I must admit, RV manufacturers do not build their rigs for full-time use. If they did, these recreational vehicles would likely be twice as expensive. No, they build them for price. They build them to be pretty. They build them for weekends and campouts. I don’t blame them. How many people would buy RV’s at double the current prices? A business must supply a market.
We purchased our 31’ 2011 Crossroads Cruiser in 2014 knowing we would be going full-time in just three years or so. We loved the floor plan as it gave us space for a dual-office and had opposing slides for a full 16’ wide living space in the “great room.” Since then we have changed every piece of furniture and many fixtures, starting with the RV mattress, continuing with the plastic toilet and finishing up with the dinette, chairs, sofa and recliners. We have even replaced our RV stove with a toaster/air fryer oven, and in the process added more counter space.
All of that said, we have found some common themes and several differences among RV’ers living full-time in their rigs and those who just go for vacations and weekend jaunts. Here are some things to ponder...
Probably the largest concern when moving from vacationing to full-time living in an RV is storage space, or rather, the lack of it. This is primarily what we spent months thinking about before we launched our new lifestyle. No matter how much you downsize your stuff, you will have too much of it. Even after all of our planning and repurposing, we still had to chuck a lot of stuff once on the road and we realized we didn’t need or use it. You accumulate unneeded junk in a house or apartment, but it doesn’t usually matter because it’s often out-of-sight and out-of-mind. In an RV, out-of-sight belongings still affect weight and available space. In other words, they very well may be taking up space for things you’d rather be carrying but don’t have room for.
Besides pure space considerations, everything you load onto an RV adds to its towing or carrying weight, so it is a good idea to make sure your vehicle has the power and capacity you need in the long term. This might not be a big deal for someone towing five or six times per year, but the more you tow or carry, the more your truck or motorhome is affected.
We found out the hard way that manufacturing recommendations can be unrealistic. Our first truck was a Ford F250 (3/4 ton) gas model that had a tow rating of 12,000 pounds. Besides, a dealer had said we'd have "no problem" with that weight. Our loaded 5th wheel ended up only about 11,000 lbs., but the truck took a beating and after several major repairs within the first 30,000 miles, we traded it in on a 1-ton diesel. That made a world of difference.
A weekender might not use it enough to notice, but one of the first things to wear out in an RV with full-time use is the carpet. Carpeting is made and installed for light use and to soften the look of an interior, not for continual traffic. We finally removed our living room carpet when cleaning actually made it worse. We now have vinyl plank flooring throughout the kitchen and living room and plans to do the same in the bedroom and bathroom.
Décor and “Redecorating”
Décor isn’t usually a necessity for weekenders, but when your rig is your home, you may just want it to feel, well, homey. Full-timers will all join in the chorus about how little wall space they have. Framed artwork, knick-knacks, elaborate lamp shades and other sticks-and-bricks-based décor will not always fit in moving house, let alone look warm or elegant. To be fair, a weekender probably doesn’t care. They just want to go fishing or hiking, or 4-wheeling, and then go home.
My wife calls our driving time a “continuous earthquake” and travel jaunts are “redecorating days.” The constant vibration of the highways, local streets and gravel roads can cause even the hardiest décor to tumble or crumble. A full-timer with lots of décor, like us, is always faced with the dilemma of what to pack and what to leave out for travel days, with the added inclination of not wanting the nuisance of packing and unpacking on each leg of their journeys. Museum gel has been a revelation, but even that’s not foolproof. Multiple straps and wall anchors have also helped and we continue to tweak that arrangement. However, every time we stop we hold our breath when we open the door to see what the earthquake has redecorated.
Part-time camping usually means a higher clutter tolerance. A vacation or long weekend is expected to be messy, so throwing your sweater on a chair or setting dirty plates on a counter is far from a crisis. Everything can easily pile up and wait for one big cleaning session before (or after) finishing the outing. In a full-time life, there is no end in sight for which to wait.
A smaller living space magnifies clutter and it doesn’t take a neat freak to be affected by it. A simple sock on the floor, crumpled napkin on a table or dirty dish minding its own business on the kitchen counter can seem to turn a clean, comfortable room into a new episode of "Hoarders." For many, cleaning must happen continuously.
Power and Water
Of course, RV’s are made to be self-contained for a weekend, or maybe slightly longer. Full-timers stretch the limits of their tanks, and fresh water must be sustained. A long weekend may not require air conditioning, TV or electric appliances, but residing in the rig usually does.
