First time RVing - totally awesome or terrible idea?
January 31, 2017 12:08 PM   Subscribe

I've become obsessed with the idea of taking an RV trip around the Grand Canyon/American southwest. I'm pretty good on the itinerary part of the equation (LOTS of previous questions to refer to on that one) but for the life of me I can't find a single question about what an RV vacation is really like and whether it's a good idea.

For the record, I have never set foot inside an RV. I don't know where this desire comes from but I can't seem to shake it. To complicate things further, my partner who will be accompanying me on this grand trip (get it?) is not at all enthused about the RV idea - but he's willing to go along with it for my sake.

The Situation:
Most likely flying into Vegas and renting there; then some variation of the Grand Circle. Duration isn't set in stone yet but somewhere from 7-10 days. I'm looking at the tiniest RVs I can find, 19' if possible, but I do prefer the idea of having a toilet/shower.

Some Details:
I don't camp. I don't like "roughing it", I don't like the idea of being without electricity or running water. BUT I also don't love the idea of checking in and out of hotels every day or two, waiting until mid-afternoon to check in and not even spending a full 24hrs before having to pack up and leave. I DO love the idea of bringing my hotel room with me and having the option of stopping (practically) wherever we want if the urge strikes. But unfortunately I am also an obsessive planner and worrier, so I need to know every single thing about RVing before I can commit to doing it.

The Question(s):

1. Is RVing for me? What is it like? Is it actually super fun or is it too involved and cumbersome and I'll just end up wishing I had booked hotel rooms?

2. How do I RV? What are the basic tasks I need to be comfortable doing just to live in one for a week?

2a. Is there some intro-to-short-term-RVing guide on the internet that I'm missing? A detailed overview perhaps? I've found lots of "So you're moving into an RV long-term" type stuff but it doesn't seem as helpful. I want to know stuff like how often I need to dump the wastewater tanks, how long the battery or whatever will last if I don't have an electric hookup, how doable is it to spend a night without hookups at all and what to be aware of, etc.

3. Is the toilet/shower in a small RV even really worth having? Or is it a better idea to get one of those glorified vans that have a mattress and sink and just plan on showering at campsites?

4. What have I not thought of?

Thanks in advance!
posted by krakenattack to Travel & Transportation (25 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Forgot to mention I'm aiming for mid-late May/perhaps early June, if that matters.
posted by krakenattack at 12:12 PM on January 31, 2017

Have you ever driven a dump truck? How about about a schoolbus? What's the largest vehicle you have driven regularly, and feel comfortable with?

My point is, I see people getting stuck in RVs often, if not in the national or state park, then in the nearby town or strip mall. Not usually the people who own RVs, But the ones that say "rent me" or whatever on the side. You have to sort of know the area, or at least know how to not go down any drive unless you are SURE there is a way to get out without turning around. And that every turn has a wide radius. And that nothing will interfere with overhead clearance. Etc. Note I'm not even getting in to high winds, merging, visibility concerns, general mushy control, and other issues that come into travel on interstates and small highways.

In short: I'd not recommend anyone rent a vehicle for a week if that vehicle is significantly larger than the largest they are very comfortable with.

This is related to how you see U-Haul carnage around any major university move-in day. The difference is, nobody rents U-Hauls for pleasure, thinking it will be an easy good time.
posted by SaltySalticid at 12:34 PM on January 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

Remember to check with your credit card company because they may (or may not) cover the rental insurance on the vehicle, in which case paying for insurance through the rental company can be avoided.

You mentioned the small van RVs and I wanted to just link you two rental companies I've considered (with locations in Las Vegas). The price seemed to be cheaper than hotels+rental car for the same trip.
posted by czytm at 12:41 PM on January 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

My parents too their first RV trip to Yosemite a couple years ago, and I've got an itch to try renting a small RV and tool around Oregon Brewery Country (I'm in Seattle).

Based on speaking with them (they are about halfway between "plan everything" and "roll with it," as far as vacationing), they did more planning in terms of travel times and places, same as you'd pre-plan lodging, and less as far as what to do when they'd get there. So, they researched where they could park the thing with sewage, water, power, and sometimes internet options.

So, you should at least nail down some route specifics if not the timing, and work out: RV parks and their availability, truck stops and gas options aren't going to be close together, logistics for visiting particular places (i.e. RV camping at Grand Canyon), frivolous destinations (Roswell, NM, for example), and interest food opportunities ( and similar), and Walmarts (which are cool with you spending the night in their parking lot-- maybe other stores are too).

re: 2, whomever you rent from will have some info covering 2 and 2A, but you may want to think about how you want to store/prepare/eat food, either in the RV or in restaurants, or what combination thereof. You'll probably have to stock the RV's galley a little with the basics, and find out the scope of cooking you can manage.

