“What’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever done while motorhoming?”
“Well, to be honest,” replied one fellow when I asked him this question, “in 19 years of motorhoming, I’ve never done anything stupid … until this year.” He then proceeded to tell me his woeful tale. Nearly everyone I asked could recall one or more mishaps they wish hadn’t happened to them. I recorded these mishaps and ranked them on a 10-item scale from dumb (No. 10) to dumbest (No. 1). Usually, dumber things are more costly. Readers may recall last year’s winner (MotorHome, August 2011) totaled his coach by driving into a tollbooth with a slide extended.
A wise person once said, “Experience is the best teacher.” Maybe so, but a wiser person noted, “It’s better to learn from other people’s experiences.” So let’s have a look at this year’s list to find out why these dumb things occurred, and how you can avoid having them happen to you. Most of these motorhome owners would probably agree that nothing spoils a perfectly fine day like an avoidable blunder.
Ladder of Shame
Alan decided it was time to clean the roof of his motorhome while it was parked in the driveway. Since his model did not have an attached ladder, he propped his extension ladder against the side and climbed up with a hose and cleaning supplies. While spraying down the roof, his hose caught the ladder and knocked it down. OOPS! Alan’s wife was not due home for another six hours but quite a few cars were passing by in view of the motorhome. He figured he would just wave and someone would stop to help him. For more than an hour he waved. The few motorists who noticed him waved back and kept on driving. Finally, a man stopped and put the ladder back up. Alan sheepishly thanked him and decided to clean his roof another day.
When Alan reported this mishap to me, he still had not figured out how to prevent a recurrence. I suggested several options: use a distress wave (crisscrossing arms above the head) rather than a friendly “Hi there” wave; carry a cellphone aloft to call for help; tie a rope to the ladder and secure the other end topside; or clean the roof for six hours until his wife got home.
Tim and his family were returning home on the freeway after a camping trip when traffic came to a standstill, the result of an accident. During the next hour, each passed the time in his or her own way: Tim read a book; his wife took the dog for a walk; and their daughter did her homework. When traffic finally began to move, the dog was curled up in the front seat and Tim assumed his wife was taking a nap in the back of the motorhome. Fortunately, before getting up to speed he glanced in the passenger-side mirror and saw his wife running along the shoulder of the road, yelling and waving her arms (hopefully, in a crisscross fashion above her head). Tim quickly stopped the coach, allowing her to catch up and come aboard, totally out of breath. She had gone for another walk … without the dog.
Tim has since expanded his departure checklist: Antenna lowered? Cabinets secure? Lights working? Wife aboard?
During his family’s first cross-country trip in their new Class C motorhome, Bob was taking no chances of doing anything stupid that might qualify for an RV Oops Award. He always used checklists and even left himself notes to check his checklists. Part way through their journey, Bob noted it was time for an oil change and proceeded to drive from the road to the parking lot of a lube shop. Noting a distinct dip in the curb, he decided to reduce sway by lining up for a direct-in approach. Bad decision. As the front end leveled off and the rear wheels approached the dip, he heard a loud, horrid scraping sound and immediately lost forward motion. The hitch receiver had gotten stuck on the road, suspending the rear wheels over the dip. Fortunately, the lube crew offered their assistance by jacking up the rear end and placing boards under the wheels, allowing Bob to continue into the shop for his oil change.
When exiting, Bob chose a more angular track through the dip. The only damage was to the wiring harness and to his pride (his kids were laughing hysterically). I suggested to Bob that he might want to add “Dips” to his underway checklist.
After a week of camping in his brand-new motorhome, Rick decided to use his black-water tank cleanout sprayer for the first time. Following the directions in his operator’s manual, he pulled the valve handle to “Ensure the black-water valve is open.” He then hooked up the water hose to the appropriate tank-flush intake and turned on the faucet. About 10 minutes later, his wife began yelling frantically from inside: “Rick! Come quickly! Toilet water is running all over the carpets!” It was also running out of the vent pipe on the roof. OOPS! Rick’s mistake was simple but troublesome – he had opened the gray-water valve instead of the black.
Rick quickly shut off the faucet, opened the black-water valve, and spent the next few hours cleaning carpets and washing down the outside. His now used motorhome was almost like new again, except for the lingering smell of disinfectant.
Helpful hint: Since motorhome manufacturers haven’t seen fit to install gray handles on gray-water valves, consider painting those handles gray and leaving your black-water handle black.
Before leaving a campground, Don hooked up his dinghy to the motorhome, something he had done many times over the years. After about 100 miles of freeway driving, he pulled into a rest stop and noticed the left front tire of his dinghy was in shreds. The right front tire was also damaged but not as badly. Assessing the situation, Don realized he had forgotten to unlock the steering wheel by turning the ignition key to the appropriate position. After installing his spare, he drove home unaware that he had forgotten to release the parking brake on his dinghy. As a result, both rear brakes burned out. Don lamented, “I was not a happy camper,” a phrase often associated with oops events. The cost of two tires, wheel alignment and rear brakes came to more than $500.
Since this mishap, Don has prudently added “steering wheel” and “parking brake” to his departure checklist.
Parking Brake Panic
Stew and his wife got a late start in their Class A motorhome and darkness fell before they reached their next campground. Misinterpreting directional signs, they found themselves driving into the mountains on a narrow two-lane road in the pitch dark. Coming to a large pullout on the opposite side of the road, Stew attempted to make a U-turn. When the front end of the coach was at the edge of a drop-off, the dinghy was still across the road. In a moment of confusion, both he and his wife got up to unhitch the car so they could back up the motorhome. Opening the door, she noticed the ground moving slowly beneath the steps and yelled, “We’re moving!” Stew ran back up front and put on the parking brake, but it was too late. The front wheels of the motorhome went over the edge, causing the front end of the dinghy vehicle to rise 4 feet in the air. Fortunately, the brakes of the coach prevented them from going completely over the embankment.
