How we choose an RV park and navigate to it, or getting from point A to point B with no muss or fuss
We've learned a lot of things the difficult way over the years and when we began RVing, we started with zero experience and consequently made a lot of mistakes in the process of becoming experienced RVers. This article is primarily directed to the novice, but even the veterans might pick up a tip or two.
How to choose an RV park was one of the very early hurdles we had to overcome and probably like most newcomers bought the telephone-book sized RV park directory. After using the giant newsprint book for a couple of years (and being very frustrated in the process), my buddy Bob introduced me to Trailer Life Directory Campground Navigator on CD-ROM. You install this program on your PC and use it to quickly and efficiently search for appropriate campgrounds. There are also those RVers that simply drive and stop when they're tired and take pot-luck on a campground. I much prefer to plan my route and pick my campground ahead of time - very seldom are we ever surprised or disappointed with our pre-planned choice.
Another important hurdle to overcome was how to navigate our 40' coach with Jeep in tow to the campground without wandering around while looking for it. We used GPS navigation from the very start of our RV adventures and some of our early navigation mistakes were thanks to GPS - I relied on it in a way that was very, very dumb which I'll explain a little later. (Now I have complete confidence when using the GPS nav program to get me exactly where I want to go.)
The tools we use - a thoroughly tested and vetted list
If you are dead set on using paper maps, you might as well stop reading right now. Since I'm a geek, I will use a computer whenever and where ever it makes sense, and it makes a whole bunch of sense for route planning and navigation.
Note: I have not made any of these tools into links since they change and go out of date so quickly - please use your favorite search engine for more information on any of these
Microsoft Streets and Trips - I use this for the initial route planning strictly to get a basic idea of time and distance. For example, if we were planning a trip from Los Angles to Miami, I would plug those cities into S&T and let it figure a route. Since we like to only run 300-350 miles a day, I can now check the directions and see what city we need to plan a night's stop. I'll buy a new version of this every couple of years. We've used S&T for navigation, but it isn't nearly as useful as CoPilot.
UPDATE 7/2014: Microsoft is discontinuing this product, the last version is S&T 2013
Trailer Life Directory Campground Navigator - the easiest way by far to find campgrounds in a geographic area. I also buy a new version of this every couple of years
UPDATE 7/2014: This product is also discontinued unfortunately and there is no competing product
RV Park Reviews web site - I never choose an RV park based solely on Woodalls or Trailer Life's rating. This web site lists actual reviews by real people. Once in a while you will get a sour-grape review by somebody who might view things very differently than most people would, so be sure and read all of the reviews, even the older ones. Sometimes I'll even find a park that isn't listed in Trailer Live Campground Navigator
Satellite-Friendly Campground Directory - we always want a site mostly free of trees for the satellite TV and the satellite Internet, so this database is somewhat helpful since others will report what site (or sites) have a clear view to the south
Google Earth - I always look at an aerial view of a campground of interest to see if it looks like we want to stay there (ease of access, wide roads, lack of heavy tree cover, etc.) and if we want to stay there, I write down the GPS coordinates of their driveway at the street - that's what we plug into the GPS nav devices. (This Google Earth picture is of Buckhorn RV Resort in Kerrville, Tx - one of the nicest RV parks we have ever stayed in!)
CoPilot Live Laptop - I have tried ALL of the laptop-based nav programs (yes all of them), and CoPilot is the easiest and by far the most intuitive nav program out there hands-down (and it is height-aware for RVs)
Garmin Nuvi - the little Nuvi is always used as a sanity check for CoPilot while we are on the road and as a backup device
Let's step through the entire process for a hypothetical trip is from Los Angeles, CA to Miami, FL
After plugging the cities into Microsoft Streets and Trips, we get a total distance of 2700 miles. Since we only like to travel about 350 miles a day with a rest day after three days of traveling, we'll travel three days, rest one, travel three days, rest one, travel two days in this situation.
Where to spend the first night? Let's look at Streets and Trips for a city about 350 miles out from LA which will be the Phoenix, AZ area. I always like to get on the other side of a large city, so we'll check out Trailer Live Campground Navigator for a candidate list of places to spend the night.
After some research, I decided that Beaudry RV Resort on the eastern side of Phoenix would be a great place to spend the night. It got good reviews on RV Park reviews and is very satellite-friendly (okay, the trees in southern Arizona are a little short.)
Next, I'll print out the Trailer Life Campground Navigator (TLCN for short) listing for Beaudry RV Resort - I like to have printed directions and a little map for general orientation. Now that I have some paper to write on, I'll look at the campground in Google Earth and reconcile TLCN printed directions to what I see from Google Earth and copy the Latitude and Longitude to the TLCN printed listing. (Later, we'll plug the Lat/Long into CoPilot and the Nuvi and use that for our destination.)
Repeat the above process for each route segment.
The navigation phase
All of the hard work has been done now that we have our stops figured out and a printed listing of each stop with the Latitude and Longitude of each park's entrance. Now we plug the Lat/Long into CoPilot, and the Garmin Nuvi as a backup and sanity check. Why use Lat/Long? It is the most fool-proof way of making certain the nav program will direct you to exactly where you want to go. I found out the hard way that using street addresses or Points of Interest for routing is inviting a navigational disaster after getting led astray (more than once!) Points of Interest may or may not be accurately placed and street address can be off by a block or a mile (been there and done that as well.)
One of my very favorite Presidents, Ronald Regan, always said "trust but verify" and this is a very appropriate place to verify the nav programs routing. I'll review the entire route, but I pay close attention to the first few miles and especially the last few miles. Sometimes I have caught routing errors.
You're all ready to hit the road - many safe miles!