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RV life: pacing ourselves

Our first two weeks on the road have been full of adventure and learning. We set out with a general path in mind, but very little actually planned. We knew we wanted to head North up to Iowa, then West across SD before heading South through CO. But, we weren’t totally sure where wanted to stop or how long we wanted to stay, so we didn’t actually book many stops. Despite that we still found ourselves moving too fast and have had to readjust and pace ourselves several times.

Because the 4th of July was approaching just two weeks into our trip, we knew we had to reserve a place for that night, or risk spending the night in a Walmart parking lot (something we just didn’t feel prepared to do). Based on an estimation that we’d travel about 400 miles/day and only travel on the weekends, we had figured out that we could get about halfway up the West side of Iowa by the 4th. If we really booked it (traveling 400 miles two days in a row) we could get there the Sunday before the 4th and stay until the 5th. I found a place that looked reasonable and booked it for that week.

Then we began traveling. The first leg of the trip took us just about three hours up into Tennessee. Easy Peasy. Well, mostly- there was that little truck issue that had us worried.

After a week in Clarksville, we headed North. When we first bought Bessie, we’d heard that 300 miles was a good daily maximum. And, that was our maximum coming up from Florida with her. But, sometime since then we heard 400 miles often enough that it stuck. From Clarksville, we drove about 400 miles north into Missouri. We were both ready to be done at about 250 miles, and we knew we didn’t want to drive again the next day.

We spent our first night in Missouri at Indian Creek Recreation Area outside Monroe City, MO. It is a great campground, right on Mark Twain lake. We would have loved to have spent a week there, unfortunately, the cellular signal wasn’t good.

Our rig at Indian Creek Recreation area Corp of Engineers campground

We tried to find a place in the direction of that would take us up towards Iowa, but nothing was available that night in the range we wanted to drive (which wasn’t far). Instead, we back-tracked to Hannibal, MO.

We spent the rest of that week at Mark Twain Caves and Campground in Hannibal. It was a good stay, but we knew we had to reconfigure our plans for the next weekend. We’d originally intended to drive on the 3rd, and stay two nights at the campground we’d booked in Iowa, then drive again on Sunday getting us closer to the Black Hills. However, that campground was another 400 mile drive. We really didn’t want to do that… especially knowing that we’d have to drive again even two days later.

I searched along our path, and finally found one campground that had an opening on the night of the 3rd. It looked like a cute little campground with a petting zoo and fishing ponds. That turned out to be the good news….

As cute as the campground was, the site they had available had so many issues at one point we questioned if we should just leave and camp at the Wal-mart. But, at least we had electric and water. This campground doubled up their pull-through sites, so we had to pull in behind a Class A, giving us very little room to maneuver our camper and unhook. After we unhooked, the next task was to try to get level. The site sloped both side to side and front to back.

Once we were unhooked the only way to get our truck out was through the grassy area of the neighbors site (there was just enough room between their picnic table and a large tree).

The perils of leveling a 42′ 5th Wheel

We’ve been in some sites that we thought were pretty unlevel, but until this trip we’d not found any that we weren’t able to manage with two sets of leveling blocks and a couple of 2×10 boards.

The first time we ran into an issue being unable to level was at the Indian Creek Recreation campground in MO. The site we’d originally booked was not only tough to get into (thanks to trees on both sides of the site as well as opposite), but once we did manage to get the rig parked (after about 30 minutes and 5 tries), we couldn’t get the camper to level and actually keep the levelers on the ground. That site scared us and had us thinking our rig was going to tip over. Thankfully, the campground had another site available that was nice and flat.

Another site was not an option at this campground. We were going to have to make do. But, that was not going to include actually getting our rig level. Even if we’d had enough blocks to make it happen, we just didn’t feel comfortable with how high off the ground the front of the camper would be (and that there would need to be blocks under 5 out of 6 leveling points – plus support under the tires on one side).

After over an hour of trying to get the rig to level (and despite the kind campground owner’s attempt to round up every available leveling block and board she could find), we gave up and decided that we were going to just leave the slides in for the night and make do.

However, sitting creek side in 90 degree heat and 80% humidity wasn’t really something we wanted to do either. With our slides in we can’t access any of our living space, and most of our kitchen (we can get to half the fridge and all of the freezer, but no pantry, and no stove). We jumped back in the truck and headed 30 minutes to the nearest city, grabbed dinner and bought some concrete leveling blocks.

On the way to the campground I’d already found that there were three wineries within 30 minutes of the campground. While we hadn’t really planned on to visit more than one, that plan changed when we realized we didn’t have anything else to do. It turned out that one was closed, but we did take our time enjoying the other two.

Setting a new pace

When we left the next morning we headed up into Iowa to the park we’d booked for the 4th of July, happy to know we had a place and hoping it would at least have reasonably level sites (we don’t ask for much).

