RV Etiquette Part One (of three)

Setting the stage

Since I have been asked twice already to publish an article on RV and camping etiquette, I am actually going to do it in three articles. It seems that the etiquette portion of the RV lifestyle is actually three parts, anyway… that of knowing how to manage your RV, actually driving the RV in public, and then what to do after you arrive at your destination. Although I am trying to keep these articles short, some things just have to be explained the only way I know how, which is why there is no way that all this would fit into one article.

My apologies to those who don’t like long articles, but if you don’t read, you don’t learn!

So why does managing your RV have anything to do with eitquette? Because if you don’t take care of your rig, and don’t know how to drive it to keep it under control and out of situations that other people have to get you out of, then it affects the rest of us. Not that any good Samaritan among us wouldn’t help out a fellow RV’er, but we’d feel better about it knowing that you didn’t cause the problem to begin with!

There is a good reason that some places won’t let vehicles more than ten years old into their park. Too many older RV’s have maintenance issues which their owners have put off for lack of funds, and suddenly they end up doing their own repair work right there in the park. So you may think that driving around in a beat up ’86 “something or other that no one ever heard of” with six colors of paint on it and rust holes big enough to throw a cat through is your business… but it does affect the rest of us! It’s a sure sign that if it looks bad, it also runs bad, and sooner or later, one of us is going to have to take their time to bail you out of a problem. That’s not “polite” to the rest of us!

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not “down” on older rigs… “IF” they have been well taken care of, restored, and look good. Many of those are better than some of the newer ones! But it’s obvious with those, that people have the money to take care of things properly, from keeping their rig in shape, to keeping insurance on it, to having emergency coverage so that if they break down they can call a professional, and basically manage their life under their own means without “begging” for help. That way they don’t have to bother their fellow RV’ers for help, and THAT is the “polite” way to treat other people.

Managing your RV doesn’t just mean the looks of it or the systems on your RV. Your dealer can explain all the buttons, levers and lights. I’m going to talk about the bigger things that your dealer doesn’t… like maneuvering it, parking it, and stopping it. In the next article we will talk about getting it to your destination.

These points of etiquette may not be “all” that you need to know, and if anyone thinks of others, please share in the comment section. Many of these suggestions have been gathered from various other sources, but since I am adding my own comments, let’s just say they were “researched” from many different sources as well as my own experiences.

Since I will also be adding my own experiences, in an effort to remain credible, let me say that I was first driving tractors and grain trucks in the fields on the farm before I was ten years old. Since that time, I have driven go-carts, scooters, six different motorcycles, cars, pick-ups, vans, and every sized vehicle clear up to a 40-foot motorhome with a tow-car behind… and pulled trailers, too. (Sorry, no commercial vehicles or semi-trucks).

I had a driver’s education course at 15-1/2 and have been driving on my own since I was 16. I have driven in all kinds of weather from extremely dry and extremely windy, to extremely wet and slippery, to plowing through 2-foot high snow drifts. I have never had an accident or moving violation of any kind with any of the RV’s I have owned, and even though I have lost count, I’m sure I have well over a million miles of driving behind me. I have never been “afraid” of any vehicle, even when coming down the mountain from Flagstaff in our 40-footer in 6-inches of snow… with no chains and a tow car behind! Or when the brakes failed on that same vehicle east-bound down the mountain from 9,000-foot Powder River pass in Wyoming! Or when a 30-foot vehicle trailer came loose and started floating around behind me on the safety chains at 60 MPH while passing a semi-truck on a the toll road… at night!

Are you afraid?

My feeling is that if you are “afraid” of a vehicle, then it controls you, rather than you controlling it. People fear what they cannot control, or don’t understand, and that’s dangerous for them as well as for anyone else around them! Learn to take charge of your vehicle and control it under any conditions, and you will be safer yourself, as well as being able to protect those around you. Don’t buy any vehicle that makes you afraid to drive it! That’s an accident waiting to happen!

If you can’t even drive your family car without feeling “afraid” of it, and are one of those people who can’t think fast enough to avoid a collision, or would simply throw up your hands in front of your face and scream because someone pulled out in front of you, then please… get out of your vehicle, back away from it, and tear up your driver’s license. The public roads are no place for you! And buying an RV is the last thing you should do!

