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We bought a travel trailer and went camping this summer like everyone else. And, like most people who hadn’t gone camping regularly pre-COVID, we were forced to become experts as we were flying out the door. We collected as much information as we could to hopefully enjoy a camping trip in our new-to-us travel trailer, which we had decided was best for a family of four and we’ll tell you why below. We set up our Recreational Vehicle, or RV, with advice from experienced friends and YouTube videos. The camper tips for beginners in this article, video, and the downloadable list will save family RV travelers tons of research time by providing essential information to set up a travel trailer or motorhome and enjoy a socially distant vacation with family and kids while COVID still roams the world.
But first, use the video below to see the real story of how we figured it out. Our behind the scenes look at our journey of foibles, frustrations, and victories. It includes an interview with two National Park Rangers, Coby and Catharine Bishop who share their tips for new campers.
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First the Backstory
About twenty years ago, I was taking a last romantic motorcycle ride with my ex-boyfriend. I was supposed to move four days later to Charleston, South Carolina from Los Angeles (to start my career as a broadcast journalist). However, a car making a left turn hit us.
Paramedics rushed us to UCLA. I broke many bones, some had popped out of my body. There, I flatlined two times until the emergency room doctor, Dr. Henry Cryer, saved my life. I stayed in the hospital Intensive Care Unit for almost two months. When I recovered, I won a five-million-dollar judgment against the driver but the driver was a young nanny whose insurance policy maxed out at $15,000. I could have sued her rich employer, instead, I split the $15,000 between my attorney and my doctors.
Before that happened, I dreamed of what I would do with the five million. I wanted to buy a Class A RV, the kind that looks like a fancy bus and drive it across the country, interviewing people wherever we stopped. At the end of our trip, I wanted to write a book about it. I never got the big money so it never happened.
Yet, this summer, after being stuck inside for months, suddenly everyone wanted to go camping! With school, camps, and sports canceled, this was finally our chance too!
What Type of RV Should You Buy?
I hadn’t grown up camping or glamping with my parents. Neither did my husband, Howard. While dating, Howard and I camped a couple of times in tents, then, after we had kids, we rented a few RVs so we had tried out a few of the different options.
We rented a Class A a couple of times when Kaleb was a baby,
The following year, we switched to the Class C, which are the ones that have the little loft atop the cab of the driver and passenger seats. The boys loved their little hideout in the Class Cs and I thought, if we ever bought an RV, that’s the one I’d get.
Then our friends showed up to our group camping trip one year with a travel trailer that had bunk beds. I thought, What?! That is awesome!!!!! My kids thought they were awesome too and promised to never fight again if we got one. No. That didn’t happen, but, we were immediately in the grips of Trailer Envy. Someday, I thought to myself.
But someday wouldn’t happen. The boys are too athletic and are involved in every sport possible during the entire year. It wasn’t worth buying an RV to store and maintain to only be able to use it a couple of times at the end of summer between our big summer trips.
But COVID changed everything. Canceled sports, trips, all of it, opened up our schedule. Once we got a grip on our fear, and I found ways our family could live in a world with the virus, we felt a little safer to travel locally.
How to Choose an RV
We decided to finally buy an RV. We opted for a used one to save money on sales tax and finance charges associated with a dealership and also for the peace of mind that comes with knowing that whatever kinks needed to be worked out in it, had already been done so by the previous owner. Also, we’d be saving a ton of money through drive off depreciation.
However, a more cautious consumer might say the extra fees are worth it if the RV comes with a warranty and some sort of peace of mind but we’d rather save the money.
I started shopping on Craigslist, RV Trader and Facebook Marketplace for a travel trailer with bunk beds. I’m not saying I ignored my kids, procrastinated on work or sat by my husband, staring intently at my laptop for weeks, but that could have happened.
Drawbacks of a Travel Trailer
At the same time, Howard started talking to a friend with a trailer who slowly convinced him that we should instead be looking for a drivable RV. The friend told him how dangerous it was to tow a trailer with my SUV, that it would be throwing our car around the road, that pulling uphill would be a nightmare because we wouldn’t be able to drive very fast. He told Howard that we’d have to buy a super small one in order to fit within my towing capacity (buh-bye pullout couch).
