What to look out for renting a camper (motorhome) for the first time?
February 14, 2012 6:31 AM   Subscribe

Camper (motorhome) filter: we (me, my wife and kids (5-year old daughter and 4 year old son) and our small dog) are going to tour Europe in a camper van (this one). I've never driven such a vehicle before and I've never lived in a camper before. I need your advice.

I went to check out the camper. It was built in 2009, it looks just fine, the mileage is low, slightly over 70 thousand kilometers (45 thousand miles). The interior is clean and has no detectable smell. The price includes the necessary insurance. We are going to spend three weeks in it covering 4,500+ kilometers (3000 miles) in Germany, Austria, France and possibly the UK (we know about the requirements that have to be met to let the dog in). I've read what I could find online but I think my google-fu is failing me - the advice I've found so far seems so general and based on common sense that I can't shake the feeling I'm heading blissfully into an unknown disaster.
If there's one thing you'd want to warn me about based on your own experience, what would it be? All other advice is welcome too!
posted by hat_eater to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think the major thing with RVs is the roof. It would be hard to tell beforehand unless you were in it during a storm, but make sure it doesn't leak. Being new, it probably isn't an issue though. If you want to get practice driving a large vehicle, perhaps rent a moving van?
posted by narcoleptic at 6:37 AM on February 14, 2012

First important detail I forgot to provide: we are going in May.
posted by hat_eater at 6:38 AM on February 14, 2012

I'm sure you've done the basic checks right:
Make sure wear on the tires looks even - ask if tires have been replaced
Test hitch and lights
Does the battery charge whilst driving - is there a 3-way connection that allows you to choose battery, propane or electric?
Check the seals to make sure they aren't brittle
Learn about how the brakes work and if there is a chance you can get a lock up - would you know what to do.
By taking a look at the on line manual you could come up with a checklist of things you want to know about before buying.
We always carry an extra propane tank but that's because we camp in a lot of wilderness areas.

Let's say you've done these basic checks and then you get on the road. You're happy and moving along and you get to your first campground to find you're having problems with something. Ask anyone for help. Most people are only to happy to take a look at your RV and give suggestions or help or be in a position to fix something. Often the campground owners will also know where to go for repairs locally.

Get on the road early and carefully time when you are driving through built up areas to reduce your stress and if possible avoid towing in crappy weather. Research where you want to stop - staying in a nice campground is the best reward for all the hassles that can be associated with owing a RV. They have their rewards and they can be a burden. Kids love them - parents like them - after a few years they can become a bit of a burden as you may come to realize that you have more freedom without a RV and you don't always save a whole lot of money. Plus there are the shared bathrooms at campgrounds and cramped space. On the other hand parking up beside a pristine lake or river is pretty unbeatable.

May is a nice time to travel in Europe - before the crowd descends. Find a good campgrounds book for the countries you are visiting. Read reviews on the campgrounds and choose ones that fit your desires. The prime disadvantage to campgrounds is that they are often not located in the city centre and this means you either need to drive in and try to find parking (and pay a ton for it) or figure out how the public transport works and if it goes to the campground.

We are coming to the end of our "trailer days". We had lots of fun but it was certainly not without a fair share of stress. The drive is never as easy, gas consumption is brutal and there is the whole set up nightmare - bound to cause at least one family argument per trip. Watch out for other bad drivers in the campground - we've been hit whilst stationary twice as people back up their trucks or rigs don't look carefully enough - often elderly with some limited range of movement and unaware of their surroundings.
posted by YukonQuirm at 6:59 AM on February 14, 2012

hmm - missed the bit where you said "renting" I pretty much take everything back - renting is easy - go for it
posted by YukonQuirm at 7:00 AM on February 14, 2012

Don't run the box into low bridges or other overhangs. Make sure you know how to fill the water tank, empty the waste tanks, and operate the refrigerator. Otherwise, don't worry too much. A late-model vehicle like that should be fairly trouble-free.
posted by jon1270 at 7:17 AM on February 14, 2012

I recommend booking a few nights in hotels to break up your trip. It'll feel more like a vacation if you (and your spouse) don't have to clean up after everyone.

Don't plan on the RV for living space. It gets cramped and claustrophobic quickly. Look for places to park that have good amenities. Stop often for bathroom breaks and to get out and stretch.
posted by TooFewShoes at 7:28 AM on February 14, 2012

Oh! I spent half my childhood in one of these! Slight exaggeration, but we were off travelling and camping constantly in ours from my infancy (actually, we started with a tent, and got fancier progressively over the years) until I left home, and my parents had Every. Single. Thing. down to a science.

