Are you a new or first time motorhome or campervan owner? Feeling a bit overwhelmed? Don't worry- we all did when we started. Here are the essential things you need to know and step-by-step guidance for your first trip in your motorhome or camper…
CONGRATULATIONS! You are the proud new owner of a motorhome or campervan. That's so exciting!!
Still- it can be a bit overwhelming. What the heck do you do with this big lump of expensive plastic now?
DONT PANIC. I know it seems intimidating now, but I promise it's not that scary. EVERYONE started their motorhome life as a beginner (and we all learnt from our mistakes!)
Here are our best tips and advice for new or first time motorhome owners (and step by step guidance for your very first trip!)
Advice for new motorhome or campervan owners
I get emails every week from people who have just ordered motorhomes. They are so excited, yet every single one of them has a question about an aspect of motorhoming which was worrying them, but they felt embarrassed to ask.
It's a strange hobby- very few of us join a club or have any training- so we end up surrounded by like-minded people, yet with no-one to show us the ropes. We often find ourselves on a campsite, on our very first motorhome holiday, feeling utterly bewildered, surrounded by people who seem to have it all figured out.
But there's nothing to be embarrassed about- all of us have to start somewhere and learn as we go. Heck, the first time Mr WB and I tried to use levelling chocks, we almost got divorced. And we thought mooring a boat in a storm was bad!
So here we go, just for any first-time motorhome owners or anyone who has a new (or new to you!) motorhome or campervan. You can also read our essential motorhome tips for beginners here
Here's a step-by-step guide on what to do for your first trip, what you need and how it all works. If I haven't answered your question, send me an email or message and I'll add it in. I hope it helps you start your new hobby in the best possible way.
Grab a cup of something and a notepad. First VERY IMPORTANT tip- Nobody will know if you look at your notes!! Seriously. So make as many notes as you need.
Essential things to do before you leave on your first motorhome trip
I know, I know- you're excited and just want to GO. But trust me, if you figure out these things first, your first trip will go a lot smoother.
Firstly, do NOT do what we did and plan a trip hundreds of miles down the road, with no clue what you're doing. Find a local site and book a night or two.
Try to take as few people with you as possible- just for the first night until you figure things out. Maybe leave the kids at friends or family- although I appreciate this may be tough if they're excited too!
Make sure you have/ understand
- motorhome insurance (here's how to choose the best motorhome insurance for you)
- road tax
- breakdown cover
- motorhome payload (make sure you stay under the limit)
- and check that you are legally allowed to drive the vehicle!
*There may be affiliate links in this post, meaning if you click and make a purchase, we earn a small commission (from the seller- no cost to you) We are very selective about our partners and who we recommend- if we wouldn't recommend it to our family, we won't recommend it to you.
How to pack your motorhome or campervan for the first trip
Motorhome packing without rattles is an art. It's also a science- the science of knowing what to leave behind! Don't pack as if you're going to the Arctic for 3 months. Seriously. You'll spend all your time sorting stuff out and trying to find things in cupboards, and not enough time enjoying yourself.
You can pack the van with more things when you get back. We've listed our essential below, or you can grab these motorhome checklists to help.
Essential packing list:
- Motorhome Bedding and pillows
- A change of clothes and pyjamas
- Toothbrush, hairbrush and shower kit
- Towel, including hand towel
- Kettle (we prefer a gas kettle like this one), tea/ coffee and milk
- Any other drinks- tonight is a great time for a beer/ bottle of wine to celebrate your new purchase!
- Snacks- healthy road trip snacks are fun, but get some treats too!)
- Quick and easy road trip meals– make ahead is even better!
- ONLY BRING THE PANS/ UTENSILS YOU NEED FOR THE MEALS YOU HAVE CHOSEN.
- Washing up bowl & liquid, scrubber, and drying towel.
- Wet wipes
- Kitchen towels
- Toilet roll
- Plates and utensils
- Mugs and glasses- these magnetic glasses are amazing!
- Stuff for pets. If you have a dog, here are our dog travel essentials. Don't forget poo bags!
- A lighter, for lighting BBQ or hob. Just in case.
- Portable BBQ/ campfire bucket (if allowed on the campsite)
- Electric cable (230v- make it a nice long cable) This one is good
- Hose for drinking water and tap connector (again- make it a nice long hose that you ONLY use for drinking water)
- Toilet cassette- Please check it's in there first!!
