Ask an RV Pro: 10 Camping Tips That Will Transform Your Travels 316317

camping pros outside their RV

Since buying my Roadtrek years ago, I’ve traveled across the country, roughed it in national forests as well as taken it easy in pricey RV resorts, squeezed into some uncomfortable positions to replace broken fixtures, and learned more than a few lessons my wallet and I will never forget.

My 20-year-old camper van has wheezed up mountain passes, sheltered me from massive thunderstorms, and broken down just feet from the entrance to Mount Rushmore. I wouldn’t change any of it — except maybe for that breakdown — and if I have a spare day or three, you’d better believe I’m racking up even more miles on the odometer.

In my years on the road, I’ve also had the benefit of friends, both old and new, sharing their RV wisdom. The way I see it? Valuable lessons and silly mistakes are often one and the same — but the silly mistakes don’t have to be yours. Take in these 10 tips, and you won’t need to come by the lessons the hard way.

Tip #1: Ask More of Your Gear—and Get Rid of the Rest

De-clutter your RV at the top of the season — the smaller your rig, the more ruthless you’ll have to be. Remember your mom’s mantra as she forced you to clean your room as a kid:

A place for everything, and everything in its place.

Does it not have a place? You don’t need it.

mountain bike and gear
(Image by Virrage Images from Shutterstock)

Unless you do, and then you need to create a place. Some of my larger camera gear, for example, doesn’t fit in my van’s built-in storage, so I use large plastic bins to keep everything tidy and easily move it from the sleeping area to the front of the van at night. If I’m only planning to kayak one day out of a two-week trip, I’ll rent one at the destination instead of bringing my own. Other situations are more cut-and-dry — haven’t used that massive lantern in a year? Into the garage it goes. (We can worry about de-cluttering the garage later.)

And if you’re in the market for gear, try to buy items that will serve double duty or collapse down, like my go-to Steinhauser fishing rod. And make sure your closet serves double-duty, too — I mountain bike a lot, so I buy jerseys and shorts that won’t look out of place off the trail, allowing me to bring fewer clothes.

Tip #2: Pack That Map and Compass—and Know How to Use Them

Even in the digital age, a paper map is invaluable. Whether you’re driving with or without GPS, a good road atlas will help you navigate in and out of inevitable no-signal situations. Even more importantly, if you’re out on a long hike with no cell signal, a paper map and compass can be the literal difference between life and death.

A map on a table
(Image by Rawpixel from Shutterstock)

Most state and national parks sell detailed maps at their visitor centers — not only do they make for great souvenirs afterward, but nabbing one also makes planning your return trip so much easier.

Tip #3: Take Care of Your Gear, but Expect it to Break

When I’m traveling, you can usually find me hitting the local mountain-bike singletrack. The tools I keep in my Roadtrek allow me to better maintain my gear and repair most minor mishaps, but every now and then, I’ll snap a seat post or taco a wheel, stuff that can’t easily be fixed in the trailhead parking lot.

fishing in the Gulf
(Image by Tyler Cave)

Likewise, on my last big van trip, my RV’s serpentine belt snapped, and I had to be towed to the next town for repair. It’s frustrating, but I no longer let incidents like this ruin my day. When you’re having fun, ripping it up in the woods or on the roads, things are going to break. It’s a fact of life. I see buying replacement gear as a “fun tax”: You hate to pay the money, but ultimately, it’s worth it.

On the same token, you’re not powerless—accept that something may break, and accept that you may be the one to fix it. On every trip, I bring a screwdriver with removable bits; wrenches and a socket set; a folding saw; zip ties (these have saved me on more than one occasion!); and any sport-specific tools I need.

Tip #4: Check-in With Your Travel Partner Regularly

Communication is the key to making your trip go smoothly, especially if it’s a long stint. And now, thanks to COVID-19, it’s even more important.

