Congratulations! You've marked an item off your bucket list: BUY RV. Visions of roaming the country self-contained and waking to the murmur of ripples lapping on the lakeshore at your door excite you. The freedom of the open road beckons and you can't wait to answer the call. Before you hop in and head out, here are a few things that will make those first trips in your new RV a lot easier.
1. Learn how to drive it
We're assuming you already know how to drive. (If not, you might want to rethink the whole owning a motor home thing.) You will need to learn how to make your new home on wheels go where you want/need it to go: how to turn a corner without jumping the curb, how to fuel up without knocking over the gas pump, and most of all, how to back up. You and your partner will need to work out hand signals. (No, not THAT kind.) Communication is vital. Drive to the nearest oversized parking lot and practice, practice, practice. That way, you won't take out the fire ring, the picnic table, or your neighbor's tent when you try to back into that lovely beachside spot.
2. Start close to home
Although the idea of exploring Alaska in your dream machine is appealing, unless you live in Fairbanks, you should stick close to home at first. Find a campground with full hookups on a nearby lake or in a state park. Although the salesman probably showed you the features (take a video of this walkthrough) and you've spent a few hours playing with your new toy in the driveway, it's different at a campsite. Arrive early, so you have plenty of time before dark to get set up. Level the camper, connect to the hookups, roll out the awning, cook dinner. It's better to discover what you didn't bring, what doesn't work, and what you don't know how to do when you're an hour away from home instead of deep in the Alaskan wilderness.
3. Make a checklist
While you don't have to roll up your sleeping bag, take down your tent, and figure out how to cram all of your camping gear back into the trunk of your sedan, there are tasks you need to do each time you pull away from a site. A checklist makes the setting up and taking down process a lot easier. You can find resources online – you could even ask your neighbor with the fifth wheel parked in his yard. By going through this list each time you pack up, you'll arrive at your next campsite ready to set up and settle in again. NOTE: Always walk around the RV one last time before you pull away from your site – you'll be surprised at what you find!
4. Know where you're going
For seasoned pros, it's easy to travel without a destination: they know they can make any campsite work. However, you might want to have a firm idea where you're heading each day. Are there hookups? Is it a pull-thru site? Will your 34' fifth-wheel fit? You'll also learn the vocabulary. If you make a reservation at a "resort," it's probably going to be pricier than a campground. "Limited Wi-Fi" often means it won't reach your site. Check reviews too – sometimes your fellow RVers will tell you what the campground owners forgot to share!
5. Connect with the community
Speaking of checking reviews, although RVing is all about escaping from the everyday routine, there is one aspect of the real world that can be pretty useful to a newbie RVer – the Internet. NO, that does not mean staring at your smartphone while hanging out by the campfire. All electronic communication devices should be locked away behind a glass marked "Break only in case of emergency." Before you head out on your first adventure, do some research. There are a zillion (we counted them) clubs, groups, and organizations where you can learn from the experience of others. Why repeat their bonehead mistakes if you can avoid it? Read bulletin boards, watch videos, and ask questions. You might find new friends to travel with, so they can show you the ropes in person. Then, lock up your laptop, load up your RV, and head out!
6. Plan your route
You're driving a vehicle that is most likely taller, wider, and longer than you're used to. So, you can't just plug an address into your GPS and take off down the road. Weight limits, low-clearance bridges, steep grades, narrow winding roads – there's lots to consider when driving a motor home or pulling a camper. Do your research before you leave. Know where you're going and how to get there. Have physical navigation backups (maps and reference books) for those places where you don't have cell coverage. You can buy a GPS designed for RV use that takes into account the size and the weight of your rig before it suggests a route. That way, you won't find yourself watching ants pass you as you crawl up the 10% grade of Teton Pass.
7. Know your dimensions
It sounds like a no-brainer, but know the height (including the A/C unit or anything stored on top), the width (including the side mirrors), and the length (including the bikes bungeed to the back) of your RV. Write it down. Post it where you can easily see it. Don't trust your memory when you need to decide if you can fit through that tunnel that's coming up ahead!
8. Check the tires – and then check them again
While you're learning the ropes of your new home on wheels, it's easy to forget one of the most important components – the tires. A flat or a blowout on a car is bad – it's a lot worse on a 30,000 pound RV. Put "check tire pressure" on your list. (Don't forget the spare!) Jot down the manufacturer's recommended pressure. Be sure you have tools to change a tire; some RVs don't come with a jack, lug nut wrench, etc. And if you're camping in the Sonoran desert for weeks on end, protect the tires from UV damage. A simple cover is a lot cheaper than buying new tires...or repairing the damage caused to your shiny new RV by a blowout.
9. Slow down
It's not a marathon. RVing, as with life, is about the journey as well as the destination. Drive slower and for shorter periods of time. A long day of maneuvering a 30' rig can leave you exhausted both physically and mentally – which isn't much fun and can be downright dangerous. Besides, isn't the whole idea of RVing being able to check out the World's Largest Ball of String or the best cherry pie this side of the Mississippi? Take your time. Stop often. Enjoy the trip.
10. Keep an eye on the tanks
One of the less exciting but vital parts of RVing is managing the holding tanks: fresh water, grey water (kitchen and shower), and blackwater (toilet). Gauges and control panels are notorious for being wrong, so don't trust them 100%. (Spring for RV toilet paper – the regular stuff can clog up the sensors.) If you stay in campgrounds with full hookups, the tanks won't be an issue – but it's different if you're boondocking. Empty the gray and blackwater tanks often, until you learn how long it takes you to fill them. Oh, and if you're camping in cold country, add propane tanks to the list of things to check. No hot shower might be manageable, but no hot coffee is a disaster!
11. Have fun!
Be patient. Keep in mind that it's an adventure. You'll make mistakes. You'll learn. It's all part of the process. Pretty soon, you'll be that seasoned veteran sharing your wisdom with the guy next to you who can't open his awning. Enjoy!