We have a confession to make. We were a bit dishonest about what our first day on the road looked like. While we had responded to curious friends and family that our first day was going “Great!”, “Incredible!”, “So much fun!”, and “Awesome!”, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Because the truth is that our first day was awful. A combination of several key errors piled up, all of which could have been easily prevented if we had been better-prepared. It wasn’t that we were ill-prepared, as we had spent days, weeks, and months preparing for this trip, but rather that we just simply did not know to avoid the mistakes that we made. We were complete “RV newbs” (as we still are) and did not, at the time, know what exactly to prepare for. So, here we have compiled a list of our critical errors in hopes that, if you plan to make a similar journey, you are better-equipped than we were. This list may also serve the mere comic interests of friends and family who would like to know how our first day on the road actually went.
Never leave home, in winter, without a full (or at least existent) tank of propane.
When we brought our RV home from the dealership, it had a full tank of propane. However, running the heat all throughout October and November, while completing renovations and packing, had emptied our reserves. When we left home, on the evening of December 15, 2016, our propane tank was stark empty. We thought about stopping for propane immediately after leaving, but we had been planning all day to visit my mom and sister on our way out, and we had kept them waiting for hours. Our ETA (estimated arrival time) had changed from 1pm to 2pm to 4pm over the course of the day, and we didn’t even end up leaving the house until about 4:30pm. (Leaving was a big deal and we had to make sure that everything was just right!). Our final ETA for my mom’s house was now about 5pm, which was only 30 minutes before she had to leave for an event. Wanting to make sure we had time for a proper goodbye before hitting the road, we figured propane could wait. It could, right?!
Right! Or so we thought…
After a short and tearful goodbye with my family, we stopped for gas and dinner, and, at this time, it was about 6:30pm. Next, we had a few more stops to make before we could hit the road. With a few things still on our to-do list and our excitement/anxiousness about hitting the road, we completely forgot about propane for awhile. By the time it crossed our minds again, around 8pm, all the nearby locations which sold propane were closed. We stopped at a rest stop for the night around 11:30pm, determined to try to stay warm, even without propane.
By that point, we had traveled to Midwestern PA, and it was cold. Although made pretty efficiently, RV’s were not necessarily designed for cold weather travel. They are somewhat insulated, but definitely not as much as a house, which makes the interior temperature become very cold, very quickly without heat. When we went to bed, the interior temperature was 48° F.
When we woke up the next morning, the temperature had dropped to 34° F.
I have honestly never been colder than I was that night. We had slept in several layers of clothing and under several blankets, but it still wasn’t enough. The tip of my nose was especially numb. When I woke up, both of our cats were piled on top of us, and Archie, our little dog, had climbed under our comforter. Max and Luna (our border collie and German shepherd) had opted to share a bed, in an effort to keep warm. We had made arrangements to travel with all of our houseplants (more on that later), and they, too, were suffering from the cold. One of our tropical plants (a bromeliad) had turned a much paler color; it seemed to be pretty unhappy about the frigid temperatures.
We got up and dressed as warm as we could, determined to rush to the nearest locale that sold propane and fill our tank as quickly as possible. We bumped our slides in and began to retract all our jacks, which leads to our next lesson…
Never leave home without all the proper tools.
At some point, during our cold, cold night, our front driver-side jack had malfunctioned. For whatever reason, it would not retract using the auto setting. Brendan also tried to retract it using the manual setting, but it just wouldn’t budge. It was stuck, very stuck.
So here we were, freezing and now stuck in a rest stop. It is impossible to drive an RV with a jack down, and, after all the finagling he could muster, Bren realized that he was not going to be able to retract the jack electronically. He was going to have to climb under the RV, in the frigid temperatures, and manually crank the jack back into position.
Now, having to lay on the freezing cold blacktop and manually crank a malfunctioning leveling jack back into position in 15° weather is pretty bad, but, if you are carrying the proper tools, it is much less painless. We, however, were not.
As a very thoughtful gesture, Brendan’s dad had given us a really nice set of brand new tools about a week before we began our trip. He gave us several sets of pliers, a set of screwdrivers, an electronic meter, a set of wrenches, and several other tools that have proved very useful throughout our trip. Bren repurposed a black mesh carrying caddy that he had received at a work event, and he now had a nice, functional toolbox. However, we did not have the one thing he needed to manually retract the jack: a ratchet and socket set.
We knew these were things we may need “eventually” while traveling, as they are useful in many situations, especially if working on car or RV engines. We just hadn’t yet gotten around to purchasing these, and this was a big mistake. Retracting the jack by hand would have taken 10-15 minutes (if that) with the proper tools. However, using just a wrench, which required turning the offending bolt a small 45°, then resetting the wrench for another 45° turn and so on, this took Bren just over two hours to complete. By the time he made it inside, he was so cold, and his hands were completely numb.
But, we were now finally ready to go fill our propane. I put the closest U-haul into my GPS and carefully navigated us there. Upon arriving, we parked next to the propane fill-up, and Brendan went inside to pay. We were soon devastated to learn that the propane pump had frozen overnight, and we would not be able to fill here. Desperate to get warm, I quickly searched for the nearest location to fill propane, which was a gas station about ten minutes away.
