How I went from hailing taxis to exploring the country in a Winnebago—and how you can, too.
Let me preface this entire article by telling you that I am NOT a camper. Even though I grew up in Colorado camping, hiking fourteeners, and spending every weekend in the mountains, it did not rub off. I’ll take a five-star hotel in some far-flung country over any other accommodation any day of the week—and won’t think twice.
With that said, in a pandemic, your five-star hotel options are quite limited, as are your flying options to foreign countries. And, as a travel writer, cabin fever is a very real thing, and the need to go somewhere, anywhere (just to get away!), was of the utmost importance.
With that in mind, I turned to the idea of renting a recreational vehicle–yes, an RV–and venturing off into the wild. So, this is the comprehensive guide for any city slicker like me on how to rent an RV, what to bring, what not to do, and how to survive traveling in a pandemic in a hotel on wheels.
Recommended Fodor’s Video
Can you rent RVs? What do they cost? What kind do I get? What the hell is a slide? These are all very important questions.
First, renting the actual RV was a lot easier than I thought it would be. I turned to Outdoorsy, which is like an Airbnb that moves. Outdoorsy gives you a million options for the type of vehicle you want like motorhomes, travel trailers, campervans, and more. They match you up with someone in your area, you chat, they bring you the trailer and show you how it works, and you’re off!
My requirements were mainly that I didn’t want to have contact with any other human during the duration of my trip, so I would need a full bathroom, full bedroom, and full kitchen. Judge all you want, but there is a pandemic going on.
With that said, Outdoorsy connected me with a 2020, 25-foot Mercedes Benz Thor Motor Coach Freedom Elite. This baby came loaded with two TVs, water and electric hookups, a queen-size bed, a full slide, toilet and shower, and a kitchen with a microwave, fridge, and stovetops. The cost was around $250 or so a night and, depending on add-ons, can be more (add-ons include not having to handle the sewage—I highly recommend this add-on).
You might think, “Oh, of course, he rented a Mercedes RV.” But, let me disabuse you of the idea that this Mercedes was some ultra-lux RV with spinning hubs and gold-plated toilets. It was not. Just look at the photo at the top of the article. It was just the engine. The rest was the same as the Ford Thor Motor Coach (though I was hoping for more Mercedes amenities).
Glossary of RV Terms
You might want to brush up on your RV vocabulary before deciding on a rental. Knowing these terms was imperative for selecting the right RV for my trip and needs.
Slide: When you get your RV, it might seem really smooshed and compacted. The slide is literally one side of the RV that expands outward and allows you to have things like queen-sized beds, kitchen tables, and room to go to the bathroom. You’ll want an RV with a slide.
Hookups: RV campsites either have hookups or they don’t. Hookups are for electricity, water, sewage, and sometimes cable TV and internet. When you arrive at a campsite, you can literally plug your RV in so you can use the site’s water, electricity, and sewage systems, which allows you to conserve your own water. If you’re precious like me, you want ALL the hookups.
AMPs: Your electric hookups come in either 30 amps or 50 amps—that’s the electric current running to and from your RV and the campsite. Make sure you know your RV hookups because you’ll be upset if you arrive at a site and they’re running a different current–very upset.
Gray Water/Black Water: There are two tanks that collect all the water you use. Your sink and your shower end up in the gray water tank. Your number one’s and two’s end up in the black water tank. When those tanks are full (cue Randy Quaid from Christmas Vacation), you have to empty them. Or, you can pay Outdoorsy an extra fee to empty them for you at the end. If you’re familiar with the phrase, “penny wise, pound foolish,” you’ll understand why paying the extra amount is worth it for your sewage dumping.
Where to Go and How to Go
For the uninitiated, there are thousands of RV parks across the United States. What I didn’t realize is that RVing isn’t a small group of travelers hopping around forests and living off the grid; if you want to RV and book a campsite and visit some of America’s natural wonders, you need to plan ahead. Like weeks, if not months ahead. RV parks get booked up quickly, especially in the summer, especially on weekends, especially during holidays, and most especially during these COVID times.