One other person told me that RV travel is slower than car travel because RVs have a fuel efficiency that really nosedives above 45-50, so you'll want to track your gas consumption and make time-allowances accordingly.
posted by Sunburnt at 12:42 PM on January 31, 2017

Is RVing for me? What is it like? Is it actually super fun or is it too involved and cumbersome and I'll just end up wishing I had booked hotel rooms?

I can't tell if it's for you or not. It's definitely much more physically comfortable and convenient than camping. It's definitely less physically comfortable than staying in a hotel. I think it's fun, but I personally think camping is even more fun. There is electricity and running water, but they're limited. You can certainly brush your teeth and wash dishes and take showers, but the less water you use, the longer you can go between refilling the fresh water, and emptying the dish water / shower water ("grey water"). The toilet is fine, and flushes to a separate tank ("black water"), so that could also limit the time you can go between finding an RV hookup, even if you're otherwise very aggressive about water conservation.

The shower will not be as luxurious as the shower in a hotel. It may or may not be better than the shower in a campground.

How do I RV? What are the basic tasks I need to be comfortable doing just to live in one for a week?

Probably the biggest one is you have to be comfortable driving unwieldy vehicles with bad visibility.

Having two people is very helpful - there's some stuff to remember (e.g., turn off the water pump when you're not using it), and there's some stuff to figure out, and while parking, it's really useful to have someone who can get out and tell you how much clearance you have.

I want to know stuff like how often I need to dump the wastewater tanks, how long the battery or whatever will last if I don't have an electric hookup, how doable is it to spend a night without hookups at all and what to be aware of, etc.

It's absolutely reasonable to spend a bunch of nights in a row without hookups - that's the whole point!

For power, RVs have a battery, but they also have a generator. The generator is noisy, and you probably won't want to run it all the time, but if you pull in with a full gas tank, you can go for a long time by using the generator periodically to recharge the battery.

The kitchen in an RV, including refrigeration, runs on propane.

How long you can go without a hookup depends hugely on how you use the RV. When you're renting the RV, ask them how big the various tanks are and how long you should expect those to last.

One thing to be aware of is if you are going to be in cities at all, it may be some extra effort to find somewhere you can park an RV. And plan for longer drive times than you would have in a regular car.
posted by aubilenon at 12:43 PM on January 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

I grew up in a family that travelled in a variety of RVs every summer. It's really not as complicated as you're imagining. Really. It's a hotel room that you drive around with you. We owned ours, but keep in mind that the rental companies rent these things to any random yahoo who wants one. The average American tourist is dumb as a box of rocks, even if they're a reasonably smart person in their day-to-day lives, and yet there is not a huge epidemic of people maiming themselves with their RVs. (They do sometimes get them stuck places, though.)

All of the information on how often you will have to do things will depend on the model of RV you are using and how many people are staying in it. When you arrange to rent the RV, they will give you this kind of information.

IMHO, showers in RVs are never to be used unless there's no warm water alternative where you are staying. Even in the bus-sized units, they're basically awful. But yes to toilets. Midnight bathroom runs are not the most fun when the bathroom is several hundred feet away or more. Even if you don't use it in the daytime, it's still worth it.

The main thing to keep in mind in planning is that an RV is not a car. You should disabuse yourself of the image of stopping wherever you want, because actually parking an RV is a pain in the ass and requires a reasonably large amount of space. They're great to drive to a place and park in a campground and then find some other way to get around that place. They are not good to drive to restaurants or shopping malls or other urban and suburban pursuits. You can rent them with towing packages for your car, though that adds to the complexities of driving them in the first place. This all varies with size of the unit, though -- the smaller camper vans are much more drivable in an urban environment.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:46 PM on January 31, 2017 [4 favorites]

Depending on what parks you intend to visit, keep in mind that many of them may have quite narrow roads, and not all the parking areas will have parking for RVs, and not all the parks will have shuttles that you can take from spot to spot. And though the RV may be a decent way to travel between parks, and certainly a place to stay outside of them, the parks are all pretty large, so think about how you're going to get around in them once you're there. Campgrounds also have check-in and check-out times, if you stay in campgrounds.

