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The RVing Lifestyle: Living Full-Time in an RV

Stephanie, her hubby, and their two cats enjoy living and traveling full-time in their RV, often camping off-grid to stretch their budget.

RV Camping on the Beach

Sunrise on the beach at Padre Island National Seashore.

Sunrise on the beach at Padre Island National Seashore.

Full-Time RVing: Why Do It?

To some, the concept of living full-time in an RV might seem crazy. People who suddenly decide to give up their homes, sell or store their belongings, pull up stakes and hit the road with the intention of living and traveling in their rigs full-time are certainly "out of the box" thinkers willing to take risks. While it may not be for everyone, it’s a lifestyle filled with adventure, travel and the challenges of a constantly changing scene.

Choosing the RVing Lifestyle

Do you wonder why people choose full-time RVing? Many good reasons include:

  • Live a simple life with less stress. No house means no lawns to mow, no property taxes to pay, no big house to clean or paint or maintain. A small living space means no “stuff” to dust or worry about. Living in an RV eliminates a lot of stress from their lives.
  • Have more time to do the things you love. Those who live on wheels leave behind the mad cycle of demands on their time. Because you are likely to move at any time, it's unlikely that you'll be asked to make many time commitments unless you really want to. Your days belong to you, and you are free to spend your hours doing whatever makes you happy. No more committees, no more meetings, no more deadlines. Go hiking everyday if you wish, or read a book all afternoon. Get up at 6 to see the sunrise or sleep till noon. There are no schedules. I tell my “sticks and bricks” bound friends that every day is Saturday.
  • Travel and see the country. This is one of the best reasons. Living in an RV, you can pull up stakes every week or every day and move on to the next interesting place. You can follow the sun in the winter and be in a warm climate year around. You can see all those wonderful places you’ve dreamed about or go back to the favorite spots of vacations past and spend a month seeing Yellowstone National Park and the Olympic Peninsula or the Florida Keys. In eleven years, we’ve crossed the county five times, visited every state and spent several months in Canada and Alaska. We still haven’t seen it all!
  • Live on less. If you prefer a luxurious lifestyle, you can certainly have it while living in a million dollar RV and staying at expensive resort style campgrounds. But most full-time RVers live a very modest lifestyle by seeking out places to camp cheaply. You can live on less by starting out with an affordable used RV, staying in reasonably priced campgrounds and living on a budget. For one thing, you won't buy a lot of stuff – there’s no place to put it! You won’t want or need a big wardrobe. Unless you are a country music star, you won't need a lot of fancy clothes or jewelry, either!

Living in an RV Full-Time: Who Does It?

Who decides to store or sell all of their belongings, give up their house (known as the “sticks and bricks” in the RVing community) and hit the road? Thousands of people are full-time RVing including:

  • Retirees: Retired people are probably the largest segment of the RVing population. Newly retired couples are often active, healthy and ready for a lifestyle change. Even without large retirement funds, many find that they can afford to live on less while on the road, and make do with only their Social Security incomes if they are careful.
  • People whose jobs require travel: Construction workers, writers, artists, traveling nurses, and consultants can find it convenient to own an RV and move their home from one job location to the next.
  • People who want to escape the “Rat Race”: There are many who have just decided to escape the rat race. They give up their jobs and houses, buy an RV and embrace the RVing lifestyle. To support themselves, they may do seasonal or temporary work for a few months, then travel for a month or two. Some have businesses they can operate from their RVs. Artists, writers, consultants, salespeople, and performers are all to be found among full-time RVers.
  • Volunteers: Many people who full-time RV volunteer at National Parks and Monuments, National Wildlife Reserves and historic sites. Usually, in return for a certain number of work hours, park volunteers at these places are provided with a free campsite. Other RVers volunteer their time with the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, churches, schools, museums and other non profit organizations.

Planning to RV Full-Time: Where to Start?

  • Learn more about it. If life on the road appeals to you, you will probably want to learn more about it before taking the big step. There are some really good books available about buying your first RV, remodeling a used RV, working on the road, and preparing to go full-time. Get on some websites dedicated to RVing or camping like the Escapees or Good Sam RV Club and read their discussion forums. They’re free and full of information and personal experiences.
  • Make a plan. Decide if you are going to sell or rent your home. Set a date for putting the house on the market. Decide if you will put your household belongings in storage or sell everything you can’t take with you. Look into storage units or methods of selling out. Are you going to live on retirement pensions or will you work? Make a budget and financial plan. Set a target date.
  • Make lists. Start a notebook with different sections and make lists of what to take, what to store, who you need to contact, etc.
  • Start downsizing. It’s never too soon to start sorting through your stuff. Sell, give away or throw out whatever you no longer need. Start packing the RV with what you’ll need on the road. Pack up things that you want to keep, but don’t need for daily living.

