Buying your first RV and learning everything you need to have and be able to do can be quite daunting. There’s a lot to learn, a lot to figure out and it can be a bit bewildering at times. But, RVing is a great lifestyle and an amazing way to see the country and enjoy the outdoors. I promise, there will be some fun to balance out the stress of owning an RV!
If you are considering buying an RV for the first time, we encourage you to actually follow through! But, we also want you to be prepared for what you are getting into and know what to expect after you drive off the lot.
So, here we go: our best advice for finding the right RV, working with RV dealers, arranging RV storage, outfitting your new RV and preparing for your first trip. Like I said, there’s a lot to consider!
Updated May 2019
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Why Get an RV
Before buying our first RV, Bonnie and I had been traveling across the US, taking month-long road trips, visiting mostly the American West, and all the while, we were tent camping. You heard me right… camping in a tent nearly every night. We made a point to stay in hotels where we just couldn’t find a good campground or on very long driving days. The rest of the time we slept in a tent.
One of the major problems with tent camping these days, especially out West, is the lack of good campsites for tents. On our 2014 road trip, we had significant problems finding a good campground, especially in Kansas. One day we visited three private campgrounds and four state parks to find just one that had shaded sites. Shaded sites are a must when you are camping somewhere hot in the summer!
Add in spending nine days in a row tent camping in Cody, Wy., Yellowstone NP and Grand Teton NP, our backs let us know that we desperately needed to sleep in a real bed.
Read our comparison of RV vs. Tent Camping.
What We Were Looking For in Our First RV
So, after our month-long summer road trip in 2014, we basically said we were getting too old for tent camping in the future. We made plans to start saving up the money to buy a travel trailer, and, as such, went to a couple of RV shows to look at what we liked and what we didn’t.
I knew, based upon our truck (a 2012 F-150 with a tow package), we couldn’t tow a huge trailer. I wanted to keep the trailer to about 25 feet long and less than 80% of the truck’s tow capacity. With those factors in mind, we started our search.
Read about our new 2017 F-150.
Oh, one more thing: we didn’t want a dinette. It seemed a waste of space. We wanted a couch instead. (Since then, we have seen the value in a dinette as an office area for our blog.)
We spent a day one weekend in January 2015 crawling through various RVs, finding a few that met what we wanted. Then we found it: The Passport Elite 23RB by Keystone. For us, it was the perfect couple’s trailer. In terms of features, it had just about everything we wanted: a walk-around queen bed, a corner shower, plenty of storage and a really cool “peninsula” with a couple of stools for dining. Perfect!
Read our RV Show Survival Guide.
Pulling the Trigger on Our First RV
Fast forward a year… In that time, we had taken a trip to Eastern Europe and I had a heart attack. Among other considerations, the heart attack (and resulting medications) affected my ability to deal with heat. We also noticed that during each extended absence, our cat, Alee, had a harder time being alone. Those factors led us to our first travel trailer.
One weekend in February 2016, we went to the Greater Atlanta RV Show to check out a few other models and see if we could find a good deal. What we found was a disappointment. While the dealers there had plenty of models to look at, we discovered there are very few floor plans like the one we want. In fact, we did not find a single trailer without a dinette.
The lack of selection disappointed us since we were ready to pull the trigger if we found the right deal. We decided to hit a local dealer to see if we could take a look at one, try it out, make sure we still liked the plan and imagine trying to live in the trailer for a month at a time.
While the first dealer was very nice, they weren’t in a dealing mood, refusing to even come down to the advertised price of another near-“ish”-by dealer on RV Trader. So, we hit the road, driving about 90 miles to the other dealer.
The second dealer was more than happy to work with us, marking down nearly 10 percent off the lowest price we were able to find on RV Trader nationwide and tossing in a Husky Center Line Weight Distributing Hitch, a deep charge battery and a battery box with it.
I can’t tell you how excited we were to finally be doing this! After years of road-tripping with tents, inflatable mattresses, sore backs and treeless campsites out West, we are very excited to have a real bed and air conditioning with us!
A couple of days later, we drove back up to look at the exact trailer, start the paperwork on the loan, and make sure we were comfortable with the deal. From there, it was all a matter of financing and figuring out all the stuff we didn’t know!
Bringing Home Our First RV
About a week later, we drove up to Dalton RV to sign on the dotted line and pick up our camper.
I must say, the process was far smoother than buying a car or buying a house… And far less invasive on the financing end. We financed the camper over 12 years, taking advantage of the second home interest rate deduction on our taxes.
We started off with a comprehensive walk-through of the Keystone Passport Elite 23RB. It was bewildering. It seems behind every corner in the trailer there is another something we didn’t know and need to spend a lot of money to take care of. Well, not really but it feels like it. Fortunately, we set aside quite a bit of money to outfit the camper.
