Living on the road full-time: Is it right for you?
Scott Bidstrup lived on the road for six years, with no permanent address, no phone, no job, no responsibilities. He writes that it was one of the best periods of his life. We’ve all thought about doing it, but is it right for you?
Full-timing — is it right for you?
Lots and lots of folks dream of doing what I did — it's called "full-timing" by those who do it.
Latest estimates are that over a million North Americans are full-timers, living permanently in their RVs with no permanent address. Many are retired, but many others work part of the year, just long enough for a 'stash' to keep them going for a few months or a year or so.
A surprising number of engineers, project managers and construction people are full-timers, living in their motor homes and traveling from job to job. It's economically a very efficient means of handling the housing problem, especially if you would otherwise be moving a lot to relatively brief work sites.
For retirees, it has the blessing of not having a house to maintain. Housecleaning is easy and quick, there's no lawn to mow, there's no snow removal problem in the winter. And the scenery is wonderful. Every day you can enjoy scenery that city folks would pay hundreds of thousands for if they could buy it at all, and for you it's free. And when you're tired of it, you change it!
The option for retirees is whether to stay in developed campgrounds and RV parks or to "boondock." Boondocking is camping in undeveloped areas. The latter is made possible by the "14 day law." It is a federal law that says that federally owned public lands outside of national parks and monuments is open to camping unless the local land manager has closed it for a specific reason. Campers are free to camp wherever they like, within the limitations imposed by the land manager, but are required to move after 14 days (the law doesn't say how far, but most land managers interpret it to mean at least a half a mile, though some require 25 miles in heavily used areas), and leave the campsite as they found it. I found boondocking much more to my liking, besides being cheaper and far safer.
If full-timing is a lifestyle you're considering, but don't know if it's right for you, here are some of the important questions you need to ask:
- If living with a partner, do both of you really want to do this? If there's any hesitation on the part of either one of you, don't even consider it. Living in an RV means living in close, tight quarters, and if both of you aren't wanting to make it work, and committed to the project, it won't. If you don't get along exceptionally well, don't consider it. Living so close together will greatly aggravate any annoyances that are a part of your relationship. Are you sure your partnership is strong enough to survive it? In a tiny motor home, there's no room for arrogant egos or emotional, unreasoning attitudes. Both partners will have to be prepared to compromise a lot. Are you prepared to be that flexible?
- There are lots of conveniences that you don't even think about that you'll have to do without. Telephones are such a part of our lives, that some people just can't live without them. In an RV, you can have a cellular phone, if you want it and can afford it, but it isn't the same, since it costs big money to talk for long periods, and many, even most, rural areas are poorly served if served at all by cell service providers. If you can't do without a phone, don't go on the road. Long, hot baths and showers are another luxury you're going to have to do without. You can do that if you want, but it means you'll be going for water or to find a dump station awfully frequently if you do. Most full-timers learn quickly how to take a shower with a gallon of water or less, and doing so isn't very satisfying to those who like to luxuriate in the shower. Television anywhere is now possible with the mini-satellite dishes, but there often isn't any local television where you'll be. So if you're addicted to TV, be prepared to take a mini-dish system with you. Large storage spaces don't exist in RVs, and so you'll need to keep your needs very simple and your trash generation to an absolute minimum. Entertainment is sparse, there's no movie theater close by. A couple of dozen books, a few CDs for the boombox stereo, a lap-top computer, a 9" TV and a short-wave portable radio was about it for what kept me company for six years. It's Spartan living, and if that's a problem for you, don't even consider life on the road.
- Roughing it means that it can be a bit chilly at times or hot, muggy and buggy at other times. It can be chilly when you're low on propane and don't otherwise need a trip to town. And it can be hot when the weather suddenly turns unexpectedly warm, especially in the late spring or early fall. Also, many RV's have heaters that are only moderately effective in heating the vehicle evenly. If you've got to have the perfect temperature all the time, you're going to find RV living uncomfortable. Most RV furnaces also generate a great deal of radio and TV interference, so you might have to choose between the TV and the heater if your RV has forced air heat. If you're boondocking, air conditioning is not an option unless you have a generator - which for a lot of reasons I don't recommend.
- Money. Do you have an adequate source of funds to make this work? You'll need a minimum of about $8,000 a year to live comfortably, less if you're into very Spartan living, and more if you want to be able to spend freely. Your spending of money will be disciplined not by cost as much as where to put things, but you'll need to have a steady supply of small amounts of cash and enough cash reserve for emergency vehicle repairs. Your vehicle is your home, so you'll need to have some sort of plan to replace it if it is lost in an accident or fire, or if some redneck sheriff thinks you're a drug runner and confiscates it. Have a plan in mind in case something happens that displaces you from your vehicle. Full replacement cost insurance is a really good idea. If you plan on working, you'll need a vehicle that is acceptable to RV Park operators, and that means a factory built motor home. You'll also need a steady source of job opportunities — it's best to be hooked up with several headhunters who know and like you.