RVing and Camping in National Parks

Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

Lake Superior at Pictured Rocks National Park.  Michigan

Lake Superior at Pictured Rocks National Park. Michigan

Imperial Dam. Arizona

Imperial Dam. Arizona

  • Arrange to keep in touch: Almost all RVers find that a laptop computer and a cell phone are necessary to life on the road. You can use the internet to pay bills, check your bank and credit card statements, look at your phone bills and keep in touch with friends and family. I updated our list of personal and business contacts into the cell phone directory so that we could look up numbers easily. Before you leave your "sticks and bricks", be sure that you update all of your email address books and back up your computer to an external drive. I also use the computer for keeping financial spread sheets and maintaining a database of campgrounds as well as a travel journal. I store my digital pictures on it, too. All this is too important to lose -- back up often!
  • Internet on the road: Different people choose to do this in different ways. You can connect to wireless internet (WiFi) at many campgrounds, rest areas and businesses. This is sometimes, but not always free. The downside is that these services are sometimes spotty, slow and sometimes inconvenient. Security at free WiFi sites can be poor, too. The upside is that using them can save you money as you don’t have to pay a monthly fee or purchase extra equipment. A second option is to purchase a broadband modem for your laptop. This USB gadget can be purchased at a cell phone provider or online and there is a monthly charge. We chose this option and have a Verizon Broadband service. We find that service is good in most areas, though it can be spotty where you don’t get cell service. If you have a smartphone that can be used as a personal hotspot, you can eliminate the broadband modem and use that. A third option is satellite internet. This is probably the most reliable service and great for very heavy internet users or those who conduct their businesses on the internet. However, there is a substantial investment for the satellite equipment as well as a monthly fee for the service. In addition, the satellite receiver needs to be positioned each time you change locations.
  • The Pets: If you will be traveling with pets, make made sure that they also have check-ups and have their shots updated. Proof of rabies vaccination and shot records should be placed in a take-along file as many campgrounds required this paperwork of pet owners. Campgrounds have very strict rules about pets being on leashes. As we travel with cats who weren't used to being put on a leash, we bought them harnesses and leashes and started getting them used to the idea. Placing the litter box in a convenient location was somewhat of a problem. In our first RV, we placed it on a rubber liner in the bathtub. We got a plastic tub with high sides and purchased clumping kitty litter. We cleaned the box twice a day, so it never really smelled. The main problem was that the cats tracked bits of litter all over the RV and we did have to vacuum often. One thing that saved our furniture was their big round scratching pad (Turbo Scratcher), which we found room for it under the dining table. When we upgraded to a bigger RV, we moved the litter box down into a basement compartment. We cut a cat-sized hole from the stairwell into the compartment. The little box can be cleaned from the outside, and we get a lot less tracked in little this way. Oh, and the cats love it.
  • Passports: It's a good idea to get passports taken care of before going on the road as it will take a while for processing. Since we planned to cross the border into Mexico for dental work and into Canada on our way to Alaska, we decided to get new passports before leaving New York. Another thing to tuck into our files along with birth certificates and copies of our will.
  • Insurance: In addition to RV and car insurance, you may also want to insure the personal belongings in your motorhome. Companies specializing in camper and recreational vehicle insurance are most likely to understand your needs. Check with your health insurance provider and make sure that you will be able to use it anywhere in the country. You may want to consider purchasing a service contract on your motorhome. These are pretty pricey, but major repairs can be even more costly. One last thing, do get an emergency road service (ERS) from a company that understands RVs. Good Sam offers an ERS. Escapees also has affiliates who offer good ERS plans. Even changing a tire on an RV can be a major undertaking, and not something everyone is physically able to do.
  • Important Papers: Invest in a small file box that will fit into a closet or in your under-bed storage for insurance policies, bank files, passports, birth certificates, pet files, copies of any contracts (loans, storage, cell phone, retirement plans, etc.). Carry all the manuals and service records for your RV and tow vehicle together. Carry instructions and troubleshooting manuals for your computer, camera, phone or other electronic equipment. We carry a copy of the previous year’s income tax return for reference and have a folder for all tax related items. Remember that you’ll be filing from on the road somewhere. If you keep important financial or other information on your computer, be sure that you have a backup in a safe place. I found that a flash drive will hold all my important computer files, and carry it in my purse.

Olympic National Park

Hurricane Ridge.  Olympic National Park, Washington.

Hurricane Ridge. Olympic National Park, Washington.

The Nitty-Gritty. How Should I Prepare to Go On the Road?

So your house is sold, you have your RV. What else do you need to think about?

