by Brent Peterson
To most RVers, size matters. I'm confident just about everyone would opt for that master bedroom suite, spacious kitchen, and enough interior elbow room on board their vehicles to host a campground-wide square dance if they could. After all, most of us fall into the more-is-more category, right? Of course, an abundance of square-footage comes at a price both in terms of cost and driving/towing ease. Assuming that you can reconcile the added financial burden with your accountant/checkbook-strangling spouse, that just leaves the pesky issue of how to handle that big rig before one ends up in the driveway, wrapped in a pretty red bow. Whether piloting a behemoth motor home or lugging around that monster towable, the goal is pretty much the same. How to get from point A to point B safely. Here's how.
It's okay to admit it. Go ahead, say it, you're nervous about getting behind the wheel of the new Class A or bulky tow vehicle. Truth is, you're a long way from that cute little Honda you've been manhandling down the highway for years. Like any new skill, maneuvering a large RV comes with its own learning curve, and apprehensive is normal. However, if thoughts of driving this big rig have you pale-faced with fear, then it might be a good idea to examine why you bought it in the first place. But I digress.
For starters, realize that it might take a while to get truly comfortable in the cockpit. And yes, you'll probably jump a curve or two in the process, a sort of right of passage for all of us. If it makes you feel any better, I recently wrapped a $300,000 Class A around a telephone pole. Personally, I think that pole had it coming. Come to think of it, maybe someone else should be dispensing advice on the subject. Nah, just kidding. We'll work out the kinks together.
The Same - Only Bigger
No matter what you're driving/towing, the basic principles of safe driving still apply. It's not like one needs to attend a special school to drive an RV. Although, there are driving schools and seminars available out there for the taking, which isn't a bad idea. The major differences mostly boil down to the realization that it will take you more time and driving discipline to do less. For instance, motor home drivers now must leave more distance for stopping. That pickup/fifth wheel combo lacks the getty-up-and-go of the family sedan; acceleration is a subjective term to most RVers. Bigger vehicles struggle up hills and backing up isn't always a thrill. Fortunately, most drivers on the road give RVers a wide berth, just one of the benefits of being at the top of the automotive food chain.
Learning the vehicle's limitations is probably the best place to start. Find an empty parking lot for this particular experiment and don't mind the curious gazes of passersby. Start with the brakes. How responsive are they? How much room do you need to stop from say, 30 miles per hour? Every RV must be driven differently - motorized and towables need to allow more time to brake than any vehicle you've ever driven. Notice (and honor) the difference in stopping power from an empty vehicle to one with full tanks, gear, and crew. When on the open road, anticipation is key. Give surrounding vehicles plenty of distance. Watch for the usual signs of braking situations - brake lights, road construction, merging, and the like. And don't speed, which makes the slow-down process more of a challenge.
The biggest of the big rigs benefit from a secondary braking system inside in the form of a hydraulic or exhaust brake. Towable owners will need towable breaks as well, which are a big help, especially when starring down the barrel of a deep descent. Extra braking comes in real handy when going down hills, helping you to slow without overtaxing the vehicle's brakes. Primary brakes can overheat and fail on long descents, so it's important not to overuse them. If you can actually smell your brakes, they're getting overworked.
Around the Bend
Swing wide when cornering. Remember, what's happening in back of you is nearly as important as what's going on up ahead. Take turns slow, keeping a watchful eye on what the rest of the motor home or trailer is doing. The bigger you are, the wider you'll need to go since the rear of the vehicle(s) tends to swing out as you make the turn. Take it slow and learn form the pros. Notice how the 18-wheelers get around in traffic. They've got it down to a science, wide and slow. Consider a pair of extendable side mirrors as a thoughtful vehicle add-on.
