We purchased our first travel trailer (Penelope, the Rockwood Mini-Lite) in October 2017, having never towed anything more than the occasional small U-Haul. The shakedown cruise was taken care of the weekend we picked her up, and we tested the waters with several weekend trips in the spring, before heading out on the first long, three-week jaunt to Alabama, Florida, and Texas last August. Next was a 2-month extravaganza (see Planes, Trains, Automobiles, RVs, & Cruise Ships), which made it all feel like old hat. We made some mistakes, did some things right, and learned a lot along the way. After that trip, we decided that we would sell the house and live in the RV, which meant getting something a little bigger. We purchased our fifth wheel (Petunia, the Grand Design Reflection 150) in December of 2018. We’ve taken her out on the road a lot in the past few months and are almost ready to embark for good. Some of our newbie tales may help you in your journey.
BAD: The first, and most obvious, problem for us was not fully fleshing out our RV plan before we purchased Penelope. She was a great little travel trailer, and had we continued with the plan to live somewhere and leave on occasional trips, we would have had no issues. (Well, we would have had a few issues, but none that would require buying a new rig.) It wasn’t until we were on our way back from the first 2-month trip that we first discussed how much we enjoyed it and making it a lifestyle, at least for a couple of years. Now, I love MW a LOT, but there was just going to be NO WAY to live in one room together all the time. So, my suggestion would be to try your best to work out your plan first. Then, once you think you have that down, rent an RV for a few trips to see how it makes you feel. Aside from our change of plans, I’ve also heard of people buying one, getting on the road, and finding out that they hate it. Changing out or selling an almost new RV is an expensive proposition (especially with all of the changes we made to Penelope in the beginning), so be as sure as you possibly can.
GOOD: Right after picking up Penelope from the dealership, we pulled into the first empty parking lot we found and spent an hour or so driving around and backing up. It was very helpful for me, especially, to understand the movement of the trailer and gain a little confidence before hauling this big box down a road populated by other vehicles and trying to back into a spot in a park. I’ll readily admit that MW does most of the driving, but it is important for me to practice occasionally and feel comfortable enough to get us home if need be. We did the same thing when we picked Petunia up, but that learning curve is a little longer moving from a travel trailer to a fifth wheel.
BAD: During our parking lot practice session, we tried out the backup camera. Up to now my experience with these cameras has been on my last three vehicles, an Acura and two Toyotas. They are awesome! You can see very clearly what is behind you and where you need to go. Well, that is not the case with the travel trailer version. Maybe it is the height and angle, but you can’t see squat. It is more like reading an ultrasound from the 1980s where they point to the little blob and tell you it is your baby’s head. Lesson learned. I like the idea of a backup camera and would love to have a good one. The next time I buy one, though, it will be a regular version and mount it at the level it would be on a car to get the same performance. Maybe I can actually get some use out of it then.
GOOD: The first thing we did on the shakedown cruise was read through the BAG (not exaggerating) of paperwork that came with the travel trailer. Every little item has it’s own handbook, and we familiarized ourselves as best we could with how it all works and what it is for. Some of it was everyday stuff like the microwave, TV, and air conditioner. Other things were totally foreign to us like the refrigerator that can run off of two different fuels, the oven where we have to light a pilot light to use it, and the toilet with the black water tank. Our biggest concern was making sure that we understood the equipment so that we didn’t break anything. Honestly, every time I pushed a button, I was worried about something exploding or falling off!
GOOD: A little overwhelmed with all of that information, we fell back on what we know. MW and I are both checklist people. He flew in the Marine Corps and I am a retired Air Traffic Controller, so that is just how we function best. We sat down and made checklists for winterizing, de-winterizing, loading and leaving the house, arriving at the campsite, leaving the campsite, and arriving back home. (If any of you are checklist nerds, I’m happy to share. Just leave a comment with your email address.) For the first few trips, we religiously pulled out the appropriate list to ensure that we were taking care of the necessities. We found it very helpful.
