Everything you need to know about renting, buying, or taking your first trip in an adventure-ready rig
The idea of traveling into a vast landscape with a miniature version of your home is appealing for a variety of reasons. But mostly it boils down to freedom. Freedom to roam and freedom to be comfortable. Also: freedom from the confines of a hotel room. “We had an awful hotel vacation when our kids were little,” says RV expert, educator, and writer Jeremy Puglisi. “We spent the day at a water park, but after putting the kids to bed, we were trapped in the hotel. We ended up watching a movie in the bathroom on my wife’s laptop. We thought: If we had an RV, we could put them to bed and step outside and have a campfire under the stars.”
Now Jeremy and his wife, Stephanie, spend up to 100 days a year in an RV with their three kids. They discuss the nuances of RV travel on their podcast, RV Family Travel Atlas, and in an upcoming book titled See You at the Campground. But the Puglisis are the first to admit that taking the leap into RV living can be intimidating. “People worry about a lot of things, but for me it was the idea of towing a trailer. I was nervous,” Jeremy says. “After driving it for 15 minutes, though, I got really comfortable. It’s not as hard as people make it out to be.” In fact, he says that’s the case with RV travel in general: it’s much easier than people think. Here’s a step-by-step, nuts-and-bolts guide to living the RV dream.
Step #1: Pick the Right Rig
The first step is choosing which RV is right for you. There are tons of options, ranging from the Type A motorhome (which can sleep up to eight and have a full-size bathroom, flat-screen, etc.) to a truck camper that loads onto the bed of your pickup truck. To keep it simple, we’ll break it down into two types: RVs you drive and RVs you tow.
The benefits of an RV with its own engine boil down to convenience. Everything you need is literally in your RV, and you can move from the passenger seat into the living room with ease. But how big do you want to go? Here’s a quick lay of the land.
Type A: The largest motorhomes. They’re built on a custom chassis and typically have all of the comforts of your house, including basement storage. If you can’t live without a washer/dryer combo and reclining leather seats, you can find models with those, too. Obviously, you will want a little more practice parking the larger units.
Type B: Camper vans. If you’re dreaming of the #vanlife, this is your wagon. Typically no larger than a full-size van, Type B motorhomes are extremely popular—people often refer to them as “Sprinter Vans,” a beloved model made by Mercedes Benz that many manufacturers and owners customize—because they’re fun to drive and easier to park, even in a downtown setting. Many are capable of light off-roading—with some even being 4x4—can comfortably sleep two with small bathrooms and kitchens.
Type C: Smaller than Type A but bigger than Type B, these are built around a van frame, with a sleeping compartment over the cab. A lot of people like this option because they’re easier to drive than Type A but still have all the amenities you could need (kitchen, bathroom, sleeping area) as well as plenty of storage and room to sleep more people.
Towables are typically more cost-effective, and many people enjoy the convenience of being able to park their rig in a campsite and explore an area in their vehicle. Again, as with motorized options, the question is: How big?
Conventional travel trailer: You can find these in a range of sizes, from 8-foot “teardrop” designs you can tow with a minivan or SUV to 35-foot-long models with all of the space and amenities of a Type A motorhome. You’ll need a full-size truck to tow it if you go big, but one of their best features is that larger conventional travel trailers often come with slide-outs, which adds space in the living room and bedroom with the touch of a button.
Folding camping trailer: The pop-up. They’re light, they can be towed with your Subaru Outback, and they give you the feeling of sleeping in the great outdoors, but often with the convenience of a kitchen and ample headroom. Even better, they’re the most affordable of the bunch and easier to store than other options.
Truck camper: Slide-in units fit onto your truck without limiting the off-road capabilities. It’s a good option if you’re into overlanding (off-road camping), or simply like the ability to occasionally navigate rougher roads, but want a comfy bed. Some campers are basic; others have toilets, showers, and kitchens complete with slide-outs. Most have room for all your gear and leave you access to the truck’s bumper if you want to tow a boat.
Step #2: Ask the Right Questions
While the type of RV you get is obviously a major consideration, it’s certainly not the only one. Here are a bunch of other factors you might consider as you think about renting (more on that later) or buying.
Is there room for your gear in an RV?
