When you hear someone state “I live in a vehicle that gets 7mpg”, do questions of how environmentally friendly the full-time RVing lifestyle can be come to mind?
There are a plethora of ways to travel this world. Vandwelling, RV living, hotels, backpacking. Some are easier on Mother Nature than others, but I want to specifically address how living in vehicles as your home impacts the earth.
To do this, we’ll compare three typical mobile lifestyles with the average American household. One of our examples will be a couple living in a Class A RV–the Retirees. The next will be a single guy living out of a Volkswagen Campervan–the Wanderer. Finally, we’ll look at a family of four living out of an Airstream Travel Trailer–the Family. For each of them, we’ll review the major categories of life’s expenses and the impact each has on the world around us compared to a similar situation in the sticks and bricks world.
Long before this whole nomadic lifestyle so many of us–of any age–found our way into, retirees were living out of RVs full-time, touring around the nation, making Anywhere, USA their preferred address. They tend to stay in one spot for at least a couple of months at a time, and these spots tend to be on the higher end of RV parks.
The Retirees are a couple in their 50s. They live out of a “rock star”, as we refer to them, more technically known as a Class A RV. Think those massive buses you see at the more expensive RV parks, or careening down the highway on par with the big rigs. Comfort is a requirement, as they’ve spent their lives working for this they tend to want commodities like air conditioning and cable television.
They may hike or they may go out to eat regularly. We won’t get into their personal hobbies–such things would exist likely with or without travel–but we will focus on how they consume resources, both what it costs them and what it costs the environment.
He is a man born of wanderlust. He surfs, climbs trees to produce his own coconuts and has no qualms about camping without a tent, he’s simply decided to make his car his apartment, one that can easily be moved to a new mountain or beach whenever his heart desires.
The Wanderer lives in a 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon. The roof pops up so that he can have a little head room. There’s a small 12v fridge, a tiny propane heater, and a minuscule sink. He prefers boondocking almost exclusively, living in the wilderness where electrical hookups and organized camping are rare.
He travels more than most of the others, as he desires to see more of the world. A young man, he has not quite “been around” as much as the Retirees or the Family, and so exploration is high on his agenda.
Three kids, mom and dad. They have chosen an Airstream as their home because it provides space but not a ton of baggage to tow behind them. Collectively there are more of them than our other two examples combined, though based on square footage, they have less per capita than either of the others.
While seeing the nation is still a priority, they have commitments that neither the Wanderer nor the Retiree are subjected to. Dad has to work, online, to make enough money to support this traveling lifestyle, which requires a dedicated internet connection. Mom homeschools her three boys, and having a routine during the week makes that easy. Therefore, they tend to do their traveling on the weekends, and stay in one location for a week to a month.
Though all of these groups travel around the nation, none of them has a daily commute, the vast majority of the 13,500 miles the average American racks up on the odometer each year.
Renting or Owning a Home vs. Living in an RV
First, we’ll explore the footprint that each of our nomadic groups have on the world, and compare that to what impact they might have on the environment were they living a more traditional life.
The Retirees live in a 2014 Coachmen Cross Country, a Class A motorhome. It is 36′ long, and roughly 306 square feet. They get 8mpg from their RV, and also tow behind them a 2014 Mini Cooper, which gets 30 mpg. The motorhome cost them $211,000, the car $21,000. They are not particularly environmentally conscious. In addition, they spend on average $650 / month on RV spots, renting spots in more luxurious locations but staying for months at a time, which gives them a discount.
If they were to live a more traditional retiree life, they might live in a 1500 square foot condo in Phoenix, Arizona or Naples, Florida. They would drive a larger car, as they specifically purchased the Mini Cooper to help offset fuel costs (though not necessarily fuel economy) for their life on the road. We’ll say they’d drive a Cadillac, a popular vehicle with the older generation who has money to spend. Their condo would cost $200,000 (the median price between those two locations for a one bedroom condo) and their Cadillac would have run them $42,000. The car would average 23mpg.