Battery power only goes so far, and rarely will supply a microwave, toaster oven, an electric fireplace, an induction stove or big screen TV’s, all of which we have. Staying in resorts with full hookups is nice but difficult to manage from park to park over a long period of time (unless you’re a seasonal resident). We stay 1-2 weeks in a park then move on, usually boondocking (or dry camping- without hookups) for one or two nights between resorts. Occasionally we boondock longer, like the 4 days we parked in the middle of nowhere in the South Dakota Badlands, where electricity was a concern.
We use a Wen 2000i generator that will power everything in the 5th wheel except the primary A/C and bought a smaller, portable A/C unit that the generator will run. It can run continuously for hours and is relatively inexpensive, costing a third of a gallon of unleaded gasoline per hour. More importantly, it will recharge our two Lithium Ion batteries very quickly.
Recently, many nomads expecting to boondock for longer periods have been installing full solar systems that will provide electricity from a few days to almost indefinitely without hooking up to shore power. Solar is expensive to purchase and install, though costs are coming down. It requires a bit of real estate on the RV’s roof for the panels and in the basement or other storage space for the bank of batteries. In addition, solar power can be affected greatly by weather and the amount of sunlight available. We decided early on not to go solar and depend solely on our generator and batteries while dry camping, but if pricing keeps coming down, we may revisit that decision.
Parks vs. Boondocking
As I mentioned, an RV’er has the option of full-hookup camping in an RV park or dry camping, aka boondocking or dispersed camping. Weekenders will tell you that there are other options as well. State and federal parks may have power or water, but not often both. Also, most do not have sewer availability at the campsite but have dumping stations you can use in a central location in the park. This would require tearing down camp and moving your rig if you need to dump or get fresh water before you are ready to complete your stay, but at least the option is there. Again, full-timers have a much greater need for these services because otherwise their limitations will be reached at some point in time.
Another choice some full-timers (or backwoods-type weekend adventurers) decide on is a composting toilet, which uses almost no water and doesn’t require a sewer connection to empty. So far that has not been necessary in our travels.
Reservations vs. Wingin' It
We have seen two distinct types of RV’ers- those that travel without any plans and those that want everything reserved as far in advance as possible. We are the latter. In fact all next year is already planned, at least tentatively. One reason for this is that we are Thousand Trails members and need to reserve in advance to make sure we can take advantage of the free stays.
It’s fairly easy for a weekend warrior to find a place to camp, even on the fly. One might say, “Let’s go to the Snake River and get some fishing in this weekend!” Then the family loads up and goes. On more extensive outings they need only worry about reservations for that week or for those few days. Full-timers on the road, other than the most daring of nomads, must always be considering their plans and whether to make reservations. Wait too long, especially for the more popular parks, and there may not be space available for you. Try to make them too far in advance and the park may not be allowing reservations yet. It’s a continuous juggling act we just deal with and must keep on top of.
Expenses- Vacation vs. Living
Excursions of shorter lengths are "vacations," almost by definition. Home, then, is what you leave behind for a few days until you return. Vacation travel and eating expenses are figured in to be spent throughout the trip.
One of the most difficult parts of living on the road is remembering you are living a lifestyle and not on a long-term vacation, unless of course you have tons of money and don’t have any desire to cook. Successful full-timers will limit their restaurants and tourist spending to just a few venues in each location, more or less depending on their budget.
It’s interesting to think about RV’ers taking a vacation from their lifestyle, since many think their lifestyle IS a vacation.
Repair and Maintenance
If something isn’t quite right for a part-time camper, it can often wait until next trip, next month or next summer. Full-timers can attest to the fact that they should fix small problems well before they become big problems. Because of the continual nature of the lifestyle, parts or devices with small issues can take a beating.
Just think about taking your sticks-and-bricks home in for repair. Even if you could, where will you live while it’s in the shop? Definitely not a weekender’s worry. Since big problems in RV’s are expensive, sometimes VERY expensive, repair costs can immediately affect your quality of life, or even dictate whether you can continue living on the road.
The Neverending Story
I told someone that I was writing this piece and their comment was that I could spend a lifetime discussing it. In a way, she was right. However, I thought it was better to touch on the subject and begin the discussion than wait until all of the explanations are clear and all the questions are answered. Send me your thoughts and suggestions!
Jack Huber is a novelist with 7 mysteries published, along with several books of poetry and photography. Now retired, he and his wife, Nadyne, are free to travel the country in their 32' 5th wheel and 1-ton Ford pickup.