Being a retired person or full-timer with an RV makes seasonal travel a snap: if you don’t like the weather in one part of the country, just keep driving until you’re comfortable.
But we’re not retired or full-timers.
For nearly each of the past 17 years, we’ve headed back to the Midwest for the December holidays. We’ve flown. Driven our own car. Driven a rental car. Before the kid and with the kid. Left the dog at home or brought her with us — for two different dogs.
We thought we’d been through every conceivable combination of how to get from the DC area to Indiana, to Michigan and back home again, along with where to stay along the way. That was until last year, when we bought Roxanne.
Instead of staying in pricey hotels and hauling all of our belongings from one place to the next, we had our comfy beds, our food and the rest of our stuff along with us the whole time. In a winterized RV, we can’t use the sinks and must flush the toilet with pink antifreeze. So, it’s not as useful for washing up, cooking or doing dishes as it is during warmer weather. But we can still heat up coffee or hot cereal if we bring some water along. And we managed to trim the time between realizing it was time to stop for the night and lights out to just a couple minutes. No need to fuss with credit cards, room keys and elevators when we just need to put the beds down.
That was last year. This year, we’d have four nights in the RV out of eight on the trip. We brought the dog with us. And it was wretchedly cold. So, this would be a trip to test the RV’s limits as well as our own.
Realities of Winter RVing
The first RV night was at the end of my mom’s driveway in Indiana. With shades up to block the streetlight, the three humans and the dog had a nice toasty rest. (Our 2015 van has the separate Suburban furnace that pre-dates the Truma system now delivering heat and hot water in the Travato. It’s a little noisy, but it’s quite warm.) We ran some errands the next morning and topped off the propane at a U-HAUL store after using about a quarter-tank overnight.
The next round would prove to be much more of an adventure. We pulled into a clearing next to my mother-in-law’s Michigan driveway and settled in, not to move again for nearly two whole days. Penny is anxious around other dogs and wouldn’t be meeting the one in the house, so she would stay in her bed in the RV during most of this visit except for occasional trips outside. We set the heater and headed into the house, checking in on her often. It was wicked cold out, but Roxanne kept us warm on Christmas night.
Penny enjoyed watching the goats and horses next door through her perch on the cushion. We had about a half a tank of propane going into our final night, and had started the engine a few times to keep the coach battery charged, so it could spark the furnace.
That night was even colder outside than the first. Single digits, with a wind chill even lower. Around 3:30 a.m., I woke up with my face cold even though the rest of me was warm. The kid and the dog were huddled together. The furnace wasn’t blowing, and the propane gauge was… nope. Empty. We made a beeline for my mother-in-law’s guest bedroom, kept the dogs from ever meeting each other and spent the rest of the night indoors.
The next morning brought on a couple of less-than-fun hours. We turned on the engine to warm up the inside of the RV so we could pack everything up for the road. The low tire pressure light came on, and I went through two gas station air pumps with freezing fingers before finding a helpful tire center employee to top me off. We needed propane. But the propane inlet on the side of the van was covered in a solid block of ice! I got change and pulled into a self-service car wash that wouldn’t take my money. At the second car wash, I used hot water to hose all the ice and gunk off the van. We got our propane at another U-HAUL and were finally ready to roll.
Our fourth and final RV night was in front of an old friend’s house in Ohio. It was a cold evening, but warmer than we’d had in Michigan. With a full tank of propane and bellies full of delicious Middle Eastern food, we slept very well before heading inside the next morning for showers and coffee. From there, we got on the road for home.
1. Using a Class B RV in the wintertime is not a self-contained experience.
During warm weather, we tend to stick pretty closely to campgrounds and rest stops with central bathroom facilities. We never shower in the RV and avoid #2 unless it’s an emergency. But boondocking, or staying in places without hookups, is definitely possible. And of course, there’s no need to spend a whole bunch of time inside the van unless it’s raining. Spending time is what the outdoors is for.
In the winter, it’s a whole different ball game. We think of the RV as an occasional mobile office or temporary zone of quiet, plus a flushing toilet, a dog haven and a small bedroom. We might drink coffee or eat cereal before hitting the road the next morning, but there’s not a lot of hanging out time for the humans. It works really well when we’re staying just beyond the house of a friend or family member, and can get inside for visiting, showers and a hot meal.
2. We need to keep an eye on three temperatures.
There’s the outside temperature, of course. The heater will work longer and harder the colder it is, just like at home. So, it’s in direct conflict with the inside temperature on the thermostat.
But the third temperature is a little trickier: the one inside the fridge. Our RV has a refrigerator with three different power sources. When it’s running off the battery while driving, the thermostat doesn’t work. It’s either on or it’s off. So, on long trips, it’s going to get too cold. Meanwhile, the fridge can’t exactly warm itself up when the van is sitting unheated during very cold weather. Also, too cold. But with the fridge and the heater both running, it must be set to the correct temperature or the food inside will get too warm and spoil.
Our solution was a 6-dollar thermometer inside the fridge, which we check when we stop for bathroom breaks and several times a day when we’re stationary. We’ve never ended an RV trip without frozen carrots, but we did much better than usual when it comes to hanging onto our food.
3. It’s still our favorite way to travel.
We did end up with a couple of hotel nights on this trip, with Roxanne parked just outside. And there were some chills and a few hassles. But she handled like a champ on snow-covered roads and gave us great visibility even through driving snow. When covering eight nights in five different locations and more than 1,600 miles of driving, it’s truly great to have the comforts of home along with us.
And on that note, during the holiday season, we’ve thought about how fortunate we are to have a home on a foundation and a home on wheels. A minor inconvenience and an hour or two of lost sleep is all we suffered when Roxanne lost the heat. We had a heated house just up the driveway. But it was on a night where a true lack of indoor shelter would have been a serious setback for any human or animal.
Our little family is headed into its third year of RV ownership this summer, and we couldn’t be happier with the decision to take the plunge. It’s opened up a world of new travel options for us. And we love the convenience of being able to drive almost anywhere, including suburban parking lots and the quick-lube place for oil changes.
Happy New Year, and we hope to see you on the road!
I’d heard of Harvest Hosts before, but got more interested once I read my fellow contributors’ post about the program. When we were driving through several states to get to Michigan for a half-marathon I was running in Grand Rapids, it seemed like a good time to give the winery thing a shot.
For the uninitiated, Harvest Hosts is a network of wineries and farms across the country that agree to host RV travelers for one night. There are no hookups, you have to reserve in advance, and the expectation is that you’ll buy something, because your hosts are running a business.
My daughter and I had a good time at the first winery we visited on the way over. Afterwards, Lindy met us in Michigan for the race.
Full of good cheer from my family pep squad, and full of lunch from a post-run meal, the three of us hit the road for a Harvest Host winery outside Akron.
We had visions of a few glorious hours outside, exploring fall-themed activities and letting the kid burn off some steam after sitting in a booster seat the whole day. But, our experience was a little different than what we’d pictured.
On the drive, we saw parts of Ohio we’d never seen before, despite several dozen trips through the state over nearly 20 years. We also noticed lots of dark rain clouds along the way. A little later than we’d planned, we rolled into the parking lot at about 6 p.m. on a Sunday. It wasn’t raining, but it had obviously been a wet day. We had two hours left before the winery closed for the night, and less time than that before dark.
We’d talked up the corn maze and various outdoor activities during the whole ride over to Ohio. But the winds were strong and the fields soggy. So, we paid the $10 admission charge for each of us and opted for the last hayride of the day. (The deserted corn maze and impending nightfall had us thinking about “The Shining,” so we decided to skip that one.) We had a private tractor ride around the impressive grounds just before dusk.
With less than an hour to spare, we visited the spacious cafe and gift shop. We’d brought our own dinner in the van, but were interested in some hot apple cider. Nope. Cold apple cider in less than a half-gallon bottle. Nope. And the winery couldn’t sell wine, because it was Sunday in a dry jurisdiction. Except, somehow, beer sales were allowed. I opted for a small flight of beer, we found some apple butter for our daughter’s teacher, and we went out and got ourselves settled in Roxanne for the night.
It was a pretty disappointing visit, and one that ended up being pretty costly compared to sleeping in a Wal-Mart parking lot or even a campground.
