Newcomer’s Guide To RV Camping

Updated: Jul. 28, 2023

RV camping is a fun and affordable way to explore the great outdoors in comfort. Learn key insights from experienced RVers here.

Recreational vehicle (RV) camping offers a host of benefits not afforded by conventional tent camping. For starters, it allows you to explore the great outdoors without sacrificing the comfort and amenities of home. It’s also affordable; a family of four can save 27 to 62 percent on vacation costs, even when fuel and other expenses are factored in. And it’s more environmentally friendly than other types of vacations.

No wonder RV ownership has increased 62 percent in the last 20 years, and rentals increased 650 percent during the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020.

As a full-time RVer, I know there’s a lot to learn before setting out on your first RV camping excursion. I called on my experience, plus that of several experienced RV campers, to relay key insight and advice to help minimize your learning curve.

What Is RV Camping?

As the name implies, it involves camping in some form of recreational vehicle. RVs come many shapes and sizes, including camper vans, motor homes (from small class-Cs to giant class-As), truck campers and tow-behind trailers.

Pros and Cons of Renting an RV

“Due to the high cost of RV ownership, most people prefer to rent an RV,” says Go RV Rentals founder David Kosofsky. He says renting trumps buying if you’re only RV camping a few times per year.

“The average RV owner only spends around 30 days a year using their RV,” Kosofsky says. “That means for 11 months in a year, you could be staring at a $100,000 vehicle idly sitting in a parking spot.” And like most vehicles, he says they lose value over time — up to 30 percent in three years.

Other advantages to renting an RV, according to ARVIE founder Mark Peterson:

  • Seeing if you enjoy RV camping before purchasing one;

  • Testing different types of RVs to see which you prefer;

  • Avoiding ongoing storage, insurance or maintenance costs involved with RV ownership.

The cons of renting an RV, according to Peterson, may include:

  • Expensive daily rates, plus per-mile charges, making extended trips unaffordable for many;

  • Mileage limits restricting the distance you can travel;

  • Rules and restrictions on what you can bring in the RV, such as pets;

  • Steep fees for damage or wear and tear.

RV Rental Options

There are two main options: renting directly from RV owners (peer-to-peer) or using commercial RV rental companies.

Julie Chickery, a full-time RVer and creator of Chickery’s Travels, says the peer-to-peer model offers more options than RV rental companies, and many owners will deliver the RV to your home or campground. She recommends Outdoorsy, RVShare and RVNGO for peer-to-peer rentals.

Find commercial rental companies on Cruise America or Motorhome Bookers, or conduct a Google search for “RV rental in [your area].”

Owning an RV

Owning an RV is recommended for those with extensive RVing experience who know exactly what they want and plan to spend a considerable portion of the year RV camping. For them, owning offers several advantages, Peterson says:

  • An RV is cheaper to operate day-to-day compared to rentals’ day-rate;

  • You can do whatever you want to your RV, including bringing along you pet(s) and customizing the interior design and amenities;

  • You can rent out your RV when you’re not using it on peer-to-peer rental platforms.

If you do decide to buy, Ted Mosby, founder of Camper Advise, recommends purchasing in December and January. “The demand isn’t very high during winter, so you can negotiate better and get it for a steal,” Mosby says.

It’s also wise to take advantage of the depreciating nature of RVs by buying one used. If you do, get it inspected by a mechanic or a certified RV inspection company or technician. We also recommend getting some of these RV accessories.

What To Know About RV Campgrounds

With 16,000 campgrounds for RV camping in the U.S., there are plenty of options to choose from. One of the biggest considerations, Chickery says, are what type of “hookups” (water, electricity and sewer connections) the campground provides. These include:

  • Full hookups. Electricity, water and sewer are provided at your site.

  • Partial hookups. These are the most common and usually include electricity and water, but not a sewer connection. It can also mean electric only.

  • No hookups. No electricity, water or sewer connection provided. RV camping without hookups is also called “dry camping” or “boondocking.” No-hookup campgrounds are usually on public land operated by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forestry Service or Army Corp of Engineers.

Some campgrounds feature swimming pools, laundry facilities, WiFi, playgrounds and dog parks. Sites with the most hookups and amenities generally cost the most and are the most crowded.

Zander Buteux, a full-time van-dweller and growth leader at Vacation Renter, also suggests ensuring the campground will allow your specific RV. “In other words, do they have sites big enough for your RV?” he says. “Or if you have a classic like mine, do they allow entry for vehicles older than 2005?”

Private campgrounds often have the strictest requirements for entry, while campgrounds on public land tend to be the most accommodating. Use sites like Campendium or Go Rving, and apps like Allstays to find campgrounds around the nation.

What To Bring RV Camping

Rv On Leveling Blockscsfotoimages/Getty Images

Peterson, Buteux and Marshall Wendler, co-founder of Camp Addict, recommend the following essentials:

  • First aid kit. Outdoor activities can lead to injuries, so pack a quality first aid kit to prevent infections and get you back outside.

  • RV water hose. Regular garden hoses often contain toxic chemicals like lead, so pack a lead-free RV hose for your water hookup.

  • Roadside emergency kit. Breakdowns happen, so it’s best to be prepared with basic roadside equipment such as a warning triangle, high-visibility vest, car jack, tire patch kit and battery jump starters.

  • Tire pressure gauge. Low tire pressure compromises fuel efficiency and impacts braking grip and general handling. Keep a tire pressure gauge on hand and periodically check your tire pressure.

  • Kitchen items. Make sure you carry all the necessary kitchen implements for whatever type of cooking you plan to do. And don’t forget to pack plenty of trash bags and a can opener.

  • Personal care items. This includes standard items such as toothbrushes, shampoo and body wash, but also RV toilet paper that won’t clog the black water tank. Learn how to unclog an RV toilet.

  • Level and leveling blocks. RVs need to be level for the refrigerator to function and the waste tanks to dump correctly. Pack a small level and leveling blocks to ensure you can level the RV wherever you go.

  • Recreation items. Be sure to bring all the gear you need for your preferred types of outdoor recreation. You don’t want to arrive at your destination to discover that you forgot your hiking boots or fishing poles.

Insider Tips for RV Camping

Tips from my personal experience as a full-time RVer:

  • Do a thorough walk-around inspection of your rig before hitting the road. This includes your towing hookups, signal lights and tire pressure.

  • Have an active Roadside Assistance plan. Ideally, it should feature a large enough towing distance to get you back home in case of a breakdown. The Good Sam Club caters specifically to RV travel and offers an unlimited tow radius, or coverage for expenses like lodging, transportation and meal expenses while awaiting repairs. Plans designed for personal vehicles, like AAA, Allstate, Nationwide, etc. are options, but they usually have a maximum tow distance (like 100 or 200 miles).

  • Be mindful of “tail swing.” This is when you turn the RV in one direction, and the rear of the RV swings out in the opposite direction. Depending on the RV, tail swing can be greater than 30 inches.

  • Practice backing up before your trip. This is especially important if you’re using a tow-behind trailer, but any large RV is a challenge to back up.

  • Don’t overload your RV. Overloading is a common mistake that can cause tire blowouts, structural damage and bent axles. For motor homes, determine the load-carrying capacity from its data plate or owner’s manual. For truck campers and travel trailers, know — and take into account — your tow vehicle’s Gross Trailer Weight (GTW), Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR), Gross Combined Weight Rating (GCWR) and Gross Axle Weight Rating (GAWR).

  • Stop and smell the roses! Long trips in an RV can be stressful at times, but don’t forget to enjoy it and take in the scenery. As the old saying goes, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”