This August will mark our family’s tenth anniversary of traveling full-time in an RV, then a VW Bus, then an Airstream, and then in vans again.
It has been a beautiful ride. A decade of seeing everything from the coasts of Maine to the shores of Baja, the towering grandeur of Vancouver, BC to harpy eagles in Belize, well, it’s changed our lives and minds for the better, hardened and opened our hearts at times, and at the very least, gave us more time to enjoy one another as a family.
I have spent most of those years writing about our experiences and providing advice to those who are already living this life as well as those who are just on that initial look over the edge as to whether or not it would suit them. I think I have some insight worth sharing on the subject, though please note that what works for me doesn’t always even necessarily work for the rest of my family, let alone every other person who can see themselves moving around this world by RV or van.
So please, read on, enjoy, and consider how my opinions can help inform your own. Facts are so 2015 anyway… Without further ado, the eight things I wish I would have just known before I hit the road.
1. Smaller is better.
We began our adventure in a 27′ Class C RV. No tow vehicle, plenty of bicycles. We sought out places where you could stay near enough to town to make good use of those bikes, and not have to move our rig. This involved weeklong stays, often at private RV parks, and while that initial year in that particular RV was one of the best of my life, I would soon grow tired of being squeezed in like sardines in a can, the ever-present eye of some RV park owner determining whether our dog’s leash was short enough, whether the youth in company was being pleasant enough, and so on.
This lead us to finding more remote places–national forests and BLM land–where if you were lucky enough to find an open spot, it was often because we moved to smaller vehicles over time. This opened up a world of possibilities to that end, but smaller is better in my mind as well for a few other reasons.
- It’s just easier to drive. In cities. On skinny backroads. In Mexico. When you get down to a van or small RV, you no longer need to find a gas station with the appropriate space and clearance, or choose some restaurant outside of town because finding a parking spot in the city center isn’t going to happen. You just fit, and so can go more places and do more things.
- There’s less to maintain, from door hinges to tires to cleaning.
- It forces you outside. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve camped next to folks in big Class A RVs and haven’t seen them come outside for days at a time. You may enjoy a lot of personal, inside space, but for us, we’re in this adventure to get out into nature and see the world. Once your home is so small you don’t feel overly comfortable with everyone packed inside, you naturally tend to spend your days in the great outdoors.
Plenty of our friends have larger spaces. Few pack as many into as little an area as we do. Thus, the realization that living super small is not for everyone, and the reality that living in an RV is already going to be smaller than most homes isn’t lost on me. But once you go van, you are living outside…so if that’s something that appeals to you, go small!
2. Take it really slow.
We meet plenty of folks who hit the road, living on some type of savings or the sale of their house, and only have a year to do whatever they’re going to do. I get that. I also know that many of those folks who make that full year realize they can’t stop, or don’t want to stop. And many bail out well before that year’s time is up because it’s too stressful.
To all of this, and even for those of us who have the income and ability to keep this going perpetually, I would simply state that spending a couple of weeks, a month, or several months in one spot gives you an entirely different appreciation for what that place actually is. When we spend a month somewhere, we tend to become true enough locals. People start noticing us (it helps that we usually stay in pretty small towns). We have deeper conversations that we can ever hope to have in a night’s stay here and there. And while we certainly still visit some spots for only a few days, and other places are just overnight stops on our way to somewhere we really want to go, we find that digging your roots in just enough to where you can still comfortably pull them up when the urge presents itself provides for a more relaxing, more immersive traveling experience.
3. Skip the RV parks.
We’re no strangers to private parks. At all. When our children were small, having a connection to city water and endless, free electric, plus a place to dump all of our waste with little to no effort was very appealing. We had the money to spend back then, and didn’t mind spending it. Every day we’d drive to some national park, spend the entire day there, and return home to our minuscule patch of some RV park. It was fine. It was traveling. There is nothing wrong with staying at RV parks.
But as time went on and all of our boys grew up a bit, we realized that being directly in the places we wanted to explore meant that our days were simply lived adventuring. Instead of going to do something, we were just always in a position to take advantage of every stretch of endless desert surrounding us, every rock and tree in our considerably larger backyard, where we would often not even have a neighbor, or at least not be able to see them without looking for it.
Now, plenty of folks love RV parks, too. There is an energy, and people to meet and chat with, group dog walks and ice cream socials to attend. For us though, given our affinity for being in the wilds of the world, getting hooked up with solar and the various other processes that make living off the grid possible has been a life changing experience and when we absolutely have to visit an RV park, I spend the majority of the night thanking my family for our ability to make this adaptation.
