Ahhh, the open road! If you’re a fan of traveling and particularly taking extended camping or road trips, a class A motorhome is about as luxurious as it gets.
So, you’ve saved your pennies over the years and can FINALLY afford your dream RV. You’ve done all the research, all the budgeting, talked it over with your significant other, and found your perfect motorhome. How exciting! But then it hits you…
“I have to DRIVE this thing?!? The biggest vehicle I’ve ever driven before is an SUV!”
Now, instead of imagining the wonderful times you can have in your motorhome, you are stressed about navigating city streets, merging onto busy expressways, maneuvering through tight corners in outdated RV parks, and wondering how you’ll ever be able to put the thing in reverse with your vehicle being towed behind.
As a former truck driver and CDL-A driving instructor, I can offer some pointers to help put your mind at ease.
It’s OK To Be Nervous – But Not TOO Nervous!
Whenever I was given a new truck driving student, the first thing I would try to find out was their mentality and confidence level behind the wheel. One one hand, I wanted a student who was confident, willing to learn, and safety conscious. On the other hand, I did NOT want a student who was so afraid and nervous that his or her judgement was impaired. The best students were those who were somewhere in the middle – not exactly fearless, but not crippled by their nerves, either.
The thing is – driving is dangerous. It’s the most dangerous activity we perform on a day-to-day basis and is the #1 cause of accidental death or serious injury. And that’s with your CAR! Once you jump into a huge class A motorhome, the entire playing field has changed. If you aren’t nervous driving such an enormous vehicle on public roadways, I would rather you not be on the road at all. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your journey. So, let’s dive into this a bit further.
Learn How To Use The Airbrakes Properly
While there are many variations of class A motorhomes, the vast majority of motorhomes use air brakes. Unless you have driven a commercial vehicle in the past, you likely have zero experience using air brakes. In fact, everyone who uses a vehicle with air brakes is required to pass a written and driving exam so they can get a special endorsement on their driver license… except you! That’s right – Recreational vehicles are exempt from this requirement.
Now, when using air brakes, there are a few things to keep in mind….
- It takes longer for the brakes to be applied: One of the things you’ll need to get used to is the delay from the time you hit the brake pedal to the time your brakes actually are applied. It can take up to a half second to a full second for your brakes to actually be applied after depressing the brake pedal. In an emergency situation, this is an eternity. Learn to look as far down the road as possible, actively anticipate possible emergencies, and double or tripe your normal following distance.
- It will take you longer to stop: This is pretty obvious but needs to be mentioned. Not only does it take your brakes longer to fully apply, but with such a heavy vehicle, it will take much, much longer for your class A motorhome to stop.
- Air brakes are prone to leaks: If your air brake system develops a leak (either in the lines, the air compressor / chambers, or elsewhere) it could cause major problems. The air in the air brake system actually keeps the brakes from applying. If too much air is lost, the brakes will be applied automatically… Even if you’re traveling down the expressway at 65mph. Most class A motorhomes include an air pressure gauge on the dashboard. If that gauge shows an abnormally low amount of air pressure, pull over immediately! It is an emergency situation. Also note that rapid pumping of the brakes will eventually reduce air pressure to dangerously low levels.
- ABS is much less effective: If you need to brake heavily during slippery driving conditions, be aware that your anti-lock braking system will be far less effective than in your vehicle. This increases the likelihood of losing control of your motorhome and also vastly increases the following distance.
This is NOT an all-inclusive list by any means. If you would like to do more research on how air brakes work, the absolute best place to learn is by viewing a CDL study guide and reading over the air brakes section. I particularly like the way the Illinois CDL study guide covers it.
Driving In Mountains With A Motorhome
Owning a class A motorhome gives you the ability to see all of the most beautiful areas the country has to offer. Undoubtedly, some of the most frequented areas by RVers are mountainous regions. There are a few things to keep in mind when driving in the mountains in a large vehicle like a Class A motorhome:
Brake BEFORE Turns & Hills – Since you’re driving a high-profile vehicle that is much more vulnerable to rolling over, you want to brake BEFORE turns. You may not notice them in your car, but most turns have small orange “suggested speed limit” signs. Well, you’ll want to pay attention to those now. Enter corners 10mph below that speed. As you enter the turn, you will want to be off the brakes and even accelerating slightly through the turn if possible. This will shift the weight and center of gravity on your RV in a way that will make things much more stable. You also want to brake before a downhill grade to help save on your brakes.
Brake Properly Going Downhill – If you are going down a steep hill, you’ll want to use special braking methods to avoid overheating your brakes. When brakes get too hot, they become less effective to the point they will not work at all. This is obviously a disaster scenario. To avoid having that happen, you can use a simple braking technique. Here’s how it works: Choose a “safe speed”. For this example, we’ll say your “safe speed” is 40mph. What you want to do is apply the brakes until your motorhome reaches 30mph. Then, release the brake pedal and allow your motorhome to speed up to 50mph. At that point, apply the brakes until you slow to 30mph and repeat the process as much as necessary. Using this technique will allow you to apply the brakes, but then allow the brakes to cool off before you apply them again. This is the same technique used by commercial truck drivers.