- Levelling chocks if not already with your motorhome (these are NOT essential for your first night!)
Tips for new motorhome owners- Other things to check before you leave
Check the waste outlet tap and the freshwater tank taps are closed. Check all vents, windows, hatches are closed and the gas bottles are turned off. Actually, first check you HAVE gas bottles and that they have gas in them….!!
(We didn't once- and we discovered finding LPG gas in Europe can be tough without the correct gear- oops!)
You can grab your FREE motorhome departure and pre-trip checklist here
First trip in a new motorhome- How to find a campsite
There are loads of campsites around the UK (if you're not in the UK, I bet there are campsites near you too!) For motorhome beginners, we would recommend joining a motorhome club and staying at one of their sites. Another option is Britstops.
We highly recommend being members of one club or the other, although it's NOT a necessity. You can normally use their sites even if you're not a member, although you will pay more.
I would suggest booking the campsite in advance, then getting the address and making sure you know exactly where it is before you set off. Hopefully, it's close enough that you know the area well and know where the small/ narrow/ congested roads are.
Your first trip is not the time to try wild camping. Figure out how everything works first, then set off into the wild! If you do want to try off-grid life, here's a step-by-step guide to wild camping with a motorhome in the UK.
Be sure to use a motorhome sat-nav if you're not sure- now is not the time to be getting stuck in a small residential street!
If you have multiple pets, make sure they are allowed at the site- many campsites restrict dogs to 2 max.
You can usually choose between a grass or hardstanding pitch – hardstanding is usually gravel, which is perfect in the winter ( less muddy due to the rain). We usually prefer grass, but with a heavy motorhome we have to be really careful, so if in doubt find a hardstanding pitch.
You can also choose electric or non-electric pitch. I would suggest electric, so you can make sure everything works as it should. You can always unplug the electric if you want to test how things work using just your motorhome domestic battery.
Advice for new motorhome owners- What to do when you arrive at the campsite
When you arrive, there will be a reception building. Often, there is also a clear sign saying where arriving Motorhomes should pull in, but if not, try to pick a spot which doesn't block the entrance/ exit.
Go into the reception and check-in. They will ask for payment if you haven't paid already. They will also ask for length and sometimes width of the motorhome too, and the registration, so make sure you know those.
Many campsites charge for the parking spot, and then charge for number of people and animals onboard, so they will ask how many adults/ children/pets etc you have onboard.
They will then normally give you a map of the campsite (which often has the site rules on the back) and they will either tell you which pitch to park on, or tell you to go and pick your own pitch. If you do this, you often need to go back and tell them where you are parked.
Some sites have a key for the electric plug-in point, so you might be given those. You will often also be given a code for the showers/ toilets and also for the entry/ exit barrier if necessary.
How to pick a spot for a motorhome or campervan
There is no right or wrong answer to this. I promise. No-one will be judging you. It's entirely personal preference where you choose to park.
We don't use campsite toilets or facilities very often, so we tend to park far far far far far away from them. We park even further away from children's play areas, bars, restaurants or other communal areas. We're lovely and sociable like that.
If there's a small, secluded corner without many people in it, that's where we're heading!
Of course, you may want to park next to the kids play area, or the shower block. In which case, pick a spot near there. On a busy weekend, you might not get much of a choice at all!
One other thing to look for is a flat pitch. If you can avoid having to level the motorhome today, it will make your life so much easier.
How to park up with your new motorhome
Some campsites are VERY strict when it comes to how you can park on a site. Like, ridiculously strict. Others are much more relaxed and as long as you're within your boundary, you'll be fine.
You can generally tell when you check-in; if you're given a 5-minute instruction on how the back left bumper of your motorhome MUST be only 5 inches from the white post, at a 73.6 degree angle… you better pay attention!
If not, then you can relax a little- but glance at the site rules… just in case.
Then, it's merely a case of manoeuvring that big white lump of plastic into the correct spot. People WILL watch. Do not be embarrassed. Take your time.
TOP TIP: Try not to shout at each other if you're with your partner or even with friends/ kids.
Seriously- there's nothing worse. Be patient and kind while you learn and figure this whole thing out. Especially if one of you is a complete beginner.
We use hand signals- a raised clenched fist doesn't mean I want to punch his lights out… (although it occasionally does!) but it means stop. Immediately.
Then I walk to the driver window and explain, calmly, that he's about to wipe out a flower bed and he needs to pull forward and straighten up.