Everyone we met, from the cashier to the tractor driver to the server who made great beer recommendations, was very friendly and helpful. We just found ourselves wishing we’d come on a different day with different weather. There was no chance of a do-over on this trip, because we left the next morning before the place opened back up.
So, what will we be thinking about next time we do Harvest Hosts? And what advice would we give others?
Think about your hours.
If you’re looking for that fresh air in the country, outdoor experience that a winery can offer, you need daylight. The later on in the year you’re traveling, the less daylight you have into the evening. It requires a little more planning than pulling into a hotel parking lot or even a campground at any hour that you happen to want to stop for the night.
Know that some days are more suitable than others.
As we learned, weather can have a major impact even if it’s already passed through by the time you arrive. But even day of the week makes a difference. Live music is typically for weekend nights. I had seen, but glossed over the fact that the location we visited doesn’t sell wine on Sundays. Some wineries are closed a day or two each week. All of this is pretty easy to verify because you have to talk to a live person to make your Harvest Hosts reservation anyway. I recommend asking which days are best to visit.
Choose your parking spot with care, if possible.
There was an ample parking lot that was mostly empty when we arrived. We backed into a spot with a couple of trees nearby. It seemed fairly secluded when we parked there. As it turns out, our heads were barely 100 feet from a two-lane road that hosted a surprising amount of traffic all night! There was also what sounded like a pretty raging house party somewhere across the street. And folks seemed pretty eager to leave for work even before the sun came up, so we got an early start back on the road. Look for quiet in addition to shade, if you can.
Don’t assume you’ll save money.
I’m always looking for ways to keep our travel costs down. One strong suit of a well-equipped RV is that it’s dramatically cheaper night by night than staying in a hotel, and doesn’t always require staying in a campground. We’ve done Wal-Mart and driveway stays (free) and the Ohio Turnpike rest areas ($20). The customary purchase and the add-on attractions can make a Harvest Hosts stay a pricey one.
I probably spent $30 on a few drinks on our first Harvest Host stay, which is a pretty decent bar tab that came with a live band. We were plenty entertained. But for our second stay, it was $30 just for the outdoor activities. With snacks, a gift and the beer flight, we probably dropped close to $60 that night. I’m happy to support local business and family farmers. But I wouldn’t call this a travel bargain unless you’re planning to do some drinking and shopping anyway. Then you get the overnight parking space for free.
I’m glad we had the Harvest Hosts experience two different ways, and I’d like to try it again sometime. I’d definitely visit again if we find ourselves in that part of Ohio — just to make sure we get the full breadth of what the place has to offer.
Not very soon, though. Our next trip through the Midwest will be in late December, so we’re probably done with the wineries until spring.
The engineers, designers and marketing folks at Winnebago have put an awful lot of time and attention into making their products (like our Travato Roxanne) a great way to travel. We call it recreational flexibility. In a Class B camper like ours, you pull up, plug in (sometimes) and you’re set. If you want to explore a nearby town, all you need is 21 feet of parking space.
But we’ve also recently learned that recreational flexibility also includes the freedom not to travel.
We were scheduled for a camping weekend with some friends at Jellystone Park in Pennsylvania, about two hours from home. But then the heavens opened and dumped a pretty amazing amount of rain on the area where we live. It just didn’t seem like fun to work a full day, then drive through hours of rush-hour traffic in darkness while it was pouring. We also didn’t want to pull up to an unfamiliar campsite during a storm, try to sleep with the rain pounding our metal roof or wonder if our house and dog were going to be okay.
So, we texted our friends, called the campground, stayed home Friday night — the house and dog were fine despite receiving nearly 11 inches of rain in a day — and headed out for the trip first thing Saturday morning.
How did having a small RV make it easier to stay home? Simple. It makes heading out for a trip almost effortless. We simply grab our cold stuff from the fridge, our snacks from the kitchen, our backpacks with our clothes, and hit the road. It used to take us hours to prepare for a camping trip when we were car camping with a tent. The mile-long packing list. The trying to jam everyone and everything into the vehicle. The hoping our cold stuff wouldn’t spoil in a cooler with ice. And the inevitably irritable late departure, followed by all the unpacking and setting up when we’d arrive.
All of that effort would hit us with the sunk cost fallacy on a short trip. We’d be tempted to tough it out on the Friday night because of all the planning and packing, and that would mean a night in the tent during a rainstorm. Or, even worse, we’d be tempted to bag the whole operation because going up and back, with all the setup and take-down, wouldn’t be worth it for a 30-hour trip.
Not so for last weekend. We woke up early with a calm dog and a dry house, hit the road and met up with our friends before lunchtime. It had apparently rained buckets in Pennsylvania too, and they had a tin roof on their cabin with some noisy neighbors. I was grateful for having had a good night’s rest. They offered to give us some time to settle in, which was nice. But after backing into our campsite, I literally had to unfold three chairs and plug in the electric before we were free to enjoy the rest of the trip. And sandwiches.
What followed was a fun weekend for the grownups and the kids, even though it was a bit shorter than we’d planned. We had mini-golf, a hay ride and even hit the water park for a couple hours on the way out.
Grateful for a private place to change clothes in the RV and our own bathroom to hang up our wet suits, we ambled back onto the country roads to head for home. Coming home in Roxanne is a treat. We just unload the dishes, the leftovers and the laundry. What’s left in the van is ready for the next adventure, whether it’s weeks or a weekend, across the country or around the corner.
Camping season is upon us! So, here’s a little explanation of how I see the three different types of camping trips.
Since swearing off tent camping and making our way into the RV world last year, we’ve had some pretty good ordinary trips and some amazing ones. There was a girls-only journey, a dad-and-daughter camping trip, and I even had a solo trek to Baltimore for a race in December that wasn’t really a camping trip.
Experience has taught me that these trips break down into three different kinds.
1. Camping on the way to a different destination.
We’ve done this one plenty of times, most recently at Green Acres in Ohio. You need a place to park and sleep, at a minimum. You might also need a place to plug in and run your appliances or your air conditioner, for your kid to run around and play, or for a nice hot shower before you get on the road in the morning. Places like these range from free to $50 a night.
For free places to stay, try Wal-Mart, Cracker Barrel or Cabela’s. Ask the manager first. You’ll have a paved, level spot without much worry about security. Recognize that you’re squatting with permission, so no awnings, camping chairs or tailgating. You’ll probably also need your sun shades because the parking lots are brightly lit. Ear plugs wouldn’t hurt either — and you may want to ask when the trash gets picked up, so you won’t be trying to sleep at the same time.
The Ohio Turnpike has RV overnight parking at many of its service plazas. These are barebones, not much more than a parking space with an electric hookup. There is a dump station, and showers inside the plaza are free. Camping costs $20, cash only, no reservations accepted. This is a good choice if you’re tired and just want to rest. Our stop last winter was surprisingly quiet for being so close to the highway.
State parks are a safe, comfortable and generally inexpensive place to camp for a night. Some are surprisingly close to the interstate. Mosquito Lake, where Lindy and XY have stayed twice, is one of these. It’s got activities and trails and a centralized shower building, all for $26 a night. Note that different state parks have different rules regarding pets. Also, every state park I’ve visited has a dump station instead of water and sewer hookups at individual sites. You’ll need to allow for time to do this on the way out if you need.
2. Camping that’s attached to a destination.
The second type of camping is also incidental to a place you’re going, but it’s right there. This is what we do when an attraction or a family event offers a chance to stay right on site.
Festivals are the biggest and most obvious examples of destination camping. We haven’t actually done one of these yet. The Winnebago Grand National Rally in Iowa is probably the world’s largest such gathering. People take RVs to the Electric Forest Festival in Michigan too. And Punkin Chunkin in Delaware offers RV camping — though we stayed off-site at a nearby state park because it was less expensive and had hookups.
We went to Dutch Wonderland in Pennsylvania the first two summers we lived in Maryland, staying in a hotel across the street each time. Last year, we stayed in Roxanne in the campground next to the park – twice. We also had a trip to Jellystone and one to Lake Fairfax, both campgrounds mixed together with water parks and other activities for kids. And there were two driveway stays with relatives last year, once in Indiana and the other in Michigan.
Destination-attached camping in a small RV gives you the comforts of home right next to the attraction you’re visiting. It gives you the ability to retreat to a place of calm if you need, and to keep your own food cold and at the ready. It’s unquestionably cheaper than hotels too.
