This summer (2017), we spent seven weeks on an RV road trip, driving across the country, visiting 15 National Parks sites in eight states. We put more than 10,000 miles on the truck and spent more than 236 hours driving.
This was not our first RV road trip, but it was our longest. We had a lot of fun, saw a lot of great sights, and overcame a few tough situations. In the end, we learned some very valuable RV road trip tips.
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RV Road Trip Tip #1: Plan Rest Days
The most important lesson we learned is to plan rest days (plus days to work on the blog). Let’s talk about our first few days:
In two days of driving, we went from Chattanooga, TN to Albuquerque, NM, a total of more than 1,300 miles. That’s easily the hardest and longest we have ever gone towing the camper… and we boondocked in a Walmart parking lot in Albuquerque (more on that below).
On day three, we drove through Petrified Forest National Park and, after setting up the camper, went into Winslow to “stand on the corner.” We visited three national monuments in the greater Flagstaff area on day four. On day five, we visited Meteor Crater before heading across the Mojave Desert to Barstow, CA.
It was early in the trip and we had lots of energy. It was a mistake.
We should have stayed an extra day (or two) at Meteor Crater and rested. Going forward, we have a new rule: for every four days of driving and sight-seeing, factor three days of rest, especially while towing the camper.
Towing the camper is just harder on us than driving without it. While it is great to have it, it does require significantly more forethought and concentration than just driving the truck. Urban areas are especially hard. The drive from Barstow to Maripsoa up California 99 was not fun.
Later in the trip, we spent about 12 hours driving from Cody, WY to Montrose, CO in one day. As we neared Montrose, we realized neither of us had the energy to drive back north to Colorado National Monument in just another day or two. It was a long, hard drive, but we made it fine. Pushing our driving that hard, however, had consequences in terms of our ability to do everything we wanted to do once we arrived.
By the time we got to Pagosa Springs, CO (a few days later), it was apparent we just did not have the energy to spend a lot of time seeing one of our favorite towns in the two nights we stayed there.
Plain and simple: the long driving days exhausted us.
RV Road Trip Tip #2: Driving Long Distances and Keeping Your Fridge Cold
Another lesson we learned was the effect of driving long distances, especially out West in the summer heat, on the ability to keep food cold.
For those who don’t have RVs, the fridge can run on propane. If you search the forums, RVers are very divided on the safety of using propane while towing the vehicle. Personally, I am in the camp of shutting off the propane. I feel it is just plain safer to leave it off.
Our solution? We bought cooler packs which help keep the fridge cold. They work great as long as they freeze the night before.
We couldn’t keep the fridge cold enough when moving around as much as we did in 100+ temperatures. The freezer packs did not have time to fully refreeze and the heat from outside was just too much for the fridge to really get cold in such a short time.
We didn’t have the same problem when we spent six weeks up in New England, but long distances in the desert really cut into our capability to transport food that required refrigeration.
Again, spending a couple of extra days in one place allows the fridge to catch up, which will solve this problem. Out West, that might mean staying in places that really aren’t great, like the middle of nowhere, Nevada.
Honestly, I think the best solution to this problem is to not buy a lot in the way of food that requires refrigeration and eat out or hit the local grocery store on the days you want to cook. But, if you are somewhere without a lot of options, like Baker, NV, it can make things hard.
RV Road Trip Tip #3: Boondocking is Not Always a Great Idea in the Summer
We store our camper in a facility without hookups. This means we have to spend our first night on the road in a campground so we can fill our fresh water tank with water.
After that first night, we thought why not try boondocking for a couple of nights on the way out? We knew we would be driving long days and getting in after dark… Boondocking would be a way to save a little money.
For those unfamiliar, boondocking is camping without any connections, often not in a formal campsite.
For our first boondocking experience, we found a Walmart near Albuquerque. The store had plenty of reviews as a place we could stop. Many Walmarts, along with other large stores, have no problem with folks staying in their parking lots overnight, as long as you speak to the manager and park out of the way.
When we arrived, there were already several RVs in the parking lot. It took us a while to get a decent, level spot that allowed us to leave the camper hitched up.
Overall, it was not the worst night we ever spent, but it certainly wasn’t the best, either. The saving grace? It was relatively cool that night.
When we started looking at other locations to boondock, we started running into one major issue: heat.
Bonnie had originally planned for us to boondock somewhere near Baker, CA… you know, between the Mojave Desert and Death Valley… in June. After looking at the forecast and realizing the outside air temperatures were not going to drop below 90 until around 2 a.m., we quickly nixed that plan.
That’s not to say we aren’t looking forward to boondocking in the future, just when the weather is cooler.
We did pick up a cool Ryobi battery-operated fan for the next time we go boondocking.
RV Road Trip Tip #4: RV Repairs on the Road Can Be Really Hard to Schedule
I won’t rehash our amazingly awful RV repair saga too much right now (you can read the full story here), but I will say it wasn’t fun.
The biggest obstacle was how many of the RV shops had weeks to month-long waits to get service. We ran into a similar problem at home with our camper when we wanted to get some upgrades put on before the trip.
My biggest piece of advice is to get your camper checked out well in advance and be prepared to stay somewhere quite a while if you must have service.
This can be frustrating if you are traveling with a pet, especially a cat. Even at hotels where dogs are welcome, cats often aren’t.
We did discover La Quinta Inns and Suites do allow pets without any additional fees. Even though we didn’t end up needing the hotel, it was great to know it was an option.
Still, having to relocate Alee from the camper, where she is comfortable, to a hotel for several nights did not appeal to us at all.
We were also really happy to learn Camping World of Idaho Falls was more than happy to let Alee hang out in the lobby with us as long as she was on a leash.
RV Road Trip Tip #5: Always Ask a Local Before You Drive a Mountain Pass with Your Camper
To those who live out West, this will be a no-brainer. But, to those of us who don’t live with high-altitude passes on a daily basis, it bears saying: ask a local before you take your camper over it.
We ran into this a couple of times during our trip. The first time was in California. Initially, we had planned on driving the Tioga Pass to Lee Vining. I knew this pass was a tough drive, but I was confident, based on my research, we could handle it, if slowly.
Unfortunately, snow closed Tioga Pass, as well as Sonora Pass. That pushed us further north to either Ebbetts Pass or Carson Pass. Ebbetts Pass actually opened the day we were driving but, boy, are we glad we didn’t take it.
When we spoke to the folks in Lee Vining, they told us Ebbetts Pass was crazy difficult to drive, especially with a camper. Carson Pass, on the other hand, was relatively easy with no issues.
They were also able to tell us, despite the road signs headed east, the drive to Tonapah, NV was pretty easy.
Later in the trip, the lovely folks at our campground in Montrose warned us that driving the Million Dollar Highway was not the best option for towing the camper.
After researching it online, I found folks in both camps about taking an RV over the Red Mountain Pass. Some said RVs did it all the time, so why not? Some said it was not for the faint of heart since the drop-offs on the passenger side were a bit terrifying.
We decided to err on the side of caution and took a longer, but very pretty drive further west.
Going Forward: Our Next RV Road Trip
Traveling with an RV is always a learning experience. After a little more than a year, we know we are still pretty new to the game. If we can help folks not make the same mistakes we made, the teachers in us are pretty happy.
I also know some veteran RV campers out there will look at my aversion to running propane while towing the camper or driving crazy mountain passes as unnecessary caution. They might be right. Honestly, we travel the way we are most comfortable with. After all, it’s our vacation.
What are some of your RV road trip tips?
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We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.
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