Advice for new motorhome owners- Filling up with water
If you don't have water onboard, you might want to select your spot, leave a sign or electric cable where you want to park up, and then go get water. There will probably be several drinking water filling spots around the campsite.
Some campsites even have taps on each pitch, but most don't. Unlike caravans, you need to take your vehicle to the fill-up point, OR you can get a collapsible water container like this and walk back and forth several times. We use both, depending on the pitch and how far away the tap is!
If you drive to the water, just pull in and connect your water hose. You will often need to provide your own tap connector. We always use our own hose instead of a site hose, as we know where it's been and what it's been used for!
Once you're full (we literally wait until the water overflows- it's not scientific, but it works!), head back to your pitch- you'll probably need to go around the one-way system.
Don't forget to fill up your toilet flush water too.
We usually put some aquasol into our water tank with each fill-up. It's totally odourless and tasteless and helps kill any bacteria which might be in the water source or the tank.
Levelling the motorhome
Despite your best efforts, you might find you NEED to level the motorhome. Take a deep breath- this can get stressful. You generally only have two levelling chocks on a motorhome– one for each side. Normally, you would use them on the front wheels, but it will depend on the pitch and the slope.
Obviously, the chocks will RAISE the van- so you want them on the side/ end which is lower. You literally position them behind or in front of the wheels, move far out of the way, then get the driver to SLOWLY reverse onto them.
You might have to go back and forth several times to get the angle right. One chock might need to be closer to the wheel, while another is a little further away so it doesn't rise so much.
Be patient – eventually you'll get really good at this, but for now it's all new and confusing, so try not to yell at each other.
Tips for new campervan and motorhome owners- Plugging in Electric
We always plug the end of the cable into the motorhome first (don't worry- there's only one end which can fit in the van, and one which goes into the outlet on the site.) By plugging the van in, and then the site, you aren't walking around with a live electric cable.
Once it's plugged in, try not to leave the excess cable coiled up in small coils. We spread ours down the length of the van, and even further if possible. There have been incidents of electric cables catching fire when they are left tightly coiled. Leave several feet between corners and you should be fine.
Turning on the gas
Assuming your bottle is in, strapped up and connected correctly, all you need to do is turn on the bottle. All bottles have an ‘open' and ‘closed' arrow on the top. We don't open our gas bottles fully- there's no real reason for this except that we've been boat owners for years and there are so many stories of boats exploding that we're always wary with gas.
Don't panic, there are far fewer incidents with motorhomes and van- especially modern ones, so you can open the gas bottle fully if you like.
There will always be a brief smell of gas when you light the hob or oven, and sometimes when you turn the gas bottle on or off. If this doesn't fade within a couple of seconds, turn the bottle off IMMEDIATELY and don't light anything. Wait for the smell to fade (open windows and doors for ventilation), then slowly turn the bottle on halfway. If it still smells strongly of gas, turn it off and seek professional advice.
Soooo… it's time to set up the toilet. There's not much to it. When it's empty, add in some toilet chemicals, like these (you can also use bio washing tablets- the ones you pop in with the laundry. Just put one of them into the toilet cassette (yep, where the ‘business' goes) and you're good to go.
So to speak.
Make sure the water flush has water in- this is not water from the main tank- there will be a separate filler on the outside of the motorhome.
We find cheaper toilet paper dissolves quicker – making it easier to empty. But I'll leave that up to you!
Phew…. Make yourself a brew
After all that hard work, make yourself a cuppa – or open something stronger. Most of the work is done, so now it's time to start relaxing.
These are some of the other jobs we do when we've parked up:
- Make up the bed
- Get out chairs/ outdoors table if you have them (don't panic if you don't- these are NOT essential for your first trip!)
- Put out the awning (see below)
- Start dinner/ get food
- Put the dog outside on a longish lead- make sure he can't get near anyone else to bother them. We also have to keep an eye on friendly kids who always want to offer him their chocolate! (If you don't know, chocolate is poisonous to dogs.)
Things to test in your new motorhome
Once you're set up in your first campsite with your new motorhome, there are several things we recommend trying/ checking- especially if you're a new motorhome owner. We don't recommend doing them all at once- just tackle the list one at a time. Make sure to relax and enjoy yourself too- if it's all work it won't be as fun!
Unwind the awning
The motorhome awning confused the heck out of me the first time I did it. If you have an awning, you will probably have a winder (a long stick thing with a hook on one end.) That hook goes into one end of the awning (there should be an eye) and then you start turning the base. (Hopefully, that makes more sense when it's in front of you!)