Two people sitting and enjoying a meal
(Image by Tyler Cave)

If you’re veteran RVers, get on the same page when it comes to forming new habits, like packing extra supplies, making fewer stops, or avoiding crowds. Personally, I’m a stickler when it comes to safety precautions and even gave up one of my favorite pre-pandemic pastimes: brewery-hopping. If my wife, Dee, and I do decide to grab a beer or dinner outside our campsite, we call ahead to make sure they have socially distanced outdoor seating. If we stay at a campground, we use our own bathroom facilities and typically don’t engage with our neighbors beyond a friendly wave.

If you’re new to RV life, it’s even more important to make these plans beforehand. Soon after I bought my Roadtrek, I began planning my first trip with Dee. I made an offhand remark about boondocking in a remote location, and she was taken aback—she’d assumed we’d stay in established campgrounds with electric hookups. That led to a conversation about what she was and wasn’t comfortable with on our trips. We talked it out, compromised, and now, several years later, we’ve got our camping down to an art.

Tip #5: Get a Cell-Signal Booster

I do a lot of camping in areas where cell signals can be virtually nonexistent, but work often requires access to Wi-Fi. Climbing to the top of a hill is often enough to get a stronger signal from the nearest tower, but what if you’re just wanting to surf the Internet or check-in with the family for a bit before bed?

Laptop computer inside a camper
(Image by Virrage Images from Shutterstock)

I mounted a cell-signal booster to a telescoping pole on the exterior of my van, and it works wonders. When I park for the night, I extend the pole and instantly go from a weak one bar to three or four.

Tip #6: Slow Down—But Don’t Be Afraid to Quickly Change Things up

Here’s a lesson I learned the long and hard way: Try not to fit too much into your trip. It’s almost impossible to truly experience a city or national park in a single day, and you’ll end up spending more time behind the wheel instead of on the trail or lake. I hate arriving at a park after spending 10 hours on the road and being too exhausted to do more than a short hike. That’s never the goal.

RV parked by water at sunset
(Image by Virrage Images from Shutterstock)

Lesson learned, I always try to build in some extra time between destinations, so if I’m having a great time in one place, I can extend my stay. Likewise, if I think I’ve tapped out the activities, I simply leave earlier than planned. Don’t be afraid to move on even if you’ve booked an extra night or two at a campground. Your time—and enjoyment—is worth far more than the $20 or $30 you’ll throw away.

Tip #7: Always Bring a Portable Stove

portable camping stove
(Image by Andrey Vasiliskov from Shutterstock)

My Roadtrek has a serviceable two-burner stove inside, but if the weather’s nice, I prefer to cook outside. A basic two-burner camp stove doesn’t take up a lot of storage room and allows you to spend time with your friends and family around the picnic table—or simply gives you an opportunity for more time outside in the fresh air.

Tip #8: Go Solar When Possible

If I’m boondocking in one place for a while, I rely on my solar setup to stay charged. It’s efficient, reliable, and sustainable, so what’s not to like? Until you run out of water or need your black tank dumped, you can just stay out in nature—potentially for weeks!

RV roof-mounted solar panels
(Image by Voyagerix from Shutterstock)

That being said, know its limitations. While I can keep my electronics topped off, I can’t run my coffee maker, microwave, or air conditioning on solar alone. Invest in a power pack to serve as a backup in case the clouds roll in.

Tip #9: Designate Camera-Free and Phone-Free Moments

Yes, that’s a gorgeous sunset over the mountains. Have you seen it?

As a landscape photographer, this is advice I have to force myself to take sometimes. Many of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever experienced—sunset at Yosemite, a momma brown bear, and her frolicking cubs in Katmai National Park—were seen entirely from the viewfinder of my digital camera. I’m not sure I would do it that way again.

