Driving an RV is little more difficult than driving a private car. You simply need to remember a few basic and very obvious facts: it's bigger, wider, longer and higher, and probably slower on acceleration. The actual driving is probably easier, as various power assistance features will be fitted on steering and brake systems to reduce strain on the driver. Other driving systems fitted to modern RV's include rear-view cameras, reversing sensors, GPS, cruise control, automatic gearboxes and even automated engine management systems that 'talk back to the factory' to monitor efficiency and ensure proper working.
We can quickly see the difference in size between the RV and a small town car or even a large station wagon. However, remember that RV's differ considerably in size. There are the 40-foot by 8-foot-plus coach-style RV's suitable for lengthy winter and all-season tours around the USA. Then there are the similar RV's slightly restricted in size for import into Europe and the UK. Lastly we must consider the small panel vans as typified by those from Volkswagen and other manufacturers – often smaller than a large family car or station wagon.
The driving characteristics of any vehicle depend on a number of factors: dimensions and mass, power-to-mass ratio, wheelbase and track, tires, traction, and some more scientific sounding areas such as centers of gravity and mass, suspension details, and load carried.
If you have never driven a vehicle larger than a family car, then please check your driving license entitlement. It would be tragic to learn that you need to take a further driving test or learn a whole new set of skills before you can drive the RV you have just fallen in love with and decided to buy.
- OK, your in the driving seat – what differences are obvious? “It's longer, wider, higher, and heavier than I'm used to.” Well yes, but let's take this one step at a time.
- Longer. It will turn more slowly, and the wheelbase – the distance from the front axle to the rear axle – will be longer than most cars so you need to go further on, into a turn, before starting to make the turn.
- Wider. You need to allow for the extra width, and watch out for those expensive mirrors before you clip them on any of the thousands of obstacles you never had to worry about in your car. There will be trees, branches, hedges, fences and gate posts, buildings and even traffic signs you need to see and negotiate.
- Higher. Stick a prominent note of overall vehicle height on the dashboard as a reminder. When you spot a height restriction ahead (e.g. low bridge), it will be far easier to either turn around and find another route, or at least be aware of the risk and going slowly and gently to avoid the suspension bounding and creating damage on a bridge or overhang that just clears the top of your RV.
- Heavier. Your RV will respond more slowly to the gas pedal and likewise with the brakes, so you need to plan ahead more when driving. Since you can't plan for obstacles and hazards you haven't seen, it is very important to gather information, mainly by looking (observation). But use all your senses for any useful signs and signals. For example, you see less at night or in fog and mist, but your ears still work fine. Keeping a window slightly open allows sounds to get in the cab too.
If the RV has a manual gearbox and you need to lose speed or brake, select the appropriate gear for the next section of road before the engine revs drop too low. This saves you changing to an even lower gear to get moving properly again. Drive gently but with steady or slightly increasing gas pedal pressure round a curve, once you have a sight-line to see its all clear.
Keep the vehicle balanced to save 'adjusting the crockery' through different road conditions and junctions by planning your approach to keep the vehicle stable.
- Other points to remember:
- Particularly when parking on site, watch out for overhanging branches and other obstructions.
- Even soft leafy growth can cause damage rubbing on paint work for any length of time or if the wind gets to blowing hard.
- With built-in leveling systems, ensure that leveling jacks/rams are over solid ground before lifting. With screw pillar or scissors-type steadies, make sure you have a solid base or block on the ground, and don't ever try to lift the vehicle weight on these.
- When getting used to maneuvering the RV, make use of the mirrors and any rear view systems fitted. Get help from others outside the vehicle to avoid costly scrapes and nudges. Remember as a last check, having shut all external lockers and doors, walk the outside of the vehicle and your parking area before you move off to check for any misplaced items or obstacles you may not be able to see from the cab.
- Make all of the appropriate safety checks:
- Gas tanks – isolated (unless fitted with safety escape valves designed to permit operation while driving).
- External access traps/doors/lockers – make sure they are safely closed and locked.
- Internal checks – ensure that furniture and cargo are safely stowed and unable to move about.
- Brake operation – test them when stationary and moving.
- As you move off, check fuel and oil levels and power braking systems.
- Make sure that curtains and other blinds are safely stowed so they cannot loosen and cause obstructions of vision.
- Remember to check tires for defects and keep tire pressures adjusted correctly.
- Do you formulate a driving plan? I suspect you do, but you've never thought of it in that way. If you have driven for many years, not running into driving problems, then I congratulate you and I am sure you think very carefully about how you drive. The human brain is good at dealing with speed and distance recognition, spotting patterns, estimating widths – and it gets even better with practice. If you have driven regularly for more than a few years, I am sure you will be able to cope with even the larger RV's. It just takes a while to reorient your sense and judgment.
My ratings for difficulty relate to experienced drivers of normal ability. The costs of adjusting to RV driving are very low. Unfortunately I haven't found a cheap RV yet.