Ten tips for making the most of your first outing in a new RV and avoiding common pitfalls

So you poured over articles, watched dozens of YouTube videos, scoured RV shows and researched RV dealers. You negotiated a great price on that dream RV and stocked it with all the necessary gear. Now it’s time to hit the road and have some amazing adventures, right? Not so fast.

As tempting as it is to hitch up and head out to that first destination on your RV bucket list, you probably want to hit the pause button and first schedule what’s known as a shakedown trip. A shakedown trip is when you camp close to home, in a familiar setting, and put the RV through its paces. It’s the perfect opportunity for a new owner to learn how to use all the RV systems in a low-stakes environment.

Quite frankly, there’s a very steep learning curve for your first RV purchase. The process of hitching, towing and unhitching can be daunting enough. Then there’s leveling the trailer, setting up the stabilizer jacks, plugging into shorepower and hooking up the sewer hose. Tired yet?

These are all pretty simple tasks that experienced RVers do quickly and without much thought. However, trying to learn all these new systems and procedures while simultaneously traveling in an unfamiliar place can lead to stressful situations and plenty of user errors. That’s why an RV shakedown trip, close to home, is a good idea for the first-time RV buyer. Even seasoned owners can benefit from a local trial run in a fresh-off-the-lot RV.

Find a nearby campground

There are a few reasons why we highly recommend finding a campground within
30 minutes of home for an RV shakedown trip. First of all, this will limit towing time and help you avoid unfamiliar roads. You will be more comfortable towing the new rig in recognizable settings. Second, you’ll be close to home in case you need to run back and get anything, which you probably will. Lastly, it’s easier to stock up on necessary gear and supplies at your regular neighborhood stores.

If you bought the RV at a dealership far from your home base, we recommend doing a shakedown trip near that dealership immediately after purchase. This way, you can quickly discover any issues, and the dealer can service them right away. Some of the best dealers offer overnighting right on site for new owners. Take advantage of this perk if they offer it.

Truck towing travel trailer on a forest road next to a river
There will be plenty of time for grand adventures in your new rig, but on your first trip, keep it simple and close to home. Focus on learning how to use all the RV systems in a familiar setting.

Book a full-hookup site

Even if you dream of camping at rustic state parks, consider reserving a full-hookup site at an RV park for your shakedown trip. You’ll want to fully test all the systems, and you’ll need water, electric, sewer and cable to do it properly. Sanitize the freshwater tank, use all the appliances, and make sure to test the heating and air conditioning, even if the weather doesn’t require it.

Backing a trailer into a campsite is often one of the most stressful experiences for new RV owners. Booking a pull-through site on the shakedown trip will eliminate this challenge, and possibly save your marriage if traveling with a spouse. There will be plenty of time to practice this skill in the future.

Eliminate distractions

We absolutely love camping with family and friends, but it’s hard to focus on learning new things with a lot of distractions. We’ve been RVing for more than a decade, and we still can’t socialize while setting up or breaking down our trailer. Give yourself the opportunity to focus all your attention on the task at hand: learning about your new home on wheels.

Go slowly

In our experience, RVers break things when they rush. Whether you are lowering the stabilizer jacks or extending the slides or the awning, go slowly and have a spotter, if possible. If you recorded the RV walk-through at purchase, refresh your memory by watching the videos while setting up the trailer.

Use RV-specific products

There are a ton of keyboard commandos on Facebook who will suggest all manner of discount products for your black tank. They often argue that RV-specific cleaning products and tank chemicals are unnecessary and overpriced. We strongly disagree.

The toilet and tanks in your RV are nothing like the ones in a stationary home, and specially formulated products are important for keeping them in top-notch condition. Using bleach and other strong household chemicals can break down toilet seals, react dangerously with RV holding-tank chemicals and lead to chronic odor issues later. Take proper care of the holding tanks from day one and avoid drama for years to come.

Inspect for leaks

We had our previous RV for three years and were happy with its quality. However, when we took our first shakedown trip, we found a leak under the shower caused by a fitting that hadn’t been fully tightened. It took only a few minutes to fix, and because we caught the problem early, there was no damage done. However, if we had not been scouring the RV for signs of leaks, this could have become a serious issue.

The author inspects his took bag outside their travel trailer
Assemble a portable tool kit before you head out on your shakedown trip. You’ll need some basics like replacement fuses, screwdrivers and socket wrenches.

During the shakedown trip, run a ridiculous amount of water through the system and open every cabinet and storage bin to search for leaks. In addition, fully inspect the RV after any rainfall, whether you are storing it in the driveway or at a storage facility. Check interior seams and slides for seepage. Treat water like it’s your RV’s greatest enemy.