The Mobergs sitting on a boat enjoying the sunshine
(Image by Tyler Cave)

Learn from my mistake: Fire off some quick snapshots for social media, but then put your phone or camera away and just take in the moment. This is doubly true if you’re standing there next to your significant other. Those are the moments you’ll truly remember forever, photograph or not. Keep the words of the immortal Kurt Vonnegut in mind:

“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’”

Tip #10: Invest in Your Memories

Last year, I did two RV trips to Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, one solo and the other with Dee. The first time around, I considered two afternoon paddling trips: one was a bit pricey but looked amazing from the photos; the less expensive one had decent—but not spectacular—reviews. I chose the cheaper option and got exactly that. When I went back with Dee, we booked the more expensive tour operator, and the two of us had an amazing time. It was a good reminder that you always get what you pay for.

The Mobergs sitting comfortably outside their camper
(Image by Tyler Cave)

If I’m buying a bike or a kayak or another piece of equipment that I’m going to spend hours upon hours using, I spend extra to make sure it’s comfortable and works well—that way I both use and enjoy it more. The same goes for your RV and all its accessories: Even if it’s just patio lights, spending a little money on those extra accouterments can make your RV days, your RV memories, that much more inviting. And you definitely want those to last a lifetime.

After spending nearly a decade as a reporter for The Indianapolis Star, Robert Annis finally broke free of the shackles of gainful employment to become an award-winning outdoor-travel journalist. Over the years, Robert’s byline has appeared in numerous publications and websites, including Outside, National Geographic Traveler, Hemispheres, Afar, Bicycling, Budget Travel, Men’s Journal, Popular Mechanics, Lonely Planet, the Chicago Tribune, and Adventure.com. If you’re looking for Robert, chances are you’ll find him either pedaling the backroads and trails of the Midwest on his bicycle or hunched over his laptop in an airport bar, frantically trying to make his next deadline.
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31 Comments

  1. We are looking to get into an RV we can drive but having trouble finding a vehicle we can tow and use in BBC a regular basis without breaking the bank is the Jeep the only towable vehicle or are there other SUV that are newer

    1. if you are looking to flat tow, you can’t have CVT (continuous variable transmission). just old fashioned automatic transmission.
      I LOVE my Equinox and it’s so easy to hook up to the Blue Ox.
      also, know your Drivable s tow limits.
      Happy trails

      1. Don’t you mean “old fashioned MANUAL transmission?” I don’t believe there is an automatic transmission that can be towed flat four.

        1. Jeep has 2 different automatic transmissions that can be flat towed. It is Not the model (Wrangler, Cherokee, etc.) but what transmission a particular Jeep has. Most Jeep Cherokees can’t be flat towed, but if it has Active Drive II (two speed transfer case) it can (I have one and it flat tows at the push of one button).
          Be careful with other vehicles that claim flat tow. Some have speed or time limits on flat towing. The best way to see if a vehicle can be flat towed like you want is to check the owner’s manual for that vehicle. All owner’s manuals are available on line without having to purchase.

        2. Depends on what you are towing. I tow a 550 pound, dry weight, teardrop trailer. Since 2012 when I got it I’ve towed with a Honda Fit, Honda CR-V, and presently with a 2009 Pontiac Vibe AWD. I’ve used both manual and automatic drives but have used vehicles older than 2014 as most passenger vehicles now have transmissions or frames not conducive to towing.

      2. Ford starting making the F150’s to flat pull in 2015. We pulled ours behind our Jamboree and it was great.

    2. I have had a few towable vehicles including a Jeep. You don’t need a jeep! You need “a” vehicle and a blue ox tow bar. Thats it. Get some old something, put the drive in neutral and turn the key slightly on so the steering wheel doesn’t lock on you and disconnect the battery. Thats it!!

    3. Just purchased a Buick Envision 2020 you can flat tow. You can not tow the 2021 Buick. You can’t tow any Ford’s. Just check out any towing vehicle with the dealer. It sounds like you can tow the Equinox. Check it out to be sure which year.

