RV Packing Tips for Newbies

Young cute redhead child leaning on the car window and Contemplating the views while on road trip


Cheapism is editorially independent. We may earn a commission if you buy through links on our site.
Young cute redhead child leaning on the car window and Contemplating the views while on road trip

Lost in Space

It’s the time of year everyone starts dreaming of hitting the open road for an RV vacation. In fact, as I write this, I am en route to the Oregon coast in the Class A motorhome my husband and I live in full time (don’t worry — I’m the passenger). As a newcomer, your dreams may differ from the reality of what vacations in a recreational vehicle are really like. Avoid bumps in the road and ensure a successful trip by first mastering your packing and organizing.

Related: Things New RV Owners Wished They'd Known Before Buying That RV

Sun going down at the Rv park
Larry Crain/istockphoto

Do You Really Need It?

The first question to ask when packing for a trip: “Do I really need to bring this?” More often than not, the answer will be no. More experienced travelers will be able to apply a general rule that if they didn’t use something on the last trip, they shouldn’t keep lugging it around. (The exception, of course, being tools and safety supplies.) Saving weight should always be on your mind as you load up an RV.

Related: RV Accessories That Are a Waste of Money

RV leaving through gate

Load Properly

When loading an RV, make sure you distribute weight evenly from side to side. Especially important for towable RVs is front-to-back weight distribution: As a general rule, you want approximately 60% of cargo weight in the front half of a trailer, so especially heavy items should go closest to the front. Always research your specific RV set-up to ensure you load it safely to reduce sway.

Related: Items You Should Always Keep in Your Car

Young Woman Cleaning her RV

Secure Everything

Make sure everything that’s loaded is secured before you drive away, with all cabinets and doors latched — RVs bounce around a lot on the road. But you’ll still want to use caution when opening cabinets. The warning, “caution, contents in the overhead bins may have shifted” applies to RVs as well as planes.

Related: Hitting the Road? Why You Should Clean Your RV Pre-Trip

Travel Trailer Caravaning

Know the Must-Haves

Before you set off on your first adventure, absolute needs include hookups for sewer, water, and electricity, unless you plan to stay somewhere without amenities; and an upgraded mattress. In my experience, if you try to sleep on the mattress that came with your RV, you’ll probably spend the trip cranky from lack of sleep.

Young Asian man working with laptop computer on the bed in camper van

Stay Connected

Some RV parks brag that they have free Wi-Fi. This may be true, but campground Wi-Fi is notoriously slow and unreliable. If you want to game, stream, or work, you absolutely need to have your own hotspot. Before leaving, check coverage on your route and where you’re headed so you don’t end up with surprise connection problems.

Vintage Recreational Vehicle

Don’t Get Stranded

RVs break, even if they are brand new, so it is smart to bring along a basic toolkit of safety items. Make sure you have everything you need for changing a flat tire, too. At the very least, travel with roadside assistance coverage from an insurance company, but know that help can take hours to arrive. It is best if you can rescue yourself.

Happy people group of friends toasting and enjoying the travel vacation together - cheerful. womanandman with food in outdoor leisure activity - modern van and ocean in background

Delay the Grocery Store

There may not be a grocery store where you’re headed, but no one wants to kick off a vacation by grocery shopping anyway. If you plan meals and pack food, all you’ll have to do is roll up and relax. Most RVs, especially newer ones, can safely run a fridge off propane while driving — follow all applicable laws and check your owner’s manual to be sure this is safe in your vehicle, and don’t forget to shut the propane off before fueling up — but turn it on 24 hours beforehand so it has time to cool down before being loaded with perishables. If you aren’t comfortable with that, take the old-fashioned cooler approach.

Stylish kitchen interior with different accessories and utensils in modern trailer. Camping vacation
Liudmila Chernetska/istockphoto

Secure Dishes

If you have breakable dishes, take extra care. One option is to wrap dishes in a towel — it’s what I do. Some RVers use tension rods or pool noodles to keep dishes from bouncing around inside cabinets. An alternative for weekend warriors is to get reusable melamine dishes you don’t have to worry about.

Caravan inside, kitchen area
Folding clothes and organizing stuff in boxes and baskets. Concept of tidiness, minimalist lifestyle and japanese t-shirt folding system.
Damian Lugowski/istockphoto

Hang Closet Organizers

Rather than hanging clothes on hangers in an RV closet, you can fit much more by using a hanging closet organizer. Fold or roll your clothes and put them on shelves to find you have more room than you thought.

Shoe rack hanging on a wooden door, storage for shoes

Use a Shoe Rack

Shoes are notoriously difficult to keep organized in an RV. Having a shoe rack right by the door will help keep shoes from being strewn about the entry of your living area.

Top view female housewife organizing bathroom amenities and toiletries in open drawer under sink

Prevent Medicine Cabinet Chaos

Most RVs have a small bathroom medicine cabinet in which everything falls over in transit. Some RVers use spice racks to organize the medicine cabinet; another option is to use small plastic bins or pencil holders to keep things in place.

Woman at the back of her van sorting clothes

Employ Storage Bins Inside Cabinets

Cabinets in RVs are often a weird size or shape, and sometimes are all connected, making it easy to lose things. Small collapsible storage bins can help organize anything from food to games to clothes. When you need something, simply pull its bin out of the cabinet.

