Man driving on a road in the Camper Van

The Basics of Operating an RV for First Timers

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Man driving on a road in the Camper Van

In the Driver's Seat

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RV travel is an amazing way to see the country. It gives you the opportunity to wander off the beaten path, stay in the moment, and stay comfortable as you do so. It’s also a relatively inexpensive way to travel. All that said, RV operation can also be very stressful. This is especially true if you’re an RV beginner. Driving a motorhome or towing a travel trailer can feel absolutely terrifying when doing it for the first time, and setting up camp is overwhelming if you have no idea what you’re doing. Fortunately, we’re here for you. We've compiled a list of the most important RV basics for beginners. As long as you know these basic tips for RV operation, you’ll be able to hit the road with confidence. So, let’s dive into RV basics 101. 

RV Family with Suitcases

The Tools You Need

Before you even begin RV operation, you will need to pack the rig. Obviously, you’ll need things like socks and underwear, and toiletries are a given. That said, many people have no idea what kinds of tools they might need in order to navigate safely in an RV and then set up camp once they arrive at their destination. For these individuals, we’ve compiled the lists below. Gather these things and you’ll be well equipped for your first time RV operation adventure.

Related: The One Question to Ask Before Getting an RV

Jump Start Cable
Woman Putting Tire Blocks on Camper Trailer
Man crying or being depressed after vacations are cancelled due to Covid-19 pandemic crisis

How to Avoid Mistakes and Accidents

One of the biggest fears people have when operating an RV for the first time is that they’ll make a huge mistake and mess up the rig. This is understandable. After all, RVs aren’t cheap. That said, as long as you know some basic tips and tricks like we’re letting you in on, you shouldn’t have any huge problems.

Related: 30 Biggest Mistakes of First-Time RV Drivers

GPS Devices

Use an RV-Specific GPS

We highly recommend using an RV-specific GPS. Using a GPS made specifically for RVers will help you avoid routes that big rigs can’t handle. Many of these units allow you to download routes in order to ensure you have accurate directions even if no cell connection is available, and some even provide extra features such as a campground search. We especially love the Garmin dezlCam 785.

Related: 10 Free Navigation and Gas Apps for Summer Road Trips

Road trip concept; Young man inside campervam looking at road map for directions exploring national parks and nature ready for adventure.

Have a Navigator

In addition to using an RV-specific GPS, we also recommend having an adult passenger close by to help with navigation. This person can help decipher the GPS instructions if they happen to be unclear. They can also navigate you using the aforementioned trucker’s road atlas should the GPS be out of service for any reason.

Related: 50 Picturesque Road Trips for Safer Travel During the Pandemic

Caravan at the top of Mount Lovchen in Montenegro. A house on wheels near a mountain cliff. Trailer with panoramic views of Kotor Bay.

Avoid Steep Grades

The RV GPS should help you with this one. That said, you might want to double-check every route against the trucker’s atlas just to be sure you can handle any steep grades you might come across. Generally speaking, we like to stick to roads with a 6% grade or less, especially if the incline lasts for miles (and especially if we’re in a large RV).

Related: The Coolest Off-Road RVs for Battling Rough Weather

Summer road trip with a fifth wheel

Take It Slow

If you’re driving an RV, chances are you’re on vacation. This means there’s no real reason to rush and every reason to take things slow. Slowing yourself down, leaving plenty of space between yourself and other vehicles, and hanging out in the right-hand lane whenever possible will make your travel a lot less stressful and a lot safer.

Related: Scenic RV Trips You Can Enjoy Over a Weekend

Shoe on brakes

Brake Early

Even if your travel is almost entirely on the highway, you will have to brake eventually. When this time comes, keep in mind that your rig is much heavier than a typical car, and has a lot more momentum pushing it forward, so it’s going to take longer to stop. That extra space we mentioned before comes in handy for this reason, but you’ll also want to start applying brakes sooner than you might otherwise.

