Stephanie, her hubby, and their two cats enjoy living and traveling full-time in their RV, often camping off-grid to stretch their budget.
How to Downsize to Live in an RV
After retirement, my husband and I decided to make a drastic move. We sold our house, downsized our belongings and became full-time RVers. Our plan of full-timing for one year evolved as we came to love the lifestyle, and ultimately, we lived in our RV for four years before buying a house to use as our home base. Today, eleven years later, we still spend at least eight months each year in our RV traveling the U.S.
Pare down a lifetime of accumulation so that it will fit into a smaller space.
Downsizing to an RV or Smaller Living Quarters
Once you have made the decision to be a full-time RVer, you are faced with the major project of downsizing from your "sticks and bricks" home to an RV. Even if you live in a modest, three-bedroom, 1500-square-foot home, downsizing to an RV might be overwhelming. In our case, we have a 33' motor home which gives us about 240 square feet of living space with additional storage space in the "basement" compartments.
The tips I've given here will be useful if you are downsizing from a house to an RV or from a house to much smaller living quarters. You will still need to make careful selections of what to keep, what to store, and what to toss.
Break down the process into manageable chunks.
Organization is the key ingredient to keeping your sanity during this process. Break down the process into manageable chunks to make it less overwhelming. Here are some useful tips on how to start organizing for the move and how to downsize your belongings.
Tips on Organizing Belongings
Rather than tackle your house as a whole, think of major groups of belongings that you will need to downsize. As you make your decisions, keep in mind the space you will have available in your RV storage compartments.
Organize by Groups
For simplicity's sake, I've listed four groups of things that you will need to examine:
- Clothes and Shoes
- Kitchen and Household Items
- Files, Papers and Office Items
- Tools and Garage Items
Each group of belongings contains subgroups: necessities to be packed into your RV, items that would be nice to have if there is room, and items that you just will not need . . . ever!
Don't keep things you will never use again.
Be Realistic When Downsizing Clothes
This can seem like an overwhelming task, but unless you will be working a job that requires dressy clothes, you can probably pare down your wardrobe drastically. I suggest that you make four piles of clothes starting with the stack that you will take with you.
Clothes You'll Need While RVing
Basic casual clothes will be the most useful but in limited quantities. Don't pack ten pairs of jeans or dozens of t-shirts when three or four will do!
- Lightweight slacks
- Tee and knit shirts
- A few button-up shirts
- One dressy outfit each with appropriate shoes.
- Fleece jacket and windbreaker
- Sweatshirt or sweater
- Bathing suit and cover-up
- Knit cap and gloves
- Sweatpants and shirt
- Night clothes
- Hiking boots
- Athletic shoes
- A pair of dress shoes
- Crocks or shower shoes
Clothes to Take in Your RV
Individual needs vary with lifestyle, but generally, RVers' lifestyles are much more casual than their previous lives. Clothing should be pared down accordingly.
Take the necessities, but consider your space available when choosing them. After our first year of RVing, we gave away or donated most of our dress clothes, as we never wore them. Plan to dress in layers - you can make do with a fleece jacket or windbreaker layered over a sweatshirt or sweater rather than bulky winter coats. Shoes take up a lot of space and can be a problem to store, so limit yourself to necessities that fit into your storage space.
Clothes to Donate or Sell
This should be your largest pile of clothes! You may be reluctant to part with expensive business and dress clothes, but consider your new lifestyle and be realistic.
Donate or Sell
Unless you know that you'll need them for specific occasions, you probably won't need business suits, very dressy clothes, dress shoes, winter boots or a large selection of purses. If you plan to follow the sun in your RV, you can also get rid of heavy sweaters, winter coats, winter boots and other winter items. Keep one coat, scarf, hat and gloves for possible winter visits to friends or relatives!
Clothes to Trash
Let's face it, we all have our old favorite torn jeans, threadbare t-shirts and underwear with sprung elastic. Again, be realistic! If you haven't worn it and haven't fixed it, you don't need it!
Anything that is worn, torn or stained. Toss clothes with holes, missing buttons, sprung elastic and broken zippers that you were planning to fix but didn't. You know what I'm talking about, people! Toss out clothes that are not suitable for sale or donation.
Clothes to Store
My best advice is to not store clothes. From personal experience, I can tell you that storing clothes is a waste of storage space. Clothes go out of style, they may no longer fit, and your lifestyle changes so that they are no longer appropriate. Clothes in storage may get damp or insect-damaged. We stored tubs of clothes "just in case" for four years. At the end of that time, most of them went to charity thrift shops or the trash. Very, very little was ever used again.
