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Travel Trailer Tips for Beginners

by Grant
Travel Trailer Tips for Beginners

Owning a travel trailer has been one of the best experiences of our lives. We bought ours back in 2016 and have taken it out each summer on some pretty epic road trips as well as shorter trips throughout the year. That said, owning a travel trailer definitely has a learning curve. Now, we know what we’re doing and are happy to share our travel trailer tips with you.

It has taken us quite a bit of trial and error to figure out how to make the best of the camper. To help you avoid some of the headaches we endured, we’re bringing you these travel trailer tips for beginners. In this guide, you’ll find everything you need to know about buying and owning a travel trailer.

We hope this post helps you smooth out the problems when you first take out your travel trailer. 

(Disclaimer: When we link to places you can buy our stuff or places we stayed, we are using special codes which earn us commissions on the sales at no additional cost to you. Please see our Review Policy  for more information.)

Before You Buy a Travel Trailer

My number one tip before buying a travel trailer is to make sure your vehicle can tow it. Check with your vehicle’s manufacturer to determine the towing capacity of your vehicle. Then go through the step using this app to see your real tow capacity. Just because your vehicle says it can tow something doesn’t mean it actually can do it safely. 

Once you have determined how much you can safely tow, you need to prep your vehicle to tow. 

For all but the lightest trailers, you are going to want a Class IV hitch at the very least. If the camper weighs more than 3,000 pounds, you will need to have a trailer brake controller. If you are towing a camper over 5,000 pounds, you are gonna need a weight distributing hitch. This keeps the trailer and the back end of the truck level. Most also have some anti-sway capability as well. 

Our new 2017 F-150
We only have one vehicle so we made sure it was great for traveling.

We have a Husky Centerline TS and it has worked perfectly for us. The dealer tossed the hitch in with the price of the camper and installed it for us. 

Lastly, you are gonna want tow mirrors. There are mirrors you can clamp on and mirrors that you can install. Max tow packages for most trucks often come with tow mirrors. We bought Trail Ridge Tow Mirrors for our F-150. They were easy to install ourselves and are quite happy with them.

Now, your vehicle is ready to tow a trailer!

Read more about the vehicle we tow with, a 2017 F-150.

Buying a Travel Trailer

When we were looking for our first travel trailer, one of the best pieces of advice we found on the Internet: Buy your second camper first. We agree with that advice. 

RVs do not appreciate in value like a house. They lose value like a car. So, if you are buying a “starter camper” to see if you like the RV life, I recommend renting an RV. Take it out for the weekend instead of buying. It will save you a LOT of money. 

Read more about renting a camper through Outdoorsy here.

Don’t let the dealer try to convince you to buy more than you can safely tow. That’s really important. You do not want to be barely able to pull your travel trailer through the Mojave Desert or over a tall pass in the Rockies. 

Pulling our camper over Powder River Pass in Wyoming
Pulling our camper over Powder River Pass in Wyoming.

Think about what you want in your trailer and try out a bunch of them. An RV show is a great place to check out a bunch of campers. Pick a floor plan you like then see which dealer has the best deal.

Read our RV Show Survival Guide here.

We wanted a wrap-around queen bed and a couch instead of a dinette. In hindsight, we wish we got both a couch and a dinette. Then we could use the dinette as a desk for working on the blog. We make it work, though. And that is certainly not enough of a problem to buy a new camper!

Another important feature for us was having plenty of storage space. We have closet space by the bed and by the front door/bathroom. And plenty of cabinets in the kitchen. There is also a large pass-through for outdoor items. That said, we are struggling to make our new chairs fit with everything else we have in the pass-through. 

The interior of our camper
One of the best parts of RV camping: sleeping in YOUR bed every night.

Make sure you have the dealer walk you through the camper. Have them show you where everything is. You need to know where to find cut off valves, the fuse box and the reset buttons on various appliances. 

Read about our experience of buying our first travel trailer.

Add-ons to Have the Dealer Install

Once you have found and priced the perfect travel trailer, there are few things we recommend having the dealer install right off the bat. For some of these, you might be able to get the dealer to toss them in with the purchase price. Others, you are gonna need to budget for.

First and foremost, have flying insect screens installed on all of your exhaust vents! Dirt daubers like to make a home in those vents. Their nests can ruin a fridge, a furnace or a hot water heater. If you’re fairly handy, you could probably do this yourself.

You can see the slide topper covering the top of our slide here.
You can see the slide topper covering the top of our slide here.

Second, get slide toppers if the trailer does not already come with them. These will keep debris from getting on top of your slide. The rubber gasket around the slide keeps debris out of your camper when you retract the slide. The slide topper will keep the debris from getting there in the first place. You will avoid having to clean off the top of the slide when you strike camp.

Third, get a battery disconnect. The carbon monoxide detector is always on and always draining the battery when we store the camper. A simple battery disconnect will help preserve the life of your battery if you cannot leave the vehicle constantly plugged in. 

We rarely get hit by rain when setting up the camper but we sure did in Paducah and we were quite glad to have an electric jack for the camper.
We rarely get hit by rain when setting up the camper but we sure did in Paducah and we were quite glad to have an electric jack for the camper.