After the walk-through, we signed the paperwork and drove off with our new camper! It was not the first time I have ever towed a trailer before, but the first time I had hauled anything this big. We were very glad we got the weight distributing hitch with anti-sway bars. It made towing the trailer with our 2012 F-150 pretty easy.
Then, our first minor emergency. Not more than a block from the dealership, I looked in the mirror and noticed I had left the outdoor shower open and dangling. We quickly pulled over and closed it up. It was a rather harmless way to learn the lesson of always do a walk around the trailer before you leave.
The drive down the Interstate was stressful. That wasn’t because anything was wrong. Rather, it was because it was my first time driving on the Interstate with the trailer. Thankfully, it went fine.
Finding Storage for Our First RV
I cannot stress this enough: PLEASE think about where you are going to park your camper before you bring it home. With any luck, you’ll be able to park it at your house. Unfortunately, many Home Owner’s Associations have rules against this. There may even be a city or county rule against long-term RV parking in a residential area.
Since we live in a condo in a small downtown area, we knew we were going to need a camper storage space. The week before we actually brought the camper home, we called several facilities in the area. We finally found one in a good location with a reasonable monthly rate.
Unfortunately, the owners were out of town for the weekend. So, we weren’t actually going to be able to get a space the day we brought the RV home. Thankfully, we work at a school which has a couple of large empty parking lots over the weekend! We parked the trailer at the school (with the principal’s and school police’s permission) for the first night.
For the second night, we parked the camper in a friend’s driveway. Yes, most HOAs will allow for short-term RV parking. This is great for loading and unloading before or after a trip. Sadly, in our small downtown area, we will never have this option.
In terms of how much camper storage will cost, it very much depends on the area and what you are looking for. Our space in far north Metro Atlanta costs about $70/month. That is for a gravel lot in a gated area but does not include any sort of hookups. We were paying almost that much for a small storage unit to mostly just hold our camping gear. Of course, we got rid of the storage unit when we got the camper.
There are some indoor storage options with electricity that cost at least a couple hundred dollars a month. Again, it really just depends on your location and what you want.
The First of Many Shopping Trips
Of course, on the drive home, we realized a few things we needed, so off to Walmart we went! We picked up some wheel chocks and a lug wrench that fit the tires on the trailer. We also embarked upon our first quest: a trailer hitch lock that fit! I tried one I had bought off Amazon. It didn’t fit. We tried one we bought at Walmart… no luck.
Finally, I settled for a simple padlock from Walmart. It worked until we could go to Camping World to get one that would offer more protection and not be easy pickings for a simple bolt cutter.
Saturday night and Sunday led to more shopping, both for us and for the camper. In addition to Walmart and Camping World, we also went to Ikea and ordered a bunch of stuff from Amazon. Yes, you need to be prepared to spend a bit of money outfitting your new RV.
Backing Up a Travel Trailer
Before parking the trailer at the school for the first night, we took advantage of the empty parking lot and practiced backing up. If you’ve never backed up any kind of trailer, I will tell you this: it is not easy!
My summary after about an hour of practicing: I suck at backing up a trailer. I finally was able to back into a parking space straight behind me. I needed a lot more practice learning how to back it into a campsite.
I’ll be honest here: After three years of RVing, I’ve definitely gotten better at backing up the camper but I’m still not an expert.
Thankfully, our good friend, Andy is a master at backing up a trailer. He had the 27-foot trailer in his driveway in about two minutes. Of course, his advice is the bane of all folks trying to learn how to do something: you learn by trying and by “feeling it.” We all remember hearing those dreaded words when learning how to drive. You learn to apply the brakes and when to let go by “feeling it.” Can there be any less specific instructions in the world?
First RV Trips: Chattanooga and Mexico Beach
Finally, nearly two months after bringing home the camper, it was time for our first trip!
For our first “test trip,” we headed just up the road to Chattanooga. It was only about 90 minutes away, had full hook-ups and allowed us to test out all of the systems on the camper. We also got to visit Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, knocking another National Parks site off our list.
Most importantly, there was a Walmart nearby, allowing us to pick up stuff we were missing. Truly, this trip was mostly about making sure we could get everything set up. We also wanted to figure out what all we needed to do before heading out on a “real” trip!
We did enjoy spending a few hours at the military park. Really, though, the trip was more about getting used to the camper. Honestly, it was the perfect trip for us! I am very glad we weren’t stressed about a long distance or a busy itinerary. If you can plan a trip like this after buying an RV for the first time, I highly recommend it!
Pro Tip: For the first couple of trips, having a Walmart nearby to deal with the little emergencies is very handy.
For our second “test trip” with the camper, we headed south to Mexico Beach, FL.