- Being self-reliant. You'll need to be able to change a tire, check your vehicle's vital fluids, fix a leaking roof, repair broken plumbing, etc. Can you do that? A dripping faucet in a house is a problem, but in an RV it's a crisis. If you have to call someone to fix everything that ever gets broken in your life, think twice about full-timing. You're often dozens, even hundreds of miles from anyone who could fix it for you. Even if you knew where to find someone, and all your propane is leaking from a loose fitting, or your roof is leaking in a pouring rain, you'll need to fix it now! You normally won't have the option of waiting till you can find someone to do it for you.
- Children. If you have children living with you, it is possible to take them on the road, but it's not easy. I've seen it done - I met an artist who lived with his wife and two children in a school-bus he had converted, and they supported themselves by selling the art they created right there in the bus. They home-taught their children. Their children loved it, because they were born into the lifestyle and didn't know anything different. If they'd tried to take urban children on the road, I doubt it would have worked - they'd constantly be complaining about nothing to do, no movies, no friends, no places to go, etc. But children born on the road are different. They're not overstimulated as urban children too often are. And there is no bad crowd for them to run around with, and no drugs for them to get into. So it's a great way to raise children, if you can start them out that way and have the space for them in your RV. It's guaranteed that children raised that way will reflect your values, because they won't be exposed to anything you don't control.
So you've decided to do it. Now what?
The most important consideration, surprisingly enough, is selecting a mail forwarding service. This is a vitally important decision, because it determines where you're going to have to be "domiciled." Legally, it is much more than just where your vehicle must be registered and what state you'll get a drivers license in. It impacts everything that involves an address. This is a very serious legal issue, that if not properly addressed, could land you in prison, as violating domicile law is a felony in most states! And it happens more often than you might think! These laws were instituted as a part of the drug war and the fight against tax evasion, so many states have made domecile requirements much more stringent than you might imagine, and enforce them vigorously. To help prevent running afoul of the domicile laws, make sure that you use the same address for everything - mail, bill-paying, driver's licenses, insurance, income tax returns, voting, etc. In most states, use of multiple addresses for various purposes, either official or private, is specifically prohibited by domicile law. In many states, the use of a mail forwarding agency address does not constitute legal domicile. This is why it is important to take care in selecting a good mail forwarding service in a state whose laws you can live with.
The states with which I am most familiar are:
- Oregon, in which it is easy to register a vehicle, it is cheap, and fairly easy to get a driver's license, and it is full-timer friendly. Oregon once required you to spend at least 30 days a year at the address where your vehicle is registered, although I'm not sure whether that requirement is still in force. That's not so bad, as Oregon isn't a bad place to spend time, and there are forwarding services that actually are associated with RV parks where you can stay the 30 days.
- Idaho is friendly, and not hard to get a license from, and registration is cheap, but there are no mail forwarding services there that I know of, and it does have a state income tax. I don't know about it's domicile laws, either. It does have the advantage of rarely calling you up for jury duty.
- Nevada: I don't know about it's domicile laws, though Nevada is popular, as there are lots of forwarding services in the Las Vegas area (and at least two in Pahrump, where there is no emissions test requirement), and it has not income tax, but the state is really hard-line about driver's license tests, and it may take some doing to get licensed there if you don't qualify to have the tests waived.
- Texas is a good state except that you may be called to jury duty, and if called, you have to go, regardless of where you are if you're in the U.S. You'll also face a vehicle safety inspection in Texas if you ever take your motor home there. Use of a forwarding agent for domicile is allowed in Texas.
- California is ridiculously expensive both for registration and for insurance and has its famous pollution laws which require you to have at least semiannual pollution tests before you can renew your registration. That can be a problem, especially if your out of state when registration is due or if you don't pass the test. If you register in California, expect to be called to jury duty about every six months to a year. You can claim distance hardship only a few times. Also, domicile is an issue. For this reason, I don't recommend it.
- Arizona allows you to register in certain counties (La Paz, where Quartzite is located, is one) using a P.O. box rather than the usually required street address. Emissions testing is waived in all counties except where Phoenix and Tucson are located, and driver's licenses are issued for life! Arizona does have a state income tax, however, and I don't know about its domicile requirements. I don't know of any forwarding services in Arizona, except in the counties where emission inspections are required.