Fourth, get an electric hitch jack. I can’t tell you how much time and effort this will save you from having manually lower and raise the jack of the trailer.

If being able to watch satellite TV is important to you, have a dish mounted on the roof. Both Dish and DirectTV offer packages aimed at RVs. I would certainly check the fine print in terms of contracts and requirements. 

Lastly, if you camp away from connections (called boondocking) often, we recommend you talk to your dealer about having alternate power sources, like solar panels or a generator, integrated into your trailer from the get-go. 

Outfitting Your New Travel Trailer

The reality is you are gonna need a lot of stuff for your camper. You’ll need equipment for getting everything hooked up and operational along with all the comforts of home – linens, cookware, dishes. We have written two top-ranked comprehensive guides on outfitting your travel trailer inside and out:

Seriously, we have you covered when it comes to outfitting your travel trailer.

Before You Take Your Travel Trailer on the Road for the First Time

As you load everything into the travel trailer, make sure the majority of your gear is loaded toward the front of the camper. If you push the majority of the weight (60%) forward of the axels, you will reduce sway considerably. 

Check out this video from the folks at UHaul…

Once you load everything in, it’s time to check the wheels and tires on the trailer.  Take a lug wrench and tighten down all the lug nuts. Then check the air pressure on all of the tires, including the spare. It does you no good to have a flat spare.

If you installed a battery disconnect, reconnect the battery at this point. 

Then connect the hitch and the trailer. This process is different depending on the weight distributing hitch you have. Make sure you lube everything that needs lube, including the ball. 

Pro tip: If your battery is dead and you need to power the jack, once you connect the cable to the truck, you should get enough power to operate the jack. If the power is not immediately flowing, depress the slider on the trailer brake controller to send power to the trailer.

Make sure you hook in the chains, crossing in an “x” underneath the hitch so if it comes loose, the chains will catch it.

Once you connect everything, you can remove the chocks and you are ready to perform one last walk around.

The new F-150 towing the camper
Ready to hit the road from our storage unit.

In this walk around, make sure you close and lock all of the compartments. Be sure to double-check the windows are closed and the TV antenna is down. Then check the brake lights on the trailer to make sure they are functioning. 

Lastly, make sure you extend the tow mirrors and you can see down the length of the trailer in the mirrors. 

You are now ready to hit the road. 

Towing a Travel Trailer

The first thing to know about towing a travel trailer is you can’t go as fast as you would otherwise. Most trailer tires are rated for 65 MPH. 

A higher driving speed significantly reduces your braking speed and stopping distance. That means it is a lot easier for you to rear-end someone if they stop suddenly. Additionally, excess speed leads to increased sway which can easily topple your vehicle. 

Interstate 40 closely follows historic Route 66.
The view on the road in Texas is long and wide open.

Additionally, it takes some time getting used to the additional space the truck and trailer combo take up on the road. Even towing a relatively small trailer poses difficulties in heavy traffic. 

This also holds true for finding gas and fast food on the road. We highly suggest researching gas stations and restaurants to make sure they have RV parking or at least plenty of room. We use the satellite view in Google Maps or Apple Maps to check it out in advance.

Buying our first RV is one of the best things we have ever done.
On the road in California.

Backing up a travel trailer is tough and there is no way to get good at it other than practice. Honestly, our worst arguments come from backing up our camper. I have gotten better at it but I always struggle a bit when we first head out. 

Our F-150 has the Pro Trailer Back-Up Assist, which I love… when it works. When it doesn’t, mostly due to the sensor losing sight of the sticker, it tends to cut off when I need it most: on a tight turn.

Setting Up at a Campsite

We suggest camping somewhere with a Walmart or RV store nearby for your first few outings. You will find you need things you didn’t think of. Camping near a store means you can buy items you need easily, which will make your first trip that much better.

As you settle your tailer into the campsite, be sure to take note of where the connections are. On our second trip, we managed to set up too far away from the water connection and had to buy a second water hose. 

Getting set up at our first campground.
Getting set up at a campground.

Pro tip: We store all of the gear we need for setting up in the pass-through on the left side of the trailer. This allows easy access for the driver to everything needed to get the travel trailer set up.

Take a large construction-style level with you for the first trip. As you get settled in and level the trailer, then apply the bubble levels we recommend in our outfitting guide to the outside of the camper to make leveling it easier in the future.

Use levelers to make sure your trailer is level. Most fridges will not operate if the camper is not level. Make sure you put chocks down to keep the trailer from moving before you disconnect from the truck. 

Lincoln State Park campsite
Bonnie relaxing in front of the camper. You can see from the number of levelers used how unlevel this site is.

Once you are level and disconnected from the truck, connect the electrical. We use a power management system (basically, a surge protector for RVs) and that takes a couple of minutes to allow electricity through. Make sure the system is reading no errors before you get too invested in the site. We have had to move a couple of times because there were electricity issues at the campsite.

