My family purchased our first camper over the summer months of 2021. We had big plans to travel in a way that could best accommodate our son's medical equipment and complex care needs.
We had big plans -- Yes!
We also had absolutely no idea what we were doing.
Here's what we did know:
We were already experts at medical parenting and caring for our medically-complex son. We had three years of extremely hands-on experience with emergency response and medical training. We were professionally equipped to take our caregiving show on the road! In that, we felt wholly confident and, more importantly, competent.
We wanted to show our son the world. We wanted to pack his life with new experiences. We wanted to travel as a family and experience new things together. We refused to accept that his medical needs and caregiving requirements would limit his, and our, freedom to live a life of our own choosing.
Previous travel ventures had proven to us that hotel stays were, for many reasons, impractical. Our family travels with far too much medical equipment and supplies to pack into a single vehicle and unpack (and then re-pack) at each hotel stop. Rather, we understood our need for a space that we could consistently claim as our own and design in a way that would meet our family's needs.
What we didn't know:
Anything AT ALL about campers, pull-trailers, or any other type of recreational vehicle. That was a problem, and we learned quickly!
We purchased a wonderful, gently used, Class C Winnebago Minnie Winnie in August 2021. We took her out on several trips, including one long road-trip from Seattle to Salt Lake City and back, over the next 12 months. We even lived in her full-time for five months over the late fall and winter months of 2021-22 while our home was undergoing renovations. We learned a lot during that time.
In 2022, with more travel experience under our belt and a better understanding of our RV-based travel needs, we traded in the Minnie Winnie camper for a new Heartland Sundance Ultra-Lite travel trailer. As we also needed a way to pull the trailer, we traded in our Toyota Rav4, and upgraded our vehicle game to a 2022 Suburban, giving us the power we needed to tow, plus additional space in the vehicle to haul our son's mobility equipment.
Here are FIVE lessons we've learned about selecting the right RV for your medical caregiving family:
1. Think hard about the type of RV your family needs before you begin shopping around.
What type of RV will best accommodate your family? Would your family prefer a camper that you drive or a camping trailer that you tow with a large vehicle? Do you already have a vehicle that can tow a trailer, or is that something you will also need to purchase? If you choose to go the route of a camper, will you tow a smaller vehicle behind you, or is another driver in your family available to follow you with a second vehicle?
Due to our child's care needs, my husband and I are unable to divide and conquer. Our child requires someone who is medically trained to ride in the backseat next to him, so it is not an option for me to follow with our son in a separate vehicle. We unknowingly made this mistake when we first purchased a camper. While we could all ride in the camper from place to place, we had no way to bring another vehicle with us. This means that, when we reached a campsite, we were essentially stranded there.
If you are going to travel with your family and actually wish to leave your campsite to explore the surrounding area, then you need another vehicle. Also, as a medical family, you need an easy way to access necessary services, such as pharmacies, or appropriately respond to healthcare needs. Have you ever tried quickly packing up an entire campsite and driving your 32-foot camper through an Emergency Room drop-off in an unfamiliar city at an unfamiliar hospital? We have. And, I will tell you, it is not easy. I do not recommend.
Before you go out and purchase an RV, think hard about the type of vehicle your family needs in order to effectively and enjoyably travel.
2. Consider how often you want to travel, how long you want to travel, and the time of year you want to travel.
For all the RV newbies out there: There is such a thing as an "all-weather" or "4 Season" RV.
If your plans involve camping in the non-summer months, or you have a child who is particularly sensitive to hot or cold weather, it is important to do the research on the type of rig you have in mind. We unknowingly purchased a "fair-weather" camper our first go-around and, when we needed a place to stay over the winter months during home renovations, we experienced first-hand what happens when you try to live in a camper that is not designed for winter living. It can absolutely be done, but make sure you go into your camping experience with an understanding of what will be involved.
For those who want to travel long distances or spend a significant chunk of their year on the road, things like fuel efficiency, propane use, and whether appliances are electric or gas may be additional considerations.
