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Travels with RV

Travels with RV

Though federal law normally prohibits people under 40 from driving an RV, the Burning Man festival -- which has no rules except for all the many rules it is now accumulating -- spreads that anarchy out into the world, and, at least around labour day in California, thousands of people who drive without a hat on take over the state's RV supply.

(For our first year we rented from El Monte RV and had a pretty reasonable experience. The second year we rented from CruiseAmerica due to a half price special, but even at half price it was no deal in my opinion. Tons of things went wrong and their customer service number always got us endless hold until we hung up in frustration.)

An RV is a great idea at Burning Man, and since I would be renting one for that, I thought I would take a continued trip and visit Yellowstone and other western destinations.

The initial attraction of the RV for me was the idea of a more relaxed schedule. On ordinary long-drive trips you spend a awful lot of time packing and unpacking, and unless your trip is carefully planned, hunting for decent lodging that's reasonably priced. You can work hard to develop ways to cut down the packing and unpacking, but you still spend a fair bit of your vacation time on the niggling issues of travel. Check in, check out, haul suitcases, find a restaurant etc.

Then, I had not yet realized the real benefit of staying inside destinations like national parks and national forests.

I had recently taken a cruise, and that got me quite enamoured of the idea that your hotel would move with you. On the cruise you just walk off the boat, explore your destination, and walk back on. When you wake up, your hotel is in another town.

Some also argue the RV is cheaper, and it can be if you really work on it, but when you account for the gas and decent RV park fees it can cost more than a cheap motel. Not more than a nice hotel, but the cramped quarters of your RV are smaller and messier than a quality motel. If you eat in the RV all the time, you will save a bit, but for me travel includes visiting nice restaurants anyway. No, if you strictly want to save money, the RV won't do it. A tent will.

Of course if you have lots of kids that formula may be different.

Owning an RV is expensive. Unless you plan to use it a lot it's cheaper to rent. The money "invested" in a $50,000 RV can earn you $5,000 in the stock market every year, which can pay for a pretty nice vacation or about 5 to 8 weeks of RV rental, depending on the quality. Storage, if you don't have room for it, can run $100/month or more in urban locations. Of course, people like to own stuff it would be cheaper to rent just so they control it and always have access. People who own RVs park them at the side of the house and use them as as spare guest bedroom. And you don't have any constraints on when you have to have it back, and can keep stuff in it -- the big loss of renting as far as I am concerned.

Silent Running

Sadly, I learned the quick travel principle doesn't fully apply in the RV. You don't have suitcases to pack and unpack any more, but anything you take out of the closets has to be put back in before you can move. Otherwise it flies all over the place. Every utensil, every box, every toothbrush, every bar of soap, just about everything but clothes your inner slob can leave scattered on the bed.

In the morning we learned we had to do a procedure we called "rigging for silent running." This meant not just putting everything away, but also pulling up all the blinds (so they don't bang on the windows) and putting paper towels behind the slats to stop the rattle.

It would be faster than packing if I were a bit neater, or if you don't cook meals in the RV. If you cook, cleaning up everything is simply non optional as it canbe in your house or even a motel kitchenette.

One valuable trick -- get lots of those transparent plastic shoebox sized containers you will find in any store these days. Get them to stack to fit the RV's cupboards. They make it easy to take out things and put them away in your limited storage.


The RV drives like a truck, as Buckaroo Banzai would say. It is a truck. So it's not really going to be pleasure driving. Some roads are off limits to you. Most parking spaces are too. If you're going to use your RV as your car, which is usually the case for the small RV you are likely to rent, then you have to tolerate limits. You also never get the sense of staying put even if you camp in one place for a few nights. Every time you go out you have to put everything away and rig for silent running.

They are not hard to drive, but they are not sporty either. In Montana we did get one up to 90mph (no speed limit). That's why people with a big RV are often towing a small car, or scooters or motorcycles. Many also buy what they call "5th wheel" RVs that mount on the back of a pickup truck but can be disconnected. You see these a lot at the RV parks. A pickup truck is not a car but it's a lot better for your wanderings.

