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When we bought our RV after a brief test drive, Beau hoped in and drove it 140 miles back home. He drove it no problem while I was white knuckling it behind him for no reason aside from being a nervous Nancy.
I knew I would need to learn to drive our RV even though Beau would be doing the bulk of the driving. So I did some research and found the top 15 tips to keep safe while driving an RV.
1) Plan to Brake
RVs take much longer to stop than your average car. This is because you have so much more momentum due to being so much much heavier. So you need to plan your stopping in advance. Always be looking ahead and planning for the inevitable braking that will occur in town and on the highway.
It’s also important to remember that brakes don’t work well when hot. Using your gears to downshift when going down hills will help slow you down due to engine resistance. Even if your RV is an Automatic you can take off overdrive and utilize second and first gear.
If you feel like you’ve been using your brakes for a while or they are starting to smell its a good idea to pull over and let them cool off a bit.
An interesting tidbit I found is that commercial truck drivers use is the “safe speed” method. You basically pick a speed that you feel is safe and then while you are braking you let your rig slow down 10 mph below that “safe speed” then you release the brake and allow your rig to speed up to 10 mph above that “safe speed”. This lets your brakes cool a little before applying them again.
Drivingtips.com used the following example with a “safe speed” of 40 mph “apply the brakes until your motorhome reaches 30mph. Then, release the brake pedal and allow your motorhome to speed up to 50mph. At that point, apply the brakes until you slow to 30mph and repeat the process as much as necessary”
2) Follow at a Safe Distance
This goes hand in hand with braking. Following the vehicle in front of you at a safe distance will greatly reduce your risk of not being able to stop in time.
When you are learning to drive you are told to gauge the distance between you and the vehicle ahead in car lengths. Now the RV you are driving could be up to 40ft in length so your car length just got a whole lot bigger.
A good rule of thumb is to leave one car length per every 10mph. So if you are on the highway going 60 miles per hour we are talking 6 car lengths. That adds up to 240 ft for your beastly 40 foot Class A. Keep in mind though that it can take a car 225 ft total to come to a full stop (source)! That’s a car!
Another option is to count how much following distance you are leaving. You should be leaving 1 second for every 10 feet of vehicle length PLUS an additional second if you are driving over 40mph. So for that same 40 foot RV, you should have at least 5 seconds of space.
To check how much stopping distance you have, pick a point ahead like a sign, shadow or bridge and once the vehicle ahead of you passes it count how many seconds it takes you to reach that same spot. You’ll want to count slowly as in “one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand” etc.
If you find you are too close back off a bit. You’ll also want to intermittently check your stopping distance till you get used to gauging how far away is a good distance for your rig.
Also, if the weather turns to pot i.e. high wind, rain, snow, etc you’ll want to leave even more space. Doubling your following distance is recommended when road or weather conditions are poor.
3) Wide Turns and Tail Swing
We’ve all seen the sign on the back of a semi-truck “I make wide right turns”. Well, the same is true for large motorhomes and trucks with fifth wheels or trailers.
The rear RV tires will take a more inward track than the front tires leading you to possibly run over the curb on a tight right turn. Best case scenario when you do this is a big bump, worst case you hit something or someone!
When making a right-hand turn you’ll need to take your time and set yourself up for it correctly. To set up for a right turn, stay as far left in your lane as safely possible. This will give you a little more room to avoid the curb.
Knowing how much the rear of your RV swings out, also known as tail swing, is important to prevent any unwanted mishaps. Head to an empty parking lot with a friend and makes some slow practice turns following the white lines. Your buddy will mark out how far the rear of your RV swings out and then you can measure. Tail swings are on average between 18-30 inches.
When making any sort of turn, take your time and go slow. It’s better to stop if you are unsure about any sort of clearance than just forging ahead and damaging your RV or someone else’s property.
4) Parking is No Joke
If you think parking is tough in a little car wait till you have to park an RV. Pull through spots are your best and only friend when parking in a parking lot. If you’re in a pinch, it best to back in so the rear of your RV can hang over the parking space assuming there is room. Backing into a spot has helped us sneak into many parking lots at different hikes and walks. It’s also easier to back into a parking spot then it is to back out into traffic.
Before wedging yourself into a parking stall or getting into your campsite for the night, get out and survey the area. Getting eyes on any obstructions and getting a lay of the land will help you figure out the best approach to the spot and where you need to put your wheels.
If you have a travel buddy have them get out and be a spotter, you can use hand signals, walking talkies, or cell phones to communicate. Just make sure you have discussed ahead of time what signals mean what so your spotter isn’t flailing left and you think they mean go right.
5) Stay in Your Lane
Driving a vehicle that is so much wider than your normal Corolla takes some getting used to. You may find yourself not well centered in your lane and your passenger is hanging out on the shoulder.
Until you get used to driving your big rig put your mirrors to good use and check them now and then to watch where your tires are in relation to the road lines. Another good indicator is if your passenger is white knuckling their seat.