3. Consider the floor layout and indoor space.
As a medical family, you will likely travel with more equipment than other families. This may include medical supplies, a wheelchair, a shower or bathroom chair, or a stander. Our family travels with all of that, plus a whole ventilator and humidifier set-up, a large, electric oxygen concentrator and extra oxygen tanks. All of these things require physical SPACE, which, in any case, is limited in an RV set-up.
Before you go out and spontaneously purchase a rig, spend time really thinking over the space your family needs. Study floorplans of different models and identify where you will store those big items. Where will the shower chair "live" when not in use? (Unless you have a very large RV, that shower chair might not be living in the bathroom when it is not in use. There is not enough room. So, where will it go?) Where will your child's stander be stored, if that needs to come along? How open is the central living area and does it provide enough space for your child, who is a wheelchair user, to effectively navigate the area to meet their needs? Consider which aspects of accessibility (or inaccessibility) are deal-breakers for your family.
Next, consider sleeping arrangements. Where do you want your child's bed located in relation to your bed? Many of the larger RV floorplans will place the main bedroom and bunks or additional sleeping spaces on opposite ends of the rig. As a medical family, that arrangement does not work for us. Our child sleeps connected to a ventilator with monitors that we need to be able to see immediately upon waking or if an alarm sounds. We need a direct visual and an immediate ability to respond to an emergency. So, for us, it is essential that the space where our son sleeps is located in very close proximity to the main bed where we sleep.
4. Consider potential safety issues unique to your family and your child.
In general, RVs are designed to meet a basic level of safety. They are designed to accommodate the needs of the typical family. However, as a medical family, you may have a whole list of additional safety concerns that go above and beyond that of the "average" RV family. And, of course, these will look different for every medical family, so, as you are shopping around and getting a feel for different RV styles and layouts, begin compiling a list of unique features that would suit your family.
For our medical caregiving family, we have identified two specific safety concerns often present in certain RV designs. First, some RVs have heating vents along the floor. Hot air is blown from these vents. This does not pose an issue to those of us with full feeling and sensation in our legs and feet because, when something feels hot, we simply move out of the way. However, if, like our son, you do not have sensation in your legs, then you will not know to move if something is hot. As he is a young child, our son often plays on the floor. Thus, floor vents that put out hot air pose a higher risk to our child than they would to others.
A second design feature present in some RV floorplans that poses a unique safety hazard to our family relates to the position of the entryway/exit stairs. In our first camper, there were three steps that provided entry from the main door to the outside area. This was a non-issue for me and my husband as we can bound up and down stairs, and we would actually appreciate the stairs as a way to enter the high-set living space of an RV. However, as a wheelchair user like our son, a floorspace, which is already small in total area, that then abruptly falls off into a set of stairs is a potential issue. In contrast, our new camping trailer has stairs that pull-out from the outside of the RV. While neither set-up makes much difference in terms of accessibility (as our son will require one of us to transfer him in and out of the RV, in either case), from a safety standpoint, it is far more preferable to have a floorplan that does not include the type of falling hazard posed by stairs built into our actual living space.
Lastly, as you look at floorplans and space availability, think through what the emergency response will look like if you do need to call 911. How much room will there be for emergency responders? Is the set-up such that you can clear out enough space for proper treatment? Think about what your child will need in order to receive that care.
5. Consider the type of storage you need.
Storage is limited in RVs, generally, and many medical families require a lot of storage. So, this is one big challenge of RV travel you need to address. This is especially true if your travel dreams involve long-distance travel and/or long-term RV living.
As you are shopping for your dream rig, make sure to scout out the storage potential. Look at both indoor and outdoor storage access. Then, when you consider the medical supplies that must accompany you on your travels, think hard (and creatively) about how supplies can be consolidated and packed tightly. Utilize stackable bins and boxes as much as possible. Ask yourself: What supplies must be immediately accessible? Can certain supplies be stored in outdoor storage spaces? If so, do you need to store them in dry bags or will bins with snap-on lids work? The goal is to find that perfect balance between tight storage and ready access to items that you know will be needed. As with most things, when it comes to travel and storage of medical supplies, you get better with practice and experience.
We've learned much over these past few years of RV traveling as a medical/caregiving family.
We are still newbies, and undoubtedly, will continue to learn as we go. We have GRAND plans for more travel and adventuring as a family.
Here's to the road that lies ahead!