Store If You Really Must
Sentimental items like a wedding dress or your high school letter sweater are exceptions. If you have a pile of clothes you think you want to store, take another look. Bite the bullet and pare the pile down to a minimum.
Kitchen and Household Items You'll Need in Your RV
- Can opener
- Metal spatula
- Plastic spatula
- Wire whisk
- Measuring spoons
- Measuring cup
- Wine bottle opener or corkscrew
- Place setting for 4 of dinner plates, coffee mugs, desert dishes, cereal bowls, cake plates,
- Forks, knives and spoons, drinking glasses, wine glasses
- Serving spoons
- Microwaveable/ oven safe casserole dish
- 13 x 9 cake pan
- Cookie sheet (make sure it fits the RV oven as some ovens are very small)
- Clips to close chip bags
- Several sizes of plastic storage containers with lids
- Plastic outdoor tablecloth
- Dish towels, pot holders, cloth napkins and place mats
- Wooden spoon
- Percolator coffee pot (for use when you don't have a power source)
- Small grill and BBQ utensils
- Medium frying pan
- Pots, 1 each of small, medium and large
- Paper napkins, plates, paper towels,
- Other: aluminum foil, plastic wrap, zip lock baggies in a couple of sizes.
- Portable electric mixer (optional)
- Small toaster (optional depending on space)
- Electric coffee pot (optional)
- Linens and bedding: pillows, two sets of bed linens, bedspread or comforter, towels, wash cloths, blankets, a couple of afghans.
Downsizing Kitchen and Household Items
Moving into smaller quarters, you will probably have drastically less kitchen storage than you were accustomed to in your house. Our RV has very limited kitchen storage, but we find that it is sufficient if we choose wisely.
Kitchen and Household Items to Take in Your RV
First, choose the basic kitchen items that you must have. Choices will be ruled by available space. You may be surprised what you can do without.
Household Items to Trash
Next, go through the remaining items and trash anything that is:
- Broken, cracked or chipped
- Worn out and ugly
- Frayed, stained and faded
- Otherwise not suitable for sale or donation
Household Items to Donate or Sell
Donate or sell any good items that are:
- Duplicates of what you are taking
- Cute, but seldom used like those little cheese spreaders with fancy handles
- Not needed in your RV like drapes, curtains, shower curtains, large table cloths and wrong size bed linens
- Too bulky to take like small appliances, extra towels, scatter rugs, knick-knacks, paintings and wall hangings, extra blankets, bedspreads, throw pillows
Household Items to Store
You are bound to come across a few sentimental items that you can't take with you, but can't part with, either. Before you put things in storage, why not check with your kids or relatives to see if they would like Grandmother's punch bowl or your Mom's silver serving platter? Wouldn't it be better if someone were enjoying these family heirlooms than if they were stuck in a dark storage bin somewhere?
The things you choose to store are a personal decision. I chose to store my favorite set of good china and crystal as well as extra stainless steel silverware that wouldn't fit in the RV. I also stored a lot of things like extra pots, dishes, and small appliances, etc. Except for sentimental things and good china and crystal, most of what I put in storage was never needed again. After downsizing and living a simpler lifestyle, I realized that I did not want or need all that "stuff!"
Documents to Keep in Your RV
Keep paper copies:
- Pet records - Keep health records for pets as well as proof of rabies vaccination for cats and dogs as you will need to show these at some campgrounds or if you cross the border into Canada or Mexico with your pets.
- Insurance policies- original paper policy.
- Identification - Keep originals, but also make copies of driver's license, social security card, and credit cards in case of loss. These can be kept electronically on a flash drive in case your computer is lost or stolen.
- Passports and birth certificates
May be stored electronically:
- Financial statements and last year's tax return
- Current receipts
- I also use an app called "Genius Scan" to snap a picture of id cards, pet records, license plates and insurance cards and keep them on my iPhone for easy access when I need to reference them.
Downsizing Files, Papers and Office Items
Oh, the paper clutter we collect! When we have plenty of closets and drawers to store all of our miscellaneous accumulation, it's easy to ignore the need to de-clutter and downsize. But now, the moment of truth! You are moving into an RV where you will have very limited space, so you need to select and plan carefully.
Once you've completed the time-consuming, but necessary task of going through the stacks of papers on your desk and bookcases, you can begin to think about what you really need to take with you.