Originally, we were looking for something closer to Bonnie’s family in Tallahassee. After making many calls to various campgrounds in the area, we discovered most, if not all required a three-night stay over Memorial Day weekend. We understand, but due to work, could not get away until Saturday.
Wow, were we glad we waited! It took much longer than we expected to get down there. We left Woodstock at around 9 a.m. and did not arrive in Mexico Beach until 4:30 p.m. ET. We are used to being able to move much faster while driving. Getting in and out of places with the camper is also a lot more difficult than expected. Again, we are glad that we figured this out on a short weekend trip, versus a six-week long road trip!
Traveling with our cat, Alee, was also a bit of an adventure. After the second trip, she settled down quite a bit. But she is a cat, after all, and gets a bit antsy in the truck. Once we got settled in at the campground, though, she got right in the camper and was quite content.
Read about Traveling with our Cat.
Learning the Ropes
The second site was my first back-in site, which went better than I expected, but there was a bit of room to work with, so it wasn’t too tough. Since we had already gone through the set-up process once, that part was a bit easier. But, every campground is different and there’s always the chance that you’ll encounter a new experience or problem!
Of course, upon setting up the camper, we discovered we needed more stuff and needed to make a trip to Walmart. We will be very glad when we manage to NOT have to make a run or two to Walmart for one weekend of camping.
For this trip, we set up our camper too far from the water spigot and needed an additional water hose. This was probably good since I had read in a couple of outfitting your RV articles having a second hose and second power cable was pretty much a necessity. We also needed little things like hand soap but the hose was the big thing.
The second big discovery for me was the propane. We did not test out the propane on the first trip. So, I pulled out the grill and went to fire it up only to find we had no propane. The cans were there, but they were not full, as I thought when we bought the camper. Little things. We already knew that our next campground would have LP service so we were able to get them filled then.
Mexico Beach itself is quaint. It is small, located on the other side of Tyndall Air Force Base from Panama City and on the way to Port St. Joe. There is not a lot of development and it is pretty quiet, even at night. We grabbed some seafood our first night at Toucan’s, which was a pretty decent seafood shack right on the water. Caribbean Coffee provided pastries for breakfast and was a cute little coffee shop.
Bonnie’s folks dropped by on Sunday to see the new camper and to hang out. Since we knew we’d be on the road for her 40th birthday we decided to head this way so we could see them before we leave town.
We walked down to the beach for sunset on Sunday night and thoroughly enjoyed the smallness of the town. It’s quiet, a far cry from its neighbor, Panama City. Apparently, the town has severely restricted growth to keep it small and the effort is appreciated.
We hate the destruction Hurricane Michael brought to Mexico Beach in 2018 and hope for a speedy recovery!
Heading Out on Our First Big RV Trip
After two practice runs, it was finally time to take the RV on the road for real! Our first RV trip with the new camper was a six-week road trip to New England. On this trip, we visited 11 states and 26 units of the National Park Service. It was a great trip, with no major issues. That said, I am certainly glad that we did a couple of small trips first!
On those small trips, I realized, with the camper, we simply couldn’t travel the same way we did without it. With just the truck, we were a lot more nimble and could cover greater distances faster. With the camper, though, we are forced to slow down, which is both a good and a bad thing. It’s good because it will provide a bit more downtime than we generally think we need. It’s bad only because we can’t quite see and do as much as we used to in the same amount of time.
Case in point: Our first stop on the New England itinerary was the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site. When I first started planning, I figured it would be something we spent a couple of hours doing on our way up I-81. I quickly realized, though, that we’d have to find a place to park the camper. We also wouldn’t be able to leave the cat without air conditioning. Uh, oh… Change of plans!
This stop became a two-night stay, which allowed us to explore the area more and to take things slower. Overall, with the camper, we can stay on the road a bit longer. Most importantly, we didn’t have to leave our cat, Alee, at home for six to seven weeks.
Sadly, Alee passed away in early 2019. We are thankful that we got to spend two summers, and many weekends, traveling with her. She will always be our Camping Kitty! We absolutely enjoyed having her with us in the camper. If you’re considering traveling with a cat, we highly recommend it!
Read about Losing Alee, Our Camping Kitty.
Final Thoughts on Buying an RV for the First Time
We’ve been RVing for three years now. Over time, we became much more comfortable dealing with the camper and exactly what that means. While it certainly takes a lot longer to move from place to place, having our own bed and not having to unpack is a great benefit.
Buying an RV for the first time is a big decision and not something you should jump into without a lot of thought and consideration. If you’re looking to travel more, though, it is a great option! It’s also a great option to travel more comfortably! Whether you are used to camping or staying in hotels, there’s just something about having your own space that makes traveling more enjoyable.
I have to admit, the cost of owning an RV is not always low but RVing is a great lifestyle. For us, the benefits definitely outweigh the costs and occasional frustrations.
For more, check out Our Top Tips for New RVers.