We did a "drive around the Southwest" trip a few years ago - picked up the rental car in Las Vegas and dropped it in ABQ - and moving from motel to motel every couple days was really not that painful.
posted by rtha at 1:07 PM on January 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

On travel within parks: this is why you often see RVs carrying some bikes, a Vespa, ATV, golf cart, or even a whole secondary car. If you can't swing one of those along with the rental, you're gonna be stuck at RV-accessible everything, the entire time. Which may be fine for you, but that rules out a lot of places, and it's something to consider.
posted by SaltySalticid at 1:24 PM on January 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

" BUT I also don't love the idea of checking in and out of hotels every day or two, waiting until mid-afternoon to check in and not even spending a full 24hrs before having to pack up and leave."

You won't like most campsites, then. There's a checkout and checkin for them, too.
Checkout is often noon, checkin is often 2:00 pm.

You can't drive an RV as long as you can drive a car. In your case, I would recommend an absolute maximum of 6 hours a day. You shouldn't go as fast in an RV as you do in a car. The brakes don't work as well on an RV as they do on a car, so leave a much larger space cushion.

You won't have a car when you are driving your RV, and I don't recommend that you tow one until you are pretty comfortable with driving an RV.

Don't bet the whole trip on the RV. Take a short trip in the RV, say, to Valley of Fire State Park (which I could easily spend a couple of days in), and then decide if you want to commit to the grand tour. That way you can bail gracefully instead of re-enacting your own version of The Long Long Trailer.
posted by the Real Dan at 1:27 PM on January 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have rented RVs and driven them to concerts. Think following the Grateful Dead for the summer tour. Learning to get used to driving one took about an hour. Know your vehicles limitations and live within them. Otherwise, going straight ahead or following a road is not hard at all. Reverse can be tricky, but the best bet is to plan to not have to reverse. Look in Walmart parking lots. The RVs all can pull straight out in the morning. Overall, the trick is to drive with confidence.

Your planned route will have many other newbies driving RVs. The showers in the ones we rented were perfectly adequate. We were outside of the RV most of the time so the toilet situation was not an issue, but I am a guy and the world is my toilet so to speak. I don't have anything to back it up with, but my experience tells me that the best time to drive is starting at sun up. Less traffic, etc. Other random things to remember. Your mirrors are you friend. I have not rented one in the last 10 years, but I suspect your reverse camera is also your friend. Use them. Rely on them. Fill your tanks and empty the ones that need emptying when you can not when you have to. Have all eligible passengers learn to drive the rig just in case. Use the toll free number to the rental place and ask questions. They are used to it and they prefer that to you guessing at what to do.
posted by AugustWest at 1:39 PM on January 31, 2017

I would opt for a camper van and put my research time and money into targetting high end camp grounds with nice hot showers and cooking/dish cleaning stations, but that's just me (and I really enjoy regular camping).
posted by mannequito at 1:54 PM on January 31, 2017 [4 favorites]

nthing that it's unrealistic to expect to use the RV as a grocery getter or to take a quick jaunt out to eat.

When you arrive at a campground there is a 30 minute process of "setting up" - getting the RV parked just so, leveling / stabilizing, plugging in, and hooking up water/sewer.

When you leave a campground, there is a 30 minute process of "tearing down" - rinsing and stowing the sewer hose, draining the water supply hose, disconnecting and stowing electric cord, retracting the levelers, making sure the antenna is down and steps are up.
posted by ElGuapo at 2:19 PM on January 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

RVs are a stressfest for me.

Park it, get it level, dump the poop, fill it with water, etc.

I would way rather take a very well planned road trip. There isn't winging it, but there really isn't too much when you RV.

Rent one near by for a weekend and see if you like it.
posted by ReluctantViking at 2:19 PM on January 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Not answering the question, but it's really easy to find decent, reasonably priced hotels all over the Southwest if you plan ahead. I've considered doing the RV thing for the Southwest too (on multiple trips), but it didn't cost any less than hotels, so I just did hotels instead.
posted by cnc at 3:32 PM on January 31, 2017

So my one and only experience RV'ing was in Alaska and was with 4 people in I think the second smallest size that they come in (want to say ~30 feet long?), so things may or may not transfer. Also, I never had to actually drive it.

1. We were able to stop along the side of the road in a lot of places, but that was mostly a function of the road, and whether or not you'll be able to pull this off as easily in AZ is an open question. The size we were in got a little bit cramped for me and my brother, but that's probably less of an issue for you. I enjoy driving through physically spectacular places, and so I very much liked the RV'ing experience. I did not find it to be particularly cumbersome, and since you don't really need to pack up every morning, it can be quite relaxed. If your partner doesn't like being cooped up for semi-long periods of time, it might not be a great fit though.

