So You Wanna Go Live in a Van Down by the River

So You Wanna Go Live in a Van Down by the River

A how-to-do full-time RV life guide for those of you who want to cast off the shackles of stationary life and go be nomads.

I've been doing full-time RV life for about eight months, and I'm far from an expert at it yet.

But while I'm no expert, I think I've learned enough about doing this that I can lay out a good list of basic tips about how to do it that are surprisingly lacking when you just google on the topic. Maybe this is because I research and analyze obsessively.

A lot of the things people tell you to do and buy and think about really turned out to be not that important for me, and there are other things that are surprisingly under-discussed that seem really important. You can find books on this, but most are bad and it's annoying.

In this thread, I'll outline what I see as the most important pieces if you really do wanna give the full-time RV thing a shot and then point you toward other areas you may wanna research depending on your individual needs.

The first thing you should do is ask yourself why you want to do this. For me, it was mostly a financial decision and a strong dose of wanderlust. I don't even hike much and don't care a ton about seeing beautiful vistas. I spend most of my time working in my RV.

I like visiting friends and going new places whenever I feel like it--it satisfies a need for change and novelty intrinsic to my personality. But I'm also saving about $2k/month compared to my old living situation.

If your reasons for wanting to do it are financial, you need to think about the trade-offs. Community is harder. Consistent relationships (even with friends) will be harder. You'll have to adjust to not having some conveniences you're probably used to.

Those things weren't a HUGE dealbreaker for me because I like my alone time and focus, and without a partner to share the space with I'm not going to get annoyed or feel cramped. I also don't mind small spaces (I find them cozy and reassuring). But you might feel differently!

And if you do value things like access to hiking and the outdoors, you need to consider how much more of that you'll really get if you're still working full-time and dealing with moving your rig all the time and stuff. Is it REALLY better than just being a weekend warrior?

For most people, it's probably a combination of these factors. But if you're serious about giving it a shot even knowing that it's going to take a big life adjustment and mean a loss of whatever local community you have, here's what you need to think about.

Living Space

How much space do you need? And how much rig can you handle? There are class A, C, and B rigs in descending size order (yes that's confusing, idk why they do it that way), where As are monster rigs of 30+ feet and Bs are basically souped-up vans.

And then there are also trailers (fifth wheels) which you pull rather than drive. These might be a better fit for you if you already have a truck or want easy access to a vehicle without a toad (a towed vehicle behind you), which is useful when you're full-time.

It also matters how much you want to boondock (camp on free land without hookups). This is very fun and very cheap but scouting out the area is both important and a logistical challenge when you're camping on under-maintained land with a large rig.

When I bought my rig, I went with a class A because it felt self-contained, I didn't need to buy a truck, and there's still enough room for me that it feels like a 1-bedroom apartment with my slides out.

In retrospect, I wish I had gone with a smaller class B because I think I still would have been comfortable and would have had a much easier time navigating to good boondocking locations. I was nervous about how hard that would be for me though.

But realistically, you need to live in it for a while before you'll be able to know what you like and don't. Everyone says this and it's absolutely true. Your first rig won't be your last, so get the cheapest rig you can stomach and try it out. Renting won't be enough.

I didn't really have a handle on likes and dislikes until I'd been in it for over six months, full time. In terms of budget, if you're just getting the cheapest thing you can stomach living in, you're probably looking at somewhere from $10k-$20k for the purchase.

This is actually a GREAT deal if you can live in it for at least a year, because you're probably paying at least that much in rent if you live in a major city. If you buy in cash and mostly boondock, you'll come out the other end no worse off and also with a vehicle asset.

And even if you have to finance it, you can probably swing a decent down payment on a 5-yr loan and not eat too much interest. Full-time RV insurance through progressive is pretty good and not overly expensive on an older RV.

You need to do some research on brands and quality, and in my opinion the engine / mileage quality is MUCH more important than the quality of the interior stuff. Interior quality is what better brands get you. I bought an older Tiffin (mid-high end).

