I wouldn’t pretend to offer myself up to you as an RV Driving Instructor and would not suggest that I could teach you how do drive an RV in this article. As always, however, I hope that you might profit from my experiences driving different large vehicles.
One of my semi retirement jobs a couple of years ago was driving a school bus. To qualify for this job driving a 40 ft, 10 year old vehicle, I spent 6 months studying for and obtaining my Commercial Driver’s license in California. I drove the bus for a year. Loved the kids, hated the schedule! (by the way a special license is not required to drive a motorhome in California unless the vehicle is over 40ft long)
Obtaining this license was one of the hardest things I have ever done at 73 years old! So much to remember! But I learned a lot from the experience and most of it helped me to be a better driver of our 40ft motorhome. A lot of the tips below I have learned from the school bus experience.
In case it might be of interest for some of you who really want to improve your skills, I have attached this link to the California 2019-2021 Commercial Driver’s License Handbook. There is a ton of great information in it and who knows, it might motivate you to want to get your CDL in your state.
1.You should always carefully inspect your vehicles at the beginning of your travel each day.
2.This inspection should include:
a. Tires; tread condition and pressure. I highly recommend a Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS). Chances are that if you are towing a trailer, your tow vehicle has one but you should also have one for your trailer. Often times motorhomes do not have a TPMS system so you should purchase one for your motorhome and any vehicle you may tow behind it. This system will give you incredible peace of mind. Below is the system we have. It is very dependable, accurate, and very easy to set up and use.
b. Lights on the tow and towed vehicle. Be extra careful to make sure your trailer lights are functioning properly.
c. All hitches and chains
d. Brakes on the tow and towed vehicles. If you have a motorhome with air brakes, you should do a full air brake test. Here is a link: Testing the Air Brakes on a Motorhome
Maneuvering in Close Spaces (RV parks, Fuel Stations)
1.Scope out a place that might be questionable BEFORE you enter.
a. Especially if you are flat towing a car or towing one on a car dolly, generally you cannot back up without hitting the car or dolly with your motorhome. I say generally, as there have been times when I have successfully backed up a couple of feet and it was just enough to manage a tight turn. I always do this with a spotter.
b. If you are towing a trailer or fifth wheel, it is especially important that you get out of the vehicle and walk in any area that you are not sure of before driving in. You might end up having to back all the way out, which when towing a trailer of any kind is always a challenge.
c. In a fuel station give an especially wide berth to fuel pumps or other structures on the fuel island as you pull out.
d. If you are towing a bumper pull and especially if you are towing a Fifth Wheel, be very careful of how tight you turn when maneuvering in off road situations. I dented the roof of my new truck with the front of my fifth wheel once by turning too sharply. It did not damage the fifth wheel at all, but put a nice crease in the roof of the truck!
2. Have a spotter
I have been driving RVs for 18+ years. During that period I have driven trailers, fifth wheels, gas and diesel Motorhomes. I have driven or pulled RVs from 18 ft to 40 ft. I try to always use a spotter.
a. If you are traveling alone and can’t find anyone to help you, it is very advisable to periodically exit your vehicle and look all around to get a sense of perspective as where things are in relationship to your RV and/or the towed vehicle.
b. I have never had an accident on a roadway but have collided with two objects in RV parks.
c. In both those cases, I did not have a person outside guiding me.
d. Proceed very slowly. My spotter goes outside and walks me along almost as soon as we enter an RV park or certainly when we are even remotely close to objects.
e. Even if you are alone, it makes sense to ask someone nearby to help guide you in and out of your site and even in and out of the RV park if you can.
f. Make sure you can communicate with your spotter. We use our phones and have them on speaker.
g.Your spotter should be constantly moving around the RV as you are maneuvering. He or she should be looking above the RV for branches, over hangs etc, as well as the front, back and sides of the RV. Believe it or not, the front is very important especially in a motorhome when you cannot see your bumper.