3. Camping that is the destination.
My first introduction to camping was in my 20s, and it was a destination trip. The parents of a good friend of mine from high school and their college friends had started it decades earlier. It was tents, camp chairs and firewood in the middle of Hoosier National Forest, with an outhouse over a hole in the ground. I went back for several years, even flying halfway across the country with Lindy one year when we no longer lived in the Midwest. That annual trip now spans three generations of campers, we haven’t gone in years, and you couldn’t get an RV within two miles of the campsite. But it was a formative experience.
The two of us, plus the late dog, then the three of us and sometimes the newer dog have been to loads of campgrounds in the area where we live. The breath-taking Assateague Island. The terrific Maryland state parks. We’ve gone on our own or joined a group. These car campgrounds aren’t as low-tech or remote as the Indiana version of camping. (I have seen more than one big-screen TV and at least one espresso maker out there through the years). But they do offer a chance to unplug, see the stars and spend time in the fresh air. Even though I’ve decided my 41-year-old self is retired from tents and Therm-a-Rest pads, I’ve gotten some of my best nights’ sleep and best naps while out camping.
Over the past few years, we’ve been fortunate to join another longstanding family camping trip that started with college friends – my in-laws’ annual outing to P.J. Hoffmaster State Park near Muskegon, Michigan. The facility is pretty standard state campground fare, though the nearly 300 sites are broken into much smaller loops to keep it from feeling enormous. Also, it’s along a Lake Michigan beach. It’s nice to have sand and waves with fresh water and less concern about sharks and the sea level rising.
And finally, Hoffmaster has the cleanest campground bathrooms I have ever seen. As in, they’re clean at the beginning of the weekend and they keep getting clean during the course of the trip. There’s also usually plenty of hot water. We use the bathroom in Roxanne for convenience, but confine the more time-consuming activities to the centralized campground facilities, so this is important.
My in-laws do an amazing job with the logistics for the whole group, as the family that lives closest to the campground. It starts with making reservations the moment they’re available and finding enough space for three extended families. Then there’s base camp on their site, with a pop-up trailer, picnic tents and tables gathered from all around. A grill, coolers, lanterns and all manner of things for eating on and eating with are the last bits to round out the setup. It’s everything you might need for a long weekend at a campground, except the wave of forgotten items that ripples through each one of our campsites and sends every one of us to the store multiple times during the trip.
I get a kick out of watching the different family dynamics, and talking to the kids as they turn into grown-ups. When you see people once a year and know them a bit but not terribly well, it feels a little like watching the latest installment of the “7-Up” series. Neat. And XY gets so much grown-up attention that she doesn’t even go looking for other kids to play with.
There’s always a lot of food. Cookies, snacks and the side dish that each person has been perfecting throughout the course of the year. We introduced the Beyond Burger to the bunch this time, with good success. And we ate a little spaghetti.*
*In my post about last year’s trip, I guess I might have made a little comment about an abundance of spaghetti. I’m not sure I said another word about it since. But in the land of campfire folklore, I had given my father-in-law no end of recurring grief on the subject for 12 entire months!
Mea culpa. I shouldn’t have said anything. After all, when you have a camp stove that uses a full-sized propane tank and a cooking pot the diameter of an oil drum, you can cook as many noodles as you want! And if 10 boxes of spaghetti for 18 people seems like a good idea, you can hand out gallon-sized Ziploc bags full of the leftovers afterwards. It’s a delicious problem to have.
I do feel compelled to point out that this year, after three boxes of spaghetti got dished out, there were no leftovers. The pot was empty. And the meal was delicious.
No seconds for pasta, but nobody went hungry. The last morning of the trip, there’s also a traditional stop at the Whippi Dip afterward for fries and frozen treats.
When I was younger, I used to dwell more on the purity of the camping experience — no watches, no indoor plumbing, as little gear as possible. Now I’m just grateful for the change in environment and the chance to spend time outdoors with people I care about. In an era when even the tent campers are grateful for electric hookups so they can charge their cell phones, I don’t have any reservations about driving around with a fridge or a couple of comfy beds behind me either.
Wherever the road takes you this summer, I wish you the best of journeys!
Renting out Roxanne, our Winnebago Travato, is more of a hobby than a business. We meet some interesting people, hear stories from the road, and bring in a little extra cash to cover our own travel and improvements to our sticks-and-bricks house. For the more entrepreneurial or handy set, rentals can be a full-time living. For us, it’s much more of a side hustle. So, we can be very choosy about who rents, and we are.
We started renting through Outdoorsy as a means of bringing in extra income and getting better use out of an asset that just sits in the driveway a lot of the time. We’ve also accepted the attention that comes along with being a young(ish) family driving a cherry-red Winnebago van. We’re forever giving tours at campgrounds and in parking lots, and we’re happy to. After all, we enjoyed our first RV rental trip so much that we bought our own not too long afterward. We’d love to see other families do the same.
Most of our rental experiences have been just great. We have seen photos of other people having fun on the road, and have learned some things about how our van works from renters. On the other end of the spectrum, we had a rental last year that resulted in some minor damage. I had the cost of getting this fixed, the loss of income from a rental I canceled while it was getting fixed, and a less-than-ideal rental experience for a couple who took it before I could get it fixed. This was on top of the stress during the rental itself.
I am not thrilled with the idea of another period of days with all-caps text messages, multiple phone calls, and general worry about my prized vacation-home-on-wheels, on top of working full-time and being a parent, spouse and homeowner. Outdoorsy has taken some of the bite out of situations like these by offering roadside assistance that includes 24-hour technical support. Additionally, I’ve gotten much better at asking questions and sharing information before I approve a rental.
To that end, here are my five best pieces of advice for a first-time renter. Following these would make us more likely to approve your rental, but will also give you better peace of mind and a more fulfilling vacation.
Before, during and after your rental, communicate with us. If you inquire about dates during a busy part of the year (typically summer), follow up quickly. By leaving a conversation hanging for days or even weeks, you make it more likely that we will award the dates to a competing request or simply cancel yours. Likewise, speak up early about who is traveling. I’ve turned down rentals with too many pets or too many people. First, because I want renters to be safe. I won’t rent to a party of more than four because there aren’t enough seatbelts. But even four can be a pinch if they’re all tall grownups and they’re bringing a dog (or two) along. I’m going to recommend a bigger rig in that case. But if I can’t reach you to confirm what you want before we’re even doing business together, I don’t have high hopes for communication during the rental.
Speaking of, I almost never get tired of hearing from renters when they’re on the road. (See rental horror story above for exception). You’re out there, enjoying yourself, being one with the present moment and hopefully not focusing too much on people who aren’t on your trip with you. But a picture or an update every so often is very comforting. If a problem comes up, even with the roadside assistance, I want to hear about it before you come back.
When you return, give us a full picture of what you liked and what you didn’t. We’ll stay in touch over the next couple of days regarding any extra charges for mileage, cleaning and dumping tanks. I’ll refund some or all of your security deposit and give you a rating on Outdoorsy. Keeping each other up to date throughout this process is key.
I’ve had some of my favorite communications after the rental ended. One renter was kind enough to buy my daughter a t-shirt during her trip. Another emailed me weeks later to say that she’d finally downloaded her photos and wondered if I’d like any of Roxanne in Canada and Maine. Of course, I would!
Driving an RV is a great way to go on vacation. In our book, it tops hotels or vacation rentals for cost and the convenience of having your own bed and kitchen close at hand. It tops sleeping in a tent because, well, it’s not a tent. It tops imposing on friends and family for a night or two. But it also puts more of a burden on the vacationer than any of these forms of travel. You’re managing your own water supply and disposing of your own waste. And you have your own miniature spaceship full of furniture, appliances and buttons to figure out.
Most vehicles come with a tiny owner’s manual in the glove box. A Winnebago Travato comes with a robust accordion folder full of manuals for every little system that’s built into the coach. And if you’ve never operated an RV before, you are going to have a lot to learn, very quickly. My run-through takes about a half hour. Our last renters taped it on their phone so they could go back to it for reference. But long before pickup, and these days even before approval, I insist that first-time renters watch a video tour of a similar vehicle and read my blog post about how to dump the tanks.
