Don't Make These First-Time RV Drivers' Rookie Mistakes

Mistakes Rookie RVers Make

Cheapism / iofoto, Solange_Z/istockphoto

Cheapism is editorially independent. We may earn a commission if you buy through links on our site.
RV on mountain road

RV New to This?

As air travel slowed during the pandemic and hotels became potential sources of increased virus risk, Americans turned to RVs. By the end of May 2020 industry production had begun to surge — RV rentals were up nearly 650% too, The Drive reported — but started to slow down last year. Even so, there are still a lot of inexperienced RV drivers on the roads. We reached out to experts, who offered a wealth of advice for these novices.

Related: RV 101: Boondocking and Other Terms You'll Need to Know

Woman driving RV

Not Practicing Before Hitting the Open Road

Before you shift that massive RV into gear as you embark upon your first major trip, it makes sense to practice getting to know your vehicle first. "Take your time and get familiar with driving the RV in a safe, open area like a large parking lot where there's no one around and put out some safety cones," say Marc and Julie Bennett of the RV Love. "Schools on weekends are a good option. Practice driving, staying in lanes, turning, parking, and backing up until you get the hang of it. It's better to encounter cone obstacles while you're learning instead of real ones, like trees!"

Try before you buy — browse sites such as RVshare and take rentals for a spin.

Related: Little-Known Facts About RVs

man driving RV
Ziga Plahutar/istockphoto

Not Considering an Instruction Course

Even better might be some professional intervention, say the Bennetts, especially if you plan on driving a bigger RV or aren't comfortable driving, towing, or backing. "Consider taking a professional RV driving instruction course. You will learn from professional RV driving instructors and by the end of your training, you'll have much greater driving skills and confidence to hit the road in your rig."

Related: Thinking About Buying an RV? Read This First

Summer vacation with a camper

Overloading Your RV

Many experts agree that one of the biggest mistakes new RV drivers can make is loading up their RV beyond its capacity. "Everyone wants to take all the cool gear for the perfect campsite setup, but all those extra items can make your weight too high to safely drive or tow," says Diana Hansen, who runs the site Let's Camp S'more with her husband, Eric.

Related: 30 RV Accessories That Are a Waste of Money

water filtration RV

Filling Up Tanks at Home

Another weight-related tip? "Many people do not realize that filling your tank adds a lot of extra weight. Water weighs about 7 pounds a gallon, so a full tank of water can make your load too heavy," Hansen notes. "Instead of filling your fresh water tank at home, get a good filtration system, and fill up with water once you arrive at the campground."

Related: 12 Expert Tips for Saving Money on RV Living

Maximum Capacity

Not Knowing Your RV's Carrying Capacity

The key to not overloading your trailer lies in this tip from the Bennetts. "Check the yellow sticker inside the door of your RV and account for your gear, passengers, and water on board. If you overload the safe weight rating for your RV, you're increasing the risk of an accident — and one that your insurance company may not cover if your RV is overweight," they say. 

For more great RV stories and tips, please sign up for our free newsletters.

RV with speed limit

Driving Too Fast

This is another no-no that makes many RV experts' lists of things new drivers do wrong. "An RV isn't a car, so slow down," the Bennetts say. "Allow extra time for your drive than you normally would in a car. Driving an RV is usually, or should be, slower than usual, as there is a lot more to think about and navigate. Plan for your drive to take at least 20% longer than you would in a car — even longer if you like to stop and take in the sights along your way." 

RV clearance

Not Knowing the Height Clearance of Your RV

David Kosofsky of Go RV Rentals notes that low bridge underpasses, low hanging branches, and overhangs at gas stations can cause major roof damage if you collide with them. "Be sure to watch out for these and know the height clearance of your vehicle," he says. "If there is any doubt about the seriousness of this, please check out this video. The best thing is to know your height clearance, watch signs and warnings, and if there is any doubt whatsoever, backup and/or go another way."

Related: RV Nightmares: From Annoying to Messy to Costly

RV turning

Not Knowing About Tail Swing

When turning, the back of your RV might go into areas a shorter vehicle won't — this is called tail swing, and not knowing it can cause wrecks and other damage. "Not figuring out your tail swing could cause you to get in an accident," says Lindsey Maxell of RV travel and lifestyle site Where You Make It. "It's crucial to have someone help you find out what your tail swing is, so you know how far the back of your RV is going to swing out in the opposite direction you're turning."


Not Investing in an RV-Specific GPS ...

Another way to make sure you steer clear of those low bridges and other hazards? A GPS made specifically for RV driving. "You can input your rig size information [and] the GPS will make sure you don't go down small roads you can't fit [on] or under bridges that are too low for your rig. It's a lifesaver and will certainly make you feel more confident driving," says Carrie Price, director of marketing and community support for Boondockers Welcome. Cindy Scott, an RV expert at the site Cinders Travels, recommends going with a Garmin. She says she bought one a few weeks into RV ownership after initially eschewing the expense. "After about a month of experiencing those nerves, we felt it was worth the investment never to have those concerns again."