Our campsite at the Lake Fanny Hooe Resort and Campground. Note the connections!
Our campsite at the Lake Fanny Hooe Resort and Campground. Note the connections!

Pro tip: Put on gloves when working on the outside of the camper. That will keep your hands a lot cleaner when dealing with greasy stuff and the sewer connection.

Bonnie and I typically divide our efforts at this point, with her taking care of everything inside and me taking care of the stuff outside.

Once you connect the electrical, then connect the freshwater. Our camper is only designed to handle 45-55 PSI. We use a pressure regulator and a water filter to make sure our pipes are not damaged and the water tastes good. 

Pro tip: Don’t forget to switch the bypass valve for the hot water heater to allow water to flow into it the first time after the camper has been winterized. Turning on the hot water heater without water in it can damage the heater. 

Chances are, the dealer winterized your travel trailer before you bought it. You will need to flush the antifreeze out. Just keep the water flowing until it is clear. If the dealer used an air compressor to blow out the lines, you may need to keep the water flowing until all the air is out of the lines. You will need to do this on all of the sinks, shower and toilet.

Improvising with Lynx Levelers
Sometimes, you need to improvise to have a good sewer connection. In this case, having plenty of Lynx Levelers really helped out.

Next, it’s time to connect the sewer. The hose rotates on and should stretch to the sewer connection at the site. Be sure to use a screw-in adapter or a donut to prevent foul smells from leaking out of the sewer lines. Use a hose stand to keep the water from the tank flowing easily.

Now, it’s time to drop the stabilization jacks. These work to prevent the camper from rocking too much as people move in it. We use a cordless drill with a scissor jack adapter to put ours down quickly. 

The scissor jack with levelers
The scissor jack with levelers

Some travel trailers come with automatic leveling jacks. Those are pretty cool but they are pricey, too. 

Now, your trailer is set up. You may need to move a couple of things around on the inside, put out slides or generally get things shifted from storage to use, but that does not involve any complicated steps.

If you have a cable connection at the campsite, you can plug in your cable or you can raise your antenna to see what broadcast TV you can get. 

Typically, this takes us around 20 minutes but we have been doing it a while. It will take you more time the first few times, but you will get the hang of it. 

Now, it’s time to get out camp chairs and enjoy a cold beverage!

Grant enjoying a beer
Grant enjoying a Reformation Cadence from Woodstock.

Leaving a Camp Site

When you’re ready to leave you you have to take down everything you set up when you arrived. No one ever said RVing was easy.

Start by putting on some rubber gloves. You will need them.

Once everything requiring water is taken care of on the inside, you can start draining the tanks. You will want to drain the black water tank first. 

While I am working outside, Bonnie works on the inside to make sure everything is put away and ready for travel. She also pulls out the trash and leaves it out for me so I can dispose of my gloves and any shop towels I use. 

Sewer Hose Connection
Sewer Hose Connection

While the black water tank is draining, you can take care of other items, like putting the hitch on the truck or putting away camp chairs. 

Once the black water tank has finished draining, you close that valve and drain the gray water tank. You want to always drain the foulest tank first, then rinse with less nasty water, then finally rinse with clean water… more on that in a moment. 

While the gray water tank is draining, disconnect the freshwater hose and put it away. Then attach your utility hose. Once the gray water tank is drained, use your utility hose to flush your sewer hose then put the sewer hose and stand away. 

This attaches to a sewer hose for easy flushing.
Our utility hose with sewer hose cleaner attached. This attaches to a sewer hose for easy flushing.

Pro tip: Do not use your freshwater hose for anything other than fresh drinking water. Additionally, store it in a separate bin than anything related to the sewer, like the utility hose. 

Once everything is done on the inside and any slides are in, you can disconnect the power connection and then retract the stabilization jacks. 

It’s now time to reconnect the travel trailer with the truck. Then, move off the levelers and get everything put away in the pass-throughs. 

Husky Centerline Hitch
Husky Centerline Hitch hooked up and ready to go.

You are now ready to do the walk around on the camper, making sure everything is put away, locked up and ready for travel. Be sure to check those brake lights and the TV antenna one more time before you leave. 

This typically takes us about 40 minutes. Then we visit the bathroom one last time and hit the road!

Final Travel Trailer Tips

Don’t let this long list of travel trailer tips discourage you. Yes, there is a learning curve to owning your first travel trailer. Yes, it’ll certainly be difficult and frustrating at times, especially in the beginning. And there is no doubt that you’ll make mistakes along the way. That’s true of most anything that you are new to.

Still, it’s a wonderful lifestyle and a great way to explore the world around you. With time, you’ll figure out what you’re doing and soon you’ll be the veteran and will share your travel trailer tips with a beginner.

Every year, we get better at RVing. With experience, the little things like winterizing the camper or handling small emergencies get easier. 

I am heartened when I look back on how much easier the basic tasks are now. Owning a travel trailer may be a bit difficult to manage at first, but once you get the hang of it, it is a lot less stressful. And those tasks that took forever at first are second nature and finished with ease.

We hope this travel trailer guide takes some of the guesswork out of how to deal with a camper and what to expect when you first start out. 

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