Traveling by RV? Here's What to Know Before You Hit the Road

Traverse America in the noble land yacht.

The world is your campground | Andrey Armyagov/Shutterstock
The world is your campground | Andrey Armyagov/Shutterstock

Among the once-dorky things we reassessed last year, RVs were second only to sweatpants. Long the domain of retired Boomers, the humble recreational vehicle became a mobile savior in pandemic times. In the summer of 2020, a whopping 46 million Americans were estimated to have hit the road, according to Ipsos. Suddenly land yachts were embraced across generations and social strata. 

When I took my first big road trip—a whirlwind four-monther from Toronto to San Diego in my partner’s 1987 Chevy RV—it was one of the most incredible journeys of my life. But it was also one of the most challenging. There was so much I wish I knew beforehand: how to map out a route, where to camp, and what the hell to do when we found ourselves broken down in the middle of nowhere (it will happen). 

Whether you’re a weekend warrior renting an RV or leaning into full-time life on the road, here's everything you need to know before you hit the road.

Choosing the right RV

You've essentially got three options in choosing your hotel on wheels. 

Camper vans —AKA Class B motorhomes—are cheaper, easy to drive, discreet, and offer an simpler way to segue into the lifestyle. Unfortunately, they aren’t typically equipped with toilets, which is especially detrimental in the absence of public restrooms. Also, it's really tough to stand up inside. 

Class C motorhomes are recognizable by the cab over the driver and the boxy back. These usually have a toilet, a shower, a little kitchenette with a fridge and stove, and are commonly available as rentals. 

Finally, Class A motorhomes are the bus-like behemoths with stuff like TVs, multiple beds, and lounging areas. These tend to cost more than an actual house and are expensive to rent. Driving one is like piloting a condo down the highway. 

If you’re just testing out the RV lifestyle for a weekend or even a week or two, renting is the way to go. RVShare, the Airbnb of RVs, is a good place to start, while nationwide companies like Cruise America and Road Bear RV will set you up with a land yacht. 

If you’re buying into the lifestyle, expect to drop an anvil of cash, especially with RVs in such high demand. If you can find a good deal on a used one, be prepared for it to be banged up. Aesthetic problems like a loose door or broken stove can be fixed, but don’t compromise with the mechanics under the hood. Check the mileage before committing, and get it inspected by somebody who knows what they’re doing.

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We let go of a lot of norms in 2020: like shaking hands, wearing pants, and (most importantly) working in an office. You’re no longer tied to a commute — so why should you be tied to one place? Enter: Landing, the startup that’s reinventing apartment living. Thanks to its network of fully furnished (and unfurnished) apartments across the country, you can have the freedom to live (and work) practically anywhere. With perks like a 24/7 online member support, fast and easy lease transfers, and waived security deposits, you’ll have more flexibility than ever before, too. 

Don't be afraid to throw plans out the window | Direk Yiamsaensuk/Shutterstock

Charting your course, and embracing chaos

One night, we were racing toward a park in New Mexico, but realized we couldn't get there before the gates closed. Dejected, we turned back… but then I looked around: We were surrounded by breathtaking mesas, so we decided to wild camp for the night. It was complete and utter bliss beneath the stars. 

Point is, you can't see it all. You should plan a route, sure, but leave yourself open for those spectacular spontaneous nights.

“It’s good to have a rough idea of what you want to do so you can prepare, and you also don't want to miss anything that could be really special,” said my RV guru (and partner) Stephanie Foden, “but at the same time, you want to leave room in your plan for the random river that you come across and end up camping out for two nights because you're just so captivated by it. That’s what really makes it special: the unknown and spontaneity of it.”

Google Maps is an obvious way to plan your trip, but it doesn’t allow for more than 10 points for some reason. We use a site called Roadtrippers ($29.99/year), which allows you to plan your route and highlights cool stuff to see along the way, including roadside attractions. And, of course, to change your plans on a whim.

Finding good—and inclusive—RV parks

With all the people hitting the road, the likelihood of just rolling up to a panoramic site in a place like Yellowstone is increasingly slim. You might have better luck with an RV park… especially if you have kids in tow. 