Once you've settled on a state, you'll need a mail forwarding service, which of course will become your residence for domicile purposes. Don't even consider having family or friends do it; it's a lot of work when you're not set up to do it, and is a big commitment to ask of someone. And family or friends may not be as reliable as you'd like — they have busy lives of their own and like to go on vacations too. So get a forwarding service. They can be as cheap as $100 a year. There are many of them listed in the classifieds of Highways Magazine, the magazine that comes with your Good Sam membership (which I strongly recommend for a variety of reasons).
Insurance is something you shouldn't even consider going on the road without. Many states (especially California) now impound vehicles that aren't properly insured, even if from out of state. That's inconvenient and expensive if it's your car, but it is disastrous if it's your home. Full-timer insurance policies are available through the Escapees Club's RV-Alliance America, and TravelSure, as well as through Good Sam, and Camping World. These policies are or can be tailored to full-timers, and offer coverages that standard policies won't. Be aware that most standard motor home policies are void if the owner is full-timing.
Speaking of insurance, both the Escapees club and Good Sam also offer group health insurance if you need it. Check with them for rates.
RV Clubs and Towing Insurance. The premiere RV club is, of course, Good Sam, with over a million members. They offer it all — mail forwarding (though it's in California, which I don't recommend), vehicle insurance, including towing, and a lot of travel discounts. You can buy their services a la carte. The American Automobile Association, not to be outdone, has its own RV club, though it isn't as comprehensive as Good Sam. The Escapees Club is smaller, but unlike Good Sam is geared specifically to full-timers. It has a package of services as useful to full-timers as the Good Sam package. Of all of them, the only one I've had experience with has been Good Sam. The one time I had to use their towing insurance, they really took care of me, following up with the mechanic almost every morning to make sure I was being taken care of. They even convinced the mechanic to allow me to stay living in the RV for the week it took to repair the transmission.
To buy or build an RV — That is the question
The main considerations in selecting an RV for full-timing are first, sturdiness, second, storage space, and third, small size and maneuverability. RV coach builders build for competitive specs, which generally means showing the ability to sleep half of the Chinese Army for the weekend, and sturdiness isn't a high priority, as most RV's see maybe 50,000 miles of use, mostly in campgrounds with paved roads, during their entire lifetime. That's just the opposite of what you need. The result is that they're are shy on both ruggedness (trying to minimize weight) and storage space (making room for all that bed space). This is going to be your home, so look for really solid construction (check how well kitchen cabinet drawers are assembled, how solidly paneling is attached, whether cabinets are made of plywood or particle board, etc.), and lots of storage space. You need very little bed space (just you and your partner if you have one), but lots of storage space. If the RV you're looking at has two beds and you need only one, consider ripping out the second bed and replacing it with a storage cabinet, for example. Every last cubic inch of storage space, especially indoors, is golden, and you'll use it, guaranteed.
Another consideration in factory-built RV's is that they're seldom built very tight. They're almost never rodent proof, and often are loose enough to be drafty in the winter. Not liking to have mice crawling across my face at night, I decided when I built my RV to take the time and make it as tight as possible, and it proved to be a wise decision. RV manufacturers are just not concerned about the problem, because it doesn't come up in the discussion on the sales lot. Only twice did I ever have mice in my van, and both times they were caught the first night with mousetraps.
Building an RV
If you're good at carpentry and construction, you might want to consider your own truck conversion. I did mine, and am glad I did, as I ended up with something that was far more suitable for what I needed than anything I could have bought ready made. This means you'll have to decide what kind of platform to covert:
- Four-wheel drive or two-wheel drive? If you're going to boondock or drive the motor home on snowy roads, don't even consider two-wheel drive. I spent $6,000 converting mine to 4WD, and since I was boondocking, it proved to be a very wise investment indeed. I was able to lock up the hubs, put it in four low, and back out of a stuck more times than I can count (about every six weeks on average, I figure). Never use the 4WD to drive into dicey situations; it's not for that. It's for getting out of trouble, not in. If you're planning to snowbird, and stick to campgrounds, you don't need it, and save your money.
- Converting a van. The fruits of my labor, which you can see at the top of the page, was done on a standard-length one-ton Econoline van. It worked out very well, and proved to be acceptable for a single person, travelling alone. The problem with a van conversion, however, is that one person fits beautifully, but only one. Two's a crowd, and three is absolutely impossible. Even a small pet like a cat is impractical. It's just big enough for you and you alone. And that's it. Entertaining is a problem, and I found the only way to do it was outdoors, with a portable table and some folding chairs I kept with me. An additional problem with vans is that converting them is very labor intensive - the walls are all curved, which means that cabinetry has to be fitted carefully, a piece at a time, and it took a lot of unnecessary time and patience, and a lot of unnecessary material (15 sheets of Baltic birch went into mine) to put all the cabinetry and furniture in place. The results were quite satisfactory, but unnecessarily heavy.