Papers and Records to Keep in Your RV
You can keep the actual papers, or, like some efficient RVers, scan in your receipts, tax returns and other documents to keep electronically. If you do this, be sure to have backup copies of everything in a safe place. You might consider purchasing storage space on a "cloud" service that would allow you to access your documents from anywhere.
A note about tax records: There is an IRS website that recommends how long to keep your tax records. In most cases, three to four years is all you need, but in some cases, you might need to keep records for seven years. My recommendation is to carry one year of back tax records with you in your RV. Read the publication and put the remaining records in storage. See the box at right for additional records and important documents you should carry with you.
You will want to take your computer, printer/scanner, cables and electronic devices, cameras and all the cables and chargers that go with these devices. I found that the easiest way to organize cables and chargers was to put each in a zip lock bag marked with its purpose and the device it belongs to. As smartphones, iPads and tablets become part of our everyday lives, you should be able to cut down on the number of different devices you need.
Reserve a space for office items like a stapler, notepads, paper clips, pens, pencils, erasers, tape and whatever other items you like in your home office. Get rid of the hundreds of extra pens, pencils and things that you never use!
Scan Those Treasured Photos
Keep electronic copies of your photos.
This has to be the most difficult category because those old photographs are the records of our lives. If you are like me, you probably have thousands of photographs, photo albums, slides and movies from years gone by. Here are some suggestions for dealing with them:
- Scan in your most treasured family photos and load them onto storage cards to put into a digital picture frame or onto flash drives. Keep backups on external storage drives or on a free cloud service like Google Photos.
- Disperse family photo albums to children and relatives who will appreciate them.
- If time permits, go through loose photos and throw out duplicates and any that are poor quality or of scenes, people and things that you no longer care about.
- Send treasured albums to a commercial service that will put the photos on CDs for you.
- Remove photos from frames and place them in albums to conserve space.
Tools and Hardware for Your Traveling Garage
For the home handyman, downsizing the garage will be traumatic! But do take along the necessities for RV living.
Tools and Hardware for Your RV
While this looks like a long list, many of these items are small and can be stored in a toolbox or in the bucket.
- Assorted Mechanics tools (pliers, hammer, screwdrivers, wrenches)
- Assorted bolts, screws and nails
- Bucket (yes, you'll need one!)
- Bungie cords
- Coveralls and work gloves
- Drill and bits
- Duck tape and plumbers tape
- Extension cord 50’ heavy duty
- Oil Filter wrench
- Water filter, RV
- Flare kit
- Fuel filter, RV
- Grease gun
- Heater hose and radiator hose
- Hose clamps
- Hoses: green for regular water; white for drinking water
- Jumper cables
- Leveling blocks
- Lug wrench
- Measuring tape
- Mechanics wire
- Motor oil, power steering fluid, brake fluid transmission fluid
- Ratchet straps and rope
- Rubber gloves for emptying tanks
- Sewer hoses
- Silicone lubricant
- Spare fuses, reflectors and bulbs
- Vehicle wash brush & soap
- Windshield squeegee
- Windshield washer solvent
- Wiper blade, RV
- Zip ties
Downsizing Tools and Garage Items
Paring down garage items and tools can be a traumatic experience for the do-it-yourself mechanic or homeowner. As with other categories, it is best to start by selecting the items that you will need and can fit in your RV.
Tools and Hardware to Take in Your RV
Do take a set of basic tools that will be needed for simple repairs inside and outside of the RV. If you are able to do mechanical repairs on the RV yourself, then you will need a wider selection of tools. Don't forget to pack things like duck tape, an assortment of screws, bolts and nails, wire, flashlights and other emergency repair items.
Tools and Garage Items You Will Not Need
Be ruthless about getting rid of cans of paint, solvents, large power tools and all of the years of collected junk in the garage and basement. Now is the time to give your kids a set of tools and sell the lawnmower on Craig's List. You will not need leaf blowers, lawn mowers, rototillers or garden tools.
Tools and Hardware to Store
Again, it is a personal decision whether or not to rent storage space. Just remember that the cost of space can add up to a lot of money over a few years. When you are done full-time RVing, will you want to return to the same kind of lifestyle in another sticks and bricks house?
Outdoor Living Items
Take along a small outdoor grill, a few outdoor folding chairs, a small folding table and an outdoor mat for your outdoor living room.
