kelly also said, “There might be bridges along your route that you can't fit under. Check your route for low clearance before you go.”
This article suggests seven apps that warn users about low clearances. Experiment with them before hitting the road to see which works best for you.
3. You’ll Be Driving More Slowly
Gary Michaels of Off Grid Spot told us, “Most of us use Google maps to plan out our route, which is great, however when driving an RV, particularly if you’re renting and are an RV beginner, you're going to be driving more slowly than Google might expect. So on a long trip, don't be surprised to arrive at your destination quite a bit later. Take this into account, especially if you want to avoid driving at night. It’s no fun driving around in pitch dark looking for an RV park you expected to arrive at two hours ago.” (More on this in Thing To Know 11.)
4. Make Sure You’ll Have What You Need To Stay Cozy
Rodrigo Sanchez of The Jetsetting Family told us, “Back in March, we went on a 12-night campervan trip across the South Island of New Zealand. It was beautiful! But the first night was a little rough, to be honest. It turns out, the campervan company didn't provide all of the required bedding, so we were short two pillows and blankets, which for a family of four is a pretty big deal, especially when you are in a remote location near the mountains with no access to a bedding store on a cold autumn night.”
The lesson they learned? “Always double-check that everything is provided in your camper or motorhome rental! This is especially important if you’re heading to remote destinations. On our trip, we had to drive an hour back into town to pick up bedding, which put us behind schedule on our road trip.”
Another alternative? Bring some extra bedding. I already have a favorite pillow, but Big Blanket Co’s tremendously big blankets are definitely at the top of my staying-cozy-in-an-RV packing list.
5. Set A Timer When Flushing The Black Tank
Christina Pate of Travels with Ted has lived in a fifth wheel with her husband, Justin; her cat, Mr. Man; and her dog -- you guessed it -- Ted, for four years. She told us she and Justin did a lot of online research before buying and moving into their rig, but neither of them had ever rented or towed one before, and they made a lot of rookie mistakes during their first year of travel. “One lesson we learned the hard way is to always set a timer when you are flushing the black tank.”
Why? “After emptying the black tank, you are supposed to fill it back up with fresh water and dump again to prevent buildup and clogs.”
“During our first year on the road,” Christina confessed, “we took the dog for a walk around the RV park and returned to an overflowing toilet. We had completely forgot that we were flushing the tanks. Oops! Fortunately, we caught the mistake before much water had leaked out, and we had a wet vac on hand to clean up the puddle. If we had gone just a few minutes longer, we could have flooded our whole RV. Now we set a five-minute timer with an alarm every time we turn on the hose.” Good thinking!
6. Ask What Cleanup Equipment Is On Board
Christina’s tale of toilet-watery woe inspired this entry. Be sure to ask the rental company or RV owner what cleanup equipment you’ll have access to. Is there a wet vac (or any type of vacuum) on board? What about paper towels, rags, cleaning sprays, carpet cleaner, Windex, and other things many of us take for granted at home? Any one of these could come in very handy if you’re up against a mess, and if they won’t be available as part of the rental, you might consider packing them for a little peace of mind.
7. A Basic Understanding Of Physics Is Essential
The Ski Girl Christine Wang told us she’s spent many days behind the wheel of an RV crisscrossing the country and having a blast while doing it.
“As far as rookie mistakes go, a few things come to mind.” First up for Christine: “Tail swing is something I had no idea about until I started driving an RV, and completely taking out a street sign in San Fransisco was my crash course into this RV-physics lesson.”
“Many RVs will have a tail swing when you are making a hard turn,” Christine explained. “This means that the rear end of your rig will swing out farther into whatever side you are turning away from than where your RV currently sits or rolls. You need to compensate for this tail swing and be careful not to hit any obstacles in your way.”
“In my case,” she told us, “I made a hard left hand turn to get out of a parking spot. By cranking the wheel all the way and hitting the gas, the tail swing of my RV moved towards the curb and completely bent a parking sign in half. Not a major accident but a booboo for sure!”
