We took a 10 day cross country road trip exploring with an RV (recreational vehicle) and it was a valuable experience in considering Van life. We thought an RV was going to be more glamorous than living out of a van, but we were wrong. Our experience actually made us feel like there was a lot of wasted space, unnecessary conveniences and a cumbersome drive.
We are currently researching our own van design using the Mercedes Sprinter so all of our comparisons are focused on what we already know about this van. (Other van models are comparable to the Sprinter and won’t vary much in comparison to a standard RV.) Check out our Van Life series for more info.
The RV we chose to explore with was a standard 25′ model and much larger than our proposed Sprinter van. We were faced with many limitations due to its size and class as a vehicle. We did plan for RV friendly roads when mapping out our routes, but we were caught a little off-guard by having to stick to commercial highways in some states. This added some time and extra traffic to our journey. Things to consider:
- When renting an RV from a company it will have Commercial Plates. Many states will have restrictions for commercial vehicles on certain types of roads. For example; New York State Parkways do not permit commercial vehicles of any kind (or any RV’s due to the low bridge clearances).
- Many states have bridges and tunnels with restrictions on vehicles that have propane tanks on board. You may have to change your course or pull over and turn off your propane tank before entering.
- You can expect to pay an increased toll for an RV even if it only has two axels because it is taller in height than a standard vehicle.
- A typical van (ie; Sprinter) will not have the same limitations since it is smaller in size and class and can avoid commercial highways if it has passenger plates.
Parking an RV
Parking the RV was an issue in many areas. We didn’t fit in parking garages and often had to park just outside towns or cities and walk in. Most of the state and national parks we visited also had limited parking for RV’s. You could only park in certain lots/areas and there were specific designations for parking a limited number of oversized vehicles. We were fortunate to travel during a shoulder season and find parking at these locations, but they were still close to full. The smaller size of a typical van gives you the freedom of parking in more common areas and parking garages if needed. In crowded areas and inclement weather a van can definitely be more convenient.
Gas stations did not always accommodate the higher vehicle height or width of the RV. When you are driving out in the middle of the country, your fueling options can become few and far between if you’re not on the main highways. Yellowstone National Park was especially tight. The filling stations were old and our RV took up the entire space between both pump lanes. We received some ugly glares from fellow tourists, but we had no other option and they would just have to wait. (Driving only one day in Yellowstone was 150 miles for us and we only explored about 20% of the park roads. Our RV barely got 10 miles per gallon so we definitely wanted to fill up before heading through the mountains in the evening to our overnight accommodations.) Based on our research, a van can double that gas mileage and it will easily fit into those tight fuel lanes.
Road Restrictions with an RV
One last disappointment on size was the vehicle restrictions on certain wildlife viewing roads in the National Parks. The best roads to see wildlife were unpaved, narrow and winding. We were prepared for the bumpy ride in the RV, but we were not allowed due to size. An RV is too wide to share the road with oncoming traffic. I’m sure you’re thinking that we could’ve just pulled over to let vehicles pass through; but if so, then you have not traveled to these areas before. Once we crossed over the Mississippi towards the west, the roads we encountered did not have shoulders or guard rails and often dropped off to a gully, ravine or canyon. Exploring with an RV is tough! (Note: There would have been more restrictions if we were towing or had a larger RV.) The standard RV is almost two feet wider than the Mercedes Sprinter van!
Conveniences and Space
RV Bathroom Accommodations
Our RV came with a bathroom that included a toilet and shower. These are some of the biggest items of contention in designing a van due to limited space. It was a great experience for our van design to have a toilet and shower in our RV. We had already researched the pros and cons of adding them, but the first hand experience really solidified our decisions.
The toilet in the RV was really cumbersome to use. It was on a pedestal so you had to step up on the shower base to sit on it. The bathroom is also really tight on space so there’s not much room to maneuver getting on to the toilet. In addition, none of us could stand straight up in the shower. Our traveling family ranged from 5’3” to 5’10” and none of us found it comfortable to use the shower or the toilet. Now add in having to maintain your water supply, monitoring your grey water level, and having power for the water pump; it all becomes quite a hassle.
