We pulled into the wooded campground later than hoped. It was 4:30 pm, less than two hours before dark. They call it a shakedown – our first camping trip when we’d finally use our new RV in the wild. It was no surprise that we were running late.
My wife and I decided we wanted a travel trailer a few months earlier. A whirlwind of searching, messaging, inspecting, purchasing, cleaning, outfitting, troubleshooting, and planning followed. Then, of course, we spent some time driving around the neighborhood, practicing towing our new RV. Now here we were, on the coastal plain of North Carolina, arriving at our very first RV site.
Fortunately, we’d picked a familiar campground – definitely helpful for a shakedown. The gravel site was wide, flat, and relationship-approved. Backing in the trailer didn’t lead to any instant arguments that can happen with RV couples. The setup went well. Crank the jacks. Stabilize the corners. Nervously connect to shore power following a carefully rehearsed procedure to avoid an unscheduled fireworks show.
To save time and our sanity, we made a helpful decision based on past adventures: learn things incrementally. Thus, we would skip the water and waste systems on this first trip and use the campground bathrooms and showers. After setting up, we had time for a quick walk to the lake. While watching a late-winter sunset, we vigorously debated the finer points of minor things, like where to store AA batteries or hang wet towels.
As novice RV owners, we clearly had a lot to learn. Even making dinner reinforced this. Sausages and buns on our new propane grill seemed simple enough. But it was dark now, and just finding everything was a challenge. We had headlamps but forgot a lantern. Should have picked up sandwiches on the way, we agreed. Regardless, our first day of rookie blunders ended with a soft reminder of the benefits. We’d installed a full-sized bed.
“Okay, this makes it worth it,” said my wife before we drifted off to sleep for the first time “camping” several feet above the cold ground.
What We Learned from Tent Compounds (Not Like a Cult)
Before we bought a camper, we spent years exploring the country in my pickup truck. Our focus was outdoor adventures, so we had boots in the back, kayaks on the roof, and bikes on a hitch rack. We mostly tent camped, often for weeks or months at a time.
At first, we had a small two-person tent with inflatable mattresses plus camp chairs. Later, we upgraded to a huge four-person dome tent with cots and paco pads. Along the way, we added a mesh-walled tarp shelter, a foot-pump shower, a privacy tent, a folding table, a two-burner stove, a five-gallon propane tank, and a roto-molded cooler for fresh food. And nylon hammocks – why not?
Our camps became more like tent compounds but less creepy and more colorful. The full spread took hours to build and break down. When extreme weather hit or we needed internet, we found a motel. But just a few nights in town cost a lot. Plus, some rooms felt like college dorms after a weekend party where everyone’s hair fell out. Meanwhile, our camping gear was parked outside and secured with locks and cables. Several times, people tried but failed to cut through. Thus, for years, we kept one eye on our stuff, another on our savings, and a third on the many RV campers available.
A Basecamp on Wheels
When the time came to choose a camper, the lessons from our tent life proved invaluable. Our approach was establishing basecamps and exploring outward, often driving to trailheads or boat launches on rough roads. Or my wife might stay in camp while I ventured out for jobs as an outdoor writer and photographer. Thus, an all-in-one unit like a cabover truck camper, a Class B camper van, or a drivable motorhome was out.
What we needed was a “tent-on-wheels” with a touch of luxury. A detachable camper, aka a travel trailer, that worked for full-hookup campgrounds, primitive dry-camping sites, and backcountry boondocking when we were ready. To address the challenges from our tent days, we had further criteria:
- Hard-shell exterior
- Small kitchenette and space for dining
- Space to work
- Air conditioning
For fending off inclement weather, which inevitably happens on long trips, we nixed a soft-sided popup in favor of a hard shell. We wanted several amenities onboard to reduce the setup times of our full compounds. For washing up after dirty days, a shower was essential. To stay comfortable when stuck indoors, we wanted a small kitchenette and space for dining and working.
This led us to the Casita Spirit Deluxe. Despite endless lessons and adjustments, our first year of camper life confirmed a great match. It’s a 17-foot fiberglass egg with a hundred cubic-foot interior. The aerodynamic design and low dry weight—about 2,500 pounds when empty—have made it easy to tow. With a molded fiberglass top shell fitted over a bottom shell, there are no roof edges or corners. This reduces the potential for leaks, which is definitely welcome given we often camp in wet weather. A well-insulated shell helps us tough it out during hot and cold spells. And big windows let in plenty of light during camper-bound periods.
Yes, it can feel tight, but so does a tent. Thus, we quickly adopted one tent-life technique that extends as a tip for new RV owners: do as much outside as possible. We still put up the tarp shelter and added a BBQ grill. The camper is mostly for sleeping, showering, and holing up during inclement weather. It’s a perfect basecamp-on-wheels.
Learning the Language of Camper Life
Our biggest challenge was jumping into the camper life with almost no experience. I’ve towed some raft and kayak trailers over the years and been inside different campers here and there. I have a few adventurous buddies who have towed trailers for years. They graciously answered many frantic calls about switches, tongue weights, and amperage. That said, these guys still had to work and sleep – understandably – and I had a lot of questions. So, I also devoured online videos and articles about hitching and towing, hooking up to power and water, backing into a campsite, and much more, looking for any tips for new RV owners.
