Welcome to RV Mishaps, a content series written by RVers about problems they’ve encountered on the road, how they solved them, and lessons learned. Have a mishap story of your own that you’d like to tell? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Before I get into the specifics of how my RV caught on fire, I should let you know that everyone involved—myself, my partner Guilly, and two dogs—made it out fine. Even Hottie, our aptly named 1979 Coachmen Leprechaun, made it through relatively unscathed. Now that this ordeal has passed, I want to share a few of the lessons I learned in hopes that I can save you even an ounce of the heartache that comes with seeing open flames lick the interior of your home on wheels.
I spent a year renovating my rig before hitting the road. We had no real destination in mind, we just knew that we wanted to escape the Texas summer heat. After a few inspections by mechanics, we were assured that Hottie was ready to make it to Colorado, save a few carburetor valves that might need to be cleaned and adjusted for altitude upon arrival. With this green light, we were off.
The journey to Colorado was relatively uneventful. We’d had one recurring issue with Hottie’s engine stalling on the way up, but reasoned to ourselves that at her age, if that was her biggest problem, we were lucky. We made the best of rolling with the punches, figuring out the stoplight shuffle. Halfway through New Mexico, we were pros at using a screwdriver and a particular combination of pedal pumps and extended key turns to open the carburetor’s sticky valves. It was a bummer but it’s all part of #vanlife.
Once we arrived in Colorado, we parked on public lands at the base of Mount Blanca near Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. It was peaceful and picturesque, and far cooler than Texas, but we were looking for a bit more of an adventure. So, I looked to the AllTrails app to find some nearby hiking opportunities and realized that we were less than 5 miles away from a manageable hike at Zapata Falls.
While the hike itself is relatively easy, the road leading up to it is very rough. Almost all reviews recommend a 4-wheel drive vehicle to access it. I love a lot of things about my rig, but Hottie is not an off-roading vehicle.
Regardless, we decided to attempt the trip to the trailhead. After about 6 minutes of persistence, traversing rocks the size of basketballs, with all of our belongings crashing down around us, I decided that this was neither the hill nor the mountain I was willing to die on, so we decided to turn around and go back down.
The trouble started when we tried to three-point turn Hottie around on the narrow and rocky mountain road. The process ended up more like a 30-point turn that took about 10 minutes and a lot of stalling. Eventually, we cleared the turn and thought we were on our way back down to paved ground. Hottie, however, had a very different set of plans.
In the minutes immediately following our successful turnaround, Hottie stalled out at least four times. At one point, we even let her run in neutral to see how far we could get. If you haven’t guessed already, this was yet another very questionable decision, and of course, we didn’t get far at all.
After about 30 seconds of trying to coast down the mountain, Hottie came to a complete stop. The steering wheel locked up, the power to the cab waned out, and we were stationary on a very rugged mountain road. We assumed we were in a familiar situation with a flooded carburetor, so we jumped straight into restart mode. First, we tried to hold the gas pedal and turn the key, which had worked in the past, but this time it didn’t work.
If anything, it was making things worse. We checked under the lid of the carburetor and found a large amount of gas pooled in the reservoir. The smell filled the cab as we started to see the fumes. I insisted that we stop and call our mechanical lifeline on the road, Guilly’s dad. He advised us that we were right about the flooding and that if it wasn’t working with just the pedal trick, we would have to put a screwdriver into the butterfly valve to allow for air to enter the engine and begin the combustion process that runs our rig.
Even though we had done this before, there’s still something nerve-racking hearing the words “hold a screwdriver in the valve so it can get enough air to combust” when you’re looking at flammable liquids. Regardless, we did it.
Guilly wedged a screwdriver into the same gunked-up butterfly valves he’d gotten accustomed to manually opening over the last 800 miles or so and gave me the signal to start trying to get Hottie to start. The first couple attempts, I let off both the key and the gas too soon, but the third time I held on a fraction of a second longer than before and the engine began to catch. Then there was a sad sound as though the batteries were crying for help. For a split second, it looked like things would be fine—but then a very large, literal ball of fire rushed out of the carburetor and into the cab of the rig. Before we could even blink, a large and sustained blaze started to burn in the center console.