One of this year’s renter couples took the research theme to the extreme and came up with an idea I absolutely love. They had planned an elaborate, long-distance trip for 10 days that would take them over the Canadian border and back, but wanted to get more comfortable in Roxanne first. So, they rented her for just one night a few weeks before their big trip, camping at Cherry Hill Park just 20 minutes away from here. They emerged with enough experience to make their summer adventure a success. This is an approach I’m thinking about requiring before all newbie long-distance trips.
Another thing I’ve learned to tease out before making a rental decision: As detailed a travel plan as possible. Serendipity travel is a neat concept, but it’s out of the question if you’re first-timers in someone else’s RV on a limited schedule. I’m going to want to know where you’re going, how you’re getting there, and where you plan on staying along the way. This will help me show you the features and controls most relevant to your trip. It will also give me peace of mind that you won’t call me to ask why the power outlets don’t work when you’re staying overnight in a Walmart parking lot. (I learned this the hard way myself the first time I did it — you need an electric hookup or the generator for them to work.)
The other part of a good travel plan: I can advise you based on what’s worked for the other renters and for us. We know how much driving is comfortable for a day and when it’s too much. We’ve learned a lot about staying in different environments for the night and even how to get around cities. I can offer you the benefit of this knowledge and ease your learning curve if you have a solid plan.
The utmost in research and planning will make your trip successful, but not 100-percent predictable. Road construction, bad weather and issues with the RV will come up. It’s all about how you react when they do. If perfection is your goal, or you’re seeking the kind of hands-off reliability and ease of use that comes with a luxury hotel or Airbnb rental, please do not rent my RV. You will be nervous and likely disappointed.
One of our recent renters had trouble opening the sliding side door from the outside. She was enthusiastic about her vacation and was looking to purchase an RV someday soon for retirement travel. She texted me about it from the road, I poked around the Travato Facebook group for a fix, but she and her co-pilot simply opened the door from the inside until they got home. It wasn’t about to ruin her trip. Knowing about the issue made for much less of a surprise when Lindy and I encountered it a couple weeks later on our own trip. (I was able to find some debris inside the door track and move it out of there. Problem solved.)
When your tiny house is on wheels, things are going to rattle and roll. One of our first renters had the refrigerator door come off in transit. What a scary experience! We’ve added a hinge modification and an earthquake strap, and we advise everyone not to put heavy things in the door.
Beeps, warning lights and even the occasional sewage spill will happen during your trip. (I’ve thankfully never had one of the latter, but still.) Be ready. Adapt. And you’ll be fine.
What an amazing experience it is to travel around the country by RV. With a small RV like ours, you have the flexibility of going into town for an errand or a meal without having to worry too much about how and where to park. You can sleep when you’re tired, eat when you’re hungry and enjoy the company of a companion or two or three — human or otherwise.
None of these tips should take away from the joy of the journey. I’m not trying to throw cold water on anyone’s romanticized RV dreams. But a renter who communicates, researches, plans and adapts will have a better time of it than someone who dives in unprepared. Think of it like a scuba dive or a bungee jump. It can be the thrill of a lifetime, as long as you’re ready.
Greetings from Michigan, where we’re cozily spending this holiday night in a stranger’s driveway (with permission of course.)
In earlier posts, I’ve explored how having a small RV has allowed us the flexibility to take weekend trips close to home and to make last-minute plans. The holiday travel piece is a whole different ball of wax. Lindy and I have been heading back to the Midwest almost every year for the last 16, and we’ve done it every conceivable way before we were parents and after. Driving and flying. With the dog and without. Last year’s trip involved staying in one home and four different hotels over the course of about 10 days. Imagine stuffing a small car to the gills with clothing, food, gifts and kid stuff, and unpacking and repacking that car at each destination. That’s exactly what we were trying to avoid by bringing the RV this time.
(Roxanne, of course, has already been through Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois several times this year.)
We’ve long since abandoned the notion of driving from the DC area to the Midwest in a single shot. It’s a long day behind the wheel, so we prefer to break it up over two days coming and two days going. We were also looking forward to a little more flexibility with our overnights, as we had fewer days to work with this year. So we tried something new. From our house to my mom’s is roughly 11 hours. We left after XY finished school last Wednesday, so I mapped out overnight stops 3, 4, 5 and 6 hours from our house. Depending on traffic and how I felt as the primary driver, we’d simply decide how far to go and then stop.
We settled on the 5-hour version, which ended up being more like 6 hours after rush-hour traffic and a couple of stops. It was the Portage Service Plaza on the Ohio Turnpike, and it was a great place to spend the night. Many of the Ohio Turnpike plazas have dedicated RV parking with electric hookups, a dump station and a water pump. Showers and coin-operated laundry are inside the plaza building. We didn’t need any of these things this time, only a secure and somewhat quiet place to park for the night. We were the only RV in the place, though I understand they get crowded during warm weather. I put my $20 into the machine on site, printed the receipt and put it on the dashboard, and we were good to go. The fridge and the coach heater both run on propane, so we fired up the thermostat, folded down the beds and simply retired. I can’t remember ever traveling someplace and going from the road (or the rail or the air) into my bed so quickly. The heat and our warm sleeping bags had us toasty on a 35-degree night.
Roxanne at Portage Plaza
A toasty night turned into a chilly morning, as we somehow didn’t bother to fill up the propane before we left town, and it ran out while we were sleeping! No propane meant no hot water on the stove, and there would have to be coffee before we got back on the road. I figured I’d fire up the generator and heat some water in the microwave instead, but I tried to do this unsuccessfully a few times before remembering we needed to get gas. Drove over to the pump, got gas, back to the RV parking, heated water, had coffee and breakfast, we freshened up inside the plaza and hit the road. We covered the second half of the drive with no trouble.
I had planned for us to stay one night in a hotel near my mom’s house, and had called the hotel to ask if we could park there overnight before our stay. They said yes. But before we left home, I decided to make it a two-night hotel stay instead. We figured the use of a pool and a treadmill, plus a big hot breakfast and a large bed was worth the price of admission. But we’ve been making good use of Roxanne for sleeping quarters over the rest of the trip.
There is no way to travel subtly in a bright red Winnebago. People give us a thumbs up as they’re passing us on the highway. I had a nice chat with my mom’s next-door neighbor about it when we were parked in the driveway. And we’ve never, ever gone searching around for our ride in a parking lot. The thing makes a statement.
I’m pretty sure our ecological footprint is bigger than last winter’s. We’ve gone from six hotel nights down to two, which saves electricity and all the water and soap needed to wash linens for the three of us. But we’re using a lot more gas than we did even during our summer travels, as the average mileage has gone down with the heat cranked up. And we’re generating more trash than usual, as we’ve turned to disposable tableware because we can’t wash dishes in a winterized RV. The guy who evangelizes tap water for a living had to buy 2-½ gallons of the bottled stuff to take along.
There’s that conflict again, between the minimalist impulse and the travel bug. On the one hand, travel in a small RV makes you acutely aware of how little you actually need to get by. Every square inch of space, every drop of fuel and water makes a difference. On the other hand, for those who don’t live on the road full time, an RV is an extravagance. Plenty of people own second homes, second cars or some kind of time share. These are things for those who have much, not those who have little. So I’m acutely aware that we’ve got a giant red monument to consumerism on our hands.
But the number of ways we’ve been able to use the RV seems to be multiplying.
Roxanne’s first funeral
At a family funeral a few weeks earlier, Roxanne was Penny’s hideaway during a 6-hour visitation and our bedroom during a couple of overnight stays in the driveway. It was also my temporary mobile office for a couple hours when I needed to get some work done. I have a feeling it will come in handy when we have between four and seven guests coming to stay during the inauguration.
Roxanne in Monroe
This has been a challenging year, to say the least. In our families, in our friends’ families, in the entertainment community, there’s been an extraordinary amount of death this year. At the same time, this was the year of exploring the country in Roxanne. The experiences we’ve had, the lessons we’ve learned, the people we’ve met along the way have been incredible. So I have to remain hopeful for the adventures that lie ahead in 2017.
In the meantime, we’re headed back home Wednesday. I’ve got a couple of overnight spots scoped out. Will it be another Ohio travel plaza? Or a Wal-Mart outside of Pittsburgh? Stay tuned…
It’s hard to describe World Championship Punkin Chunkin if you haven’t seen it. Picture, if you can, pumpkins flying through the sky across a Delaware farm field, propelled by machines custom-made for the task. This weekend’s trip was probably our fifth altogether, our second as parents and our first as RVers.
