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Driving Your RV

Things to Know Before You Take Your First Trip

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Campervan in the wild
Andy Stothert/Photodisc/Getty Images
Updated June 06, 2014

Driving an RV, whether a motor home or travel trailer, is more like driving an 18-wheeler than driving a car or pickup. It's smart to learn to drive your RV under all driving conditions long before you take your first trip because there are too many ways you can get into trouble.

RV Weight Considerations

The sheer weight of your RV far exceeds the weight of the average daily driver, so you should expect it to handle differently. Controllable weight considerations include:

  • RV type: travel trailer, motor home or pop-up tent
  • What you pack into your RV–Supplies, appliances, clothing, blankets, gear, etc.
  • Towed items: trailer or car
  • Water
  • Fuel
  • Propane tanks

Weight Distribution

Before you pull away from the curb be sure your weight is balanced. Where you put everything in your RV will affect how your RV handles on the road. Distribute the weight evenly on both sides of the RV, as well as front and back.

If you are pulling a travel trailer or 5th wheel, it gets more complicated. Too much weight on the hitch or in front of the RV axels will lose traction on the front wheels of your tow vehicle. Too little weight on the hitch loses traction on the the rear wheels. Balance the weight over the axels and the hitch, and put less weight in other areas.

Stock your RV with lightweight items, such as plastic dishes rather than ceramic plates, and aluminum rather than steel cookware. Follow that thinking with every non-disposable item you bring.

Water weighs 8.35 pounds per gallon. If your fresh water tank holds 20 gallons and your water heater hold 6 gallons, traveling with them full increases your weight by 217 pounds or so. Many larger RVs can hold 85 gallons of fresh water in addition to a 10-gallon water heater increasing their weight by over 790 pounds. That doesn't include water you might have in your black and gray tanks.

Liquids slosh back and forth when the RV is in motion. With no baffles in your tanks to stop this motion the moving weight can throw your RV from side-to-side while you are driving. You need to fill your fuel tanks while traveling, but wait until you arrive at your RV park, or, if you are dry-camping are close to your destination, to fill your water tanks.

Width

Most road lanes are 12 feet wide. Your car or truck is about 6 feet wide giving you a roomy 3 feet on either side. Class A and B motor homes and many travel trailers are 8 or more feet wide. That leaves you less than 2 feet on either side of your RV. Practice driving yours long enough to become comfortable with the tight squeeze so that you're comfortable driving in construction zones or on roads with drop-offs.

Backing Up

As if backing up wasn't a big enough challenge, try it with an oversized RV and only side mirrors to guide you. This skill takes time to learn and often a second person to guide you safely. Commercial driving students spend several days just backing up a truck and trailer before they learn to back into a space.

Your RV is much shorter, but still requires practice. An empty parking lot on a weekend is a good place to start. Make a 12-foot wide lane with cones or markers, then practice backing up between them. Once you master that pull up perpendicular to the lane and practice backing into the space.

A spotter using hand signals or a radio can communicate with you. The spotter stands where you can see him in the side mirror and directs you with hand or arm signals. Arms sweeping in a “come here” motion mean "continue backing up." Holding up a fist that faces the driver indicates “stop.” He indicates your distance from an object behind or next to the RV by moving hands with palms open toward each other to approximate how far the RV is from the object.

If you are backing a trailer, you will move the steering wheel in the opposite direction that you would if you were backing a motor home. Most people do better holding the steering wheel at the bottom because the trailer will turn in the direction you turn the bottom of the steering wheel. To put it another way, to get the rear of the trailer to go left, you will turn the steering wheel to the right. But when you do, the bottom of the steering wheel turns to the left.

Small trailers and ones with only one axel are actually harder to maneuver than larger ones or ones with two or three axels. Small trailers respond quickly and can jackknife easily.

Good RV Driving Habits

Along with the basic ability to move the RV forward and backward, there are other factors that will affect your ability to keep your RV under control. Here are a few to be aware of:

  • Keep your RV between the lines.
  • Uneven road surfaces, like the worn "tracks" resulting from vehicle tires can cause you to veer in your lane.
  • Acceleration and braking will be slower with all the weight. Braking and stopping can take 3-5 times longer than a car, and longer yet on wet roads.
  • Check your mirrors every 30 seconds. Things change quickly.
  • Also check your tires along with traffic and road conditions in your mirrors. If they are smoking or appear to be coming apart pull over immediately.
  • Watch the road at least 1/4 mile ahead. Things change quickly.
  • Give yourself plenty extra time if you decide to pass a vehicle. Your heavier and longer RV will take more time than your car. Be sure you have room to pass safely.
  • Anticipate how you will get out of any situation before you drive into it. Gas stations are a common situation. Check height, width, turning space, exits.

Where to Learn More

As more people take up RVing, RV driving schools are becoming more common. Run an Internet search on "rv driving school 'your city' "; to find schools near you. Check, also with Camping World, Good Sam Clubs, dealerships, rental agencies or publications for RV driving schools.

RV Education 101
sells a video on driving an RV. They offer an option of unlimited online viewing for PC users. The online version is not Mac compatible but Mac users can buy the DVD.

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