I cleared my throat and made an announcement to my passengers: “I am not going to take any left turns during this entire trip.” My RV, my rules. Unfortunately, my proclamation was not well received by my instructor, who had given up a day of golfing to teach me to drive the recreational vehicle — left turns and all.

“Pull far enough forward,” said Freddy Heller, overruling the captain.

I did as I was told. At the stop sign, I checked the traffic on Route 1 in Fredricksburg, Va., and during a break in the flow, eased the 27-foot Lady Skipper into the far lane without clipping a curb or another car. I looked over at Freddy for approval.

“That was fine,” he said, before reminding me to keep my eyes on the road.

Seven months into the pandemic, we are no longer surprised by the rise of the RV from niche mode of travel to mainstream. But what shocked me was how easy it was to rent one without any prior experience. When I applied for a pet-sitting gig, I had to present my dog-walking credentials, including résumé and references; to reserve an RV, I just had to provide a driver’s license and method of payment.

To be honest, if I owned an RV, I wouldn’t rent it to me. And yet a couple did just that in July. My RV adventure ended with a refund from Outdoorsy, the online rental site, and a night in a hotel room in Charlottesville. Although I wasn’t directly to blame for that debacle — the Winnebago was dirty and unsafe — I should not have accepted the keys when I was as green as a Griswold.

When renting, the owner or rental company will typically walk you through the vehicle and accompany you on a short test drive. But a quick spin around the block didn’t seem like enough road time for such an elaborate vehicle. So I searched for an RV driving school and landed on RV Basic Training, which offers an “RV Boot Camp” and instructors in nearly a dozen states. The company matched me with Freddy, who is based in Richmond and has taught more than 100 students.

“If you follow everything I teach you,” he said, “you will do fine.”

Between the white lines

Freddy showed up at the KOA in Fredericksburg on a chilly Saturday morning in September. (To avoid any pre-Freddy driving, the owner delivered the Lady Skipper to the campground for an extra fee.) We took a seat at the picnic table where the night before, my friend and I had drained beers by the fire pit. Freddy told me I was his first student with a rental. All of his previous clients had been new owners whose spouses (typically wives) had issued them an ultimatum: Either learn to drive this beast or sell it. He said renters are at a disadvantage because we can’t practice our newfound skills. I had a day to nail it.

He turned on his laptop for a PowerPoint presentation that showed me all the ways I could damage the vehicle, using real-life examples. Ramming into a cement post at a gas station. Turning too quickly and hitting a curb and a pedestrian. Driving under a bridge that is lower than the highest point of the RV.

“The fifth wheel loses his air conditioning, and he drives on,” Freddy said, marveling at people’s stupidity. (A fifth wheel is a towable trailer.)

One of my biggest concerns was straying outside the white lines. I imagined sticking to my lane would be as difficult as herding a blue whale down a swimming pool lane. I didn’t want to whack any passing cars with my flippers. Freddy admitted that space is tight. Highway lanes are 12 feet wide, and RVs can measure up to 8-foot-6 across, not including the mirrors, which can eat up to 10 additional inches. He shared a bus drivers’ trick that would help me stay centered: Line up the gas pedal with the oil patch, or black strip, in the middle of the lane.

“RVs are longer, heavier, wider and taller than most vehicles on the road,” he said. “You need to know your footprint.”

He stood up, and I followed him to the driver’s door, the starting point of our safety inspection. I turned the engine on, accidentally setting off the carbon monoxide alarm. Well, that works. I popped the hood, and we checked the fluids (oil, coolant, windshield wiper, etc.), lights and tires, moving counterclockwise around the vehicle. After completing the circuit, I slid behind the wheel and adjusted my mirrors, a critical step.

“One in 5 accidents is the result of incorrect mirror adjustment,” Freddy told me through the open passenger window. “You are driving blind!”

The RV came with a backup camera, but he urged me not to rely too heavily on the gadget. As for the old-school method of hanging my head out the window to gauge my position, he said don’t. Instead, I should GOAL, or Go Out and Look.

He set up for my first lesson: straight-line backing. I pulled forward, taking care to not bang into my neighbors. Then I reversed slowly, trying to align the back tire with the cone. I stopped and asked him how I did. “Jump out and look,” he replied. I didn’t hit a bull’s eye, but I was still in the game.