So, Howard started showing me ads for Class As and Cs, which were in our price range. These were all around 20 years old. That’s the only reason they were in our price range. It was everything I could do to keep my eyes from rolling onto the floor.
I really wanted the bunk beds for our two boys and none of the units Howard showed me had them. The ones he liked were perfect for couples, not families. This would be the only time, I suspected, that our family could actually do this and I wanted them to really want to go. My 12-year-old son, Kaleb is just hitting that tween phase of only wanting to hang out with his friends and my ten-year-old is already there. This would be my last shot at fulfilling my dream of cross-country RV traveling and I didn’t want to have to fight them to love it.
Why Travel Trailers Are Best
- Travel Trailers are the least expensive of the four options (Class A, Class C, Fifth Wheel, Travel Trailer).
- I could pull an ultralight model one with my SUV, which has a solid V8 engine and a great 8,500 lbs. towing capacity and we’d have a car to drive around once we set up at our destination.
- It has the most options inside – like bunk beds – in the least amount of space.
- The insurance is less expensive than a drivable RV.
- Their engine doesn’t break down like a drivable RV.
- We could get a newer one, that fits within our budget, so we didn’t have to endure the weathered bad taste of RVs past.
Now, Fifth Wheels also have all these perks. These are the trailers that attach to the flatbed of a pick-up truck, but we would have had to have bought a pick-up truck and we weren’t ready for that level of commitment.
Yet, Howard was still set on a drivable RV.
Howard made an appointment a week in advance to see two Class Cs about a half-hour from our house. One never texted back to confirm her address and the other texted he had sold it as we pulled up to his house. The disappointment we felt torpedoed our earlier excitement. In desperation, I immediately took to my smartphone and started looking for and responding to ads in the area to which we had driven. I left a few messages. Finally, one guy called us back as we were halfway home and said his travel trailer was available. We turned around and went back.
The ad displayed a 2015 Keystone Passport, Ultra Lite Grand Touring Edition 2400BHWE – with smooth exterior walls, which we were told would make the unit look cleaner, an outdoor kitchen, full-sized bunk beds, and a U-shaped dinette area that converts to a bed, so the boys could bring friends. It described one slide-out and a pantry between the bathroom and dinette. It showed a mini bathtub. It had a separate bedroom with closing doors and a TV set inside, as well as in the main space. It sounded perfect. But we had responded to other units that we also had thought would be perfect.
We arrived and it looked great from the outside. The designs still looked fresh and it looked clean. When the boys went inside, they looked at me with huge smiles and matching eyes and asked if we could get it. I hadn’t trained them yet in the subtle art of negotiation.
So, we made a deal with the seller and went about trying to figure it out.
The Basics: Getting Your Travel Trailer Ready For Your First Trip
Tip #1: Get an Electric Jack
Our new unit had an electric jack so we didn’t have to worry about lifting the front of the trailer manually to hitch it to my car. That would be a huge pain. But it didn’t have electric stabilizers and that would have been nice to make it easier once we arrived at our campsite. If you don’t have either, then you have to manually lift to balance the trailer on folding legs and blocks using a crank. This is a little like engines used to start in the days before ignition keys or fobs. Yes, that happened.
Tip #2: Get a Weight Distribution Hitch and a Sway Control Bar
The most important thing we wanted was a Sway Control Bar because when I test drove the trailer attached to my car, I felt like a giant was swatting my car from side to side between his cupped hands. I didn’t think I’d go anywhere but it still felt alarming. Our trailer already came with a Weight Distribution Hitch which also helps stabilize the unit. Listen, it’s your family. Spend the couple hundred extra bucks to feel safe. You’ll all enjoy yourself more that way.
Since we decided to take up RV camping in the middle of the camping craze, everyone in town was out of everything, especially the Sway Control Bar. They all referred me to one guy, Mike, at Conejo Vacation Trailers. You know. That one guy in town who was the expert at everything RV but who’d never answer his phone because he was too busy for that kind of stuff. So, I had to stalk him. Meaning, I had to drive over there to make an appointment. Once he sized me up and saw I was sincere, he was very nice and accommodating and squeezed us in the day before we were supposed to leave on our trip. Close but done.
