Measure Twice, Drive Once: Understanding RV Height Clearance

Plan ahead and look up to make sure you’re all clear.
Yes, driving an RV can be challenging. They’re long, wide, and difficult to maneuver. Don’t forget—RVs are TALL, too. This means when it comes to overhangs, bridges, canopies, and power lines, you have to be careful; RVs and those kinds of things don’t play well together. Here’s what you can do about it as an RV driver, starting with knowing the exact height of your rig.

How tall is your RV?

No, really. Not how tall does the owner’s manual say it is, how tall is it really?

Did you add an air conditioning unit? Did you add Togo Roadlink™ hardware? Anything else up there? Maybe an additional storage unit? Some solar panels? All of this needs to be taken into consideration when determining the true height of your RV. Really, you simply have to go out and measure it yourself. This way you know for sure, and that helps you better plan your traveling route without worrying about losing your satellite dish under a lower-than-expected bridge.

 

A bridge over troubled vacations.

Bridges are like people. They each have their own personality. While the Federal Highway Administration sets bridge clearances between 14 and 16 feet, sometimes special design exceptions can be obtained, allowing a bridge to be lower than that. Also, many local and state bridges don’t have to abide by the federal regulations. This is particularly true the further you go into more rural areas.

Something else to keep in mind is that just because a bridge is listed as giving 14 feet of clearance, that doesn’t mean the roadway under that bridge hasn’t been repaved. The practice of grinding off old asphalt before putting new asphalt down is relatively new. The roadway under a bridge could have been repaved numerous times, with the average change in height on the road being 2 inches per repavement. That adds up.

 

It isn’t just bridges.

While bridges will at least have warning signs telling you of their height and clearance, the same cannot always be said of power lines, big tree branches, and the canopies you’ll find at gas stations, fast food restaurants, and ATMs. Be sure to keep an eye out for these types of obstacles as well.

 

Don’t just scrape by.

That’s all just grand, you say. But how can I avoid all of these potential obstacles?

  • First off, as noted above, know the real height of your RV and maybe put it on a sticky note by your captain’s chair.
  • When driving under a bridge that you suspect to be close to the top of your RV, drive very slowly. By going slowly, you can help avoid any unexpected bounces from the road’s uneven surface.
  • Avoid routes where trucks are prohibited. They’re probably not allowed because of height and weight restrictions that can restrict you as an RV driver as well.
  • Play it safe and subtract 6 inches from any bridge clearance warning sign. If it says 14 feet, assume it’s actually 13 feet 6 inches.
  • Be extra careful when traveling on private property since these locations are not subject to federal regulations about clearance height.
  • At service stations, have your traveling partner get out and visually report whether it looks like your RV will fit under the canopy.

Finally, if you hear a scrape, stop immediately. Don’t try and force the issue, and don’t expect lowering the air in your tires will solve the problem. Back up! And find a different route.

You should also consider an RV roadside assistance plan or at least carry emergency equipment in your RV, just in case. Things like road flares and neon cones can be used to warn other drivers if you find yourself stuck.

 

Navigate your way to a GPS unit. Then keep an eye out.

Now, a quick solution to all this might be simply investing in an RV GPS unit. Garmin, TomTom, Magellan, and Rand McNally all make them. Prices range from around $200 to $400. In addition, there are also RV apps you can install on your smartphone that offer RV-friendly driving directions. Prices for the apps can range from free to $29.99 for a one-year subscription.

By leaving the directions to the professionals you’d think you’d be totally out of the woods, but beware. RV-specific GPS models and smartphone apps are helpful, but they aren’t 100% dependable. You still have to stay sharp and keep an eye out. As for the Motor Carriers’ Road Atlas (the trucker’s bible), RV drivers aren’t truckers. Truckers tend to stick to the highways and interstates to get their job done. RV drivers tend to be interested in exploring more remote scenic byways, where road information is a little less reliable. You can’t just rely on these tools to get to your destination—you’ll still need to plan and take an active role in finding the right route to where you’re going.

 

You can handle the truth.

Any damage you do to a public structure is your fault. You may not want to hear that, but it’s the reality. As a driver of an RV, you take on certain responsibilities. Businesses also won’t be very understanding if you ruin their awnings.

Be aware, drive slowly, take it easy, and keep looking up.

Now that you’re good on height clearance, steer on over to our Driving an RV for the First Time guide to learn more about driving an RV, gas mileage, turning, mapping software, and much more.

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