Keith and Tia Sims spend 100 days a year traveling and homeschooling their three elementary-aged kids, chronicling their adventures as Soulful RV Family. With children in tow, the family requires the key amenities that campgrounds offer, including showers, coin laundry, and sewers for pumping out shower and toilet tanks. 

When they first started living in their motorhome six years ago, the Sims didn’t see other people of color at campgrounds and felt unwelcome. 

“I know with racial profiling in this country when white people see Blacks pulling into a campground, they have already formed opinions and bias on who we might be and why we are there,” said Keith, who happens to be a former offensive lineman for the Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins.

"It’s definitely gotten better,” he added. “Now, 99% of the people I’ve met and spoken with have been great.”

Still, the family doesn’t take any chances. “My family’s safety is number one!” he said. “We aren’t stopping in the middle of nowhere at Billy Bob RV Park.”

The Sims love highly-rated campgrounds like Kampgrounds of America (KOA) or Jellystones that have pools, good playgrounds, and other family-friendly features like mini-golf. “Some of the resorts, which are awesome, aren’t as kid-friendly,” Keith added.

They recommend RV Trip Wizard ($39/year) for finding a good campground and trip mapping. Another popular tool is AllStays, a $10 iOS app that lists sights, campgrounds, and other helpful stuff for your RV such as where to pump out or fill your propane tank. 

RV Parks can offer more than just place to park | Arina P Habich/Shutterstock

Scoring a free place to camp

One night on our trip, we fell asleep to the swooshes of the Pacific Ocean on the California coast. Another, we parked in the driveway of a friendly tomato farmer close to the Las Vegas Strip. The grand total price of these stays? A big fat $0. 

Before I started in the RV, I thought we’d be hopping from campground to campground, but I quickly realized that we’d drain our bank accounts. So we ended up doing a lot of wild camping, or what’s known in the RV world as boondocking. Turns out, you can always stay on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. If you're in a pinch, you can also stay in many WalMart parking lots.  

Free Campsites maps out spots recommended by other travelers. iOverlander, meanwhile, is a free app that lists boondocking spots in addition to other key amenities. 

Then there’s Boondockers Welcome ($50/year), which is like CouchSurfing for RVers. It links you up with hosts who are happy to let you park on their property overnight. We ended up staying in somebody’s driveway using this platform and it was a great way to meet a local—they even let us use their shower.

Preparing for the inevitable breakdown

This is where renting gets an advantage: if anything goes awry, you just call up the agency and they'll get you the help you need. And if you've got a membership with a roadside-assistance program like AAA or Good Samaritan, you can call in the cavalry. 

If you're driving without a safety net, you're on your own. Just ask Jessy Muller, who has been on the road since October 2017 and, judging by her Instagram, A Girl and Her Commander, spends a lot of time fixing her 24-foot 1978 Dodge Commander.

Muller can’t afford to take her RV to mechanics all the time, so she fixes it with her own two hands. She recommends keeping a basic toolkit—including screwdrivers, pliers, and a multimeter to test electricity—on hand. Between a solid toolbox and some Google prowess, she's been able to keep herself moving.

 “I learned how to fix my rig by diving in and getting dirty,” said Muller, author of Vanlife: Your Guide to Becoming a Modern Nomad. “I think all it really takes is curiosity, a willingness to learn, some tools, and a lot of patience!”

OK, let’s talk about poop and hygiene

Having a toilet on wheels means you get to experience the joys of pumping grey water (shower waste) and black water (toilet waste) into the sewer. Your motorhome should come with the necessary tools, but before you hit the road make sure your hose doesn’t have any holes in it (I learned this the hard way). And do not, under any circumstances, go full Cousin Eddie and pump into a storm drain: here's a handy guide to where to get rid of waste. 

As for showering, folks with camper vans are advised to pack baby wipes or a camping shower that can be set up when you stop. If you want a quality shower, campgrounds are your best bet, but some truck stops like Love’s and Pilot Flying J’s have coin showers. Laundry can usually be done wherever showers are found, but I’ve found plain old laundromats are great every so often—you can easily give your rig a wash with a bucket and use their Wi-Fi while you're there.

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Joel Balsam is a freelance journalist and travel guidebook writer whose work can be found in National Geographic Travel, Time, The Guardian, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure. Follow him @joelbalsam.