    4. Our in laws towed a 2017 Ford Fusion. They bought a specific model that was towable. They had a brake buddy installed and it worked great. They have since gone to a 5th wheel and now will be selling their 2017 Ford Fusion . Reach out to my email if you might be interested.

    5. We full timed for about 7 years. Had a 40 footer 4 slide Jayco pulling it with a Ford F550. Just right fit. Buy more truck than needed. It will make your RV life more enjoyable. Had both hitch pull and 5th Wheel. Both will work just depends on how much room you want. Once I got command of the backing the 5th wheel would be my choice.

    6. Our Toad is a Fiat 500 manual shift. It is light weight and works well for us. Another bonus with the Fiat is there is only room for grandchild at a time.

    1. Keep ventilation thru top vents open enough to circulate air but not let rain pour in. Also, you could stay hooked to some power and put in a dehumidifier if in an area that stays high humidity. Get a unit that pumps itself out automatically. DONT SEAL YOUR TT UP TIGHT

  2. Yep towed a ford exploder with a blue ox tow system as I zig zagged back across the U.S from Florida to Ca. no problems what so ever never knew it was back there had to check the rear camera to make sure it was still there. Blue Ox has it down

  3. 5 years full timing. Started with a Jeep Liberty which was fun, but old and we aren’t four wheelers. Bought a 2015 Equinox two years ago and love it. Nice, practical car with bells and whistles. Tows as easily as Liberty, just had to add a hot wire from the rv to the car to keep the battery charged while towing.

  4. I never tow anything. Too hard to handle. I rent a 2500 HD to pull the trailer and get wholesale rental rates on the rental truck and the camper. I do not want to tow a car and drive a monster. Too dangerous though plenty of people do it. I won’t stay in KOA campgrounds except for times I need to deal with things.

  5. What are your thoughts? We went from a 38′ 5th wheel to a 32′ Class A to a 24′ Class C and were still unable to view sights In many of the National Parks. We now have a 20′ Class B which is no larger that a regular pick up in length and width other than the 9′ height. Will we be able to drive through the parks like other non RV vehicles?

    1. We have a 21 foot camper van and feel that we can park in just about any place that a regular vehicle can. Parallel parking and tight spots are naturally a challenge and maybe not doable.

  6. We have a Suzuki Sidekick we flat tow behind our 31ft class A airstream land yacht. Oh my gosh it is this the best. Fairly cheap, light weight, manual transmission with manual locking hubs. It is 4 wheel drive and we have a 2 inch lift kit so this thing will go anywhere. We replaced the rag top with a removable hard top, so we can lock it up. I have a blow up kayak made by sea eagle that fits inside in the back. For a light weight tow behind, I could not be happier. Our tow bar is a falcon two, works really good. I ran wires though the frame of the Suzuki and used diodes to hook up the lights, so all we do is plug it in to the motorhome trailer connector and we are good to go. Easy peasy,

  7. Hi, is there a tarp orcover put there specifically to cover the toilet in an RV while traveling g? We like to use our mini bathroom for storage. As clean as we keep it, I’d rather not have towels or pillows directly or hugging the toilet. Thanks 🙂

    1. Hi Kristi, I’m not aware of a specific cover like the one you’re thinking about, but I think a large trash bag would work perfectly. I get that it’s not the most glamorous but it would get the job done.

  8. We have a 24′ Gulf Stream Conquest and flat towed a ’94 Jeep Wrangler YJ 6,064 miles from South Carolina to Montana/Wyoming/Colorado this summer. Wrangler only weighs 2800+ pounds curb weight and the Class C has a towing weight of 3700 pounds. Did real well. No problems towing with the exception that mileage dropped an average of 1.5 miles/gallon. Wanted to go with the Chevy Geo Tracker, but they’re harder to find than a hens tooth. Have had various units throughout the years, and found that unless you have a tow behind or 5th wheel, you’d better figure on having some kind of transportation besides a bike. Good luck.

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