- U-haul Boxes and Cube Vans. I'm now feeling that if I had to do it over, the ideal conversion platform is a "cube van" or 11 to 19 foot U-haul truck you can have mechanically refurbished. If you buy one used, have the transmission, rear-axle and engine all looked at; be sure to replace all axle bearings, hoses and belts at a bare minimum. Personally, I very much admire the U-haul box because it has a cabover that allows considerable inside storage or a bed area that doesn't take up very valuable storage space, and they're not any taller than you actually need - an important consideration in keeping the center of gravity low. When you're done converting the box, take it to a body shop and have it painted, including the corners. You want to lose the "recycled U-haul look" which will keep you out of a lot of campgrounds. U-haul boxes are easy to get - most large cities have a U-haul sales lot — and they're easy to convert. They'll fit on any cab and rails that has straight rails.
- School Buses. Used school-buses are very popular with the full-timer conversion crowd, mostly because they are cheap and easy to convert. The problem with them is that they're very obvious to the public as a cheap, easy conversion, and suffer from that stigma. Almost no RV parks and relatively few private campgrounds will take them. So I don't recommend them except strictly for boondocking. Also, when you acquire a school-bus, it's going to be thoroughly worn out, so you're going to have to spend big bucks getting the engine replaced, the transmission, universals and differential overhauled, bearings, brakes, radiator, alternator, vacuum pump, and everything else fixed up or replaced. By the time you're done, you could have gotten a decent cab-and-rails and replaced the bed with a U-haul box - and you'd end up with a much sturdier and more practical motor home when you're done. Also, most school buses are large enough to require a commercial driver's license. I've seen only one school bus conversion I really liked - the owner had taken out all the passenger windows and had raised the roof by 18" (it had been a grade-school bus), and then had given the whole thing a custom paint job. It looked like a custom motor coach, and he told me he could take it to any campground and get in, as it clearly looked like a custom motor coach.
- Bread and bakery trucks. Forget them. I hear this one mentioned from time to time, as the shape is great, and the space utilization is excellent, and have seen a few done, but they suffer from one crucial disadvantage. They have very poor payload ratings. They're built to carry light bulky loads (bread), and your load won't be light. The payload capacity of a bread truck is typically less than 1300 pounds, and I guarantee you'll eat that up quickly in carpet, cabinetry, furniture, appliances, tanks, fuel, water, personal property, etc.
The first consideration about building your own must be truck engineering. It's vital, because if you do it wrong, you're liable in an accident regardless of who caused it, if a cop with an attitude problem directs you to a weigh station, you can find yourself getting impounded and not having access to your home, and worst of all, you can find it difficult and dangerous to handle on the road.
Basically, truck engineering means that you need to ensure that the chassis is capable of handling all the weight you'll be putting on it, that the brakes are hefty enough to stop it on a long downhill grade without burning up, the weight (center of mass) is as low to the ground as possible, and evenly distributed as possible, etc. It sounds complicated, but it's really quite simple.
First, check the GVWR (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating) of the truck. It should be listed on a nameplate on the doorframe of the driver's door. The GVWR number is the total weight you're allowed, including the truck itself with the full conversion, the U-haul box, the appliances, cabinets, all fuel, food, supplies, clothes, bedding, passengers and/or dog. In other words, it's the total weight, ready to drive down the road, that the chassis is capable of handling. If/when you ever pull onto a scale, the weight shown on the scale will be compared to the GVWR, and if the GVWR is exceeded by the weight, you're illegal and your vehicle will not be allowed on the road until you've reduced the weight to below the GVWR.
To know how much weight you can add to the basic cab-and-rails, subtract the GVW figure on the nameplate (Gross Vehicle Weight — that's the raw, unconverted weight of the vehicle) from the GVWR. The difference is payload — how much weight you can add in your conversion. In the process, you should work hard to keep the weight distribution as even side-to-side as possible, as far forward as possible and as low to the ground as possible. Figure that you'll add about one to two tons of conversion materials, supplies and people to the weight of the conversion, plus the weight of the box.
The weight adds up fast — my little van has 15 sheets of Baltic birch plywood in the cabinets at about 50 pounds per sheet, about 400 pounds of carpet and padding, a 52 gallon water tank (at 8.3 pounds per gallon, that's 431 pounds of water) a 20 gallon holding tank (166 pounds), a 30 gallon propane tank, when full, weighing a couple of hundred pounds, etc. You can see why I chose a one-ton van - and ran it right up to the GVWR.
