Traveling & Hiking in the US SW #3: The Ins & Outs of RV’ing  (Spring 2011)


Being on the Road

The fundamentals of driving the bulky 25’ RV were surprisingly easy--it was basically like driving a car. The Ford E450 series chassis handled well: the steering was positive, the automatic transmission was smooth, and the braking was predictable.

What made the RV challenging to drive was that everything behind the driver’s seat was so big. Turns had to be made wide--as in using 2 lanes if possible--so the dual rear wheels ‘way back there’ didn’t take out fire hydrants and adjacent cars. Exiting a driveway that was a few inches higher than the street required going very slowly and at an acute angle rather than at 90˚ to smooth-out the transition and to avoid dragging the tail.

There was a terrifying blind spot on the right side, which made merging to the right or making a right turn onto a narrow road a leap of faith. Even the passenger did not have a clear view of the space a little behind the cab on the right side. The death-defying right turn was made by slowing, hoping that any invisible traffic would pass, and then making the turn. More than once we noticed the vehicle behind us was waiting rather than passing when we signaled a right hand merge--clearly they knew we couldn’t see and protected the lane for us. Our waves to signal our appreciation couldn’t be seen but we sent our deep gratitude to them via the ethers anyway.

Both driving and riding in the RV were very fatiguing and 100 miles was our happy daily limit and we didn’t even do that very often. The extra stresses of terribly slow acceleration, low cruising speeds, and the blind spots were part of it, but the jostling was also a factor. We felt every single bump, groove, notch, and divot in the pavement, and not just once. We’d feel the front tires hit, and the back tires hit, and the rebound from both. On anything other than smooth pavement, we were always shaking and jiggling. In addition, dishes, pans, and containers of food would constantly clink, clank, and bang in unison, further echoing our bumps, as we literally rumbled along down the road.

If we had been less than meticulous in securing the interior for the journey, there would be a chorus of punitive noises such as an unlatched drawer sliding out, banging at its limit, and coming off of its track; the shower door slamming closed; and any books on the dinette seat would go sailing to the floor. And once was enough to have the cutting board recessed in the sink became airborne and fall 4’ into the bottom of the stairwell.  But we were doing well--unlike others we didn’t get underway with stairs still out, an antenna up, the slide out, or hook-up hoses and cables still attached to the campground services.

Often when we stopped driving, we’d both remain seated for 5 minutes. We needed the recovery time to unwind and relax; we needed to enjoy the sudden onset of quiet and stillness before moving on to potential surprises at the campgrounds.

Campground Ambiance

We never quite knew what to expect from a given campground until we got there because the pleasantness of them was all over the map. They ranged from lovely forest venues to vast gravel fields with nothing but the knee-high services posts to break-up the monotony.

The flatten gravel pit looking campgrounds were often members of the KOA chain and frequently were sited adjacent to a buzzing freeway, perhaps flanked by a busy train line, making them uninviting for more than a single night’s stay. 

We slowly came to understand that the close proximity to the freeway was a huge advantage for the folks driving bus-sized RV’s that were also towing a full-sized passenger car or a van--thoroughfares  were the only comfortable places for them to be. For us, these noisy campgrounds were what was available when we needed to stop so we focused on their better features, like hook-ups and at least some electronic access to the outside world.

The state and federal campgrounds were the most likely ones to be soothing to our eyes and our ears because they generally were in rural or wilderness areas. Some of the state campgrounds had modestly priced hook-ups and showers, services we never saw at their federal counterparts.

The Chiricahua Nat’l Monument campground in Arizona was sited in one of those sweet, idyllic settings in a small forest surrounded by grasslands. Lovely and with hiking out our door, we would have stayed a week were it not for the lack of hook-ups. We could go 3-4 nights without hook-ups but here, as often was the case, it also meant we had no cell phone, TV, or internet access, which was more isolated than we cared to be for a week.

One semi-private toilet each for men & women.

