How Safe Is an RV Road Trip?

You might be trying to avoid air travel, but there are some things you need to know about RV safety too.

Sally FrenchOctober 13, 2020
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On a similar note...
RV safety

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If you’re feeling cabin fever lately but still aren’t ready to jump on an airplane, you might be inclined to opt for an RV road trip this fall or winter.

In a lot of ways, recreational vehicles mitigate a number of travel risks, like potentially sitting for hours in a metal tube near a sick passenger or walking through hallways and sharing elevators with other hotel guests. You reduce exposure to potential germs lingering in a room, and you’ll likely be able to skip restaurants in favor of cooking on your own with regularity.

RV rental company Cruise America said in an email that such concerns have led to a 50% year-over-year increase in first-time RV renters between April and August 2020. In fact, one-third of leisure travelers say a road trip will be their reentry point into travel once it’s safe to do so, according to Kampgrounds of America's 2020 North American Camping Report.

But with so many novice RV renters comes a lot of new realizations. A spokesperson for Cruise America told us they’ve experienced a 30%-40% year-over-year increase in time spent on the phone with customers to answer questions, adding that some customers are uncertain about how to drive their vehicles and how to use campgrounds.

And some first-time RV renters are realizing that RV road trips aren’t automatically a safer bet than a more traditional vacation. Here are seven RV safety concerns you should be aware of before booking your first RV rental.

1. Rented RVs might not be as clean as you think

While renting an RV can avoid some of the hygiene challenges that hotels present, RVs come with their own sets of high-touch areas including the steering wheel, seat belts, tables, microwaves and doorknobs.

Some RV rental companies have instituted stricter cleaning procedures because of the coronavirus. Cruise America says it sanitizes every vehicle after it’s returned to a level that it claims exceeds Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for disinfecting nonemergency transport vehicles. But a cleaner RV rental isn’t necessarily a guarantee, particularly if you’re renting directly from a private owner.

Nerd tip: No matter where you stay, conduct your own cleaning to your level of comfort, whether it’s wiping down surfaces with your own disinfectant, or going all out with your own mop and bleach.

The alternative: A hotel (it might be cleaner). A number of major hotel chains have pledged to increase cleaning procedures and add safety requirements, such as mandatory face coverings for employees and guests. We rated the major hotel chains based on how well they have handled COVID-19, and Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott snagged the top three spots. Hilton even partnered with Lysol-maker RB to publicly pledge enhanced sanitation measures, including extra disinfection of frequently touched guest room areas like light switches, thermostats and TV remotes.

2. Uncertain weather and natural disaster could complicate your travels

Between lightning strikes causing the biggest fires in recorded California history to the U.S. witnessing a record number of landfalls for any hurricane season, 2020 has already been a wild year for weather. Some experts expect that things could still get worse.

Research led by Stanford environmental scientist Michael Goss suggests that autumn coincides with extreme fire danger, exacerbated by increases in temperature and decreases in precipitation over the past four decades. Meanwhile, hurricane season doesn’t end until Nov. 30, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“This year, we expect more, stronger, and longer-lived storms than average,” said Gerry Bell, who has a doctorate in atmospheric sciences from the State University of New York at Albany and is the lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, in a statement.

Aside from dangers of driving in the midst of a natural disaster, severe weather might mean some campgrounds are temporarily closed, as was the case at Yosemite National Park during the California wildfires.

3. Driving comes with accident risks

In the five-year span from 2014 through 2018, U.S. air carriers experienced one fatality, according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics data. For 2018 alone, that’s a fatality rate of 0.012 fatalities per 100 million miles traveled.

Meanwhile, 36,560 deaths occurred in 2018 alone due to motor vehicle crashes — a fatality rate of 1.13 deaths per 100 million miles, more than 93 times the airline fatalities in the same year.

RVs come with their own challenges that traditional cars typically don’t have, including risk of accident from overloaded or unevenly loaded RVs, increased rollover risk due to a higher center of gravity and larger blindspots.

To reduce your risk, use basic common sense while driving an RV:

  • Travel during daylight hours. According to 2016 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, 68% more fatal accidents occurred between the hours of 3 p.m. and midnight versus between 3 a.m. and noon.

  • Don't make hasty driving decisions. If you realize that the exit is approaching but you’re still in the far lane, don’t try to quickly change lanes; just wait for the next exit and backtrack. You might end up five minutes behind schedule, but the whole point of a road trip vacation is to slow down and relax anyway.