Also, on any road that is more than 2 lanes, you’ll want to ALWAYS drive in the right lane. This is for us slowpokes so others can safely pass. Some states even have a slowpoke law where you can get a ticket for going slower than traffic if you aren’t in the right-hand lane.
6) Know Your Roof Clearance
Nothing is worse than the pit in your stomach feeling as you approach a low bridge and you look at each and think… will we fit. You hold your breath, take it slow and wince every time you hear clink-clink-clink as the springy radio antenna touches the bridge overhead, then you breathe a sigh of relief as you come out the other side unscathed but with a few more grey hairs.
Once you’ve had a close call likes this and realize how expensive of a fix it would be if you gave your RV a hair cut, you get out and measure how tall your RV actually is. Ideally, you want to do this before your wheels ever hit the open road.
Once you’ve measured from pavement to the highest antenna on your rig, write it down and permanently stick it to the dash in clear view of the driver. Make sure you have it in both imperial and metric in case you take a jaunt across the border.
If you approach a bridge that has a restriction suspiciously close to the height of your vehicle, err on the side of caution and find a different route. You never know how many times the road has been repaved and that 13’6″ clearance has been whittled away to 13′.
To make life a little easier you can invest in an RV specific GPS that has height and weight restrictions built in. But you shouldn’t have any trouble with interstates since most overpasses have a height of 16 feet.
7) Take Your Time in the Mountains
Aside from the obvious slowdown and enjoy the view when driving in the mountains you are going to be forced to take your time because there will be a lot of steep grades both uphill and downhill.
As mentioned before, stay in the right lane while you climb at a snails pace up that steep mountain road. If it’s only a two-lane highway, keep your eyes peeled for pull outs so you can move over and let the poor souls trapped behind you pass. This is also a good opportunity to let your engine cool down a bit if it’s a hot summer day.
Be courteous and use your 4-ways to signal to other drivers that you are going at a much slower speed. This allows them time to safely slow down or move over.
Once you climb up a mountain you will most likely have to climb back down it too. Use the same gear to go down the mountain as you used to climb up it. This will take some pressure off the brakes and will help keep them from overheating.
Also, use the braking technique I mentioned in tip 1 and when possible if your brakes are smelling warm pull over and let them cool down.
8) Pick Your Gas Stations Wisely
There is a little more that goes into picking a gas station then just price when you are in an RV. You might need to make the decision to pay a couple of cents more per gallon and have plenty of maneuvering room than try to cram into a tiny station to save a buck or two on fuel. That tiny savings might cost you huge in dinged fenders, scratched sides and missing roof vents.
Gas stations are one of the most common places to get into an accident whether it’s with another vehicle or with a cement pole. Using a truck stop station over a standard gas station will provide you with heaps more room to make those tight turns.
Truck stops are easily found close to highways and interstates. Using an app like GasBuddy will help you find the cheapest fuel and if the station can accommodate large vehicles or not. We swear by this tool to easily find the best station, with the best price, that has diesel and can fit an RV.
9) Don’t Be a Speed Demon
Just like the tortoise, slow and steady wins the race and you sure aren’t going to win any races driving an RV. As you get more used to driving your rig you’ll find your RV has a sweet spot for speed. The perfect balance between speed, control, and fuel efficiency,
Most RVers will drive under the posted speed limit on the highway. Generally around 55-60 mph or 85-95 km/h. The lower speed improves the controllability of your motorhome as well as reduces fuel consumption. And little wins for better fuel economy make a huge difference when you only get 10 mpg on a good day.
You will want to pay attention to the suggested speed sign on turns and curves. You know, those yellow sign you roll your eyes at in your car. Like who slows down to 35 mph for a curve, RVs do!
Taking large bends, curves, and turns at much slower speeds will reduce the risk of tipping due to an RV’s high center of gravity. To learn more about How Fast Should an RV Drive check out my article.
10) Practice Makes Perfect
As with anything the more you do something the more comfortable and confident you become. Driving an RV is no different. To get better at it you just have to do it.
But, if the idea of learning to drive an RV scares the pants off you like it does for me, then going to an empty parking lot and driving around will help you get used to the size and handling of your rig.
A good idea to start off by practicing your turns. Line yourself up with your right wheels along the long white line down the center of a row of parking stalls. Set up some cones to mock up a right-hand turn and mark where the oncoming lane would be. Then keep practicing your right-hand turn till you don’t knock over any more cones.
This is also a great time to mark out where your tail swing is and get used how far out the back end of your RV swings when you make a turn.
Once you’ve conquered the right-hand turn, do the same set up with the left. Keep practicing and have a friend there to help you spot where the corners of your RV are so you know how tight of a turn you can make.
Getting used to driving your RV without the distraction of the road will help you build confidence and get comfortable with driving your beast of a vehicle.