Freddy joined me inside the cab. I removed all distractions: no coffee, phone or friend. (He was exiled to the dinette — out of sight but within shouting distance.) The KOA sits on a curvy country lane that is ideal for a plucky sports car but not a lumbering RV. Up ahead I noticed a deer gamboling in the grass. I stopped and called out to my friend, pointing out the woodland creature. Freddy’s placid expression cracked. He told me I should never stop in the road. I stopped again while trying to merge onto a busier street. He expanded the “no stop rule” to include mid-merge.

As we ambled along, I practiced the lessons we had discussed at the campground. To determine the safest distance between the RV and the car up ahead, I counted my Mississippis: one second per each 10 mph. Whenever I had two turning lanes, I chose the one to the farthest right, so I would have more wiggle room. On the interstate, I drove in the third lane, noted the mile markers (in case I had an emergency and required roadside assistance) and reduced my speed by five miles below the speed posted on the exit ramp. Eventually, I relaxed enough to carry on a casual conversation with Freddy. I asked him about his plans for the future. After retiring, he hopes to buy an RV with his wife and visit all of the football and baseball stadiums in the country.

'Don't get distracted'

We covered 55 miles and several challenges — some planned, others impromptu — before lunch. In an empty college parking lot, Freddy arranged cones in the shape of a million-dollar garage. He told me to back into the spot at a 45-degree angle. I used my mirrors and camera but was dismayed to discover that I had plowed through the back of my posh garage. I repeated the drill until I could park well enough to send the imaginary garage repair guy home. On the way out, I noticed a Himalayan restaurant, and my mind drifted to a heaping plate of momos. I missed the low-hanging branches, which led to a reminder to focus on my immediate surroundings, not lunch.

I didn’t need gas, but we swung into a Pilot Flying J for a practice run. The gas station caters to RVs, and I pulled up beside a school bus brimming with personal belongings and an RV with Texas plates. As I pumped a few bucks into the tank, the RV dad emptied his family’s waste while two young boys circled the dumping hole, oblivious to the stench. For our final stop, we drove to a Panera Bread for a bite. The shopping complex containing the restaurant was too cramped and congested for the Lady Skipper, so I parked in a larger lot near a Target. Upon exiting, I waved several vehicles through the three-way stop. “Be polite but not overly polite,” Freddy said.

Back at the KOA, Freddy ran through the onboard systems, showing me how to hook up the electric cord and wastewater hose and lower the levelers, so we wouldn’t feel like we were sleeping on a heeling ship. After nearly seven hours, he was ready to set me free. I asked him for some final words of wisdom.

“Use your mirrors. Don’t get distracted by nondriving stuff,” he said, “and don’t stop for deer.”

After Freddy left, we ran to the supermarket and bought enough supplies to last us 48 hours. We plotted our route to a campground near Charlottesville, where we would spend Sunday night. Of the two options, we chose the one that would take longer but followed major highways, which would be easier to drive than corkscrew country roads. Less than an hour into the drive, I felt my grip on the steering wheel loosening. I turned up the radio. I passed a truck.

At Misty Mountain Camp Resort, I had booked a pull-through mountaintop site — easy in and out with a view. However, the front-desk employee didn’t seem as enchanted with my pick as I had been. She suggested a site by the creek, in the lower section of the campground. She added that it was a back-in site. Minutes later, I texted Freddy a photo of my exemplary parking job.

The following day, we met up with the owner of the RV to return the vehicle. She pointed out the bumps and bruises caused by renters who had hit curbs, trees and, most recently, a toll booth. The Lady Skipper had left a lasting impression on me, but thankfully I didn’t leave one on her.

If you go

RV Basic Training

RV Boot Camp costs $450 per person. You will need to provide the vehicle. I booked the Lady Skipper, a 27-foot Sunseeker, through Outdoorsy for $234 a night; three-night minimum required. The instructor will choose the meeting place and may charge a travel fee depending on the distance from his or her home. Richmond-based Freddy Heller charged $150 to meet in Fredericksburg, Va. Our lesson ran from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Not long after completing the course, I received a certificate of my achievement.

— A.S.