It has been said that getting there is half the fun. Put another way, “Happiness is not a destination, but a way of traveling.” So leave the road rage at home, learn to relax, and enjoy the trip. I was going to say slow down, but many would take that to extremes, more so than they already do! Let’s say instead, to keep it “at or slightly under” the speed limit, without causing problems for other drivers.

ALL RV’s are capable of normal highway speeds. If you don’t feel safe with driving normal highway speeds, then maybe you should ask yourself “why” you don’t feel safe. Is it your fear of driving something larger than you are used to, or is it because of something to do with the rig? Or a third option might be that you are trying to save money on fuel. If it’s your rig, then you definitely need to make it roadworthy first! If it’s fuel, then maybe you need to consider something more affordable, so you don’t endanger all those people trying to go around you when they shouldn’t!

If the problem is you, and you can’t get used to driving your rig at normal highway speeds, then you shouldn’t be on the road with it! If an emergency situation comes up, such as swerving to avoid another vehicle, or stopping in an emergency, you need to know how to handle that rig. Constantly “babying” your rig and your own driving habits is not going to teach you how it will handle in an emergency. Usually, driving it normally over a long period of time will get you use to how it handles.

If you are buying a new rig that you aren’t used to, the last place to test it is in heavy traffic! Take it out on a little-used back road somewhere and see how it handles, both in swerving and stopping, so you know what to expect when you have to do it in traffic. That’s the only way you will learn the “feel” of the rig is by “doing”.  Just do it in a safe place first! And ALWAYS wear your seat belt!

Handling

Handling doesn’t just mean how it takes bumps in the road.  It also relates to turning and parking. If you are inexperienced, find a huge empty parking lot somewhere. Having parking islands in it is OK. That will get you used to making corners without running over something. Two things you need to know is

(1) what your turning radius is (not in exact feet, but by the “feel” of it), and

(2) how much your rear overhang is going to swing out when making a tight turn.

One way to check that is to line up with something on the pavement… a long stripe, or even a low straight curb. Put the left side of your rig even with it. Then turn your wheels all the way to the right and then slowly pull forward as sharply as you can. Having another person at the rear corner to mark how far your overhang swings out over your line will be easier and more accurate than watching it yourself. The distance it swings out may surprise you… as well as other poeple in the left lane in traffic!

Negotiating some tight turns in an empty parking lot will give you a feel for how tight your rig can turn, and also tell you how far forward you may have to go to clear the corner before turning your steering wheel. If you turn that wheel too soon, you could (at the bare minimum) drive over a curb and ruin a wheel, or (at worst) take out the side of your rig by hitting an obstacle. You NEED to be watching your mirrors on both sides when making a turn of ANY kind!

We had a 40-foot motorhome with roughly 15 feet of overhang behind the rear axles. In a tight right-hand turn, the back end swung out nearly three feet! Some trailers might have even more of an overhang! A short wheelbase on a motorhome can be great for keeping the turning radius smaller, but it can be a serious hazard for those next to you!

Let’s say you are in the right lane of a narrow five-lane boulevard (very common in cities today). You want to turn right onto a two lane side street. There are cars in the inside lane to your left, and cars facing the intersection on the street to your right. What do you do?

Although it may ruffle the feathers of those behind you, the safest thing may be to wait until the street to your right clears, so that you can pull forward slowly and make a wider turn… just as semi-trucks have to do. If you simply pull forward enough to clear the inside corner, and then crank your steering wheel hard right to make a tight turn, your back end could wipe out a vehicle in the lane to your left! Bad idea!

In such a situation, if you knew that you were going to make the turn, you would ALWAYS use your turn signals way ahead of time (100 feet is recommended) to let others know your intentions. Stay as far as you can to your left without going into the other lane. This will allow you the maximum turning radius, but keep in mind, it will also put your back end closer to that inside lane!

Having a sign near the back left corner of your rig is advised, also, telling others to watch for wide turns. Such signs are on many semi-trucks and available through most truck stops.

Once you start into the intersection, ALWAYS move slowly. Pull forward, while at the same time, slightly to the right. This will allow that back end to start its outward swing to the left, while starting the wheels moving to the right, and (if traffic is moving) give other drivers enough time to also stay clear of it. If the traffic in the left lane can’t move for any reason, then watch your mirrors so you know where your back end is in proximity to the other vehicles. You may have to come to a stop to wait until people move.

