- Is a Garmin RV GPS Worth It? - May 14, 2022
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Last Updated on May 14, 2022 by Jessica Lauren Vine
RV-specific GPS units offer many advantages over other navigation methods. Garmin makes some of the best RV-specific GPS devices on the market, but with prices running from $400 – $700, you have to wonder if they are worth it. The short answer to that question is that it depends on how you use your RV. To explore why that is let’s take a deep dive into what RV GPS units do and why some RVers should have them as part of their everyday travel planning.
What is an RV GPS?
An RV GPS is a traditional GPS navigation device that has features and functions specific to RV users. The main feature of an RV GPS is the ability to plot courses that your specific RV can navigate safely. To achieve this, the GPS allows you to enter the specific parameters of your RV like RV type (trailer, 5th wheel, or motorhome), total length, height, weight, and number of propane tanks. It uses that information to choose a route that avoids overpasses that are too low, roads that are too narrow, and bridges where your rig would exceed the weight limitations. It will also steer you clear of turns you can’t make and humps in the road, which will cause clearance issues.
The GPS will also alert you to laws pertaining to your propane tanks. For example, when you enter the State of New York, you’ll be alerted to make sure your propane tanks are off while you travel. New York State law does not allow vehicles to travel on public roads with open propane tanks. You’ll also be alerted to Federal Laws pertaining to propane tanks like those in place for tunnel passage.
While in RV mode, your RV GPS will alert you to steep grades, sharp corners, animal crossings, and other known safety hazards that are of particular interest to RVers. Time to destination is also calculated differently. RVs tend to travel slower, and my Garmin RV GPS is far more accurate at predicting travel times in our RV than any other GPS system I’ve used. This is important for planning your travel between destinations.
There are several other features these GPSs provide which are great for RVers. First, they include a trip planning function that allows you to enter all the destinations along your route. You can then save that as a trip and recall it later. When you are on the trip, you can quickly choose the leg you are on and be on your way. Next, these are Bluetooth-capable devices that can pair with your phone via the Garmin SmartLink App. Through that app, you can get weather and traffic reports, and any incoming text messages or phone calls are automatically put up on the GPS screen. The Garmin GPS will function as a hands-free command center for your phone. It is voice command capable, and you can take calls and messages through it. It can also connect to a backup camera. Essentially, it can become your electronic RV command center.
Finally, your RV GPS will note points of interest along the route, including RV parks, upcoming rest areas, and RV-friendly fuel stations. All valuable information that non-RV GPS units will ignore.
Two GPSs in One
Garmin RV GPSs also feature a standard automobile mode. Switching to this mode is as easy as clicking the vehicle icon and choosing the car instead of the RV. You’ll be greeted with a warning that the RV specific features will not be available while traveling in the auto mode. While in this mode, routes are calculated like any standard car-specific Garmin GPS. This is especially useful for you trailer RVers. Unhook your tow vehicle and switch the GPS to car mode and you’re ready to explore the surrounding area with confidence.
How Does It Work?
To understand the benefits and pitfalls of a Garmin RV GPS, you have to understand how it works. While only Garmin knows the nitty-gritty internal workings of their navigation software, I can tell you the following, having clocked almost 30,000 miles on my RV-770 LMTS. When in RV mode, the GPS classifies every road as “RV Access Known” or “RV Access Unknown”.
This seems to be a general classification as to whether or not a road is known to be able to handle RV traffic in general. If they don’t know it can handle RV traffic then it is classified as “RV Access Unknown”. These designations don’t have anything to do with your specific RV. They are just general routing information applied to all RVs.
When you plot a course, the GPS will always try and to send you on roads that are “RV Access Known”. Within that group it will scan for obstacles that would cause problems for your specific RV. If it finds any, it will route you around those obstacles using the best options of available routes. Again, the preference will always be to route you on “RV Access Known” roads.
“RV Access Unknown” doesn’t mean you can’t drive your RV safely on that road, and there are circumstances where the GPS will send you down those roads. The most common circumstances are when there are no other options, like the road(s) leading into your destination campground or RV park. This seems counterintuitive since a road with an RV park on it would most certainly be RV accessible, but many RV parks are located down less-traveled roads.
That low level of traffic probably makes them a low priority for classification. I would recommend when making reservations at campgrounds always ask, or look on their website, for their recommended directions to the park. If there are multiple routes and they are all “RV Access Unkown” with no known obstacles then the GPS will choose the route based on your preference settings.
There you have options like route by shortest time, route by shortest distance, avoid tolls, etc. We’ve been sent down some crazy roads heading into a park when the best, and much easier way, was another road a mile or two past the turn off we took. We would have known that had we asked when we made the reservation.
But I have Wayz, Google Maps, Apple Maps, etc. – Those work fine, don’t they?
Those phone apps are great, and we use them for a second opinion to compare possible routes with the RV GPS. Also, while the Garmin can Bluetooth to your phone and get upcoming traffic issues along your route, I find that WayZ and GoogleMaps provide more up-to-date information. The Garmin has reported roads closed to me several hours after they were reopened. Wayz and GoogleMaps showed the correct road status.
There are a couple of places where these apps fall short. First is they will route you places where you can’t go. Before getting our Garmin, we were using Wayz and it routed us around a road closure down a road with a 12’ bridge clearance. Our trailer is 11’ 6” so we did fit under it, but just barely. I program the Garmin at 12’ just to be safe, and it would not have sent us down that road had we been using it at the time.