2. When we went, the folks handling the rental gave us an orientation about how to operate the various systems in the RV. It didn't actually seem that complicated, though I never had to deal with the black or grey water. Most of the consideration came from needing to keep an eye on when we'd need to put more potable water into the tank/empty the bad water/get more gas.

3. We had a shower and toilet in ours, and I think it made things quite a bit more flexible than they otherwise would have been. I like showering in the morning, and since our bathroom was generally cleaner than anything that would be close by, it made everything much more comfortable.
posted by phack at 3:34 PM on January 31, 2017

We lived in an RV for 8 months, through 28 states. During our 8 months we purchased a few different memberships in discount RV park stays (Passport America being the best value, IMO). My husband had work in different parts of the US, and those were our drop dead locations/dates. But between, for example, Arizona and Wisconsin, you can see a hell of a lot of the country if you have a few weeks to do it in, and we had no trouble winging it when we had to. Some nights we stayed in Walmart or Lowes lots just for the night (Lowes is better, will often let you stay if you ask a manager, and their wifi is great).

Like anything, living in an RV becomes normal when you do it day after day. We all had our jobs. My husband did most of the driving (poor man) because it scared the hell out of me. My husband leveled the RV. I hooked up the water and sewage, put the slides out, and one of us would do the awning. Then we could relax. We learned quickly to leave early and get to the next spot on the map by lunch time if we could, only driving a few hundred miles at a time, so that we could then wander the park, go on trails, walk the dog, maybe BBQ and sit outside.

RV parks have laundry and bathroom facilities, typically. Though we showered primarily in the RV, number twos were dropped at the RV's facilities unless it was an emergency situation. That was due more to squeamishness, really - many people just let it all drop in the tank and don't care.

You start thinking about things differently. We walked a *lot* because we had no car with us. We usually hit a grocery store on the way to the next park, so that we would be stocked up for a few days. In Florida we borrowed a car from a friend of my husband's, and I remember thinking, "This is SO WEIRD. We can somewhere!" That was after a month, I think? You also don't buy more groceries than you need - you learn that very quickly. Well, you don't buy *anything* without thinking, "Ok. Do I have room for this? Where will I put it? Will it drive me nuts in a month?"

It is freeing. It is wonderful in many ways. I still itch for those days of travel. We went to the grand canyon in our RV, and when it started to rain, we ran back to the parking lot, to the RV, put the slides out right there, brewed a couple cups of coffee, put pajamas on, dried off the dog....and then my husband cooked us bacon sandwiches. There we sat, surrounded by cars of others who were off hiking around, eating our bacon sandwiches while the rain poured down. I once made enchiladas while we were camped for the night at a home depot.

The propane ovens can be a bear, if you plan to cook in them. I recommend getting a thermometer for your fridge/freezer if it has one, so you can figure out where it needs to be set. Emptying the tanks is easy. If you're staying at parks you will typically have water hookups, so no need to worry about refilling your water tank unless you plan to rough it for a few days. Pay attention to whether you'll need 30 or 50 amp hookups.

Plan to see weird things. Meet interesting people. Explore.
posted by routergirl at 4:44 PM on January 31, 2017 [9 favorites]

Oh! Our Passport America thing was ~45 bucks, and it got us nights at participating parks for 50% off. Many nights were ten dollar nights, which was awesome. YMMV, obviously, depending on where you go.
posted by routergirl at 5:01 PM on January 31, 2017

The one time we rented an RV (more than 20 years ago) it also didn't come with any kitchen equipment - no pots, pans, dishes, etc so plan on bringing or buying those as well as bedding or sleeping bags - in addition to all the other issues above. We had done a lot of RV camping with my in-laws who had a succession of Airstreams. The rental was a pig to drive, couldn't be taken on any rougher roads in the parks and wasn't super comfy to camp in. I would opt for a camper van - better set of compromises - and look for showers where you camp. Am biased that way having had a VW Eurovan camper for a decade and will buy something like that again when I reach the point where sleeping on the ground is too much but I like camping. And as suggested by others there are lots of places to stay in the parks including the old style lodges in some - which can be a lot of fun.
posted by leslies at 6:26 PM on January 31, 2017

it's really easy to find decent, reasonably priced hotels all over the Southwest if you plan ahead.