UGLY: After our initial shakedown, the next hurdle was getting her home. We are lucky enough to have two separate driveways and a good area to park Penelope. However, when you drive down our street and try to back in, you run into a big obstacle. There is a mailbox directly across from the right corner of the driveway, and it throws off all of the geometry. We worked HARD to get that thing backed in and made a mess. Then we realized that approaching the driveway from the other side eliminates the obstacle completely and makes life easier. That is fortunate, because we would not be able to get Petunia in at all had we not figured that out. So now when we are faced with a difficult maneuver, we try to look at all of the options to see which has the best math. (You thought you’d never use that high school geometry, didn’t you?!)
GOOD: Another “in the beginning” issue was everything sliding around in the cabinets. I solved that by going to Dollar Tree and getting the rubber shelf liner. I taped it down with double-sided tape to keep it in place, then re-loaded the shelves. Later in Petunia I put small plastic baskets in the cabinets across the back, which really helps to keep the canned goods in place. Things still bounced around a bit, but for the most part, the worst of the problem is solved.
UGLY: I left the tongue lock engaged on Penelope and tried to lift the trailer off of the hitch. Surprisingly, it tried to pick up the truck. The tongue lock and power jack are STRONG! It ended up bending a part of the hitch lock, which took us a while to get working easily again. Always check the hitch lock!
UGLY…REALLY! There is always a small amount of water in the toilet after you flush. We didn’t think much about it until one of us blew our nose and threw the TP into the water and didn’t flush. (The water pump was probably already off, so we just thought it would be fine to take care of that later.) WRONG! When we arrived at the next stop, there was this cottony stuff all over the rug and floor. It looked like really fluffy snow. I spent several minutes looking at it before I realized what it was. The TP dissolved in the water, creating TP stew, which was then thrown all around when we were on a rough road. You would think the closed lid would keep it in, but it doesn’t. It just directs it to the floor in front of the toilet. So that had probably been happening with the water all along, but we didn’t notice it. Now we drain the bowl after the water is unhooked and the pump is off and NEVER leave anything else in there either!
GOOD…WELL I LIKED IT: Early in the game, MW was preparing to fill up the fresh water tank at a campground. On Penelope the hose did not attach to the trailer, so he had to hold it in while I turned on the water. When I lifted the handle, the water came on so fast that a great gush squirted out of the overflow pipe, soaking MW. We were both cracking up, but I think I enjoyed it a little more than he did. He didn’t get caught by that again, though.
BAD…VERY, VERY BAD: Emptying the tanks is stinky business, and it can get much worse if you aren’t careful. We’ve had a couple of issues along the way. First, no matter how careful you are about putting the elbow connector into the dump hole, it may pop out when you release the flow. Some of the fittings are just really loose. So now I put my foot on it to hold it in place whenever it is not seated securely. Trust me when I say you do not want that thing to pop out when it is emptying your black tank! On Petunia we also had an issue with the tank gate valve leaking, allowing yucky water to get down into the bottom end of the drain pipe where the end cap is located. This caused a cup or so to drain out onto the pavement as you unscrewed the cap to empty. According to the forums, this is a really common issue. MW solved the problem by putting an extra gate valve onto the pipe that doesn’t get opened until all of the hoses are attached. That first time was NASTY, though! Finally, although I’ve seen several people not doing it, for gosh sakes, wear disposable gloves if you are touching any of those hoses, fittings, etc.!!! That includes the water hose and knob at the dump site. This is POOP we are talking about, people!
BAD: The first time we had heavy rain in Penelope it was awesome! I LOVE the sound of rain on the roof. That will lull me to sleep faster than anything else. However, early on in the middle of the night I was awakened by a loud thud and a swoosh of water like someone was emptying a tub outside my window…and they were. Well, we were. Turns out that it is very important to pull down one end of your awning and tighten the rod. Tilting it that way keeps water from pooling in the awning and spontaneously dumping when it gets too heavy. It didn’t hurt anything, but did just about give me a heart attack. On the subject of awnings, some folks make a habit of pulling theirs in if they leave their rig for any amount of time. Others leave theirs out all the time. We take a middle of the road approach and keep an eye on the weather, pulling it in at night or when we are away if wind/storms are expected.
