When the in-laws told us they had purchased a 26-foot, gas-guzzling RV of the driveway-monstrosity variety, the first thing my husband said was, “Wow, now I can drive while Tracy makes me sandwiches!” It took a while to convince me that careening down the road after packing our lives into Tupperware containers would be a blast. The mobile “gateway to freedom” didn’t start out the way I would have imagined. But come spring break, we’ll be on the road again, this time touring colleges for our daughter who is a high school senior, and stopping to visit a few national parks.
An RV trip poses unique challenges and freedoms. You are burning fossil fuels at a spectacular rate, true, but balance the poor energy efficiency with the fact that you are carpooling with an entire family, including the dog and mini fridge. And there are tricks to making the gas go farther, such as lightening the load. You can do this by limiting heavy extras, filling your fresh water reserves to only half-tank levels and regularly visiting RV stations to dump the stuff you flush down the toilet, sinks and showers (the so-called “gray” and “black” water). You can also get your kids to help plan the trip route, highlighting when you want scenery and when it will be important to minimize stopping and going, which can burn rubber and fuel. The kids get a geography lesson while feeling vested in the whole experience.
Another plus: You can pull over and take a nap or set up camp just about anywhere. We’ve rolled into state and national parkland, driven up logging roads and parked for the night — all without paying a fee. On one trip, we pulled over and camped in Hells Canyon. No camp host to prep the area meant that we had to contend with ant hills wherever we stepped, but we slept like rocks in our beds that night and woke up to a sight that rivaled any car-camping experience we’d ever experienced.
Although off-road napping is great in an RV, it’s impossible to nap on the bed while you’re in motion. It’s just not a relaxing feeling. And I could never get over, nor could I condone, our children being unbuckled and asleep. Time and time again I imagined us flying through the air at 65 miles per hour from the back bedroom to the front bucket seats. On the other hand, my husband, who missed his calling as an astronaut, proved he had the right stuff to sleep during my shifts at the helm.
Planning a trip may seem daunting, and it is, initially. But like anything in life, once you establish a system, you’ll lose that overwhelmed feeling. To that end, we have many systems and lists. My mother-in-law is the queen of prep and organization, with a Tetris-like ability to pack things into very tight places. I chalk it up to her former career as a middle school English teacher. Simple rules, such as reducing glass-on-glass packing, help to keep trips on the quiet side. Nor do we leave bottled beverages upright and next to each other, even in the fridge. A wide turn or quick stop might send everything flying. Simple physics 101: If you skimp on the time it takes to batten down the hatches, your jar of gherkin pickles could be launched into a sea of plush carpeting. There aren’t many things sadder than a lost gherkin in mottled carpeting, especially if it has become a moldy pickled mess.
Pack for the road
Although everything about an RV screams “mobile,” there is no getting out of town fast. You are driving a house down the road.
Remember that anything you pack must have a purpose or it’s extra weight, even as it applies to your clothes, toiletries and bedding. For instance: We often take sleeping bags instead of blankets and sheets, just because these are lightweight, easy to use and can compress into tight places.
Set up a pantry for dried goods, complete with kid-friendly items like pancake mix, pasta and a goodie drawer. Then decide what basic seasonings you’ll need, and set those items that can be stored for a while into their places at the back. Work forward from those items, to the frivolous and fresh. Remember: Fresh produce can be found along the way; there’s no need to pack a ton of fruit, veggies and protein — you can always drive to the store.
If you don’t want to hear “Are we there yet?” ad infinitum, you have some planning to do. First of all, plan side trips that are interesting to kids. Here are two that we tried. See if you can guess why one was a success — and the other was not.
Hoover Dam: We were excited to share our historical review of this amazing manmade structure with the kids. Result: Both kids pretended to sleep, very deeply, as we cajoled and bribed them to check out the dam.
Las Vegas: We hit the strip at dusk on a Friday night. I’ve never seen two noses press up against a window so fast. No words were needed, no introduction was provided. The roller coaster on top of the hotel was icing on the cake, as were the colorful people in all sorts of clothing.
Tracy Romoser, as well as being a Seattle-based writer, has taken out sandwich boards and roof tiles on covered sidewalks by fishtailing her in-laws’ RV. And she’s survived to write about it.
How to get your hands on an RV
If you don’t have an RV in the family, renting or buying secondhand are good options, too. RV sales are in a slump right now, and bargains can be found for those who spend time browsing the Web or auto malls. If you do buy, yet find you only wanted one great American trip, you can turn around and sell your vehicle to another intrepid traveler. Breaking even is possible if you resell a used RV, but plan on losing half the value of any new RV. And if you do buy, don’t forget the insurance!
Rental companies that specialize in RVs: