This summer, my husband and I traveled all the way across the United States (from Atlanta to Seattle) with a camper (also known as a travel trailer) in tow. We’re not exactly camping aficionados. Neither one of us had ever spent more than 20 minutes in an RV. I personally have never towed anything bigger than a U-Haul behind my car. Honest truth? We’re RV lemmings who hopped on the pandemic-induced road trip boom. I mean, according to the New York Times, RV sales are projected to be a whopping 35% higher this year than last year. And last year was a boom year spurred on by Covid quarantine. I bought my camper relatively early in the pandemic and am pretty sure I snagged the last GulfStream Vintage cruiser available available at a fair price.
I put as much research into buying my camper as I did my iPhone
Embarrassingly, I put about as much research into buying my camper as I did the purchase of my iPhone. The things I factored in to my purchase seem perfectly ridiculous in retrospect. The “adorable” element of the camper was incredibly important to me. I fell for the Vintage Cruiser line which takes its design and color cues from 1950’s RVs. The kitchen even looks like an old diner. There was only one Vintage Cruiser left in stock at the RV dealer I visited (hours from my home) and its color was red. Cherry red had not factored into my “adorable” equation – I was envisioning a wood-paneled, more earthy look. I told the salesperson I wasn’t sure about the color. He said, “Think of something you like that is red.” That was a winning sales strategy and clearly the only prompt I needed to buy and subsequently name the camper “My Cherry Pie.” I did do one practical thing which is to check to make sure my SUV could haul a camper this size. At least I got that part right.
I’m seriously in love with my little red camper.
I swear I’m not an impulse buyer. However, three months into the pandemic, I was so desperate to get out of the house and into the great outdoors. I came home, hauling a bold red camper with no idea how to unhitch it or where I was going to store it. I figured all that out in due time, of course, and am seriously in love with my little red camper, “My Cherry Pie”. So let me turn my many mistakes into something useful and offer some sound tips on getting the most out of your camper.
- Get to know your vehicle: Our best resource for understanding how our Vintage Cruiser works was the Facebook group for fellow owners. Granted, every camper comes with a manual. The Vintage Cruiser manual requires a degree from MIT and a diagnostic brain that defies logic to comprehend it. Additionally, The guide has no index. Uhm… why? And, with RV sales skyrocketing, good luck getting an appointment to see anybody knowledgeable at a dealer. Everybody will encourage you to get Good Sam, which is kind of like AAA for RV’s, only they never come to your vehicle and they truly aren’t that helpful. Trust me, we tried and while they always took our call, their advice was never right. Oh and Good Sam sells your information to all sorts of travel related sites, so expect a bunch of calls from telemarketers. Fellow owners, on the other hand, have nothing to sell. They also know every creaky joint, RV idiosyncrasy and problem you might encounter. There are two Facebook groups with helpful fellow Vintage Cruiser owners and both continue to be our best resource for questions and challenges big and small.
The bigger the rig, the more to tow!
- Weight Can be a Burden: The bigger the rig, the more to tow. And there is a tremendous amount to learn about your vehicle’s towing capacity. My friends at KBB offer up sound advice. We own a Chevy Tahoe which is a good-sized truck. However, anytime we hit the 60MPH mark, our camper began to sway, perilously I might add. We ended up getting a “sway bar” (Google it, important vocabulary term and trailer device). We also seriously adjusted our expectations as to how many hours per day we could drive. Suffice it to say, you don’t jet down the highway with a rig attached to the back of your truck like you’re in a sports car. You travel slowly and wisely.
- Give yourself some space: I chose a relatively small Vintage Cruiser, the 17 RWD, since I was concerned about towing capacity. After spending four months on the road with a male specimen (namely my husband), who weighs roughly 190 pounds, I can definitively say we need a few more feet of space. Don’t get me wrong, the camper has everything we need: a fridge, a bathroom with a shower, a dining room table and plenty of storage. However, it’s a one person in the kitchen at a time kinda space. The 17 in the RWD stands for length of rig, so mine is 17 feet. I have my eye on the 19 ERD (two feet longer and slightly wider) and those extra inches will make a difference when I’m ready to trade up.