Retiree Cost of Living and Impact on the Environment Summary
|Total Cost Over 25 Years
|Up Front Cost
|Condo + Car
|$5800 in taxes
|This combination requires more construction materials and physical footprint for both the condo and vehicle.
|RV + Car
|$7800 in camping fees
|While their environmental impact with regards to their actual home and vehicle is lower in this scenario, they could also reduce their RVing costs with a smaller RV and cheaper ways to stay at RV parks, such as joining membership clubs.
The Traveler’s Volkswagen Bus is about 15′ by 6′ and totals out at 90 square feet. He paid $16,000 for it, after purchasing it, putting some work into the old girl, including solar panels and a new engine. The van gets 20mpg. He does use it as his primary vehicle, but also lugs along a bicycle which is used for recreation and trips under a few miles.
Were he to live in an efficiency apartment, the equivalent of a Volkswagen Bus, in San Francisco he’d pay $1500 a month for 300 square feet. He wouldn’t need a car, as he’d take advantage of public transportation and ride his bicycle just as he does on the road. He spends on average $100 / month on campgrounds, as he tends to live off the grid in national forests and BLM land. Granted, as a renter he would not be building capital, but given the longevity of his Bus, it isn’t exactly building capital either, so we’ll call it a renting situation all around.
The Family’s Airstream is a 2008 28′ trailer. At 200 square feet, it’s significantly smaller than the 2100 square foot single family home they would live in somewhere in the suburbs. They pull it with a Ford Van which gets only 7mpg while traveling, and 15mpg as an independent vehicle. Used, the Airstream cost them $30,000, the van $16,000.
If they lived in that house in the suburbs, it would have cost them $250,000, the average cost for a single family home in the United States. In their RV, they spend around $1000 / month on campgrounds, as they break up weekly discounted stays with traveling days spent at more expensive RV parks and cheaper state parks alike.
Family Cost of Living and Impact on the Environment Summary
|Total Cost Over 15 Years
|Up Front Cost
|House + Car
|There is very little about living in suburbia which is eco-friendly. Long commutes, a house made of relatively new materials, and tons of space requiring lots of water and electricity for heating and cooling their home.
|Airstream + Van
|$12,000 camping fees
|Not only does this comparison show that, over 15 years, the family could save about $8400 / year, they’re using a negligable amount of water–even when hooked up at an RV park–compared to a home in the suburbs, and the drastically reduced footprint means less electricity is needed as well. Occasional boondocking lessens their environmental impact even further.
Traveler Cost of Living and Impact on the Environment Summary
|Total Cost Over 5 Years
|Up Front Cost
|Living in a stick house would have less of an impact as far as fuel, as the traveler wouldn’t need a car. His footprint is much larger with the apartment however, and his utilities rely on fossil fuels.
|$16,000 VW Bus
|$6000 camping fees
|Less than a third of the actual physical footprint, a much more sustainable way of generating electricity and minimized water usage all point to the Volkswagen Bus being much more environmentally friendly.
The end result of all of this is that for all three of our groups, when it comes to the environmental impact that their vehicles and home have, a mobile lifestyle is better for our planet than living in a house. Whether it’s a condo, apartment or single family dwelling, they all take up significantly more resources than any of the “equivalent” homes on wheels.
Some might argue that a home (or apartment building) has a much longer lifespan. This may be true, even after you factor in how often homes are destroyed to build new ones, or renovated, but taking those factors into consideration, a home may only really last two to three times as long as a good RV (there are 60+ year old Volkswagens on the road and even older Airstreams still around). Since the square footage, and therefore building materials and energy required to sustain these dwellings, is often more than three or four times as small, it still lends credit to the idea that living this way is drastically more sustainable than living in much larger houses.
Case Study: Gone with the Wynns
Though he admits that he never thought of RVs as environmentally friendly before deciding to live in one full-time, Jason Wynn has done a bit of research in the years he and his wife Nikki have lived out of their RV. While they aren’t exactly “retirees” (in any sense of the word), they are a couple living out of a Class A RV: first a 2011 Monaco Vesta and now a 2014 Fleetwood.
