Three weeks ago, I hitched up my camper, headed north, and thought “What the hell am I doing?” Waving goodbye to my family, I suddenly seriously questioned my whole plan. “I’ve only ever driven this thing an hour and a half down the road. I’ve never even pulled it through a gas station.” The most reasonable plan was to circle the block and pull back into the driveway, but the only thing scarier than going through with this journey was giving up on it, so I gripped the wheel a little tighter and left home behind.
Since then, I’ve learned so much about the realities of full-time RVing that my memory of my first day feels like the distant past—way back when I knew next to nothing about this lifestyle, a whole twenty-one days ago.
Here, in no particular order, are ten things I’ve learned in that time. Hopefully someone finds them useful.
1. Try All Types of Camping
Before I started this project, I thought of camping as something that was done at a campground, probably in a park. Now, I know that camping options exist everywhere! I’ve camped in state parks—which I think of as traditional— but I’ve also stayed in private campgrounds, driveways, side streets, wineries, and drive-in movie theaters (which is an option specific to this project but a good example of the unexpected opportunities). I haven’t tried parking lot dry-camping like you often see in Walmart lots, but I do have plans to try this type of camping in the future.
What I’ve learned through these varied temporary homes is that they all have their advantages and disadvantages. I like staying at a private campground once a week so I can do laundry and have a quiet night to myself, but many of my most memorable experiences so far have come about because I stayed in a non-traditional setting. My advice is to try everything.
2. You Will Still Be You
I don’t think I’m alone in imaging a romantic version of road life. When I daydreamed about this adventure six months ago, the view from my bedroom window was forever changing and always beautiful, I made coffee every morning and ate breakfast while listening to an uplifting podcast, and I did yoga on days I didn’t go for a jog; all this happened behind an oversaturated Instagram filter.
The truth is, the view from my window is often blah and occasionally a dumpster. I have never used my percolator because my stovetop raises the temperature of the whole camper and making the dog’s breakfast and mine while navigating the limited space always feels a little hectic even if I have nowhere to be. If I’ve had coffee it has been from a gas station or a generous host, neither situations where I’d feel comfortable busting out a calming, inspirational podcast. I’ve jogged as irregularly as I jogged before I left home and the yoga mat has sat on the floor of my truck because I don’t do yoga.
I’m living a different lifestyle, but I’m still me. Making a significant life change on the road is as hard, or harder than it is in stationary life.
3. There’s No Harm in Being Passed
Three weeks in, I’m becoming more confident driving my truck and the camper, but I rarely hit the speed limit on any moderately sized road. Other drivers get annoyed. They jump in front of me in no-passing zones, they veer into the shoulder to get around me. I’ve never been given the finger more than I have in the last three weeks. But I’m jamming to music or listening to NPR and I’m not in a hurry. Want to pass me? Make obscene gestures at me? Cool. Go rush off to your responsibilities, I’m on an adventure.
4. No Road is Perfect
Smaller roads mean fewer lane changes, lower speed limits, and often a more scenic route; seems like a no-brainer for a woman with her house attached to her truck and no schedule. But folks who know those backroads know when they’re safe to blow the through the speed limit, what they don’t want is to get stuck behind a camper going ten under. Their frustrated driving rivals the aggressive drivers on the interstate. As for the scenic route, it sometimes leads to wonderful discoveries, but it also means smalls towns surrounded by railroad tracks that feel like they’re going to vault the camper into the air as you cross and traffic lights that test your limited braking capabilities. On day two I worked up the courage to merge onto the interstate.
People do not appreciate it when you go fifty-five miles an hour on a seventy-mile an hour road, but the interstate highways have their advantages: a steady flow of traffic and larger gas stations. They can lead to white-knuckle moments—I don’t think I exhaled for forty minutes going around Baltimore—and a big road looks like a big road anywhere, but as I gain experience, I find myself opting for them more often.
No road is going cater to an antique camper or an unsure driver, you have to do what feels the least uncomfortable. And sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and go.
5. You’ll Pay More at Tolls
How many times have I driven through a toll a glanced at the price-per-axel sign? I could not count. But when I approach my first toll, I didn’t think about the extra axel behind my truck. For a regular vehicle, the toll cost five bucks—exactly the amount of cash I had on hand. For a truck and a camper: eight fifty. With three cars waiting behind me, I had to get out of my truck and go find more cash in the camper to pass the toll. The public humiliation has made me vigilant about toll roads.
6. Church Parking Lots
I feel like I might actually be adding insight to the RV community with this one. Church parking lots are big and except for specific hours of the week, usually empty. When I’m lost in a town and I’ve made so many wrong turns my GPS is ready to throw me out the window, I look for a church. Empty, they leave plenty of room to turn my rig around and no one cares if you sit for a few minutes. Around lunchtime on a long driving day, I will pull into a church, make a pb&j, and eat in my truck. I can walk my dog around the grounds and give the camper a good check before hitting the road again. Perfect.
7. A Good Gas Station is a Gift
When I stop for gas I’m also likely stopping to do everything else I need to do during the day that I can’t do on the road: throw out trash, make phone calls, check email, refill cooler ice, re-calculate route, find a place to sleep. I need room. Finding a spacious new gas station with an area to park away from the pump makes my day. I can easily park for half an hour.
8. Triple Check Your Site Before Leaving
Every time I get cocky about how quickly and efficiently I can hitch up my camper and move on, I make a mistake. At a state park campground in Maryland, I pulled out without my sway bar, a key safety device. Luckily, the campground host found it and stopped me before I made it out of the gate. But somewhere along the way, I forgot a cement paver I use to balance the jacks. I’ve also taken off without fully latching the safety guard on my hitch. So far, none of my mistakes have proven critical, but it is worth checking your site/parking spot one more time than you think you need to check.
9. Plan the Way You Plan
Typically, the two schools of thought on planning any journey sit in polar opposition to each other: plan/book/research everything you will do and everywhere you will sleep and plan/book/research nothing let the road take you where it wants. My technique falls squarely in the middle of these poles. I have a rough plan of where I’ll be on what day and the most important activity will be—for this adventure, that usually means what drive-in movie theater I’ll be visiting—but I’m not married to that rough draft.
The schedule for this trip changes about once a week. I’ve ended up places I never anticipated going to and I’ve taken my dog to a minor league baseball game I planned to attend months ago. Don’t let the internet or “influencers” tell you how to run your adventure, do what makes you feel the right mixture of comfortable and adventurous.
10. RVing as a Solo Woman has Pros and Cons
Woe the mansplaining in the RV world!
Men have told me I’m leveling the camper incorrectly, how I should use my backup camera, how to turn on a 30amp breaker, that I don’t have the correct breaks, that my hitch is broken, that my air conditioner is too big, and don’t even talk to me about the unsolicited advice I get backing up. In almost all these instances the men were trying to be helpful, but they don’t know and don’t assume that I’ve been ovaries deep in this vintage camper—I know this old gal pretty well.
Dealing with the assumption that you know nothing is definitely a negative aspect to living as an RVer and a woman. The pro is that the men and women who don’t talk down to you might be more likely to look out for you. As a young woman, I know that I’ve benefited from the help and hospitality of strangers (or former strangers) in a way that a middle-aged man would not. It is a mixed bag, I’m still wrestling with my thoughts on the issue.
*But if you ever run into me on the road, please don’t offer your help backing up unless I ask for assistance, just stand back and let me and the Camper Gods work it out.