Related: How to Find Places to Boondock or Free Park in Your RV

Rand McNally Motor Carriers' Road Atlas

… Or a Less Expensive Option

RV ownership can be expensive, so if you can't afford a GPS right away, Sean and Julie Chickery of Chickery's Travels recommend an app called CoPilot for RVs that also lets you enter your RV's specific details. "It is only $30 per year and will direct you appropriately." An even lower-tech option they recommend is the Rand McNally Motor Carriers' Road Atlas. "It shows every highway in North America where truckers can pass, and if a large commercial truck can pass, so can an RV." 

planning route

Not Planning Your Route Properly in Advance

Tools that keep you safe en route are great, but you should also plan before you hit the pavement. You don't want to make on-the-fly decisions with a vehicle that weighs thousands of pounds. Another tool that can help you do this? The RV Trip Wizard, which the Bennetts recommend. "It allows you to enter the RV dimensions like length, height, and weight, find fuel stops and campgrounds along your route, and provides RV-GPS safe-driving instructions that you can download onto your smartphone and help you get there safely."

Related: The Best Budget-Friendly RV Campgrounds in Every State

traffic signs

Not Paying Attention to Road Signs

Bill Widmer of RV travel and lifestyle site The Wandering RV notes that one of the biggest mistakes he sees new RV drivers make is "not paying close attention to road signs, such as low bridges or weight limits, and getting stuck in a bad situation … keep an eye on those signs even if your GPS says you're okay!" 

moutain road

Not Preparing for Mountain Routes

Mountain roads might be one of the trickier driving situations for new RV owners to master. For that reason, the Bennetts say, "if you plan on driving in areas with steep grades or mountains, review your driving options in advance and consider changing your route to one that may be safer and easier on you and the RV." They recommend the Mountain Directory — there are Eastern and Western U.S. version — to help plan your route. 

RV gears
Dmitrii Guldin/istockphoto

Not Downshifting on Steeper Descents

Speaking of mountain driving, you'll want to know the ins and outs of your transmission on roads with steep descents, says Kevin Read who, with his wife, Ruth, runs the website Travel With Kevin and Ruth. He's addressed safely driving in the mountains on his blog, recommending that RV drivers get very familiar with what their rig will do in lower gears to avoid burning out their brakes. "Your transmission is designed to be able to slow you down when going downhill," he writes. "In fact, I've often driven very steep downhill stretches without ever touching the brakes at all."

RVS mountains

Not Using a Spotter for Backing Up

Kosofsky — and many of the other experts we contacted for this story — noted that not using a spotter for backing up is a big mistake of those new to RV traveling. "Backing up can be challenging because you can't see back there behind a long RV. While backup cameras help some, they can be a distraction and don't solve the problem, because there is too much real estate to cover," he notes. "The almost foolproof way to back up without hitting something is to have a spotter stand behind the RV."

back up camera
Yaraslau Saulevich/istockphoto

Not Having a Backup Camera

While it's true that mounting a camera to the back of your RV won't solve every problem, many experts note that it often comes in handy. Scott, of Cinders Travels, notes that she and husband, Barrett, bought a Furrion backup camera after purchasing a fifth-wheel. "Most of the new RVs come pre-rigged for a backup camera to be added, as did ours. Adding a camera seemed like a no-brainer. Neither of us had ever driven a truck or towed a trailer this big ever before. We knew having eyes behind us would be a huge help." 

truck driver walkie talkie

Not Using Walkie Talkies or Phones

Having a spotter is great, but — as Scott points out — "being 50 feet away from each other with a groaning diesel truck between the two of you can easily lead to raised voices, and then raised voices almost always lead to arguing, even if it didn't start that way." She recommends that drivers and their spotters use phones or walkie talkies to communicate. 

thumbs up
Maria Sannikova/istockphoto

Not Using Hand Signals

Also, "don't underestimate the power of hand signals," Scott notes. "They are oh so very helpful. A lot of the time, words aren't even needed. An uncomplicated hand signal can do the trick. And then that's one less time you're tempted to scream across the campground to convey some information."

RV driving

Not Leaving Enough Space

Frank Foley, one half of The Roving Foleys, who's been RVing full time with wife Gráinne and their two kids for years, reminds newbie RV drivers that while on the road with other vehicles they "will never stop as fast as you think. Leave ample space between you and the next car. Don't worry if someone slides in front of you — just reopen the space." 

RV check engine

Not Having a Pre-Drive Checklist

Unlike a car, where you can pretty much just make sure all the doors are closed and roll, many RVs have awnings, antennas, stairs, and other features that need attending to before you put your rig into drive. "Not fun when these things get ripped off by a branch or low bridge," Widmer says. "Have a checklist you check — and double-check — every time you set up or take down your RV."

