We’ve always known that a house on wheels is one the best ways to travel, but it took a pandemic to make us realize it’s also one of the safest. Just as virtually every style of travel came to a halt in Spring 2020, we were campervanning 3,000 miles around Poland (a long and crazy story). When we got back to the States, Buddy the Camper (our 1985 Toyota Sunrader) didn’t miss a beat and road tripped in 13 different states.
When you have your own bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, and means of transportation, you don’t need to worry about shared spaces. When you live in a country with hundreds of millions acres of wilderness, social distancing doesn’t have to be an issue. When you are behind the wheel, you can see what’s coming, pivot as needed, and ensure your heading in the right direction. An RV gives the peace of mind of having your own space and the freedom to still explore.
In light of COVID-19, millions of travelers are just now realizing the wonders of RVing, but many are still wondering how to go about it. To make your RV journey (be it a first-time rental or buying a camper of your own) a little easier, we’ve distilled our road-tested knowledge into a handy guide, including lots of resources for seasoned RVers too. And unlike most RV articles which focus on life at the campground, this post is all about being the master of your own destiny and elevating your adventures every day.
Sponsored by our friends at Allianz Travel, we’re proud to present RVing for Adventurers: Our Best RV Tips for an Epic Road Trip—as a travel video above and a link-packed article, below.
Rent Before You Buy
Before we owned Buddy, we tried all sorts of campervans and RVs in our road trips around New Zealand, Ireland, Scotland, and Maine. Trying different set-ups is a great way to figure out what features are important to you before you invest in your own.
National RV Rentals
If you’re brand new to RVing, using a national company like Cruise America and El Monte can be a great place to start. Similar to using a rental car company, they are going to have a new fleet, be professionally inspected, and offer great customer service. The vehicles are streamlined and clearly mapped out to limit confusion and the staff is trained to help first-timers.
Peer to Peer RV Rentals
Did you know that over 17 million RVs in North America sit unused over 350 days per year? Peer-to-peer rental companies like Outdoorsy and RV Share created an Airbnb-style marketplace, where owners can post their personal rigs and set their nightly price. These services provide a two key benefits:
- Tons of pick-up locations. Rather than choosing from a handful of rental offices in major cities, Outdoorsy has 15,000+ owners which means they have that many pick-up locations…one is bound to be near you.
- Styles Galore. Traditional RV rentals come in a handful of styles, where as the peer-to-peer market offers countless configurations. So if you want to try a Lance Truck-camper, Forest River fifth-wheel, vintage Airstream trailer, or any specific company, model, or era, there’s a good chance it’s on there.
Picking the Right Size RV for Adventure
We know how tempting those big luxury RVs can be—they’ve got the amenities and space of a three-bedroom house! But if you can go smaller (23-feet long or less), there are sooo many benefits:
- Access rugged terrain
- Easy to maneuver in cities
- Fit in a normal parking space, even parallel park
- Get better gas mileage. (Most RVs get 6-10mpg; ours gets ~19 and some campers get up to 30mpg.)
- Avoid length restrictions in national parks, winding scenic roads, and ferry rides
- Camp virtually anywhere
While a campervan is the most nimble of vehicles, you don’t want to get so small you lose a the luxury of bathroom and dedicated bedroom (trust us, you don’t want to convert your couch into bed each night). A rig between 19-23-feet long is just big enough for the amenities of a house and small enough to have the mobility of a car.
Water, Waste, & Propane
You probably don’t think much about your septic system at home, it just magically pipes in fresh water and makes waste disappear. In an RV, you are the Department of Water & Power. This may sound scary but it’s a lot simpler to manage and way less disgusting than it sounds.
Emptying Your Black & Grey Tanks: Most RVs have a grey tank for sink water and a black tank for bathroom waste. When your meter says your tanks are full, you to head to the “dump station.” This is essentially a public sewer that your rig can connect to via your own hoses. You will find dump stations at at campgrounds, truck stops, some highway rest areas, and big camping stores like Cabella’s. To find dump stations along your route, download the app “RV Dumpsites” for location and price info. Use this app to find free options along your route and when you have to pay, you should be able to find one for around $10.