What makes the Chunk special is the amount of preparation that goes into every throw. In competition, teams only get to fire once on each of the three days of the festival. True, there are practice rounds. But you’re building this machine and have to get it to Delaware, re-assemble it, and make sure it works at the precise moment. More than a few machines “pie,” or break the pumpkin into bits as soon as it goes airborne. But some set records, even as far as almost a mile.
The food isn’t the mid-Atlantic’s vegan-friendliest fare, and we’re always a bit saddened by the number of confederate flags on display (being a multicultural family and all). The election a few days away gave the event a slightly different tone, with yard signs and t-shirts aplenty. But folks are friendly, and we’re big fans of the manually-propelled machines like catapults and trebuchets.
Photo: Delmarva Media Group
Though the festival has had a few years of hiatus, it still draws crowds by the hundreds and gets airtime on basic cable. (Unfortunately, this year’s version also got the wrong kind of attention for an accident that happened after we left.) And though the participants must be prepared to the utmost, we were less prepared for our trip than we’ve ever been — on purpose.
We’re planners, usually
Having Roxanne has allowed us the kind of flexibility we’d never really attempted in our travels before. We are master planners. It’s not uncommon for us to make international trip plans nine months in advance, or commit to a camping trip a half-year out.
In the past, we’ve firmed up our Punkin Chunkin plans very early in the year. It’s about a two-hour drive, across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and through Maryland’s Eastern Shore. We’d usually sublet a condo in Rehoboth Beach from a friend. But that’s pretty far away. And we have an RV now. We bought the tickets in August and made a tentative plan for sleep.
The best option available – NOT at Punkin Chunkin
RV camping was available on site, but it was expensive and offered absolutely no hook-ups. More than likely, it would also be very loud. There were hotels within a 20-minute drive, but they were filling up fast and charging more than a room in Delaware should cost. So we figured we’d go wally-camping: boondocking at the nearest Wal-Mart as we did this summer in Pennsylvania. It’s not fancy, and it can be bright, but it’s free.
We were with two other families: one with a toddler and relatives in the area and a pair of grownups who planned to high-tail it back to Virginia after dinner.
The day before our trip, we discovered a Maryland state campground a half hour away from the Chunk and on our way home. We’d passed the deadline for reserving a site online, so we decided to just wing it and head over there at the end of the evening. I’d need a place to dump our tanks Sunday morning anyway. So no Wal-Mart for us.
We spent a few glorious hours chatting and watching the pumpkins fly, wincing a little bit each time an air cannon fired. Our toddler-toting friends peeled off early.
Leaving Punkin Chunkin
Having the tallest, reddest vehicle in the lot has its advantages when you’re trying to find your wheels! After a couple of quick Roxanne tours and bathroom break (on board), we were off to a Mexican restaurant in nearby Seaford. We drove past the onsite RV camp and saw rigs of all sizes packed together like metal sardines. No thanks.
Dinner was good, cheap and got done early. XY did her usual trick of falling asleep with her head down on the dinette almost as soon as we left the parking lot. Lindy and I looked at each other and realized we could be back in our own beds by 9:30, but we’d have to kick out the house-sitter. Plus we had beds right behind us.
Better than a Wal-Mart
So we pulled into the pitch-black Martinak State Park, on the Choptank River and just across the border in Denton, Maryland. Turns out there are two camping loops: one with electric sites for RVs and another with cabins and smaller, primitive sites with no hook-ups. And of course, because it was 8:30 at night during a big festival a half-hour away, all of those electric sites were reserved. (Some of them were empty, but we didn’t want to squat and get kicked out in the middle of the night.) We scoped out the other loop and found a spot without any neighbors.
Thank goodness for our Class B RV that’s built inside a regular cargo van! With a little help from the outside LED light on the passenger side, I slid Roxanne backwards between two trees like a boss. We had the kid unbuckled, shoeless and horizontal in a quick minute, with our bed down too. And with propane to run our refrigerator and our heater, we didn’t need electricity anyway.
We slept soundly and comfortably, but the best part of our almost-spontaneous choice of campground was the next morning. It was a glorious fall day on the East Coast, barely chilly. We were surrounded by great fall color.
Had a nice nature hike, got stuck in horrendous Bay Bridge traffic because of a 10K, and made it home by lunchtime. Our almost-spontaneous fall morning was orders of magnitude better than sleeping in a parking lot. It was calm, relaxing and natural. It also wouldn’t have been possible if we had a bigger rig or had come down in our car like we’d done in the past.
We’ll remember the campground next time we go to Punkin Chunkin. And we’ll probably make reservations too.
RV renting: what’s it like having your RV go on travel adventures without you? Lindy put it best, as she often does. It’s like watching your child pull out of the driveway in the car by herself for the first time. Except the car is your child.
Roxanne had a busy summer with us, but she’s having an even busier fall so far without us. The Carolinas are a popular destination, as are the Shenandoah Mountains and Maine. She’s headed down to Texas in November. It’s a little odd to look out in the driveway and see a strange car with out-of-state plates instead of our shiny red thang. But that’s what we signed up for.
Renting – why
Peer-to-peer rental was always on our radar screen when we were thinking of buying an RV. There aren’t too many Class B vans available for rent on this side of the country, so we knew there was a market. How much of a market was a big unknown, as was the amount of effort it would take to keep rentals going. So instead of building the RV purchase on the assumption we’d rent it out, we decided the rental fees would just help us defray our costs on occasion.
There was another consideration: getting better use out of the asset. Longtime readers know I sold my car several months ago because I just didn’t use it. Our nation’s entire transportation infrastructure is based on the reality of most cars being parked, unused, almost all of the time.
I’m a bit of a transit geek — I ride my bike and the train to work every day. I’ve seen the changes that transportation on demand, car and bike sharing have begun to make in cities. I’m excited about the future the co-founder of Lyft described this week, with more frequent use of vehicles and far less land devoted to empty cars. It will take time, maybe even a generation, for this shift to reach suburbs like the one we live in. So I didn’t want to perpetuate the cycle with yet another underused asset on four wheels, sitting idle most of the time.
Renting means other people who only need an RV once in awhile don’t have to buy their own. It means we keep the engine running, the tires turning and the fluids flowing more often. We don’t have to exercise Roxanne just because she’s been sitting around.
Renting – how
We use Outdoorsy for all of our rentals. The site’s reservation system keeps track of our rental dates and lets us block off days that we plan to use the RV. All of the needed documents, including contracts and checklists, are provided. Outdoorsy collects a security deposit from the renter and handles credit card processing, including releasing all or part of the deposit once we’ve checked the van back in. There’s a secure mailbox for communicating with renters and potential renters. And the company provides $1 million in insurance for each rental. So there’s no need to get some kind of commercial extension on our own insurance, and the renters don’t need to find their own.
We have the ability to change dates and prices. We’ve offered friends and family a 50 percent discount on the rental fees and can change a quote to make that happen. We can extend or shorten a rental that’s already in progress. And the money just hits our bank account automatically — minus a 15 percent fee — a couple of days after the rental begins.
Renting – who
Our renters so far have been couples with children still living at home, or retirees. They don’t own RVs, though some are thinking about buying one someday. Most have never even used an RV before.
That’s a steep learning curve! I start even before pickup day, asking for a sense of where the renters will be traveling and what kind of stops they’ll make along the way. I’ll give input about what kind of campgrounds have worked best for us and where to boondock. I make a mental note of the how, who and where of each rental so I can make sure I focus on the right features of the van. We try to allow 30-45 minutes for a walk-through, but there’s a lot of information to pack into that short period of time. We also keep all of the owners manuals in the van and have started providing a printed copy of my post about water and waste.
Think of everything you’d need to explain to someone staying in your house for a weekend without you. Now imagine you own a van and are lending it to someone who has never driven it before. In fact, make that a person who’s never driven a van at all. Combine those two situations, and that’s basically what our orientation process looks like.
Things will go wrong. Renters will forget things — it’s human nature, especially if you learn by doing. And they’ll have questions they didn’t know to ask when the RV was still parked in the driveway.