Adam Petto/istockphoto

Not Thinking About Fuel Efficiency

Of course that massive motorhome isn't fuel-efficient. You already knew that, but there are some things you can do to improve it. "Don't drive over 60 mph for optimal fuel efficiency and safety. If you drive over 60 mph, your fuel economy will plummet, making your gas bill more expensive. Take it nice and easy for a safer, less stressful, and cost-effective drive," the Bennetts say.

Related: 20 Ways to Save Money on Gas for Your RV

checking RV tires

Not Checking Your Tire Pressure Regularly

A blowout could spell disaster and quickly ruin a trip. "Know the correct tire pressure for your RV tires. Always check your tire pressure before every trip and inflate them if needed," say the Bennetts. "Or better yet, consider investing in a Tire Pressure Monitoring System so you can keep track of your tire pressure and temperature before and during your RV road trip. While they won't prevent a tire failure, they can warn you before a blowout occurs and allow you to pull over safely." 

road side assistance

Not Having Roadside Assistance

RVs, say the Bennetts, "break down more often than you might think, and if you need a tow, it's a lot more expensive. Make sure you have adequate 24/7 RV roadside assistance to cover you in the event of a breakdown, and check that you'll be covered for towing." Good Sam Roadside Assistance specializes in RVs. 

Related: What You Need to Know to Start RVing Full Time

RV parking

Not Having an Exit Strategy

This is one that Stephanie Puglisi, an RV expert who also leads the editorial efforts of ToGo RV, calls "getting yourself into a pickle." Never drive your RV anywhere if you don't see a clear way out. "Avoid turning into a parking lot without a clear exit strategy. Many new RVers end up having to do an 85-point U-turn to get out of a tight spot." For this same reason, she recommends fueling up at truck stops and big-rig friendly gas stations whenever possible. "Many Pilot/Flying Js even have dedicated RV gas lanes," she notes. "You'll have more room to maneuver and won't need to worry about your vertical clearance."

tow a trailer

Not Knowing Your Trailer Weight or Tongue Load

Just as you should know your vehicle's cargo capacity, you should also know your trailer weight and tongue load if you're towing a trailer. "Sometimes new RV drivers don't take all the steps necessary to ensure their RV trailer and vehicle are a match," says Mike Betts, Nissan's RV "guru." "Check both your RV's curb weight – the weight of the vehicle without passengers or any cargo – and gross vehicle weight – the maximum total safe weight of the vehicle, including passengers and cargo – to ensure your vehicle is a match." 

trailer hitch

Not Knowing Trailer-Specific Safety

Betts also urges trailer owners to get comfortable with following the following maintenance tips:

  • Check all fluids, especially oil and coolant levels. Towing puts an extra strain on a vehicle, especially in summer.

  • Check and lubricate trailer wheel bearings at the beginning of each season.

  • Ensure you have the proper hitch, and be sure you have the right size tow ball to match your trailer coupler.

  • Be certain the safety chains are connected and properly crossed, not in danger of dragging on the ground. If you have a trailer with brakes, don't forget to connect the cable for the breakaway switch.

  • Connect your trailer wiring with either a flat, four-pin connector for light-duty trailers or a seven-pin connector for trailers with brakes.

RV picnic

Not Taking Driving Breaks

Just because you have a home on wheels doesn't mean you should skip breaks. "Plan to stop every two to three hours to take a break, use the restroom, hydrate, and have a snack or meal," the Bennetts say. "Driving an RV can be tiring, so you don't want to overdo it. Consider following the RV Rule of Threes: Drive no more than 300 miles in a day, take a break at least every three hours, and arrive before 3 p.m." 

RV at night

Arriving at Your Destination After Dark

On the subject of when to arrive at your destination, the Bennetts say to do so while it's still daytime — "and ideally during business hours. Arriving late and especially in the dark just increases the risk that something will go wrong, like hitting something while parking your rig."

Tend To Tires

Forgetting About Your Tires

This piece of advice is especially important if you've recently bought a used RV. "Tires usually age out before they wear out, so even if your RV tires look okay and still have a lot of tread, if they are too old, they will be compromised and not as safe." A general rule is that your RV tires should be less than 7 years old and show no signs of sidewall cracking. How do you check? On each tire, you should see four digits inside an oval circle. "The first two numbers represent the week of the year the times were manufactured and the second two numbers represent the year. So 2218 would mean the tires were made in the 22nd week of 2018. If you're unsure, take the RV to a tire shop and get their opinion." 

RV couple

Not Enjoying the Trip

Finally, slow down and appreciate this new way of travel, the Foleys say, and enjoy it for what it offers. "So many bad things happen because people are in a hurry to reach their destination. It leads to bad decisions like driving too fast for your rig, pushing your awareness limits, etc. The journey is half the fun. Seeing the country, forests, rivers, animals, farms, etc. The Grand Canyon isn't getting any grander, and it's not filling in. Take your time and enjoy it alive." 

Find more great RV stories right here