11) Make a Plan
Before setting out on your drive you should make a plan with your co-pilot on where exactly you are going and the route you will take to get there. This will help to prevent any “uh oh” moments where you missed the turn or you need to make a sudden movement to get where you need to go.
Look over the route together so you both have an idea of the major roads you will take, how long you expect to drive for and where might be some good places to take a break.
If you are using a GPS, do a sanity check that it isn’t taking you on any back roads or oddball route especially if you have a non-RV GPS. We’ve been led astray by our GPS more times that I wish to count and had to take roads that we probably shouldn’t have been navigating in our RV.
12) Monitor the Weather
Weather is something totally out of our control and you can’t even trust the weather report most of the time. But, you should still check the weather report to give you a starting point on what to expect and also check the weather at your destination.
Light rain isn’t a huge deal when driving just leave a bit more space than usual to allow for a bit more stopping time. If the rain gets heavier then it’s a good idea to find somewhere to stop and let the deluge pass. Unfortunately, this isn’t always an option, if you have to drive in heavy rain take your time, use your lights and drive with care.
Wind is a big factor when driving a large vehicle. You are basically driving around in a large tin box that makes for a great wind catch. Pay attention to high wind warnings and advisories, you can find these on your weather app. If possible do not drive if there is a high wind warning out, where ever you are headed can wait till it’s a touch less gusty out.
Also, take note of signs warning of high crosswind areas. Crosswinds are not your friend, they are the winds that come at you from the sides as opposed to the front or back. If you aren’t prepared, these can tip you over, blow you into the car next to you or into oncoming traffic.
Snow is another thing to be wary of. A light snowfall should be fine if you are driving with care but avoid driving in heavy snow and icy conditions. Most RVs aren’t equipped with snow tires and regular tires lose their effectiveness around 45 Fahrenheit or 7 Celsius.
13) Stay Well Rested
Driver fatigue is one of the leading causes of accidents on the road and driving a big vehicle is even more tiring. You are constantly alert and need to be even more aware of your surroundings than in a car since you can’t take quick evasive action.
Stop and take a break at least every 2 hours for a minimum of 15 minutes. Find a rest stop or a picnic area to stop stretch, take a bathroom break, have a snack, drink some water, make a coffee. Just do something other than sit in the RV.
You need to get moving and get the blood flowing again to perk you back up. Try stretching your wrists out to relieve some of the fatigue from driving. Another good spot to stretch is your neck since we tend to hold a lot of tension through our neck and shoulders while driving
If you can, trade off with your co-pilot and let them take the next 2-hour block. It’ll help relieve some of the mental fatigue and maybe you can catch a few ZZZ’s too.
For long driving, days plan to keep it under 400 miles. You’ll only be driving 55-60 mph so 400 miles is a good 7.5 hour day of straight driving. Add in stops to stretch and your day easily creeps up to 9 hours of travel. That’s a long day stuck behind the wheel!
14) Adjust Your Mirrors
Good visibility is so important in an RV since you are so much bigger and need so much more room to maneuver than everyone else. The first thing you should do every time you sit down in the driver’s seat is to check your mirrors are correctly placed.
It doesn’t take much for your side mirrors to get misaligned and it can be a real hassle or downright impossible to adjust them once on the road. If you have a rearview mirror take time to adjust that one too. Most RV’s don’t actually come with one though since many don’t have a rear window you can see out of.
Newer RVs frequently come with a rearview camera. These are extremely helpful to let you monitor your backside and see if there is a smaller vehicle tailgating you. They are also great if you need to change lanes and just in general, monitor the traffic flow behind you. If you don’t already have one they can be installed aftermarket.
If your RV isn’t already equipped with a separate blindspot mirror its a really good idea (and cheap) to add one. The blind spots on motorhomes are enormous and can easily swallow a little car trying to dart ahead of you. Another option is to install side view cameras to get a good clear view of what’s going on next to your rig.
Keep in mind that mirrors and cameras don’t always tell the whole truth. Remember the fine print “objects in mirror are closer than they appear”. When you are practicing your driving, like tip 10 recommends, have your buddy align himself with the rear bumper of the RV and take note in your mirrors where exactly he appears to be. This will be a helpful guide for you in the future.
It’s okay to be a bit nervous while getting used to driving your rig but try to relax a bit. RVing is supposed to be a fun way to explore and travel. Don’t worry that you are going slower than everyone else or that it takes forever to get anywhere.
RVing is as much about the journey as it is the destination. So take the scenic route, make lots of stops along the way and go explore.
Remember this when that little car fly’s by you weaving in and out of traffic or that truck honks and flips you the bird because you take your time and drive safely, those suckers are probably on their way to or from work while you are loving life exploring the country in your home.
Before long, driving an RV will feel like second nature and you’ll wonder what had you so concerned in the first place. Just try not to get complacent with your driving. Confidence is good but you still need to give the road your full attention.
Now it’s time to hit the road!