Thinking about RVing? Here's what you need to know to hit the road
Best advice from passionate Canadian RVers
When my partner invited me on a road trip in her 1987 Chevy RV from Quebec City through Gaspésie in 2017, I had no idea what to expect. I was used to travelling abroad, but not finding a new place to park every night or pumping out sewage. Yet I ended up joining her again just a few weeks later for a loop around Newfoundland, and then going on a whirlwind four-month adventure from Toronto to San Diego through the Deep South.
With the government advising against non-essential travel abroad due to the pandemic, many Canadians are thinking about embarking on RV adventures of their own. "Interest in RV travel has significantly grown over the past couple of months," said Chris Mahony, President of Go RVing Canada, an industry association that promotes the recreational vehicle lifestyle.
"RVing is particularly appealing right now because all units are self-contained, allowing people to adhere to social distancing guidelines, which will likely stay in place for the foreseeable future," Mahony added.
Whether you're renting or buying an RV, here's everything I wish someone told me before heading out.
Choose your RV wisely
When COVID-19 restrictions began to relax in Calgary, David Wald, his wife Meagan Shultz, and their two kids, aged nine and six, hopped in their SUV with their 1976 Aristocrat travel trailer in tow and explored Alberta. They ventured to Waterton National Park, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (a World Heritage Site), and Police Outpost Provincial Park with its epic views of the Rocky Mountains and trails that dip past the United States border. "The cool thing about that was we didn't have to quarantine when we came back," Wald said.
Wald is the managing partner of Karma Campervans, a Calgary and Vancouver-based travel outfit that rents out renovated campers. He says that trailers — whether pop-up, fifth-wheel or similar — are the cheapest and most popular type of RV and are great for families. They can easily be detached at your campsite if you want to drive off and do some exploring. "I personally grew up in an old rickety pop-up tent trailer. Best times of my life!"
Another popular option is a Class C motorhome with its distinctive cab-over bunk — it's what my partner has and we love it. They offer more space for larger groups or families, usually fit in a regular car spot and often have a bathroom and kitchenette on board. Class B RVs are the adventure vehicles you often see on Instagram with the hashtag #vanlife. Some of these are vintage Volkswagen buses that show their age, while other campervans have been retrofitted for road trips. The final class of motorhomes is Class A, bus-like RVs with luxurious amenities like bathrooms and kitchens that can cost up to a million dollars.
If you're looking to buy, Wald recommends shopping around to find a reputable dealer. "Really vet them for quality, service and just gut feel," he said. Aside from going to dealers, you can find used vehicles via online classified ad sites like Kijiji, Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. If you're just trying out this lifestyle or going on a one-time trip, you might want to rent. A classic option is to rent a rig from CanaDream, which has all types of vehicles. Alternatively, you could rent someone else's RV with an Airbnb-type business like Ottawa-based RVezy.
Plan, but not too much
Toronto couple Siya Zarrabi and Kristen Sarah travel the world and share their experiences on YouTube and Instagram, as @Hopscotchtheglobe. But this year, they're exploring Canada in their 1976 Sovereign Airstream, "Luna", and are bringing along recent additions to the family — two-year-old Kai and dog Atlas. "I always loved Canada, but I never had a deep appreciation for the beauty of this country until I drove across it," Zarrabi said.
The family is going on a two-week road trip to Georgian Bay, but they've only planned the first and last five days of the trip. "We like to plan specific stops on our route and then leave a few days as gaps in between where we can just float and we can explore on our own," Zarrabi said. "It leaves a little sense of adventure mixed in with having plans."
Especially since we're in a pandemic, it's a good idea for anyone to bring jugs of water, hand sanitizer and wet wipes. Tools, an RV battery charger and perhaps a portable toilet if your rig isn't equipped with a bathroom are also good to have.
A straightforward way to plan your trip is by adding places you want to visit on Google Maps. Google only lets you save up to ten stops, so for longer adventures apps like Roadtrippers will allow you to map more stops.
Campsites are great, but wild camping can be better
Inspired by RVers they saw on Instagram and YouTube, New Brunswickers Kayla Cruickshank and Emma McFayden converted an old bus into a home on wheels and embarked on a three-month adventure across the country. "Road tripping in Canada is something I hope everyone has the chance to do at least once in their life," Cruickshank said. "There are so many beautiful sights to see and each province is so diverse in landscape and people."
More often than not, the couple didn't pay to stay in campsites, which offer amenities like showers, toilets, laundry facilities, sewers for pumping out grey and black water tanks and plugins to charge an RV. Instead, they wild camped for free without, which is a term used to refer to camping without amenities. "Many of our favourite stops were wild camping," Cruickshank said.
The best wild camping spots are usually on Crown land where you're allowed to park for up to 21 days, but check in advance for exceptions and permit requirements (for example, for national or provincial parks). You can also park for free in some Walmart and casino parking lots, tourist info centres and even some farms or wineries. Contact the store, casino or property owner in advance to get written permission as well as the property's rules, and don't forget to check municipal regulations for legalities — they can conflict with the store or property manager's permission.
"When wild camping always make sure you feel comfortable," Cruickshank said. "We usually preferred staying places with other vanlifers around. Safety in numbers added a sense of security." Cruickshank recommends an app called iOverlander, which lists free camping options with pictures and reviews from other road trippers. "We swear by it," Cruickshank said. "To this day I use [the app] for even small weekend trips with friends."
Online workers, beware
Reggie Grey of Burlington, Ontario has spent the last five years traversing the continent in his 1970 Citationette travel trailer "Franny."
"I wasn't one of those people who pined to be a 'vanlifer', in fact, I hated being outside," said Grey, who goes by @ReggieFromTheRoad on Instagram.
But after five years on the road, Grey can't imagine life any other way. "I forget what it's like to live in a place with a toilet that isn't walking distance or a bush outside my door."
As more people are able to work from home, some may be tempted to work and travel in their RV, but Grey, who works as a filmmaker, warned that beyond finding wi-fi at some cafes and libraries, getting good enough reception to hotspot from a phone can be a challenge. "Never count on camp internet," he joked. "It's for checking the weather, and even then it's so slow that it'll only be relevant tomorrow."
Grey has one final piece of advice for anyone thinking about hitting the road: "My biggest tip is always the same and it's simple: jump in," he said. "You are smart. Just do it and figure it the heck out."
Joel Balsam is a Montreal-based freelance journalist with stories in National Geographic, TIME, The Guardian, Lonely Planet and more.
This article has been updated to impress the importance of checking and adhering to municipal regulations when considering camping on private property, even with permission.