Luckily, there are a ton of resources out there. I mainly used Find RV Parks, which is an amazing website that will tell you everything you need to know about an RV park, including hookups, cable, waste management, and more. Kampgrounds of America (KOA) is another helpful site, with the largest system of privately-owned campgrounds in the U.S.
For my trip, I wanted to see some trees. Not just any trees, but the biggest trees in the world. I ended up booking a campsite just outside the Sequoia National Park, which boasts the largest tree in the world (The General Sherman), and the most majestic redwoods you’ll ever see. It’s almost worth hooking up your sewer lines on your own. Almost.
The campsite was next to a river, had room for a couple dozen RVs, tents, and cabins with picnic tables and fire pits for making those s’mores. And at night, you can see a million stars, so it’s not bad at all.
What to Bring
Depending on your RV rental, you might have to bring a lot of stuff or nothing at all. Usually, it’ll be somewhere in between. My RV came with bedding and pillows and a few kitchen appliances, but for the rest, I was on my own.
I basically treated my RV trip like I was preparing for the apocalypse. Dramatic? Yes. But being overly prepared paid off.
The thing to remember is that you want everything to be easy to pack, easy to use, and easy to carry. For kitchen stuff, I brought some GSI goodies, like their fold-into-itself pots and pans and their Dopp-kit-sized kitchen set that includes a chef’s knife, spatula, utensils, cheese grater, and more. For knives, I brought some Opinel’s which fold up nicely, come with a mini cutting board, and can ward off angry animals or RVers in a fight. For packing food, I used Smelly Proof bags, great for keeping bears away. And if you’re going to be cooking outside and don’t want to fashion your own fire pit, you’ll want something to cook on, so I brought a portable Breeo Outpost, which is like having your own grill that sticks into the ground.
Some other essential on-the-go camping gear that was infinitely helpful was the Nomadix towels, which are compact and dry almost instantly, perfect for a quick river dip or RV shower. There’s a LuminAid lantern that packs into nothing, is solar-powered, lights up your whole campsite, and even charges your phone. Oh, and if you are by a river, there are a billion mosquitos, so I brought some Sawyer insect repellent that claims it can stop Zika.
Also, because I’m paranoid, I brought a thousand filled water bottles, food for a week, multiple bottles of wine, some instant Canyon Coffee, and more toilet paper than any one person would need for a year. But everything fit snugly in the RV, and I was prepared for just about any inconvenience…or zombie apocalypse.
Finally, bring surgical gloves. You will have to fill up with gas (make sure you know whether it’s diesel or not!), and you might have to touch some sewage stuff. Bring gloves, masks, sunscreen, hats, etc. Also, the temperature change between the forest and the campsite was 40 degrees Fahrenheit, so bring both warm and cold weather clothing and always pack a swimsuit! Last but not least, bring an all-purpose tool like a Leatherman for cutting, twisting, fixing, and even just opening a beer bottle. You’re camping, and you never know what can go wrong.
I rented an RV for three nights, drove to Sequoia National Park, saw the most unbelievable trees on the planet, ran into a black bear, ate like it was the end times, and even figured out how to hook up my RV like a pro. Would I do it again? The answer is, “it depends.” It depends on when (non-holiday, non-weekend, non-heatwave, non-fire season). It depends on the type of vehicle (an actual Mercedes level of luxury and amenities). And it depends on where (beach, forest, desert—anything with a spectacular view).
Just remember, there are a ton of costs you have to factor in—buying stuff to bring, gas (the RV got 12 miles to the gallon and I probably spent close to $150 for the trip), upcharges (not touching sewer lines), and more. Would I rather spend $300 a night in a five-star hotel? Of course. But was getting out of the city, away from COVID concerns, and seeing some of America’s natural beauty on wheels worth it? 100% yes.