TWO SUMMERS AGO, I bought an RV online, packed up my kids, and hit the road on a trip through six states. I’d never taken my kids on a road trip that lasted longer than a week — and it was my first time taking out our new travel trailer — but it didn’t matter. I was convinced we were embarking on the adventure of a lifetime.
And our trip definitely was an adventure. Sure, there was plenty of chaos and plenty of lessons learned, but I was right about one thing: My family will never regret spending that summer together or having the opportunity to see sites like the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park morning, noon, and night, without the inevitable camping woes.
You can bet I made plenty of newbie mistakes, but you don’t have to. Here are some things to keep in mind.
1. You don’t have to commit right away.
When I bought my first RV, a popup travel trailer that was older than I am, I’d never driven with a trailer or even been in any kind of RV in my life. I was drawn to RVing because it’s an inexpensive way to travel, but I didn’t want to sink too much money into one before I knew whether it would be the right fit for me and my family.
It turns out there’s a better way to try RVing than buying a vehicle that might not be the best fit for you. You can rent RVs just like cars, and rental RVs come with the added peace of mind of comprehensive insurance policies and roadside assistance in case you run into trouble. You can spend whatever’s in your budget, not worry about long-term maintenance, and storage is never a concern.
2. RVs aren’t as expensive as you might think.
If you’ve been hesitant to try RVing because you’re worried about the cost, you might be surprised by just how inexpensive they can be. I bought my first used RV for only $600, and even my newer-model, much nicer travel trailer was less than $5,000. Sure, that might sound expensive, but we saved at least that much money on our trip by avoiding hotels and cooking all of our meals in our RV on just that one trip alone. Kids, remember?
For our family, the ultimate cost was the difference between staying home or exploring the American West — and unlike a one-time trip, we were able to travel for years on that same investment. If you can’t afford the initial cost all at once, you can finance an RV just like a car. You have options. You can make it happen.
3. Never skip doing your homework.
Before you buy an RV, it’s important — very, very important — to consider your options and do your research. In my case, I decided on a travel trailer because it was a less expensive model. Plus, even though I drove a Kia crossover SUV, there are many travel trailers that can be hauled by surprisingly small vehicles, so it was a no-brainer.
Before you buy, make a list of everything you need in an RV, your budget, the type of RV you might want, and then start looking into your options. Go RVing has a helpful compare feature to assist you in learning more about different types of RVs so you can narrow down your search. The research may sound intimidating, but it’s totally worth the years of vacations you have ahead of you.
4. Familiarize yourself with the details.
I’d like to say I spent hours poring over RV instructions and reviewing the owner’s manual before setting out on the road, but I really didn’t do my homework like I should’ve. I didn’t even check the pipes to make sure they’d been properly winterized, and I learned that lesson the hard way when I discovered a crack in my toilet and had to pay a mobile RV repair company to fix it. It was a huge headache that could’ve easily been sidestepped had I actually prepared. These are the stories that make RVing sound intimidating, but they’re totally avoidable.
The thing is, there’s nothing mysterious or even very difficult about driving or operating an RV, but it is a good idea to read the owner’s manuals and hook up your pipes for a test run before hitting the road. If you’re hauling a trailer, get your ride checked out, too. A few minutes spent familiarizing yourself with your RV will save you a lot of time down the line. (Pro tip: Get that $75 water shutoff installed on your toilet line before you head out. Trust me.)
5. Don’t overthink it.
Before I started towing my RV, I worked myself up into a frenzy about it. I couldn’t imagine navigating narrow or busy streets with a huge trailer behind my car. Despite my fears, by the time I’d been towing my RV for a week, I had successfully navigated everywhere from rush-hour freeways in Los Angeles to the cliff-lined switchbacks of Zion.
It’s good to start slow and give yourself a little time to acclimate to the feel of RV driving before you set out on the freeway, but don’t stress yourself out about it. If you can drive a car, you can drive (or tow) an RV. Take to the less-busy roads just like you did your childhood bike, and venture out further from there once you get comfortable. It’ll happen quicker than you think. Millions of people do it all the time — you can, too.
6. RV parks and campgrounds are totally modern.
I don’t know what I imagined an RV park to be like, but it probably involved elderly people wearing Hawaiian shirts — I couldn’t have been more wrong. Most of our fellow campers were in their 20s and 30s, and there were plenty of families taking advantage of cheap camping rates in the national parks.
Even when we stayed in RV parks with pools and amenities that compare to nice resorts (yes, that’s a thing), the crowd ranged from 20-somethings showing off their custom #VanLife abodes to families with kids riding bikes and playing frisbee in the common areas. One RV park in Utah even offered wagon rides through an Old West town. It was a far cry from shuffleboard and bingo (although they had that, too, if that’s more your speed).
7. Most important? Just get inspired.
I’ve always been a planner. But when I decided to take an RV road trip, it was time to break that mold. I made a few reservations at campgrounds or attractions I knew would be busy, but I gave myself permission to be spontaneous, too. We canceled reservations, changed reservations, and spent as much time in each place as we wanted to along the way. There are tons of sites to help you find the right place to stay and the next reservation is only a click away, so it’s easy to relax and follow your inspiration.
But the coolest part about owning an RV is belonging to such a vibrant community. If you think RVing is something only older people do, you clearly haven’t been on Instagram lately. Whether it’s #VanLife or retro travel trailer makeovers, there are thousands and thousands of interesting people living the RV dream. Even if you only get to take yours out occasionally, like me, following people who are road warriors will help you get excited about your next RV adventure.