Filling Water: You’re also carrying a fresh water tank that holds anywhere from 20-100 gallons for all your household needs. Using our 20-gallon tank sparingly, we can last for about 2-3 weeks. To replenish your supply, dump stations often have a fresh-water spigot. That said, whenever you see a public spigot (gas station, state park, friend’s house, campground, etc) it’s never a bad idea to top up. We always use a hose filter so you can feel confident drinking from any tap.
Propane 101: Propane gas is what heats the water for your shower, runs your stove, heater, and powers the fridge. (While some RVs have an electric fridge, that drains your battery or requires a generator.) To fill our tank is ~$20 and lasts us around 2-3 weeks. You can refill at select gas stations, hardware stores, and U-Hauls. Many of the camping apps (like iOverlander) map out propane filling stations and we also use Google Maps to search for propane along our route.
How to Get Power
Campers have a “house battery” to run the lights, water pump, fans, and charge your electronics. Here are the various way to keep it charged:
- Drive a few hours per day
- Pay to plug in at a campground
- Run a generator (Pro: it works off grid. Cons: uses up your gasoline, pollutes, and makes a lot of noise which is annoying to any neighbors and your own enjoyment of nature)
- Have solar panels (by far our preferred option!)
Setting Up a Solar System
Having solar panels has allowed us to spend the last three years without having to ever pay for electricity or generate any greenhouse gases to keep our lights on. It has given us the freedom to camp wherever we want, for as long as we want, and not worry about running out of power. If you like being independent and the serenity of nature, you are going to want a solar set up too.
- Foldable panels. This is the cheapest and quickest option. For $70-150 you can buy these portable panels and whenever you’re stopped for a few hours, angle them towards the sun and connect to your battery. While it doesn’t come near the amount of power or long-term convenience of an integrated setup, it will still allow you to charge a few devices and extend your stay in the woods.
- Integrated Set Up: We bought 300 watts of flexible monocrystalline panels, adhered them to the roof and wired it all together in about 20 hours, for $840. To hold the best charge, we’d highly recommend springing for a lithium ion battery like Relion RB100. If a DIY electrical project sounds too scary, you can have it professionally installed for ~$1-2k. We know it’s pricey, but trust us, the freedom of having a powerful solar system is invaluable.
Campsites: What’s Out There
Most campers simply don’t realize how many options they have! Here’s the breakdown on campground types:
RV Parks. These privately owned campgrounds come with the most amenities: power, water, sewer and often services like laundry, clubhouse, and maybe a pool, for ~$40-80. RVParky and AllStays are good overall campground finders with a focus on RV parks.
Campgrounds: Like those at state and national parks, these typically offer a basic set up with a flat parking spot, a picnic table, fire pit, and a shared bathhouse for ~$10-35. ReserveAmerica.com & Recreation.gov are handy if you want to secure a campsite in advance.
Private Land: Farmers and homeowners are offering up their land for campers, offering more secluded spots, friendly cool hosts, and a range of amenities. HipCamp is a great app that lists tens of thousands of sites (even some glamping) and makes it easy to book on the fly. There are also membership-based sites like Harvest Hosts (15% off via our link) where 1,200+ farms, wineries, and breweries offer up their land to self-contained RVers in exchange for buying a little something. Boondockers Welcome is like Couchsurfing for RVers, where homeowners worldwide open up their land for self-contained RVs. It’s a great way to connect with locals and only costs $50/year.
Public Lands: Did you know that the Federal government has reserved 640+ million acres of land for public use, including free camping! Areas like National Forests, BLM Land, and National Conservation Areas offer sites in remote wilderness areas for self-sufficient campers. This is often called dispersed camping, wild camping, dry camping, or boondocking. While they are very few services, these campsites offer some of the most peaceful and scenic wilderness areas. It’s hands down our favorite way to stay! Ultimate Public Campgrounds Project (aka “UC Pubic CG”), is our go-to camping app! It maps out over 44,000 sites on public lands, (15,000+ of which are free for RVers). Don’t bat an eye at the $5, it’s worth a bitcoin. They also have a Canadian edition.