One way will tighten, the other will release. You want to release. As the awning extends, it will get lower and lower. Eventually, you'll be able to reach it. The legs will generally be inside the front edge of the awning- pull them out and then twist them downwards to lower and extend to the desired height.
That probably sounds terribly confusing, but once you know, it all makes sense. Maybe try the awning out before you go- just so you know what to expect.
Also, don't get the awning out if strong winds or rain is forecast. They aren't very good in inclement weather and if you put it away wet it will start to rot. Always leave the awning to dry out as much as possible before you put it away.
First trip in a motorhome- Some unwritten rules of campsites
Most of these are common sense, so sorry if I'm stating the obvious, but just in case you don't know:
- Don't leave litter around- take it all to the bins onsite. Often there are recycling facilities, so use these if possible
- Don't empty waste water (or other waste!) on your pitch- more on that below. This includes throwing washing up water into the bushes.
- Don't have loud music blaring.
- Pick up after your dog and dispose of it in the bins provided.
- Make sure your kids/ animals aren't bothering anyone else nearby and make sure they are quiet by the curfew.
- Don't block access to anyone else's pitch or hang out over onto the road
- Don't run engines or motorhome generators if you can possibly help it- and definitely not in the evening/ at night
- Expect people to chat to you- especially if you have kids/ animals. We have never been as popular as the time we got our new puppy. It was crazy- people were knocking on the door because they'd heard about him and wanted to say hi!!
And that's it. Obviously, you will want to sort things out to your liking, but hopefully you'd settled enough now to enjoy yourself! And if you've forgotten anything, you can just pop home (or to a nearby supermarket.)
Motorhome Owner tips- What to do when you're ready to leave
Sadly, the time will come when it's time to pack up and leave. You'll probably have a whole long list of things you want to buy/ fix/ improve- that's perfectly normal.
So, to pack up, just reverse the steps above. Start with closing up the awning, then turn off gas, unplug electric, drive off chocks and make sure everything is put away safely.
Make sure all windows and hatches are closed before you start driving. You will probably want to empty water and waste tanks, although you can empty the toilet at home if you prefer.
Empty the grey waste tank
Nearly every campsite has a grey waste water disposal point. Grey waste water is stuff from the shower, sink etc. NOT TOILET (that's black waste.) You find this point on your map, drive OVER it until the drain is roughly below your disposal tap, and then open the waste tap under the motorhome. Water will come gushing out, and you just wait here until it stops.
TOP TIP- try to wipe off as much food waste as possible BEFORE you wash up. This will stop food waste and grease getting into the tank, where it's REALLY HARD to get it out of!
Emptying the toilet- Black waste
Your toilet cassette will be removable, usually through a door on the side of the motorhome. Take this out and walk it to the black waste disposal- which is often a hole in the ground or a white disposal point (clearly marked- don't use just any hole in the ground!)
Unscrew the end of the cassette, and turn it upside down into the hole. Yep, it will probably smell pretty bad. You might want to wear gloves for this bit. Mr WB likes to wash the cassette out a couple of times with water (there's usually water available at the disposal point- do NOT use your fresh drinking water hose!) Make sure it's totally empty before replacing it into the motorhome. Ours clicks shut- be sure it's in correctly!
You can, of course, choose to empty the toilet at your house when you return home… we tried this once and vowed never again- it smells horrendous!
Emptying the fresh water
You will probably have excess fresh water. Don't leave this in your tank for weeks- it can go stagnant and nasty things can start growing in your tank. If you're not going to be using the van for a while, empty the water out at the same time as the grey waste- over the drain point. There will be two separate taps for this under your vehicle.
Before you leave the site, return any keys you had to the reception, or put them in the box by the exit.
Final advice for new motorhome owners- Back at home
Once you're safely home, you'll want to do some final checks and a closedown. This should include:
- Closing all the blinds
- We leave a small roof hatch open for ventilation- make sure rain can't get in! If in doubt, shut it all up and come back to air at least once every other week.
- Remove all valuables, including Sat Nav etc
- Enable alarm and immobiliser and other motorhome security devices
- Lock the cab and habitation doors (we've fitted an additional habitation door lock to make things even more secure.
And that's it! You've completed your very first trip in your new van. I hope it all went/ will go smoothly- feel free to tag me on Facebook and let me know where you end up!