The first week of school is behind us and many teachers have already handed out the first writing assignment of the year. Of course I am talking about the famous “write about something you did over the summer” assignment. Since I am on a third grade reading level, I thought this would be a great lesson to tackle myself.
Summer is a time for exploration. But not the kind of exploration where you cash in your frequent flyer miles and visit a plush resort. I am talking about exploring, like Lewis and Clark; you know, in a recreational vehicle. Yes an RV. What better way is there to explore than loading your family in a box on wheels in the middle of July and driving halfway across the country to a family reunion in Oklahoma? If you have never done this before, let me share a few tips to help ensure that your experience will only require three sessions of marriage counseling upon return. Remember, I have done this once and our family still talks to each other, so I am an expert.
Before we dive into the nitty gritty of RV travel, let’s just start with some basics. You are stepping into a whole new world. Here are some RV stats from the Wandering RV to help you better understand your new family.
As you can see, the recreational vehicle world is big and it can be overwhelming to know where to start. I have done my best to break it down into simple categories with a dose of Not My Boys commentary included in each.
TYPES of RVs
I don’t recommend a towable for your first trip, as the whole reason you are doing this is so your kids have the ability to get up and move around while they look at their phones for 14 hours straight while you pass amazing scenery. But towables still need to be covered because these are your brothers and sisters at the campground.
The two main towables you will see at the campsite and on the highway are the Fifth Wheel and the Tag-along. Fifth Wheel trailers connect to an apparatus in the bed of the truck. These are the beast of the travel trailers. Tag-alongs are attached to the vehicle with a standard trailer hitch.
These can be broken down into classes:
Class A - The big boys. Unless you moonlight driving tour buses or have experience driving tanks, you may want to stay away from these on your first trip. They are built on special motorhome chassis and can range from 21-40 ft long.
Class B - Camper vans. Unless you are renting a $175,000 customized Sprinter Van, just put some curtains in your Honda Odyssey and save yourself the trouble. Part of the whole experience is feeling like you are going to die while driving and I just don’t see how this can be accomplished in a camper van.
Class C - A great Class for beginners. These motorhomes are built on a truck chassis, so they are going to be a little easier to drive. Many in this class have an over-the-cab sleeping area that is easy to recognize. They can range from 21-35ft.
Personal Note: Things you will not do in an RV if you are over 6 feet tall
Sleep - Actually the only night you will have trouble sleeping will be the first night. Every night after that you are so tired you could sleep standing up.
Shower - In the bigger Class A RVs showering is probably easier, but in the Class C some of these can be rather small. So unless you are a yoga instructor who can fit your body into a mason jar, you may want to plan on showering somewhere else. Almost all campgrounds have a bath house. The cleanliness of these can vary wildly from campground to campground. Just update all your shots and you will be fine.
WHERE TO RENT
You have figured out the type of motorhome you want, and now you need to find the perfect one to rent. I was aware of the corporate Cruise America RV rental company as those are marked and easy to spot traveling down the interstate, but what I was not aware of was the private RV rental market. You are probably familiar with VRBO and Airbnb for vacation homes. Well, the same exist for RVs. The two best sites for this are RVshare.com and Outdoorsy.com. You will be amazed at the amount of RVs available for rent. Renting through these sites offers 24/7 roadside assistance, insurance, and the comfort of knowing the RV has been fully vetted before it was allowed to be listed. Here are some rental tips:
1. There is going to be a price per night listed. Go ahead and multiply that number by 27 to get your final per night cost. While there are some RVs that have unlimited miles, most only allow 150 miles a day and charge 30 cents per mile for any mileage over.
Also, most only include four hours of generator use per day. You may be thinking, “Why would I need a generator? I am not planning to boondock in a Walmart parking lot.” (Boondock is the term for parking an RV at a place with no hookups.) I thought the same thing until my son appeared in the cab of the RV in only his underwear looking like he just crossed the Sahara desert. It is the summer and without the generator the only A/C to the back of the motorhome comes from the cab. To put it in clearer terms, the back of the RV is an oven and you will need to run the generator to power the motorhome’s A/C unit on the roof while driving down the interstate.
2. If you have questions about a particular RV, communicate with the owner through the official rental site so you can avoid the awkwardness I experienced. When I found one we liked, the description on the site talked about the farm on which the family lives. It even listed the specific name of the farm. So of course being well-versed in internet stalking, I googled the farm. Believe it or not, there was a website with a phone number on it, so I decided to call the number to ask some questions about the RV before we reserved it. The call started something like this, “Hey, I saw your RV online and have a couple of questions.” The first words back to me were, “How did you get my phone number?”
So you have picked out your RV, and now you need to figure out where to stay. A lot will depend on whether you are going to one place and staying for a week or doing like we did and staying one night at each place on the way to your final destination. But no matter where you stay, you are entering a brave new world; a world you can’t fully appreciate until you back into your first site. Let’s first break down the types of campgrounds.
1. RV Resorts - These are privately owned and are usually more expensive than your state parks. But with the added expense come greater amenities. Besides just the upkeep of the site being better, these resorts can have perks like cable hookup at the site. Again this could be important if the Wifi signal is bad and your children have to remove themselves from a phone. You do not want them to have to experience nature, and a cable hookup provides you this luxury. Although I can’t confirm if any of these resorts carry channels other than Fox News.
2. State Parks - A state park is not going to cost you as much as a private resort and they can be in some beautiful areas, but like anything run by the state, the maintenance can be hit or miss. We stayed at two state parks on our trip and the lakefront site was the most expensive at just under $40 a night.
3. Army COE Campgrounds - When the Corp of Engineers went around damming up areas and creating lakes, one stipulation was that they create a public campground on the lake. Seems fair. Hey we are going to flood your town, but come back and camp anytime. Like the state parks, these are run by the government and some are maintained better than others.