The bigger issue is the reliance on cell service that these apps require. If you travel a lot, particularly in the western US you can drive hours with no or very poor cell service. This prevents maps from loading and can cause a navigation failure with these apps. Most of them do allow you to pre-download maps for an area, allowing it to work when it loses cell service. Unfortunately, you have to remember to do that before you lose service. Once service is gone then you’re out of luck until you get to a place where service is available. The Garmin doesn’t have this issue. Not only are the maps pre-loaded but they are frequently updated and those updates are free for life.
Are RV GPS’s Perfect?
No navigational tool is perfect. Even paper maps can have errors on them, and they certainly don’t show current road closures and traffic issues. The biggest issue I’ve found with our RV GPS is also the key to its success. When it routes, it chooses known safe routes. That doesn’t mean that there are not safe routes which are shorter and faster out there. It sends you where it knows it’s safe, if it doesn’t know, then it won’t route you that way unless it’s the only available route and it doesn’t know of a specific issue on that road.
A classic example of this can be found driving down US 101 along the Oregon coast – a drive everyone should do at least once. A few miles north of Florence, Oregon, US 101 passes through the Haceta Head Cape Creek Tunnel. This tunnel has a steeply arched roof. The low point of the tunnel is marked at 11’ 6”, but that is at the outside edge of the shoulder of the road. The arch quickly rises to 14’ 6” at the white shoulder line.
Nowhere over the actual roadway is the ceiling below the 12’ I have the GPS set to. Regardless, Garmin had the tunnel height set to the low point of 11’ 6” so it tried to reroute me 50 miles out of the way to avoid the tunnel. I had done my research in advance and knew it wouldn’t be an issue so I just ignored the GPS screaming at me to turn around.
So, it can have bad data or no data, which can force it to route you in odd ways. The tunnel incident occurred a few years and several map updates ago. If I recheck the route today, the same GPS with updated maps no longer routes around that tunnel. For these reasons, you should always update your maps before a major trip, do your research and rely on multiple routing methods to find the best route.
When are RV GPSs worth the extra cost?
There are several instances where RV GPS justify their costs. If you fall into any of these scenarios, you should seriously consider getting one.
- You travel or plan to travel through unfamiliar territory. The biggest benefit to any RV GPS is its ability to keep you out of trouble while you travel.
- You travel or plan to travel over significant distances. This goes along with #1. If you travel over long distances you will likely travel through unfamiliar territory. In addition to keeping you out of trouble, the RV GPS will usually plot the most efficient route based on your specific RV parameters.
- You travel a lot through remote areas with poor cell reception. Satellite-based GPS units do not rely on cell phone signals to operate. There are large swaths of the US where a lack of cell signals will cripple your cellphone-based navigation apps and potentially leave wandering unguided.
- You’re a traveling full time RVer. Traveling full time RVers will need solid navigational tools to guide them through their journeys. The initial cost of an RV GPS may seem high, but if it’s something you use every day or several times per week or month then the cost is much easier to justify. If you are a full timer and travel a lot then an RV specific GPS is a must-have.
- Your RV is large. The larger your RV is, the more benefit you’ll gain from having an RV GPS. If you’re towing a tiny teardrop trailer, or traveling in a small class B RV then there will be far fewer obstacles the RV GPS will direct you around. Basically, the more car-like your RV the less you’ll really need the RV specific features of an RV GPS. In those cases, you can still get the benefits of a satellite-based GPS system (no reliance on a cell signal) in a much cheaper unit designed for passenger vehicles.
When are RV GPSs not worth it?
- You travel only in familiar places. If you use your RV to go to local places that you are familiar with then you won’t need the extra features of an RV GPS. You know the roads and the rules in the area so there’s really nothing an RV GPS would offer you over and above a GPS phone app.
- If you have a small RV. Many Class Bs and small travel trailers are small enough that they are essentially passenger car class vehicles. Given that, the only benefits to an RV GPS would be the build in database of points of interest and RV parks. $400 – $700 is a steep price to pay for that considering there are many free apps that provide equal or better access to similar information. Car-specific GPSs will give you the satellite navigation capability and maybe even the hands-free features at a much lower cost.
RV GPS units are a great way to plot your course. They are pricey, but if you travel a lot in unfamiliar territory, that initial cost can easily be offset by saving you from costly route planning mistakes. Like any tool, they are not perfect, but they are definitely worth the cost for any serious RV traveler.
Here you can see the Garmin GPS that I use. It’s the Garmin RV 770 LMT-S, and you can see the most important screens here but the ones you’ll find online are later models that are also good.
Garmin RV GPS Frequently Asked Questions
Now you’ve seen a lot about Garmin RV GPS units and here are some frequently asked questions.
Is a Garmin RV GPS too expensive?
A Garmin RV GPS is well worth the money for people that plan on traveling a lot.
Do Garmin RV GPSs offer lifetime maps?
Yes. Garmin RV GPSs offer lifetime maps.
Is a Garmin RV GPS Worth It? – Conclusion
Now you know the answer to, “Is a Garmin RV GPS worth it?” and as you can see the answer is yes, for many people.
Before you head out, make sure you check out some of the other articles that can help RVers.