September 17, 2019

The Camper Learning Curve

userBy Steve Dildine user0 Comment

There we were, sitting in the office of the dealership signing all the paperwork. As we took care of the particulars, our camper was prepped and loaded onto our truck. After planning adventures for weeks, we were ready to explore. Our sales representative gave us a final run through of all the major systems; we tried to retain as much as we could. Let’s be honest–the excitement of taking delivery and thoughts of the memories to come pretty much blocked any retention of some pretty key information. We figured if we had any problems or questions we could consult the manual, right? We jumped in the truck, gave a honk and a wave, and hauled our camper home.

Learning Curve #1: Gas Stations

As one of the smaller truck campers in the Lance catalog, our Lance 850 hauls smoothly on the back of our Ford F350. I had anticipated more of a squat in the suspension, more rocking and swaying, and sluggish acceleration. On the contrary, we hardly noticed it was behind (or on top of) the truck thanks to the upgrades we made to the truck prior to loading it. We did notice that plowing a one-ton with a camper down the road at 70 mph takes some fuel. In our experience, we usually get between 8 and 10 mpg depending on speed, terrain, and wind. This brings us to the first learning curve: gas stations.

Knowing your range, height, and distance to the next gas station are important pieces of information to ensure a pleasant journey. We have a 35 gallon fuel tank, which gives us a rough estimate of 280 to 350 miles on the open road while hauling our camper. We also know that our camper height reaches just over 11 feet, which is important to know for overpasses, bridges, and gas stations that aren’t so RV friendly. When staying near a major highway these things aren’t much of a concern, but as we tend to go deeper into the mountains and off the beaten trail we need to be prepared. So far we haven’t had any problems with finding gas or being too tall to access a station, but it is worth noting before and repeating in your head prior to any stop.

Learning Curve #2: Loading & Unloading

When we arrived home, my wife asked if I had ever loaded or unloaded a truck camper before. My reply was quick and enthusiastic: “No, but I’m about to learn!” How hard could it be? Just jack it up and drive away to unload or jack it up and drive under it to load. Not quite. Learning curve number two: loading and unloading.

I watched a few YouTube videos on this topic prior to taking delivery, so I felt I had a good idea of what I was doing. However, it’s one thing to watch someone else do it and another to do it yourself. The first time I went to unload our camper I forgot to disconnect the tie-downs. Luckily I noticed before any damage was done. Once the camper is lifted off the truck bed, you have to make sure your electrical pigtail is disconnected. It is a tight fit, so to better access it I find it easiest to pull forward about two feet then stop, get out and disconnect, then continue pulling away slowly. When the camper is lifted that high, it is a bit wobbly and wouldn’t recommend getting under it or even in it by any means. Some people lower theirs down onto a wood support structure such as sawhorses to take all the weight off the jacks, but we just lower ours all the way down which takes all the wiggle out of the campers legs. Either way, you want to be sure that the ground is solid so that it doesn’t sink into the ground and get off balance.

Ours sits on a concrete slab, but we do carry jack pads that distribute the weight over a larger surface area if we ever need to unload on dirt or grass. It would be a bad day if you were to unload on a soft surface and it sank down far enough that you couldn’t get the truck back under to load it. Speaking of loading, this is where practice comes in. The first time I attempted to load our camper I had my wife on one side and another family member on the other, and it took 30 minutes. A little more this way, too far that way, you are crooked. I thought more eyes would make it go faster. Not so much. I find that doing it on my own using the wheel wells in the truck bed as a guide makes the process more efficient and timely.

I also became much less picky about how even it was aligned. Initially I was trying to make it perfect. Now I get it within the width of a finger or two and call it good. You do have to take your time as the tolerances are small, and don’t forget to hook up the electrical while you still have room to get your arm back there to plug it in. After that, it’s just a matter of retracting the jacks and securing the tie-downs and you are almost ready to hit the road.

Learning Curve #3: Button Down the Hatches

I say almost because before you set out for a trip you had better make sure that you have secured everything inside the camper, or you could have an unpleasant surprise when you first open the door. The third learning curve: button down the hatches.

We have a sequence of departure we run through before we go anywhere. Lock the fridge, close all doors, close all windows and vents, power down all the lights and pumps, secure the TV and any other loose items not in a cabinet. We also go to the extent of shutting off the propane, which means powering down our fridge. If it’s just a few hours drive to our destination, we don’t worry about cutting power to the fidge; otherwise, we have the option to run it on 12 volt power and our truck recharges the batteries as we drive. Some people do not do this, but I feel more comfortable without the propane on as we travel rough roads in the event of a leak along the way.

Learning Curve #4: Systems & Maintenance

It’s a good idea to play with the camper a bit before your first adventure to get more familiar with how everything works. Like I mentioned earlier, the walk through at the dealership kind of goes in one ear and out of the other, so we started pushing buttons and flipping switches while at home. If we encountered a problem at least it would be in our driveway rather than atop a mountain or several hours from help. The forth learning curve: systems and maintenance.

When you have become accustomed to how an RV works, you feel silly when you think back and reflect on how you were nervous or even scared to push buttons or perform routine maintenance. It is almost necessary to be cautious initially as there is a right and a wrong way to perform certain tasks. For example, you use your water pump when using water from your fresh water tank but not when you are connected to a fresh water supply. The bathroom fan helps pull out steam from a shower, but if you leave it on while flushing the toilet you are in for a not so pleasant surprise. Without a doubt the most dreaded learning experience is how do use a dump station.

There are plenty of examples online that show you what doing it wrong looks like, and it isn’t pleasant. I would recommend doing what I did the first time I emptied our tanks at the dump station. I went on a weekday around 11 am and with the tanks unused and full of water. By doing this I was able to take my time and not feel rushed, which is easy to feel when you are at a busy campground and there is a long line of people waiting on you. One helpful hint, rubber gloves are your friend.

Surfing the Web

Mistakes are going to happen, watching videos and reading blogs from other RV users does help, but it takes hands-on experience to gain confidence. It may be of value to you to make checklists for different tasks to help you get in a routine, making it less likely you will have an issue. The more you use your RV the more the more comfortable you get and the more efficient you become. The learning curves I shared in this post hopefully give you some insight about some of the major issues. To be honest, there are several things you will encounter along the way that require a learning curve.

As an example, our water heater once stopped working. We had taken a few weeks off from traveling and were getting ready for our next trip. I like to run a systems check to ensure the camper is ready to go. While running the hot water heater, I could hear that it was having trouble igniting. I went outside the camper to check on it, and there was a thick black smoke coming out of the vent leaving soot on the side of the RV. I immediately ran in and shut it down and tried to think what could be wrong.

The internet led me down a rabbit hole of possibilities, so I decided to call the dealer for some help. I told him everything I did and about the smoke, and he says “I bet you have a spider living in the supply tube. Take it off and blow it out and call back if that doesn’t fix it.” Sure enough, there was a spider web choking the flow of propane to the burner, and after his recommended fix we were good as new. Try to prepare yourself as best as you can, but also don’t be afraid to make mistakes as those are often learning opportunities.