Change of Scene
Before changing lanes, ask yourself, "What's to be gained"? Are you hurried, stressed, or angry that the Cubs lost again? Emotional driving is always a poor state to be in, worsened when operating a 25,000-pound land ship cruising along at 55 mph. Sure, an open highway means the RV can go where it pleases, but I'm from the less-is-more school of driving, preferring to find a nice middle lane and staying put. If relocation is a must, give the rig and yourself plenty of time, looking for a nice fat opening in the traffic block. Flip the signals and have at it. As noted, fellow commuters are more scared of you then you know, and should work diligently to stay out of your way.
Back It Up
I'm either smart or the world's biggest coward (or both). I back up as little as possible, and rarely pull the motor home in somewhere before I know a sure-fire way out. With that said, throwing the rig in reverse is a fact of life. As with these other skills, practice may not make perfect, but it makes the outcome a whole lot more routine than just winging it. Again, I'm a fan of the empty lot and a few test trials to fine-tune one's abilities. Practice backing up straight. Repeat. Then repeat again. When it comes down to doing the deed for real, just take it slow. Always hop out and assess the situation first, keeping a watchful eye on not only what's immediately behind you, but overhanging objects as well. Take a mental picture of where you want to end up, looking for context clues from the cockpit to inform when you're in position. For instance, notice how when the tree stump is on line with your front tire that the back end will be in place.
A good co-pilot won't need to ask if you need help - they'll already be out there, ready to do their part. (Working out a few signals in advance will keep you from running over him or her). Better yet, get some walkie-talkies or buck up for the rear observation system, to best avoid the picnic table and yellow Subaru in your path. When that crowd of fellow campers begins to poke their collective heads out, don't sweat it. Take it slow and you'll do fine.
Motor homes pulling vehicles connected to tow bars and tow dollies should never, ever attempt a back up - you will damage the connection. If there's no other way around it, unhook the towed vehicle first, and scoot it out of the way. The trickiest part of backing up a trailer is remembering to turn the steering wheel in the opposite direction of where you want the trailer to go. A nice method I learned from Joe and Vicki Kieva is to place one hand on the bottom of the wheel, then move your hand in the direction of where you want the trailer to end up. In the event the trailer starts to veer one side, turn the steering wheel towards the "problem" to straighten it out again. Take your time - this is not a speed event. Or, simply grab a pull-through campsite whenever possible and forget the whole thing.
Face it, that RV of yours takes up a lot of room. I know, you know, and the entire mall parking lot knows it. The best advice? Just beach the vehicle(s) someone out of the way, where fellow autos and pedestrians are at a minimum. The extra walking required will do you good. As a rule, I never pull into any place that I don't know the way out of. Avoid back-ups when possible, particularly in crowded areas such as parking lots and gas stations.
I find that sitting up high in the motor home is a major advantage throughout both city and highway driving. This catbird seat is a great for surveying the landscape much farther ahead than any auto, alerting plenty of time to react and plan moves in advance. Sadly, towable owners receive no such sight advantage, that is unless they're cruising in one of those lofty baby semis that scores of fifth-wheel owners now favor.
The best advice for highway driving is to find a lane and stay put. Provide a fat buffer between you and those around you and this should protect you from any uncertainty. Watch that speedometer, Mrs. Leadfoot. As one driving instructor once told me, if you were in such a hurry, you should have left yesterday. Sometimes, you just have to out think the traffic and use a little sense. Avoiding times of heavy gridlock and skirting metropolitan cities should ease the driving chores. If things get too congestive, take the off-ramp and find a nice spot to play a game of Hearts. The middle lane is the best bet for highways, since it lakes the speed and frequent off-ramps of the other two. Be sure to steer clear of alcohol, fatiguing medications, and Chicago between the hours of 7a.m-7 p.m. - but you knew that already, didn't you?
As our friends at the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association like to say, driving is different, not difficult. I couldn't agree more, especially after a little quality time getting to know the particular quirks of the vehicle. And while the typical RV lacks much of the driving accoutrement of that flashy import, just think - it's not much fun sleeping, cooking, and lounging about in a Lexus, is it? Travel well.
Article written by Brent Peterson for the November 2008 issue of the Camp Club USA E-newsletter.
Brent is the author of the Complete Idiot's Guide to RVing.
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