A couple of RV parks had bonus bathrooms--a half dozen complete bathrooms for the use of one person at a time. Just like at home, in these bathrooms you had a toilet, sink, mirror, and shower all to yourself instead of in a locker-room setting. Curiously, one campground with 76 slots for trailers had a single toilet in the men’s room and 1 in the women’s room and these only had shower curtains as a privacy barrier. And this was the most expensive campground out of a half dozen in the immediate area.


Many of the private RV parks had a very similar, plain feel to them, but then there were the surprises. A very budget-priced place near Albuquerque, New Mexico had a western themed decor in their large, welcoming common room and everyone was invited to join in the afternoon card games. A couple of places were also Horse Hotels, which we didn’t investigate.

In one area, a free breakfast or free cup of coffee was the extra draw at the RV parks. And one national monument offered a free shuttle bus ride to the top of the hiking area for the first 14 people who signed up each day. Curiously, only about half of the RV parks that advertised a rec room/pavilion allowed us access to the space to do our morning exercises on cold mornings. One denied having such a space even though it was listed in their paid advertising as a feature.

Several campgrounds had beater-bikes to rent for a small fee and one had sporty recumbents that rented for $10 an hour. I quickly learned that it paid to snoop around a bit as sometimes there were very pleasant surprises.

The Range of Services

The pricing structures at the campgrounds were challenging to decode and the options came in peculiar combinations. The top end of “full hook-ups” were the hotel-class of campgrounds, with spacious shower rooms, a laundromat, satellite TV, wifi, and perhaps a welcoming common room for us to use, which ran $35-$45 per night. We didn’t actually experience the bottom end, which is ‘dry camping’ or boon-docking, where you park on the side of the road and only have what you have brought with you. Next up from boon-docking was the National Forest level of services, with pit toilets, totable-potable water, and a Camp Host for a sense of order and security, which ranged from $10-18 per night.

The mid-range places could have any combination of services. Unexpectedly, the Bandelier National Monument campground had the addition of the highly valued central sewer dump and a single fresh water tap for filling RV tanks, which would extend our ability to stay there from a comfortable maximum of 3 nights to indefinitely. State parks were often a notch up from the national parks because they often had the option of water and electric hooks with a central dump/fresh water facility. Next in the spectrum were full hook-ups, but perhaps no central shower/toilet room. And then it was the top, with full hooks ups and the electronic links to the outside world.

A fun, western-themed decor in the common room.

One very rude surprise was a full-service private campground that charged extra for showers. We’d already paid $35 for the privilege of staying at the less-than-stellar facility and then to be dinged for the showers was too much. Even worse, I paid for 5 minutes and it took over 2 minutes for the hot water to arrive. I put in another coin to add time but no, I needed to pay for another full 5 minutes to add time at this point, which I hadn’t brought with me. Grrr.... Bill opted to shower in our rig that night and they lost our business on our return trip through the area.

We were dumbfounded that almost 100% of the national, state, and private campgrounds would not allow air drying of laundry outside one’s vehicle. No clothes lines, clothes racks, or even towels draped on the truck were permitted and only 2 places in 2 months had a public clothes line (1 unfortunately coincided with a lay-over because of snow). Beats me as to why, but I found it incredible in these times of heightened energy conservation.  We, like everyone else, plugged the machines to spin our clothes in a dryer at the RV park laundromats, letting our technical fabrics complete their drying by decorating the knobs and hooks inside our rig.

Campground Prices

We were slow to understand how variable the pricing structures could be at some campgrounds because our early experiences were at the places where there was little to know. At those establishments the fees were as straightforward as they seemed, like “$15 without hook-ups, $23 with hook-ups” or 1 posted rate whether you walked in with a tent on your back or dragged in small city on 14 wheels. 

This neighbor was hauling a professional barbecue behind his rig.

Other campgrounds didn’t post their charges but instead asked you a string of questions, turned the crank, and then presented you with a price. Typical questions were: what kind of rig (motor home/trailer/camper/van); the length of your rig; 30 amp or 50 amp; how many people; how many dogs; how many slide-outs; is there a towed vehicle; and do you want a sewer hook-up, wifi, or cable TV?  Some of your answers were used to select a suitable site for you, others ran your bill up, but you didn’t know which were which.

