When you started RVing, did you already know how to drive an RV? Many people hit the road for the first time without experience driving anything larger than a passenger car. If this describes you, you’re not alone! We’re lucky in that we brought a professional driver along when we hit the road. But if you’re not able to do that, we’ll be sharing our tips on how to drive an RV.
We Brought Along a Professional to Drive Our RV
We had a distinct advantage when we hit the road in our first motorhome nearly 20 years ago. We had a professional driver on board at all times. Our driver not only knew how to drive an RV, but he was also a professional motorcoach operator who, before driving our rig, drove tour buses in a major metropolitan area. He was also the Safety & Training Manager for one of the largest bus companies in North America.
Our driver spent years driving buses himself and training both professional drivers and instructors. He also won a shelf full of trophies competing in driving competitions like the American Public Transit Association International Bus Roadeo, which is like the Olympics of bus driving. Taking to anything with a motor like a duck to water, he also had additional experience operating tractor-trailers, straight trucks, motorcycles, and even, as a licensed pilot, airplanes.
By now, you may be thinking that when the RVgeeks hire a driver, they don’t mess around! And you’d be right, except that we didn’t hire him. Instead, he came as part of a package deal. Half of the RVgeeks is Peter Knize, a professional driver, big rig driving instructor, and training expert. Peter drove and taught motorcoach operators for over a decade (in New York City, no less!), covering bus operating basics, all the way up through advanced defensive driving and risk management. He helped literally hundreds of new trainees to become safe professional drivers.
So, while we’re always quick to note that we’re not trained experts in RV maintenance and repair, there is one area of RVing where we do have significant expertise to offer to our readers and viewers of our videos, and that’s in the realm of how to drive an RV.
Because Peter is often asked to lend his expertise to newer RV drivers, we thought a detailed blog post and a re-visit to one of our most popular YouTube videos might be helpful to anyone who finds themselves a bit intimidated by the thought of driving a large RV.
Today we’re happy to bring you How to Drive an RV: Off-Tracking and Rear Overhang. So, let’s get to it!
Is it Hard to Drive an RV?
Once you get the basics down and some time behind the wheel, driving a Class A motorhome isn’t really much more difficult than driving a car. It’s just different, with some additional things to learn. Do you remember being apprehensive the first time you got behind the wheel of a car? Now it’s all rote, and you don’t even think about it, right?
Once you learn to drive an RV, it will be the same. And unless the weight of your RV exceeds 26,000 pounds, you can legally operate a Class A RV in most places without a special license (with a few caveats in some circumstances… be sure you know the laws in your home state/province).
With that said, there are a few critical differences between driving a car and driving an RV, but once you’ve got those mastered, operating your RV will be second nature.
Let’s start with a couple of topics that are specifically related to driving large vehicles.
Off-Tracking and Rear Overhang
Off-tracking and rear overhang are terms familiar to those who drive big rigs. To discuss these topics, let’s first look at a few of the terms we’ll be using as we explore these important aspects of how to drive an RV.
Wheel cut refers to the number of degrees – or how sharply – your wheels can turn to one side or the other. Although a sharper wheel cut does equate to a tighter turning circle and increased maneuverability, we don’t need to worry about an exact number of degrees when discussing wheel cut. That’s because knowing that number won’t help you learn to drive your RV. But the effects of a sharp wheel cut are important – more on that in just a moment.
Wheelbase is the distance between the front axle (also known as the steer axle) and the drive axle. Our RV has a tag axle, and yours may, too, depending on the length of your RV. The tag axle is the additional axle behind the drive axle, designed to help carry the weight of a larger vehicle. Whether or not your RV has a tag axle, the wheelbase is always the distance between the steer axle (front axle) and the drive axle.
When it comes to driving the RV, the rear overhang is the part of the RV that sticks out behind the drive axle. So whether or not you have a tag axle, anything that sits behind the drive axle is considered the rear overhang for driving purposes.
For parking in a back-in campsite, the rear overhang technically refers to the distance between the rear edge of the rearmost tire (the tread on the tag axle tire in our case) to the rear bumper… or the part of the RV that sticks out over the back of a campsite.
But that’s a different topic than actually driving the RV, so when we refer to rear overhang here, we’re talking about the distance from the center of the drive axle to the rear of the RV. We’ll explain this a bit further in the next section on the pivot point.
The drive axle is also known as the pivot point. Your RV pivots around this point whenever you go around a turn. By definition, a pivot point is a spot things rotate around, so anything on the opposite side of the pivot point goes in the opposite direction. We’ll provide more detail about this concept below.
Off-tracking is one of the most important concepts used when discussing how to drive an RV. When driving in a straight line, the rear wheels follow the same path as the front wheels. However, off-tracking occurs when you turn the RV and the rear wheels follow a different path than the front wheels.