It is important to keep the center of gravity as far forward, close to the center and as low as possible. This will help in vehicle handling - very important on windy mountain roads. One way to keep the center of gravity low is to mount the holding tank(s), potable water tank, the propane tank(s), some storage bins, and auxiliary batteries outside the box, under the floor.
The basic conversion
You can actually buy a used box from U-haul (visit their web site and click on the truck sales link) and mount it on your own cab-and-rails.
It will come uninsulated, and with a big door on the back you'll want to remove and close in. Consider a picture window (use only tempered or auto glass in your conversion) in the back and front - it helps in driving. You'll want to place the door to the living space on the passenger side - so you don't have to step into the street when you're parked in an urban area. For insulation, you can firit out with 1" firring strips, and use a 3" fiberglass bat with no vapor barrier. You'll want that much so it will be packed tight when the inside wall material is installed. That way, it won't come loose and fall to the bottom of the walls once it is bounced around on the road for a while. It also helps to paint the insulation space with yellow carpet glue before installing the bat. This will helps keep the fiberglass in place. Do not even consider the use of urethane foam insulation, even though it offers much better R-value. Any closed-cell foam will squeak and rattle while you're traveling, and will be very noisy as a result. For the inside walls, I used 1/8" tempered masonite, and glued a very lightweight carpet over the top to give in a pleasant feel to the touch and to minimize noise. The result was a very quiet ride and pleasant living space.
For the cabinets, I used 1/2" (actually 12mm) Baltic birch, which at the time was imported from the USSR (I used to joke about my Communist cabinets). The reason for the Baltic birch is that it is relatively inexpensive, and is vastly better quality than even the best cabinet grade plywood made in the U.S. It has almost no voids and very few footballs. You can get it from wholesale lumber companies that cater to cabinet shops. Don't use particle board of any kind. It isn't sturdy enough to stand up to road vibration, and will quickly fall apart, and has a really lousy weight-to-strength ratio. It also slowly exudes large amounts of formaldehyde (used in the glue that bonds the particles together), which can be toxic when you're sleeping right next to it in a confined space for months at a time.
For flooring, I laid down a 1/2" fiberglass duct board (available from heating contractors). I then laid down 1/2" plywood, and a closed-cell plasticized urethane foam for the carpet padding, which I glued to the plywood and then glued the carpet to it. It proved to be a good choice — it keeps the cold out and makes the carpet comfortable even in very cold weather.
It's very important to keep the living space tightly closed up, with all penetrations for plumbing and wiring carefully sealed, and all windows and doors tightly fitting. The reason is rodents, particularly mice and rats. A mouse can get through a hole only an eight of an inch wide and an inch across, because it can actually articulate its skull and ribs to squeeze through a tight space. A fully grown rat needs only a quarter inch by 1 1/2 inch hole. I guarantee you'll hear them scurrying around in your living space if you don't take great care to keep them out. Even if you do, you'll hear them scurrying around in the truck frame occasionally. But it's nice to know you won't have them in your living space.
Be sure to plan your conversion so that basic appliances (the toilet, water heater, stove and fridge) can be removed for repair if necessary. That should be obvious, but it's easy to paint yourself into a corner on that one. I speak from experience.
Plumbing, heating and electrical
Plumbing should be done with materials designed for RVs, such as polybutylene pipe. I made the mistake of plumbing with reinforced vinyl hose, and regretted it, because it cold-flows, and the joints tend to come loose and start leaking over time. It's also hard to find small hose clamps that are of good enough quality to sustain the tightening force required to keep it from leaking.
I used a flash heater for my hot water. They are very compact, which I needed in my installation, but they have to be manually started before taking a shower, and you'll waste some water getting hot water to the showerhead. To minimize water wastage, place the heater as close to the shower valves as possible. Mostly, the problem with flash heaters is that they can be hard to light, and sometimes go out during the shower, leaving you wet and soaped up but with nothing but cold rinse water. Not pleasant. I recommend a 5-10 gallon RV tank heater if you have room for it.
Don't try to do a full-size kitchen sink. A wet-bar sink and faucet proved quite adequate for me, even washing dishes by hand.
Use a "demand" pump that will switch off when it's up to pressure. Make sure that the model you buy has a repair kit available, and keep a repair kit as a part of your spares. Put a power switch on the wiring to the water pump. You'll want to be able to turn the pump off if there's a plumbing leak or the pump isn't holding pressure.
When installing the holding tank, you'll want to run a vent pipe directly from the holding tank to the roof. Don't tee off of another drain pipe. Use an approved RV holding tank roof vent. Installing a vent pipe in this manner will suppress odors better than anything else you can do.
There are a wide range of heaters available, the most pleasant being the forced air furnace. The problem with forced air is that it sucks batteries down big-time, and unless you have lots of battery capacity, it will flatten your battery in an evening. They're also noisy and generate a lot of interference on your TV and radio.
