As we continue winding down our RV travels, I’ve been thinking a lot about just how far we’ve come. When we decided to quit our lives and go explore the country in a motorhome, we had no idea how anything worked – in terms of RVs themselves or how to travel in them. While, these days, we like to strut around like all-knowing peacocks, not so long ago, we found ourselves walking into our local town library hoping to find some version of “RVs for Dummies,” because we honestly had no idea where to even start.
Fortunately, it wasn’t long before we found some helpful websites, which led to helpful blogs, which led to helpful friends all of which guided us to some measure of competence. We also lucked out when we signed up for driving lessons with the RV Driving School and they paired us with an instructor who not only taught us how to drive, but spent hours explaining the particularities of this kind of travel and even helped us get properly outfitted to hit the road.
Since those early days, we’ve been fortunate to pick up all kinds of tips, tricks, and resources that have saved us time, money, and calls for roadside assistance. I’d also like to think they’ve helped us be “good neighbors” to the thousands of RVers we’ve camped near over the years.
I’ve mentioned several of these things in prior articles, but I figured I would put them all together in one place. So, in semi-organized form, here is some of the best advice we’ve picked up along the way, and the tips we’d pass on to new RVers just starting out:
Travel Planning and Prep
- As most people have hopefully figured out by now, if you want to go to the best places at the most popular times of year, you need to plan way ahead. Summer in Michigan and Winter in Florida – especially if you’re looking for longer stays – require plenty of advance planning and, oftentimes, a good bit of luck. All of this is pretty obvious. What was not obvious to us, and what ended up being a great piece of advice, was the importance of making reservations for other times.
Reservations can be necessary not just for Summer but for regular weekends, Spring Break season, and virtually all holidays – even the ones you may not associate with camping. In other words, it’s not just Memorial Day, July 4, and Labor Day. It’s Thanksgiving, Christmas, Presidents’ Day, Veterans Day, Easter weekend, and the entire month of March in several states (because of Spring Break).
Turns out, people camp all the damned time!
As a full-timer, it can be easy to lose track of the calendar. One of the only times we ever left a campground early was when we got stuck staying at a really cruddy RV park because it was the only place that had sites available on Presidents Day weekend. I had forgotten the holiday was coming up and by the time I went to make reservations, all the good places were booked. There was a reason this particular campground had availability. The reason was that it was creepy as hell. We left as soon as possible, but if you’re paying attention, you can avoid an experience like that entirely.
Bottom line: pay attention to the calendar and make sure your weekends and holidays are covered well in advance.
- If you can’t find a spot at your target campground, don’t despair. Technology may save the day. I’ve used Tim Watson’s program more times than I can count and it’s been fantastic. I simply enter what campground I want and what date range will work. The program then begins scanning the campground’s reservation site looking for cancellations that match my criteria. The minute a site opens up, the program notifies me by email. There are now several programs like this (Campnab is one I’ve heard of but haven’t used myself), so you won’t be the only one getting a notification, but if you’re fast (ie: have your Reserve America/state park account already set up), you can, oftentimes, snag a great site.
- Speaking of technology, it’s a good idea to download a variety of apps onto your phone and familiarize yourself with their interfaces. Allstays, RV Parky, Wind Alert, Weather Radar, Air Quality Alerts… we’ve used all of them – sometimes while in motion – to make decisions and solve problems, and each one of them has come through for us.
- On the subject of weather, when you grow up on the east coast, you get used to the idea of north equals cold and south equals warm. In other parts of the country, that information can be totally irrelevant. If real estate purchases are all about location, location, location, RV travel is all about elevation, elevation, elevation.
- When things are questionable – weather, natural disasters, civil unrest, etc. – Twitter can be really helpful. I routinely subscribe to local branches of the national weather service, local news outlets, and local government offices in the places we stay in order to keep on top of current events that might impact us. This really came in handy during the fall of 2020 when we found ourselves in the middle of some of the country’s worst wildfires and had to figure out what to do and where to go.
- Speaking of being prepared, if you’re about to jump in your car and head out to explore a remote area, you can download a custom Google map. There are tons of places in this country that don’t have cell coverage – or they may not have cell coverage from the company you use. If you’ve downloaded a map of the area before you head out, your phone GPS will still be able to track you and get you where you want to go, even without cell service. If you’ve never used this feature before and don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a quick tutorial:
- The same holds true for hiking. Most National Parks don’t have cell service, so we often use Alltrails to download our hiking maps beforehand. This way, our phone GPS can still track us on the trail. Alltrails even has a feature (with its “pro” subscription) that allows you to track your hike as you go, and if it senses you’ve made a wrong turn, it will ping your phone and tell you to check your location. Magical stuff – but it only works if you’ve prepared yourself before heading out.
How to be a Good Neighbor
Once you get to your campground, there are a number of unwritten rules you should be aware of.
- Keep yourself, your kids, and your pets off other campers’ sites. It is a huge no-no to cut through someone else’s campsite. Stay on paths, roads, and sidewalks.
