Driving an RV for the First Time: Handy Guidelines for Beginners

Driving a RV for the first time: Man driving an RV on the road

Driving your RV for the first time is a daunting task. It is comparable to learning to drive a car when you were a teenager. Your newly acquired or rented RV will not be the same as your regular SUV. RVs are bigger, heavier, and difficult to maneuver. Accidents could happen if you are not prepared. However, by knowing and following certain handy guidelines, you will be able to breeze through your first RV driving experience.

The following are the things first-time RV drivers should know: 

  1. practice driving your RV
  2. plan ahead
  3. know the limits of your RV
  4. bring RV tools
  5. practice night camping
  6. drive in the far right of the lane
  7. extra caution in difficult terrains

In this article, we will discuss handy guidelines each first-time RV drivers should know. It involves both the actual driving of the RV and traveling by RVs for the first time. You will learn how important being acclimated to your RV system is. Or why RV drivers should exercise more caution in driving RVs than a regular SUV. All that and more will be discussed as follows.

Practice Driving Your RV

Like any endeavor, you must practice driving your RV first before you actually drive it on road trips. Driving an RV is slightly different from driving an SUV because you have to be more careful in driving RVs. RVs are bigger than SUVs, so you have to condition your mind to drive slowly. 

In SUVs, you can afford to go at high speeds because the vehicle itself was designed to be driven that way. In RVs, it wasn’t designed to be driven by people who are in a hurry to get from point A to point B. Before you drive your RV on busy roads, you must have the mindset of an RV driver, one that is just enjoying the trip aboard his secondary home.

Getting used to the power systems of your RV

Before you get on the road, be sure to familiarize yourself with the power systems of your RV. Given that the RV is your secondary home, you will be bringing electrical appliances such as laptops, toasters, and television, which will be powered by one of your RV’s power systems, a 120-volt system. The other power system is a 12-volt system.

RVs typically have 2 power systems, a 120-volt system for electrical appliances, and a 12-volt  battery system similar to what a regular car has. Your 120-volt system will be powering your outlets only when the RV is connected to a land-based outlet, such as when you are in a truck stop. Meanwhile, the 12-volt battery system will not be able to charge your laptops, but it will still be able to power your lights.

Charging your laptop or cooking with your microwave using the 12-volt system will drain the battery of the RV, causing your RV to have engine starting problems. You can avoid this by not using the outlets for laptop charging or any appliances that demand high electricity while you’re on the road. Another solution is to have your generator supply power for your outlets or to have a quieter solution, use solar panels as a source of power.

Practice Backing Up Your RV

Backing up a car is one of the milestones every car driver should achieve and master. Backing up an RV is an entirely different task because RV drivers will often have to estimate where the rear end wheels of the RV are. The distance between the side mirrors and the rear end tires is significant and so without backing cameras, the driver will have to make some estimation.

If you cannot afford to buy backing cameras, always have a navigator, preferably your passenger, that will communicate and guide you as he stands outside the RV. Your target as a driver is to draw an imaginary line where you will align your tires. The imaginary line should at least be 1 feet apart from any obstacle that you may hit, such as walls or hedges.

Always aim for your rear end tire to hit and stay in the imaginary line as much as possible. This way you can park your RV confidently in campsites without being too stressed out. Start slowly and master the technique first, before you start getting too confident and accidentally hit something, or worse, someone.

Know the best places to practice driving your RV

Whether you’re practicing how to start your RV, how to turn your RV at tight corners, or backing up your RV, you must always do so in quiet areas or roads. An excellent place to do this is in empty parking lots and local roads. Practicing in quiet and less busy streets allows you to focus and concentrate more on your necessary RV driving skills, such as turning tight turns. 

Aside from being efficient and conducive to learning, practicing in quiet and less busy roads allows you to avoid being in accidents or from being pressured by a honking motorist. Remember that drivers of regular vehicles get jumpy and nervous whenever they get to be near an RV, especially if he notices that you’re a beginner driver. So to avoid getting into trouble, practice all your basic driving skills in parking lots and local municipal roads first, so you can be comfortable the moment you hit the freeway.

Practice Brakes in your RV

Knowing how to use brakes in RVs properly is a very important thing to learn for beginner RV drivers. RV brakes are different from regular brakes because RVs take a long time before coming to a complete stop. Similar to large truck drivers, RV drivers should always step on the brakes early and not make a habit on sudden brakes. If you suddenly step on your brake, the RVs tires could suddenly skid, causing you to collide with vehicles or any construction on the roads.

Practice by making light but early brakes before making turns or going into a complete halt. In the first place, your RV is not supposed to go at high speeds, so always practice with caution by giving allowance for your brakes to completely slow down. Due to the weight of the RV, brakes cannot immediately stop the momentum being carried by your RV, so always step on the brakes early to avoid getting into trouble

Know Your RVs Tail Swing

Tail swing is all about spatial awareness. The Family Motor Coach Association defines a tail swing as “the distance between the body of the coach behind the pivot point moves in the opposite direction of the front when you turn.” Simply put, it is the phenomenon where the tail portion of your RV swings in the opposite direction of where the RV is turning. Master your tail swing to avoid side bumping poles, trees, walls, or any obstacles whenever you are turning. 