The safer idea for any large vehicle having to make a tight right-hand turn is to put your signal on well ahead of time, and maneuver into the middle of both lanes to keep traffic behind you, rather than at the side. Some may not like it, but better that, than a bumper wiping out their passenger door! This also increases your turning radius to make it easy to make that right turn. “Usually” other drivers will be smart enough to see your intentions and stay clear of your back end as it swings wide.

On a trailer, seeing what the back end is doing may be hard to do, as the trailer may block your mirror vision as you turn. However, there are wide-angle rear view cameras available that can be attached to the back of your trailer and be monitored in the cab of your truck. It’s just a matter of getting in the habit of watching your monitor as you turn, rather than a mirror. If it were me, I would not own ANY kind of trailer without a rear camera on it!

If you can wait until traffic clears on the street you are turning onto, or it at least stops short of the intersection, waiting is advised. If you can’t wait, then simply making your turn very slowly will allow other drivers to accommodate you (if they can). If they see what you are doing, and are courteous, they will stay back from the intersection to give you room to make the turn.

Brakes

The other thing you need to know is how long it will take you to stop the rig. You’ll have to leave the empty parking lot and find a deserted stretch of road to test this. Make sure everything is secure in the trailer as well as your vehicle. Start out somewhat slow… like maybe 30 MPH, and do a panic stop, preferably without sliding the wheels.

If you have electric brakes, this is also a good time to adjust the setting on the controller. If your trailer brakes lock up and your truck doesn’t, then they are too tight. You need to back off the adjustment until they work the way they should… basically the same amount of stopping power on the trailer as the truck has. If working properly, your truck shouldn’t even know that it has a trailer behind it when it comes to stopping. Too much stopping pressure on either vehicle will make the brakes wear out sooner.

Keep trying panic stops like this until you can do it from highway speeds, and pay attention to something in, or along the road in front of you as a target. You need to know how far away something is, so that you know you can stop before you get there! For being in moving traffic, in every driving manual I have ever seen, the common rule of thumb (for passenger cars) is to NEVER follow ANYONE closer than one car length for every 10 MPH of speed. In an RV, consider it “one RV length” for every 10 MPH of speed. Even then, depending on the size of your vehicle, its brakes, and how much it weighs… that may not even be enough! Allow extra stopping room… ALWAYS!

Backing up

As long as your rig is safe for highway speeds, you know what to expect of it, and you can learn to negotiate turns with it, you’re better than half way there. The rest of the problems are behind you… literally.

The only other issue, especially with trailers, is learning to back them up. Sooner or later, you are going to have to do that. Not every place you go will have pull throughs to accommodate you. Again, you may need to practice in that big empty parking lot. Most people aren’t going to have cones availabe, but you can use the striped parking spots as targets to back into. If there are no stripes, then pick out a stationary object at the edge of the lot, and practice backing your trailer so that the object is just visible at the rear left corner of your rig. Think of the obstacle as a utility pedestal, because that’s where many of  them will be in any park you pull into.

Don’t cheat by starting at the middle of the lot and backing up all the way to the edge! When you get out in public places, you will be expected to make 90-degree turns from a narrow street into tight parking spots no longer than your rig. So watch your target off to the side, drive past it far enough to make the turn, and then turn tight when backing up! That’s the only way you will learn to do it!

Preferably, have someone on the outside with a walkie talkie so that you can communicate with them. Keep practicing until you can pick out a parking spot and back your trailer into it between the lines, or have that object right where you want it… EVERY time. If you have a rear camera, that can help immensely to know how far to back up, or else your “spotter” can guide you.

If you are a “loner”, then I highly suggest NOT buying a large trailer! If you have no one to be your spotter, you are far better off with a driven rig with a back-up camera on it.

We had a rear camera on our 40-foot motorhome, and I can assure you that both my wife and I, by ourselves, could back into any parking place, and stop within an inch of where we needed to be… just by watching the camera! If you can’t do that, then you aren’t in control of your rig! It’s controlling you!

If you don’t know how to back up with a trailer, then you shouldn’t be on the road with it! There may be times when an accident, traffic jam or construction may force you to back up to get out of a situation, and the highway crew or the police are not going to do it for you! It’s YOUR responsibility to know how to drive your own vehicle!