I hopped out of the rig and opened the door to get the dogs out. In the process, I tossed Guilly the fire extinguisher and told him to put out the fire. “How do I use this thing?” he shouted, with sheer terror splattered across his face.
“Pull the pin, aim at the base, squeeze the trigger, and sweep!” I hollered back while trying to shepherd two shaken up dogs to a safe distance from the burning rig. Thankfully, Guilly was able to quickly locate the pin and extinguish the blaze within a few moments.
We regrouped on the side of the road, staring in awe at our home. Once we caught our breath we called AAA to get Hottie towed to a local mechanic shop. We learned from the friendly tow truck driver that burning carburetors, while terrifying, happens more often than you might think.
Upon inspection, we were told the issue was likely that the electric fuel pump the previous owner had installed was supplying gasoline at a higher rate than the older engine could consume it at, especially at slow speeds or when idling. After a second and third opinion, we learned that the fuel pump was operating as it should, but that the carburetor had floats that were sticking open, causing the engine to flood.
We decided it would be a worthwhile investment to replace Hottie’s carburetor. Four weeks and $1,200 later, we’ve had zero problems with starting, stopping, or stalling.
Here are a few major lessons we gleaned from this experience:
1. Get your rig checked thoroughly. Get a manufacturer mechanic to check it out if you can. The best time to do this is prior to purchasing, if you have the time, resources, and are in a position where you’re okay with walking away from a potential purchase.
If you’re not, buy with the intention of getting a mechanic’s eyes on your rig before you hit the road. It can be expensive upfront, but I guarantee it’s worth it.
2. Spending more time learning about your rig’s mechanics is never a bad thing. I ended up spending $600 in labor to have someone else replace Hottie’s carburetor, a job that I now know entails removing the four bolts that hold the carburetor to its mounting plate, installing the new carburetor and the pieces necessary to retrofit it, and then replacing the same four bolts that were removed. That’s it. Had I known more, I probably could have done it myself.
One of the luxuries of having an older rig is that the mechanics are typically pretty straightforward. This means that you can oftentimes resolve problems on your own. Doing so can save money, as well as increase your confidence and self-sufficiency on the road. Of course, there are some things that absolutely require a professional’s help, but if I’d read through Hottie’s manuals a little better, I might have been able to diagnose the problem sooner and save time and money.
3. Always carry a fire extinguisher in your rig. More than one, if possible, and make sure that everyone in the rig knows how to use it.
It’s also important to establish a general fire safety plan and a process for exiting the rig in the event of a fire. Run through a drill every so often, and include your pets. In tiny spaces like vans and RVs, when things go wrong, they go wrong quickly. The amount of chaos in such a small space can be disorienting not just for adults, but for children and pets as well.
4. Check your route carefully and always read the reviews. We use several campsite and trail finder apps and now scour the comments and map for possible impediments to our adventures.
5. Adjust your expectations of life on the road. The most recent lesson I learned from this experience is that sometimes the rig you have is just not equipped for the fantasy of road life you think you’re going to have, but that doesn’t mean you can’t live your dream of a life on the road. We figured out that Hottie fares better with light to moderate off-road excursions, and instead, we can rent vehicles for more intense exploration. It’s not what I thought road life would look like for me at all—but it’s still great.
6. Sign up for an RV-specific roadside assistance membership and pay for the upgrades. It’s absolutely worth it, and you truly never know when you’ll need it.
7. Get back up and get back at it, especially at the beginning, and especially if something goes wrong. While it can be scary and at times difficult, getting back in the saddle is far more worthwhile than giving up. Most vanlifers will agree that the first two weeks on the road are generally the most trying as you work out the kinks and adjust to a drastically different way of life. If life on the road, or taking your RV out more often, is something you want to do, you can do it. It’ll take time, patience, and the willingness to roll with the punches, but it’s possible and enjoyable, I promise.
It’s been a few months since the fire and I still haven’t hiked Zapata Falls. I haven’t taken Hottie up any rugged mountain roads, and I haven’t taken any epic morning-mountain-view-outside-the-rig shots for Instagram. I have, however, figured out how to enjoy Hottie within her limits without disappointment. I’ve witnessed the most gorgeous sunrises, stayed dry in the hardest of rainstorms, kept warm on chilly autumn nights, and shared beautiful memories with my family within the confines of our tiny home on wheels.