While researching solutions to cool our RV in the desert-like climate of eastern San Diego county, I came across many personal accounts of full-time RV living. A few were pretty accurate, but most seemed overly glorified. They were of the “our lives sucked, we moved into an RV, now our lives are spectacular” variety. This was even more apparent for those with children.
It felt like many people were simply rationalizing their choice instead of giving an honest assessment to the pros and cons. While it is a great experience, it’s not always muffins wrapped in rainbows.
Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first:
- Space. We have six people living in about 300 square feet of living space. It’s seriously cramped. We learned to adapt quickly and it’s rarely an issue. However, a typical family accustomed to the vast expanses of traditional house or even apartment living will have an adaptation period.
- Alone time. This is directly related to space. t’s often-times close to impossible to get alone time without moving out to the Suburban (our tow vehicle) or, if available, the campground’s clubhouse. When it comes to the romantic stuff, it’s inevitable your kids will walk in on you at some point. It makes for an interesting teachable moment. And the kids eventually learn to heed the warnings about closed doors.
- Chores. Routine chores like taking out the trash or doing the dishes don’t disappear when moving into an RV, though the nature of chores change. Since space is at a premium, the living space requires more frequent cleaning. Luckily the smaller space takes less time to clean. For those that like to procrastinate, it can be a bother. It’s a trade-off.
- Breakage. Even the best RVs aren’t designed for full-time living. As a result, many of the components (which are usually the same regardless of the price tag or brand of your rig) will break. The heater, refrigerator, air conditioner, and water heater are the main culprits. Sometimes the fix is relatively inexpensive. Other times they may set you back several grand. Kids make the problem worse as they’re not quite as gentle with fragile RV parts. If you’re handy with tools and can do basic problem-solving, this may be more of a positive than a negative. Regardless, RVs will experience problems on a more regular basis than a traditional dwelling.
- Black water tanks. The black water tank holds poop. It requires frequent dumping and occasional flushing. It sucks.
- Driving long distances sucks. This is entirely optional for most, but our work schedule required us to do quite a few 24 hour+ drives. They were brutal, especially with the kids.
- Cost. RV living can be very expensive. Your RV setup itself can be very expensive. Ours cost around $28,000 for the trailer and used SUV we use to pull the trailer, which is definitely on the low end. Some people will spend upwards of a quarter of a million dollars for their rigs. Campgrounds and gas can be huge expenses, also. Taking advantage of weekly or monthly rates helps, as does limiting driving distances. Our most expensive campground cost $85/ night (suburban Boston area) and the cheapest was $10/ night (Wikiup, AZ.)
- Not all campgrounds are kid-friendly. Many campgrounds, especially those in the Southwest, outright prohibit kids. Others allow kids but are openly hostile. Other campgrounds are more welcoming. Our decision to stay in El Cajon while hanging out in So. Cal. is directly related to our campground’s acceptance of our kids even though the area is widely considered to be one of the “worst” areas in the county (it’s the “poor” neighborhood.)
- Sometimes your neighbors suck… like the elderly busy-bodies. Many retired folks seemingly have nothing better to do than spy on you. Some campgrounds have been far worse than others. The absolute worst was a campground in Truckee, CA. We had several other residents threaten to call the police because they believed we were leaving our children home alone. Their “spying” apparently missed the fact that our 20 year old niece was with them the whole time. Jackasses.
- RVs are difficult and usually expensive to heat and cool. As I alluded to in my last post, cooling the RV in a desert climate is a challenge. The same challenge occurs in cold weather. If you’re a Goldilocks and love a perfectly climate-controlled environment, RV living isn’t for you. In sub-freezing weather, we’d have to spend several hundred dollars per month to keep the inside temperature around 65°. Same deal with air conditioning in the summer. Our solution has been to adapt to wide temperature fluctuations and using inventive methods to retain heat in cold weather and dissipate heat in hot weather.
- Boondocking sucks. Boondocking refers to camping without hookups (electricity, water, sewer, Internet, etc.) No other element of RV living is more romanticized than boondocking. For adventurous folks without kids, it’s certainly a viable option. For the rest of us, it’s a pain in the ass. Before hitting the road, we budgeted to boondock about 20% of the time. We ended up doing it three times. The problem stems from the lack of electricity. Our batteries would only last about 16 hours with minimal use, and we didn’t have a good method to recharge without being connected to the tow vehicle or an AC electrical source. Solar equipment was too expensive; generators are loud and heavy.
- Culling clutter. The trailer can only hold a finite amount of stuff due to space and weight considerations. This requires diligently refraining from purchasing anything new and continually recycling old crap. It’s not a major issue, but can sometimes be a pain.
And the good stuff:
- Really get to know each other. Living in extremely close quarters with six people really builds some close bonds. Since we’re always no more than about 20 feet from each other, we get to know each other really well. This could easily be construed as a negative, but I like the fact that Shelly and I have gotten to know our kids far better than we would have n our former life.
- Adventure of travel. Being able to explore is awesome. The sense of freedom is like no other feeling I’ve ever felt. It took quite some time to really internalize the idea that we could go anywhere we wanted. At times, that freedom was a bit overwhelming. It’s also horribly addictive. Our current financial situation requires us to stay put for awhile. Even though we love where we currently live, there’s still a discomfort that comes from losing the freedom to move at will.
- Cost. Yes, this can be both a positive and a negative. Living in an RV can be ridiculously cheap. Once we pay off our outstanding bills, we could move to a cheaper area and live on less than $1,000 per month. We won’t because, quite honestly, being poor sucks. Still, we could do it if needed.
- Choosing neighborhoods. This is related to the freedom thing, but is worthy of its own bullet. RV living allows more freedom to choose your neighborhood. There are RV parks everywhere throughout the US except for downtown city areas. Not only can you choose where you want to live (don’t need an RV to do that), but you can test areas. For example, when we came back to Southern California, we tested the Lake Elsinore area east of Los Angeles. It was a little too pretentious for us, so we came back to El Cajon. When discussing the “cooling in the desert” problem, several people suggested we move to a more mild climate. They don’t understand the idea that when we decided to settle down for awhile, we chose this place because we wanted to live here. We could have went pretty much anywhere.
- Simplified living is inherently rewarding. The connection between simplicity and well-being is difficult to describe until experienced, but it’s undeniable… at least for many of us. RV living requires simplification, which Shelly and I enjoy immensely. Maybe it’s the creativity required to solve everyday problems. Or maybe it allows us to focus on things that are really important because the frivolous is stripped away.
- Meeting campground dwellers. There are three types of people that frequent campgrounds- retired folks, vacationing folks, and working folks. We haven’t befriended other people in campgrounds, but we have struck up many conversations. We tend to avoid the vacationing folks. The retired folks usually have interesting stories and they reinforce the importance of not waiting until retirement to do what you really want to do (we hear lots of stories of regretting lives wasted working long hours to buy crap that didn’t matter.) The working folks… these are the really interesting people. These are the full-timers that have chosen this as a lifestyle, not a recreational pursuit. They always have fascinating stories that led to them living in an RV.
This list is hardly complete, but it should give some insight to the real pros and cons of full-time RV living with kids. If you’re considering the lifestyle, seek out honest information. It’s easy to fall in love with the romantic notion of full-timing, but reality can sometimes be harsh.
If I were to summarize this entire post, I’d say RV living can add a great deal of interesting elements to your life, but isn’t likely to radically change anything. You still have all the trappings of everyday life; we can never escape that. You gain a great deal of freedom, but there are costs to be considered.
If you’re considering this lifestyle, seek out families that have been doing it for long periods of time AND are willing to discuss the negatives as well as the positives.