The amount of off-tracking is the result of two factors:
- wheel cut
The longer the wheelbase and the sharper you turn the wheels, the greater the off-tracking. For example, our 43-foot motorhome has a long wheelbase and a sharp wheel cut, which equals LOTS of off-tracking whenever we turn the wheel sharply.
The exact numbers don’t matter (because knowing them won’t help you learn to drive an RV, and focusing on them can actually confuse things). What’s important is to understand how your wheelbase and your wheel cut impact both off-tracking and rear overhang swing, and to practice turning with those factors in mind until you form automatic driving habits based on your RV. So let’s get to driving the RV.
How to Drive an RV with Off-Tracking in Mind
Basically, off-tracking is a situation that occurs when going around a corner. When driving in a straight line, the rear wheels follow the front wheels exactly. But when driving around a corner, the rear wheels don’t follow the front wheels. Instead, they follow a smaller diameter circle. That path (or “track”) is off from the front wheels, hence the term off-track or off-tracking.
The effect of this is the vehicle exhibiting some sideways motion rather than just moving straight ahead. The sharper the turn, the greater the off-tracking, and therefore the greater the sideways movement.
We’ll use our 43-foot Class A motorhome as our example, but the following will apply regardless of the motorhome you’re driving.
We off-track a lot based on our very long wheelbase and our sharp wheel cut. However, ALL vehicles off-track when rounding a turn (even your car, no matter how small it is!), and we’ll demonstrate that for you here in photos (and, of course, you can always watch our video above for even clearer visuals).
With our wheel cut all the way to the right to demonstrate maximum off-tracking, here’s what our path looks like after we’ve wet our tires to make the off-tracking clearer:
Because our motorhome is so long, and the wheels turn so sharply, we cut a 13-foot wide swath as we rounded the turn and pivoted around the drive axle.
However, off-tracking doesn’t occur simply because our motorhome is so long. All vehicles off-track, including our Honda CR-V.
With a shorter-wheelbase vehicle, off-tracking, while still present, is much less pronounced. So you don’t usually think about it much (or at all) when driving your car. Having driven cars for so long, you automatically position yourself correctly when you make a turn. This is due to muscle memory and habit. But you still instinctively know that if you position your car too far to the right when turning right, the right side of your car might impact something alongside you… or your rear wheel will hit or bump over the curb.
Given some time and plenty of practice in placing your RV correctly for turns (and monitoring your progress in your mirrors), that same instinct will eventually occur when driving your RV.
How to Prevent an Off-Tracking Accident When Driving an RV
You may have noticed that one of the most common places to see accident damage on large vehicles is on the passenger side, and usually right in front of the rear wheels. Lack of understanding of off-tracking is the reason why that’s so common.
There are two critical skills to practice to avoid off-tracking accidents:
- Proper vehicle positioning before and during turns
- Monitoring your position through the correct use of mirrors.
With the laws of physics guiding our way, there’s a basic technique to follow to properly position your RV for a turn. Keep in mind that right turns are the more challenging ones in countries where we drive on the right-hand side of the road. That’s because we’ll be both starting and ending a right turn where we’re closest to the curb. So we’re close to the curb on our right as we prepare to make the turn and end up in the same situation as soon as we complete the turn… closer to the curb on our right side.
On the other hand, left-hand turns usually allow us more space to work with since there’s at least one traffic lane on that side both before and after the turn. But, of course, one way-streets can change that dynamic, and left turns aren’t a free pass either (think about a car on your left, waiting at a stoplight on the cross street as you make your left across their nose).
So for right turns especially, we need extra space for our rear wheels to round the turn. Otherwise, we’ll run the right rear tires up over the curb, potentially striking an obstacle on the side of the road (stop sign, street light, pedestrians… you get the idea). We achieve that through two motions: 1) Staying left as we set up the turn (not swinging left… keep your RV straight as you set up the turn), and 2) Pulling forward slightly into the intersection before initiating the turn.
Our desired position in setting up a turn (how far to the left we stay) is primarily based on a combination of three factors:
- The tighter (narrower) the street we’re turning onto
- The longer our wheelbase
- The tighter our front wheels turn (wheel cut)
The greater the combination of 1 + 2 + 3 = the more we need to stay left as we set up the turn.
The need to stay left is one of the reasons we want to keep our rig straight in setting up the turn. Swinging left before initiating the turn creates several problems. First, it makes it more challenging to successfully execute the turn at all due to the complexity of positioning while swinging left then right. Second, swinging left positions the tail of your own vehicle in such a way that it can block your view of any traffic that might be approaching you from behind on the right side, and trying to squeeze around you on the right (just as you’re about to turn right)!
And speaking of traffic behind you, swinging left sends the exact wrong (and opposite) message about your intentions, with your move to the left conveying a left turn, not a right turn. Of course, you’ll have already activated your right turn signal (that goes without saying right?), but your “body language” says “I’m moving left, so feel free to squeeze into that space along my right side that you’ve had your eye on for the past 1/2 mile.”