Beware Of RAPIDLY Changing Weather Conditions – I’ve seen it dozens of times driving my truck through the mountains. As you begin your climb up the mountain, you see nothing but blue skies. In an instant, you’re greeted with white-out conditions, fog, high winds, and/or blowing snow. Welcome to the mountains! Always check weather conditions along your entire route when driving through the mountains. The weather literally changes in an instant.
Keep A Longer Following Distance When Driving Your Motorhome
In driver’s ed, we learn that a 2 to 3-second following distance is adequate. As you probably know already, this is definitely not the case for a class A motorhome. So, how do you calculate a proper following distance?
To know how much space you have, wait until the vehicle ahead passes a shadow on the road, a pavement marking, or some other clear landmark. Then count off the seconds like this: “one thousand-and-one, one thousand-and-two” and so on, until you reach the same spot. Compare your count with the rule of 1 second for every 10 feet of length.If you are driving a 40-foot motorhome and only counted up to 2 seconds, you are too close. Drop back a little and count again until you have 4 seconds of following distance and remember to add 1 additional second for speeds above 40 mph. After a little practice, you will know how far back you should be. Also remember that when the road is slippery, you need much more space to stop.
Drive A Little Bit Slower Than Everyone Else
When driving a large vehicle such as a class A motorhome, you need to slow it down. It takes you longer to stop, you are more prone to losing control, and you always want your following distance to be increasing. Remember, you’re in a motorhome. It’s not all about the destination, it’s about the journey!
Also be sure to keep an eye out for special speed limits, especially if you’re towing a trailer or vehicle behind you. In some states there are split speed limits – one for regular vehicles and one for larger vehicles and vehicles with trailers. California is probably the most well known example where they have 70mph speed limits except for trucks and vehicles with trailers who need to obey the 55mph speed limit (which, by the way, is STRICTLY enforced in California).
Be Patient In Traffic With Your RV
When driving in heavy congestion, you will be cut off constantly. People will seriously put their lives at risk just so they can get in front of a large vehicle. Just stay back, leave a large gap between you and the vehicle in front of you, and accept the fact that other drivers will close that gap constantly. It’s ok – they are probably on their way to work while you’re going on vacation. Just keep safety in mind, don’t let road rage get the best of you, and relax. Staying right on the bumper of the vehicle in front of you to avoid being cut off is not only dangerous, but it doesn’t save you as much time as you think.
Watch Your Head
Class A motorhomes are allowed to reach heights of 13ft 6in. Not all class A motorhomes are this height, but most of them are close to 13ft including the air conditioning units on top. Unfortunately, not all bridges in the United States are 13ft 6in tall. While you are safe on expressways, country roads and city streets are a whole different ballgame and striking a bridge is extremely costly at best, especially if you damage the bridge.
Don’t Mess With Wind When Driving An RV
You probably have never paid much attention to high wind warnings or advisories, but TRUST me, you do not want to drive your class A motorhome in very windy conditions, particularly if it is a crosswind (coming at you from the right or left vs front or back). We’ve all heard the warnings saying “travel for high profile vehicles is not recommended.” Well, guess what… That’s you! Please head these warnings. They are there for good reason. It’s just not worth the risk.
Snowstorm? Forget About Driving Your Motorhome
There is absolutely no reason to be on the roadways in a class A motorhome during a snowstorm. While a little snow can be managed, motorhomes are notoriously unstable and very dangerous during snowy or icy conditions. I’m not even going to give you any tips on driving a class A motorhome in the snow. Just don’t do it.
Making Right Turns Is Especially Hazardous When Driving A Large Vehicle
When you are making a right turn, you need to keep a very close watch on your rear tires as they will take a more inward track than your front tires. Also be very, very careful about other vehicles attempting to pass you on your right side as you’re making the turn. This is perhaps the #1 cause of accidents between cars and large vehicles.
Navigating Campgrounds & RV Parks Can Be Stressful
You would think campgrounds and RV parks would have more than enough room for you to navigate. Not so! You will quickly find that many of these places are extremely tight leaving you just barely enough room to maneuver. This is especially apparent in older state and national parks. Always remember this acronym: GOAL
Whether you’re taking a tight corner or backing into your space at the campground, always remember to GOAL if you are uncertain. This is rule #1 for commercial truck drivers. Never take a chance – EVER.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask your significant other or passengers for help. Having a spotter available is infinitely helpful. You can use two way radios or even cell phones to help communicate as your spotter assist you in maneuvering.
Buy Some Cones And Practice, Practice, Practice!
Perhaps the best advice I can give is to buy about 10 traffic cones, find a large open parking lot, and practice. Learn how to maneuver your motorhome, how to back it up properly, how to parallel park with it, etc. You can read as many articles as you want and you can watch as many videos as you can, but nothing will prepare you like real world experience.
Also remember that many local RV dealerships offer motorhome training classes. You can also go to just about any truck driving school and ask if they would help you learn how to operate your rig. Most truck driving instructors would jump at the chance to help (for a price, of course!).
Last but not least, have fun! Traveling around in an RV is a dream for so many people. The fact you get to have the RV experience in a large motorhome is something to be cherished. So yes, please be safe (and even be a little bit nervous to drive such a big vehicle), but also have a great time. Crusin’ around in a class A motorhome is THE LIFE!