On the other hand driving in the RV has its advantages. Any stop by the side of the road is an instant picnic, or bathroom break if you need it. (Though you tend to avoid using the RV's toilet when you can.) If you get caught in a major stoppage or construction, you just stop, and lie back and read, or snack, or play a game or whatever. Even if the thing breaks down you don't worry too much.

The Euphemism

The RV has a chemical toilet. It uses some water, but not much, and after a while, it doesn't smell great in the toilet. It's no fun dumping the sewage (which they call "black water") or even the output of the shower and sink drains which they call grey water. So you try to avoid it, and that means that if you can go to the bathroom elsewhere, you do it, and if your campground has a shower, you use it instead of the one in your RV, even if your RV has a water hookup.

You could take a nice shower in the RV, but it means emptying the tanks more. At Burning Man, or any other event where you are "off the grid" for 4 or 5 days you have to be conservative in your water use.

The Power

The RV has a generator, which can run appliances like the microwave and your computer, and of course the air conditioner, but it's rude to run it at night unless you are in a deserted area. They have a 12 volt system but it would be nice if they put in an inverter to run low power 115 volt stuff, and our RV had just one 12 volt plug on the system, primarily intended for a 12v TV. The engine had its own 12V system but you don't want to run that at risk of draining it.

RV Parks

You can stay at RV parks, or most ordinary drive-in campgrounds. At RV parks you usually get a hookup -- for water, power and usually sewage. Some have cable TV (boring) and more and more now support wireless internet.

You get faster at the hookup and disconnection, but it always takes some time. You want it. It's nice to have consistent pressure water, not worry about power or the generator etc.

Most RV parks are, well, trailer parks. In the rural areas, some are downright nice. In the urban areas they are usually just a place to park and be on the road not long after dawn. They cost from $12 to $25 a night. The "brand-name" ones like KOA cost more but don't seem to be worth it, other than for being easy to find.

The nice thing is, at least during our out of season trip, there was always space somewhere. I've remembered road trips where you pull into a town and find there are no rooms, so you have to keep driving. In the pre cellphone era, you also had to spend a lot of time and money calling around to find rooms. With the RV you really don't worry much about where you are going to stay or what it looks like. You know what your room will be like. This may be different in the summer season. However, in a pinch, you can find some quiet out of the way place unless your sewage tanks are full, and camp off-grid. It's probably illegal in many places (Wal-Mart always allows it) but there's lots of places where it isn't. You never have to panic. You can always do a tank dump at the RV places even if they don't have any spaces.

Some RV places are also pleasant places to relax. The parks we visited in Challis, Idaho and a few other locations seemed that way. You could park beside a river and relax on grass.


It's somewhat interesting to shop in an RV. You pull into the grocery store, park a bit further out to take two spots, and just bring your shopping cart back to your house on wheels and load the fridge and cupboards. That's convenient. Though you end up spending a good amount of time shopping while you're learning what you need and don't need. And you don't usually shop much at all while traveling so this may be lost time depending on your viewpoint.

Other Notes

The beds are small, unless you get a very big one. The so-called queen was an "RV queen" which was not much bigger than a double. The so-called double was so short I couldn't get in it lengthwise, and I am only 5'10". The headspace is small even in the one that had full headroom, because of the closets and windowblinds. This they could improve.

.pic burn/pic00014.jpg

Other improvements our RV could have used would have been a built-in liquid soap dispenser at the sinks and a paper towel rack. I expect people who own them put these things in. In fact, racks for everything would be great, especially pots and pans which will of course clang if not secured. Turns out we never used the oven and most people don't, so we used it for storage. The microwave and the burners did the trick. If you want baked goods and you aren't living in your RV, go out to a bakery.

.pic burn/pic00013.jpg

The fridge is not great, but it will do. It is a bit cramped, and not very powerful when running on either gas or electricity (it does both) so you have to be careful or your ice cream will get a bit soft. Still, it's a nice thing to have.

As you can see from the main picture there is no bike rack. Bikes are of course great to have along. You can hang them on the ladder, and we did this, but a real rack would have been nice.