This is where proper mirror use comes in, with your flat mirror monitoring traffic approaching from behind and your convex mirror monitoring traffic and 0bjects already alongside your rig. We mentioned in the video above that we’d have an updated post about mirror adjustment and use, but if you’d like to look at our video on that topic today, you can find it here.
The rule for convex mirror monitoring is “Turn right, look right. Turn left, look left.” Since you off-track in the same direction as the side you’re turning toward (off-tracking to the right on right turns and to the left on left turns), you must watch down alongside your RV on the side you’re turning toward as you navigate the turn.
Notice we didn’t say how far to stay left or how far to pull into the intersection, as it’s different for every vehicle and situation and requires practice. An empty parking lot and some traffic cones make for a great (and damage-free) practice area!
That said, here is a basic starting point (NOT the answer for every situation) for learning to make successful turns in an RV:
- Start by staying about one vehicle width from the right curb, keeping in mind that signaling early (you did your pre-trip inspection, so you know your signal is working, right?), keeping the RV straight, and monitoring BOTH of your right side mirrors (flat and convex) will protect you from another vehicle trying to sneak up on your right.
- Pull straight forward into the intersection until the back of your seat is lined up with the curb of the street you’re turning onto. Now initiate the turn. Slowly! Remember that this is only a general guideline to get started and that the narrower the street you’re turning onto, the more challenging the turn.
As you approach and observe an intersection where you’re planning to make a right turn, ask yourself the following questions:
- How wide is the street I’m currently driving on (do I have room to stay left as I set up for the turn?).
- How wide is the street I’m turning onto (do I have room to pull forward into the intersection?).
- What is the traffic control situation (uncontrolled, stoplight, stopsign… and if so, for whom?).
- Is there traffic coming from the right on the cross street (if it’s a light, can they back up for me if needed… is there anyone behind them)?
- What are my other options (can I ignore my GPS and go to the next intersection, which might be a wider street)?
- Can I pass this narrow street and make three left turns to return to this same tight intersection and drive straight through it? (Remember that left turns are usually easier than rights, and straight ahead is the easiest!)
Evaluate the situation. Think outside the box. Never be afraid to abort a turn if you realize that you set it up wrong and won’t make it… or if it’s too tight for anyone to make it!
Lastly, go slow. Take your time, and monitor the heck out of the convex mirror on the side you’re turning toward. If you see the space between your RV and the curb narrowing to a slit, STOP! NOW! Before you hit it.
Everyone around will understand…and honestly if they don’t, too bad. A sweat-inducing situation where you felt embarrassed, but avoided an accident, will be quickly forgotten. The memory of damaging your RV unnecessarily will stay with you forever.
Why Pivot Point and Rear Overhang Matter When Learning How to Drive an RV
Remember – a pivot point is a spot around which something rotates, so anything on the opposite side of that pivot point goes in the opposite direction.
When we’re learning how to drive an RV, we need to remember that our pivot point is our drive axle. We also need to remember that our rear overhang sticks out behind our pivot point.
Just as with off-tracking, the sharper the wheel cut, the more pronounced the rear overhang swing. However, this time it’s not the wheelbase that factors in, but rather the rear overhang itself.
The Most Common RV Accident Involving Rear Overhang
When an RV is parked close to a curb, pulling sharply away will cause the rear overhang to swing out the opposite way toward the curb. This is a common cause of striking signs, fire hydrants, parked cars, or anything else that sits alongside the RV but behind the drive axle (pivot point) as we pull away.
Here’s an aerial view of the same rear overhang incident:
How to Prevent a Rear Overhang Accident When Driving an RV
The way to prevent this common rear overhang accident is to leave extra space in front of your RV whenever possible. This will allow you to avoid cutting your wheel too sharply as you pull away from the curb gradually.
Instead of using a sharp wheel cut, you’ll turn the wheel more slowly as you pull forward, allowing your rear overhang to move gradually away from the curb. Another way to prevent rear overhang accidents is by parking a little further away from the curb (if and when possible and practical) and avoiding parking with the rear of the RV alongside taller objects. If the rear of your RV is high enough off the ground (is your exhaust pipe or a rigid mud flap low down on the right side?), your overhang can swing out over a low curb. But not many street signs, telephone poles, mailboxes, or cars are short/low enough to swing your tail over!
When you’re learning how to drive an RV, there are many factors to take into consideration. Today we’ve looked at off-tracking and rear overhang. If you’re new to driving an RV, you may want to take some time to practice the techniques we’ve focused on today to become more comfortable with them.
In an upcoming post, we’ll offer details regarding the proper techniques for setting and using mirrors, and lane control tips, so keep an eye out for that.
No matter the size of your RV, all of these driving skills will make you a better and safer driver behind the wheel of any vehicle you drive.
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