We raced there and pulled in, only to find that the the front of the propane fill-up was blocked in by several cars that were awaiting repairs at the station’s mechanical shop. The propane tank hose was not long enough to reach our RV, and we were, once again, not able to fill propane. I searched for nearby propane filling locations again, finding that there was another U-haul about five miles up the road. I called ahead to make sure that their pump was not also frozen and was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was in good, working condition. Now, if only we could get there as quickly as possible…
The spot where we had parked in the gas station was all the way to the right, on a bit of an incline, and slightly behind the main driveway. Basically, to get out of the station, we would have to back up, just a bit, and then pull left out of there. We inched back ever so slightly, and that’s when we heard a loud popping noise. This leads me to my next lesson learned…
Never drive in reverse while towing a vehicle.
Prior to leaving for our trip, Brendan had only driven the RV once (all the way to North Carolina and back), but he had never driven the RV while towing a vehicle. Any seasoned RVer can tell you that driving just an RV and driving an RV while towing another vehicle are considerably different. One of these differences, of which we were made painfully aware, is that you cannot reverse while towing a vehicle. Since, when towing, there is no driver to turn the steering wheel, the wheels of the toad (a vehicle towed by an RV) do not turn correctly while reversing. This can lead to major issues if the RV driver tries to back up, which is exactly what we did.
Thus, this act of reversal, caused our tow bar to detach the left side of our Cherokee’s bumper.
Before embarking on our journey, Bren and his dad had spent days rigging our tow bar and brake lighting, and everything was installed perfectly. However, the pull created by reversing the whole rig yanked entirely too hard on the Cherokee’s bumper, thus pulling off the left side. Attempting to remain positive, I suggested that we fully remove the tow bar and drive the two vehicles separately to our next destination. However, this is where we ran into yet another issue, which leads to my fourth and final lesson learned…
Have a plan for battery maintenance on your toad vehicle.
While towing a vehicle, you must leave its key in its ignition and place the transmission in neutral, to allow it to turn properly and such. We did this, and forgot about one key factor: when leaving the vehicle in neutral, but with the engine off, your battery will quickly drain.
So here we were, in a little gas station (where the RV did not exactly fit), on an incline, without propane, with a jack that had malfunctioned, with part of our toad’s bumper hanging off, and now, the toad vehicle battery was stone dead. If we had paid attention to our third vital lesson (always carry the proper tools), we may have been traveling with jumper cables. However, the “I’ll get those later” issue had struck again, and we did not have a way to charge the dead battery. By this point, our day was not going too well, and we desperately needed a new plan.
I quickly thought of something: why not push the Cherokee to the side of the gas station and leave it, while taking the RV to the nearest Walmart (most are pretty RV friendly) and park there. Then, we could buy a set of jumper cables, and return to the gas station, jump the Cherokee, and bring it to a mechanic who could fix the bumper. Now,if we could just push the Cherokee to the side of the gas station…
I mentioned that we were parked on an incline, and Brendan now had to push the Cherokee uphill while I navigated it to the correct location. This was not an easy task, as this car weighs over 2,500 pounds empty. Pushing it out of the way took at least ten minutes of grueling effort (on Bren’s part). I then ran inside to let the gas station owner know that we had an issue with the car and would be leaving it for a bit while we ran out to purchase jumper cables. He said that this was okay, but “not to take too long, or he may have to tow the vehicle.” Great, just great…
We GPSd the nearest Walmart, and saw that we were passing the U-haul on the way and decided to stop and finally get propane (YAY!). Luckily, we made it out of the U-haul uneventfully, and I cranked the heat so high I thought we might eventually melt, haha. We then drove to Walmart, where we parked in the far corner, and Bren ran inside for the jumper cables.
We then decided to call an Uber to drive us back to the gas station, instead of attempting to drive the RV back there again. I ended up staying in the Walmart with the RV, as we had never left if before in a public place, while Bren went back to jump the Cherokee, which we found had, thankfully, not been towed. (Thank-you, gas station owner…) Luckily, the kindly Uber driver agreed to jumped the Cherokee, and everything was downhill from there.
Brendan then took the Cherokee to a friendly local mechanic, who pledged to reattach the bumper and do his best to ensure that towing the car would not detach the bumper again, for just $90. We thought this was an extremely fair rate, and, after leaving the mechanic’s, Bren caught another Uber back to the RV. Although we were finally warm and had found a solution to fix the Cherokee’s bumper, we were still stuck in Lehigh, PA, for two additional days. Since our plan was to travel all the way from New Jersey to California before Christmas, we now had just 7 days for this voyage, when we originally had 9 days. This made what would have already been a tight schedule even tighter, especially since we were traveling by RV, which takes much longer than traveling by car.
However, this two-day delay wasn’t all bad. It gave us some much-needed time to relax and catch up on sleep and work that we had been putting off in the days leading up to our trip. It also gave us time to think of a solution to the toad vehicle battery issue. We decided that disconnecting and reconnecting the battery before and after towing was, for now, the cheapest and easiest solution. We have been using this method ever since, and it has worked out well thus far. We also have, since then, managed to keep our propane levels high, and we have also avoided reversing while towing the Cherokee. Finally, we purchased the correct ratchet/socket set and retracted the driver-side front leveling jack completely. We then avoided using that jack until we were able to have the RV repaired.
On our first day of fulltime RVing, we learned some, clearly, much-needed lessons. We hope that these lessons will serve to keep other fellow RVers from making similar mistakes. We also hope that this now-funny tale will provide you with a bit of humor, as we too look back at our own critical, first-day errors with laughter.