8. Driving An RV Will Feel Different
“These vehicles can be big, unwieldy, and great wind-catchers,” Matthew Brown of Still as Life told us. “If you have a crosswind, you will get blown around, and if you are on the road, it can be harder to drive. They are like big sails. It takes a bit to get used to handling them.” And that’s even when you’re not up against tail swing issues!
9. You Have To Batten Down The Hatches
While battening down the hatches was once the purview of sailors preparing a ship to weather rough and stormy seas, Christine says rookie RVers always need to do the same, and that for them, this means securing all loose items, drawers, cupboards, cooking utensils, “and anything that might fall, crash, or roll around once you start to drive.”
“I always love to shout the order in my best pirate impression so my crew of passengers takes heed and gets everything secure,” Christine told us.
“We once had an entire bottle of grenadine hit the ground and explode because it was not secure. If you’re not familiar with this substance” -- we are, thank you Shirley Temples! -- “you know it’s a sticky red mess. It ended up all over my friend who was riding along, and it looked like she was covered in blood. But it tasted a lot better!”
Our takeaway: Batten down the hatches and pack an extra bottle of your favorite mixer. Like any good pirate, make sure to stash it somewhere secure!
10. Pack With Your Pets In Mind
On the road, anything could happen. And in RV parks and campgrounds, things that are less likely than they were back home can definitely happen. This goes for you and any pets who might be along for the RV ride. Kate Moore of Parked in Paradise suggests packing for the worst, which, in her dog’s case, was getting sprayed by a skunk.
“Our dog was tied up less than 10 feet from the camper, and she still managed to get herself sprayed by a skunk!” Kate told us. “This happened at 8 p.m., and I had to wait at the campground with a stinky dog while my husband drove to the nearest drug store to get cleaning supplies” (see how this tip relates to Thing To Know 6, above?). “We tried our best to clean her,” Kate said,” but the whole camper smelled like skunk!”
“Needless to say, the second time she got sprayed on one of our trips, we were prepared!” Kate recommends that if you’re cruising with a dog in tow, you always pack a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and a box of baking soda. She uses the following mixture to clean her poor pooch and suggests you be prepared to make a batch in your own hour of need:
- 1 quart hydrogen peroxide
- 1/4 cup baking soda
- 1 tsp liquid dish soap
Our noses and rental RV owners thank you, Kate!
11. Get To Your Campsite Early In The Day
Josh Thompson is a full-time traveler with Dueling Journeys. He’s well adjusted to living and navigating in a 30-foot Airstream trailer, but he says one piece of advice he’d give someone new to RVing is to arrive at your campsite or location early in the day.
“There’s nothing worse than trying to park your RV in the dark with little visibility. Most campsites and parking spots are tight and have obstacles -- trees, poles, et cetera -- on either side. We learned the hard way on our second trip. Due to getting lost, we had to back in our RV in the pitch black. On top of it being dark, there were trees on both sides of the extremely narrow spot, which ended up taking us twice as long and was even more stressful. Planning ahead and leaving earlier in the day will decrease the odds of parking in the dark, making your RV experience more enjoyable.”
RV enthusiast Zachary Stafford of Visa-Vis Travel seconded this point. He told us no one wants to deal with the hassles of settling in at night, “when you are tired, hungry, and just plain sick of driving.” He has a hard and fast rule of finding a camping spot by 3 p.m. “This will give you a chance to settle in, relax, and make dinner, have a drink, and watch the sun set without stress.”
12. Overpacking Can Cause A Lot Of Headaches
Okay, we may have suggested you pack a wet vac in Thing To Know 6, but that depends on your interpretation of Be prepared. Steph Young, founder and writer of CampingCooks.com told us, “Overpacking can cause a lot of headaches -- especially when traveling with a group.”
