campervan in canyonlands
campervan in canyonlands

A Beginner’s Guide to Family RVing

In case you haven’t heard, RVing is in

During the Covid pandemic, millions of people feared flying but still wanted to explore. They hit the road in campervans and motorhomes, and discovered some of the joys of RV travel—including freedom, comfort, and convenience. 

Maybe you’d like to join them, but have been intimidated by the logistics. What do you need to pack? How are you going to park? OMG, the toilet. 

We turned to some RVing experts for advice on hitting the road. Jason Epperson runs the website and podcast RV Miles and lives in a roving RV with his wife, Abby, and their three young children. Michael Smalley is executive vice president of Cruise America, North America’s largest RV rental provider. We also checked in with first-time RV renter Abi Smigel, who has traveled with her kids Ziggy, 8, and Magnolia, 5. 

“Everybody was a newbie at some point,” Smalley said. “But pull up an empty chair at an RV campsite and people are eager to help.” 

To get to the campground in the first place, check out our step-by-step guide to embarking on an RV vacation. 

1. Find Your Class

The first thing to know is that there are three kinds, or classes, of RVs. 

Class A models are the biggest and most spacious—up to 45 feet long. Remember Meet the Fockers? That was a Class A. These RVs often have full kitchens and multiple “slideouts,” compartments that can be extended from the main area to create more space. Class As are built on the same frames as commercial trucks and buses. They drive like them too—so they’re generally not the best option for first-timers. 

Class B RVs are basically vans converted into campers. Clocking in at 18 to 22 feet, they’re considered to be a great option for newbies. Unfortunately, they’re also most comfortable for two people, so larger families will want to give them a pass. 

Class C RVs (weirdly) fall in the middle. They measure 21 to 35 feet long, and have a bunk that hangs over the cab area. “A Class C is a big step up in space,” said Jason Epperson of RV Miles, and will fit four or more passengers.  

2. Know what you’re getting

Most rental RVs are self-contained and come with standard amenities including electric and sewer hookups, kitchens with two-burner stoves, a small fridge and a microwave, and bathrooms with a small toilet, sink and shower drain. 

Many rentals also come with cookware, dishes, silverware, and other basics—but not all. Cruise America, for instance, charges extra for linen and kitchenware “kits.” The vehicles on RVShare, an Airbnb-like platform, all belong to different owners. Just like with a vacation rental, there’s a lot of variability in terms of condition, amenities, and extra fees. 

Did you really rent an RV so you could sleep at Walmart?

Speaking of extra fees, they can include charges for cleaning, dumping, gas, mileage, and more. Most rental companies include insurance. But make sure you read the fine print and know exactly what you’re getting in advance, so you can adjust your budget, pack your own gear and/or avoid unpleasant surprises down the road. 

3. Plan your route

One of the upsides of traveling with an RV is flexibility. It doesn’t matter if a hotel room or restaurant reservation is available, because you’ve got your accommodations with you. “It’s the ultimate do-it-yourself vacation,” Smalley said. “You’re in the driver’s seat.” 

But for shorter trips, it’s smart to plan out your itinerary and reserve campgrounds in advance, Epperson said, so you don’t have to waste time figuring out where to stay en route. 

National parks have an undeniable pull, but don’t overlook smaller state and even county parks, which often have great camping sites and more availability. If you can’t get the dates you want, check back—last-minute cancellations are common. Smigel said that some spots opened up during her trip. 

In a pinch, you can often stay overnight in a Walmart parking lot—but you’ll need to check with the store to confirm that you won’t get towed. (And did you really rent an RV so you could sleep at Walmart?) RVs can also park in the truck areas of rest stops. Be courteous and use designed spots. 

One thing you should not do is try to take on too much, Epperson said. 

“People have dreamed about this, they want to see as many parks as possible, but they end up spending a day at each and it’s exhausting,” he said. He suggests putting driving no more than 300 road miles per day and staying put for a few days at a time.  

4. Squeeze in some parking practice

Lots of beginners are nervous about driving an RV—which makes sense. Unless you’re a trucker or rent a lot of U-Hauls, you probably don’t have much experience with larger vehicles. 

Driving a Class B RV is like driving a van, down to the rearview mirror that lets you see behind the vehicle. With a Class B, the rearview mirror looks into the back of the RV; you have to rely on side mirrors, which can make backing up tricky. 

“We were a little nervous about driving the RV, as our friends that just got back from a cross-country trip had a mishap with their side view mirror and a toll booth,” Smigel said. “We went into the trip with a little bit more caution than we may have had otherwise.”

airstream sunset in mirror.jpg

Consider renting your RV a day early so you can practice driving it in a familiar area. Many campsites offer pull-through RV sites, so you don’t have to worry about backing up. But you’ll probably have to do it at a store or other stop; it’s good to have another pair of eyes on the street to guide you, said Smalley.

“A pair of walkie talkies will make you look like a pro,” Smalley said. “They’re great for backing in, as well as on the hiking trail. Kids love them.” Cell phones work, too. 

5. Don’t freak out about hookups 

Unless you’re boondocking—RV speak for wild camping, where you don’t connect to water, sewer and electricity—you’ll be using the hookups provided with your RV rental to connect to creature comforts at campsites. That means you can use your water, appliances, and bathroom without worrying about refilling or emptying. 

Rental companies provide all the necessary hoses and cables, and most campsites that accommodate RVs provide at least partial hookups—that is, electricity and water. Full hookups add sewage into the equation.

Just like with camping, you want to time your arrival a few hours before dark so you can get set up properly. Electrical hookups are easy—generally you’re just plugging in your RV—but water and sewage can be trickier. Make sure to follow any instructions provided by the rental company. When in doubt: ASK. Oh, and bring disposable gloves.

6. Make sure the kids are safe

Your kids may be psyched about the idea of lolling around in the back of the RV watching YouTube videos while you drive. But in the U.S., seat belt and car seat laws apply to motorhomes, too.

“In all 50 states, children are required to be buckled in while traveling in a motorhome,” Epperson said. (Adults can usually get up and walk around.) 

But—and this is a big but—RV manufacturers only have to comply with seat belt safety standards in the cab. So even if your rental has seat belts in the back (often, they’re in the form of lap belts around the dinette table), it doesn’t mean they’re as safe as in your car. 

“Sometimes seat belts are attached to wood floors,” Epperson said. “Sometimes the dinette booth is flimsy and could crumble in a crash.”  

He added that motorhomes are generally safe vehicles, due to their size, and that newer models by reputable makers have seatbelts bolted to the vehicle frame. Check with your rental company to make sure you’re comfortable with the safety standards. If you’re still concerned, consider taking a car along. 

7. Pack the fun stuff 

First, make sure you have the essentials—towels, soap, and condiments like salt and pepper. 

“It can be really expensive at campground stores,” Epperson said. “You don’t want to be in a situation where you have to spend $7 for a bottle of ketchup.” 

Then think about what other gear would enhance your trip. If you love to grill, you might want to consider bringing a portable barbecue along, for instance. It’s a lot less work than getting a fire going in a (probably less-than pristine) campground grill. 

Folding camp chairs are another hang-time essential, and most RV rental companies don’t provide them. A hammock and strings of lights will make things more festive. A head torch or flashlight comes in handy, too, for nighttime walks to the bathroom block or hooking up at a site if you happen to arrive in the dark. 

Don’t go crazy with the gear, though. Keep in mind that additional weight means additional fuel. And one of the joys of RVing is leaving it all behind—not taking everything with you. 

Terry Ward is a Florida-based freelance journalist and travel writer.