Travel

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

From finding a campsite to keeping clean.

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

After months of isolation, summer travel season is upon us. And as travel restrictions ease up, all signs are pointing to a vacation season defined by the great American road trip. And at the center of it is the humble land yacht: The RV.  A whopping 46 million Americans plan to take an RV road trip this summer, according to Ipsos. In an era where hotel stays can cause tremendous anxiety, it makes perfect sense: An RV is basically a motel on wheels, and you alone control the breakfast buffet, guest list, and zip code. 

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 amazing 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'll happen). Whether you’re renting an RV or buying a motor home, here's everything you need to know before you hit the road.

MORE:  Before you go, drop a pin on the most scenic drives in America

First, figure out the right RV for you

First, you need to figure out which type of recreational vehicle is right for you. You've essentially got three options. 

Camper vans -- AKA Class B motorhomes -- are cheaper, more discreet, and an easier way to segue into the lifestyle, but aren't usually equipped. This is especially clutch in the pandemic, since many public restrooms are closed. 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... and operating one can be like driving a condo. 

To rent or to buy

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

If you’re buying into the lifestyle for the long run, expect to drop an anvil of cash. RVs are in serious demand this summer. If you can find a good deal on a  used one, that's also a solid option, but 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. Like buying any vehicle, check the mileage before buying and get it inspected by somebody who knows what they’re doing.

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

Plan your route, but be ready to change course

One night, we were racing toward a park on our itinerary 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 under the stars, and I was so glad we opted to shift our plans.

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

“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.

MORE: These are the weirdest roadside attractions in America

Choosing the right campground for your needs

If you're reading this now, chances are you're not going to easily find a campsite in a national or state park. They exist, but in the summer of COVID, they're in extreme demand. The likelihood of just rolling up to a panoramic site in Yellowstone without a reservation is pretty slim.

RV Parks and campgrounds are also hot commodities, but might be the safer bet and easier to book. They're also absolutely clutch when you have kids. 

Soulful RV Family -- comprised of Keith and Tia Sims along with their three kids aged 11,10, and 8 -- spend over 100 days a year traveling and homeschooling. Before the trip, they pinpoint activities, historical sites, and their home base.  

With three active kids, the family requires the key amenities that campgrounds offer, including showers, coin laundry, and sewers for pumping out shower and toilet tanks. But when they first started living in their motorhome six years ago, the Sims said 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.

"We aren’t stopping in the middle of nowhere at Billy Bob RV park.”

"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.

The Sims recommend RV Trip Wizard ($39/year) for finding a good campground, and it allows you to map out your trip. 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. 

MORE: Is your favorite national park even open? Check here to find out. 
 

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

Free places to stay are everywhere (if you know where to look)

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.  

To find a boondocking site, hit up Free Campsites, which maps out spots recommended by other travelers, or iOverlander, a free app that lists boondocking spots in addition to other key amenities. 

Meanwhile, Boondockers Welcome ($50/year) 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.

How to prepare for a 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. And if you're in an older rig, you're bound to have problems. 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!”

If you do need a mechanic, don’t be fooled into thinking you can only go to a place that specializes in RVs -- those places tend to book up months in advance. A regular mechanic will usually do, especially if they deal with trucks, as they’ll need to hoist up your rig.

Time to talk about personal 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 tools to do this, but before you hit the road make sure your hose doesn’t have any holes in it (I learned this the hard way). Just make sure you're pumping it in the right place (here's a handy guide) and not going full Cousin Eddie in the storm drain. 

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 you can use too. 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. 

MORE: America's most scenic roadways, according to truckers

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.