Tip #3: Get Leveling Blocks
In order to extend the slide-out, allowing you enough room to load the trailer, you need to have it be level with the ground, otherwise it can break. Experienced friends told us this can easily happen and before I knew this, I did pop out our living space a bit to show it off to someone who came to see our new baby. This is not fun but it’s fairly easy. You get leveling blocks that look like giant Legos and drive onto them depending on how much you need to adjust the height. You could alternatively get auto-levelers but I heard the unit plus labor to install will run about $1000 out the door – though these seem affordable. Might be worth it 😉
Tip #4: Get Extension Cords to Charge Your Trailer Overnight
Most cities allow you to park your RV for 72 hours before and after a trip to load and unload. You’ll need to park your unit fairly close to your house so you can run an Outdoor Extension Cord to your home outlet in order to charge the unit overnight. You need to do this from 24-48 hours before your trip to get your refrigerator cold enough to store your perishable food.
Tip #5: Deep Breathes
This is supposed to be fun. Remember that. Some of us here tend to forget that and can get snippy when things go wrong, which is every time if you have a family. You get there when you get there but if you’re nice as you’re going, then everyone will have more fun!
Shopping List: All the Other Stuff
The friend that tried to dissuade us from getting a trailer was very helpful in providing a list of the absolute essentials we’d need when we got one anyway and these are:
- Sewer Hose / Dump Kit (need it but don’t think too deeply about this one)
- Sewer Storage Bag (because you don’t really want it to touch your other things)
- Black Water Tank Deodorizer (Black water is what goes down your toilet)
- Gray Water Tank Deodorizer (Gray water is your sink / shower runoff)
- RV Toilet Paper (you have to get special kind)
- Toilet Plunger Cleaner Brush Combo
- Bathroom Trashcan (small with a lid)
- Telescopic Ladder (the back of our trailer doesn’t have one and these help to clean the roof etc. but they fold for easy transport)
- Water Tank Filler
- Water Regulator (so your plumbing doesn’t get ruined by too much pressure)
- Hooks (for hats, jackets etc.)
- Campfire Chairs (campfire!)
- Sturdy Wine Glasses (because…camping)
- Kitchen Drawer Organizer (to keep things from jumbling)
- Tool Set
- Clear Duct Tape
- Clear bin organizers (I used these small ones for the medicine cabinet)
- 90-Degree Water Hose Entry Elbow
- 25′ 30-Amp Power Grip RV Extension Cord
- Spare Water Pump (because we heard they break)
- Patio Mat or Tarp (so dirt stays outside)
- Welcome Mat (same reason)
- Tablecloth for campsite picnic table
- Propane Cooking Grill (I used to use the firepits at the campsite and was recently told that was really gross so here’s another option)
- RV Dish Set (you can do disposable but these are sturdy and better for the environment)
- Indoor Trashcan (you want these to collapse to save space in storage)
- Outdoor Trashcan (top zips up)
- Recycle Trashcan
- Fresh Water Filter
- Camping Games
That’s a lot of stuff. I know. Just think, you can finally travel and actually bring the kitchen sink! It’s also a solid investment. Think of it as your second home and once you’re all settled, the only thing you’ll need to bring on your trip is food and clothes. Since most campgrounds are under $100 per night, you’ll be able to explore the country without spending a fortune on eating out and hotel bills.
Download the FREE list here: TRAVEL TRAILER ESSENTIALS
We decided our first trip with the travel trailer should be a short-distance one so we could get used to the experience and still be close to home in case anything went wrong. We chose three campgrounds to visit over a nine-day period with the help of the people at GoRVing.com Pismo Coast Village RV Resort, Santa Cruz Redwoods RV Resort and El Capitan State Beach. Our first drive would be 140 miles and the second leg would be 180. Not bad. The last day would be the longest at 250. But at least we could pull off, go to a clean bathroom and make ourselves a snack at any time.
This summer we went camping, like everyone else. RVs for Families 101: Learn How to Have the Best Trip!
I’ve worked with the talented people at GoRVing.com before this trip when we went camping with another family. If you are ready to try out some RV trips visit www.GoRVing.com to find out where to buy or rent RVs near you.
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