3. Your mirrors are your best friends
a. Always make sure your mirrors on both sides are adjusted carefully. If your RV does not have a wide angle mirror, you should get one and attach it to your regular mirror on the bottom side away from the RV.
b. Maneuver slowly, always watching your mirrors on both sides. If you have back up cameras you should be glancing there also.
c. I will say this again. Even if you have a spotter and are watching the mirrors, there is no substitute for getting out periodically and getting a first hand perspective as to all the obstacles and their relationship to your vehicle(s).
4. Look above
RVs are generally considerably taller than cars and even pickup trucks. It is easy to forget this.
a. Make sure that your spotter knows that they need to be looking up for branches, over hangs etc.
b. Branches can easily remove an antenna and damage an AC unit if you fail to notice them.
c. On back roads that are untraveled and where branches and trees have not been trimmed, I have traveled slowly down the middle of the road to avoid damage to my roof. I can pull over and stop to let another car pass by.
d. Make sure you know the height of your RV including antennas and all protrusions from the roof. If you are in doubt about an over hanging obstacle such as a bridge, stop and line it up by climbing up your RV ladder and looking.
e.Most bridges are required to be labeled as to their height, so knowing your exact height is important. I would never go under a bridge that was closer than 6 inches to the height of my RV.
f. A good GPS, meant for RVs or trucks should warn you of issues with bridges. BUT NEVER TAKE THE WORD OF A GPS, NEVER, NEVER WITHOUT GETTING A SECOND OR EVEN THIRD OPINION. Meaning that you have looked it up on a map, or a second or third GPS is verifying that it is OK. Even then, if it looks close DON’T chance it.
5. Watch for dips
a. Especially coming into fuel stations, sometimes there is a considerable dip in the road. Taking such a dip, going from the roadway into the station can be disastrous going at any kind of speed.
b. If you notice a considerable dip going into the area, slow to a crawl. If the hitch on your truck, or the tongue on your trailer scrapes, then doing so very slowly, will likely cause no damage.
c. In towing a trailer, it is especially important that the support stand for the trailer tongue has been retracted fully. Even so, this could be damaged entering a severe dip in the road.
d. If flat towing a vehicle with your motorhome, the tow bar knuckle can scrape on a severe dip, so again going very slowly will minimize any damage.
Traveling on Main Roads
Traveling in an RV is basically why we buy them, taking to the road, the adventure of exploring, the romance of finding a new place for the night. Getting there can mean some long hours on the road driving, however, so here are a couple of thoughts on driving your RV or towing your RV on main roads.
1.Entering the highway
Motorhomes and vehicles pulling trailers have considerably less ability to get up to highway speeds than other vehicles. It is important to remember this when entering a roadway, and allow lots of room.
In most cases the overall length of your motorhome or your car or truck that is pulling your trailer can be twice even three times the length of a car itself.
This fact combined with the lack of acceleration mentioned in #1, makes passing another vehicle of any length particularly challenging and even dangerous.
a.Passing on a two-way, two-lane road would in almost every case be really fool hardy.
b.Passing on a two or more lane one way road can also be very risky especially when leaving the passing lane and returning to the right hand lane. Care must be taken to make sure that your extra long vehicle has cleared the passed vehicle.
a. Narrow secondary roads require constant attention to make sure that your towed vehicle’s rear wheels do not occasionally leave the paved road and end up in the dirt shoulder.
b. The driver also needs to stay within his or her lane by checking side mirrors. Let’s face it, towing a trailer or driving a motorhome means you are wider than the average car and it is easy to forget that and wander out of your lane. This makes it dangerous for other drivers.
4. Large vehicles passing you
One of the scariest things, especially to new RVers is having a large semi truck pass you on the highway. You can feel the wind begin to pull your vehicle towards the left as the truck begins its passing.
a. The best thing that you can do in situations like this is to be steely eyed and determined to remain in your lane and not take your eyes off the road to look to the left at the passing truck.
b. Undoubtedly some correction to the right will be necessary to account for the pulling affect to the left. Staying somewhat close to the right line along the roadway is also good to allow even more room between you and the vehicle that is passing.
c.It doesn’t really matter the size of your motorhome or the length of your trailer the experience is always scary. The degree fades somewhat with experience but never totally goes away.
d. Passing trucks have occasionally broken off mirrors when they have come too close but this does not happen often. Most commercial truck drivers are responsible drivers and will keep far to the left when passing an RV.
