If the idea of traveling in a tiny house on wheels gives you a thrill, I’ve got good news: that’s exactly what vacationing in an RV is like, and it’s way more accessible and affordable than you might think. With an RV (recreational vehicle), any scenic pull-over spot can become a place to stop for coffee; any location with a view, your favorite local restaurant. You won’t have to deal with creepy motel rooms, packing and unpacking at every stop, or finding a bathroom—you’ll have one on board! And as long as we’re still in a pandemic, it’s one of the few safe ways to get out of town for a while.
I had a chance to live the RV dream a few years ago when my bestie and I toured New Zealand, where campervans are a regular mode of tourist travel and you’re never more than 20 minutes from the nearest campsite. We rented a schmancy campervan with a combo toilet/shower, kitchen with sink and gas burners, dining area, queen-sized bed, and plenty of storage space. In it, we traveled the coast of the South Island, stopping to visit seals and penguins and goats and sheep, and overnighting at various campsites that ranged from little more than a parking lot to a weird petting zoo/carnival/playground type of place. My friend did all the driving (I was too scurred), and I took care of planning and preparing all our meals. It was a division of labor that worked out swimmingly.
One night, during a heavy downpour, we cozied up inside with popcorn and hot cocoa, feeling sorry for our soggy tent-camping neighbors
It didn’t occur to me to RV vacay in the U.S., but the combination of COVID, an elderly mother, and a burning need to go somewhere made me realize it was the perfect solution. Together with my pod of my mom, myself, my brother, and my sister-in-law, we spent a few days in a rented camper, visiting two local parks, where we had lovely campfires, made dinners, took long walks with mom in her wheelchair, and sat around relaxing. One night, during a heavy downpour, we cozied up inside with popcorn and hot cocoa, watching TV on an iPad and feeling sorry for our soggy tent-camping neighbors. It was one of the nicest trips we’ve ever had together.
You can rent RVs from private owners or large chains, and they go for about $100 to over $750 per day, depending on the model and season. If you can afford around $250 a day you’ll have plenty of options. Hoping for something cute and custom? Try a private owner. Beware of those adorable, older “vintage” models, though—RVs can, and do, break down. Traveling in a basic beige-and-brown number from a rental outlet? Bring along colorful tablecloths, throw blankets, bedding, and strings of fairy lights to personalize your experience.
Bring along colorful tablecloths, throw blankets, bedding, and strings of fairy lights to personalize your experience.
Most RVs are able to generate their own electricity and hot water, so you can pretty much stay anywhere it’s legal to spend the night. This kind of “dry camping” or “boondocking” only works for as long as your propane and water last. Also, you’ll have to find a place to get rid of your sewage—or “black water”—before you return the vehicle, which must be done at special sanitary dump stations (there’s a directory at sanidump.com). Don’t worry—the way this is set up on most RVs, you’ll never have to really come face to face with that stuff. That said, it’s definitely easier to stay in a location meant for RVs, with electric and water hookups (and on-site dump stations). Private “RV parks” may have sewage lines as well, and even cable and Internet connections. In all cases, try and get to your campsite before dark. Parking your rig at a site can be challenging, especially if you have a back-in spot rather than a “pull-through.”
Types of Campers
Class A: These are giant buses, like the kind rock bands tour in. They require a truck driver’s license to drive, so probably not an option.
Class B: The super-cute van type you see those #vanlife folks travelling in. Some have toilets, kitchens, and showers; others are more like a Scooby-Doo van. They’re easiest to drive, but the ones with amenities can be extremely pricey to rent.
Class C: This is probably what comes to mind when you think of an RV. They can be more intimidating to drive than a campervan, but you don’t need a special license, and if you’re not a chicken like me, you’ll be fine. They range in length from from 20’ to 30’ or more.
Where to Rent an RV
Outdoorsy.com is the Airbnb of rental sites. It allows people with RVs to rent them out—some will even deliver them to your house. Unfortunately, I was burned three times on Outdoorsy—one owner canceled just four days before our trip, and some owners list RVs as being available when they really aren’t. If you’re dead-set on finding an IG-worthy rig, however, here’s where to look.
Rvshare.com is another Outdoorsy-type place, but most people who list on one also list on the other, so I would predict similar issues.
Cruise America is a national chain, and I recommend it highly. They have 128 locations across the U.S. and Canada, each with multiple vehicles, so if one breaks down, they’ll likely have a replacement available. They also have the pickup and drop-off process down to a science and include manuals and phone assistance if you need it. Though they won’t deliver the vehicle to you, you can usually leave your car in their lot until you return (for a fee). Best of all, they have a limited number of models (basically large, medium, small, and tiny), so decision-making is much simpler.
Finally, there are local, independent RV rental outlets. If you find one, be sure to read the Yelp reviews to make sure they are legit and reliable.
What to Look for in an RV
Finding an RV that includes the following amenities will make for the most comfortable trip:
- Electric generator
- Electric and water hookups
- Toilet and shower (sometimes the bathroom itself is also the shower stall.)
- Kitchen with sink, burners, microwave, and fridge
- Dining area with windows where you can sit even if people are still asleep
- At least one bed that doesn’t need to be set up at night and taken apart in the morning.
- Decent amount of storage for food and clothing, etc.
- In the summer, make sure you have an air conditioner; any other season, check for a heater.
- Enough outlets to charge all the stuff you need.
Where to Stay
Public Parks with campsites often offer a few spots for RVs, some with electric and water hookups. These are cheap (like, $20 a night) and awesome, but can be difficult to find, as there is no central listing site. You can start with nps.gov/subjects/camping/campground.htm, but may have better luck searching state and county websites for parks with campgrounds that accommodate RVs.
Hipcamp.com is a bit like the Airbnb of campsites (last Airbnb reference, I promise). Here, people offer up areas on their private properties for campers. Few will have hookups, so you’ll be boondocking, but you can camp by the side of a lake, on a farm, or even in someone’s driveway.
Both Reserveamerica.com and Campendium.com offer loads of RV parks to browse, which can vary from stark (basically parking lots) to kind of nice (like a family vacation resort with pools and playgrounds) to rundown trailer park vibes. RV parks do tend to have the most hookup options (including sewer), but do as much pre-reservation googling as possible to get a real sense of what the place is like.
Girl Camper is a print magazine and website that encourages women to “camp like a girl,” and you’ll find tons of ideas and resources there.
Illustrated by Meredith Felt
photos: Togo RV / Unsplash (mirror); Lawton Cook / Unsplash (window)
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!