What happens when a die-hard tent camper hits the road in a rented recreational vehicle? We sent writer/photographer Laura Watilo Blake to find out, along with two tweens for a little added drama. 

There’s something profoundly liberating about packing up the car with camping gear, pitching a tent and sleeping under a (hopefully) star-filled sky with only a thin layer of nylon ripstop fabric between you and the great outdoors.

While I’ve cherished tent camping since I was a child — and now tent camp with my daughter (and sometimes my husband) — fewer and fewer people connect with nature in the same way. Instead, basic pop-up tents on wheels have given way to a legion of elaborately outfitted motorhomes and tow-behinds, complete with humming generators, LED lights and all the creature comforts of home — a metamorphosis that has taken place over the course of only one or two generations. According to the RV Industry Association, 11.2 million U.S. households now own an RV, with significant growth among 18- to-34-year-olds, who make up 22% of the market. 

While I always wondered what I might be missing, I just couldn’t ignore the price tag that comes with RV rentals, which can be up to $400 per night, not to mention the cost of gas and the campground site. For the same amount, I could secure a luxurious stay at the Ritz-Carlton and order room service.

My 10-year-old daughter, Kinley, on the other hand, has been wanting to travel in an RV, and her persistent prodding ultimately pushed me over the edge. I resolved to dip my toe into the world of RVing and see if the experience could transform this budget-minded camper into an RV enthusiast.

Getting Underway
Once we had carved out enough time for a four-day, three-night getaway, I reached out to Road Adventures by Mark Wahlberg. Yes, that Mark Wahlberg. The former hip-hop performer turned Hollywood actor has leveraged his business acumen beyond the realm of Hollywood by investing in a chain of restaurants, various product brands, car dealerships and, now, the growing recreational vehicle industry. Road Ventures has two locations in Ohio, one in the Columbus area and the other near Cleveland in Lorain, where we reserved a Forest River Sunseeker 2350-N5, a driveable 25-foot-long Class C van that accommodates up to six people.

On the day of departure, my eager daughter, her bestie Lyanna and I got a first look at our home on wheels. I went over the rental agreement with a Road Adventures staff member, signed paperwork and secured insurance to cover the trip. Given the sheer size of the RV and my inexperience driving one, it felt like the prudent thing to do. 

Afterward, we spent almost an hour going over the rig’s amenities and operating procedures. I paid especially close attention to instructions on emptying the black water tank, an unfortunate downside to having a bathroom on board. The dread associated with this task revolves around the potential for an unpleasant mess like the ones some of our RV-owning friends have experienced firsthand.   

After loading up the RV with our personal things and stocking the fridge with perishable items we purchased from the store next to the dealership, I eased the RV out of the parking lot, lumbering toward the highway at a turtle’s pace. It was much larger, wider and heavier than I was used to, and I felt a palpable sense of trepidation well up inside me. I found myself hyper-aware of every movement on the road as cars zoomed around me, or worse, tailgated much too close to my bumper. However, after covering a few highway miles at no more than 60 mph, I began to settle in, gradually finding the rhythm of the road, accompanied by the subtle chorus of the RV’s rattling shell mixed with excited chattering tweens buckled behind me in the U-shaped dinette-to-bed bench.

I looked forward to enjoying our planned itinerary, which would take us to South Bass Island, then a private RV campground in Sandusky, Ohio, called Bayfront Resort at Cross View and, finally, to East Harbor State Park in Marblehead, Ohio. While this plan involved more moving around than a typical RV excursion, it promised a diverse range of experiences for the kids. Moreover, it provided an excellent opportunity for me to become more confident with connecting the RV properly to the utilities at each campground, all of which have sites with electricity, running water and a sewage connection.

Mobile Home Away From Home
In no time, I managed to squeeze the RV onto the Miller Ferry bound for South Bass Island. I shelled out $88 for a roundtrip journey, excluding passenger and the standard vehicle fare. As the mainland drifted away, the vacation vibe kicked in, and we all were riding a high that turned any unexpected cost into a mere footnote. 

Upon arriving at our island getaway, we drove a short distance to South Bass Island State Park and pulled into site #64 — a wooded haven with full hookups located just across from the haunting ruins of the once-grand Hotel Victory. The colossal 600-plus-room resort met a tragic end when it succumbed to a raging fire in 1919. A few crumbling stone columns and the hotel’s pool remain, providing fodder for ghost stories around the campfire.