But I honestly wish I would have just bought a Jayco or Winnebago now. I was nervous about that originally but I think it'd be fine for a starter rig on a solid Ford chassis since I'm thinking about overhauling my interior anyway.

I'm not too mad about it since I got a great deal and the rig I bought was local (in Portland) so it was super easy. I ended up spending about $21k on a 2004 Tiffin class A with a 2-yr warranty on parts failure.

rvtrader.com is your friend and you want to do a ton of searches for different types of vehicles over a period of weeks or months until you find something that fits your price range and desired setup.

Assume you'll be living in it for at least a year unless you want to eat some costs and don't make compromises you're not sure you can get used to. Know your own level of adaptability and willingness to be uncomfortable in novel situations. Problems WILL pop up.

I'm really happy with my 31' rig + Prius toad (on a dolly) but it required adapting to some things and being more conservative with where I go. It's also a lot harder to just pull into a friend's driveway for a week than if I had a class B or C without a toad.

The most important size decisions for you are going to be:

  • Can you live with a combined bathroom/shower?
  • Do you need separate living spaces for multiple people to withdraw to?
  • Will you feel cramped if you can't expand your space with slides into a living room type area?

If you're the type of person who thinks they NEED a washer/dryer or a dishwasher, this probably not for you since those things are hard and expensive to get into an RV.

That said, I was that person, and I'm doing fine without both now. But I'm also pretty adaptable.

Finances and Work

Your next big decision before you pull the trigger is having a solid plan for how you're going to make income on the road. With WFH as the new normal, this is probably easier than it's ever been before. But you still have some things to think about.

Stable and consistent internet isn't a problem if you're careful about where you go, but if your job requires you to be in meetings a lot at specific times or always be available, it will be an annoying constraint on your ability to move and you may run into occasional issues

Your phone plan is a surprisingly reliable source of internet because 4G hotspotting is more than sufficient for Zoom calls and most upload/download stuff unless you're handling large files a lot (design work could be a challenge). That said, you can probably expense it.

I use a combo of Verizon's max hotspot internet plan (30GB/month hotspot) and an extra Verizon Jetpack hotspot for another 30GB/month ($30/tack-on to my plan). I do a fair bit of upload/download and this is sufficient for me. You can't stream TV on it too though.

So you have to be willing to jettison Netflix/Hulu/Amazon Video and find other ways to entertain yourself. Videogames are a good choice. Reading is a good choice. If you must have TV, There Are Ways.

And remember that you need to move your rig at least every 14 days if you're boondocking and it's harder to find spots on weekends. I tend to travel on Tuesdays or Wednesdays when traffic is slow. This is harder if you work a standard 9-5.

It may not be as fun for you if your work only allows you to travel on weekends so you're spending every other Saturday getting to a new location and you never get good spots because you're competing with weekend campers in a giant Class A for limited spots.

That said, you need less money now so you might be able to negotiate a Tuesdays off or some kind of flex schedule. Don't force yourself into a box and be limited by your existing model of work. There's a lot of surprising flexibility out there for unique situations.

If you've got a stable income plan and you have an in-budget rig ready, it's time to pull the trigger. End your lease, sell your stuff you can't take with you, and get thee to the road.

Let's talk about resource management, which is now something you have to think about.

Resource Management

When you're living off-grid, you have to always be thinking about resource management: electricity, LPG (propane), gasoline (petrol for you European people), water, and sewage.

You have monitoring lights, but they lie to you, and within six months you'll get a feel for what your rig can handle anyway. If you wanna boondock (camp on free land), your target goal should be self-sustainability for at least two weeks (the max you can stay on most free land).

You will hear a LOT of buzz about solar, but I've decided that it's probably not worth the investment unless you know you'll be in your rig for the long-term. I get by just fine with a solid gasoline generator. It's cheaper and comes standard on almost any serious rig.

And you'll also have to learn enough about electricity to calculate your needs in terms of amp-hours used per day. Mine are very light because I basically just use a laptop and my phone all day and don't require a lot of other power.

