Some time ago one of my blog readers asked me a very good question about how we actually plan our RV travels. Do we pre-plan all our routes? Do we pre-book? How do we decide where to go? And when? These are all excellent questions and make the basis of a few very nice blog posts, and thus today’s topic.
Now the truth is there is no *one* perfect way to RV, fulltime or otherwise. Every RVer will do things a little differently depending on their budget, RV size, comfort level & preferences…some wing it all the time, some boondock all the time, some plan absolutely everything. We are *very* particular about where we go especially when it comes to weather and green space + pet-friendliness, but we also like to keep things loose so, depending on the season, we actually do a mix. I’ll share my own ideas here and then you guys are welcome to add yours in the comments. Here it goes:
1/ Weather, Weather, Weather
They say buying a house is all about location, location, location…I’ll take that and say RVing is all about weather, weather, weather. We learned this lesson the hard way when we spent our first year on the road camping through a particularly humid, hot, mosquito-infested summer in the Mid-West. There was practically no-one in any of the campsites, but there was also a reason for that. The bugs were so bad we couldn’t be outside more than 5 minutes at a time, the heat so intense our RV jacks melted into the asphalt (never knew that could happen), we had a massive flea infestation and we even contracted Lyme Disease (thank goodness we caught and treated it early)!!! What were we thinking?!? Truth is, we were spoiled by living in southern CA and never thought about weather or bugs until we starting living in a 40-foot tin can with pets. That year changed our entire planning outlook and we adopted totally new rules:
Follow the seasons -> Our general goal is cool summers and mild winters, and we plan our travels around this basis. For summer this means either high mountains (e.g. CO, WY, MT etc. -> we’ve found we need to get above min 8,000 feet in the “heat” of summer to be comfortable) or the NW coast (e.g. OR, WA). For winter this means either the Southwest (CA, AZ), Southern TX or Southern FL. The rest of the months are great travel months and September is excellent just about anywhere (yes, even the Mid-West). I call this our “flip flop barometer” and we regularly use US Weather Maps and other such tools to help simplify the process. So our first planning tool is “where will we spend summer”, our second one “where will we spend winter”. The rest of the plan then flows from there.
Avoid the bugs -> We battled mosquitoes and bugs so badly our first year that I swore to avoid them as much as possible for the rest of our RVing lives. It’s impossible to be completely bug-free (although most of Western US does a pretty darn good job), but travelling through “high bug” areas (e.g. the Mid-West and SE) in cooler months will definitely make that easier. Our 2010 fall trip to the Smoky Mountains and the SE Coast (SC, GA) was an example of just such perfection. It was cool enough that there were almost no bugs so we got to enjoy the amazing fall color change and coastal beauty at it’s best.
2/ Book Ahead For Summer (And Sometimes Winter)
There are many RVers who wing it all the time. Nothing wrong with that, but given our “beastly” size and the fact that we really yearn for green, spacious spots (many of which are popular in good weather months) I’ve taken a mixed approach to booking.
Summer-Time -> In summer, especially while kids are out of school, I will almost always book all our sites ahead of time. State Parks and National Forests, especially in the mountains & on the coast get particularly crowded during the summer vacation very simply because they are the perfect places to be! I start summer planning around March and usually have all June/July booked by the end of that month. If we were smaller and perhaps had an easier time boondocking (especially in the mountains), or we were less “picky” about the kind of spots we like to stay I probably wouldn’t plan so much, but I like this part of our yearly travels to be “fixed”.
Winter-Time -> Our absolute preference for winter is the wide, spacious southwest due to its moderate weather, open land and inexpensive camping. Since we boondock many of the winter months on BLM land or go to San Diego (where it’s actually low season in winter) we almost never bother booking. Those looking to stay in particular private parks especially in the “popular” winter areas will probably need to book ahead, but if you boondock alot like us you can wing it and be fine. Our only exception to this was the year we traveled to Florida. Unlike the SW, FL has very little BLM land and it is a *huge* winter RV destination. Many parks, especially the most popular ones, will book out up to a year ahead!! For our winter in FL I booked 6 months in advance, and even then we had to move 3 times in our park north of Miami…it was a pain, but at least I knew we would get to enjoy paw-friendly State Parks and nice, green areas while we were there.
Spring & Fall -> Spring and fall are what I call the “golden” RV months. Generally speaking kids are in school, many parks open up and you can “wing it” just about anywhere. We rarely book these months unless we’re going somewhere particularly popular, and will often choose places that have a good amount of first-come-first-serve sites (e.g. BLM campgrounds in the Sierra Nevada Mountains). It’s the easiest time to RV!
Big Holidays -> The once exception to above is big holidays such as Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Spring Break and July 4th. These holidays are generally PACKED with people out camping and it really does help to book ahead. Contrary to our normal routine we’ll often book Private parks during these times, just so we can get away from the crowds and noise. This past Memorial Day we spent in a quiet park in central Portland, for example and it was the perfect way to relax on a very busy week-end.
3/ Seek Out Green (And Paw-Friendly) Sites
Our absolute preference for anywhere we go is open, green space and paw-friendly location. That means we spend almost 90% of our time on public land such as BLM, COE, State Park, National Forest etc. Almost without exception these spots will have open areas, decent site separation, places to hike with pooch and no paw restrictions. I plan a lot of our travels using these resources and we almost always end up somewhere nice. The only places we tend to avoid are National Parks, not because they aren’t beautiful (they are!), but because they generally don’t allow dogs on the trails. Almost every National Park is bounded by some kind of paw-friendly (and less visited) National Forest and that’s where we chose to stay.
4/ Take It Slow (And Smell The Roses)
One of the biggest lessons we learned early-on in our RV travels was to take it slow. Our first year, as well as making silly weather decisions, had us bouncing around every 2-3 days like tourists on a crammed vacation. By the end of the year we were exhausted and needed winter just to recover!! Our second year we slowed down considerably shortening our travel days down to ~150 miles and staying a minimum of 4-5 days in each spot. The following year we slowed down even more spending weeks (or even a month) in places we liked. Obviously if you’re a week-end RVer this may not be an option for you, but for fulltimers it helps to get out of “I’m on vacation” mode and into “this is my life mode”. Trust me, you will enjoy your travels SO much more!
The above rules are what I call our “general” plan. In part II of this series I’ll take you through more detailed route-planning including how we actually map our travels and (even) find boondocking sites.