The Rookie’s RV Road-Trip Guide

All the tips, tricks, and revelations I learned during my two-week rented-RV road trip

By Elizabeth Kang

Barreling down the highway in our just-rented motorhome — my husband, white-knuckled at the wheel and my kids, yipping and bouncing around unrestrained, like two energetic puppies just let off-leash —I kept thinking to myself “this can’t be legal.”

Prior to our departure, however, my CHP brother assured me that it is, in fact, legal to allow children to move freely in a moving recreational vehicle (however crazy it seems.) Many parents bring car seats anyway, to buckle kids in during especially bumpy or fast-moving rides. I soon got used to the girls lounging on the queen-sized RV bed, happily playing with their toys while my husband drove, and learned to anticipate bumps in the road or sharp turns, shouting warnings of “Hold On Tight!”

It was just one of the many aspects of RV-life that I quickly grew to love on our recent two-week road trip from Livermore, Ca to Yellowstone National Park. While the park had been on my bucket list for years, we likely would have opted for the more relaxing, albeit less adventurous Hawaii or Mexico under normal circumstances, such as we’d done in previous years. But, thanks to a certain global pandemic, flying wasn’t something I was willing risk, at the moment.

Evidently, many US citizens feel the same way. RV rentals and sales have gone through the roof in the past few months, with thousands of people opting to travel the old-fashioned way, on the open road. Being self-contained in a recreational vehicle, with all of the comforts of home, just feels like a safer option than airplane and hotel travel. Having one’s own bathroom, shower, kitchen and fridge/freezer allows for significantly less exposure to the public, and it’s an option many people have turned to.

RV Share, an Airbnb-like RV and trailer rental site, has reported a whopping 1,000 percent nationwide increase in bookings since the start of the pandemic. Local RV rental chains like Cruise America and El Monte RV are also experiencing a significant uptick in rental sales (and have adjusted prices according to that high demand.)

With so many RV rookies hitting the road this year, I wanted to share the tips I learned from my first motorhome experience, and also the mishaps, so you may be able to avoid some of the mistakes we made.

The best way to plan an RV trip is to try to book your rental as early as possible, do your research, and get advice from experienced friends.

Choosing the Right RV

We rented a mid-sized class C motorhome (twenty-five feet) from El Monte RV Rentals months before our trip. The cost was $200 a night, not including gas, insurance, and mileage. The nightly rate was cheaper when I had looked even earlier, so price does reflect demand. Insurance was about $25 a night — covering both damage to the RV and any damage we incurred to other vehicles or persons while driving the RV. This is a non-negotiable. You definitely want to be covered when renting a motorhome because there are so many things that can go wrong when you’re driving an unfamiliar, oversized vehicle. In our case, my husband drove off while our RV awning was down and hit a tree branch, rendering the awning useless. Doh!

Size does matter, when it comes to RV’s. You’re probably better off renting a smaller RV than you might initially think, as long as it sleeps the appropriate amount of people. The smaller the RV, the easier it is to handle, and the fewer restrictions you’ll have to worry about. Many campsites only allow RV’s of a certain size. For example, when I was booking our Yellowstone campsite, I learned that many campsites only accommodated RVs that are 25-feet or smaller. Those size restrictions influenced my rental-size choice immensely.

Thankfully, I didn’t regret my decision. Our family of four was perfectly comfortable in a 25-foot RV, with myself and my two-year-old sharing one queen-sized bed in the back, and my husband and six-year-old sharing the bunk-over-cab bed. We had a spacious dining table, full bathroom, and kitchen to utilize — with a fridge and freezer I was able to pack with two-weeks of food (along with a cooler in the under-storage area.) There was plenty of overhead storage for clothing and pantry items, and even a closet to hang jackets in.

Do Your Research

When driving an RV, there’s more to consider than simply mapping out the quickest route to your destination. You’ll want to plan your route ahead of time to avoid steep grades and unruly roads, which sometimes means adding some distance to your trip and taking a longer way around. I didn’t consider any of this when I planned my route to Yellowstone, but luckily, one of the maps I was using mentioned a steep grade in the road to the west entrance of the park. The map discouraged RVs and oversized vehicles from taking that route because of the steep 10% grade in the road, which would have been a stressful and difficult drive. Thanks to that tip, I approached the park from the more-level south entrance, (which added about 40 minutes to my trip.) To make your trip as smooth as possible, avoid steep grades and very winding roads.

