Driving an RV, whether it’s a motorhome or a towable isn’t the same as driving a car. No matter what RV you operate there’s a learning curve to RV driving. RVs are usually longer and heavier, they take longer to stop, and there are more (and different types of) mirrors along with a host of other RV driving techniques to consider.
In today’s post, I’m offering 20 RV driving tips from the perspective of an RVer who has been driving 37- to 41-foot motorhomes (and towing a car) for nearly three decades. That would be me!
Whether you have a motorhome or a towable RV, driving can be a daunting experience for new RV owners especially if you choose a larger model. However, with practice and patience, you’ll be a pro at navigating parking lots, fuel stops, and narrow campsites in no time.
Here are 20 RV driving safety tips for beginners to help you stay safe on your RV journey.
1. Practice driving your RV
A big, empty parking lot is a great place to get acclimated. A set of small traffic cones can be a big help for safely practicing turns, backing, and maneuvering. The single biggest difference to get used to when driving an RV, versus a car, is length—the overall length of the vehicle(s), the length of the wheelbase, and the length of the rear overhang.
Yes, RVs weigh more than cars and they’re taller. Those factors do come into play but nothing is more critical than learning to manage the length of your RV. More about those topics below but practicing maneuvering in a safe environment is hugely helpful for new RV drivers.
2. Be a patient driver
Other drivers of large vehicles (think truck and bus drivers) are working often on a demanding schedule. As RVers, we’re able to (hopefully) operate at a more leisurely pace.
Whenever possible, allow sufficient time to arrive at your destination early enough that you won’t feel rushed. This will help you to maintain a better mindset throughout your travels—one of not feeling rushed or in a hurry… being patient. This not only provides a safer driving environment but a more relaxing one as well. Stay safe by avoiding the rush.
3. Pay attention to your speed
In the same vein as the previous tip, higher speeds can increase stress and reduce safety. Things happen faster at higher speeds reducing the amount of time you have to think and react.
There’s no specific speed that’s right for every RVer. But since the demise of the 55 mph national maximum speed limit in the late 80s, some speed limits are now far higher. Many U.S. states especially in the West have maximum speed limits of 75-80 mph. But that doesn’t mean you have to drive that fast!
RVing shouldn’t be a race. In my opinion, there’s no RV on the road that isn’t safer being operated at a speed slower than those very high limits.
There is no one speed that works for every RV, every RVer, and in every situation? But you’ll know when you’re traveling too fast when your heart jumps into your throat or your right foot buries the brake pedal. But by then it might be too late. Take your time, both speed-wise and in figuring out what speeds are safest for you, your RV, and current driving conditions.
If you’re not sure about correct speeds when you first start driving an RV, figure it out from the bottom up. By that I mean it’s better to realize that you’re driving a little slower than you can safely manage rather than the other way around! Take your time and enjoy the journey.
4. Keep to the right whenever possible and appropriate
In general, the best place for a large vehicle on a multi-lane highway is the right lane. A primary tenet of Defensive Driving is to leave your self an escape route in the event another vehicle should come into conflict with yours.
The right lane is adjacent to the shoulder providing some built-in advantages:
- It’s usually empty allowing a safe space to take evasive action if needed
- Since the shoulder isn’t a travel lane the threat of another vehicle moving into your lane from the right is reduced
- Because drivers in North America sit on the left side of their vehicles, the right side is the weak side due to your reduced ability to see what’s directly alongside or approaching your rig at an angle
Keeping the right side of your vehicle as clear of collision threats as possible provides better safety. Being alongside the (often empty) shoulder also provides a place to go should a mechanical problem require you to move off the road.
Of course, there are exit and/or entrance ramps to consider. If you’re approaching one but you’re not exiting be alert for vehicles entering the highway. If traffic allows, move over one lane to the left to avoid conflict.