They have the advantage of relatively even heating and the combustion gases are discharged to the outside. The trick to installing a forced-air furnace is to ensure that it has unrestricted return air from nowhere near the hot-air outlet. Otherwise it will cycle on it's limit switch, which is very dangerous, as failure of the limit switch will lead to a fire. If you notice the fan running a lot without the firebox being on, it's cycling on the limit switch and you need deal urgently with the cycling problem.
The alternative is catalytic heaters. The problem with catalytic heaters is that they're very dangerous. They generate carbon monoxide and have killed plenty of people as a result of bad installations or abusive use. Almost every year in the LTVA's where I wintered over, someone was asphyxiated as the result of a catalytic heater. But they're efficient, quiet, and don't generate interference to the TV set or the radio.
For the electrical system, I cannot recommend strongly enough that you stay away from generators. They're noisy, dangerous (a serious fire hazard), inconvenient, burn lots of fuel, require maintenance, make enemies of your neighbors, and they're unreliable. Use solar panels and batteries instead. They're automatic, maintenance free, safe, and when properly designed, will generate all the power you need, which is available anytime you need it. You never need to get out in a rainstorm and prime the carburetor of a recalcitrant solar panel. Air conditioning is the only argument for a generator, and frankly, I figured that I'd rather live with the heat than the noise.
Don't even consider using your engine battery for power. I can guarantee that you'll get in trouble if you do, and the deep discharges will quickly ruin vehicle batteries that aren't designed for such service. Use a separate battery system for your living power. As for batteries, I strongly recommend that you use 6-volt deep-cycle golf-cart batteries, connected in series rather than 12-volt marine batteries connected in parallel. Doing so will exercise both batteries equally, and the result will be better capacity and longer life. I had a lot of battery trouble until I figured this out. After I went to 6 volt golf-cart batteries connected in series, I never changed a battery again. I used 200 ampere-hour batteries, and found it was plenty of capacity for my needs. Only once did I ever run out of power and that was during a three-week spell of rainy weather, during which I had never started up my engine. An automotive electrician can install a shunt switch to enable you to charge the batteries off of your alternator if you would like that ability.
If you do use solar panels, do not buy "self regulating" panels. They don't work at all on cloudy days and very poorly in late afternoon or early morning. Rather, use regular panels with an automatic electronic regulator. The combination will cost you a little more, but it will be a lot more effective at keeping your batteries up. If you have six to ten amps of charging capacity, I guarantee that you'll never lack for power to charge your batteries fully during the day. If you need 110 volts A.C., which can be handy, you can install a demand-operated inverter to supply it. Models are available up to 2,000 watts.
Don't try to use a microwave unless you have "shore" power; they don't run very well off of generators or inverters, and take as long to cook as a regular oven when run that way. And they're terrible power hogs - they'll run your batteries down in minutes. For your TV and stereo, get 12 volt DC versions, as they're much, much easier on your batteries than the 110 volt version running on an inverter. Television receivers that run on DC are available in models up to 13 inches. They're available with built-in videocassette players, too.
Try to avoid the use of "automatic lighting" ranges. These devices draw far more power from your battery than they should, and are a serious drain on your batteries. It's better to keep a welder's torch lighter handy to start the range and avoid all the battery drain associated with what I consider to be bad design of automatic lighters in ovens and stovetops.
Food storage considerations
I guarantee that your food storage area will become infested with flour weevils and possibly other insects as well, which, despite health regulations, are ubiquitous in grocery stores, particularly in warm winter areas. The best way to minimize the effects of the infestation are to keep all dry foodstuffs in tightly covered plastic containers, where the weevils can't get to them. I used plastic 1/2 gallon milk jugs for this purpose, because they're square and are therefore space efficient, and they're lightweight and freely available, so I designed my storage drawers around them. I filled them using a modified aluminum funnel, while still parked in the grocery store parking lot. I then disposed of the packaging material immediately. If something you buy from the store comes complete with live-in guests (and that will happen occasionally), they'll at least be confined to that one jug. If they appear in one of your jugs, throw out the jug and don't try to clean and re-use it. In this way, I kept weevils out of my van for several years, and when they finally did appear, they rarely got into anything. Forget pesticides; this is a very small living space, and spraying anything will expose you to unacceptable levels of the stuff. The best way to keep bugs down is to keep a very clean house; especially keep your food cabinet drawers and food preparation area clean. This is not too hard to do when you can do a quick cleanup in twenty minutes, and a thorough spring cleaning will take only about two hours.