Create checklists

Human beings make errors and forget things. You’d probably have a hard time finding an RVer who hasn’t forgotten to remove the chocks before pulling out of the campsite at least once because they were distracted or in a hurry. Checklists keep RVers safe and prevent us from doing damage to our RVs.

Download some online RV checklists, starting with the Trailer Life website. Then make sure to customize them to your individual RV while on your shakedown trip. We use our smartphone’s Notes app to create and store personal RV checklists.

Bring a label maker

You might be shocked at the number of buttons in the RV that are not labeled. You could be that person that flips five different buttons every time you try to turn on the awning light for the next five years. Or you can just use your handy-dandy label maker to stop the madness before it starts.

Go easy with the modifications

It’s tempting to make all the changes when staying in your RV for the first time. We recommend going slowly with any personal modifications. What may seem like a great idea to an RV newbie may turn out to be a bad decision once you have a little more experience under your belt.

A camper tests the sewer valves on a travel trailer
Booking a site with water, electric and sewer hookups for your first outing will allow you to test all the systems in your new RV.

For example, some people hang up decorative items before understanding how bumpy the ride can be while heading down the highway. Start with nonpermanent modifications using adhesive hooks and hook-and-loop fasteners. Then you can easily change things as you figure out what works best for your RV lifestyle.

Ask for help

One cold, dark, rainy night about 10 years ago when we were new to RVing, we pulled into a camp­ground with our pop-up trailer and two small children. We struggled desperately to get the furnace to light, but to no avail. Two kind campers eventually wandered over and let us in on a tried-and-true RV secret: when something won’t light, you have to purge the LP-gas lines. We never would have known to light the stove to get the furnace working, especially in the pre-smartphone days.

RVers are full of hard-earned wisdom, and in our experience they are often more than happy to help. Don’t be embarrassed to reach out to a camping neighbor if you are in a bind.

It’s really important to be patient and keep your sense of humor when learning how to operate a new RV. Giving yourself time to practice setting up camp, use the RV systems and break it all back down will pay off in spades for years to come. Consider the RV shakedown trip a housewarming gift to yourself. And then have an amazing time on that first bucket-list adventure.


Meet Your Match: Parts 1 and 2

Look for parts 1 and 2 of the “Meet Your Match” series on buying and taking ownership of an RV in the November 2019 and January 2020 issues of Trailer Life. Part 1, “Refining the RV-Shopping Experience,” goes over items to inspect and questions to ask when taking delivery of a new or used RV at the dealership. Part 2, “RV Delivery Do’s and Don’ts,” covers what to look for when taking delivery of your new RV.


Cover or 2020 RV Buyers Guide with green background and RV photosOnline RV Buyers’ Guide

For information on new and used towable RVs, including specs, floorplans and photos, visit Trailer Life’s online RV Buyers’ Guide at rvbg.trailerlife.com. The online search tool has model-year-specific details on RVs going back to 2003. Searches can be done by length, price and manufacturer, as well as model year.


Headshot of authors and podcasters Jeremy and Stephanie Puglisi.In addition to contributing to Trailer Life, Jeremy and Stephanie Puglisi are writers for RVFTA.com and hosts of the RV Family Travel Atlas podcast. They are also the authors of Idiot’s Guides: RV Vacations. The couple spends as much time as possible exploring the country in a toy-hauler travel trailer with their three very energetic sons and Maggie the Camping Dog.


3 COMMENTS

  1. Will they start adding outdoor kitchens to toy haulers? Our TT has one, and we will not do without it. Been looking for toy hauler, but it seems outdoor kitchens are not a draw for buyers, at least until you have had one. The sink is such a huge benefit.

    • Trailer Life’s coverage of the new 2020 toy haulers includes a couple of models with outdoor kitchens — the Grand Design Momentum 29GO and Black Series HQ22T. Other models in Grand Design’s Momentum G-Class lineup also come with an outdoor kitchen, as do some models of the Heartland Cyclone, Keystone Outback and Raptor, and Forest River Cedar Creek Hathaway, Cherokee Wolf Pack and Vengeance.

  2. We bought our trailer several years ago and checked it over before we bought it. Just recently a leak developed in one of windows. We took it in to get it repaired and were told that the leak was caused by a person using a router let it slip and cut a piece of the wood frame out and tried to use a tape of some kind to seal it. It has been repaired for now at our cost. If the company had better quality control, instead of hurry up and get it done and get it finished so that we can sell it, this wouldn’t have happened. Because no matter how close you look over the unit you are about to buy, you could not spot hidden mistakes until it is too late as your warranty has expired.

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