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What a first-time RVer wishes he’d known before his trip

Brad Wright The author congratulates himself for finding a safe place to park his rental RV at Manzanita Beach in Oregon. | Photo by NASHCO

My wife, Daysi, and I spent more than a year planning our bucket list RV road trip up the Northern California and Oregon coasts. We researched campsites, lined up the itinerary, and purchased supplies. We also daydreamed about walks on driftwood-strewn beaches, hikes through old-growth rain forests, and quiet nights around a campfire. We weren’t disappointed.

Although Daysi and I are experienced tent campers, we were newbies to RV life, so not surprisingly we ran into a few unexpected hitches, mostly minor. The worst one was having to skip a planned hike because we couldn’t find a spot to park. But what’s a trip without a few stories to tell? I took notes on lessons learned along the way because our inaugural RV road trip surely won’t be our last. Following are several things to consider before you embark on your first RV journey.

Rent from an established company

We rented a 22-foot Class C vehicle, a Sunseeker by Forest River, and, as fortune would have it, drove out of the lot in a brand-new 2022 model. Our vehicle worked beautifully, but when a couple of dashboard warning lights came on, I called El Monte RV’s “On-the-Road Support.” An agent answered the phone immediately. He helped us determine that the attendant who pumped our gas (it’s an Oregon thing) during our last fill-up didn’t screw the cap on tightly. Having this type of support available 24/7 gave us peace of mind.

Do your homework prior to pickup

While none of the individual components is overly complicated, RVing can be intimidating if you’re picking up and driving off in an RV for the first time. You need to learn the difference between black water (toilet wastewater) and gray water (all other water, like from your sinks) and know how and when to dump. Then there’s the generator, the propane, the auxiliary battery, the control panel, and the leveling blocks. Watch and re-watch the how-to video on the rental company’s website (or on YouTube if the company doesn’t have one) to familiarize yourself with the basics prior to pickup. “First-time RVers often don’t get enough information from the rental place or the dealership,” says Scott Green, a full-time RVer and camp host. “Go prepared with questions. Have a list and get as much information as you can from them.”

Things you should bring

By the third day of our trip, the floor of our RV was covered in dirt from our shoes and hiking boots, and we had to stop at a store to buy a broom. It was among a few things we discovered that we needed for the RV that we never packed when we went tent camping. You’ll also want to bring rubber gloves for dumping. A small trash can for the RV bathroom is another good idea. To maximize space in the RV, we brought as many collapsible items for the kitchen (strainer, dish pan, measuring cups) as we could find. A large outdoor rug to put in front of the RV provides a homey touch. And don’t forget all the typical campground gear: lawn chairs, lanterns, and a tablecloth, plus quarters and flip-flops for campground showers if you want to conserve your water.

Get to know your RV controls before hitting the road

Be aware of how to turn on your windshield wipers, hazard lights, and headlights before you need them. When heavy fog rolled in one morning, I had to pull to the side of the road and break out the RV manual to find the controls for the headlights (there was a dial on the dashboard). Early on in our trip, we woke up one morning and the coffee pot didn’t work, even though we were connected to shore power. A ranger pointed out to me that in addition to plugging in the electrical cord, you also have to flip on the breakers. The generator comes in handy if you don’t have shore power, but it’s noisy. Don’t turn it on during quiet hours. Our rig came with a water pressure regulator that was mandatory to use when connected to city water. Attach it to the campground water spigot before hooking up your hose.

What to know about driving

Forest

Park the RV in places that are easy to maneuver into and out of, like this spot on the Avenue of the Giants in Northern California. | Photo by Brad Wright

Unless you’re maneuvering into your campsite, do not back up. Make sure you have a pull-through or turn-around option before parking. Check your destination in advance to see if RV parking is available. We detoured from the Oregon Coast Highway to drive the Three Capes Scenic Loop, primarily because we wanted to hike the popular 2.4-mile trail to the tip of Cape Lookout. But a sign at the entrance to the trailhead lot warned that there was no pull-through parking, and when I peeked into the lot and saw the cramped, crowded spaces, we gave up on the hike and dejectedly got back on the road. And when you’re driving, note that the larger vehicle requires more room for turning. 

RV Dashboard

Driving an RV is a lot more stressful and tiring than driving a car, so plan to move at a slower pace. | Photo by Brian Jackson/stock.adobe.com

Pay special attention to gas station bollards, those steel poles set up to protect pumps from being damaged—El Monte RV says those are the No. 1 object hit by renters. Finally, limit your daily mileage. Driving an RV is more stressful than driving a car, and you should plan to move at a slower pace.

What to know about cooking

Our smoke alarm went off a handful of times while we were cooking inside the rig. Waking up hungry for breakfast, we couldn’t seem to remember to open the door, windows, and vent before frying our hash browns and eggs. But even with the ventilation, frying something like fish is a surefire way to trigger the alarm. Thus, we cooked many of our dinners outside on our charcoal grill or on our old-fashioned camping stove. For cleanup, we conserved space in our gray water tank by washing dishes in our dishpan or, when available, at a campground dishwashing station.

Pick your campsite carefully

Campsite

Popular campgrounds like Sunset Bay State Park in Oregon fill up quickly, so it's wise to reserve your site as soon as possible. | Photo by Brad Wright

The day we picked up our RV rental, we loaded up our gear and groceries, and set out for a 10-day adventure in the great outdoors. A few hours later, however, we found ourselves sitting in camp chairs poring over the RV manual and listening to the constant squeals of children coming from the swimming pool behind our campsite. How did we end up in this spot? I had selected a site in the Redwood Grove section based on the enchanting description on the campground website: “a natural setting with redwood trees.” But I should have checked the campground map, says Green, who was the camp host on duty at the San Francisco North/Petaluma KOA when we arrived. “A pool will be noisy until it closes, and a playground will be noisy until dark,” Green says. “You can also call up a campground and tell them what you’re looking for. Is the site shaded or not? Is it satellite-friendly?”

Make reservations far in advance

Popular campgrounds can fill up immediately after the sites are released for reservation, typically 6 to 9 months in advance. On our 10-day trip, we camped at 4 state parks, 1 U.S. Forest Service campground, 1 regional park, and 1 private campground. The state parks were all competitive, but I secured our spots by reserving them online as soon as they became available. If you’re late to the game, be persistent in checking for cancellations. At Sunset Bay State Park in Oregon, I met a couple who reserved a spot only 2 weeks prior to arrival. “You just have to stay on top of it,” advises Jutta Tlusty of Woodburn, Oregon. “I worked really hard for these 2 nights.” And if you’re not going to use your reservation, Tlusty says, call to cancel it so that someone else can have the site.

Brad Wright is a copy editor for Westways and AAA Explorer magazines.

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AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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