Renting – the worry
We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the worst cases. What happens if someone wraps our second home on wheels around a tree? Or gets a case of “it’s a rental” and decides to go off-roading or throw a kegger inside for some friends? Outdoorsy’s screening process and the ability to talk to renters before, during and after generally take care of those worries. We get reassurance that these folks are renting our second home, and they tend to bring it back at least as clean as they found it. One family even sent us photos of Roxanne from along their journey!
Instead, we worry more about the renters and their experience.
Our refrigerator door came off once. While renters were driving. We now know this is because of a design flaw that’s pretty easily corrected with a screwdriver and a hacksaw. It must have been terrifying, and I’m not sure what we would have done if it happened to us. I fixed it after they got back.
There are buzzers and sensors all over the place that can be a nuisance if you don’t know how to turn them off. And there’s a switch that shuts off all power to the coach — a switch that’s really easy to tap with a foot if you’re not careful.
Renting out the van means being ready for phone calls and texts about how this or that thing works. It just comes with the deal. You’re worried about living up to your end of the bargain on what ends up being a pretty expensive vacation for the renter. There’s a system for owners and renters to rate each other, so your reputation is on the line. And more broadly, as owners of RVs and advocates for the lifestyle, you don’t want complications to put anyone off ever driving an RV again.
Renting – lessons learned
We’ve learned a lot about how to screen potential renters. You reserve the right to modify, approve or deny any rental. We’ve also learned — the hard way — that it’s best for us to allow at least a week if not longer between rentals. It takes awhile to walk through and make sure everything is tidy. To do any repairs or scheduled maintenance. And if we were the last family to use Roxanne, we need an hour or two to round up all of our things and bring them into the house. (We provide cleaning supplies and toilet paper, but the linens, cookware and dishes are up to the renter.)
Renting – bottom line
Expectations are important. For the owner, you have to recognize and acknowledge that things will go wrong. These could be RV things, van things, user error things or any combination of the above. Your ability to keep calm and keep looking forward will be essential. For the renter, you have to understand that this is a complicated, expensive piece of equipment that depends on proper use for you to get the most enjoyment out of it.
For us, at the moment, a little extra stress and uncertainty are a worthy price for the extra income and asset use that they bring. I can’t say that’s always going to be true. But we also know that a rental is what sparked our interest in being an RV family in the first place. So we’re glad to return the favor once in awhile too.
Driving around your second home on wheels means you always have a bathroom nearby. Sooner or later, everyone wants to know: how do you deal with the poop? Today, I’ll explain.
From friends to family members, unless the person has used an RV in the last 10 years, the question almost always comes up. And I don’t mind. I work more than occasionally at a wastewater treatment plant. I have a 7-year-old. The poop jokes were pretty universal even before we bought an RV.
Bottom line? If the idea of spending another minute thinking about what happens when you flush is a distasteful one, you’re not going to want an RV. You’re probably also not going to want to read this blog post.
Centralized sewer systems and wastewater treatment plants are nearly invisible, yet so incredibly vital to modern society. (I recommend this book if you’re interested in learning more.) At the same time, think of the cost and environmental consequence of soiling 1.6 gallons of drinking water every time every person relieves him or herself. With an RV, the impact is much smaller and more direct. I’d even call it a minimalist approach.
When you step on the pedal to flush an RV toilet, a hatch opens like in an airplane toilet, to let the waste drop below. A small amount of water jets out, mostly to clean the bowl. Our RV also has a sprayer nozzle nearby for rinsing. So it’s gravity and a small amount of water that aids in flushing, instead of the volume of water that sits in the bowl of a home toilet. You should only ever flush the 3 Ps at home, and that’s especially important in an RV toilet. No paper towels, no feminine hygiene products, no toilet paper that isn’t marked “septic safe.”
So how do things get out of the RV once you’ve flushed them? Let’s take a step back.
Roxanne, a Winnebago Travato, has three tanks that hold water. The first is the fresh water tank, inside the cabin, which holds clean water for drinking, washing, brushing teeth and flushing. The second is the gray water tank, which holds everything that drains from the kitchen sink, bathroom sink and shower. And the third is the black water tank, which holds everything you flush down the toilet. The gray and black tanks together hold slightly more than the fresh tank, to account for everything that gets added to the dirty water.
Our experience as a trio who have never used the shower in the van: you’re pretty good for at least two, maybe three days without hookups before your fresh tank empties and your dirty tanks fill. So this post will cover how to refresh those tanks and get back to having fun on the road. Allow about a half hour to get this done, or longer if you have to wait in line at a sanitation (dump) station.
First, remember to keep your clean business and your dirty business separate. To me, that means separate hoses for drinking water and anything having to do with sewage. It also means filling up the clean water first before dumping the tanks.
The Travato has two ports to fill up water on the driver’s side. The first is “City Fill,” which is designed for use at campsites with a water connection. I never use this. I like to keep the water in the tank fresh, so I fill it up even at sites with full hookups. That’s the job of the “Tank Fill” port. Typically, if I’m staying at a site that has only electric or no hookups, I’ll fill up the fresh water tank at a central spigot or at the dump station — as long as the water is clearly marked that it’s safe for drinking.
Two ports for filling water.
Clean water connection (note blue handle).
With our setup, you grab the water filter and pressure regulator, which are already connected. Attach these to the water hookup. Then connect the clean water hose (it’s the big one hanging on the wall) to the filter on one end and the “Tank Fill” port on the other. Turn on the water. Anywhere from a few to many minutes later, you’ll start to notice water pouring out of the bottom of the passenger side of the van. That’s the overflow. It tells you when the tank is full.
Roxanne’s service wall. Clean water hose is hanging at center. Water filter and pressure regulator are behind it.
Filter with pressure regulator.
Connected, with clean water hose.
Disconnect all the things in reverse order. Give the hose and the filter each a good shake to get any extra water out of there. Hang them up on the wall, and you’re done with the clean part.
Now the dirty part.
Begin by driving into the dump station (or positioning yourself in a campsite with a sewer connection) so the van’s tailpipe is roughly lined up with the sewer opening.
On the driver’s side, the Travato’s only outside storage is a small cubby for the sewer hose. It has a square door. Don’t touch it yet, but know where it is. Go to the back wall of the van where you found the clean water hose, and grab three things: two blue disposable gloves and the orange box marked “Sewer Accessories.” Find a trash bag or a nearby trash can. Put on your gloves.
Large square door: the sewer hose lives here.
Orange “Sewer Accessories” box and gloves
Open the orange box and lay out the three items inside: short rinse hose, rinse attachment and clear elbow. Go grab the sewer hose from the outside cubby on the van. You now have everything you need to dump the tanks.
Three sewer accessories, laid out.
The drain port is near the tailpipe and is marked “Valterra” on its cap. Take off the cap. A small amount of water dribbling out is normal. Open whatever is covering the sewer opening and put the non-threaded (blue) end of the sewer hose in there, along with a few inches of hose. There should be a brick, a rock or a cover handy to keep the hose in place. If not, you’ll need to improvise.
Sewer connection with hose inside.
Connect the clear elbow to the drain port on the van. Then connect the threaded (black) end of the sewer hose to the other side of the clear elbow. You should now have a watertight link between your van and the sewer opening. Check all the connections to make sure they’re tight and secure.
Clear elbow with hose.
There are two valves next to the drain port, one marked for the black tank and one marked for the gray. Pull the black tank valve open. The contents of the black tank will immediately dump into the sewer. This will be fast. You’ll know when it’s over because you’ll see when the flow stops — this is why we use the clear elbow.
When the black tank is done, you’re going to do the gray tank. We do it in this order because the cleaner water in the gray tank helps rinse out the hose. So close the valve for the black tank and open the gray. You’ll notice nothing happens.
This is because the Travato uses a pump to empty the gray tank. So, make sure everything is still well connected. Go around to the back of the van. Press and hold the switch marked “Drain Pump” and watch the flow begin. You can still see the clear elbow from this vantage point if you look under the van. You’re going to be sitting or squatting in this position for a number of minutes, so get comfortable.
Drain pump button.
Eventually, the flow will slow to a trickle and the noise from the pump will change noticeably. This means you’re done! Stop holding the switch and walk around to the drain port. Be sure to close the gray tank valve. With the sewer hose (hopefully) still in the sewer opening, disconnect the clear elbow from the RV’s drain port.
Connect the rinse hose (marked “SEWER ONLY”) to the rinse attachment, and the rinse attachment to the clear elbow that was connected to the RV. Connect the other end of the rinse hose to a water source. Most dump stations provide a connection for rinsing. Check to make sure everything is connected tightly. Turn on the water, then turn on the rinse attachment for a few seconds.
