The Not-So-Simple Art of RV Towing Route Planning

Let me start by saying that I’ve made my fair share of mistakes when it comes to planning routes and estimating driving times with an RV in tow. When my wife and I first got our 30-foot camper, we thought we could just punch the destination into the GPS and hit the road like we would in the family sedan. Boy, were we wrong! Routing for optimal driving when towing a several-ton metal box presents its own unique challenges. But with some trial and error (mostly error), I’ve picked up a few tips that have made the journey smoother and the ETA more accurate.

Know Your Rig

Before we get into the nitty gritty of routing, it’s important to know your own RV’s specifications inside and out. This will affect everything from feasible routes to mileage. Some key factors:

  • Overall length and width – Watch those tight turns!
  • Towing capacity – That bunkhouse isn’t as aerodynamic as you think.
  • Freshwater tank capacity – More weight = lower mpg
  • Generator runtime – Don’t get caught without power in the boonies
  • Driving range before refueling – With lower mpg, stops come faster

Use an RV-Friendly GPS

Trying to navigate a 30-foot motorhome through neighborhood backroads using Apple Maps is a recipe for disaster. Invest in a GPS designed specifically for RVs. Brands like Garmin and Rand McNally make units with RV-friendly routing and features like:

  • Dimensions and weight limit data
  • Turn warnings for wide loads
  • Low bridge and tunnel warnings
  • Parking and rest stop guidance

Bonus points if the unit comes preloaded with campgrounds and parks! Plotting a route you can actually drive makes a world of difference.

Map Your Route in Advance

The night before a big tow, I map out my route using an RV GPS app like CoPilot or RV Trip Wizard. I look at the route overview, plus zoom in on specific spots to check for potential trouble. Some things I look out for:

  • Construction zones – Often unavoidable, but good to know ahead of time.
  • Low clearances – That 12-foot bridge clearance seemed fine in the sedan!
  • Steep grades – 6%+ grades take patience and care.
  • Tight turns – Can I make that unprotected left in one go?
  • Truck restrictions – Nothing like a surprise hazmat route to ruin your ETA.

Mapping the route out has saved my bacon more times than I can count. I’ll often make small detours to avoid particularly hairy spots when I can.

Mind the Wind

Wind can be an RV tower’s worst enemy. Broadside gusts push your rig around like a sailboat, forcing constant correction. A little breeze can sap your momentum on hills or cause fish-tailing on declines. I’ve had a 30 mph gust nearly take me off the road!

Check the wind forecast before a long haul and try to plan your route to minimize exposure:

  • Travel early in the day if winds pick up in the afternoon
  • Avoid open plains and opt for tree coverage
  • Take mountain passes before noon when upslope winds are calmer
  • Descend canyons in the morning, before thermal winds intensify

It takes extra time, but staying aware of wind patterns can prevent white-knuckle driving moments.

Pad Your Mileage Estimates

Before towing an RV, I used to calculate road trip ETAs by taking the total mileage and dividing by my car’s highway mpg. Usually pretty accurate, right? With a trailer in tow, that formula gets thrown out the window. Here are some of the factors that can significantly reduce your on-road mileage:

  • Increased weight – More mass to accelerate and stop
  • Aerodynamics – Like pushing a brick through air versus a streamlined shape
  • Rolling resistance – More friction with more tires on the road
  • Hilly terrain – Climbing saps momentum and mpg
  • Headwinds – Like driving into resistance on a treadmill

My 4,000 pound 33-foot camper usually cuts my highway mpg in half compared to solo driving. For trip planning, I add 50% to 100% on top of my car’s mpg estimate to compensate. I still end up making more fuel stops than expected, but it’s better than running on fumes!

Adjust for Slower Speeds

Cruising at 75 mph isn’t really an option with a few tons of trailer in tow. Most RVs have a maximum recommended speed limit around 55-65 mph. You’ll also need to slow down for dips, curves, and highway merges.

My rule of thumb is to take my solo driving pace and knock off about 15 mph when towing. So if I’d normally drive 60 mph on the interstate, I’ll plan for an average of 45 mph while towing. In mountainous regions, my speed estimates are even more conservative. I’d rather arrive late than ride the brakes all the way downhill.

Leave room in your planner for slower speeds, and don’t rely on making up time on downhill legs. Patience is a virtue!

Plan for Shorter Driving Days

In my younger road tripping days, 12-hour marathon driving days were no problem. I’d power through and save time. These days, after 4-5 hours behind the wheel towing an RV, I’m wiped.

It’s physically and mentally taxing to wrestle a rig for hundreds of miles, and focus wavering from fatigue raises accident risk. I now rarely drive more than 5-6 hour legs before calling it a day.

With an RV, it’s better to take more days but drive safely and comfortably. Stop to eat, rest, and sightsee rather than grinding out mileage. The journey is the vacation, not just the destination. Build in buffer days and leave later than your optimal departure time. Take the scenic route!

Double Your Estimated Travel Time

After many misadventures, I’ve learned to take my initial travel time estimate for an RV trip and double it. Seriously. No matter how carefully I plan my route and pace, things always take far longer than expected. From traffic jams to unexpected construction to detours, towing an RV hardly ever goes as smoothly as a car trip.

And that’s okay! Unexpected discoveries and unplanned stops are part of the journey. Just leave ample time so there’s no need to rush between destinations. Give yourself double the time you’d expect solo, and then relax knowing you have plenty of wiggle room built in.

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