“The first time I rented an RV with all of my girlfriends, we learned a valuable lesson about the importance of coordinating our packing lists! Our RV was overflowing with clothes, snacks, and other redundant gear. One would think we were packing for a three-month trip rather than a week of camping. At the end of the trip, we took back a fair amount of clean clothes and stocked up our pantries with provisions.”
Steph suggests you find a published packing list that resonates with your needs. “It’s super easy to bring stuff you don’t need, and it’s only going to get in the way after a certain point.”
13. Gas Mileage Must Be Taken Into Consideration When Budgeting
This astute Thing To Know comes from Flyparks digital marketing specialist Alice Bedward. “One of the first things you’ll learn when driving your newly rented RV is that their gas tanks are huge! Many RV fuel tanks hold 50 gallons or more.” She also pointed out that “gas prices tend to gradually rise in the spring and peak in late summer when people drive more frequently and go on vacation.”
“However,” she said, “there are a few simple ways to get a little more bang for your buck when refueling. Try to avoid gas stations along busy highways, download a gas price app such as GasBuddy, pay with cash when you can, and consider signing up for a loyalty program.”
Also, don’t hesitate to ask your RV rental company or the rig’s owner candid questions about what to expect in terms of miles to the gallon so you can budget accordingly.
14. Size Does Matter
Obviously, if you’re driving a big rig without the right appreciation for its tail swing, you could take out a street sign. Or you could have a really tough time getting into a parking or camping spot. But Bianca Malata of Its All Bee Travels points out that after many years of travel, she’s come to the conclusion that you have to think about the little things, “like having a little personal space even for a few minutes.”
She learned this lesson well on a long trip exploring Iceland by campervan. “We hired a camper when, for the duration of our trip in Iceland, we would have been better off with a bigger motor home that had more facilities,” she admitted. “From having large enough storage for our luggage, cooking facilities, sitting and sleeping area as well as somewhere to refresh.”
“We were on the road for nearly two weeks and the camper just did not cut it! Getting a change of clothes in and out of the little compartments took a fight, being on the road for so long and in remote areas and with the poor weather meant that you ended up having to make a cup of tea in the rain or wait until you found a cafe. This kind of defeats the purpose, particularly when you were hoping this way of travel would save you some money while exploring an expensive country like Iceland.”
“Yes, this trip was certainly one full of rookie mistakes,” she said. “Though in summary, it has taught my husband and me some lessons as we plan a trip around Scotland after lockdown has ended -- via a decent-sized RV for sure.”
Zachary put this a little more succinctly, really driving the point home. “Know what you need,” he told us. “We found that it’s essential for us to be able to stand up. It’s easier to put your pants on that way.”
15. Never Turn Down This Type Of Help
“If your partner asks if you need help backing out of a spot, always, always, always say yes,” Zachary told us. “We were in New Zealand at a campground when this question was posed to me. I said ‘Nah, I can see.’ Then bang. I backed directly into the building that housed the shower and toilets for the campground. Everybody stared and gawked and I looked at the V-shaped dent in the side and went to the owner and explained what happened. They were so surprised that I came clean that they waved it off.”
16. Always Be Honest About Any Damage
This Thing To Know comes from Zachary, and he’s speaking from a place of experience. Obviously, it goes for communications with the RV rental company, RV owner, property managers, and beyond. Just be honest. And be insured. (More on that in Thing To Know 19!)
17. Don’t Rush
Liz Smith, founder and president of Peanuts or Pretzels, paints a vivid picture with this cautionary tale. “Thinking back to the first trip my husband and I took in our RV, I can recall one specific situation that many first-timers may encounter,” she told us. “First of all, my husband and I were both a tad nervous when we took our first RV out for a trip. We did our best to be extra careful. However, situations come up that you can't always be prepared for when maneuvering the vehicle.”