Now rinse. The rinse hose, connected to clear elbow after disconnecting from RV.
Now that you’ve rinsed the hose with gray water and clean water, you can put everything away. Disconnect the sewer accessories first, and put them in the orange box. Then give your sewer hose a few shakes while it’s still in the sewer, and place it back in the van’s outside storage cubby. The threaded (black) end should go in last.
Finally, dispose of your gloves. You’re almost done. The last step is to grab a deodorizing tablet from the box above the toilet inside the van, and flush it with about 20 seconds of water. That will keep odors down now that the tank is empty, and help everything break down until next time you dump it.
Wash your hands, and you’re through.
Done correctly, this is an easy, sanitary and relatively odorless process. I’ll admit doing it the first time was a little terrifying, but it gets easier every time. And it really is just part of life with an RV, just like little plastic bags of poop are part of life with a dog.
Lucky us: we get to do both.
It was a weekend of firsts for our family and Roxanne: first visit to Jellystone. First weekend camping trip close to home. And first excursion where someone else in the group had an RV.
The players and the setup
We joined a couple of close friends and their XY-aged son at Jellystone, plus his grandparents. They’re a semi-retired couple who travel the country in their 39′ Brookstone by Coachmen fifth wheel.* It has multiple slides and is nearly as long as two Roxannes back to back. There’s more than enough room to sleep four adults and a child inside, and the living/dining area served as a home base when we were looking to escape the heat and spend some time indoors. It has a fireplace, a big screen TV and an oven. I’ve seen apartments that are smaller and not as well-appointed.
*For the uninitiated, a fifth wheel is a trailer RV with a special coupling that sits in the bed of a pickup truck.
We had to commit a little campsite subterfuge to get our spot. The fifth-wheelers booked first. When we went to the website to book, we entered Roxanne’s measurements and were given a site on the opposite side of the park. That wouldn’t do for two families sharing meals. So we tried again in case it was some sort of error. Nope. Third try: we decided to say we were bringing a fifth-wheel that’s 39 feet long. Lo and behold, we got the spot right next to our friends. I felt bad about this, because I figured I was blocking a large RV from the only type of site that would hold it. But when we arrived, we saw several other Class B vans and even a cluster of tents on one site right nearby. No big deal.
It just so happened that we picked a weekend with record-breaking heat in the DC area. We pulled into Jellystone Friday afternoon just after a quick thunderstorm broke through and cooled things off a bit, but that didn’t last. Saturday was HOT. As in, standing around watching the kids at the playground at 8 a.m. for a few minutes was sweat-inducing. Our part of the campground didn’t really have any shade either. Weather alerts from back home were blaring at us with EXTREME HEAT WARNING and admonishing us to check on our neighbors who don’t have air conditioning. And we had chosen to spend the weekend outside.
You probably shouldn’t spend the hottest weekend of the year outdoors in the sun. But if you’re gonna, a water park with periodic access to air conditioning is just about perfect. We swam in a couple of pools, shot each other with water cannons and went multiple rounds down a big, twisty water slide. (Yes, the kids enjoyed themselves too.) Jellystone publishes a week-long list of activities in advance, hour by hour, so you’re never without options if you want to go do something. There was a flashlight treasure hunt one night and a dance party with Yogi, Cindy and Boo Boo the next. Side note: we felt bad for the actors stuffed into furry costumes on such a hot day. And XY and her friend are terrified of mascots. But Lindy and I couldn’t resist a picture with a bear.
Jellystone is much more expensive than a night at other RV parks we’ve seen, because you’re getting all of the activities and amenities included. You’re also subject to the Hanna Barbera licensed characters everywhere you go, including the bathroom. We paid $110 a night for two nights, which covered a pull-through site with full hookups and access to almost everything the park offers. The zip line was an extra $20 for 5 tickets, and we didn’t do laser tag or the arcade, but those are extra too. There’s a camp store with the usual stuff plus a lot more candy and stuffed animals than you’ll tend to find elsewhere. A concession stand is open all day (we didn’t use it). A coin laundry, a propane station and multiple bathroom/shower buildings around the park round out the services. Parts of the park were a bit muddy after a recent rain, and I wish ours wasn’t the only area that barely had any shade. But these are small things.
Last night, when I crawled into bed exhausted with a book, I was so glad we weren’t in a tent. Our last tent camping trip was on a freakishly cold weekend. So it’s fitting that our new RV was up to the task of a freakishly hot weekend. We were comfortably cool each night, and I even woke up to find XY complaining of being cold and Lindy wrapped up in a blanket. In the five months since our first RV journey, we’ve already done cold and hot and everything in between.
I ran ten miles in the early morning, a few under already hot sun. But three miles outside of the park, down a country road, under Interstate 81 and through the small town of Williamsport is the glorious C&O Canal National Historic Park. I got a few miles in on the shaded, nearly empty towpath before heading back to camp. You know what’s amazing after a long run, a stretch and a shower? Yep, a dunk in the pool.
So we took one last trip to the pool and down the Jellystone water slide before heading out in the early afternoon. We dried our bathing suits and towels in the sun while Lindy made lunch and I got Roxanne ready for the road. I don’t love waiting in line for central dump stations as we typically do at state parks. Having the services right at your campsite is nice, but I also find dump stations tend to be configured better. Our sewer connection was parallel to the discharge port on the RV, which meant less ability to rely on gravity while dumping. I just had to fiddle with the hose a little bit more than usual.
We got moving and were home in barely an hour. What a weekend. We bought the RV so we could explore the country, spend time outdoors and do family things while XY is still young. It’s great to be able to do that so close to home after spending several weeks this summer driving around the country.
After a week on the road in the Midwest, we’ve got some amazing stories to tell. We’ve learned a lot about RVing and more than a little about each other. And yes, we saved some money.
Our Midwest trip was a vacation adventure unlike any we’ve had so far. It featured loads of family time. We stayed in new places and did new things. And of course, we had Roxanne.
While it’s true that we are newbies to the RV scene and only took our first trip this spring, we’re veterans of the two activities RVing combines: driving and camping.
We’ve been driving to the Midwest in back in cars, both ours and rented, for the better part of two decades now. And we’ve definitely spent plenty of time in campgrounds, usually in tents until this year. So in learning and getting better at this whole RV thing, we weren’t taking on new skills so much as refining and combining old ones. Still… plenty of lessons learned.
Lesson 1: Your conveyance is your home base
In an RV, you’re combining your driving machine with your sleeping quarters and your kitchen. This is a great thing! But it takes a little getting used to.
Leaving a campsite for the day really doesn’t look any different from leaving a campsite for good. You want to pack up any chairs, mats, scooters and the like. When we went to catch the ferry to Put-in-Bay in Ohio, we cleared out camp like we’d never been there before. We needed to take showers before we left, so we drove the van to the shower building. I got done first, so I prepared lunch for the day and got some reading done in the parking lot. Then we drove our kitchen and bedroom-on-wheels and parked it in a regular parking lot in town. That’s something you can’t do in a tent, or even in a larger RV.
This freedom of mobility is amazing. There’s no scrambling to find a bathroom after a long day of wandering around town, and you can brush your teeth without leaving your campsite too.
On the flip side, you don’t want to lull yourself into thinking you can just unplug the van and hit the road. You have to check the cabinet drawer doors. Wash and put away the dishes. Stow any snacks and loose clothing. Fold up the beds. Oh, what a nice segue into…
Lesson 2: Odors must be destroyed
So, let’s not discuss the wisdom of feeding your 7-year-old refried beans for lunch two days in a row and then going out for Mexican food for dinner. But needless to say, life in a tiny home on wheels, especially one that’s parked in the sun, can get a little smelly. Here’s a little advice and wisdom from those who know.
First, keep the air moving. The rooftop and bathroom vents don’t require AC power and work well. All of the side windows have screens in them. Use these, and you’ll be fine with three humans living in close quarters. Stay away or at least upwind from campfires if you can.
Second, and much more importantly, remove things that could develop a foul odor early and often.
We had an incident with a Chinese food smell, which led us into pine tree “new car smell” air freshener territory until one of us had the wisdom to take out the garbage. Problem solved.