Setting up the RV was a breeze, and the air-conditioned respite within offered relief after tackling the intricacies of the sewage line in the scorching midday heat. Beyond that, our priority shifted to enjoyment. We blew up the inflatables we brought, then scurried past other campers to the state park’s rocky beach to jump into the refreshing shallows of Lake Erie. The rest of the day unfolded with the simple pleasures of an old-fashioned camping adventure, albeit with a modern twist. The kids indulged in afternoon downtime, streaming movies via the campground’s free Wi-Fi, despite my efforts to tempt them with more active pursuits. We also traded open-flame cooking for preparing a spaghetti dinner in the RV kitchen with its array of amenities, including a refrigerator, stove, oven and microwave.

We still made time for roasting marshmallows over the campfire, an activity that would repeat itself each evening of the trip. Unexpected joys materialized as a neighbor’s dog paid a visit, while the girls joined another child on a quest to catch fireflies.    

It wasn’t until the next day when we wanted to explore the rest of the island that the RV’s downside became apparent. Navigating one is akin to taming a beast. Gas stations become frenemies as you guide the beast through tight spaces, observed by onlookers who alternate between amusement and empathetic cringing. And let’s talk gas mileage — the Class C isn’t winning any eco-friendly awards, unless you consider how little I wanted to drive it. It’s common for seasoned RVers to bring a towed vehicle, often referred to as a “toad” or “dinghy,” if they plan to explore areas where the RV might be impractical or inconvenient.

From there, we headed east. Sandusky has so much fun stuff to do, and we didn’t want to miss out. We had to take our home on wheels everywhere we wanted to go. That meant parking far away from the door at Kalahari Waterpark and the Ghostly Manor Thrill Center and taking up two spots on the street downtown when we went to lunch at Kinley’s favorite Sandusky eatery, Wake Up and Waffle. 

By the time we pulled into our spot at the Bayfront Resort at Cross View, it was already dark. A friendly neighbor with far more RV experience took pity on us and offered help getting the utilities connected. I didn’t say no. We still wanted to get the fire going again for our nightly ritual. This time we watched the lights of Cedar Point twinkle across the bay while we prepared s’mores from a kit bought in the resort’s gift shop.

The key difference between an RV resort and a standard campground lies in the level of services geared toward guests besides just providing full hookups for RVs. Bayfront Resort’s small gated property felt safe and secure given its urban setting. It also had a boat ramp, game room with snacks, a pool and bathrooms.     

The resort also rented spacious cabins for RV families seeking more space to spread out — and understandably so. I can’t imagine our RV at full capacity; it felt cramped with just one adult and two kids, who had never before spent so much time with each other. Sharing a small space put the girls’ friendship to the test. When tempers flared, the confined quarters seemed to magnify the intensity of their emotions. However, the resort pool emerged as a welcome distraction. Soon, the echoes of joyful splashing and laughter eased any negative feelings. This cooling-off period acted like a reset button, getting all of us back on track.

We still had one more stop. East Harbor State Park is only a few miles from Bayfront Resort, but it offers a more traditional campground with lots of trees, hiking trails, a 2-mile-long beach and wetlands that harbor more wildlife than any other type of habitat in Ohio. Even though the park is right on Lake Erie, the campground itself doesn’t have lake views. It takes about 10 to 15 minutes to walk to the beach, where the kids spent hours playing in the shallow water, building sandcastles and looking for treasures.

By the time we got back to the RV, it was time to make dinner. While I did that, the kids joined other campers in a large field across from our site for a baseball game that kept going well after the sun went down.

It gave me time to reflect on how the RV trip cut down on camp set-up and prep work, giving us more time to indulge in the simple pleasures, such as one last campfire.

The End of the Road
As the last morning in the RV dawned, I spontaneously decided to unplug the vehicle from the campground’s hook-ups and take a short drive to the water’s edge to watch the sun rise over the lake while the girls were still peacefully tucked in their beds. 

You can’t do that while tent camping.

It became one of my most memorable moments in the journey, and it highlighted the distinct advantage RV travel has over traditional tent camping. The RV lifestyle may not completely replace my traditional means of travel just yet, but it opened up a world I hadn’t fully appreciated. Knowing I can rent an RV, instead of committing to buying one, holds endless possibilities for future adventures in more far-away destinations.

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