Another important thing you’ll want to research is the unpleasant but unavoidable process of dumping your RVs black and grey water (black water is sewage and grey water is the runoff from the shower and sink.) The rental company will likely go over all of this, along with every aspect of operating the RV, but it’s a lot of information to take in at once and you’ll want to get familiar with the process before you begin your trip. Try watching a few YouTube videos to familiarize yourself with the procedure. After the first or second time, it becomes a no-brainer.

Another thing you’ll want to consider before you hit the road is whether your campsites have “full hookups,” “partial hookups,” or “no hookups.” If your RV park or campsite has full hookups, it means you can hookup your RV to fresh water, electricity, and a sewer hose right at your site. Partial hookups usually include only electricity and water. No hookups is equivalent to dry camping, without any of the three.

When I read that my Yellowstone campsite had no hookups, I was a little nervous about both running out of water and overfilling the sewage. That apprehension turned out to be unwarranted, thankfully, because fresh water hookups and a dumping station was only a minute’s drive away. Besides, we went comfortably without dumping or filling for four days straight. Lesson learned —don’t be afraid to go a few days without hookups. Even if you don’t have them, you can run your generator for electricity (which recharges when you drive,) and you’ll most likely be in an area where you can drive a short distance to fill your tank with fresh water and dump your sewage. To that end, be sure to bring disposable gloves for emptying the sewage, because (as my husband learned the hard way) spills do happen, especially when you’re a newbie.

Packing the RV — What to Bring

This is where advice from experienced friends comes in handy. I had no idea that there was special RV toilet paper, but thanks to a friend’s invaluable “RV packing list,” I was in-the-know in time to do a quick order on Amazon.

Here are some things to keep in mind when packing for your trip:

*While an RV provides most of the comforts of home, they don’t come with washers or dryers, so pack some laundry detergent if you plan of using a campsite or public laundry.

*An RV gets dirty quickly when you’re camping, so bring a broom and mop for the floors, a cordless hand-held vacuum to clean beds and upholstery, and any other cleaning supplies you think you’ll need.

*Be sure to pack disposable plates, cups and utensils, because even though you’ll be able to wash dishes in the RV, you’ll want to conserve as much water as possible if you’re dry camping without hookups.

*Make sure to pack breathable dirty laundry bags — something I always seem to forget to bring!

*Order RV-specific toilet paper before you leave, which disintegrates quickly to avoid clogging your sewer system. (Some people say regular toilet paper is fine to use, but I wanted to error on the side of caution.)

*Plastic or metal kitchenware — Things inevitably fall out of cupboards when the RV takes a sharp turn, so do not bring any breakable ceramic or glass kitchenware.

*Small appliances — While most RV kitchens include a microwave, stovetop and oven, don’t forget the small appliances like a coffee maker, toaster, or blender if you need them.

*A tablecloth — Most RV parks and campsites include a picnic table, so pack a tablecloth to keep things clean and easy.

*Bug spray and sunscreen — Coming from the Bay Area, where mosquitos are mostly non-existent, I never think to bring bug spray! In some areas of Yellowstone, however, it’s a must-have, along with sunscreen, of course.

*Towels and shower supplies — Take advantage of the luxury of a hot shower while camping, and don’t forget your toiletries.

*A full “camp kitchen” and more — Pack kitchen utensils, a few pots and pans, a small cutting board, cooking oil, spices, condiments, a few hand towels, garbage bags, kitchen sponges, dish soap, and dish gloves. Don’t forget a fire starter for the propane oven and gas range.

*Food — This is one of the best parts about RV camping! By having access to a stove, microwave and oven, you can eat as well as you do at home. With both an RV fridge/freezer and a full size cooler, we were able to stock food for two weeks, with only one grocery stop during our trip to refill ice, fresh fruit and veggies.

My family and I enjoyed our RV trip immensely and are looking forward to planning our next motorhome trip. I highly recommend renting an RV to try it out to see if its a right fit for your family. We enjoyed the freedom and comfort of riding in an RV, as well as the sense of friendly camaraderie we experienced from our RV camp “neighbors.” With these basic tips from one RV Rookie to another, I hope to add some insight and bolster your confidence for your first RV trip.