“We had been driving for a few days and were starting to feel comfortable. He had parked the RV in a dirt lot while we went on a hike. When we came back, there were some cars blocking part of the way and I said I would guide him backing up. He wanted to just pull up and around some bushes, and I said, ‘No, there's not a good clearance for you around it. Best to back up.’”
“Well, let's just say he started to get flustered with the up-and-back situation as I tried to carefully guide him. So he decided to do it the faster way and drive around this bush himself. Not surprising, he misjudged the turn and the RV’s back tires started going over these giant bushes! It started to get a little stuck and he freaked out. The RV was tipped a little and so he decided just to punch the gas. Let's just say, these large bushes, which were more like small trees, were decimated. Our RV was scratched all the way down the side from tip to tail. And my husband was a bit traumatized.”
“The moral of the story,” Liz told us, “is never to rush to do something in an RV, and always take your time to figure out the situation. You just can’t maneuver them like cars sometimes, and there will be obstacles. The great thing is if you have others with you, they can be your eyes and ears and help guide you.” (Refer to Thing To Know 15!)
“It's all about teamwork, staying calm, and assessing the situation carefully.”
18. Leveling Matters
Melanie Musson is an auto insurance expert who writes and researches for AutoInsuranceEZ.com and is a longtime fan of RVing with her family. For over 10 years, they’ve “loved every second of their camping adventures together,” and she had a few tips to share. First, she said, “When you set up camp, you may think your RV is good enough in terms of being level. Your body is used to walking on level surfaces, though, and even if your RV is a little tilted, you’ll feel off kilter every time you walk through your camper. It can even become a fall hazard.”
“A concrete pad at a campground makes your job of leveling fairly easy,” Melanie told us. “Dry camping, however, can prove much more difficult.”
If you know you’re going to need help with leveling, and especially if you plan on boondocking, you’ll want to check out these RV essentials: eight tools and gadgets you didn’t know you needed.
19. Insurance Isn’t Optional
Melanie also told us, “If you don’t have a private policy that you know will cover your rented RV, the rental agency will offer you an insurance policy. You can’t afford to be financially liable if you wreck the RV. Insurance will have your back, but you need to purchase a policy” -- or at least ensure your current insurance policy has you covered.
20. Seeing It All Isn’t The Goal
Becca Borawski Jenkins, a full-time RVer and editor at FinanceBuzz told us her biggest mistake when she started RVing full time three years ago was moving too fast. And not just in the way that involves driving over trees (see Thing To Know 17 above).
“When you get in an RV and you have endless freedom,” she told us, “it makes you want to do and see everything. That freedom can make it hard to choose a direction, so you try to go everywhere. But if you follow that instinct, you can end up creating a lot of stress and your vacation can become completely hectic. You spend one night in a town, you try to see everything in it at high speed, and then you’re back on the road in the morning. After a few days, you don’t even remember where you are and you’re exhausted.”
Her advice: “Resist the urge to see and do everything. Remember that choosing to RV is about slowing down and seeing the ground truth. Take your time and don’t feel like you’re missing out if you spend a few days or even a week in one place. Spend the afternoon lounging outside your RV and enjoying the fresh air instead of trying to hit all the local attractions if that’s what you feel like doing. You can always take more trips in the future, and by slowing down, you might even enjoy it so much that you really will go on more RV adventures instead of burning out on your first trip.”
Nowadays, Becca and her husband spend a few months at a time in any given place, and that slower pace makes all the difference for them in truly being able to enjoy each day in their RV.
21. Road Trip Itineraries Are A Great Place To Start
If you’ve found an RV that’s inspired your latest travel daydreams and nod in agreement when you read reasons to add an RV trip to your travel bucket list, then it’s time to get planning. And while RVing and road tripping are sometimes treated like different sports, here at TravelAwaits, we’re confident that our expert-recommended road trip itineraries are a great place to start. Whether you RV from Dubuque to Des Moines, Detroit to Mackinac Island, or Blaine to Dana Point, these road trips will allow you to enjoy your vacation at the speed of RV.