Burning Concerns

Make Wide Turns

Another thing to understand when driving a big rig is that you’ll make very wide turns. Give yourself room to do that, and make sure to think ahead when pulling into gas stations, ensuring you have room to get out again.

Rvs Parked on Street

Avoid Big Cities

Driving in a big, busy city is stressful at the best of times. Doing it when driving a big rig for the first time is not a good idea. Instead, make a point of navigating around cities. Yes, this is worth adding some time to your trip, at least at first.

Related: Best RV Destinations for Spring

Filling up the tank of campervan

Know Your Fuel Type

Of course, you will need to refuel from time to time throughout your journey. Before doing this, make absolutely sure you know what kind of fuel your RV or tow vehicle uses, and only use that kind of fuel. Using the wrong fuel is a surefire way to mess up your trip.

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

Truck towing a large camping trailer on a road through the Columbia Icefield
Ceri Breeze/istockphoto

Be Aware of Your RV’s Measurements

We mentioned before that some routes are more challenging or even impossible for RVs to use. Most of the time the reason RVs can’t take these routes is because of size. For this reason, you will want to know the size and weight of your RV before you begin RV operation, so you know whether a route will work for you.

Related: The One Question to Ask Before Getting an RV

Camper Van Summer Trip

Low Clearances

Low-clearance bridges and tunnels exist all over the country. Your RV GPS should navigate you around these. That said, it doesn’t hurt to know how tall your RV is. That way, if you come across a bridge with a lower height, you know whether or not you’ll fit.

Truck and trailer crossing a river

Bridge Weight Limits

Many small bridges have weight limits. Before driving over a bridge with a posted limit, think about the weight of your RV (plus everything you’ve loaded into it) to be sure it’s safe to cross. You might be surprised just how heavy an RV can be.

Mobile home in a town street

Narrow Roads

Generally speaking, interstates are plenty wide enough for any RV. That said, there are some smaller roads that do get quite narrow. Most of these will have a posted width limit. Therefore, knowing the width of your RV before you start driving is always a good idea.

Related: 12 Dangerous Roads You Should Never Drive in an RV

A large outdoor Rev Mountain Car and Bike Show in Lincoln, Montana
Cheri Alguire/istockphoto

Small Campsites

Finally, there is campsite size to consider. Knowing the length and width of your RV (with slides out!) will help you determine what size site you need when you reach the campground.

Related: RV Campgrounds to Avoid, According to Reviewers

Caravans And Camping At A Park
Michele Jackson/istockphoto

Know Your Hookups and Tanks

Now that you have an idea of how to get from point A to point B, let’s talk about the next step of RV operation: setting up camp. Obviously, you will need to unhitch if you’re pulling a trailer or a tow car, and you should level the rig using leveling blocks under the tires. Some RVs will also require that you put down stabilizer jacks.

The next step? Hookups and tanks.

Related: Boondocking and Other RV Terms You Need to Know

Rough It During Short Stays

Start With Electric

First, it’s important that you know what amperage your RV requires. Most smaller RVs require a 30-amp hookup. Meanwhile, big rigs will need 50-amp. Knowing this when choosing your site will ensure you have the type of hookup you need. If you end up on a campsite with only one amperage but you need the other, you can always invest in an adapter. Just know that when plugging a 50-amp RV into a 30-amp outlet, you will need to carefully watch how much electricity you use at any given time.

To plug into the electric box, simply ensure the breaker to the outlet you wish to use is flipped to ‘Off,’ then plug your RV’s power cord into a surge protector, which in turn plugs into the socket. Flip the breaker back on and you should have power. When it comes time to unplug, flip the breaker back off, pull the surge protector from the socket, and put the surge protector and power cord away.