  • Take wider corners. Your overswing (the distance that your vehicle swings out when making a sharp turn) is likely much greater in an RV than the car or truck you are used to driving. Pay attention to your overswing and take wider corners while driving to avoid hitting curbs or fire hydrants.

  • Drive slower than you usually would and keep wider distances between cars. RVs brake slower than most cars, so watch for brake lights in front of you, prepare to stop well in advance and take it slow to begin with.

“It should never be a case of ‘go big or go home,’” says Geneva Long, CEO of luxury travel trailer-maker Bowlus Road Chief. “Anything over 26 feet or 4,500 pounds will severely restrict your ability to drive, park, enjoy national parks or camp. You don’t want to hate the experience, and it’s almost a guarantee you otherwise will once you add in high winds, poor driving conditions, heavy traffic and limited camping locations due to your oversize.”

Nerd tip: Opt for a smaller RV if you’re an RV newbie.

4. Shared bathrooms and showers could facilitate the spread of germs

If your RV doesn’t have its own shower or bathroom, you might find yourself resorting to shared facilities at a campground — yet some experts warn against using public bathrooms to prevent against COVID-19 spread. Studies have found that infectious aerosols can spread viruses through faulty plumbing and ventilation systems in public bathrooms.

The alternative: Bring your own portable toilet and shower. Depending on where you’re camping, you might be able to go in the woods (skip this option if you’re in a campground near other people or near a body of water). Otherwise, consider your own travel toilet and camping shower.

5. You’ll likely still encounter staff and campers at RV campgrounds

You might have opted for a road trip to avoid people. But if you’re staying at an RV campground, you’ll probably find yourself interacting with campground staff at the check-in office, and there may be other campers too.

Michelle Fishburne, a writer who travels in an RV as part of a project profiling ordinary Americans, says she’s found herself in a campground office on more than one occasion where other guests or staff didn’t have face coverings on.

“When I am in my RV, I feel very safe, of course, because it's my own self-contained unit,” she says. “My only concern arises when I have to go into the campground office, and people are not wearing masks and standing way too close to each other.”

The alternative: Consider a vacation rental. If the thought of interacting with an unmasked employee or guest makes you uncomfortable, a vacation rental or Airbnb might be your best bet. While some rental homes or Airbnbs require you to still meet with the host at check-in, many don’t (instead typically allowing you to gain access to the home through a lockbox or keypad). If booking through Airbnb, use the “self check-in” filter to ensure you don’t have to interact with a human when you arrive.

Nerd tip: Book a campground with curbside check-in. Fishburne suggests seeking out campgrounds that offer curbside check-in to avoid going into an office. But even Fishburne cautions it isn’t perfect. One campground she visited in Virginia offered curbside check-in, but the employee wasn’t wearing a mask.

6. Maintenance issues become your responsibility

Sure, it’s annoying when you’re sitting on the tarmac and your flight won’t take off because a door won’t close. But aside from a potential delay, you don’t have to worry about a thing besides when the snacks will finally arrive.

With an RV, you’re on the hook for any and all maintenance issues.

“Always check tire pressures and be aware of gas mileage before you set out, so you are not stuck somewhere in 107-degree heat,” Long says.

And maintenance isn’t just limited to how the vehicle operates while driving; it encompasses living spaces too. If a hotel has a power outage, the front desk can probably help you deal with it. If your RV has a power outage, hopefully you’re familiar with the RV’s electrical lines. Before taking off on an RV road trip, familiarize yourself with the RV’s sewer lines and control panel — and read the user manual.

7. You might make a lot more gas station stops

Cruise America says on average its rentals get around 6-10 miles per gallon, which means you might find yourself at the gas station a lot more than usual.

While touching a gas pump isn’t necessarily any riskier than touching other public objects like door handles, that’s still a few extra stops that you wouldn’t need to make if you opted to remain stationary once arriving at your vacation destination.

When pumping gas, the CDC recommends using disinfecting wipes on handles and buttons before you touch them. And after fueling, the CDC recommends using a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol and then washing your hands with soap and water once you’re near a sink.

The bottom line on RV safety

This year, an RV road trip can reduce a number of risks that you might be concerned about on a more traditional vacation where you’d fly on an airplane to stay at a hotel. But you shouldn't automatically assume an RV is safer overall.

Traveling in an RV has plenty of benefits. You might find your RV road trip turns out to be cheaper than your usual vacation. Head somewhere like a national park and you’ll likely end up spending more time outdoors, which the CDC says improves overall health and wellness thanks to increased opportunities for physical activity, along with promoting mental health and stress reduction.

But all travel comes with some level of risk, and RVs aren’t necessarily exempt.

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