In reality, I spent that July evening at a Virginia campground watching the owner spray Febreze around the Winnebago in an attempt to mask the smell of waste that had spewed out of the sewage hose. Before the dumping demo, he had assured us that the waste tank was empty. Our noses knew otherwise. After the owner departed, leaving us alone in the RV, my friend and I stayed up late scooping up dead bugs and fiddling with the air-conditioning, which was blowing subtropical air. At 3 a.m., we finally rested our weary heads . . . on the mattress. The owners had neglected to inform us that the RV didn’t come with pillows.
“Your experience is going to be heavily dependent on who the owner is and the ins and outs of the vehicle,” said Monika Geraci, an RV Industry Association spokeswoman. “The onus is on the renter to educate themselves beforehand.”
My inaugural outing in an RV wasn’t an outright catastrophe. No humans (myself included), woodland creatures or traffic cones were harmed; nor was the 24-foot motor home I had rented through Outdoorsy, a peer-to-peer site founded in 2014. But the vacation was a bust. The morning after the drop-off, I discovered that the registration had expired in June and the engine check light was on. For safety and legal reasons, I had to abandon the vehicle and my RV reverie — for now but not forever.
(In response to my debacle, Outdoorsy co-founder Jen Young said, “We wish we could say 100 percent of renters report a positive trip experience, but that’s not the real world. The real world is the one we’re operating in, where we take the subpar experiences with the good ones and learn what improvements need to be made.” She added that next month, all owners will receive the Outdoorsy Owner’s Handbook, which covers best practices and protocols.)
Twenty-twenty has been the Summer of RV Love, and by all accounts, it could be the Endless Summer of RV Love. Recreational vehicles allow travelers to roam in a self-sufficient bubble, the preferred mode of exploration these days. “RVing is the way to travel if you want to control your environment,” Geraci said. “We are seeing a second wave of people renting.”
If you have driven a moving truck or a car with a rooftop tent, congrats, you’re still an RV newbie. (RVs typically contain the holy trinity of kitchen, bathroom and bed.) But the label is not a slight; it’s a sign of the times. Outdoorsy said first-time customers accounted for more than 93 percent of its reservations in May and June. RVShare, another Airbnbesque site, said 80 percent of its summer bookings were made by new users. While the new patrons might not be new drivers, the people snapping up RVs could be first-time renters, a burgeoning category of travel. Outdoorsy saw bookings soar in June, with a 400 percent increase from the same time last year. RVShare said rentals for Labor Day weekend are up 95 percent.
“We love to see people come back relaxed and looking 20 years younger,” said Marisol Hill, who rents six RVs on the peer sites and through her San Bernardino, Calif.-based company, Adventure RV.
While my Winnebago adventure did not reverse the aging clock, I wasn’t going to give up on the quest. To better prepare for my second attempt, I sought advice from RV experts, including the industry’s national association, the biggest rental platforms and longtime owners. They provided tips on all aspects of RVing, from selecting the vehicle to planning the itinerary. Not one mentioned keeping a bottle of deodorizer in my holster.
Choosing your vehicle
The sheer quantity of RVs in the rental market will make your head spin. RVshare, which was founded in 2013, lists more than 100,000 vehicles in 50 states; Outdoorsy claims twice as many in 14 countries. The first decision you must make is: trailer or motor home. For the trailer, you will need a car or truck capable of towing the weight of several baby elephants. In addition, it is not safe — or legal in most states — to ride in the attachment, so your family will have to cram into the less exciting vehicle of the two. On the plus side, you will have a comparatively pint-size vehicle for tooling around your destination. Motor homes are self-contained, and passengers can take full advantage of its amenities while on the road. Nap on the bed. Raid the fridge. Use the bathroom. Just make sure you are buckled up while moving.
If you choose a motor home, the next step is picking the type. Class A vehicles sometimes resemble a rock star’s tour bus in size and flash. Class B motor homes, or van campers, are pipsqueaks by comparison. They max out at 22 feet and come with a kitchen and sleeping quarters but not always a bathroom. For first-timers, Geraci recommends Class C, a happy medium between A and B. Vehicles in this category run 21 to 35 feet in length and often have a cab with an overhead compartment for sleeping or storage.
Marc Ferguson, a North Carolinian who lists his 22-foot trailer on Outdoorsy, said a common mistake newbies make is “trying to rent something bigger than their experience or vehicle can handle.” Freddy Heller, a Richmond-based driving instructor with RV Basic Training, recommends a rig smaller than 30 feet.
To rent an RV, peruse the listings on the peer-to-peer platforms. Use the filters — pet friendly, air conditioning, washer/dryer, etc. — to winnow down the options. Many owners post on Outdoorsy and RVShare, but prices may vary, so comparison-shop. Dealerships and rental companies, such as Cruise America and El Monte, also rent vehicles. The more traditional businesses could have newer models and a smaller inventory than the rental-by-owner sites. However, they typically offer a more uniform level of quality and support. (On this issue, Outdoorsy’s Young told me, “One of the challenges for us is standardization.”)