Related: 10 Tricks for Staying Cool in Your RV

RV Water Tank

Hook Up Water

Once you have your electric hookup sorted, it’s time to turn your attention to the water. Most campsites have a water spigot. Connect your water pressure regulator to the end of a freshwater (white) hose and connect the pressure regulator to the spigot. Connect the other end of the white hose to the city water connection port on your trailer or motorhome. Turn the water on slowly and adjust as needed. 

If your site doesn’t have a spigot, you will need to fill the freshwater tank before you park. To do this, locate the freshwater fill label on the outside of your RV (sometimes labeled as “city water” or similar). Remove the cap, connect a freshwater hose to a potable water spigot, place the other end of the hose inside the freshwater fill (or connect it if necessary), turn the water on, and fill it until the control panel indicates that the tank is full. This water will be accessible from your sink(s), shower, and/or toilet once you’ve turned on your RV’s built-in water pump.

Black Water

Learn How to Dump Your Tanks

Lastly, you will need to know how to dump your tanks. First, be sure to don some disposable gloves. Connect your sewer hose to the dump pipe on the outside of your RV by twisting it on. Using an adapter piece, connect the other end of the sewer hose to the sewer drain pipe on your site or at a dump station, making sure it is twisted in securely. 

When your tanks are full enough to dump, open your black water tank valve first, allowing everything to drain from the tank. This may take a while, depending on how full it is. When it stops trickling, close the black tank valve and open the gray tank valve, ensuring it empties completely by listening for water to stop draining. Close the gray tank. 

After emptying your tanks, it’s a good idea to put a few gallons of water down the toilet and one of the sinks, along with some tank cleaner to keep things fresh.

Women on summer road trip reading map for directions

How to Plan Your Trip

You now know the basics of how to start RVing. The next step is to plan your trip. In our opinion, this is one of the most fun parts, so be sure to enjoy this process.

Related: Bucket List RV Trips for 2021

RV Parking Lot
Philip Wyers/istockphoto
Recreational Vehicle Driving on Autumn Highway In Beautiful Mountains Wilderness
Cavan Images/istockphoto

Plan Short Drives

When planning your adventure, keep in mind that you’ll be driving slower than usual. On top of that, fuel stops can take much longer in a large vehicle such as an RV. For this reason, a trip that should take five or six hours according to the GPS can easily take all day. Take this into account when planning your travel days, and stick to shorter drives whenever possible.

Related: Scenic RV Trips You Can Enjoy Over a Weekend

gas station and mountains

Map Out Fuel Stops

Speaking of fuel stops, it’s a good idea to map those out in advance. This ensures you never run too low on fuel, and if you do enough research, you can even make sure the stations you choose are big enough to easily pull into and back out of.

Campground Full Sign

Book Campgrounds in Advance

It's a real bummer to drive all day only to discover that the campground you’d planned to sleep in is full. For this reason, we highly recommend booking all of your campgrounds in advance, especially on your first few trips.

Related: Explore Top Campgrounds By State

Camping in Zion

Choose Campsites Carefully

When booking those campsites in advance, make sure you know what kinds of hookups you’re looking for, as not all campsites include all hookups. Additionally, you may want to request pull-through sites at first until you get some practice with backing your RV up.

Related: Going Camping? 21 Campgrounds to Avoid, According to Reviewers

Travel Planning

Use RV Trip Wizard

Our last planning tip is to use an RV trip planning program. We really love RV Trip Wizard, as we find it covers all bases. It even has an app that goes along with it, making it easy to take your trip planning with you wherever you go.

Related: 11 Tips for Taking a Road Trip on the Cheap

Checking off a checklist on a clipboard
Ralf Geithe/istockphoto

Keep a Checklist

This is a lot to remember about RV operation, and you’re sure to come across other little things you’d like to keep in mind for next time. For this reason, we highly recommend keeping a running checklist of all the things you need to pack, as well as the steps you need to take when setting up camp and when breaking it back down.

This will help ensure everything gets done correctly and goes smoothly so you can fully enjoy your RV vacation.

Related: How to Pack for a Week in a Few Easy Steps!