Since I left all that strategic stuff up to them, I'm afraid I can't give you all the skinny on packing, buying, and cooking for life on the road, but I can say this much: we didn't interact with the camper as a teenyweeny apartment on wheels; most of our life was spent outside the camper when we camped.

We only used the camper toilet under duress, choosing rest stops and camping ground bathrooms/showers for the needful whenever possible (and the plan was that it was pretty much always going to be possible), because dealing with emptying and maintaining that on the regular is no fun. We had a sturdy canopy that could be unrolled from the camper, so we had shade from the sun, and even if it rained we weren't stuck inside unless it was a nasty storm. My parents had a Coleman stove and a hibachi that they used for most of the cooking, outside, folding tables and chairs for outside... even cheery, colorful patio lights for atmosphere, plus Coleman lanterns for hanging out outside after dark... as well as making a fire in the (usually available) fire pit. We were more about using ice chests (and replenishing the ice as needed) than using the camper fridge, and almost never used the camper stove.

I think a lot of this was about economizing, but we also would often camp in places that didn't necessarily have electrical outlets onsite... so we were sort of set up for operating as though the camper was more like a temporary shelter like a tent... and also the whole reason they wanted to take the camper out was to go to cool places and be outdoors. And of course, being cooped inside such a small space is crazymaking; you really want to embrace the freedom and beauty of the outdoors after travelling extended hours in a vehicle, even if it's a pretty snazzy motorhome.

So once we were at our destination, we mostly only spent time inside when we were sleeping, unless the weather was bad... though I do remember my mom actually baking me a birthday cake in the little camper oven, so we did use the built-in amenities occasionally. They also definitely had an electric frying pan that we used inside for breakfasty breakfasts sometimes (bacon, pancakes).

They would pore over maps and travel magazines for routes and places to stay, so it was a consuming passion/hobby, even when we weren't travelling. As far as the in-transit part, they planned carefully to avoid rush hours in cities, and they pulled over to the nearest safe place when there were bad headwinds... and the rest I don't know! I was too busy reading my book and missing half the experience, which they gently chided me about. I do love my books, but I do wish I had paid a little more attention during a lot of that traveling. :)
posted by taz at 9:48 AM on February 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

We now live in one (yay!). My main piece of advice is know how to drive up and down hills. We lost our brakes after going down a steep hill using braking as the only means of slowing down. Learn how to slow down with the engine. Yours isn't that big, and I don't know what the weight is, but go slower than a normal car. Don't rush as things can come up beyond your control. Allow plenty of space between you and the car in front of you. On narrow windy roads pull over as often as needed to allow other cars to pass, so they won't stress you out. Go even slower around curves and on windy days.

Just taking your time will solve all these problems. I now love to drive my rig (36'), but I look at it as moving our house from place to place. As long as it takes is o.k.

Also, when you get to where you are, remember to look at outdoor space as an extension of your living area. When we pull in, the first thing I do is put out a table, chairs, awning, whatever else completes the additional room.

Then I sit down and have a glass of wine.
posted by Vaike at 9:55 AM on February 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

One other thing that might not apply to you. But we are finding, here in the western U.S. that a lot of places aren't allowing wood campfires. Propane is o.k., so, if that is the case, it might be worth it to buy a little $50-100 set up.
posted by Vaike at 9:57 AM on February 14, 2012

Thank you for all the answers! We are planning to sleep, ride and sometimes cook in the camper, not actually live in it, and the hotel breaks are rather out of our reach financially as it is. We are taking two bicycles with child seats with us to move about after setting camp.
The Paris thread downstairs is also very helpful!
posted by hat_eater at 11:00 AM on February 14, 2012

If you have not already done so, now would a very good time to teach your dog that dog NEVER goes through a door without permission. You don't want little dog leaping out into the unknown and taking off after a critter (or tripping a child who is holding a leash). You also do not want dirty little dog jumping into your small camper and making a mess.

I love campers! Have fun.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 12:46 PM on February 14, 2012

Ship has to be tight before heading out or posessions can explode everywhere on a hairpin turn!

Take time beforehand to consolidate kits — mess kit, toiletries, laundry, snacks — that are in containers that keep them organized and easy to round-up and secure. Bonus is it makes stuff that has to be washed easier to transport to-and-from the water source.

Bring some bungee cords if you can, in case something (cupboard door) acts up.

Ice chest/cooler can save power over a built-in fridge (or use the built-in as a cooler!). Food cycle would be 2-3 days worth i reckon, in terms of how much storage there is.

+1 have fun!
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 3:15 PM on February 14, 2012

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