Once you find the campground where you want to stay, you then need to pick the specific campsite where you will park. Believe it or not, there is a website where you can type in your campground and it will take you to a page that has pictures of each individual campsite. Go ahead and grab a pen and paper as you are going to want to write this website down because it has a real tricky name and will be hard to remember. The website is campsitephotos.com.
While this is a great tool, we learned that sometimes the pictures don’t tell the whole story. Our first night was at a state park in Tennessee. Here is the picture on the website.
I think we can all agree this is a quaint little creekside campsite unless you factor in the set of dumpsters just to the left of this picture.
Ok so maybe that was just a fluke thing. Nothing could change how I felt about the picture of the view from our campsite the next night on Lake Dardanelle in Arkansas.
The lakefront views are the first thing that catch your eye, but what you may fail to see is the nuclear cooling tower across the lake. This is not a big deal unless you just watched the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, then you lay awake wondering if your face is going to melt off.
If that does not keep you awake at night, then I am sure the grave right next to the campsite will not bother you at all. Yes, there was a man buried right next to our campsite. So if you are keeping track at home, not included in the picture of the site was a nuclear cooling tower and a tombstone.
Campsites come in three varieties:
If you want your campsite to look like you are veteran and to hide the rookie that you are, then go ahead and pack your entire house up because that is the only way you will have enough stuff to match the vets. The campsite next to us had running lights around the edge of the entire site, “Welcome to our Campsite” sign in the ground, tailgating tents, bug net tent over food table, a large kiddie pool, 7 kids bikes, 321 chairs, and a DJ booth.
Since we would arrive at each site in the evening and then leave the next morning, we packed light. Let me tell you, this is not the norm. The first night we had a rug set-up outside our RV with just a cooler on it and a small step stool because of course we thought picnic table lounging would be comfortable. Newsflash...It’s not. We were sitting at the picnic table when a couple strolled by and were stopped cold in their tracks by our set-up. The man looked at his wife and exclaimed, “Now that’s simplistic living!” He then walked two more steps, turned back to our site and said again, “Now that’s simplistic living!” This was a professional assassin, because just when you thought the verbal murder was complete, he fired one last killshot, “Now that’s simplistic living!”
Now I would like to take some time to cover the areas of the trip that will test the health of your marriage.
Backing into the campsite
Let’s break this down. There are two key players in this exercise, the driver and the person who stands outside and directs the driver. The driver is going to be stressed to begin with because this person just drove many hours down the interstate in a mobile home on wheels, avoiding catastrophe every time an 18-wheeler made the RV feel like it was about to blow into the median. The driver will also be dealing with the fear of being noticed by the veteran campers while pulling into the campground. In the driver’s mind, it’s assumed that a rookie camper can be smelled from miles away and when the rookie drives to the site, the veterans will walk out and stare and judge the rookie’s camping ability.
The person directing the RV into the spot from the outside will not be prepared for this task. They will first stand directly behind the RV where they can’t be seen. This will cause the driver to get very frustrated and want to yell out the window to move, but the driver will realize he has no idea how to slide the window open causing a brief moment of panic. Once the window is opened, the driver will realize the party of 47 camping next to them has ceased all activity and begins watching the debacle unfold. This will be the start of a 10-minute production of reverse, forward, reverse, forward, reverse, forward, reverse, forward, reverse.
One suggestion to help make this smoother would be to have the director do an internship at an international airport guiding planes to the gate. The orange vest and traffic control wand combined with being well-versed in hand signals would really make for a much smoother campsite arrival.
Siri is your friend. Google is your compass. But when you get into a campground you can toss those dear friends out the window because here you have to look at a real map, and maps and my wife are not the closest of friends. In her defense, the map that we received upon check-in at our first state park was not exactly drawn to scale. I think 1 inch represented 50 feet because we pull out of the visitors center and the following exchange ensued:
Me: “Where do we turn?”
Wife: “I don’t know. This map makes no sense.”
Me: “What do you mean! Where are we on the map?!”
Wife: “I don’t know! Slow down!!”
Me: “Are you serious!!!!! I can’t slow down there is a car behind us! Ohh kids look at the deer!”
Wife: “Kids!!!!! Look at the deer!!”
Kids: “What?” as they lift one side of their headphones off their ear.
Me: “Where do we turn?!!!!”
Wife: “We’ve passed it, turn around!”
Me: “ Turn around?!!! We are not in a Honda Civic. I can’t turn this thing around!!!!”
Wife: “What does that sign coming up say?”
Me: “It says, ‘Thank you for visiting Montgomery Bell State Park.’”
You are reading this correctly. We drove in the entrance, got a map at the visitors center, got back in the RV and drove through the entire park and out the back gate. We then proceed to drive back around to the entrance and try again this time seeing the turn to our campsite that was 50 feet past the Visitors Center.
Placing a fitted sheet on a makeshift king bed in the RV can be a real tester, but don’t worry; you can actually prepare for this with a little practice at home. To simulate first night RV conditions at home, you will just need to do a couple things. First, go run a marathon then have your kid smack you in the face several times. This will prepare your body for how it will feel. Next, you need to recreate the RV bed area at your house. To do this, begin by cutting your king mattress into four different pieces. Then take those pieces to the crawl space under your house. Now you and your spouse crawl under the house and attempt to place a queen fitted sheet on the four pieces of the king mattress. If you get the sheet on the mattress and both come out from under the house alive, you are ready to book your trip.
I have shared with you some important tips if you are a first time recreational vehicle traveller, but don’t be scared if the thought of RV travel overwhelms you. If we can do it and have fun, anyone can. So get online, pick you out an RV and plan a trip. You won’t regret it.