But figuring out what you don’t know and what to ask or search for doesn’t come automatically. In the months before and after purchase, I basically walked up to anyone who a) had a camper, b) seemed willing to chat, and c) did not appear to be a kidnapper.
As it turns out, the majority of owners love talking about their campers and associated equipment. I approached them in the neighborhood, parking lots, and campgrounds. Increasingly, they approached me to ask about our camper and equipment.
You will learn a ton from fellow RV owners. But as a word of warning to other new RVers, you’ll also get differing opinions and conflicting information. Advice is not always accurate and usually applies more to the owner’s situation than yours.
But don’t go looking for a blueprint. The kind of informal interviewing I conducted is more about learning the language of RV life and understanding the main questions and choices to consider. You can then use that knowledge for follow-up research online or by talking to fellow RVers. The goal is to triangulate your own path through those early disorienting days.
Planning Realistic Trips: Reservations versus Winging It
Planning realistic trips is one of the biggest challenges of being a new RV owner. Adventurous people tend to be ambitious. We often overestimate how much we can do daily, including driving distances and trip durations. If you’re like me, this is a lifelong challenge.
Following common wisdom, my wife and I kept our shakedown trip within striking distance of home. But we stayed out for a week, heading to a second campground on the coast, where we learned some hard lessons about dry camping without hookups. For our second trip, we had several months to prepare. The plan was to spend four weeks in the mountains with work stops for me, which really put us to the test.
In the tent life days, we might have winged it. If one campground was full, we could drive around looking for another. We could divert to a national forest or BLM land for dispersed primitive camping.
But once we had the camper, we moved more cautiously. When towing a tiny home, you need a suitable spot. There are fewer of those sites available, creating higher demand. They often fill up first or are reserved well ahead.
Some RV campers hop from site to site without reservations or use dispersed areas. But they are often experienced. During our first year, we did not feel ready to boondock. So, we mostly reserved sites. This relaxed our drives because we weren’t racing to find an open site. We had more time to develop our setup and breakdown procedures while learning which types of sites worked best for us.
Sticking with our incremental approach, I purposefully reserved a variety of sites for our second trip. This allowed us to have follow-up “mini-shakedowns” for new circumstances and techniques. For example, we tried both pull-through and back-up driveways. One discovery was that our trailer reverses so nimbly that the convenience of a pull-through was rarely a deciding factor. Instead, a better campsite criteria became having a flat area around the entrance-side of our camper. This lets us set up our ground mat, chairs, and grill table within easy reach.
Another of our tips for new RV owners relates to the power and water systems. We started our second trip with a full hookup site at a state park, where we first camped with the water running. With that lesson complete, we confidently moved onward to several no-hookup campgrounds at national parks. There we deployed our newest equipment: a 30-amp linked-generator system to run a few appliances. This included the electric pump, which pulls from the onboard freshwater tank. For the first time, we had our own indoor shower after a day of hiking at a national park.
How Far to Go
In our tent life, we knocked out long distances – hours of driving – in a single day. We’d grab a motel or toss up the small tent that night. The next morning, we’d drive until we reached some far-flung destination. While some RVers do this, we did not attempt it during year one.
Early on, we correctly hypothesized that 4-5 hours was our max daily driving range. Like most people, I used Google Maps to calculate distance and duration. Once on the road, we moved more slowly. Our average speed was around 60-65 mph when towing our camper. Plus, it’s trickier driving, with a need to constantly watch for braking traffic, swerving drivers, and merging vehicles. Gas mileage was reduced. My truck went from around 20 mpg to between 12 and 15 mpg. We stopped more frequently to fuel up, grab supplies, check the rig, and take a break. In general, we found adding one hour to a Google Maps estimate helped us create more realistic drive time expectations.
But when it came to Google Maps, we learned the perils of supposedly faster detours on twisty roads with frequent intersections. These slowed us to a crawl. Instead, we opted for longer mileage routes with more divided highways and straighter interstates. These were sometimes busier, yet usually easier to maintain speed.
New Ways to Adventure
For us, the purpose of transitioning from tent to RV camper was to continue our adventurous lifestyle with increased comfort. During our tent life, we often followed the weather out of necessity. When you sleep in a tent, you’re basically living outside with minimal shelter. During colder seasons, we went biking and hiking. During hotter seasons, we focused on paddling. When necessary, we’d change elevations to match prevailing weather patterns.
We naturally wanted an air conditioner and furnace when we bought our camper. But we didn’t fully grasp how much of an impact these two amenities would have on our adventuring. On warmer days, we can now go for a blistering bike ride and afterward cool down inside the air-conditioned camper. On cooler days, we can paddle through splashing rapids and warm up with the furnace. The camper opened up each season for more ways to get out there. It’s been a welcome development. Just one of many that we plan to enjoy during our second year of camper life.
If you’re considering the transition from tent to trailer, here are a few additional resources you might find useful:
- What is the Best RV for Beginners?
- 17 RV Driving Safety Tips for Beginners
- Buying an RV For the First Time: A Tale of Mishaps and Adventures
Did you make a similar transition to RV living? Share your tips and experiences in the comments below.