Diesel or gasoline? I picked diesel, and ended up regretting it. What I found was that although my range was much greater, I needed the range, because many small towns don't have diesel fuel or shops where diesel engines can be serviced. In small towns, diesel fuel is often considerably more expensive than gasoline because there's often only one pump in town. Even in larger towns with many pumps, diesel is normally close to the same price as gasoline, and while your fuel economy is much better, what you save in fuel, you'll spend in maintenance. You cannot go more than 2500 miles at most between oil changes in a diesel engine; if you do, you'll quickly ruin the engine. And when it's time for an oil change, it's a $100 hit. The engine oil is more expensive, the fuel and oil and air filters all have to be changed every time you do an oil change, and they're all more expensive than for gas engines. You also have to worry about keeping the water separator drained. Fail to do all of those things, and you'll ruin a $10,000 engine quite quickly. A tune-up in a diesel engine is also very expensive. It means replacing the injector pump and the injectors — a $1500-$2000 hit. Diesel engines are also harder to start in cold weather and at high altitudes. They're best suited to constant highway travel, and that's not what you'll probably be doing. So learn from my mistake - stick with gasoline unless you're going to be constantly on the move and are planning a really big motor home conversion or towing a trailer or car.
Allow about $5-10,000 for the cost of building a full-blown conversion in addition to the vehicle and box cost, and allow about three months if you're working on it full-time.
Register your vehicle as an RV. This way you avoid having to pull onto weigh scales every time you pass one, which can not only be an incredible nuisance, but will subject you to all kinds of scrutiny from law enforcement, which generally takes a dim view of full-timing (could it be envy?), and registration for RV's is usually cheaper than for trucks of equivalent size. So make every effort to qualify as an RV when you register. In fact, in many states, if it qualifies as an RV it must be registered as one. Check with the DMV where you're going to register to find out what their requirements are.
To qualify to register your conversion as an RV, it must (in most states) have a permanently fixed toilet and holding tank and a permanently attached potable water tank. To register it as an RV and park it in many trailer parks, it will require a minimum of a permanently attached RV toilet (no PortaPotti's) and a minimum holding tank of ten gallons.
I recommend the very largest holding tank you can fit, as it makes that unpleasant trip to the dump station less frequent. Figure a bare minimum of 20 gallons per person. Separate tanks for gray (shower and kitchen drains) and black water (toilet sewage) are helpful in some situations. In many boondock areas, discharging gray water into the ground is legal, while discharging black water is never legal. Having separate tanks can often save a trip to the dump station.
Install the largest refrigerator you can; it makes trips into town for groceries less frequent, too. If you're going to have a companion as well as kids with you, the biggest standard RV refrigerator will be too small. You might want to consider installing two if you have the room.
Plan adequate propane tank capacity. Your refrigerator and your heating will be about equal in being the biggest drain on your propane supply, so plan your propane capacity accordingly. In my small van conversion, with one person, I used about 8 gallons of propane a week for both heating and refrigeration. Surprisingly enough, cooking doesn't use enough to tell about — you don't need to factor it in.
If you try to take your conversion to an RV park, be prepared for discrimination. It's quite legal for RV park owners to not rent to you if you're in a home-built conversion and many (read: most) will not allow you in or will confine you to the crummiest, most distant and out of the way spots in the park. If you're planning to spend time in campgrounds or RV parks, it's best to invest in a paint job once you're done with the conversion, as it will make the vehicle look a lot sharper, and will keep the objections to a minimum - particularly if you can add some artsy flair to the paint job and make it look like a professional conversion. I've even seen well-done home-built conversions with fake logos and model names on them masquerading as manufactured RV's.
If you're planning to boondock primarily, consider a four-wheel drive conversion. It will cost $8-10,000, but it can be well worth it. It was the best single investment I made — and got me out of trouble many, many times. If you do have a 4WD conversion installed, don't use it for getting places, use it only for getting out of being stuck. There's no 'stuck' like a four wheel drive 'stuck,' and it can require a special high-traction tow truck — which can be very expensive.
When you're finally ready for the road, here are some important tips:
- Most of the time you will have your mail sent to general delivery at the nearest P.O. to where you will be. Postal regulations stipulate that general delivery mail is supposed to be held for 30 days before being returned, but it's been my experience that many, even most, rural and small town post offices just simply ignore that regulation and return it after a week or so. Two weeks if you're lucky. So plan your travels and trips to town accordingly - allow 4-7 days to for mail to come from your forwarding service to your general delivery address. Be aware that not all urban P.O.'s offer general delivery service. If you're in Las Vegas, for example, you'll have to go to the downtown post office where parking is difficult, and wait in a very long line. Also, it's up to the local postmaster to decide how long you can take mail from general delivery. Some post offices will require you to rent a box if you're taking mail longer than a month. So again, know the rules if you're going to be there awhile, or you could get into trouble. Let your forwarder know a week ahead when you're changing addresses.
