Operating an RV for the first time can be easier when you prepare properly. RVs don’t drive like cars—they accelerate and brake slower, and your blind spots are much larger. That said, with practice and time, you’ll become as comfortable behind the wheel of an RV as you are in your SUV or sedan.
Before You Drive Your Rig
It’s important to know your RV’s vital information. Keep a list of these stats in a spot that’s easy for you and your co-pilot to see when you’re driving. That way, you can quickly double-check them before you drive under a low overhang or turn onto a narrow road.
You can usually find your RV’s specs online, but it’s good to double-check them for yourself. Also, if you’ve added any accessories to your rig, it’s especially important to measure the height yourself in the driveway at home. Low bridges and tunnels often have height restrictions posted, as do some roadways. Apps with RV-specific GPS, like Togo RV, can help you identify height restrictions before you hit the highway.
When parking, it’s helpful to know your rig’s width, and this measurement is also important for driving. Some states restrict vehicles of a certain size on certain roads. You don’t want to get a ticket, but more importantly, you don’t want to be on roads that can’t comfortably accommodate your RV.
It’s helpful to have your RV’s length information handy, especially for parking situations (more on that below). You’ll also need to know your length each time you book a campsite.
Make sure you evenly distribute items on either side of your RV. Just like stowing carry-ons on an airplane, it’s smart to secure heavy items so they aren’t loose if you hit a bump in the road.
If you’re on a road trip, gas stations can be few and far between. Know your typical mileage to avoid running out of gas. If you’re towing a trailer, make sure you know your vehicle’s range while towing, whether you’re cruising on the highway or in traffic.
Mirrors and Blindspots
Properly adjust your mirrors so you can see the maximum amount of space on either side of your RV. Your flat mirror lets you see alongside and behind your vehicle, as well as way behind you (like the side mirror on your car). The convex mirror (if you have one) lets you see the side of the vehicle all the way to the back and up to 12 feet out to the side, but there will always be a blind spot. That’s where a wireless observation camera can help.
You’ll find that in an RV, your blind spots are much larger than they are in a car. Regularly check the side mirrors or wireless observation camera screen to make sure no one is in your blind spot if you have to change lanes.
The Driver’s Seat
You’ll find that getting comfortable in the captain’s chair is also an important part of your pre-drive routine. The driver’s seat of a motorhome can be adjusted in many more ways than you’re used to in a car. You also have more buttons and knobs in a motorhome that you’ll need to access. Take your time, and make sure you find the perfect position that puts everything you need within reach.
Preparing Your RV
Be sure to thoroughly check your vehicle before you begin driving. This includes your tires, fluids, belts, and levels. If you’re not mechanically inclined, you might want to have a professional mechanic look the vehicle over for you before your first drive. Consult your service manual or talk to your dealer or mechanic for more specifics for your vehicle.
- Tires: Check the pressure and make sure your tires aren’t overinflated or underinflated. Check for tread wear. Tire issues can be one of the biggest hazards in RV driving. Both over- and underinflated tires can lead to a blowout. When you’re parking the vehicle for more than a day, save tire stress by blocking and leveling your RV. Make sure you have a tire gauge in your RV toolkit.
- Lights: Make sure headlights (both high and low beams), brake lights, hazard flashers, and turn signals are all working.
- Fluids: Check levels for coolant, brake fluid, oil, hydraulic/power steering fluid, and washer fluid. Also, check under the vehicle for leaks.
- Propane: Before leaving on a trip, make sure to fill up your propane tanks. And be sure that your burners aren’t lit. Check that your vents are clear of any rubbish or nests. You can invest in a propane gas detector to prevent any mishaps.
- Doors and Hatches: Check that all compartment doors are securely latched and any accessories like awnings and steps are properly stowed.
- Secure heavy objects for travel, and ensure that your cargo weight is evenly distributed. You don’t want to throw off your camper’s center of gravity.
- Check your wipers and blades to make sure they’re in working order.
- Adjust your mirrors for the best visibility.
- Adjust your driver’s seat just to your preferences.
Although you’ve completed a thorough pre-trip safety check, make note of a few service stations or RV dealerships along your route, just in case you need some expert help. You can use the Togo RV app to save names and contact info for these businesses, so they’re easy to access if needed.
RV Driving Basics
The first place to practice is a spacious parking lot, not the open road. Here are some tips for RV driving for the first time:
1. Give Yourself Room
Driving an RV for the first time is a lot like driving a car for the first time. You’re not really sure what you’re doing, and at times you feel a little clumsy and frustrated. In an empty parking lot, you can minimize the risk of doing any major damage.
Practice parking, turning, completing K-turns, and doing other maneuvers that take practice to learn. If you commit at least 1 hour per day for a week to learn how your new RV handles, you’ll be more comfortable behind the wheel and improve your RV driving skills.
2. Make a Plan
Know what route you plan on taking and stick to it. The last thing you need is the surprise of an unexpected low-clearance bridge.
There are apps that help you plan a proper route, locate places to stay along the way, or find fun, interesting stops to make. Some may charge a fee, but a pre-planned route gives you peace of mind that’s well worth a little money. Share your plan with family and friends as a safety precaution.
3. Fuel Up
Gas stations are a common place where RV newbies can get into trouble. The tight turns and low-hanging covers provide obstacles for larger vehicles. Until you’re really comfortable in your RV, try and stick to fueling up at truck stops. Truck stops provide extra room for filling up and are built to accommodate large vehicles. They’re also located right by the highway for convenience.