Your tail swing depends on how much rear overhang your RV has, or the distance between the rearmost wheel and the RV’s bumper. For every three feet of distance, target one foot of space as allowance. This is to avoid the overhang from bumping anything that stands on the opposite side of where you are turning. Regardless, the application is still better than theory, practice making turns on cones using your side mirror and have a guide or navigator assess if you are properly managing your tail swing.

Plan Ahead Before Driving Your RV

Mental Preparation

Part of the preparation to drive an RV is mentally preparing yourself. Whether you are intimidated by your RV’s massive size and limited maneuverability, or confident in your basic driving skills, always mentally visualize yourself driving the RV before you even actually drive it. By mentally preparing yourself, you can have pre-thought contingencies in mind before you even need to think of them. For instance, by mentally preparing yourself, you will be able to deal with skidding tires or faulty brakes properly.

Predetermined Campsites

Before you start your road trip with your RV, determine first the campsites you will be visiting, and if possible, make reservations. Nowadays, RV, vans, and even regular vehicles visit campsites for leisurely activities. So campsites, state parks, private parks, and even forest parks are crowded, be sure to carefully plan before you start driving. You do not want to be preoccupied with camp reservations in the middle of the road, that would be a recipe for disaster.

Practice Your Weather Forecasting Skills

Not that you are expected to be a weather forecaster, what is actually desirable is that you do your part in knowing what kind of weather your road trip is going to go through. As early as now, learn where to get your reliable weather forecast so you can prepare for it. For instance, if the weather forecast tells you that the road you’re going to traverse through will be having thick layers of snow, you can prepare for a snow chain for your tires.

If possible, avoid making a habit out of “learning from bad experiences.” You do not want to be trapped somewhere on the freeway with your RV stuck on thick snow. Being prepared is almost 50% of what an RV driver needs to do to avoid getting into accidents. 

Plan for Overnight Parking Contingencies

Parking overnight in the middle of your trip is part of your RV driving experience. Especially for beginner RV drivers, fatigue can play a crucial role in your performance on the road. A tired driver is way more dangerous than a drunk one because a tired driver will not notice that he is not in good condition until he falls asleep on his wheel. 

The best thing to do is rest for a couple of hours, preferably during the night at places like truck stops, gas stations, stores like Walmart, Costco, and Cracker Barrel. Regardless, plan ahead on which of these is conveniently along the route you are taking. Better yet, install RV travel apps first before traveling, such as RVParky and Allstay.

Plan Your Route Ahead 

You need to make a habit out of planning for your main route and alternative routes. Your RV will not be suitable for some routes because of your speed limitations. To avoid being lost due to some on-the-spot route improvisation, determine ahead of time the route you are taking. While you’re at it, plan for alternate routes too in case you come across a road that your RV cannot pass through. 

Know Your RVs Limitations

With regular cars, you do not have to worry much about the vehicle’s dimensions, such as height, length, and weight. However, for RVs, you need to determine the height, weight, and length of your RV because they are heavier, bigger, and longer than normal cars. An RV will usually have a height of 12 feet, which makes low clearances as an issue.

Height of the

RVs stand tall, with some reaching 14 feet in height, not including attachments to the roof, such as solar panels and TV antennas. By knowing the height of your RV, you can avoid going through places like tunnels and underpasses that have low clearances. For instance, fast food drive-thrus have clearances of only 10, so if you’re a beginner RV driver, always be conscious of the height of your RV.

Aside from low clearances of underpasses, tunnels, and overpasses, always watch out for tree limbs too. Tree limbs are one of the major causes of RV roof damages. RV drivers sometimes carelessly back up in trees for shade, forgetting that their RV can sometimes reach branches of the tree.

Do not overload your RV

It may sound basic, but always remember not to overload your RV. Your RV tires are already bearing more than 5000lbs of metal bulk, so be conservative with your cargo. Always watch out for your RV tires maximum weight capacity. Overloaded RVs are the main causes of tire blowouts. Tire blowouts can cause serious harm, especially in downward slopes.

Know your Wheel Cut and Wheel Base

Knowing your wheel cut and wheelbase allows you to master, making turns using your RV. RVs have less maneuverability, so be sure to familiarize yourself with the maximum angle your wheel can turn and the length of your wheelbase. 

Wheel cut refers to the maximum angle to which the tires of your RV can turn. By adding the measurement of your wheelbase, or the distance between the centers of the front and rear tires, you can make adjustments whenever your RV is making turns.

Bring Your Basic RV Tools And Spare Parts

Do your part in researching the basic RV tools that your RV would need. You should not be worrying about RV tools while you’re on the road, always have them prepared before you actually need them. A responsible RV driver will always make sure to have his RV in good condition to avoid getting into accidents that may harm not just him but others. To maintain the RV in tip-top condition, you would need to have handy RV tools ready in the back of your RV.