Remember that nice 6-mile run I took during our last morning in Illinois? It came with a soaking wet running jersey. I was perfectly clean when we left, but I had to hang up my shirt in the back before we hit the road. It wasn’t a few minutes into our hours-long drive before all three of us realized this was going to be a problem. I stopped for some fabric freshener at a local drugstore and sprayed it down. The smell of artificial fragrance filled the van, until it dissipated, and the shirt still reeked. Lindy was actually considering a moonwalk to the back while we were driving, but I was concerned about her safety and didn’t want her throwing my shirt out the window!
We eventually stopped, and I used an empty plastic takeout container to seal the offending garment away. We were able to wipe down some counters and run the fans for a little while before all the aunts, uncles, cousins and grandmas at dinner outside Toledo popped in for a look at Roxanne.
The finances of our trip
Let’s dispense with the obvious: buying an RV is expensive. Nobody ever does it as a way to save money. We’ve had a couple of Outdoorsy rentals that have helped with the cost a bit, and look forward to more in the future. But it won’t help Roxanne come close to carrying her own weight.
That said, once you’ve taken the plunge, your ongoing vacation expenses are likely to be lower. For starters, I was stunned to learn how inexpensive RV insurance is. For personal use, on an occasional basis, the cost is much lower than insuring a car of the same age. It also includes protection for the contents, and coverage for medical expenses when you’re on the road.
On maintenance, we’re still almost in new-car mode because Roxanne has fewer than 10,000 miles on her. We got our first oil change when we had a few extra minutes in Illinois. The crew at the quick-lube had never seen anything quite like our camper van, but they did manage to get it a few feet up on the lift. Aside from an extra quart of oil, the service wasn’t any more expensive than it would be for a car.
When traveling, as a general rule of thumb, we’ve found: gas is more expensive, food and lodging are less.
We drove about 1,700 miles on our trip. We had a full tank of gas when we left, and returned with a full tank. We spent $192.84 on fuel, at prices ranging from just under $2 to $2.30 a gallon. Lindy’s Ford C-MAX hybrid gets 2 or 2-1/2 times better gas mileage than Roxanne. So we probably spent about an extra $100 on gas because of the RV.
On food, all of our breakfasts were in the RV. Lunches were on the road or out and about, using food we’d prepared ourselves. Even our snacks came from the van. We probably spent less than $20 the whole week on outside snacks, such as a pretzel at the zoo or our lemon sorbet at Put-in-Bay. We ate dinner out three times in six nights — once by ourselves, and twice with family. Dinner the night we got home was leftovers from the trip. Our grocery budget covered us for the week even though we weren’t home. With the meals and snacks out, we probably spent $150 on food.
What if we didn’t have the RV? We tend to stay in hotels that include breakfast, so there’s no extra expense there. If we’d gone out for lunch and dinner 7 times, and had to buy more snacks on the go, we would have spent at least $500. So we probably saved $350 on food because of the RV.
On lodging, I can tell you exactly how much we saved because I booked this trip before we owned an RV. We were planning to stay in hotels in every location, but I had the foresight to book refundable reservations that I ended up canceling when we bought Roxanne. Some of these were hotels we knew, but most weren’t. With an RV, you know what you’re getting.
Leaving aside the comfort of sleeping in our own beds every night and not having to haul luggage, there’s significant savings in campgrounds instead of hotels. And if you can boondock, as we did for one night on my mom’s street, you’re comparing a zero expense to a hotel expense.
Put-in-Bay (two nights)
Original: Comfort Inn Sandusky ($259.00)
Actual: East Harbor State Park ($70)
Northern Indiana (one night)
Original: Holiday Inn Express Schererville ($105.28)
Actual: My mom’s street ($0)
Schaumburg (two nights)
Original: Hyatt House Schaumburg ($248.52)
Actual: Camp Reinberg ($120)
Camp Reinberg was the most expensive, in part because we’re not Cook County residents. But it was still a nice place to stay and a big savings over the hotel option.
Toledo Area (one night)
Original: Staybridge Suites Maumee ($104.26)
Actual: Maumee Bay State Park ($35)
So we saved $492.06 on lodging, with a bottom line total savings of $742.06 for the trip. Not bad!
(Travato owner Alan Heymann’s wife and daughter took “Roxanne” out for a mother daughter road trip. Here’s Lindy Russell-Heymann’s successful report.)
Last week, I spent a few days on the road alone with my daughter, XY and my RV, Roxanne. Alan asked me to collect a few impressions of the trip. Here goes!
Act 1: Grandma Camp (Grand Rapids, Michigan)
Michigan’s up north, and sits on the far end of the Eastern Time Zone. So it’s 10 p.m. and still light enough to keep XY and her four cousins wide awake and giggling in the tent set up on my mom’s deck. The end of June brings Grandma Camp. This year, the five youngest granddaughters are enjoying the long days and mild Michigan summer by fully intending to stay up all night.
I decided to take advantage of the fact that I am NOT in charge, and have retreated to Roxanne, who is parked on the shady side of the lawn next to the house. I stealthily crept out to the van and climbed in quickly, since my younger nieces really want to play house in here and come out whenever they hear the van door open and close.
Once inside, I can no longer hear anything from the tent. The windows are open and the rooftop fan is blowing, so it’s nice and cool. I got a snack from the fridge, and settled down on the bed with a book. Bliss!!!
Act 2: Repair Mode (Still in Grand Rapids)
Zoom ahead 24 hours- Grandma Camp is over, and XY is bunking in the van with me. She sleeps soundly. I frantically thumb through manuals and scour the internet for advice on how to repair a broken toilet flush pedal, which fell off at about 10 p.m. My first response when something mechanical breaks down is to panic, then text Alan, and I admit that I did those things.
Then my Tinker Training kicked in. Luckily XY and I have spent the year building Tinker Crates, which are monthly science kits we receive in the mail. We’ve built marker robots, fiber optic constellations, and most recently, a table-top trebuchet that launches ping pong balls. “We are girls who do science! We are scientist girls,” XY proudly exclaims whenever we successfully finish another kit. So I decided to remember what I was training my daughter for, and to stop whining and tinker for a while.
I learned to tell the difference between a waste ball valve drive arm and water valve drive arm. I also learned that when RV accessory manufacturer websites fail, the Travato owners’ Facebook group comes through. I posted my problem at 10:30, by 10:45, the group posted video solutions and advice (and also many, many bathroom puns). I fixed it using a combination of science and brute force. I posted a photo of the fixed pedal. The group wrote that they were flushed with pride for me.
Exhausted but decidedly more smart, we hit the road the next morning, two chicks (three if you count Roxanne), driving through the Midwest, on our way back to Maryland.
Act 3: “Even My Wife Could Drive It!”
The RV world is still mostly focused on guys. At RV shows and dealerships, salesmen (where are you, RV sales ladies?) would mostly talk to Alan. One video we watched talked about a particular model being easy enough for the ladies to drive. This is a message for all the RV sales managers out there – you need to cut that crap out. We are girls who drive RVs. We are driving girls!!
That being said – Roxanne IS easy to drive. I am a good driver, too. XY and I took the back roads and some highways, and reached Mosquito Lake State Park in eastern Ohio by that afternoon. Mosquito Lake is a busy campground filled with families, and XY and I did not feel out of place among the many moms, dads, kids and grandparents. We cruised the campground on XY’s scooter, cooked vegan mac and cheese in Roxanne, then headed over to the campground amphitheater to see “Big Hero 6.”
The park had roomy, shaded sites that were close to the water and easy to get in and out of. The central shower building had flush toilets, but the pit latrines elsewhere in the campground made me extra grateful for our own little bathroom — especially now that it was working perfectly again!
Act 4: Back Home
We needed to get on the road by the next morning, which was July 4th. After a quick stop at the beach, we had our first experience emptying and filling the tanks ourselves. (Alan did this with us last time we went camping together.) No big deal! We drove through Pennsylvania and Maryland and were back home by late afternoon – just in time to rest and unpack a little before going to see the fireworks.
This family checks a lot of boxes that not all families usually check at the same time – vegan, minimalist, multiracial, RV-enthusiasts. Those two days, we were also only 2 girls on the road by ourselves. Luckily, because we are in these situations while XY is still young, she knows that we are unique, but not out of place.
Visit Alan’s personal blog Chasing Minimalism by clicking here.