Don't forget to save some space for a small outdoor grill, a few outdoor folding chairs, a small folding table and an outdoor mat to set up your outdoor living space!
A stepladder is extremely useful for accessing high places on the RV, making awning or roof repairs and miscellaneous other uses. We carry a 7' ladder that is attached to the back of the RV on a special rack.
Carry along a road atlas and some good campground directories (see my article on Best RVing and Camping Guides). Even if you have a GPS, you'll need paper maps!
Save Room for Your Hobbies
When you set your space priorities, do find a little room for your favorite hobby!
Downsizing Your Hobbies
If you have hobbies that you love, you may want to allocate space for some of them in your RV. Some hobbies are not easily packed into an RV, but it's amazing the inventive ways that people manage to take their hobbies on the road. Limit yourself to one or two hobbies, and take along some basic supplies for the ones you really love to do. Things like wood carving, crocheting, painting and drawing are easily portable. There are many people who are rockhounds, beaders and quilters who gather together in campgrounds to share their hobbies. When you set your space priorities, do find a little room for your favorite hobby!
Quick Tips for Downsizing
No one said this will be easy, but here are a few tips to help relieve your separation anxiety:
- Photograph it, then give it away. If you have some things that you love, take a photograph of it for a digital album before parting with it. You'll have a memory without having to store it!
- Give family heirlooms to family or special friends. Do consider giving your sentimental items to friends and family who will appreciate them. Be sure to include a little note with family heirlooms so that their history won't be lost.
- Be realistic and objective. When was the last time you wore those pointy-toed sequined shoes? How often do you really use the giant Turkey platter or your aunt's white linen table cloth? How many of those 500 books have you even moved in the last 5 years?
- Consider the cost and consequences of long-term storage. Unless you have a temperature and humidity-controlled place to store furniture, think twice about storing it. Furniture can easily become mildewed and damaged by mice or insects if stored for a long time.
- Look forward to your new unencumbered lifestyle!
Ready? Happy Trails to You!
While the whole process of downsizing may seem overwhelming, it will come together as you organize a segment at a time. Expect to feel a mixture of relief, and maybe a bit of regret as you see your things pared down to what will fit into your RV. But I can tell you from experience, that there is a huge feeling of freedom and joy when you finally do hit the road.
Happy Trails to you!
Questions & Answers
Question: Can I travel with two Siamese cats?
Answer: I have traveled with two Oriental Shorthair cats, related to Siamese, and have previously owned (or been owned by) a wonderful full-blooded Siamese. I'm sure you already know that they have strong personalities and vocalize often. Our cats adapted very easily to travel in the RV, and quickly found their favorite spots for travel and napping. We were also able to train them to walk outdoors wearing harnesses and a leash. Cats are good travel companions when they are happy. It's your job to figure out what will make them content. Start with bringing along their favorite bedding, litter box, toys and food. One of our cats is more fearful of traveling than the other, and likes to hide in a small place when we are moving. He will either climb up under our recliner or go into his cat carrier, which we leave under the table with the door open. If you have cats who try to hide during travel, just make sure they are not in a place where they could get injured. Sometimes, it's just safer to crate them until moving time is over.
Question: Do you have to pay capital gains taxes on your house if you sell and don't invest all of it in another house?
Answer: I believe there are several ways you could be exempt from paying capital gains on a home sale, but I am not a tax expert. Please consult the IRS website or a tax expert for the latest regulations regarding home sales. It's always best to get this kind of advice from an expert!
Question: Do the rules for downsizing your home into an RV apply if you plan on buying a pull behind camper as a residence for an undetermined amount of time? How does one fit an awesome bed into that space? I am concerned with the bathroom facilities and our family Aussie.
Answer: My tips for downsizing should be helpful no matter what kind of RV you decide to get. I would suggest that you go to a dealer or an RV show and browse the different models of trailers, choose one that fits your budget and lifestyle. Pull behind trailers have built in bathrooms and beds as well as kitchens and living rooms. Depending on their size and design, bathrooms and bedrooms can be spacious or cramped. Most bathrooms have a shower, toilet and sink in a separate area. Sometimes there is a small bathtub, but newer models I've seen have eliminated the tub in favor of a larger walk-in shower. Since beds are built in, you would have to make special arrangements to have it taken out if you must have your own awesome bed. Unless you decide on a really small RV, there should be plenty of room for your Aussie to join you. You'll get a better handle on what you can take with you once you decide on the size of the trailer you will purchase. Good luck and happy travels.