Best Catch-all Camping App: iOverlander. This helps us find safe, free places to stay when we are near a city, national park, or just need to pull over late at night. It’s also handy for finding propane, water, dumpsites, and most anything an RVer is looking for. We particularly love their active community that posts photos and reviews to inform our choices before you drive down that long washboard road.
Disconnecting from technology and reconnecting with nature is the beauty of RVing, but somewhere along the way, you’re gonna need some internet. Here’s how to find it:
National Cell Phone Plans: Verizon has the best coverage in woods, and AT&T comes in second place, don’t mess around with any other carrier if you need reliable service. We use our smart-phone as a hotspot for the majority of our internet usage (2 phones + 2 laptops for approx 80 man-hours working online per week). To make sure we don’t burn through our data for the month, we use the NetLimiter desktop app which controls how much bandwidth our laptops use on mundane stuff, and the GlassWire app on our cellphone to monitor its usage.
Roadside Resources: We love working at libraries, not just for the internet but their inspiring spaces, peace and quiet, community offerings, and open invitation to stay all day. Working at independent coffee shops is a great way to get a vibe on a town, support a local business, while getting a couple hours of work done. While not quiet as inspiring, fast-food chains like McDonalds and Starbucks are reliable (and speedy) internet sources.
Must-Have App: Download WiFi Map to find millions of Wi-Fi spots around the world, including the passwords.
Take The Backroads
It’s all about the slow cruise and scenic rides, so set your dedicated GPS to “avoid highways” and see how spectacular the country can be. Interstates have blazed straight lines across the nation, but the old network of lovely rambling roads still exists. The best routes being America’s Byways, a collection of 150 distinct and diverse roads protected by the department of transportation for their natural, historic, or cultural value. Our favorite way to find the most scenic routes is National Geographic’s Guide to Scenic Highways and Byways. We reference it every time we start a big drive and discover interesting landmarks, quirky museums, vista points, greasy spoons, and short hikes…giving even the “fly-over states” something to marvel at.
Protect Yourself & Your Ride
One of our favorite parts of RVing is taking the leap into the unknown. To fully enjoy these spontaneous adventures, you need to prepare for the unforeseen bumps in the road. Take these three precautionary measures for a smoother ride:
- Get RV insurance: All RVers are required to have this specialty insurance, good news–it can be cheaper than insuring a sedan (we pay $375/year).
- Sign up for roadside assistance: An RV-specific membership covers towing, tire blowouts, running out of gas, locking your keys in your vehicle, plus lots of other benefits and travel discounts. AAA offers an RV plan but we perfer Good Sam (50% off via this link) because it was created specifically for RVers and offers unlimited-distance towing.
- Don’t forget your travel insurance: Annual travel insurance is a must for any frequent traveler, RVers included! Set it up once and it’s good for EVERY flight and every road trip over 100 miles from your house for your entire family. It covers health emergencies, trip delays, lost baggage, canceled reservations (from campgrounds to river rafting excursions), and most any travel snafu. Rather than getting insurance every time we hit the road, we use Allianz All Trips Premier Plan so we’re automatically covered wherever we go throughout the year and have someone to call if we ever need help. Download their free TravelSmart App to get local travel alerts, updates in the region you are visiting, access health and safety resources, trip planning tools, and to easily file claims.
More RV Tips and Road Trip Resources
- Thinking about buying a vintage RV? Read about our journey to find Buddy the Camper.
- Looking to spruce up the camper you’ve got? Watch our video on easy RV decorating tips.
- Ready to hit the road? See some of our favorite road trips around North America.
We hope our “RVing for Adventurers” article was helpful and that it has you hitting the road with confidence. Have any questions? Drop them in the comments and don’t be shy, we’ve been around the block.