5. Exiting the highway
There is no such thing as a safe “last minute” decision to leave the highway when you are driving a motorhome or pulling a trailer. It is very important that you plan ahead if you plan to visit the next rest stop.
a. Always signal your intention to leave the highway approximately 600 ft before your exit by using your turn signal and changing to the exit lane.
b. Slow down gradually
6. Following distance
I cannot say enough about keeping a respectful following distance.
a. Needless to say, a 40 ft motorhome requires a lot more space to stop than a car.
b. A vehicle pulling a trailer has the same challenges stopping. Driving in slippery weather requires even more space to stop.
c. I have seen people in large RVs or towing trailers tailgating others on the highway. They are an accident waiting to happen.
d. This link to the California CDL Handbook gives you information as to how many feet you should leave between you and the vehicle ahead of you.
e. I am not attempting to be a driver’s manual here in this article, but just giving you reminders and tips.
7. Going down steep hills
The best single piece of advice about traversing down hills that I can give you is to go slowly. The best rule is to go down a hill no faster than you were able to go up the hill. My feeling is that going down a steep hill towing a trailer or in a motorhome is the single biggest challenge to driving an RV.
a. One of the huge advantages that a diesel motorhome has or a diesel towing truck has are exhaust brakes. This is an incredible tool to help you slow down safely going down a hill. It combines rerouting of exhaust gases back through the engine with use of lower gears to slow you down dramatically with minimum use of brakes.
b. There are lots of articles and YouTube videos about the subject of going down a mountain in a motorhome or pulling a trailer and the bottom line in all of them is GO SLOW. If you do not have an exhaust brake, choose a lower gear that will keep your speed down before you start down the hill. If you find that gear is not enough, slow down more and use an even lower gear.
c. If your speed, even in the lower gear, starts to increase above the speed that you have chosen with or without the exhaust brake (the speed you went up the hill at), then use your brakes very sparingly. Apply brakes to lower your speed firmly then release and let the lower gear do its job. As it increases speed again, apply brakes firmly and then release. Repeat this process. If you are doing this too much, you will need to go slower and use a lower gear if you do not have an exhaust brake. (Just slowing down will cause the exhaust brake to use a lower gear.)
d. The key is to NOT RIDE your brakes down the hill. Using your brakes to reduce your speed down a large hill in a heavy vehicle is not sustainable. Your brakes will begin to smoke and burn and will gradually loose their effectiveness. I have learned this in two instances when I was new at RVing. It was very, very scary. I have learned my lesson! In our 40 ft diesel motorhome with an exhaust brake, I creep down a mountain. Let people cruise by, not a problem for me. I always want my vehicle under control and slow is always better. When I say slow I am talking 35 to 45 MPH. The steeper the hill, the slower I go. On a truly steep hill I have gone down at 15 to 20 mph. You never want to let the vehicle get away from you and going fast down a steep hill is the easiest way for that to happen.
e. If by some chance you begin to smell brakes you should immediately pull over at the next available area and allow your brakes to cool. I want to emphasize here that if your brakes are smoking, you are not using them correctly and are going too fast for proper control. You need to use a lower gear and go much slower.
f. As a final thought, I left the “Going Down Hills” section as the final section in this article. I hope that I haven’t scared you with all the warnings, but taking simple precautions and taking your time, not being in a hurry and not caring whether others are rushing by you (maybe even beeping horns at you) is absolutely essential for your safety and for a full enjoyment of your trip. Don’t be stressed about going up and down a hill. Just remember the few simple tips I have outlined above. TAKE YOUR TIME, GO SLOWLY, ENJOY, SEE THE SIGHTS!!