Going full time to a life of RV adventures
Nearly nine years ago, my husband, Mark, and I ran away from home to live in an RV full time. This has turned out to be the most exciting and fulfilling chapter in our lives, and we plan to continue living this way as long as we can. Why did we do such a crazy thing? We were tired of the confines of our conventional lifestyle, and yearned to expand our horizons, see new places and meet new people. In the end, the adventures and happiness we have found on the road have far exceeded our wildest dreams.
If you have kicked around the idea of going full time and are wondering how to learn more, there are loads of resources on the Internet. However, you’ll learn far more by talking in person with people who are already doing it. Most campground hosts, RV park workers and many state and national park volunteers are full-time or seasonal RVers. An hour’s conversation — with its natural, instantaneous back-and-forth — will give you richer lessons than reading possibly can.
One of the most frequent questions we hear from future full-timers is, “Can we afford to do it?” The answer lies entirely in how you choose to live. There are full-timers happily living on peanuts in a small motorhome and full-timers in million-dollar motor coaches sampling five-star restaurants across the country. In general, most people spend what they have. For the budget-conscious, the desire to go is far more important than any lifestyle sacrifices that might be necessary to pull it off.
When we started, we were younger than average, at 47 (me) and 53 (Mark). We left our workaday lives at the peak of our wage-earning years, choosing to live on our savings and investments far earlier than any financial advisor would ever recommend. Since we began our travels, our friends back home have built up much more sizable nest eggs and retirement packages. However, we wouldn’t trade the life experiences we’ve had on the road for all the money in the world.
Budgeting to live in an RV full time is the same as budgeting to live in a stick-built home. A glance at your current expenditures will give you insight into what you’ll spend living in your motorhome. Food, clothing and cellphone expenses will be similar, while homeowner’s insurance will be replaced with RV insurance and extended warranty costs. Property taxes, HOA fees and utilities will go away, but overnight camping fees will come into play. One beauty of RVing full time is that your fuel bill becomes a variable cost. When the price of fuel skyrockets, you can opt to stay put and not travel too far, as many full-timers did in 2008 when fuel nearly doubled in a year. When fuel is cheap, as it is of this writing, many full-timers choose to explore Alaska and other far-flung regions of North America.
There are many ways to save money on overnight camping costs. Staying at one RV park for a month or a season will cut the nightly rate dramatically. Many full-timers prefer to visit a handful of choice spots each year, lingering for many weeks in each one to get to know the area in depth and to save some money. Membership programs can also cut costs. Good Sam Club members save 10 percent at Good Sam Parks and Campgrounds. Passport America and Happy Camper are inexpensive to join and offer 50 percent discounts on camping fees at member parks. Thousand Trails and Coast to Coast Resorts offer “investment” programs where significant membership costs yield overnight camping fees of $0 to $10 or so. And Escapees members can purchase or lease a “home base” site in a member park or enjoy discounts up to 50 percent in affiliate parks or stay on members’ property for free. Lastly, equipping your motorhome with solar power makes it possible to camp without hookups on America’s beautiful public lands, where you can enjoy multimillion-dollar views out your window without paying a dime.
One of the best things about the full-time RV lifestyle is that, for those who need to earn a living, it is very easy to find work on the road. The well-established RV work camping community is built around RV travelers who wish to work part- or full time. There are thousands of jobs available at campgrounds and RV parks across the country, and several websites, such as www.workamper.com, list job openings. Workamper.com is also home to “Workamper News,” a bimonthly publication filled with articles and job listings. The work itself is varied, ranging from hosting in campgrounds, to providing buildings and grounds services, to working at campground stores, gift shops or state and national park entrance gates.
Many private, seasonal attractions and commercial enterprises hire RVers for both part- and full-time labor. Amazon has set a very high standard and a marvelous precedent with its Camperforce program, where RVers work at Amazon’s warehouses for the four months leading up to the end-of-year holidays.
Sometimes the compensation in these workamping positions includes an RV site with full hookups. At many government-owned campgrounds the RV site is the only compensation. For full-timers who need a certain level of cash flow, it is worthwhile to do some math to make sure that the hours worked and the pay package make for an acceptable hourly wage. For those who don’t really need the money but who want to give back to the community, volunteering in exchange for an RV site at a beautiful state or national park can be fulfilling and can also provide a structured itinerary and create a social network of colleagues.
Of course, living on the road has its own crazy logistics. You must have a physical address somewhere, known legally as a “domicile,” for filing taxes and voting. Any state is fine, but there are three — South Dakota, Texas and Florida — that most full-time RVers prefer for financial reasons. Besides having no income tax, the sales tax rates on vehicle purchases are also low in these states, as are the vehicle registration and insurance rates. It is fairly easy to establish residency too; consequently lots of mail-forwarding companies have set up shop to help people become residents, register their vehicles, get insurance, obtain a driver’s license, register to vote and receive their mail.