Hill urges renters to thoroughly read the descriptions of the vehicles. Take note of the number of beds and amenities, as well as what is included. For example, she provides a Keurig coffee maker, toaster, pots and pans, utensils and camping chairs. Because of the pandemic, many owners are pulling the bedding, down to the pillows and blankets. Also familiarize yourself with additional costs, such as the charge for exceeding the cap on mileage (typically 100 miles) and generator usage (four hours). Some owners will deliver the vehicle to your campground and dump your tanks — for an extra fee. Most important, pay attention to the reviews, and seek out owners with high star ratings and several rentals under their belt. A communicative owner with an intimate knowledge of his or her vehicle is as important as a kitted-out rig.
“You have to know your equipment so you can explain it to your guests,” Hill said.
Once you find a match, reach out to the owner and ask away. Height, length and miles per gallon of the vehicle. Pickup and drop-off times. Last service date. Recommended insurance policy. Deposit amount. Name of the vehicle.
“I call her Lady Skipper,” said Kristie Pichler, who has rented her 27-foot Sunseeker more than a dozen times since last July. “She’ll take care of you.”
Getting to know your RV
Every rental will include a walk-through and should incorporate a test drive. This is your moment to peek behind every door, flip every switch and lift every cover — be nosy and inquisitive.
“Pay attention to the owner [explaining] how to use everything,” Ferguson said. “Make sure they walk you through setting up the camper, placing the stabilizers and operating the slides and water and power hookups. Don’t hesitate to ask any questions. Neither of you wants you to guess and damage something on the road.”
For my rental, I was eagerly looking forward to this step, since I had never driven a vehicle as intricate as a Winnebago. As soon as the owner arrived at the RV resort, he showed me around the vehicle, following a checklist from Outdoorsy. However, he skipped the test drive. (Maybe because I looked like an ace driver, or maybe because he had pulled up during quiet hours, which start at 10 p.m.) Yet, even the tour was insufficient. When I asked how the stove worked, he shrugged his shoulders and told me. “We ate sandwiches.” When I commented on the tilt of the RV, he never suggested using leveling blocks to correct the incline. When I inquired about a black box under the steering wheel, he stared at the object as if it had magically appeared.
“There’s definitely a learning curve if you are new to the RV life,” Geraci told me, when I confessed my lack of knowledge, which didn’t improve after the walk-through. “Do the research on the front end.”
I realized that to ask informed questions, and grasp the answers, I should have been better prepared. So I binged on YouTube videos directed at newbies. I watched Marc and Tricia Leach of Keep Your Daydream; Rae and Jason Miller, the Getaway Couple; and Stacy and Phil Farley of You, Me and the RV. I took notes and rewound a lot. I was growing more confident when Pichler invited me over to observe a walk-through of the Lady Skipper. On a Thursday evening in Springfield, Va., I joined a mom, dad and two sons inside the RV. Ten eyes peered into the bathroom.
“We’re all family here,” Pichler said. “We talk about poop.”
Over the hour, she went over every inch of the vehicle, inside and out. She explained the generator, propane tank and air-conditioning. She demonstrated how to fold up the bed like a taco, flush the toilet and secure the latches on the windows and door. She mock-filled the water tank and pretend-dumped the waste tank, which, thankfully, was really empty. Pichler encouraged the family to record the proceedings, acknowledging that she was throwing a lot of information at them.
For the test drive, Pichler instructed the mom to back out of the spot and drive through the lot, an obstacle course of parked cars and children chasing runaway balls. She merged onto the main road and took several left and right turns.
“How am I doing space-wise?” she asked Pichler from the right lane.
“Go further out,” she said. “Slow way down and cut hard.”
Lady Skipper kissed the curb, but it was only a little peck.
Planning your itinerary
With an RV, you will always know where you are sleeping. But where you park — or more romantically, keep house — is another question.
The experts urge newbies to pick an RV site that is move-in ready, with a full hookup and pull-through spot (vs. backing in). When you have more experience, you can try dry camping, or boondocking. But for now, don’t cut the cord.
“Dry camping is not the optimal experience for your first time,” Hill said. “You’re using the reserves.”
When mapping your route, keep the distance between points short. (The extra mileage fee can help tighten the leash.) Pichler said “driver fatigue” is a real affliction. To reduce “commuter” drive time, book an RV near your destination or pay extra for delivery at your first stop. Stay in campgrounds or RV parks that are within proximity of each other but offer a change of scenery. For example, I had reserved two nights at Americamps RV Resort in Ashland, a quintessential small town with a historic district, and one night at a KOA in Virginia Beach, less than three miles from the ocean.
“Driving is not the primary activity,” said Young, who recently spent six weeks RVing through nine states. “It is enjoying the RV in a natural environment.”
Even so, for my next outing, I can’t wait to shift from park to drive.