Late in our trip we discovered that at the overpriced KOA campground in Flagstaff we could have saved $8/night by using the dump station instead of having a sewer hook-up at our site....except that they didn’t allow use of those sites until May...grrrr.  Another place gave us a $2 discount for a site in the “adults only” section, which seemed like it should cost more.

It was difficult to hold a winning hand in these slight-of-hand games because every place had a different pricing scheme. Additionally, we were often making reservations on the road from our cell phone with fluctuating reception. Many required a non-refundable prepayment, so the price was already fixed before we arrived.  The occasional shell game with prices was irritating and frustrating and a matter about which we’ll be more aggressive in managing the next time.

Next Time

Only hours into this our first RV adventure, we were busy establishing a rig wish-list for a future trip. Pulling a trailer with a separate vehicle had immediate appeal because always hauling our heavy, bulky home with us was a literal and figurative drag. Being able to ditch a trailer at a campground and zip around to trail heads and grocery stores without it would be a huge savings in time, money, and aggravation. But as the weeks went by, the hassles of towing even a short trailer looked burdensome too. “Trade-offs” became a recurrent theme as we tried to imagine our perfect rig.

We also quickly decided that something less than our 25‘ (24.5’) RV could be a fine choice. We had more living and storage space than we needed and we’d happily give some of it up for a rig that was a more compact in traffic. But our guess about the “slide-out” dinette was right-on: it was a winner that we wouldn’t give up (or an equivalent amount of floor space) under any circumstance. Chats with neighbors without a slide-out only reinforced our bias. The ability to pop out a 6‘ length of built-in furniture turned a tunnel-like living area into a more pleasing squarish space: enough more room to make exercises on the floor look inviting and to both be standing up at the same time without bumping into each other.

The queen-sized mattress and several big windows in our RV were key to not feeling like sardines and would be high priorities in the future. We had thought that an outside awning was essential but we never used ours. Part of the appeal was as a ‘porch’ to shelter the front door in bad weather but the awnings are flimsy and can’t be left open in windy conditions, which were very frequent on our journey.

Some of our space saving preferences were too far from industry standards to be realistic options but they provided a good exercise in needs assessment, things like having a 1 burner stove instead a 3, and a smaller refrigerator and a bigger freezer instead of the opposite combination. We talked with a number of RV’ers that were storing food in their oven because like us, it was about the journey, not the cooking.

Our first days in Red Rocks without any services taught us to shop for a rig with generous gray water capacity. Ours had a much bigger tank for fresh water than gray water and we needed the reverse ratio. At least in rented rigs, it’s not recommended to drink the water in the fresh water tank but to carry in bottled or campground water.  The need to bring in additional water meant that our fresh water tank could have been half the size--capacity we’d liked to have had in our gray water storage so we could take Navy showers (a step-up from a sponge bath) at places like Red Rocks.

Bypassing the gray water tank by shampooing outdoors.

It wasn’t long before we were leaning towards a truck camper as being the best compromise for us to own and we lingered in Albuquerque specifically to visit the small RV show there. The brand of campers we hoped to see wasn’t represented but the big pay-off for going to the show was talking with fellow shoppers. Two couples, both a bit our senior, currently owned both a camper and a trailer or 5th wheel. Unprompted, both said that they preferred their less-spacious campers for impulse-driven outings and when exploring new areas because of the ease of handling.  They only took their trailers out for extended trips, especially if they’d be parked in one spot for a long time--good insights from voices of experience.

Tricks of the Trade

As with any new undertaking, there were the textbook lessons to be learned and then there were the little things learned by experience or from the elders. When invited in to admire a man’s small trailer at Lake Mead, we immediately noticed his little electric heater. Having hauled one with us on our touring bikes for years, we needed no explanation as to why he had it.

