We sent an RV novice out on the open road with nothing but a few good friends and a self-contained hotel room on wheels. She logged plenty of bumpy miles on her maiden voyage through North Carolina's Outer Banks—so you don't have to. Here is her story—and her advice.
The Cape Hatteras KOA campground in Rodanthe, N.C., just over the dunes from the Atlantic Ocean
A typical beach rental in Avon, N.C.
A few things might wake you up in the middle of the night the first time you climb under the covers inside an RV. Fearing that you forgot to engage the parking brake and are in danger of rolling down the hill to your death, for one. (You did, and you are.) Thinking someone left the light on in the bathroom and wondering whether that will drain the RV's battery by morning. (They did, but it didn't.) Hearing campers breaking the sacred "quiet after 9 p.m." rule and imagining they'll get busted. (They did.) Wondering if the bacon and eggs you bought for tomorrow morning's breakfast are now, effectively, toast, because you'd been told that the fridge will mysteriously stop working if the RV is parked on even the slightest incline. (They are.)
Funny, I'd spent half my life dreaming about setting off in an RV for parts unknown and maintaining perfectly level appliances never once figured into the fantasy. To me, RVing was simply the ultimate escape route. Maybe that's because my early family vacations revolved around campgrounds and car trips. Or maybe because buying an RV is the landlocked states' version of saving up for a sailboat. It's a vacation home wherever you want it, whenever you want it. It's freedom and security in equal measure. It's Lewis and Clark with a V-8 engine.
"I studied online forums for RV enthusiasts, campground-review sites, and the orientation video on the RV-rental website."
Still, in the weeks leading to my maiden RV voyage, my anxiety was rising almost as fast as gasoline prices. The sheer size of the vehicle—and the fact that it would be filled with cutlery and combustible fuels—grew scarier by the minute. To quell the panic, I studied online forums for RV enthusiasts, campground-review sites, and the orientation video on the RV-rental website (twice). And I brought backup: Lindsay and Lola, a couple of friends I've known since college who have a generous way of seeing disasters as adventures. They tried to distract me by focusing on our packing priorities: hiking gear vs. lawn games, SPF 15 or 30. Not that it helped.
ROAD-TESTED TIP #1: "Use an RV-specific route planner on a GPS. It'll factor in overhead clearance and other restrictions, such as which roads, bridges, and tunnels won't allow propane tanks through." —Richard Coon, President, Recreational Vehicle Industry Association
And yet, when we arrived at the Cruise America rental lot in Durham, N.C., I started to calm down, in part because a petite 20-something gal handed me the keys, and I figured that if she could pilot a big rig, then maybe I could, too. We got a few simple pointers from the RV folks: Pull far into intersections before making a turn. Leave lots of room for braking. Always use a spotter when you back up. Drive-through restaurants are just not worth the risk. We learned when to use battery power, propane, shoreline electricity, and our generator; how to restart a dead battery; the necessity of turning off the propane tank before refueling; how to heat water for showers and how to tell when the water supply is nearly depleted; and how to level out the rig with a pair of two-by-four boards if our campsite is on a slant. And we learned the finer points of emptying the holding tanks—a polite way of saying draining the toilet—a task that quickly supplanted merging onto the highway as my most dreaded challenge. "Once you get the hose screwed on—and make sure you screw it on really tight—then open the valves and walk away," said Tommy, our orientation instructor. "Or run. I've gotten wet feet more times than I like to recall." The girls and I made a pact to use the campgrounds' rest areas whenever possible and added latex gloves to the top of our shopping list. Then we took a few trial spins around the parking lot, and with Lindsay in the navigator's seat and Lola on loose-objects duty in the back, we headed into the great wide open.
"We quickly learned that RV trips are all-hands-on-deck endeavors."
First came the rattle. With every bump in the road, each cup, dish, and saucepan in our kitchen cabinets shuddered like a beat-up shopping cart being pushed down a gravel road. (I learned later that putting paper towels between the plates helps immensely.) Then came the thuds. Turn left, and one set of drawers would slide open with a thwak. Turn right, and another drawer would do the same. We were already learning that RV trips are all-hands-on-deck endeavors. In addition to navigating, Lindsay was my second set of eyes for lane changes and would become my second-in-command for ticking off setup and breakdown duties. Lola wrangled drawers and cabinets, stood lookout at the rear window for minor back-up missions, and became galley chef for the length of the trip. "This is like a ropes course," Lindsay said after our first refueling stop, with its propane-off, propane-on, secure-all-items drill. "Maybe we should do some trust falls at the beach."
Useful RV Resources
FOR PLANNING The annually updated Woodall's guides are considered the king of campground reviews (woodalls.com). Find a spot that suits you, then study fuel-conservation tips, vehicle specs, and even RV-friendly recipes on gorving.com.
FOR RENTING Cruise America has 134 RV-rental offices in the U.S. and Canada and a 24-hour assistance hotline. For a fee, you can have the RV stocked with kitchen supplies ($100) and linens ($50 per person). cruiseamerica.com, Class C rental from $59 per night, three-night minimum.
FOR CAMPING Frisco Campground in Frisco, N.C., has ocean views but no power, water, or waste-disposal hookups (nps.gov, $20). Its modern bathrooms have unheated showers. The Cape Hatteras KOA in Rodanthe, N.C., is full-service, with all the basic hookups plus amenities such as free Wi-Fi, (paid) cable television, a pool, a camp store, and a mini-golf course (koa.com, full-hookup dune-side RV site from $65).
As seen on TV! We've followed Don Draper for seven seasons as he's crisscrossed the globe, be it via Cadillac or TWA flight. As the final episodes air, we're taking you back to the Golden Age of travel with a 'Mad Men'-inspired vacation guide for retro-style trips to cities Don visited.