Squeezing the bathroom in this way left them no room for a sink, not even a fold down sink (pictured example) on the wall. However, once you exited the bathroom you had a sink with storage and a mirrored wall cabinet. This seemed like a poor use of space being outside of the bathroom since the kitchen sink was three feet away.
Adding a bathroom into an already minimalistic van is a difficult decision. We had much more room in our RV and we felt really uncomfortable. We avoided using the RV bathroom whenever possible; so I’m confident to say we can eliminate the full bathroom from our van design.
RV Kitchen Accommodations
We enjoyed our kitchen in the RV and used it daily. It definitely took up more square footage than what would fit into our van design and we learned a few things.
- A refrigerator box with a top lid is more appropriate for a vehicle and will, overall, keep the food coldest. A refrigerator with a front swing door takes up more space and isn’t as big as you think it is. Additionally, a front swing door will not stop the food that moved around while driving from spilling onto the floor when you open it.
- Propane stoves can take up a lot of space and make a lot of noise while driving. The clanging of the metal components while driving and the issues of propane restrictions on some roads is enough to make us choose another option. Our van design will include an electric induction cooktop which helps with space, noise and driving safely.
- Lightweight unbreakable dishes that stack are the best choice for a moving kitchen. It will also be a much quieter ride if you limit the metal utensils, pots or pans. (Imagine placing your kitchen items in a child’s wagon and pulling it on the road. Whatever noises you hear from the vibration of the road surface is what you will hear in the RV, but multiplied from the speed.)
- Counter space makes cooking and other tasks much easier. The RV offered a decent amount of counter space, but our van conversion will not have the same square footage to utilize. We will definitely make sure we have pull out counters in our van design.
Additional RV Accommodations
Overall, we were surprised at the use of space in the standard size RV. We expected to be far more comfortable in this larger vehicle; using it as a stepping stone towards the smaller sprinter van. By the end of our trip exploring with an RV, we all agreed that next road trip we’ll take a smaller vehicle.
- An air conditioning unit is unnecessary and uses a lot of energy. We found the air conditioner was needed in our RV while we were traveling in August for a good night sleep and to keep the dogs cools. However, this was mostly because the RV was designed to rely more on the AC than on the fan. If there had been more than one fan and they were of better quality, we would not have needed the air conditioning.
- The windows were another factor in keeping cool. We were surprised at the small size of the window openings considering the square footage of the vehicle. The windows were sliders which meant only half of the window could be open at any one time. It was impossible to get any airflow into the vehicle from the windows, not even a cross breeze. This is an important lesson we will take with us into our van design.
- We did not expect to be so uncomfortable sleeping! This was one of the biggest reasons for our choice to go exploring with an RV; we would have beds. It was really disappointing to have such a large vehicle and not be able to lay flat on the beds. Again, our family ranges from 5’3″ to 5’10” yet none of us could fit comfortably on a bed without laying diagonally. A couple of nights I actually choose to sleep on the floor so I could stretch my legs. Our beds were advertised as full and queen size, but not one of us could lay flat from top to bottom. This made it really difficult to have two people share a bed; so…no, this vehicle did not sleep 5-6 people comfortably as advertised. We were a family of four and we were miserable. I was concerned about designing a comfortable sleeping space in our van conversion, but this experience really showed me some “do nots” to avoid.
- Something we really didn’t consider until our experience was the distance of the passengers. We’ve driven thousands of miles in our Subaru and could always communicate with every passenger in the vehicle. It’s nice to share moments while driving on the highway or even get someone’s attention to look out the window quickly. We lost this close connection in our RV. The only people who can see out the front window of an RV while sitting are the driver and co-pilot. Even with seating to the sides and rear of the vehicle, it was difficult to share in the same moments; especially when their windows were on the opposite side as yours. It was also really difficult to have a conversation with the back passengers due to the distance and enormity of the vehicle shell. This is something we will definitely consider more seriously in our van design.