Absolutely. Some have dedicated gear closets, while others have “basement” storage below the living space that’s big enough for kayaks, skis, or a surfboard. Some, like the Sport Utility RV, have as much garage space as living space so you can bring motorcycles or ATVs. Many models can also support traditional roof racks, so you can attach bikes, skis, or boats directly to the RV. You can find RV-specific gear racks that fit on everything from pop-up campers to massive motorhomes.
Are they capable off-road?
Depends. If you’re an avid overlander or 4x4er and dream of disappearing for two weeks on BLM land in Utah, stop drooling over the Type A’s and C’s. Those are meant for paved (and mellow dirt) roads. Some towables, like the Black Series Dominator, a pop-up designed to go anywhere your vehicle can, are built to handle rougher roads, and many Type B’s, like the new Winnebago Revel 44E camper, come with 4WD, the most off-road-capable package might be the slide-in unit loaded onto your existing (and beefed-up) truck. Looking to haul a bunch of gear and camp a little more ruggedly? Check out the TAXA Woolly Bear, which comes complete with a full-size camping kitchen and is easily towed by all 4-cylinder vehicles.
Do you need a special license or insurance?
Depending on your state, you might need a special license for certain Type A motorhomes, but otherwise, you’re good to go with your driver’s license. If you buy an RV, you’ll need specialized RV insurance, which blends the coverage of homeowners and auto insurance. It’s typically a little less than what you’re paying to insure your vehicle and will often cover everything from the awning to the toilet and provide free 24-hour roadside assistance.
Where do you buy or rent an RV?
GoRVing.com has a list of local dealers and rental companies across the U.S. Spend some time perusing the “aisles” so you know what specific models are out there. We highly recommend renting first. Another great option is Outdoorsy, which is like Airbnb for RVs, letting you rent privately owned campers from individuals. Many dealerships also offer RV rentals, which often come with housekeeping packages (linens and dishes) so you’ve got everything you need for your trial run. “The RV industry has done a good job of making sure there’s something for every price point,” Jeremy says. “I love how you’ll see a half-million-dollar motorhome next to a $500 used pop-up at a campground.”
Step #3: Plan Your First Outing
Finally rented an RV for your first adventure or bought your dream RV? Awesome! Here’s a bit of advice to make your first mission a success.
Preload your RV
If you bought it, spend some time stocking it up. Create a simple checklist and then keep your RV loaded with the basics—boxes of mac and cheese, pajamas, horseshoes, flashlights, toilet paper—so you can hit the road when the opportunity strikes.
Do a practice run
If you’re thinking about buying an RV, rent one first and spend a weekend at a local state park. If you’re not sure which size RV is right for you, dedicate a few weekends throughout the spring to trying out different models. “Do some practice trips close to home before you set out on the big national park tour,” Jeremy says. “This will give you a chance to get used to all of the nuances of the RV and get the system down before leaving for a long trip.”
Where do you go?
The short answer is: anywhere. Whether you’re renting or buying an RV, your destination options are limitless. Private campgrounds like KOA have resort-style properties all over the U.S., while most state parks and national parks have campgrounds with full RV hookups. “Reserve a pull-through campsite for your first trip,” Jeremy says. “That way you don’t have to worry about backing your RV into a space until you’re comfortable.” After some practice, you’ll feel ready to branch out from established campgrounds and set up camp deep in the forest. If you’re dreaming of a national park tour, plan early. Many of the campgrounds at bucket-list parks get booked up months in advance. Know when reservations open for your dream park, and get the reservation on day one. Hipcamp is another resource for RVers, combining privately owned properties with public parks. The site has filters that allow you to narrow down your search based on the hookups you need and the size of your RV.
Give yourself extra time
Allot extra time to get to the campground or state park, so you have plenty of time to set up in daylight your first few times. Many private campgrounds have “escorts” who can guide first-timers through the setup process. If you’re flying solo, figure out where your water, electrical, and sewer hookups are and park your RV so it can reach those hookups. You might need to do some light leveling if you’re in an established campground, but if you’re camping in a primitive spot on Forest Service or BLM land, you’ll definitely need to level your RV. It’s pretty easy. Use wood blocks or Ultra-Fab Products leveling blocks to even out the surface—side to side first, then front to back. Chock the wheels with stoppers so she doesn’t roll away and you’re good to bust out the cooler and play some bocce.