Once you are on the road, your mail is collected at the mail-forwarding service company and is sent to you periodically. It can be sent to any U.S. post office addressed to your name at “General Delivery,” and it will hold your mail for up to 30 days, free of charge. Or it can be sent directly to an RV park.
Internet access is equally easy on the road. Verizon and other cellphone providers offer data plans with Wi-Fi hotspot devices and smartphones. These hotspots access the Internet through cellphone towers and make it available, with password protection, to nearby devices via Wi-Fi. In a pinch, fast food restaurants, coffee bistros, bars, restaurants and even home improvement stores offer free Wi-Fi to guests. Be sure to purchase something if you plan to use the Wi-Fi services.
Perhaps the biggest thrill in hitting the road is choosing a rolling home. It is really tempting, when giving up the security and comfort of hearth and home, to go out and buy the biggest and fanciest motorhome you can afford. After all, it is going to be your house! However, almost all full-time RVers upgrade their rig at some point in their lives on the road, so whatever you buy will likely not be your last motorhome. Rather than making a huge outlay on an RV at the beginning of your full-time adventures, it may be far more sensible — albeit less glamorous — to start in whatever rig you currently own, no matter how small, or to buy something modest as a “starter home.”
The motto we kept in mind while searching for our full-time RV was, “Go cheap, go small, go NOW.” Even if you are a seasoned RVer, you may have different needs in a full-time motorhome, and you may not know what those needs are until you have lived on the road for a while. The really fun thing about holding off on The Big Motorhome Investment until after you are actually full-timing is that you can visit RV dealerships and do factory tours all over the country. We continue to visit RV dealerships on a regular basis, and we have done quite a few factory tours over the years. We learn a little more each time.
Of course, downsizing all the way to a 25-foot Class C is much harder than downsizing to a 45-foot diesel pusher. Yet many full-timers find the whole downsizing process to be surprisingly uplifting. There is something truly liberating about parting with all that stuff. Sometimes, however, sorting through your accumulated belongings can be an emotional roller coaster ride. Deciding on the fate of your most precious belongings can bring surges of memories and be a bit stressful. For us, it helped to bear in mind that we could always return to a conventional lifestyle. Even if the return was very costly, we would go back to our old housebound lives much richer for our experiences.
But what to do with all that stuff? Some people hire an auctioneer to come in and get rid of it all in a single day. Others hold yard sales, make multiple trips to Goodwill, use Craigslist and give their most prized items away to family and friends. One of the unexpected joys for us when we visit old friends and family is seeing our most precious goodies being enjoyed in their homes. Of course, each friend has happily promised that we can have the items back if we ever move into a house again.
Another tricky issue is what to do with the house. The housing market ebbs and flows, and your urge to go full time may or may not coincide with a seller’s market. We were able to sell our house in a weekend, but by the time we were ready to drive off to our new life in an RV, our buyer had backed out of the deal. We knew it would be easier to find a tenant than a buyer in the remaining days before we moved into our RV, and within a week we were landlords. We have had five sets of tenants since we left, and with each return trip to our house, it has taken us just a week to bring back its shine and make it better than when we lived there ourselves. Leasing has also been favorable financially, as the housing market has nerve-wrackingly soared and plummeted during our years on the road, while rents have steadily risen.
Losing touch with family is another concern for many would-be full-timers. We have found that our visits with our grandkids are more meaningful now than when we lived in a house just 50 miles away. We park our RV nearby and can easily be with them at any time of day for several weeks at a time. Many full-timers with far-flung children love having the ability to roam from one child’s household to another, and we count ourselves among them.
Developing a travel pattern and structure takes time, and it took us several years to figure out how we like to travel and to trust our inner instincts and each other’s choices. Some full-timers like to have a home base for a few months a year, others prefer to travel primarily between two regions (North and South) or two specific RV parks, and still others, like ourselves, are in perpetual motion. Finding hobbies and interests beyond sightseeing is very important too, as it can be exhausting to be a full-time tourist, and eventually all the sights blur together. We have found that photography and travel writing are the ideal complement to our lifestyle, and it has been rewarding to see our skills improve over time.
The bottom line is that life is extraordinarily short and the years will pass whether you pursue your full-timing dreams or not. When we look at photos of ourselves during our first year on the road, the kids we see in those images are not the same people that we are today. The graying hair and wrinkles would have appeared whether we stayed home and padded our retirement or took the plunge and began a life of adventure on the road. However, it’s the wide-eyed inexperience of those earlier versions of ourselves that is the most surprising.
We have grown as people immeasurably since we began our travels, and we continue to do so with every day that passes. Not only do we know our country’s history and geography far better than we did, and made countless new friends in every direction, we have fulfilled our innermost dreams and learned how to be adventurers.