If you’re traveling on a highway with three or more lanes of traffic in each direction, consider staying one lane over (the middle lane of a three-lane highway, the second lane on a 4- or 5-lane highway) in areas with a high concentration of exit and entrance ramps. That’s especially helpful during high-traffic periods preventing you from having to repeatedly change lanes to avoid traffic merging onto the highway.
5. Know your rig’s braking power and plan accordingly
Large, heavy vehicles take longer to stop than passenger cars. That requires thinking ahead—and planning ahead. Keep your eyes scanning far down the road; be alert for brake lights in the distance or other indicators of slowing traffic or potential conflict. Use your height advantage to see as far ahead as possible. Slow down earlier and avoid braking hard.
Besides the longer stopping distances required to stop an RV you should also keep in mind a disadvantage that your large vehicle creates simply by being on the road—other drivers can’t see around you. That virtually guarantees that someone behind you isn’t able to spot potential conflicts up ahead.
But we’ve all seen how simple facts like lack of visibility seem to have little to no effect on other drivers. They often tailgate vehicles that block their view, like RVs. If you’re being tailgated especially by someone who can’t see around you (your vehicle is big!) the last thing you want to do is stop suddenly. Increasing your following distance is the best course of action to prevent you from having to stop suddenly and potentially getting rear-ended.
An additional braking consideration with RVs is the fact that you’re carrying around cabinets full of dishes, glassware, food, toiletries, and many other items not normally stored in a passenger car. Stopping suddenly can lead to things falling out of cabinets the next time they’re opened as contents may have shifted.
6. Keep your distance
Maintaining a safe following distance is one of the most basic safety practices to which any driver can adhere. Rather than attempt to guesstimate the number of feet between you and the vehicle ahead, use time instead.
Passenger cars generally follow the 2-second rule: Watch the vehicle in front of you pass an object (such as the shadow of an overpass or a utility pole alongside the roadway) and count one thousand one, one thousand two and you shouldn’t reach that same spot before two full seconds have passed.
Since RVs and other large vehicles take longer to stop, use a 4-second following distance. When the roads are wet, use a 6-second following distance. With snowy- or ice-covered roads, use 8 seconds. Keep in mind that these are minimum following distances. There is nothing wrong with leaving even more space between you and the vehicle ahead of you.
If you’re thinking “If I leave that much room in front of me, other vehicles will simply move over into that space,” you’re correct. They will. Other drivers will indeed change lanes in front of you (often right in front of you). But the only way to prevent that is to fill the space between you and the car ahead yourself. But that is tailgating—something that’s so critically important to avoid.
The best practice is to maintain a speed on multi-lane highways that’s slightly slower than passing traffic… about 2-3 mph is usually good. That way, vehicles that change lanes in front of you will continue to move ahead, re-opening that all-important safety cushion directly in front of your RV without you having to do anything about it.
7. Follow the 330 or 3/3/3 travel rule
The 330 rule refers to a policy of driving no more than 300 miles a day and arriving at your destination no later than 3:30 pm. That allows plenty of time to set up camp in daylight, get to know the amenities of the campground and the surrounding area, and further relax after your day of driving.
When we first started, I would hit the road and keep hitting the road until we crammed as much into one day as possible. In my mind, the more we drove, the more we would see, and the more fun we’d have. I recall a 2,000-mile trip we made in three and one-half days. And yes, it was tiring and exhausting! And, I vowed never again!
You may have heard of another RV rule of thumb called the 3-3-3 Rule. This rule is similar to the 330 Rule.
The 3-3-3 Rule is as follows:
- Don’t drive more than 300 miles in a day
- Stop by 3 pm (or stop every 3 hours, depending on who you ask)
- Stay at a campground for a minimum of 3 days
I won’t go as far as saying every RVer needs to abide by the 330 rule. However, I will say that I do highly recommend it. I know that from my own experiences (and mistakes) and from countless RVers who say the same, the 330 rule makes traveling more enjoyable—and safer.