Weeks later when we hit a second stretch of sub-freezing weather, we dashed out (as best one can in an RV) and bought our own mini heater. We were in Albuquerque and we had an electrical hook-up to power our propane heater fan but the heater sounded like after burners on a jet. There was no way I’d be able to sleep with that loud noise at the foot of our bed turning on and off throughout the night, hence the appeal of the little electric we called “Chili Pepper’. Weeks later in Sedona and Flagstaff where the overnight temps were in the mid-teens and low 20’s and it was snowing, we were sooo glad to have been tipped-off to the wisdom of owning an electric heater. It made being housebound an extra day while the roads cleared so much more comfortable (and quieter).

“Dispersed camping” is government-speak for boon-docking or camping without services on national forest or Bureau of Land Management property. We learned about the concept at Chiricahua National Monument where it was highly competitive to score a campsite and the losers were advised that they could do “dispersed camping,” or camp on the side of the road in very specific places. We were never able to boon-dock because the practice happened to be restricted in the areas where it had some appeal to us, like in the national forest around Sedona. But it is a trick that we are glad to know about for future trips.

“Good to know about but hard to implement” also applied to tracking down service stations or other locations that provide free or inexpensive use of their sewage dump facilities--important for willing or forced boon-dockers. One national forest campground gave us a list in answer to a different question, but it highlighted that the services were around if you knew to ask.

Our Trip Expenses

At the end of our first week in the RV we estimated that our daily cost would average at least $100/day for 2. The daily starting price for our RV rental was a little over $30 but it was $57 per day by the time all of the extra fees (mileage, insurance, folding chair rental) were added in and that included several discounts because of our long rental period. (Had we rented the rig the next size down, the daily rate would have been the same.)

Nightly campground fees ranged from $10-18 at the low end for ‘totable potable’ water and pit or flush toilets with TP, to $25-43 for full hook-ups, hot showers in the community washroom, wifi, and an onsite laundromat. It took skillful dodging on Bill’s part to avoid paying $45-50 for swimming pools and playgrounds that we had no need for. He shopped with an eye for cable TV and free wifi, which were often available at the mid-range places.

Gasoline for driving of course was a wild card, with some days being zero driving. A 100 mile driving day might run $30 in fuel costs and gas prices were rapidly rising to the $4/gallon point during our travels. At the end of the first week we’d only bought gas once and so computing our mileage was premature though we got less than the advertised 10-12 miles/gallon.

By the end of the trip we had paid about $45 for propane for heating, cooking, hot water, and running our refrigerator. Incidental expenses for being in the RV were minimal, like paying once for a gray water dump, buying a quart of oil for the engine, and purchasing a new regulator for the water hose. We bought a few ‘luxury’ items, like a door mat, small electric heater, and sheets cut for a deeper mattress than the sheets we brought from home. And Bill purchased an inverter for running 120 volt electronics off the battery and a cable so we could hook-up to the  RV park satellite or cable feeds when available.

The best news in these numbers was that they were in dollars instead of Euros, with Euro’s being our primary currency for the better part of the last 10 years.  With the Euro/$ currently being in the 1€/$1.40 or higher range, we could easily spend $100/day on lodging for the 2 of us in Europe, depending upon the region.

Our very rough estimate was that our expenses for low-mileage travel in a rented RV in the US and cyclo-touring in Europe (at the current unfavorable fuel prices and exchange rates) were comparable. For both styles of travel we almost exclusively ‘self-catered’ or prepared our meals from food purchased in supermarkets. In Europe we paid museum and archeological site entrance fees; in the US we paid to enter the National Parks and Monuments and to park at many trailheads. Very different experiences but both with an outdoor, fitness focus.

Next Up: The 4th piece in our series of 7 about hiking and traveling in the US southwest is about the surprising number of similarities between touring in an RV and touring on bicycles--the similar cost of the 2 modes of travel was only the first of many parallels.

Hiking around Tucson, Arizona (look below for the cluster of standing ‘ribs’ from a decayed cactus):