COVID has changed a lot of norms – particularly summer travel. Some of the tried-and-true family trips to the beach or a theme park or a big city have been put on hold as we all try to social distance and do what we can to stop the spread.
I’m a travel junkie, and when our spring break cruise was canceled, I started immediately looking at options for the summer. I decided that my long-time dream of an RV road trip might be the perfect fit during a COVID summer where the kids’ activities were all canceled, and we wanted to avoid hotels and crowds, and outdoor venues would be our best options for places still open.
For me, planning the trip is almost as much fun as taking the trip. I put together our itinerary for a two-week road trip to see some of our country’s most beautiful national parks, including five national parks – Yellowstone National Park, Grand Tetons National Park, Devils Tower National Monument, Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Badlands National Park. It was an epic road trip that my husband, Jason, 15-year-old son Nathan and 12-year-old daughter Corinne will never forget. We even loaded up our 80-pound goldendoodle, Marshall, so he could join in on the chaos – (I mean fun)!
I’ve had a ton of friends ask me about the trip as it seems many others have also daydreamed about heading west in an RV. So let me confirm right at the beginning here… It IS everything you dream it will be! Yes, there may be some RV hiccups here and there (more to come on that), but it was everything I expected as far as traveling wide open spaces with amazing scenery and me drinking wine and fixing peanut butter sandwiches in the kitchen while my husband drives a 36-foot RV!
Here are some of my tips and advice on planning an RV road trip.
- RVShare.com: We used RVShare.com to rent our RV from a local owner in Cabot. Outdoorsy.com is also a good option. Plan early to get the best choices. You can also consider renting closer to your destination. We wanted the experience of being in the RV the entire trip, so wanted to rent locally. The site automatically includes insurance too, which is nice and came in handy for us as we had a minor fender bender during the trip.
- RoadTrippers App: I planned all of our stops and campgrounds via the RoadTrippers app. I used the desktop and mobile app throughout the planning and during the trip itself. Here is a link to our itinerary if you’re interested in replicating a similar route. This app is great in that it maps out the trip with mileage and gas estimates and also allows you to book KOAs directly from their site.
- The Dyrt: A great resource for researching campgrounds is The Dyrt. They have a comprehensive app that I used while on the road for some of our travel days when I didn’t have a set spot reserved. FYI, for your days near the parks, definitely book your campsites well ahead. They book up quickly during the summer. Campgrounds in the national parks book out a year, while other campgrounds near the parks have more availability. We stayed at a beautiful state park near Yellowstone for five nights of the trip – Henrys Lake State Park – that was not only beautiful but inexpensive and quiet. State parks are a great alternative to crowded KOAs or booked national campgrounds.
- Boondocking: If you’re hitting the road, you need to read up on what boondocking is. Basically, it’s dry camping – no hookups for electricity, water or sewer. The most infamous boondocking is the Walmart parking lot. We used a great app – AllStays Overnight Parking Walmart – that tells you which stores are open to boondocking and includes reviews from users. We boondocked in a Salina, Kan., Walmart with about fou other RVs on the first night of our trip. Our daughter actually said that was one of her favorite parts of the trip … no clue why, but to each their own! I loved it because I got up early while everyone was sleeping and got my grocery shopping done for the entire trip. I unloaded groceries while Jason hit the road – win-win!
- National Park Planning: I stumbled across a blog, Dirt in My Shoes, that is written by a former park ranger. She has created fabulous national park itineraries that you can pay $10 to download. I highly recommend the Yellowstone and Grand Teton PDFs. They were super helpful in narrowing down some of the things we wanted to do and see. And she offers itineraries specific to the number of days you’ll be visiting, which helps you prioritize park features.
- YouTube is Your Friend: We weren’t new to camping as we have owned a travel-trailer in previous years, but for those of you who are doing this whole camping thing for the first time … YouTube is your most important ally. There are TONS of videos on everything from how to level a camper to how to deal with the black water to how to change an RV tire. If you’re new to RVing, find a friend to demonstrate or watch a video of someone going through the hose and hookup situation. You will thank me later. Here is a fun couple who has a great YouTube page on all things RV Life – Keep Your Daydream. It was recommended to me by a friend as we pulled out on the first day of our trip.
- Don’t Skimp on Your Park Days: I read a TON of articles and such planning this trip. Every person said to give plenty of days for the larger parks, such as Yellowstone and Grand Tetons – and they were so right. Sure, you can head to Yellowstone, stop and watch Old Faithful and drive by some hot springs in a day, but there is so much more to take in. We gave plenty of days to both of those parks where we were able to do an epic 47-mile bike ride through the Tetons and two amazing 8-mile hikes in Yellowstone. We saw way more of the backcountry of these parks than your average visitor.
- Don’t try to cook while driving: I tried, but failed. I mean, sandwich-making is fine, but don’t try to boil water and cook something on the stove. It will not go well.
- Expect the unexpected. If you’re hitting the road in an RV, you need to know not everything is going to go according to your perfect plan. The slide is going to stop working and flood part of the floor. While you are trying to manage this crisis, the RV will hit the water source in the campsite and destroy it. The glass paneling in the nook above your head is going to randomly fall out and narrowly miss beheading the dog. The unexpected curve in the road is going to send the items in your kitchen cubby flying all over the camper. A bison is going to take his sweet time crossing the road and put you two hours behind the schedule running through your mind. In other words, folks, [email protected]&t is going to happen. I recommend opening a bottle of wine during these times – or eating a whole bunch of chocolate.
- Stop along the way or you’ll miss gems like the World’s Largest Corn Palace. Seriously, a road trip is not complete without stopping and touring the corn palace or the world’s largest ball of twine or Wall Drug Store, where you can find every kind of crappy souvenir known to man. These are honestly what makes an epic road trip truly epic. Make the time for the off-the-wall stops!
I’ve decided the RV life is definitely for me. My husband may not agree as he wasn’t sleeping, drinking or reading while driving eight hours a day (and logging 40,000 steps via his Fitbit because of all the insane arm movements it takes to drive a 36-ft vehicle!). Once everyone recovers from all our fun, I feel certain we’ll start planning our next grand adventure on the open road.
Natalie Ghdotti, owner of Ghidotti, a Little Rock-based public relations agency, is married to Jason and they have two kiddos, Nathan, 15, and Corinne, 12. She’s already planning her next RV adventure. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @ghidotti.