Looking for a happy balance? Many state parks around the nation offer the perfect combination of some hookups (often just water and electric) and spacious sites for around $20. Compare that to the full hookups, squeezed in atmosphere of private RV parks where paying $35 – $50 per night is the norm.
4. Solar, solar, solar
Speaking of which, the primary key ingredient to “boondocking” (living outside of RV park hookups) has been having a solid solar setup. We personally run on 200 watts, and that is sufficient to power our small fridge, charge our three phones and an iPad Pro, and run a couple of 12v fans. It won’t keep my Macbook Pro charged while I’m actively using it, but it will allow me to charge it while it’s closed and in sleep mode. Or in other words, for around $500 we got a system that can support all of our needs and opened up possibilities that range from camping in the shadow of the Tetons to careening around Quintana Roo for free while tourists pay $1000 a week to stay at even lackluster resorts.
There’s more to it than that, of course, such as a much more extreme water management, foregoing showers on a regular basis, and every now and then realizing we don’t have enough kick come 9pm to charge something we really wanted to use…but in the long run, it’s well worth it and has also reduced our average monthly “rent” from about $600 at RV parks and state parks to around $150 per month (since we occasionally stay in national forest campgrounds that charge $10 – $15 / night or sneak in a state park or two every now and then.)
5. Reliable is better than cool.
We still have a 1978 Volkswagen Bus. We drove it from Fort Collins, CO to the Redwoods, to Florida via Arizona, up to New England and back down to North Carolina over the course of a couple of years. We even drove it from Baja California to Quintana Roo, down to Belize and back up to Austin, TX. I would estimate that about thirty percent of that time was spent working on that vehicle, or standing on the side of the road wondering how I was going to get a part I needed to get us out of that situation.
It’s now sitting in a storage lot somewhere in Texas after I made the mistake of letting the wrong guy do a quick swap of my exhaust system where he left me with a half put together engine out of the deal.
We now live in a Ford van. Nothing fancy, not a Sportsmobile or anything like that, just a simple van we kitted out with exactly what we need. I haven’t been stranded in a long time. We just go where we want to go, no worries about how far we can make it or if we’ll even make it. People don’t come up to us asking about our vehicle anymore, and we don’t get as many likes on Instagram or invited to fancy clubs. It’s quite nice all around, actually.
6. Mexico is where it’s at
There are volumes of information on Mexico on this site. Anyone who is afraid of going there, or has issues with their concept of what the Mexican people are like, are simply put missing out. It’s an amazing, truly foreign country just south of these United States. I cannot recommend the experience enough.
7. It’s not a competition
Lately there seems to be this idea that “you’re not overlanding” or “RV vs. vanlife is a thing.” We personally experienced a bunch of youngsters who are basically weekending their vanlife experience out who dismissed us almost wholly–despite ten years experience doing this whole living on wheels things–simply because we were in our 30s and didn’t have either a VW (we’d already transitioned to our Ford) or a $150,000 Sprinter. It was depressing at the time, made us feel like we weren’t part of the cool kids who just figured this out last year, and didn’t belong. So, we avoid them now.
At the same time, there are old school guys going around kicking attitude like they have been doing it for so long that anyone who just got started doesn’t have a spot in the club. They go on about how they’re going here or there and belittle those who do the same, but mention places they’ve already been.
I am not interested in either of those cliques. I pulled our family into this life for one reason and one reason alone: to travel around together. Anything else–Instafame or getting a piece in some magazine or a sponsorship–is just icing on the cake of not only having the gumption to dream, but the luck and ability to make it happen moving forward.
8. Traveling will not make you happy
Yes, the within the first six months or so of hitting the road, I was in ecstasy. Not a particularly religious man, I would thank whichever omnipotent being in the sky that might be listening on any given night for this new life I had created.
And then, life went on. The fantastic became the ordinary (not that seeing new places wasn’t still fantastic, and my jaw has continued to drop as my appreciation for this world has grown), and every day life began to seep back in. The kids would argue. We’d blow a flat. We’d spend a month in paradise and then find ourselves broken down in some dive of a nowhere town as we left said paradise. Things just got in the way.
I don’t know the secret to peace of mind, but traveling in and of itself will not provide it. If you want to hit the road, do it to see more of the world. Do it to spend more time with the people you love, or more time in the type of atmosphere you enjoy. Maybe even do it to open your mind up a little to the variety of cultures, beliefs and opinions this world has to offer…just don’t expect it to be the automatic resolution to what already ails you.