- Craft a Camper Set Up and Take Down checklist. There are so many minute details that go into setting up and taking down your camper. Forget just one and you might find yourself driving down the highway with your camper bopping on the ground behind you. Along with a check-list, I’d have an honest conversation with your partner about who does what. My husband and I each had specific things we did when arriving at any campsite. If you’re going to have an argument on the road, trust me it happens during set up and take down, so knowing your lane helps dissipate the bickering.
- Learn how to Back-up. Oh my goodness, backing up a camper is the most stressful thing known to mankind. It must rank up there with getting a flat tire on the highway or getting mugged in an alley. The first six months we had our camper, we only reserved “pull through” sites at campgrounds because we were terrified of backing up. This is not practical way to approach camping in the great outdoors. Why, the more gorgeous the site, the fewer the parking options. My best advice? Get somebody to help you. I know men don’t like to ask for help, but trust me, you need a second set of eyes and a guide. It’s always better for your long-term relationship if that guide is not your partner. (Does your partner really listen to you? Need I say more?) Also, understand that the backing up process totally messes with your brain and defies everything you know about the way a vehicle is supposed to move. To say it’s counter-intuitive is an understatement. It’s the opposite of what you think. I binge watched a bunch of these videos called “How to Back your RV” to try to understand the methodology and still am far from a pro.
Don’t try to go through the drive-thru lane at Starbucks!
- There Are no Quick Pit Stops in an RV. You know how in your everyday driving life, you get tired, you decide to pull off an exit and dash into Starbucks for a Grande latte? This does not happen when you are towing a camper. Dashing anywhere is not in the camper vocabulary. Besides, very few Starbucks have a place for an RV to park. And for God’s sake, don’t even try to go through the drive-through lane. You’ll get stuck. It happened to me in Arizona and I had to get a former Navy Seal to help me get out of the drive-through and pissed off a dozen caffeine starved patrons. Remember, you now have an extra 20 to 25 feet behind your truck and every single turn is a slow go. We got really good at minimizing our stops and making the most out of any time we pulled off the highway.
- Book Ahead and Be Flexible. We spent over three months driving from Atlanta to Seattle. We plotted out as much of our trip as possible but gave ourselves several bonus days which we could apply to catching up along the way. It always takes longer to drive anywhere in an RV than you think and every so often you’ll stumble upon an amazing spot and want to stay. When we started our adventure, if you had said to me, “You’re definitely going to want to spend three days in the Petit Jean State Park in Arkansas,” I would have said, “Are you crazy?” But we arrived, it poured down rain on our first day and we were plum exhausted, so we stayed inside and played Scrabble. We ended up staying three days here and fell in love with the caves, trails and had an amazing view of this mysteriously serene lake, Lake Bailey.
- Define Your Ideal Campsite: As newbies to camping, we thought staying at KOA’s was the way to go. After all, KOA’s are easy to find, have everything you need and usually are clean as a whistle. However, the KOA experience is pretty suburban and you’re often packed in like sardines. KOA’s are kind of like the theme parks of campsites – they mimic the experience, but they’re not really in the true great outdoors. Our dream campsite is almost always a State or National Park. That said, you truly must book National Parks almost a year in advance. State Parks are also great, but many have antiquated websites with a booking system that defies logic. I did my research and depending on the state, I’d often just end up calling the park to learn what they have available. I also love HipCamp, which is kind of like AirBNB for campsites. You might stay in a farm or a somebody’s mountain back yard. Bear in mind that the more rustic the site, the less likely you are to have electricity/water/sewer, which is a problem when it’s sweltering hot and you need AC. We did book a few campsites that didn’t have water hook-ups but just were sure to have extra water in our RV.
There are many more reasonable and sensible things you should consider before you start your happy camper journey. Which leads me to the greatest truth of RV travel. You gotta love the process. There’s a lot that goes into every camping adventure from smart packing to hitching and getting the camper leveled to sewage. A true happy camper actually enjoys the myriad of little projects that goes into camping and is thrilled with the simple reward of a starlit sky.