Read More from AxleAddict

  • Health and Medical. Many people decide to keep their family doctors because they will be returning periodically to visit family and friends. Because we wanted to start with a clean slate, we both had thorough physicals before leaving. Get prescriptions filled and updated, have eyes checked and get copies of all prescriptions to take with you. If you have any chronic conditions or serious health concerns, carry copies of medical records with you.
  • Mail. You will probably want a real address somewhere. There are mail services all around the country, but most full-timers choose one in Texas, Florida or South Dakota because those states are friendly to full-time RVers and make it fairly easy to establish a new state residency. These states do not have a state income tax which makes them even more attractive. We chose to go with Alternative Resources in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. All of our mail is sent to our address at their facility. They receive our mail, sort it and send it to us twice a month. The frequency of mailing can be changed at any time, but this works for us. At our request, they throw out bulk mail so that we don't pay postage to receive junk. We called or sent change of address notification to magazines, insurance companies, cell phone company, etc. The one problem that took awhile to resolve was that the post office wanted to change our box number to a suite number or delete it all together. The Escapees also runs a huge and efficient mail service out of Livingston, Texas. Since you will probably become a resident of another state, you’ll make your life easier if you choose a mailing service in the state where you will establish residency.
  • The RV Community. Not everyone does this right away, but most wanna-bees like to join a camping club or an RVer’s organization like Escapees or Good Sam. You can be as much or as little involved as you wish, but their magazines and websites alone are worth the fees. These clubs have thousands of members, publish their own magazines and have on-line information and support groups. The Escapees also have a network of campgrounds throughout the U.S. which are reasonably priced for members. They hold national rallies as well as local get-togethers. Escapees’ BOF (Birds of a Feather) groups are people with similar interests, like beading, computers, square dancing, who keep in touch through electronic newsletters and meet national rallies, popular snowbird destinations, boondocking sites and at the Escapees parks. Good Sam has local clubs, rallies and get-togethers throughout the U.S. More specific groups geared to owners of certain brands of RVs like Airstream, Holiday Rambler, Winabago, Born Free and others have their own newsletters, magazines and rallies. Any of these groups welcome new members and are more than willing to help newcomers to their life-style.
  • Money Management on the Road: You don’t have to change your current banks or financial institutions, but you do need to change your legal address with them. Some banks require that you do this in person, so get it taken care of before you go on the road. Set up on-line bill paying, money transfer between accounts and account viewing so that you can take care of your finances on line. We also ordered new checks with our new South Dakota address on them. We already had direct deposit and on-line bill paying set up for our checking accounts. We set up automatic payments for insurances and the few other bills like storage fees that would be the same each month. Because we knew that we wouldn't receive paper bills in time to make timely payments, we set up monthly automatic payments to our charge cards for more than the expected minimum payment. By doing this, we avoided late charges, and we could send additional money by a few clicks to our on-line bill pay. Most people don’t carry a lot of cash, so a debit card is a must. Rather than paying expensive ATM fees, get cash back when you buy groceries or other items at Walmart or a grocery store. Most don’t charge for this service.

Have Fun and Happy Trails!

For most people this will be a huge life-style change and it’s common to be nervous and apprehensive about it. Just remember, you can stay in a “safety zone” of a local campground until you have all your loose ends tied up. And there aren’t too many things that can’t be taken care of long distance by phone or internet. As you travel, you will meet many new comers like yourself as well as many experienced campers and RVers who are more than willing to share their knowledge and experience. My best advice to you is be flexible and have fun with it. There’s a great adventure ahead!

Check out my other articles on full-time RVing, and on travel and camping in the U.S. See you soon!

Questions & Answers

Question: We are begining to get our (Ducks in a Row) to be able to full time RV. My husband is 65 and draws his Social Security, we want to sell our home but are wondering about the repercussions to his SS. Do you have any suggestions or comments on this? Will we have to pay extra taxes or maybe even loose the SS for a while?

Answer: Selling your home is not considered earned income, and will not affect your social security.

As for paying taxes, that would depend on how much you sell your house for and what other income you may have. You should really consult a tax advisor as I can't advice on tax law.

Question: Is it possible to RV on a fixed income i.e. social security and a pension?

Answer: There are many people who RV on limited incomes like social security and pensions. Of course, everyone does not get the same amount of social security benefits or pensions, so it would be important to make a budget of estimated income and expenses before setting out. When you are able to purchase your RV with your savings, it is easier because then you can set aside some of your income for emergencies such as medical problems or repairs on the RV.

On a limited income, you would have an easier time RVing in places where you could get free or very reduced fees on campgrounds, i.e., National Forests, Corps of Engineers campgrounds, BLM, and other public lands.

In the years when we lived in our RV full time, our biggest expense was gas as we liked to move around a lot. When we camped in the southwest, we did a lot of boondocking, so camping fees were very low. The times we traveled to the southeast and eastern states, camping fees were much higher, though we were able to find some nice National Forest campgrounds.

Living frugally becomes a way of life for many retirees who live in their RVs.

Question: As you travel the country, do you ever have problems finding places to camp in an RV?

Answer: When we travel to areas that are popular tourist destinations, especially winter snowbird destinations, we try to plan well ahead and do make reservations. The more amenities you expect, the more you need to think ahead in these areas. When we travel in the Southwest and plan on camping on public lands, we don't usually have any problems finding suitable camping areas, but we do a lot of boondocking, so don't require much. When we are just traveling, and not planning to stay in one place for very long, I usually call ahead early in the day to make sure a campground has space available. If you're more of a risk taker, you can just drive up and see if there's a campsite.

Question: I have a small 13 ft. trailer. Do campgrounds charge less if I just want a short stay with no electric or water?

Answer: Parks usually do charge less if you have a site without electric or water (dry camping), but not all parks have a variety of sites. Some parks have only sites with full hookups or partial hookups. The charge per night doesn't change for fewer hours spent at the site.

© 2010 Stephanie Henkel

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