BAD, BAD, BAD: Outside speakers…why???? Both of the rigs we’ve owned have speakers and a place to hook the TV up outside. I don’t get it, but it must be something a lot of people want as it seems every brand has them. For us, RVing is peace and quiet, enjoying the outdoors, seeing sites, hiking, etc. It is also sometimes sitting inside with the A/C running watching TV. We try really hard to make sure we are quiet and mindful that other folks may not like the same things we do or operate on the same schedule. We don’t turn the TV up loud with the windows open. We don’t play loud music. We don’t slam doors or talk loud outside at 5:30 or 6 AM when we get up. Most of all, we don’t use outside speakers. I just don’t think all of my neighbors would like our music playlist which includes The Sugarhill Gang, Frank Sinatra, Keith Urban, John Philip Sousa, AC/DC, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Patsy Cline, Right Said Fred, Fountains of Wayne, and Flatt & Scruggs. Our TV/movie list would probably be even less appealing to them. Before I end this rant within a post, let me just say that light shows in the woods outside after dark are also NOT COOL! Think about the people around you, for gosh sakes!
GOOD: We run our portable electric heater most of the time, unless the temperature is going to get down below freezing and we need to worry about the underside pipes. That is using electricity that we pay for with our site and not gas that we have to buy separately. So far it has worked in both our travel trailer and the fifth wheel. In fact, a small ceramic heater will run us out of the 31′ fifth wheel if we turn it up too high!
COULD BE BAD, VERY BAD: We learned early on that the first thing to do after getting positioned in a site, before leveling or anything else, is check the electricity. Nothing is more irritating than getting all level and set up only to find that the electricity doesn’t work at that site. From what I see on forums, that is not uncommon at all. In both of our rigs, we installed an Electric Management System, which shows the amps, volts, and hertz for each line and whether there are any errors. We plug in, and I check out the monitor to make sure everything looks good. The EMS will also kick the power off if there is a power surge or other drastic change, which might save our appliances in the future. For us, it has also helped with power management. Penelope was a 30-amp trailer, so we had to be careful about running certain things at the same time like the microwave and the a/c. Petunia is set up for 50 amps, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use 30. Often state or county parks only have 30 amps available. Knowing how many amps the a/c or my hair dryer use keeps me from blowing the breaker constantly and requiring reset. Regardless of which plug your rig has, go ahead and purchase the appropriate adaptors to use the others. There are plenty of sites out there that only have one choice…20, 30 or 50. Be prepared for it in case you are stuck.
GOOD: Just a little fact for us…putting stabilizer jacks down before anyone is inside seems to make it less bouncy. The old-timers probably know this, but we didn’t. In fact, after we switched to Petunia, we learned to get her level, then kneel forward just about 1/2 inch before hand tightening the stabilizers. Then when you raise it back up that 1/2 inch, they are good and firm. (Make sure that your rig can take that extra pressure before you try it, though.). On Petunia, we recently added the SteadyFast Stabilization System, that has almost totally gotten rid of the bounce.
COULD SKIP TO TERRIBLE WITHOUT YOU EVEN KNOWING IT: The vent fan in the bathroom is necessary, so use it. One of the biggest problems in trailers is humidity. It can get into the walls and other inaccessible areas and create mold. (You know, that really bad stuff that makes people sick and is in the news all the time.) Whenever we shower, we turn on the vent. Yes, even when it is very cold outside. Actually, that is the most important time, because the warm, steamy air from your shower is going to condense on the windows and create some serious water. We also run a dehumidifier any time we aren’t keeping the windows open. When parked at home, we keep DampRid sitting out and change it regularly.
MILDLY ANNOYING: Okay, this last one was one of the irritants in Penelope. The couch was terribly uncomfortable, and I’m seriously not talking a little bit. Since it was such a small trailer, space was at a premium, and I assume they had this thing custom made to fit that slide. The seats were not deep enough for a grown up, and because it was located over the manual slide mechanism, you couldn’t just replace it. We partially solved the issue with a storage ottoman to put our feet on, but neither of us could ever really make it work. So, when you are looking for your rig, sit on the furniture. Spend some time in it. Hang out. Lay on the mattress. (Okay, that last one is really unnecessary, because no matter what brand you get, you are going to need to replace the mattress almost immediately. They notoriously stink!) Do try out the fold-out bed, though, if you plan to use it. Petunia has GREAT seating!
Well, that’s what I can think of for now.
See you on the road!!