You will regret not learning about this if you decide it's too much trouble. Take the time. I didn't know ANYTHING about electricity when I started. Now I have a solid handle on RV electrical systems and power usage.

Here's a good starter guide: https://www.caravansplus.com.au/guides/calculating-how-big-your-battery-needs-to-be-a-44.html

I have 300Ah of battery power and I charge them up with my generator daily and mostly use them to power my laptop via a power inverter which converts the 12v batteries to 120v power for the laptop. This is unnecessary and it's more of a convenience thing for me.

For LPG management, if all you use it for is your refrigerator it lasts a LONG time. Like months and months. If you have to use it for heat or cooking, you'll go through it faster. I mostly don't cook and just flip on the generator to use my microwave and heat food.

But if you like cooking or need more variety in your diet than I do, you'll burn through propane at a faster clip since it's what powers your stove. The heat pump and AC are both electric and can run off your generator, but the heat pump doesn't work great below 45 F.

I'm perfectly happy to live on a diet of yogurt, cheese, fruit, pre-cooked soup, frozen vegetables, salad, and some pre-cooked shredded chicken I restock every week or two. For one person, the RV fridge space is fine. I shop every two weeks roughly.

Also, tank sizes matter for more than just sewage and water. My generator runs on gas and draws from my 70gal fuel tank until it's down to 1/4th. You may have more constraints in a vehicle with a smaller gas tank. I can easily go two weeks using my generator every day.

Speaking of sewage and water, that's another thing you have to manage. Your black tank (sewage) size is the biggest constraining factor on how long you can stay somewhere usually. Guys can probably stretch it further. I don't like peeing in the desert.

I have a 30gal black tank and it lasts me (as a single adult) about 2 weeks before it's full. It might go further, but I haven't thoroughly tested it since I'd rather not find out where the real limit is. The indicators on that tank are especially bad in terms of reliability.

Fresh water and grey water (shower/sink run-off) are easier to manage and I almost never run out of them before the black tank fills. But I don't really shower anymore unless I'm somewhere with a water source or I'm planning to see people. This may not be ideal for you.

I also don't do a lot of physical activity that leaves me sweaty or feeling like I need to shower, so just washing up briefly with the sink is sufficient. If you NEED to shower every day, get used to fast ones.

There are creative ways to extend this further too if the black tank is consistently your biggest constraint. You can get a composting toilet or a portable dump tank that you can drive to empty with your tow vehicle or truck.

I have 40gal of fresh water and I've never run out while boondocking because I'm pretty conservative with water use. Every two weeks or so, when I move, I stop overnight somewhere where I can dump the tanks, refill the water, and then refill gas/LPG before relocating.

I find the toad vehicle REALLY useful for visiting friends, shopping, scouting, etc, but honestly you can have grocery delivery sent to a lot of locations you might stay in overnight if you plan carefully before going back out into the wasteland.

Everyone freaks out about dumping the tanks because it's probably the thing that's MOST unfamiliar to you if you've never done it before, but it's really, really easy. I am kind of a prissy person who doesn't like to get her hands dirty. Dumping/refueling is cake. 20 mins.

And you can do it for free at a lot of gas stations even if you don't have time/money for an overnight stay somewhere.

You can sidestep all of these issues if you just stay in RV parks for extended periods where electricity/water/sewage can stay hooked to your rig, but I prefer camping for free in the middle of nowhere to extended camp stays. You're looking at a minimum of $600/mo for that.

And finding places with monthly slots can be a challenge. Many of them near cities have waiting lists. Realistically, if you mostly wanna stay in parks and also be on the move, it's closer to $800-$1400/mo.

So there's a lot of incentive to get comfortable boondocking, even if it's just parking in your friend's field for a bit. Having friends in the country is a great place to practice this, by the way. I "boondocked" in my parents driveway for a few weeks to get the hang of it.

