Driving Your RV for the First Time

Essential tips before you hit the road.

Introduction

Slow goes it.

Operating an RV for the first time can be easier when you prepare properly. You might be feeling some nerves, but that’s only because you’ve never done it before. You were probably intimidated by the prospect of being out on the road the first time you got behind the wheel of a car, too. Besides, being a little intimidated is good. RVs don’t drive like cars, and they should be given the respect they deserve. They accelerate slower, brake slower, and your blind spots are much larger than they are in a car.

That said, with a little practice and a little time, you’ll become as comfortable behind the wheel of an RV as you are in the family SUV or sedan. Just remember that driving a motorhome on vacation should be enjoyed in leisure as much as the vacation itself. It’s when you rush things that accidents can happen, and the bigger the RV, the bigger the accident.

Before You Drive

Watch your head.

Do you know your RV’s height? You might want to write it down on a sticky note and put it somewhere near your captain’s chair, because low bridges can do a real number on an RV that’s too tall to pass.

A little hint here: Just because you went to your owner’s manual and looked up the height of your RV doesn’t mean you actually know the height of your RV. Air conditioning units and RV Wi-Fi antennas also need to be taken into consideration.

Secondly, you’ll also want to know your RV’s width. While it’s not quite as important as the height, there are certain states where if your RV’s width is over 102 inches, you’ll be mainly limited to driving on the highway.

Eyes on the side of your RV’s head

The mirrors are there for a reason. A very important reason. Make sure you’ve got them properly adjusted so you can see the maximum amount of space on either side. Your rearview mirror is probably useless for the most part, but your unit may have a backup camera to help with navigation.

You’ll find that in an RV, your blind spots are much larger than they are in a car. So when you hit the road, you’re going to want to regularly check the side mirrors to make sure no one has slipped into your blind spot if you have to change lanes.

Now plant your butt in the seat

You’ll find that getting comfortable in the captain’s chair is also an important part of your pre-drive routine. The driver’s seat of an RV can be adjusted in many more ways than you’re used to in a car. Then again, you’ve got a lot more buttons and knobs in an RV that you’ll need to access. Take your time, and make sure you find the perfect position that puts everything you need within reach.

Driving Basics

The 10 rules of the road.

You didn’t think we were really going to head off on a vacation with highway driving and the like right off the bat, did you? Nope--the first place we’re going instead is a nice, big parking lot.

RULE #1: Give yourself lots of room in the lot
Driving an RV for the first time is a lot like driving a car for the first time. You’re not really sure what you’re doing, and at times you feel a little clumsy and frustrated. Have no fear—in a large parking lot, the odds of you doing any damage are almost non-existent. Just watch out for pesky light poles.

In the parking lot you can practice parking, turning, K-turns, and other maneuvers that are going to take some practice to master. If you commit at least one hour a day for a week or so to learning how your new RV handles, you’ll not only be more comfortable behind the wheel, but your skills will also have improved considerably.

RULE #2: Get a plan, Stan

Before embarking on any trip, the first thing you need to do is get a plan. Know what route you plan on taking and stick to it. The last thing you need is the surprise of an unexpected low-clearance bridge. Save the exploration for when you reach your destination. Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun along the way.

As a matter of fact, there are numerous apps available to you that can help make the trip itself half the fun. (To see a few, check out our blog, Best Source for RV Maps and Driving Directions.) Some may charge a fee for their services, but having a route set up in advance that you know will accommodate your RV is the kind of peace of mind that’s well worth a little money.

For safety’s sake, you need to share your plan with family and friends. This way, they will know where to look for you out on the road in case of an emergency.

Investing in an RV roadside assistance plan like Togo Roadsafe™ can give you peace of mind when you travel so you'll have help with towing, lockouts, tire or battery issues, and any other unexpected bumps in the road.

RULE #3: Fueling up
Gas stations are one of the most common places where RV newbies can get into trouble. The tight turns and low-hanging covers over the pumps are recipes for disaster. This is why, until you’re really comfortable in your RV, you should try and stick to fueling up at truck stops.

Truck stops provide extra room for filling up and are built to accommodate large vehicles. They’re also located right by the highway for convenience, and let’s face it, it’s just kind of cool to gas up next to a trucker. Maybe even give them a nod of acknowledgement. After all, you’re both a couple of highway road warriors, right?

For the first couple of fill-ups, you might want to have your traveling partner help guide you through pulling up to the pump. This way they can help make sure you’re not too close to the pump, the roof, other cars, or any other hazard.

RULE #4: What’s the right lane to travel in?

The right lane is exactly that—the RIGHT lane. Stay as far to the right when out on the road as possible. By traveling in that lane, you can drive slower without holding up other traffic. Taking it slow is the key to safety and success when driving an RV. Sticking to the right lane also means you really only have to pay attention to one of your mirrors. And the good news is, it’s the mirror that’s closest to you!

