Most people think that RVing is difficult or confusing, but truly – using a camper isn’t hard. You need to get setup for towing. With a fifth wheel, you need to pick a good hitch. It’s pretty much hookup and go. With a travel trailer, you usually need a good weight distributing hitch and need to dial it in for your truck/camper combo.
You then have basic systems – electric, water, waste and HVAC.
Electric comes from either battery(ies) or plugging into “shore power”. Shore power is generally a feature of campgrounds and RV parks. More often then not, it’s plug in and go. That enables your 120v system in the camper and then it functions much like a house. Without shore power, you’re generally limited to 12v power unless you get into inverters and generators and whatnot. 12v power will power your basic systems – water pump, water heater, furnace, etc. Charging and maintaining your battery(ies) is a little more work.
Water comes in 2 forms, too- either hooking up to “city water” (i.e. a hose to a fresh drinking water source) or by filling your on-board freshwater tank. Again, this is commonly campground/RV park vs. not. When you are connected to city water, you essentially have an unlimited supply. With your water tank, you’re limited to its capacity (usually 30-90 gallons depending on the RV) until you have to fill it again (may or may not be convenient depending on where you are). With the city water connection, it supplies the water pressure- sometimes higher than your RV can support and there you need a water pressure regulator. With your tank, there is a water pump that runs off of the 12v system that supplies the water pressure.
Come winter, you need to winterize your water system.
All of the water that you use is your waste water and has to be handle appropriately. I joke about the nicest thing when coming home from trips is that I don’t care where the drain goes anymore. In the RV, all of your waste water goes to tanks. Shower and sinks generally go to gray water tanks; toilets go to black water tanks. Like the fresh water tanks, these have limited capacity. Where you camp decides how you handle the water in these tanks. Many RV parks have sewer connections at each site. If that’s the case, you connect your sewer hose to the sewer outlet(s) on your camper to the sewer connection at the campsite. When the tanks get full (or close to it), you use handles /valves on the side of the camper to empty them. Black first and then gray to clean out the “stuff” in the sewer hoses. Many people run fresh water into the black tanks after dumping a few times to get a better flushing of the system. In fact, there are sprayers with hose attachments that you can get (or it may come with your camper already installed) that spray water directly into the tank. This gives you a better cleaning of the tank than a single flush alone. The thing to remember with the black tank- more water is good because it carries the solids down the hose. After emptying black tanks, most people put a couple of gallons of water back into it, just to keep it all wet and yummy. Some people will say you can keep your gray tanks open to the sewer all of the time, which is true- just make sure you have some left over to flush out your sewer hoses after black.
Now, if you don’t have sewer on your site – things get more interesting. Some campgrounds offer “honey pot” services where they have come around and suck out the contents of your black and gray tanks either for free or for a fee. Or, you can get totes to empty the tanks into the tote and then take it to the dump station (a dedicated dumping spot for sewer – usually at the campground). Or, you can take your whole camper there. Many people can go a whole weekend (or longer) with careful use of water and just hit the dump station on their way out of the park/campground. All told- please don’t listen to those who say you can just dump your gray water on the ground, this is largely illegal in many places and against the rules in most parks.
Read more about how to dump RV tanks.
Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC)
For HVAC- campers have heating systems that are generally propane furnaces this runs off of 120v and 12v. A cold night on 12v with the fan blowing can wear on a single battery if you’re only on 12v. If you’re on shore power, you may opt to run electric heaters to save on propane. You may or may not pay for metered. The longer you stay at a campground (monthly or seasonally , the more likely this is. For cooling, most RVs have air conditioners. This is generally only available if you have shore power (or a generator). There are 12v fans and whatnot if you’re running off of batteries. The furnace and air conditioner are likely ran off of a simple thermostat, much like your house. The catch to RVs is that they’re generally poor insulated and the windows are giant heat sinks/transfers. RVs can be hard to keep warm in cold climates and occasionally hard to cool in very hot climates. There are RVs that are considered “4 seasons”, but when you’re camping/living in very cold- water lines and tanks want to freeze, propane wants to be a challenge and things are just harder in general.
Your water heater will likely work off of propane and/or electricity. There are little tips and gotchas all over- for instance, never turn a water heater on without it first being full of water; it can short out the heating element (quick if on electric). The fridge is a neat contraption that either works off of 120v electricity or propane and 12v.
Remember that it’s a house on wheels. Tires need replaced usually based on age vs. mileage. Wheels need maintenance and so do the axles and whatnot.
Finally, water is your biggest enemy. Seals needs to be checked, caulk needs to be applied. Water, water, water – always look for water!