For the first couple of fill-ups, have your traveling partner direct you. This way they can help ensure you’re not too close to the pump, the roof, other cars, or any other hazards.
4. Pick the Right Lane
By traveling in the far right lane, you can drive slowly without holding up traffic. Taking it slow is the key to safety and success when driving an RV. The right lane also gives you the opportunity to pull over off the highway quickly if any mechanical trouble should arise, and it provides you easy access to any exits you may need to take.
Driving in the right lane also means that traffic enters the highway in your lane. You can move over one lane to let traffic in and then change back to the far-right lane, but since you’re already on the highway, you have the right-of-way. Defensive driving with an RV is the best way to drive stress-free.
Braking is different in an RV compared to a car. The average RV weighs nearly 5,200 pounds—which is more than 2 tons—that you’ll need to stop safely again and again. You’ll also need to consider your cargo weight, including passengers. All of this means that the vehicle you’re traveling in is going to require even more room to slow down.
If you’re towing, then chances are your RV’s brakes are wired to your tow vehicle’s braking system. Watch out for riding the brakes. This can cause your trailer’s brakes to overheat and stop working. Downshifting is a great way to save your brakes from heating up and transition some of the work to the engine. Just be careful not to let your RPMs go too high.
Pay closer attention to the traffic in front of you. Keeping a safe distance is important, but so is staying alert. Don’t let other drivers pressure you into moves your vehicle can’t handle. If something is in your path, brake—don’t swerve. Swerving in an RV can cause an accident.
6. Keep Your Distance
Tailgating is hazardous, and it can also unnerve the driver in front of you, which can lead to them driving dangerously. To be safe, the best plan is to leave at least 400 feet between you and the car or vehicle in front of you. If for any reason you need to brake suddenly, distance becomes your best friend.
Not sure how much space 400 feet is? There’s a simple way to make sure you’ve got enough room to keep things safe. When the vehicle in front of you passes a point of reference (for example, a light pole by the side of the road or a mile marker), start counting to four. You should reach four before you reach the light pole.
7. Take Your Time Turning
Since RVs tend to be long and wide, turns need to be long and wide, too. Taking right turns is even more difficult because of your proximity to the curb. Take your time, and keep an eye on your rearview mirrors. Don’t worry if you’re holding up traffic behind you. It’s better to turn correctly and slowly than to rush it and end up damaging your RV.
8. Watch Out for Tail Swing
Tail swing is how far out the rear of your RV will go in the opposite direction of the way you’re turning. It’s responsible for more accidents at the gas pump or in other tight-maneuvering situations than anything else.
If you’re turning to your right, the rear of your RV is going to push out to your left. You need to know just how much tail swing your RV has to navigate properly.
To figure this out, find a parking lot and park the left side of the RV up against a white line on the pavement, or draw a chalk line on the pavement along the side of your RV. Then, turn your steering wheel hard to the right and slowly pull forward. Have someone on the far back corner of your bumper watch how far out the tail swings, and then you’ll know how much room you need to leave in your turning radius.
9. Check the Weather
Weather apps can give you helpful information, including wind speed, temperature, and anticipated precipitation. The higher the wind speed, the more difficult it’s going to be to operate your RV on the road.
You’ll want to check both the wind speed and direction. There isn’t a set rule for how much wind is too much, but crosswinds cause more problems than winds that align with your vehicle’s direction.
If you’re driving on a windy day, drive slowly and pay attention to your vehicle. If you experience trailer sway while towing, you may need to stop towing or reroute. A large, boxy motorhome may not sway, but you’ll likely get fatigued quickly while dealing with wind.
Winter driving presents its complications and can depend on which type of vehicle you drive: front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, or all-wheel drive. While most cars are front-wheel drive, motorhomes aren’t. If you find the rear end sliding and that you’re losing control, pump the brakes to regain control. If weather conditions warrant, pull over.
If you suddenly encounter bad weather that you can wait out, find a safe spot to park and use the conveniences of your RV. If the bad weather is sticking around, reroute or change your plans.
10. Don’t Park Alone
Get a spotter, and take it easy. If you have to, try to find a bigger parking spot. Take your time when parking, and always make use of your mirrors. When in doubt while backing up, get out and look. A large vehicle needs more time to respond. Attentive driving will give you as much warning time as possible. With a little practice, you’ll look like a pro pulling into your first RV park.
11. Consider RV Driving School
Given the complexities of navigating a large RV on the road, consider a professional driving school. Be sure the curriculum includes:
- Backing up and parking
- Mirror adjustment
- Transmission and engine operation
- Turns, swing outs, and curb climb
- Situational awareness and lane positioning
- Proper road separation (forward, sides, and rear)
- Over-the-road driving
- Other RV operational instruction
- Learning your RV’s dimensions
- RV tires (pressure, age)
12. Driving at Night
Some RVers enjoy driving at night because there’s less wind, traffic, and noise from passengers. However, it can be dangerous due to a lack of visibility, roaming wildlife, and getting stuck in an unfamiliar location. Also, if you do encounter mechanical problems, you may not find repair shops or auto parts stores open. If you’re driving your RV at night, make sure you adjust your headlights, clean your windshield, dim the cabin lights, and use fog lights.
The number one thing to remember when driving an RV is to take it slow. Confidence will come with practice, but remember that RVs are meant for recreation. Relax, slow down, and enjoy the road ahead.