Your RV toolbox should have a multi-bit screwdriver, hammer, duct tape, flashlight, pocket knife, tire pressure gauge, pliers, adjustable wrench, and socket wrenches. Other valuable tools to have also include zip ties, tape measures, and multimeters. As for spare parts, always have spare RV tires ready to go at the back of your RV.

Practice Night Camping

Part of traveling in your RV is night camping. It is one of the best features of an RV, the option to set up camp almost anywhere. However, you must be able to practice how to night camp. For instance, know that using slides is extremely discouraged in truck stops because truck drivers cannot see them in the dark. You should also know how to position your RV when camping overnight properly.

The necessity of night camping is not only for leisure experiences but also for safety reasons. Sometimes it is better to camp for the night and rest before you resume driving in the morning. Some roads are more dangerous to travel with your RV at night. In the night, you won’t be able to evade drunk and tired drivers, wandering bears, and sometimes thugs, so practice your after-dark setup.

Do not drive when tired

It can never be overstressed how important rest is to any driver, not just RV drivers. Drivers who are tired are the most dangerous drivers you will come across because they can fall asleep at any time on the wheel. With RV drivers, they are driving bigger vehicles with lesser maneuverability, so to have a tired driver take the wheels of an RV, accidents are bound to happen.

Drive in the Far Right 

This one comes as an etiquette guide for beginner RV drivers. Always try to drive on the far right of the freeway. 

In this manner, you can allow smaller vehicles to overtake you. RVs are supposed to go slow because people do not drive it for fast traveling reasons. RVs who stay in the middle of the lane often get blasted by honking vehicles who want to drive past.

Be courteous to others

Your RV is an imposing figure on the freeway. With its massive size and limited maneuverability, other drivers near you are bound to get nervous just by driving behind, beside, or before you. So always make early turn signals so that other motorists get informed that you are turning. Sudden left or right turns can cause accidents because other motorists panic when they see you do that. 

No Tailgating for RVs

Tailgating is never acceptable for any vehicle. Tailgating is when you are driving too close to the vehicle in front of you. This holds especially true to RVs, tailgating using your RV can be very dangerous. For starters, you cannot immediately stop the momentum of your RV by just stepping on the brakes. 

To be sure, maintain at least 400 feet of distance between your front end and the rear end of the vehicle in front of you. Eyeballing the distance may be tricky, but at least try to have a 4-second gap between you and the vehicle you are following. This gives you ample time to hit on your brakes and avoid bumping the vehicle in front of you.

Take Extra Caution In Difficult Terrains

Your RV is designed to drive slow because it is literally a moving house, hence the other name “motorhomes.” Maintain a speed of 40-50mph on state roads while you can go for a  50-60mph speed on interstate roadways. Even if the legal speed limit is still above those figures, always drive slow because accidents can happen. Furthermore, you have to remember that your RV carries things that may fall and break, such as glasses, plates, and appliances.

Acknowledge the Risks on RV driving on Icy and Snowy Roads

As a beginner, you must already be familiar with the risks of driving your RV on roads covered by ice and snow. Icy and snowy roads can cause your RV to skid and slide, which is not just dangerous for you but also for everyone around you. By acknowledging the risks of driving on snowy roads, you are reminded to drive slowly, brake slowly, turn gradually, and apply snow chains and tires when driving in said conditions.

Snowy conditions cause low visibility, especially in snowstorms. Be careful in traveling through these conditions, especially if you are just a beginner RV driver. Use low beams because they are the best lights you can use in these conditions. Winter resistant wiper fluids also help in increasing visibility in snowy conditions.

Acknowledge the Risks on RV driving during torrential rains

Rains also play a factor in the RV driver’s performance on the road. The scariest risk in driving any vehicle in rainy conditions is hydroplaning. This phenomenon happens when vehicle tires fail to scatter the layer of water that builds upon the surface of the road. As a result, a layer of water is sandwiched between the tires and the surface of the road.

Hydroplaning will give the driver zero control over the wheels and tires of any vehicle. For RVs, it is much more dangerous because if you have a 7000lbs metal hunk sliding and floating in the middle of the road, fatal accidents may happen. To avoid hydroplaning entirely, go slower than the usual pace of your RV. Driving slowly gives your tires more time to scatter the water surface, thereby providing traction between the tire and road surface.

Be mindful of environmental obstacles 

A beginner should be familiar with environmental obstacles such as rocks, ice, tree limbs, animal crossings, and even gusts of wind. These obstacles, if disregarded, could get into accidents. For RV drivers, even if you are driving a monstrosity of a vehicle, always do consider these obstacles whenever you are driving. Preventive safety measures are the best way to avoid accidents.


In summary, driving your RV for the first time is both exciting and nerve-wracking. Before you get to enjoy the benefits of driving your RV on the freeways, do your part by following the guidelines because not only do they maximize your enjoyment on the road, they also keep you safe from harm’s way. The most common advice RV owners give to first-time RV drivers is to practice. By practicing, you develop and hone your basic RV skills.

Before you get to be an avid RV driver, practice making those turns first, practice backing up at parking spots and practice the proper braking habits, so that you get to avoid accidents. Regardless, despite looking like a daunting task, once you start mastering the basics, everything else will look easy. 


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