- Practice “Leave No Trace.” That means, wherever you go, leave nothing behind. Hiking, camping, trash in the fire pit, whatever. Leave it better than you found it.
- If your fire is super smoky and you’re in a tight campground, put it out. No one likes having a bunch of smoke waft into their home.
- A lot of new RVs come with all kinds of crazy lighting features – undercarriage light shows, LED designer lights on the front, high intensity patio lights, etc. These can be fun and helpful when you’re hanging out outside, but if you leave them on all night – especially in otherwise dark and natural environments where people might want to stargaze – your neighbors may not appreciate it.
- Keep your dog on a leash at all times. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been walking Thor in a campground when I suddenly hear: “Oh my god, Fluffy! Come back!! No, Fluffy! Fluffy!!” And here comes Fluffy in all her glory running full speed at Thor, yelling back at her owner, “Damn girl, he FINE!!!”
None of this is good.
Always keep your dog under control.
How to Look Competent
No one wants to be the subject of neighborhood gossip. And people will definitely talk about you if you give them the chance:
To make sure you look like a pro and leave your nosy neighbors nothing to yap about, keep these tips in mind:
- Try to avoid arriving after hours. Campgrounds are oftentimes full of trees, rocks, ditches, improperly parked cars, and other assorted obstacles that can quickly wreck your day. These things are challenging enough at high noon. Don’t make your life harder by showing up after dark.
- Many people adhere to some sort of distance rules. 2-2-2 is popular: “Never travel more than 200 miles, arrive later than 2:00 p.m., or stay for less than 2 nights.” Different people use different guidelines, but the point is most experienced RVers try to avoid taking on too much. This kind of travel is physically and mentally tiring and mistakes can be costly in more ways than one. There are no points for driving further or faster than the other guy.
- Speaking of which, for the love of all that’s good and holy, please watch your speed. Our standard cruising speed is between 60 and 62MPH, and as we sit in the right lane coasting along on cruise control, we watch RV after RV go flying by us on the left. And every time they do, I think of this video:
It doesn’t matter how fancy your rig is, it doesn’t matter how great of a driver you think you are, and it doesn’t matter if you are well aware of what you’re “supposed to do” in various situations. It can take less than a second for it to all go horribly wrong, and the faster you’re going when it does, the harder it’s going to be to maintain or regain control. So, slow your roll, people!
- Speaking of tire safety, in addition to using a tire pressure monitoring system and periodically weighing your rig, you should also regularly assess your tires’ health and be ready and willing to replace them. We just recently replaced our front tires. All things being equal, they should have been fine for another year (RV tires are typically replaced based on age, not mileage), but we had some uneven wear on our front passenger side tire, the result of being out of alignment for a bit, and we just didn’t like the way it looked. So we replaced it, along with its counterpart. Did we want to plunk $1000 on the counter for a motorhome we’re planning to sell in a couple months? No. Did we want to risk killing ourselves over $1000? Also no.
- For motorhomes, make sure all your tires are on the ground or firmly on pads/blocks. Do not allow your jacks to lift your tires off the surface. They are designed for stabilization only. Here’s a a motorhome parked on a significant downward slope being held up entirely by its hydraulic jacks:
The front tires are completely off the ground.This is us in a similar situation:
Weight evenly distributed on 4 sturdy points of contact up front, and a set of trucker’s chocks in front of the back wheels – so if it all goes to hell, we’re still not going anywhere.
Which seems more sound?
- When you arrive at your campsite, before pulling into your site, do a walk around. Look up. Make sure you’re not gonna hit anything – including with your air conditioners, slides, and awning.
- Listen to me: Get a set of walkie talkies or call each-other on your phones when you’re trying to park in difficult campsites. Being in direct voice contact with one another – rather than trying to decipher hand signals in mirrors or hear one another over the din of a big truck engine from 40 feet away – will not only make parking easier, it will likely add years to your marriage.
- When it comes to set up and break down, have a routine and stick with the routine. Assume nothing. We’ve failed to secure our refrigerator door and had it fly open when we made a turn, we’ve forgotten to turn off the house A/C which caused the Auto Gen Start to fire up mid-drive, and we’ve had to replace our water regulator 3 different times because we left ours attached to the water spigot at our campsite. Slow down, focus on what you’re doing, and follow your routine.
- Always have a supply of fresh water in your water tank and at least a half tank of gas in your motorhome/truck. We’ve arrived at multiple campsites only to find the water or electric wasn’t working for one reason or another. Having plenty of water and gas onboard means we can get by on our tanks and generator for a couple days until utilities are restored.
- On a related note, we were encouraged by our driving instructor to always drive on the top half of our tank, and that advice has served us well. We’ve pulled into gas stations and found the pumps weren’t working or the place had gone out of business. If you’re driving down I-95 when that happens, it’s no big deal. If it happens when you’re in eastern Oregon, you could be SOL. If you’re used to driving on the top half of your tank, neither situation will be cause for panic.