The right lane also affords you the opportunity to pull over off the highway quickly if any mechanical trouble should arise, and it provides you easy access to any exits you may need to take.

Speaking of exits, by traveling in the right lane, that also means that traffic will want to enter the highway in your lane. No problem—just move over one lane to let traffic in until you’ve passed the entrance, and then slide yourself back on over to the far-right lane. Or simply slow down as needed to let traffic in ahead or behind you. Don’t forget that since you are already on the highway, you have the right-of-way, but defensive driving with an RV is the best way to drive stress-free.

RULE #5: Know when to say ”whoa!”
Braking is also very different in an RV as compared to a car. The average RV weighs in at about 5,200 pounds, which is a ton of weight—actually more than two tons—that you will need to stop safely again and again. On top of that, if you add the weight of everything else you’re probably bringing with you on vacation (clothing, bedding, recreational equipment, dishes, food, etc.), the vehicle you’re traveling in is going to require even more room to slow down.

If you’re towing, then chances are your RV’s brakes are wired to your vehicle’s braking system. Watch out for riding the brakes. This can cause your RV’s brakes to overheat and stop working. Downshifting is a great way to save your brakes from heating up and transition some of the work to the engine. Just be careful not to let your RPM’s go too high.

This is why you simply need to pay closer attention to the traffic in front of you. Keeping a safe distance is important, but so is paying attention. If for any reason you need to brake suddenly, distance becomes your best friend.

Which brings us to our next point.

RULE #6: Keep it safe by keeping your distance
Tailgating is a big no-no when it comes to operating an RV. And we aren’t talking about the sports kind of tailgate. It’s not only hazardous, it can also un-nerve the driver in front of you, which can lead to them driving dangerously. To be safe, the best plan is to leave at least 400 feet between you and the car or vehicle in front of you.

Not sure how much space 400 feet is? That’s okay--there’s a simple way to make sure you’ve got enough room to keep things safe. When the vehicle in front of you passes a point of reference (for example, a light pole by the side of the road or a mile marker), start counting to four. You should reach four before you reach the light pole.

RULE #7: Take your time on turns

Since RVs tend to be long and wide, their turns tend to be long and wide, too. Taking right turns is even more treacherous because of your proximity to the curb. Take your time, and keep an eye on your rearview mirrors. Don’t worry if you’re holding up traffic behind you. Better to do it correctly and slowly than to rush things and end up damaging your RV.

RULE #8: Watch out for tail swing
Since we’re talking about turning, we need to talk about tail swing. It’s probably responsible for more accidents at the gas pump or in other tight maneuvering situations than anything else. Tail swing is how far out the rump of your RV will go in the opposite direction of the way you’re turning.

So, if you’re turning to your right, the rump of your RV is going to push out to your left. It’s important for you to know just how much tail swing your RV has in order to properly navigate.

To figure this out, find a parking lot and park the left side of the RV up against a white line on the pavement, or just draw a chalk line on the pavement along the side of your RV. Then, turn your steering wheel hard to the right and slowly pull forward. Someone on the far back corner of your bumper needs to watch how far out the tail swings, and then you’ll know how much room you need to leave in your turning radius.

RULE #9: Check the weather
Wind is the biggest problem when it comes to being out on the road in inclement weather. That and snow. Getting through the slop confidently and safely can depend on which type of vehicle you drive: front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, or all-wheel drive. Every driver has his or her own preferences and can point to the advantages and disadvantages of each. That said, if you find the rear-end of your RV sliding and you feel like you’re losing control, pump the brakes to regain control. Don’t ride them or, like we mentioned above, you might lose them.

Weather apps can give you great information about what the weather’s going to be for the day, along with information about wind speed. The higher the wind speed, the more difficult it’s going to be to operate your RV on the road.

“Better safe than sorry” is really the rule of thumb here. You’re in an RV. If you have to, pull your home away from home over and camp for a while. Watch some TV or make a meal. Then, when conditions improve, you can get back on the road.

RULE #10: Don’t park alone
We’ll keep this really simple. Until you’ve got hours and hours of parking an RV under your belt, simply don’t do it alone. Get a spotter, and take it easy. If you have to, try and find a bigger parking spot. Take your time when parking, and always make use of your mirrors.

Conclusion

So long, and safe travels.

Owning an RV is a big investment. The last thing you want to do is get into an accident. RVs are for vacations, and there’s nothing very relaxing about having to call your insurance agent. So, if there is just one thing you need to take away when it comes to driving an RV, it’s this: Take it slow. Speed will come with experience, but even then, RVs are not meant to be driven fast. They’re meant for recreation.

Relax, slow down, and enjoy the road ahead.

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