We were surprised at just how nice the park actually was, offering not only LARGE level sites, but a great atmosphere, plenty of space and shade, and everything else we could possibly need. We actually wished we had just planned to stay there for the next week.

But, that was not to be. Instead, we’d be driving for the 3rd day in a row and heading up towards Sioux Falls, SD. While we only did just over 500 miles in those three days, we realized that driving for three days straight was as bad as driving 400 miles in a single day. It wore us out and made us realize that we could not do that again.

In just our first two weeks on the road, we’ve realized that we need to slow down even more than we thought. It seems that each major leg we re-assess our pace again and slow down even more. Three weeks in and we are ready to get somewhere where we can sit still for a while. We’re hoping that we can do that in the Black Hills (at least for a couple of weeks).

We arrived in the Black Hills Sunday, after driving about 300 miles Saturday to the Badlands, followed by another 60 miles on Sunday to our current campground. If we had it to do again, we’d have planned to stay a week closer to the Badlands so we could spend more time there.

We are booked at our current campground for two weeks, but may stay in the Black Hills longer. We are ready to just rest for a bit and enjoy the scenery without any rush.

We’ve decided that for major stops we will spend two to three weeks (or longer), just to make sure we have time to enjoy the destination. We’ve already extended our stay in the Black Hills by a week (to three weeks total).

It’s difficult when there’s so much you want to see and do, to not want to rush through everything and stop as many places as possible. But, we have to keep reminding ourselves that we aren’t on a deadline and that we can come back to these areas again (and likely will).

We see people rushing through, staying just a day or two, trying to fit in the Badlands and Mt. Rushmore in a single day. We see people rushing their children through an experience that they should have the opportunity to take in and remember for a lifetime. It’s just sad. Unfortunately, not everyone has unlimited time. But, I still think it would be better to really enjoy a single thing, than to rush to try to see everything.

We will continue to take this trip as slow as we need to so that we can enjoy as much of it as possible.

Reservations vs Spontaneity

I can’t even imagine trying to book out our trip in advance. Right now, we are only booked for the next two weeks. I’ve tried to think about booking beyond then but I just can’t wrap my mind around locking into anything that far out. We just don’t know what we’ll want to do yet.

There are definitely pros and cons to both sides.

Reserving in advance gives you more options. We’d potentially be able to stay at nicer places, or get a better site at the places we do stay. Most of the state parks and Corp of Engineer parks (that aren’t first-come-first-serve) are booked out months in advance this time of year. Of course, we’ve found that most of those on in this area also don’t have full hookups (or even water), which would limit how long we can stay.

If there was a special place we knew we wanted to be at for a specific date it would make sense to reserve a good bit in advance (much as we did with the 4th of July).

What’s more important to us though, is the ability to change our plans and be spontaneous. Our current plan is to head south into Colorado after we visit the Black Hills, but we also have the option to head into Wyoming, across to Montana, or over into Utah. Or, we can choose to stay longer in the Black Hills. We can take our time.

The other advantage to not booking reservations very far out is that we don’t risk as much in deposits. While some campgrounds don’t take a deposit (and we thank them for it), many do. Some of the campgrounds in the Black Hills are requiring 100% non-refundable deposit right now because the Sturgis rally is so close. Those deposits add up and if we change one thing in our plan it could mean changing several stops, and potentially forfeiting several deposits.

The disadvantage of not planning far ahead is that we will occasionally end up in sites like the ones we described above, but as long as it’s not a holiday we can always get back in the rig and find another place. And, even if we booked well ahead we could still end up in sites or campgrounds that don’t quite live up to our expectations.

One thing we did learn from this experience (but, should have learned from reading the experiences of other RV travelers) is to check out our site before we pay. While we can’t always see the issues by just looking, we can see the major ones that would make us back away and find a new place to park.

Our current campground is not bad, the site is reasonably level, and it’s a beautiful place. But, the one thing we forgot to check as we came in was our cellular connection. We have no signal at our park. They do have OK wifi but it’s not been strong enough for the video calls Brandon needs to do for work. He’s had to jump in the truck and run a mile down the road to do calls a few times during our stay.

Set your own pace and plan

The most important thing that I hope you take away from this post is that you can set your own pace and make your own plan based on what works for you. We have friends who plan their stops out a year in advance. We can’t even imagine, but it works for them. And, we know others who are just like us.

We know people who have no problem driving 600 miles in a day, and we have friends who cap their day at 200 miles. It’s all about finding the pace that is comfortable for you, given your rig, your health, and any other limitations you may have.

I don’t know that we’ve really worked out our pace yet, it’s still in-progress. But, give us another 600 miles or so and I bet we’ll be pretty close.


Julie grew up making cross-country road trips, and has always loved to travel. She dreamed of one day retiring and living in an RV while traveling. Finally, she realized that you can't wait to live the life you want, and there was no reason to wait. As a freelance writer and marketer she realized as long as she had internet she could live anywhere! So, she did.

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