“We only heat, cool, clean and maintain around 200 sq ft,” Jason writes on their blog. “Our water consumption has gone down by huge margins and we only log around 15,000 – 20,000 miles a year total between our smart car and our RV. So, just by living in the RV, we cut our personal carbon foot print by more than half.” He goes on to list some statistics for the average American household compared to their own actual usage.
Numbers like 92.8% less water consumption. He did some research on how much the average U.S. household uses in electricity each year–about 11,496 kwh–and then compared it to his own usage: 4,672 kwh. There’s more fun stuff in there like how staying in a shady spot can save as much as 50% on electrical usage.
Next up, we’ll look at fuel. The average American drives 13,500 miles annually. Let’s look at our nomads.
The Retirees do not drive much more than what is considered “average”. They stay put for a month at a time, and don’t commute to work (none of these groups do). If you consider that the average mileage of Americans tallies in the commute distances, RVers have the capability to actually drive much less. On the other hand, if you think about how much time is spent crossing the country, you can assume that travelers actually drive more. Luckily, we don’t have to guess.
The Retirees drive about as much as your average American. They spend considerable amounts of time at home, in the RV. They only do big drives a few times a year, as they’re switching from one location to another (remember, they rent parks for a month to several months at a time. While they are located at a particular spot, they don’t need to drive anywhere on a daily basis, and excursions become more about exploring than necessity. So for them, the average number doesn’t change.
The Traveler, on the other hand, moves around a lot. He crosses the country about twice a year. That’s 6600 miles / year. He also rides his bike more than the average American though (on average we drive around 36 miles per day), doesn’t commute, and driving his vehicle does require tearing his house up and down. When I lived in a VW Bus (along with my son and girlfriend), we drove 28,000 miles in one year, which included crossing the country (in a very zig zag manner) only once. With this information, it’s safe to say that the Traveler would drive around 34,000 miles per year. Considerably more than “average”.
Finally, the Family. I have this number, specifically, as this is my exact situation. Without planning to, we put 28,000 miles on our van over a period of one year, the same as back in our VW Bus. That included driving from Pennsylvania to Banff to Vancouver, south to the bottom of the Sierra Nevadas, and then to Colorado. We lugged the Airstream around less–stays averaging 10 days or more–and drove the van less than we would in a house (as it serves as a bedroom for three of us and so goes into “sleeping” mode around 7pm).
So when it comes to fuel, not surprisingly, all three types of travelers cover more miles combined; roughly 25,000 miles per year. Compared to the average American of course. Consider that the Traveler would rarely be using a car, if ever, were he to live in the city. On the other hand, mom and dad would have their own separate vehicles were they to live in their suburban home, making driving more neccessary and therefor frequent. The figures we discuss above equate to one family’s worth of usage, which is the way it goes in an RV situation. You don’t have both mom and dad driving 13,500 / year (27,000 miles total), you have one family’s entire usage over a period of a year.
Fuel Consumption Details
- 8mpg RV + 30mpg Mini Cooper @ 6,750 miles in each per year
- 843 gallons of gas in their RV
- + 225 gallons in the Mini Cooper
- = 1068 gallons total
- 23mpg Cadillac
- 586 gallons total
The Retirees consume more fuel living the RV lifestyle than they would in a condo.
- 20mpg Bus @ 34,000 miles per year
- 1700 gallons total
Unless you consider the mpg he’d use with public transportation, the Traveler would consume little to no gas each year as he wouldn’t own a car in the city. He too, then, uses more gasoline in the mobile scenario.
- 11mpg Airstream + Van (average of towing and not towing mpg) @ 28,000 miles
- 2000 gallons of gas while towing
- + 933 gallons in the Van alone
- = 2933 gallons total
- Mom & Dad in Suburbs with two 24mpg vehicles (average mpg in 2013) + 13,500 miles / year each
- 1125 gallons total
Like the others, the Family uses more gasoline in their traveling life than they would in the suburbs.