Life Adjustments

There are lots of little things you're not used to and probably wanna think about when considering going full time. I already mentioned the resource management and the being more comfortable without daily showers stuff, but there's plenty more.

Get used to washing dishes by hand. A dishwasher is a massive waste of water and not worth it while boondocking. You also don't have a garbage disposal so can't just wash food matter into the gray tank easily. I tend to use 1-2 bowls and utensils and just wash them each time.

Paper towels are your friend. I clean out all the food bits before I even rinse my bowls with a paper towel and trash it. Easier than dissolving rotting food clogs in your drain or snaking it later. Gotta get used to living simply and doing things promptly.

Similarly, you'll only have access to a washer/dryer when you stop at campsites or stay with a friend. I've mostly been doing laundry when I stop at friends' places and tend to wear the same pair of jeans and the same shirt multiple days in a row to keep laundry manageable.

Really embracing that "filthy hippy" aesthetic, you know? But you're probably doing this anyway with COVID life. I see you.

Also storage is at a premium, especially in a smaller rig. However, I've found that I actually need WAY less storage than I expected. I'm probably at 60% capacity for my rig storage and I only use 10% of the items I packed. I could slim down waaaaay more.

But again, this largely depends on you and your living style. If you cook a lot, you'll be regularly using those pots and pans that sit unused in my cupboards. You have to live in it for a while to understand your needs.

I think this is a lot like backpacking tho. You need less than you think you do. Most of what you pack "just in case" you don't actually need to haul around because you can go buy it in a pinch.

Showers, as already discussed, will not be as long, frequent, or as spacious as you're used to now. I used to love my long, hot morning showers and sometimes would shower twice per day. Forget that. And washing your hair (especially if its long) is a GIANT PITA.

Blow-dryers are very energy-intensive and can trip your breaker if you're not careful. So I hope you like air-drying your hair.

You also have to manage your garbage. There are dumpsters at most camp sites for you to chuck it but you might have a bag or two of garbage lying around waiting for one if you're boondocking longer term. I put them in my toad trunk.

Personal safety is something to think about, especially if you're solo (and female), but I've never yet felt UNSAFE at a place I camped even in spite of feeling a little nervous sometimes. I sleep with a loaded 9mm next to me and I'm not usually intimidated by people.

I think fears about road safety are generally overblown, but I'm also 35 and confident that I can handle myself in a dangerous situation and not the most attractive of targets in the world because I'm a little older and also project confidence and "don't fuck with me" vibes.

It doesn't hurt to have a large dog along with you if this is a concern (although dogs are challenging in other ways for RV life because you can't leave them overnight easily).

Things will break. You have to feel confident in your ability to fix it yourself or YouTube a solution. YouTube is a godsend for RV life, btw. But sometimes there just isn't someone available to help you in a pinch.

When I was having power issues in Sedona on a Sunday, there wasn't even anyone to call who could come help me. I just had to figure out how to manually retract my slide using YouTube and my tools.

Without AC. Without a dude handy. Without ever having done it before. I'm lucky nothing required heavy lifting and I have strong google-fu and am willing to fuck around and figure things out.

Which brings me to another adjustment you have to make: You have to just be calm and roll with the punches. If looking down the barrel of seemingly impossible situation makes you break down in anxiety, you need to get over that to be able to get by.

I literally had no idea what to do about the slide and google wasn't helping a ton. I was calling shops and on the verge of tears. But you just gotta roll up your sleeves and figure it out. There's no cavalry coming.

Pets are a great thing to have on the road with you and I think I'd feel a LOT lonelier without my cat. Plus, it's totally fine to leave her overnight in most situations if I wanna go hit the town with a friend and crash on her couch.

A dog would be harder and probably less happier in the limited RV space. Multiple cats would be harder. Not all animals will do well in a confined space and with frequent moves. You have to know your pets. This is a case where a week-long RV rental test might help a lot.

The litterbox is a non-issue with one cat. I got a vertical-opening one to reduce litter tracking and have a separate garbage bag I use for cleaning it. The whole setup tucks easily in front of the passenger seat with minimal smell, which is fine since I travel solo.