8. Don’t overload your rig
It’s very important to take note of the weight limits associated with your particular RV and to stay within those limits. When you overload an RV you’re putting yourself and everyone traveling with and around you at risk.
Both weight and weight distribution are important. RVs have several specific weight limits. There’s the maximum allowable weight of the loaded RV itself (GVWR, or Gross Vehicle Weight Rating).
There’s the maximum allowable weight for the entire rig which includes anything being towed (GCWR, or Gross Combined Weight Rating). Then there’s the maximum weight capacity on each axle (GAWR, or Gross Axle Weight Rating). Be sure to learn and follow your rig’s weight limits and avoid overloading it.
9. Don’t drive in high winds
Many RVers learn this one the hard way by traveling down the highway in high winds at too high a speed for the conditions. Remember that RVs are tall and frequently flat-sided. The aerodynamics of many rigs lends themselves to being blown about to some degree by high winds.
And while you may feel secure traveling down the highway on a relatively windy day, you may find yourself hitting a crosswind and hanging on with white knuckles for all you’re worth.
Avoid this at all costs. Travel in safe conditions. If you find yourself with a very windy day ahead either stay put or take a slow drive over to the beach or a field to have a picnic and fly a kite!
If you must travel during windy conditions, the most important adjustment to make is to slow down! The faster you’re moving when your rig gets hit with a gust from the side, the more likely you are to lose control of your vehicle. And the more severe the consequences will be.
10. Don’t drive distracted
Distracted driving is the cause of far too many accidents… many thousands annually.
Driving distracted can include anything from checking your phone to eating, to driving with a pet in your lap. Distracted driving refers to anything that takes your attention away from the road and the task at hand—safe driving.
Any non-driving activity that you engage in while operating your vehicle reduces your safety and that of your passengers and fellow travelers on the road around you.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), texting is the most dramatic driving distraction: “Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for 5 seconds. At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed.”
Don’t drive distracted! Your life and the lives of those around you are depending on your vigilance. That’s especially true for large vehicles that take longer to stop and maneuver than a passenger car. And doubly true for the largest vehicles capable of inflicting truly substantial damage if not kept under control at all times.
11. Never drive impaired
Impaired driving refers to driving while under the influence of anything that has the potential to degrade your reaction time as a driver, reduce your attention, or impact your driving ability in any way. This would include substances like alcohol or marijuana as well as narcotics and even prescription or over-the-counter medications that have the potential to impair a driver.
When you get into your RV to drive or into your vehicle to tow an RV, you need to be at your absolute best. And it’s always best not to self-determine whether you’re fit to drive. If you’ve had a drink or two, no matter how you feel, don’t drive. If you’ve been exposed to a recreational drug or a medication with the potential for altering your mind or reaction time, don’t drive. Read the labels on all medications. Benedryl is a good example of an over-the-counter medication that can have a significant impact on reaction time.
Part of the responsibility of driving a large vehicle is being aware of your own abilities. If you’re not sure you’re up to the task of continuing, stop as soon as safely possible.
Just don’t drive if there’s a potential for you to be impaired at all. It’s really that simple.
12. Use proper steering technique
Turn the steering wheel slowly or partially when rounding a curve in the road (as opposed to making a sharp turn). This maintains the right hand on the right side of the wheel and the left hand on the left side of the wheel at all times.
Keep your hands on the outside of the steering wheel rim. This avoids getting your hands crossed up or reaching into the wheel where one of the spokes is in the way of your grasping it.
13. Learn proper mirror adjustment and use
It’s essential when RV driving to be able to see well all around you and to avoid blind spots. Depending on the size of your rig you’re driving or towing, this can be somewhat complicated but once you become comfortable with proper mirror adjustment and use, you’ll be amazed at how much it assists your safe driving.
14. Monitor the weather and travel accordingly
This one is also known as Embrace Plan B.
