RVing for the first time? 8 tips for newbies I wish I’d known during my first trip

A month ago, if I had heard the words “black water” in conversation, I’d have assumed the speaker was discussing an obscure movie, perhaps an Australian film (there are two by that name) or a Jean-Claude Van Damme flick that I haven’t seen.

But two weeks of driving across the country the words “black water” immediately conjure images of RVs, wastewater tanks and, well, poo spilling out onto my feet (which we’ll get to later).

I know now that the first definition of black water are solid and liquid waste that must be dumped from an RV’s holding tanks, because I am now an RVer.

To be more precise, I’m someone who has laughed, cried, sung very loudly, been car sick quietly (when I was sitting in the back, which is a much rockier ride), seen pink sunrises, viewed orange mountains, passed by hundreds of bison, made countless PB&Js and listened to hours of podcasts while riding along in a 25-foot RV across the country a few weeks ago with my boyfriend.

Our RV is parked as the sun rises in Badlands National Park.
Our RV is parked as the sun rises in Badlands National Park.

I’m one of the many people who decided to take a summer road trip – complete with a vehicle that has a toilet and fridge – after the global pandemic made other travel plans unsafe and/or impossible. 

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After spending nearly 4,000 miles on the road in a an RV, I know a lot more than I did a month ago. A lot that I, frankly, wish I’d known before leaving California to head to New Jersey.

But I’ll give you, dear reader, the benefit of my two weeks of experience inside of my temporary motorhome.

Here are eight tips that I wish I had known before embarking on my first RV road trip.

1. Don’t get poop on yourself

Make sure the dump valves are closed before you open the storage compartment on the side of the vehicle to remove the cap and connect the sewer hose.
Make sure the dump valves are closed before you open the storage compartment on the side of the vehicle to remove the cap and connect the sewer hose.

If there’s a toilet in your rig, you’re going to need to dump the waste – the aforementioned black water – at some point. When you go to open the storage compartment on the side of the vehicle to remove the cap and connect the sewer hose in order to dump, remember this: Make sure the dump valves are closed! 

You may not know exactly what I’m talking about now, but please trust me on this. Watch videos about dumping the holding tanks. Read the page in your motorhome manual about the tanks. Make sure you close those latches! Otherwise, you might gag while your sneakers become “poop shoes” you can never wear again.

2. Remember your toolkit

Bring a set of hex wrenches along with you.
Bring a set of hex wrenches along with you.

It’s hard to anticipate something like having your sideview mirror get so loose that it no longer provides any help with attempting lane changes. But these things happen, and you should prepare for them, instead of relying on your copilot to turn or finding a man on the road who has a wrench you can borrow to tighten said mirror.

Bring a toolkit. Bring allen or hex wrenches. Bring duct tape. Bring scissors. Bring rubber bands and zip ties. Bring plenty of towels that you can use as noise buffers (if your rig is as rickety as our Ford F-350-based ride from Cruise America was) by wrapping them around various doors and drawers and windows. Be ready to fix the unanticipated.

3. Pack sufficient cookware

If your rented RV has a stove and comes with kitchen tools, you should check that it also has pans, cutting boards and silverware. And if it has knives, make sure they’re sharp enough to cut effectively. 

Ours did not. We only learned when we returned our RV that if we had replaced the missing or faulty cookware with items we bought, then Cruise America would’ve reimbursed us for the new items (though we did not read about this online). This may not be the case elsewhere, but it’s wise to take complete inventory of your cookware regardless, and make sure you pack thermoses.

4. Use leveling blocks

We had our Cruise America on blocks in order to make sure it stayed level.
We had our Cruise America on blocks in order to make sure it stayed level.

Like Legos? You’ll love stackable leveling blocks that you can place under your vehicle’s wheels in order to level out your parking spot. Buy a set (Home Depot, Amazon and plenty of other sellers offer blocks) before you embark on your trip.

If a level (which should be in that toolbox you brought) determines that your RV is not flat, determine which wheel(s) need a lift.

When it was too dark or we were too tired to use leveling blocks, we faced consequences: Our fridge stopped running (because it relies on gravity to cool properly and only works when the vehicle is level) and I felt like I was floating, unevenly, at sea.

That brings me to my next tip.

5. Get into your campground before dark

It’s very challenging to see camping spot numbers and even harder to determine whether you’ve parked safely (and level) in the dark.
It’s very challenging to see camping spot numbers and even harder to determine whether you’ve parked safely (and level) in the dark.

Map out your trip so that you get to your overnight parking spot before dark. Whether you’re driving into a campground, an RV park  or – especially  – a place in the woods where you’ll be boondocking (RV-speak for spending the night somewhere for free, without electric or water hookups), it’s important to be able to see your surroundings.

It’s very challenging to see camping spot numbers and even harder to determine whether you’ve parked safely (and level) in the dark. Also: You don’t want to wake up and be unable to recognize your surroundings. Waking up in a new place each morning is jarring enough as it is!

6. Download camping apps

A look at our RV that was parked at a Harvest Host in Pennsylvania.
A look at our RV that was parked at a Harvest Host in Pennsylvania.

If not for two particular apps, there would have been many nights that we wouldn’t have found a place to sleep. May I recommend Campendium and Harvest Hosts?

Campendium is like a Yelp for RVers that provides honest reviews and detailed information on middle-of-nowhere spots to boondock or pay to camp. We have this app to thank for our most memorable parking spot, on a plateau in the Badlands of South Dakota.

Harvest Hosts is a program that, after one annual fee of $79, connects you with a number of unique places to stay overnight for free. You may not have anticipated a stop at an Ohio vineyard or a Pennsylvania brewery when you were initially mapping out your road trip, but you likely won’t regret staying – and getting drinks once you arrive.

7. Use RV toilet essentials

You'll need special toilet paper for your RV's bathroom that is designed to dissolve easily.
You’ll need special toilet paper for your RV’s bathroom that is designed to dissolve easily.

Sorry to bring up the bathroom again, but it’s important. Without it, traveling during a pandemic would be a lot more dangerous.

And if you don’t pack certain RV bathroom essentials, you’ll find yourself up a certain river without a paddle.

Dissolvable toilet paper and scented toilet capsules (that you should drop in your tank, after you flush plenty of water, at the start of your excursion) are important for preventing buildup and odors.These can be found at stores including Walmart. 

Even if you use those things properly, you might end up with a clog in your toilet. For that, one of the many remedies you can find online involves pouring boiling water down the toilet. That’s the only one I can endorse, because it seemed to be the thing that worked for us.

8. Wake up early, watch the sunrise, take a nap

What it looked like from the RV during an early-morning drive through Yellowstone National Park.
What it looked like from the RV during an early-morning drive through Yellowstone National Park.

Driving your bathroom and kitchen around with you makes life super convenient. You can eat, nap and relieve yourself whenever you’d like!

With that in mind, here’s how I recommend structuring days when you visit national parks: Wake up by 5 a.m. Make coffee. Drive inside the park to a place with a gorgeous view. Enjoy the sunrise and wildlife with few other humans around. Go to sleep. Wake up already in the place that other people are waiting in line for. Go on a hike. 

When you return, take a moment to appreciate the RV lifestyle. One you get to your camping spot, take time to appreciate the nature around you before retiring to your big sleeping box. Promise yourself you’ll go on another road trip soon.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Planning your first RV vacation? Here are 8 tips for newbies

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