She chews on my plants a little and I do let her outside to play a few times per week (always going with her), so again, you really have to know your animals to know how they're likely to react to the adjustment. Standard stress management pet advice applies.

Insurance (Health and Vehicle)

Your RV is your home so you don't need homeowner's or rental insurance anymore, but you'll want to make sure you get FULL TIME RV insurance. Progressive is who I use and I've been very happy with them so far (less happy with RV shops).

It's pretty inexpensive, maybe 20-40% more than I pay to insure my Prius. I have both vehicles, so I pay for insurance on both. Progressive has been very prompt with handling my claims, although getting reliable RV roadside assistance has been annoying and takes a while.

Your insurance options will vary by your state of residence (and by the way, you still need a permanent address somewhere for tax and mail). I use my parents house and that's been fine for me.

You're gonna wanna pick a state of residence with no income tax, because it's one of the nicest benefits of road life. There are guides, google this. There are also mail forwarding services you can use for official mail if you don't wanna burden a friend or family member.

But health insurance can be a PITA. The Washington health care exchange was a terrible deal for me because I knew I was going to be mostly traveling in the Southwest.

I was looking at something like $450-$500/month for insurance and STILL having to pay out of network out of pocket costs for anything on offer because of the limitations of the available plans. Garbage.

I am very healthy and relatively young with nothing that requires routine care, so I decided to go with a short-term indemnity plan I purchased through this website.

It costs me about $200/month and pays cash back at a fixed rate for services, so you need to negotiate doctor bills up front, pay cash, and get reimbursed for it. Teladoc is included for routine stuff. I haven't had to test this yet. Mostly I just wanted catastrophic coverage.

I just email my prior doctor when I need medication refills and call it good. If I had to deal with a UTI or some other common thing, I'd just call the Teladoc and get a prescription sent into the nearest place. But I'd still have to go get it. Something to think about.

If I got very sick somehow or was in too much pain to drive, I'd need to have a backup plan. I keep a lot of different meds handy and could probably manage things, but it'd be ugly if I was in deep wilderness and needed meds at like 2am.

A UTI, bone break, or severe flu are probably the most common health situations that would be really annoying to deal with for boondocking life. They're all manageable if you keep the right meds handy.

Also a general first-aid class probably wouldn't hurt you. This is still on my to-do list but I also have the internet and a few books that I can reference.

And that's basically it. That's the really big stuff I think you need to think about if you wanna do RV life. The rest is all situational nice-to-haves but if you have these basics covered you're good for 98% of situations likely to come up.

Costs of RV Life

I'll do a really brief breakdown of my living costs to give you a baseline before I wrap this up, because that's probably a big motivator for a lot of people.

All costs of living go through my credit card right now so it's easy to see the breakdown. Since starting RV life, I'm averaging about $1500/month in total living expenses. That includes insurance, gas, food, RV stays, everything.

That also includes some repair costs, going out to some nice dinners, buying friends food, and purchasing random crap on Amazon I wanted.

Because I mostly boondock or stay with friends, I probably spend less than $150/month on park stays (at the high end) and those are mostly overnights.

Gas has been about $400/month (and I'm also fueling my Prius and using it as my primary power source via the generator and moving a lot).

Food for one adult person is probably about $200 in groceries per month, buying whatever I feel like and not trying to budget it at all. I spend another $200 eating out because I often pay for friends or buy alcohol.

LPG is basically a non-issue, so the rest is random purchases and repairs. The cell service would be about $100/month for my maxed out work stuff, but I'm on a family plan which is cheaper and also you could expense this.

As a comparison point, this is about 20-25% of what I was spending living in a fancy downtown Portland apartment and routinely going out to eat and spending whatever I felt like when I was working in tech.

I quit my tech job, so I don't have the same level of income, but I also slashed my costs by more than 70% adjusting to this lifestyle. Your mileage may vary.

But I highly recommend it.