Driving with Donna: How to Prepare for Full-Time RV Living
Posted: May 01, 2023
Categories: Travel & Lifestyle
Driving with Donna: How to Prepare for Full-Time RV Living
Are we always camping and/or always on vacation?
This is a fun one to discuss with family and friends. They see the pictures of our excursions and adventures and get the sense we are always on vacation. Or maybe they envision us always setting up camp in a pristine wooded forest with a cozy campfire and a babbling stream nearby. Others, who travel like we do, know that there are many, many nights spent in rest areas, Walmart parking lots, crowded RV parks and dry camping in the middle of nowhere, just passing time to get to your next stop.
We enjoy camping, vacationing and traveling just like any homeowner, we just happen to take our home with us. When we want to go camping, we find a destination campground — a place that offers nearby hiking or bicycling trails, nature and enough space to feel like you aren’t part of your neighbors’ conversations. Typically, we enjoy places with weather that allows us to set up camp outside and spend very little time indoors.
For a vacation, we might park the RV somewhere and spend a day or two away. Most recently, while workamping in Florida, we took a few week-long motorcycle rides to Miami and the Keys and another trip to Puerto Rico — those were vacations. We stayed in hotels or bed and breakfasts, did all the touristy things, ate all the yummy foods and looked forward to coming home to our RV at the end of the week.
Our day-to-day life, regardless of where we are, includes adventure, nature and cultural experiences, as well as the mundane necessities of life like housekeeping, cooking, personal health tasks and more.
How much does it cost to live on the road?
Life on the road in an RV is no cheaper than living in a house or any other way, at least not for those of us who travel and choose not to be stationary. If you don’t move around, you don’t have those added expenses of a mail forwarding service or out-of-network medical expenses. Long-term RV park fees are generally less expensive than nightly rates as well.
Full-time RVers often pay more for food due to smaller refrigerators and having nowhere to store bulk purchases. You pay more for internet because you can’t bundle your cable and internet since you don’t have a “home” address. Your gas budget is higher because towing from one place to another, or driving a motorhome, uses more gas. Your entertainment costs may be higher because there are just so many fun things to do in each new place. Maintenance and repairs are often the “hidden” cost of RV life, since you are at the mercy of parts and services wherever you happen to be when you need them, and you often need them quickly to get you back on the road.
How do you prepare for full-time RV living?
There are plenty of examples of folks who researched their options for income, medical care and schooling for the kids; read all the articles for the best gadgets to buy and RV storage hacks; sold the farm, hit the road and within about four months, hit a wall. They hated it. It was too hard. Too chaotic. Just too…much.
Often that wall is due to unrealistic budget expectations, an underestimation of the size and type of RV they need and a misguided notion about what full-time RVing actually looks like. We aren’t always in a scenic locale with perfect weather, nor are we always on vacation. We spend a great deal of time in our RV, just living a day-to-day life in a tiny space with changing views.
Budgets are a very personal matter, and they depend on your lifestyle and values. Knowing what is important for you is key to being prepared for full-time RV life. We were lucky, as we had each lived lives full of adventures and mishaps and were pretty certain of our tolerances for change and compromise.
Know yourself and your travel style
If you prefer having a swimming pool, playground, pet play area and weekly activities, then RV resorts might be ideal for you. Those can cost anywhere from $60 to $150 a night. Maybe you enjoy nature and are creative at keeping yourself and the kids occupied. In that case, state parks or boondocking on public lands might be ideal, and those can cost anywhere from free to around $40 per night. The latter is more our speed, although we have splurged on fancy RV parks at times.
If your hobbies require special equipment or space, this will dictate your RV style and size, as well as the places you want to stay. If you enjoy riding ATVs, you might want to upgrade your power systems so you can stay for longer periods in places without hookups. If you are a golfer, aside from storing the clubs, you need to be near the courses. Kayaks are also great but can take up room and require trips with proximity to water.
If you aren’t a planner and hate being pinned to a route, you will likely incur greater overnight campground fees, as many budget-friendly parks fill up months in advance. If you do find a spot, you will likely have to move more frequently.
Other things that impact budget, and your expectations of what full-time RV living looks like are your tolerance for boredom, consistency, routine and your need for reliable internet or television and the creature comforts you enjoy that may not fit into an RV lifestyle. I love cooking, and adjusting to having only the bare necessary gadgets and utensils took time. I am now the master of cooking in tiny places with limited ingredients (which I think would make a great reality TV show)!