Now we’ll consider electric. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll assume all heating and cooling is done with electric. I realize that’s not the case, and depending on where you live in the country, electric heating could be more or less expensive than other methods of providing warmth in your house. At the same time, we RVers needs less heat and air conditioning, as we can more easily find mild climates than most sticks and bricks dwellers, not to mention have much smaller spaces to heat. On the other hand, insulation is typically better in homes than in RVs.
The Retirees would spend approximately $138 / month in electric in a home (the average cost of electricity between Florida and Arizona). That number is closer to $75 / month in their RV. They do pay for electric, as they stay at specific places longer and most longterm RV rentals separate the electric from the monthly cost (though not all do, only if individual spots are metered). They are more likely to leave lights on in a house, multiple not-so-energy-efficient appliances running continuously, and are consuming portions of the grid RVers simply don’t (such as automatic lights for driveways and those little guys you just tend to leave on all the time, no matter what, throughout the house). The rather lavish for an RV 24 LED light sources they have pale in comparison to the 40 they would have in their condo, and those more than likely be incandescent bulbs.
The Traveler pays next to nothing for electricity. While boondocking, he generates his own power from a solar panel kit ($300) and he uses very little electric otherwise. From an eco-standpoint, he is almost completely self-sufficient. Sure, the occasional library or coffee shop will provide power to his phone or laptop, but he can also charge those as he drives around, or let the sun do its part. Even if we divide the cost of his solar panel setup over the course of his five years on the road and compare that to the average cost of electric (again, $138 / month), he totals out at $5 / month. Over the course of a year alone, he saves $1596.
The Family also pays nothing for electricity. They rarely stay anywhere for a month or more, and so don’t get caught up in paying monthly electrical bills. They still consume power, it just doesn’t cost them anything extra. From an environmental standpoint, they have no air conditioner, but do require heat as even the warmest deserts get cold at night.
Just because they pay nothing, that doesn’t mean they don’t consume electricity. We won’t get into exact watt hours here, but instead compare the average suburban house’s appliances and other electricity needs compared to those in their Airstream.
- Airstream: 11
- Suburbia: 47
- Air Conditioning & Heating Square Footage
- Airstream: 200 sq ft
- Suburbia: 2100 sq ft
- Airstream: 1
- Suburbia: 2-3
- Airstream: 5 cubic feet
- Suburbia: 20 cubic feet
Let me clarify, all of the numbers above are based on real circumstances. For the suburban house, the efficiency apartment, and the condo, I researched the average number of lightbulbs, average refrigerator size, average mileage, square footage and taxes. For the RV, VW Bus and Airstream, I used real numbers based off of my own experience and combined with others I personally know (for Buses) and wiring charts (for Airstreams). I’ll admit I don’t know many Class A RVers, though I’ve been in many, and based my numbers off of a 30 foot Class C I once owned, extrapolated by the additional length and amenities most Class As have over Class Cs.
Not everything here is favorable to mobile living. We consume about twice as much gas. RVs do not have the longevity or “recyclability” of homes, meaning that a home can be hundreds of years old while an RV would typically not last much more than 30, if well kept. There is also one very large matter I didn’t factor in, which weighs heavily in favor of homes: recycling.
Most National Parks have recycling, many state parks, and very few private RV parks offer it. Even when it is available, you’re always jumping from places that do to those which don’t, and getting into a routine, let alone the extra work, makes it less likely any of these people will actually recycle.
On the other hand, the physical space consumed combined with the drastically reduced toll on natural resources–everything from energy and water consumption to physical materials used to build an RV vs. a house–point to the nomadic lifestyle being easier on the environment. While I would love to have the time and resources to investigate this (maybe when I go for my Master’s Degree in RVenomics) in complete scientific terms, the common sense in me, the general knowledge that I’ve had in both situations, tells me that living this way consumes significantly less resources all around.
Additionally, there are people who are even more off the grid than these “typical” situations. I know of Airstream families who primarily boondock and VW Bus folk who don’t use a lick of electricity that isn’t generated from their alternator or a solar panel. It’s all in how willing you are to play the game, and how dedicated you are to our Mother Earth