Driving a vehicle and towing an RV are vastly different. You need to account for the extra room, height, and weight of the RV as well as how it moves on the hitch. Different types of RVs react differently, so towing a travel trailer isn’t the same as towing a fifth wheel. If you’re new to RVing, this can be a little scary at first, but with these tips for handling and driving your RV, and a lot of practice, you’ll be wheeling your rig around like a pro in no time.
There is a huge difference between just driving your standard vehicle and towing a trailer. When you have a trailer hitched onto the back of your vehicle, you are all of a sudden taking up a lot more space on the road. This added length changes the way you turn, back up, make lane changes, and stop. Before you even hook up your rig, make sure that your tow vehicle is equipped to handle it. Fifth wheels and travel trailers tow slightly differently, but for the most part the basics are the same.
Turning & Backing Up
With a trailer behind you in tow, your turns just got a lot wider! Don’t take turns as if you’re just traveling with your car or truck. If you do, you’ll end up dragging your trailer over curbs and running over street signs (and anything else that happens to be in its way!). Make sure your turns are wide and slow to ensure that your RV stays on the road where it belongs and doesn’t clip nearby vehicles. This will take practice, but you’ll get the hang of it quickly!
Once you have turning down, head to a wide open parking lot where you can practice backing up. This can be one of the most challenging parts of towing because the trailer behaves differently than the tow vehicle when you turn the wheel. If you’ve ever tried to back up a tractor with an attachment on it or a boat trailer, you know how frustrating it can be to turn the wheel one way and watch the object behind you go in the opposite way that you expected it to go. Learning to back up with a trailer behind you takes patience and practice. Part of the learning process is realizing that you have to do the opposite of what you’ve always done when simply backing up your car, and this takes some mental sharpness. When it’s time to park at a campsite, it’ll be very helpful to have a partner to guide you. A partner who is outside of the vehicle can see things that you can’t. Invest in two-way radios for this very task. Your campsite neighbors will appreciate the lack of yelling and shouting if you have radios. As you pull up to the spot, turn slightly in toward the site and then back out to help get your RV pointed toward the site. This will make getting the proper angle much easier. As your partner guides you in, speak in terms of driver and passenger sides of the vehicle instead of left and right (which can change depending on your view of the vehicle). Take it slow, and if you can’t get the proper angle, drive around and try again. Every RVer was new to camping at one time, so they’ve been in your shoes. They’ll appreciate the care you take to park your RV correctly (and not hit theirs in the process!).
Stopping while towing an RV takes more care and foresight than just driving a car. With the enormous weight of the trailer behind you, your vehicle won’t be able to stop as quickly as it does on its own. That’s why it’s very important to leave a good distance at all times between you and the car in front of you in case of a quick, unexpected stop. The brakes on a trailer are typically electric controlled and there is usually a 2-3 second delay when braking. If the car in front of you hits its brakes suddenly, you need some space to make sure you can slow your vehicle and your RV down without hitting them. Stopping is another thing you should practice to ensure that you’re prepared when you head out on your first getaway. Know how your vehicle and RV stop in regular and emergency stopping situations.
There are a lot of differences between travel trailers and fifth wheels, and one of the nice ones is that fifth wheels can’t sway while being towed. Since a fifth wheel is anchored into the bed of a truck, it is much more secure than a travel trailer. When a trailer sways, it starts to shimmy back and forth behind the tow vehicle, which can quickly become a very dangerous situation. Sway can be caused by a lot of things, such as incorrect weight distribution, high winds, or an improperly matched trailer to tow vehicle. If you own a travel trailer, consider investing in sway bars to help keep the trailer tracking well behind the vehicle. These bars control the sway by creating either friction or resistance at the hitch. For added safety and peace of mind, add sway bars on to your hitch before heading off on the open road.
Driving a Motorhome
Motorhomes are big, especially class A motorhomes! Even if you’re used to driving a van or truck, you’ll be shocked at how big a motorhome will feel when you slip in behind the wheel. While you don’t need a CDL to own or drive a large motorhome, you do need to spend some time practicing the basics of driving a motorhome. This includes turning, backing up, parking, and changing lanes. A motorhome takes up a lot of real estate on the highway, and those around you will appreciate the time and care you put into learning how to drive your big rig.