Create a realistic budget
When we first started living in an RV, a quick search for the types of campgrounds we wouldn’t mind staying in gave us an idea of nightly lodging expenses. Since we were buying an RV new and financing, we factored in that payment plus requisite insurance. We knew we needed a toy hauler since we had a motorcycle that we planned to include in our travels. Gas prices and a shot-in-the-dark estimate of monthly mileage based on our expectation to be frequently on-the-move helped us factor fuel expenses.
Startup purchases and expenses not included, we landed on a figure of about $100 per day to live the full-time RV lifestyle. That was separate from any personal health insurance, loans, phone plans, etc. that we each carried individually. While we don’t have pets or kids, we do like to dine out and eat well, and we like reliable internet for entertainment and route planning. We also do a lot of RV maintenance ourselves, so while $100 per day may seem like a lot to some, others may be spending a lot more.
How will you fund your RV life and medical expenses?
We are retired and are fortunate that we have pensions and investments that allow us to travel and live in a way that we enjoy. Our medical expenses are minimal and include access to VA health care. We have excellent credit, so emergency expenses are easily financed, if necessary. Some RV owners will rant that if you can’t afford to purchase the RV outright, then you can’t afford the lifestyle. I’m not sure I agree with that, as we did finance our purchase just as many people take a mortgage on their home. But we did so knowing that it is a depreciating asset, and we are under no illusions we will recoup our “investment.” A worthwhile risk for us.
Still others find workamping positions that offer free full-hookup sites plus a wage. There are seasonal jobs at retailers, national parks and amusement parks that can be advantageous to those needing a little extra income. But those are typically not going to be something you can rely on to fund traveling full-time.
Knowing yourself, your travel and leisure preferences and your practical needs will inform your budget and how much you might need to sacrifice or how much wiggle room you have.
How do you stick to that budget?
For us, we are easily able to maintain a quality of life we enjoy with very little sacrifice if we can camp for free at least 30% of the year. We do this by staying on public lands and by volunteering, or workamping, in trade for a full hook-up site.
Other ways we stick to the budget and save money:
- Plan ahead. We plan our stops, reserving campgrounds that suit our needs or identifying the free and low-cost stops along the route ahead of time.
- Stay on top of maintenance. We are diligent about routine preventative maintenance. We inspect moving parts frequently and check tire condition and pressure before every move. YouTube and training events like Lippert’s RV webinars are a great way to learn basic operation and maintenance.
- Prioritize experiences over things. Instead of splurging on a dining experience, go enjoy a leisure hike. Audio guides can take the place of guided tours. Walking, ebikes and public transit help keep our diesel expenses to a minimum, as does using the motorcycle for day trips.
- Change the way you shop for groceries. We only buy the fresh groceries we can prepare and use in the immediate future, keeping a supply of dried goods and versatile frozen ingredients for quick meals on the go.
- Take advantage of discounts. We have applicable national and state park passes that offer camping discounts. Use Harvest Hosts for those overnight stays and always ask for applicable discounts.
- Stay active and healthy. We also take advantage of preventative healthcare and get regular checkups to help avoid medical emergencies.
Adjust your travel pace
We spent our first year zipping across the country, visiting as many sites and parks as we could, moving every few days, always on the go. We quickly realized this wasn’t ideal for us.
We’ve slowed down to take more time at each stop and take more time to do nothing in between. That’s the beauty of full-time RV life: you can adjust according to your needs and whims. We check in with each other periodically, making sure we are both still all-in for this lifestyle. We are, and we are exceptionally grateful we have the opportunity.
Now that you know how to prepare for full-time RV living, I hope you can put some of these tips to use and start your journey!
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Lippert Scouts Donna Weathers and Vic Mulieri are retired veterans who have been traveling the U.S. full-time for the past two years. They alternate their time between months-long volunteer gigs at state and national parks and road tripping in between those opportunities. Unencumbered by deadlines, pets or kids, they often have no idea what day it is and have forgotten how to set alarms. Their home on wheels is a 5th wheel toy hauler and they love exploring the outdoors, historic places and great restaurants wherever they visit. To follow Donna and Vic’s RV adventures, be sure to subscribe to Donna’s blog at wheretonowus.travel.blog.