- If you’re in a big set-up, especially if you can’t use diesel truck lanes, you can use Google Streetview to plan your fuel stops before you head out. At 55 feet long, and lacking the ability to back up when we’re towing our car, we don’t want to find ourselves in some charming small town gas station built in 1957. We want a big, soulless Shell Station located right next to the interstate where the pumps are lined up parallel with the building and there’s plenty of space to maneuver around. Thanks to the internet, when we plan our travel routes, we can easily avoid the places that won’t work and target the ones that will.
- NEVER walk away from filling your water tank or rinsing your black tank. Ever. Seriously.
- Youtube is your best friend. There’s a video for everything. From how to hook up utilities, to how to troubleshoot and repair specific mechanical problems, if it’s a question you’re asking, I guarantee someone else has asked and answered it on Youtube.
Tips for Free Camping
- Everyone knows that, historically, Walmarts have allowed RVers to stay overnight for free. Sadly, a lot of stores and towns no longer allow it. Our favorite app for figuring out whether free camping is still allowed (at Walmarts and other commercial establishments) is RV Parky. Not only will the entry clearly indicate whether overnight parking is permitted, but I’ve found the user reviews for various places tend to be pretty honest and accurate.
- Even if it’s clearly permitted, you should still walk into the store when you arrive and ask permission at the customer service desk.
- Some people will tell you you shouldn’t put your jacks down and slides out, but every time we’ve free camped, we’ve asked if it was OK, and every time we’ve asked, they’ve said yes. Just make sure you ask.
- Don’t put your awning out or set up camp chairs or do anything else that draws attention to yourself. Park away from the store – on the perimeter if possible – stay out of the way, and make a purchase to thank them for their hospitality.
- Walmarts aren’t your only option. Our personal favorite is Cabela’s, but there are many other stores that offer free overnight parking. We’ve also had good luck at several casinos which, oftentimes, have the added benefit of 24-hour security driving around.
- One piece of advice just about every experienced RVer gives to just about every new RVer – and which just about every new RVer totally ignores until they learn it the hard way – is to not try to do too much or to over-plan.
While it’s true that RV travel means you don’t have to waste time packing and unpacking while living out of hotels, and you don’t have to go out to restaurants 3 times a day, it also means you’re always going to have a laundry basket full of dirty clothes and a sink full of dirty dishes. RV travel comes with its own unique set of time consuming tasks and even completing your regular tasks can take longer when you’re on the road. Add in several days of bad weather, a 12 mile traffic backup on the interstate, and a crappy night’s sleep because your RV “resort” failed to mention the train tracks located 12 feet behind your campsite, and you’ll be wishing you went on a Carnival Cruise instead.
If you leave some flexibility and downtime in your schedule, you’ll be much happier.
- If you intend to spend more than a week visiting any given national park, consider buying an annual pass. For $80 per year, you get access to all national parks, monuments, and historic sights (Typical entry to any given park will be about $35 for the week.) Plus, you’re helping to support NPS and the awesome work they do.
- Speaking of NPS, try to hit the visitor center at any park you visit, and look for Ranger led programs to take part in. We’ve done a number of guided tours, hikes, and talks and they’ve all been worthwhile.
Do Your Own Thing
- As with all things, just because someone else likes something, doesn’t mean you will. When we first started out, I thought we’d be installing solar panels, lithium batteries, and cell boosters – all the things you need for boondocking – because that’s what all the blogs I’d been reading talked about. About a year in, we finally made our way out west and spent a couple days dry camping by ourselves on BLM land in eastern California:
It was there that we had the following conversation:
Kevin: Now what do we do?
Kevin: This kinda sucks.
Laura: This does kinda suck. Wanna go to Vegas instead?
And thus ended our explorations of desert boondocking. Fortunately, we realized it was not our gig before we dropped thousands of dollars on solar equipment.
The point is, you have to figure out what works for you, and just because someone else likes something, doesn’t mean you will. So, our advice is to wait on any big upgrades, campground memberships, or travel commitments until you get a feel for your own travel style.
- Speaking of other blogs, there’s a ton of RV related content these days making it more important than ever to view things with a critical eye. I know, I know… you watched this youtube video where they swear you can just jump in your home on wheels and find some amazing place to stay every night and not even have to pay for the privilege. You also probably watched a TV commercial where Jennifer Aniston used Aveeno lotion and you thought, “if I use Aveeno lotion, I will look like Jennifer Aniston.” And you know how that turned out.
Look, social media influencers don’t make money by telling you their lives are a pain in the ass. And it’s not that their lives are always a pain in the ass, but it makes for much better content when they’re talking about panoramic vistas and idyllic family adventures rather than the time they had a massive hissyfit because they were just so. sick. of. this. shit. I promise – every long-term RVer out there has had that meltdown at least once. Some of us have it regularly!!
OK, I’m pushing 4,000 words and I’m tired of hearing myself type. I’m sure I’m missing tons of great tips. If you’ve got any, feel free to drop them in the comments. And if you vehemently disagree with anything I’ve said here, keep it to yourself. Just kidding – share away.
Next Up… Answering the question we get the most.