Adjusting the Seat and Mirrors
Just like with a standard vehicle, know where the seat adjustments are in your motorhome. Adjust your seat so that it’s in a position that will allow you to reach everything and sit comfortably. You’re going to be taking pretty long trips, so sitting in a seat that is in an uncomfortable position can make driving this colossal rig even harder than it is. Once you have your seat in the proper position, you should adjust your mirrors. On a motorhome, blind spots are larger and in different places than on a vehicle. If your motorhome has mirrors that extend on arms out to the side, make sure that the edge of the mirror is in line with the side of the motorhome as you stand in front of it and look down the side. Once you have them in the correct place, you can adjust the pivot to make sure you can see everything you need to. Typically you will have two sets of mirrors: a large one on top and a small one on the bottom. The top mirrors should be set so you can see the body of the motorhome in one to one-and-a-half inches of the mirror. This allows you to watch the side when navigating and parking, but still gives you most of the mirror to see the surroundings. The bottom mirrors should enable you to see about a quarter of the motorhome in the mirror. If your motorhome doesn’t have side and rear cameras, you may want to consider adding them. Camping stores sell rear back-up camera systems that make backing up and parking a lot easier!
When it comes to turning a motorhome, you need to account for the added length when you wheel around a corner. As you know, buses and semis have to make pretty wide turns to get around corners, and you have just joined these ranks. If you don’t make wide turns, you’re going to do more than hop a curb. You may take out a light pole, another car, or even pedestrians. Swing your rig out a bit before you make the turn to ensure you have enough space to get that rear around with you. The nice thing is, with a motorhome being all one piece, there isn’t going to be any strange angles and swivels going on in the back that you have to account for.
Parking your motorhome is probably one of the hardest parts of owning a large RV. This is when you want to use your back-up cameras and mirrors and enlist the help of your travel companions. Since you already have your mirrors adjusted to the proper spot (see above), you’re set up for success. Activate your rear cameras (this is why you have them!). And for an extra set of eyes, have someone in your travel party park themselves behind or next to your your RV so they can help direct you and keep you clear of bushes, overhanging tree branches, and other things that may escape your vision. Using two-way radios makes this part easier and eliminates the need to shout out the windows and disturb the campers around you.
Height and Weight
One of the most important things you need to know about your RV is its size. This includes the length, width, and height. Most RVs have a maximum width of 8’ 6”, but the height and length of RVs vary quite a bit. Knowing the height of your RV will help ensure you don’t get stuck under a bridge or overhang. All the height signs on bridges are meant for large vehicles, such as semi trucks, buses, construction trucks, and RVs, so pay attention to them. Unfortunately though, not all bridges are marked. This can make it hard to know if you’re going to fit underneath safely. In general, bridges along the highway are going to be high enough to accommodate semis, which are limited to 13’ 6”. However, there are some things that can change this, including roadwork. When a road crew simply repaves over the current concrete, this will add a few inches to the road height. The odds of them updating the height signs on the overpasses is pretty low. And if you travel underneath an overpass that is too low for your RV and you end up hitting the overpass, the damage that occurs to your RV is your responsibility, even if the sign is incorrect. While you’re probably safe traveling with your RV under overpasses on the highway, it’s a different story in the city. City streets often have bridges that are too low for tall vehicles to travel under. You also need to be careful in gas stations, fast food drive thrus, and banks. You don’t want to be like this guy. Also, be mindful of your weight and keep an eye out for weight limit signs. Some roads are not thick enough or built stable enough for the weight of a large vehicle. It’s smart to get your RV weighed or just plan on not exceeding your RV’s GVWR, which is the max it should be loaded to anyway.
Distributing the weight in your RV can make a huge difference in how it handles going down the road. Most RV manufacturers recommend that 60% of the weight in a trailer be in front of the center axle line. If too much weight is up front, it will put more pressure on the hitch and cause the back of the tow vehicle to sag. If there’s too much weight at the back of the RV, it will sag the back of the trailer and pull up on the back of the tow vehicle. If you have a travel trailer, you can get a weight distribution system on the hitch that will help transfer the load more evenly. However you still need to make sure you load the trailer properly. Also pay attention to how you load your RV from side to side. If one side of the trailer is significantly heavier than the other, turning can be difficult and it could even cause your RV to roll over or tip. If you’re traveling in a motorhome, the weight should be evenly distributed to all the tires as well.
Learning how to handle and drive your RV will not only make traveling less stressful, but it’ll make you a lot safer on the road. Remember that practice makes perfect, so get out there and maneuver your RV around until you’re comfortable doing so. If you’re still struggling or would rather be professionally trained, there are courses that will help you learn how to drive your RV like a pro. Whether you’re learning on your own or taking a class, you’ll soon be able to reap the benefits of taking to the open road and enjoying all that the great outdoors has to offer.