Monitor the weather in your current area and along the path you intend to travel. If weather conditions are likely to impede an easy-going driving experience, make a plan B and settle into it. But be ready to adapt if conditions change.
RV driving means understanding that your plans can change at any given time. Not being rigidly controlled by a plan is part of RVing and its great! I know that most RVers aren’t full-timers and may have limited time to enjoy their RV vacation. But within those constraints, do your best to avoid traveling when conditions increase the risk to you and your RV.
15. Never drive when tired
Driving an RV while you’re tired is another version of driving impaired. When we’re fatigued, everything is affected including our sight and reaction time.
Besides substances, one of the most common and potentially most serious forms of impairment is fatigue. Calling back to the 330 rule above, make sure you don’t drive longer than your ability to stay alert. That includes getting a good night’s sleep the night before.
Studies have demonstrated that extreme fatigue can be as or even more dangerous as driving under the influence of some substances. And it can be more insidious as it takes no other action beyond staying on the road too long to create a risk.
This also includes driving while you’re feeling ill. If you have a fever or cold or another ailment that may affect your driving ability, leave the task for another day or to someone else.
Once again, if you’re tired, I strongly encourage you to embrace plan B and stop for the night and get some good rest, good food, and hydration—then drive again when you’re in top shape for the task.
16. Have a good roadside assistance plan
Having a reliable roadside assistance plan is essential when traveling in an RV.
Choose a plan that suits you best but be sure to have a good, solid, reliable plan for roadside assistance. Having the peace of mind that if something DOES go wrong while on the road you have resources available to get you out of a bind can help keep you calm should something happen.
16. Carry an RV roadside emergency kit
An RV roadside emergency kit is one of the most important things you can carry when you travel in an RV.
Read my earlier post for 25 must-have items to carry in your roadside emergency kit. Chances are good that you’ll use many of those items—if not in the event of your own roadside emergency, then perhaps to help a fellow traveler.
17. Use trip planner apps and/or GPS to plan RV-safe routes
Remember that when you’re driving an RV, the height, weight, and contents of your rig are factors that you don’t generally need to consider when driving a car. This is why having excellent trip planner apps or an RV-safe GPS is so important.
There are areas (tunnels, in particular, and some ferries) that you can’t enter if you’re carrying propane on board your RV. Or you may be required to confirm that it’s been turned off at the tank. This is information you’ll want to know in advance of approaching the entrance to a tunnel. You want to be offered alternative routes based on what you’re driving and the best way to achieve this important end is to plan RV-safe travel routes.
Some GPS units and RV trip planner apps allow you to input the specifics of your RV and then you’ll be guided according to those specifics.
18. Keep current with RV maintenance
A well-maintained RV or tow vehicle is a safe vehicle. Be sure to keep up with the preventive maintenance and conduct regular inspections of your RV systems especially those that can cause an accident while traveling.
Make a pre-trip checklist and do an inspection of these items every time you get behind the wheel:
- Belts and hoses (check for cracking)
- Headlights, turn signal, tail lights
- Hitch or towing equipment
- Tires for the correct air pressure and sufficient tread depth
19. Know how to back up your rig
The best way to learn how to back up your RV is to practice, practice, practice! Here again, an empty parking lot is a great place to get comfortable backing up your rig effectively.
I encourage you to first have a look at my post on backing up a motorhome where you’ll find some very helpful tips and techniques.
BONUS TIPs for drivers towing a trailer:
- How to Simplify Trailer Towing
- What Is Tongue Weight and Why Is It Important?
- Methods for Trailer Sway Control
20. Understand trailer sway control
I mentioned this tip in a previous section related to RV weight and weight distribution but its well worth mentioning again—it is that important.
It is critical that you understand trailer sway control BEFORE you need the information. We strongly encourage you to consult my linked post on this topic before you tow.
Speed was high
Weather was hot
Tires were thin
X marks the spot
—Burma Shave sign