Sure, but for some reason they don't allow campfires 15 feet from your very own bed.
posted by Floydd at 7:56 PM on January 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

My parents had an old 26' class A for a few years when I was a kid. I currently have a bare bones tent trailer.

A Class B rig (camper van) (the smallest of the three (A,B,C)) is basically just an upfitted full size van. Sometimes with a lifted roof. They drive like a loaded full size van and are very manageable. I wouldn't hesitate to take one anywhere I'd drive my car. You can certainly take them shopping if you want.

For two people without kids or pets they are quite livable. You might find cooking outside on a little portable two burner LP stove more enjoyable than being cramped inside. Besides that those would be my recommendation for people just starting out.

The amenities in Class A/C are pretty much the same there is just more of them in the Class A and more room. For a rental if you what this size I'd go with what ever was cheaper (there are trade offs that apply when you are buying that won't really apply for a week or two rental).

I really hate dealing with black water so I'd never use an RV I was driving for #2; your squickiness may vary.

There are lots of campsites around with water/sewer/electricity at every site (called Full Hookups). They tend to be the less pretty and more crowded campsites and you'll pay more for hookups.

In your shoes I'd rent one for a long weekend or something to try it out. That'll let you know whether RVing is for you. There aren't really a gotcha at two weeks or anything. I'll mention that if your plans are for an extended trip (like several weeks or longer) it's nice to rent a hotel room in the middle/every month or so to just be able to stretch out, have a bath, maybe order room service. The worst thing about campsites and RVing is no baths if that is something you like. Some of the larger RVs have tubs but that is a mostly top of the line feature.

phack: "So my one and only experience RV'ing was in Alaska and was with 4 people in I think the second smallest size that they come in (want to say ~30 feet long?)"

You are probably wrong on the length, a 30' RV is getting into fairly large territory.
posted by Mitheral at 8:00 PM on January 31, 2017

Here's the thing. People like to think about RVing, but don't like to think about the practical matters.

- When you get to the park, it's (obviously) not a hotel. You aren't going to drive in, put your swimsuit on and nap at the pool. You get home and have 30 minutes of work to do to get set up.
- Once you park, level, and hook-up you are in for the duration. It's not easy-peasy to run to the market or some tourist spot.
- Someone is going to need to hook up the black water. You will need to dump if you don't get a spot with a sewer line and full hook ups are not always available.
- Lots of RV parks have people thisclose together, and sometimes you end up with bad neighbors.

My parents had an RV, and it was very comfortable - kind of like a boat actually. Everything has it's spot and is designed for comfortable efficiency if not plush luxury.

Given what you're describing I'd consider a Jucy rental.
posted by 26.2 at 8:25 PM on January 31, 2017

I was thinking Juicy as well. I've never used their services but I did meet the owners at a house party in SF and they were quite nice. Seems perfect for what you're describing.
posted by Mr.Me at 8:57 PM on January 31, 2017

I haven't ever driven an RV, but I did spend the better part of 8 summers driving around the Southwest in pick-up trucks with trailers attached to them and 15-passenger vans. I don't know what part of the country you're coming from, but something to keep in mind is: in large parts of the Southwest, a highway is just a two-lane road with a high speed limit that has passing lanes, or a dotted yellow line in the middle, every once in a while.

So when you look at a map of the Four Corners, you may see the highway sign and imagine something like this when it will actually look something like this.
posted by colfax at 1:42 AM on February 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

I spent over two months RVing around Europe, 5000+ miles in total. All good advice above, I'd add just two things:
1. Don't reverse more than absolutely necessary. Even with camera, you don't have a good idea what's 20 feet behind you.
2. Watch what your overhang is doing. The RV I drove had a rather long rear overhang, so I scraped it on uneven ground reversing at a mountain parking and when I parked very close to a high wall (to inspect the skylight for leaks) and turned too sharply away from it to leave - the overhang went right when the front went left.
posted by hat_eater at 7:16 AM on February 1, 2017

Oh, also: if you ever have to back up a large vehicle like an RV, use a back-up buddy. A back-up buddy is someone who jumps out of the car and stands behind you--far enough away of course that they don't get run over--and they help you back up and tell you to stop if you're going to hit something. You don't need to be able to hear them, just see them either over your shoulder or in the mirror. You should agree upon some basic hand signals first, like "Stop!" and "You've got 5 feet...4 feet...3 feet...2 feet...between you and that [tree, fire hydrant, pole, ditch, etc]."
posted by colfax at 10:50 AM on February 1, 2017

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