Shortly thereafter, a woman came along who called the police and explained the predicament. A tow company arrived with two trucks. After disconnecting the dinghy, they grabbed the motorhome from behind and pulled it back on level ground while a sheriff controlled traffic.
What happened here? In his panic, Stew said he simply forgot to apply the parking brake or put the gearshift in park. He may have moved it to neutral, he didn’t know for sure. The bill included a $500 deductible to cover towing charges as well as the cost of replacing a broken step and tow bar. It could have been much worse.
This lucky couple now has some new rules: Stop traveling before dark, ask for directions when in doubt, and learn their turning radius with and without the dinghy.
Considering that backing into things is the most common mishap reported by motorhome owners, I felt it appropriate to include this year’s incident. Mike bought a new motorhome and was attempting to back it out of his driveway without a spotter. Just as his back tires neared the opposite curb, he felt a lurch and heard a loud CRUNCH. Thinking he had just bumped into the mailbox across the street, Mike angrily and hastily pulled forward. Not a good move. Yes, the mailbox had been knocked off, but worse, the 4-by-4 post embedded in concrete was pushed down well under the rear quarter. The forward movement resulted in an even louder CRUNCH when the post, acting like a spear, pierced the motorhome’s flooring and tore out portions of the rear bedroom, exhaust system and rear wall. The repair bill came to $3,000.
Helpful hint: If you happen to back into something, immediately stop and assess the situation. Often, more severe damage occurs in the process of pulling forward. Better yet, avoid backing into something by always using a spotter.
Costly Road Conditions
After a relaxing winter on the sunny beaches of Baja, Mexico, Ron joined a caravan of motorhomes heading for the U.S. border. The northbound lane was quite narrow – 9.5 feet of pavement – with a 6-inch drop off onto a “shoulder” littered with rocks and other debris. Along the way, an impatient motorist attempted to pass but was forced to cut in sharply to avoid an oncoming truck. To prevent being sideswiped, Ron moved over off the road and onto the rocks, eventually stopping after a very scary and bumpy ride. Fortunately, no one was injured and he was able to continue with the caravan for the remainder of the trip. At home, after repairing a bent frame and numerous dents and scratches, an RV dealer handed Ron a bill for $10,000.
In this instance, Ron did most of the right things, including traveling in a caravan when in Mexico. Had he not moved over or lost control on the rocky shoulder, the outcome might have been disastrous. For that he is to be congratulated. On the other hand, this mishap could easily have been avoided. Ron was driving his large Class A motorhome on a narrow road with a severe drop off and inadequate shoulder. Talk about living on the edge! In our search for adventure, we must always be aware of road conditions – too narrow, soft, wet, slippery or steep – that may be unsafe for large, heavy motorhomes. Avoidance is always the best option.
Tail Swing Setback
Art and his wife were driving south for the winter when they decided to overnight in the parking lot of a big-box store. They circled the lot and were driving parallel to a retaining wall on the passenger side when Art noticed a suitable parking space to his left. As he turned sharply, a loud RIPPING sound came from behind. Looking over his shoulder, Art could see directly out the back of his motorhome. The right rear corner had gotten caught on a protruding angle iron, opening up the back end like a can of sardines. After a sleepless night, he drove slowly to a nearby RV service center where he had the back wall pushed into position and secured with brackets and screws. Continuing on to their destination, Art had it fixed properly by another dealer to the tune of $20,000.
Tail swing can be problematic for motorhome owners. The longer your overhang from the rear wheels, the farther your rear end swings out when turning. It’s been estimated that every 3 feet of overhang results in potentially 1 foot of tail swing. Since motorhomes can have up to 15 feet of overhang, tail swing can be as much as 5 feet. I hear numerous reports of rear sections hitting objects, often in campgrounds and fuel stations where space is tight. Most result in minor dents, but Art’s experience nearly earned him a top spot in this year’s awards.
Helpful hint: In an open parking lot, position your motorhome so the right side is lined up with a straight line such as a paint stripe. Then turn the wheels sharply left and move forward very slowly, until the right rear corner reaches the maximum distance from the straight line. You may need a helper to tell you when to stop. Most drivers will be amazed at how far out their tail swings from its initial position.
Major Bridge Blunder
Dennis was on one of his annual trips south in his Class A motorhome. This time, he decided to take some unfamiliar backroads and had started down a grade that became rather steep. As his speed increased, he looked ahead and saw to his amazement a low-clearance bridge. His first thought was that he may get stuck under the bridge and stop traffic. In a moment of panic, he decided to floor it. Imagine for a moment the sound of a locomotive driving on top of your motorhome! That’s what Dennis heard as steel bridge girders ripped off two air conditioners, five vents, the shower skylight, TV antenna, numerous trusses, and pieces of plywood and rubber roofing. When he finally stopped and walked back to the bridge, half of his roof was strewn about the road. Dennis confirmed, “Oh, yeah, I did stop traffic,” and “Oh, yeah, it was costly.”
Helpful hint: New GPS models designed for motorhomes allow drivers to program in the height of their coaches, thus providing advance warning of low-clearance situations. Get one if you’re planning to travel unfamiliar backroads.
Well, there you have it: The top 10 dumbest things that motorhome owners reported to me in the past year. I would like to thank everyone who took the time to share their story, either verbally or by email, so that others can benefit from your experience. Of course, names were changed to protect the integrity of the winners.
If you personally have done something equally dumb or dumber, send me an email at [email protected] and tell me what occurred, the outcome and how it might have been prevented. Your mishap may well make next year’s list and serve as an example of how not to spoil a perfectly fine day of motorhoming.