Living in a Van

Install Under-Bed Storage

Some RVs have storage space under the bed. It can be awkward to access, though, and the bed is often heavy to lift. Consider adding some DIY drawers underneath that you can just slide out.

Father and Son Going on a Bike Ride

Rack Up That Outdoor Gear

Don’t forget that the fun of RVing is to get out and enjoy nature. You’ll want to bring gear for activities such as biking and kayaking. But because RVs bounce and sway much more than a car, you’ll need to have an RV-rated rack or risk losing your two-wheeler somewhere along the way. RV-specific kayak racks are also a must. You could theoretically strap a kayak on top, but RVs are already tall, and adding height can also mean running into low-clearance obstacles.

Car air compressor in working position at snow. Self-inflating

Bring an Air Compressor, and …

Having an air compressor along lets you easily add air to tires before leaving a campsite. But first you need to know tire pressure — which is critical before every drive, as pressure that’s too high or low can lead to major accidents and blowouts. So pack that air compressor, but also install a tire pressure monitoring system. (These come standard on most new cars, but not RVs.) A TPMS will alert drivers instantly of issues with pressure and temperature so they can pull over before things worsen. Sometimes a blowout on a towable trailer won’t be noticed; and by the time it is, it may be because a second tire has gone. 

fire extinguisher

Fire Safety Supplies

Upgrade or add fire extinguishers. There should be a large one in the front and back, and one in an outside compartment. Elide fire extinguisher balls can offer some peace of mind if there were to be a fire when you weren’t there. We place them near potential problem spots such as the engine in the motorhome's front and where the circuit breaker and fuse box are. Make sure an RV also has a functioning smoke detector, propane detector, and carbon monoxide detector.

Maintaining my recreational vehicle

Maintenance Items

Sooner or later you’ll experience some kind of mechanical issue on the road. Leaks are one of the more common (and potentially deadly to an RV). A self-leveling lap sealant such as Dicor will handle trouble spots on most RVs. Things can also break and be impossible to repair at a campsite; in a bind, many seasoned travelers slap on duct tape until they can get a more permanent fix.

You might consider opting for a RV roadside assistance plan from Good Sam.  Club members also get discounts on RV accessories, camping fees, and even gas. 

Camper leveling block in use.

Leveling Blocks

Even for RVs with leveling systems, leveling blocks are useful to have. Now and then you’ll come across an extremely uneven site, and leveling blocks can save the day.

Kitchen food containers on a shelf. Plastic color trays of rectangular shape.
Tetiana Kolubai/istockphoto

Storage Totes

If your RV has a garage area, you need to use heavy duty plastic storage totes to keep everything organized and free of moisture and critters. Label boxes so you can find the one you need easily.

Toilet in a luxury caravan
Ziga Plahutar/istockphoto

Septic-Safe Toilet Paper

There is RV-specific toilet paper, but many household toilet papers work just as well as long as you use plenty of water. You can’t use any toilet paper, though. If it’s not septic safe, you can clog the toilet — and it’ll be gross. Not sure which kind you have? Test toilet paper by putting two to three squares in a lidded jar of water and giving it a good shake at the start and end of an hourlong soak. If the toilet paper dissolves, it is typically safe to use in an RV.

Toilet tank for the restroom inside a motorhome

Sewer Supplies

No one really likes to talk about the black tank situation, but, hey, it’s just part of the deal. Put all black tank supplies in one outside compartment (or tote — with nothing else. You should also pack disposable rubber gloves, Lysol spray, and hand sanitizer. Be sure to attach the two ends of the sewer hose before storing, or you’ll have a stinky mess to deal with later.

Man serving recreational vehicle in dumping station

Black Tank Treatment

RV toilets are not like house toilets, and if you don’t take proper care of them, they can quickly become a smelly nightmare. One of the easiest ways to prevent this is to pack a black tank treatment such as Happy Camper, a popular brand of mineral mixture that breaks down waste and eliminates odors. (Never leave a black tank valve open, even when you have full hookups. You should only ever open the valve when it’s time to dump the tanks; black water first, followed by gray water to clean out the sewer hose a bit.)

Related: Black Water, Gray Water, and Other RV Terms You Need to Know

Girls eating strawberry at family picnic at public park with grandmother

Picnic Table Covers

If you plan to use the picnic table at your campsite, cover it — among several health and safety reasons, many RVers set sewer hoses on picnic tables when packing up. (Please don’t do this.)

Couple on road trip with campervan playing chess

Fun and Games

Bring games. Yard games are an excellent go-to when the weather is nice, but weather doesn’t always cooperate and a rainy day in the camper isn’t nearly such a downer if you have board games or cards to pass the time.

Related: Gifts for RV Owners That'll Put 'Em on the Road in Style

The use of insect repellent in the woods

Bug Repellent

If you’ll be somewhere buggy, don’t forget the repellent. Even though you’ll be sleeping in the RV, there are still plenty of opportunities for bugs to get at you. Nothing ruins a camping trip faster than mosquito bites.

Related: Ways to Repel Bugs Naturally (and Cheaply)