One final note on backing up, if you are planning on buying a motorized RV, and pulling a tow car on all four wheels, there are some things you need to know:

(1) If you plan on towing another vehicle on all four wheels, make sure you have a car that is factory recommended for towing that way. Just because you put a car in neutral doesn’t make it towable. Why? Because in many transmissions, the lubrication and cooling for the transmission is handled by the gears in the front end… NOT the back! Putting it in neutral and letting only the back gears spin with the drive shaft takes away the means of providing that lubrication and cooling, and will eventually burn up the bearings and other parts!

Any time you tow a vehicle on all four wheels, make sure it is either

(a) approved for such use, or

(b) has a means of disconnecting the drive line completely from the transmission.

Some four-wheel transfer cases will do that, or you can have an after-market disconnecting means installed, or as third option,

(c) you can have an after market transmission pump installed that will keep the fluid circulating using 12-volt power from your motorhome to run the pump. Don’t worry, they’re wired to an alarm under your dash, so that if the pump stops circulating for ANY reason… believe me… you’ll know it!

We have towed many “towable” vehicles on all four wheels, and have also used a transmission pump on one car that had an automatic transmission. Both methods worked fine, and we never had a problem. We much prefer that method over a “dolly”. You still can’t back up with a “dolly”, it costs just as much money, and having to drag a “dolly” around just means one more piece of equipment to maintain and store.

The same goes for trailers made for carrying other vehicles. Yes, you can back up with a trailer like that, but the extra cost, maintenance, weight and storage is not worth the price unless you have extreme circumstances, such as carrying an antique or show vehicle on it!

(2) Any vehicle that has steerable wheels on it, CANNOT be pushed backward more than about ten feet without someone controlling the steering! Why? For proper control of steering, wheels cannot simply be pivoted on a vertical axis. Just as on a bicycle, the axis has to be pitched forward slightly, called “caster”. (Leaning in or out at the top is called “camber” and the degree of being parallel with each other in rolling forward is called “toe-in” (or out, as the case may be)). It is the “caster” that will cause the wheels to turn to their maximum one way or the other if you try to move the vehicle backward.

This can easily be compensated by someone being in the car and actually steering it in the direction it needs to go, but can be tricky. Usually if you are forced into a “back-up” situation where you have to move more than about ten feet, it’s best to unhook your tow vehicle and move it out of the way.

We were lucky with our 40-foot front gas engine motorhome, and only had to disconnect once. We pulled into a gas station with a quick-mart and restaurant attached. We had to pull straight in facing the restaurant. There was room in front of the restaurant to make our exit when we pulled in, but before I could get that 95-gallon tank filled, the lunch crowd came in! Of course, no one in a normal vehicle is going to give a thought to anyone in a huge RV, and they all parked in front of the restaurant so we couldn’t make the turn! We had no choice but to unhook our tow car, back it out of the way, and then back the motorhome out and get it turned around, and then reconnect the tow car again. Not a “real” big deal, as it only took about ten minutes with our Blue-Ox quick connect self-aligning tow bar, but you DO run into those kinds of situations, no matter how careful you are!

Summary

OK, we have covered “managing” your rig, which also goes along with not being afraid of it. We have also covered the handling of it, which also covers maneuvering, parking, stopping and backing up. We’ve discussed how this relates to RV etiquette. Being “polite” with your RV means that you shouldn’t get into situations, accidents, getting stuck, breaking down, blocking other people in, or anything else that would cause other people to have to go out of their way to accommodate you and your problems.

So, now, if you feel like you’re not afraid of your RV, and can get along with yourself (and hopefully your passengers), the next step is to get out in public with it, and know how to get along with the other drivers on the road in other ways. So far, all you’ve learned is how to take care of it, stop, turn and back up, all of which you need to know before you EVER get out on a “real” road with it!

We’ll cover that in part two, and then finally we’ll talk about how to get along with others when camping, from crowded campgrounds to the BLM areas where you don’t think there’s another soul within 25 miles!

If you want to run around naked out there… have at it… but we still care about the plants, the animals, and how you leave it for the next guy! Remember, your mother doesn’t work there!

As always, if anyone knows anything I missed, feel free to add it in the comments.