- Truck scales. You're not a truck, but to highway patrols, you look like one if you're in your own conversion. Technically, in most states, you're not required to weigh if you're registered as an RV, but don't be surprised of a highway patrol stops you and directs you to a scale. If you're not registered as an RV, you'd better hit the scales! And you'd better be under the weight limit!
- Keep wheel chocks and leveling blocks with you. You need to be dead-nuts level for your refrigerator to work, and you'll find that camp sites are never level. If you haven't installed some means of leveling your RV, you'll need to run the wheels up on blocks to get it level. Wood seldom works well; it quickly splits out. I recommend you use some of the purpose-made blocks and chocks you can acquire from Camping World.
- To keep the odors from the holding tank to a minimum, flush about 1/2 cup of Pine-Sol for each 10 gallons of holding tank capacity, full strength, into each holding tank after you've emptied and rinsed the tank. It's much cheaper than the odor control stuff sold in the RV supply stores, and it works better. Don't use any of the substitute brands; it's the pine oil that does the magic, and few of the substitute brands have anywhere near as much pine oil in them as the Pine Sol brand does. Compare the labels for pine oil content. Never use a formaldehyde-based odor control agent; not only is it a health hazard for you, but it will rot out the seals in your holding tank dump valve. Chlorine-based products, such as bleach, not only don't work well, but they'll rot out your dump valve seals in a hurry.
- For toilet paper, use the "Marina" brand. It is commonly available in rural groceries, because it is designed to quickly disintegrate in septic tanks. Works just as well in a holding tank as that ridiculously expensive RV stuff, and is much cheaper. It won't wad up in your holding tank and clog the drain like regular toilet paper will. When you find it, stock up with several four-packs.
- Never use your stove for heating. Propane stoves, as clean as they burn, still put out significant quantities of carbon monoxide that can kill you, if you let the stove run overnight. Carbon monoxide is odorless, tasteless, and produces no symptoms of toxicity until the levels are dangerously high and you won't know you're being poisoned until you start feeling very sleepy inappropriately.
- Carry spares with you, including a complete set of good tools. A propane pressure regulator, along with everything you need to change it safely and properly, is something I guarantee you'll need. They are very unreliable because they get plugged up with sulfur dissolved in the propane, and I found myself changing them four times in the six years I lived on the road. A spare water pump repair kit is useful as well; I used two. Keep fuses and spare lightbulbs with you. It might be useful to have a spare set of fan belts, too. A tube of silicone rubber is something you'll use often. Keep some duct tape, as it's useful for all kinds of things, including radiator hose leaks. I found a small roll of electric fence wire to be very useful for all kinds of small repair jobs. The old saw about Scotch tape and bailing wire really has a lot of resonance on the road when you're faced with an emergency repair and are a long way from a hardware store or auto repair shop.
- Do an inventory before you plan a trip to town. It helps to clean out the fridge, as well, so that you can make sure you're not buying something you already have plenty of, and it makes sure you're not going to miss something you need. By cleaning out your fridge, you'll make sure there's enough room for the food you buy, and you won't be adding to your trash unnecessarily in camp.
- Trash management and disposal requires planning ahead. I removed as much food from it's packaging as possible before leaving the grocery store parking lot, and put it in my own permanent containers. This cuts down remarkably on the amount of trash you'll generate during the week. Often a week's worth of trash for me would be a single plastic grocery bag full. Be aware that most cities and towns have ordinances against putting your trash in a Dumpster or trash can where you don't have permission for use, and some enforce the prohibition vigorously. The best place to get rid of your trash is a roadside barrel if you can find one, but if not, you may have to use the Dumpster at the grocery store where you're shopping. If you do, it's best to ask the grocery store manager if you can use their Dumpster. I've always explained that I only have a couple of grocery bags of trash, but can't dispose of it anywhere else, while standing next to my full grocery cart. Doing that, I've never had a store manager refuse me. Before disposing of your trash, make sure you do not have any bank statements, credit card statements, voided checks or deposit slips or any other financial information traceable to you in it. If you do, tear it up in small pieces or use a shredder on it. Identity theft is a very serious problem and growing worse, so protect yourself.
- Make sure someone knows where you're heading. If you're traveling alone, this is especially important in the event you don't show — they'll at least know where to start looking if you don't show.
- Meticulous vehicle maintenance is absolutely crucial. Don't neglect it. If you take care of your RV, it will take care of you, and generally give you adequate warning when something is going wrong (only once did I ever have to call for a tow). So when you notice something in the drive train or under the hood that needs attention, don't wait till you have to fix it; by then it may leave you stranded. Arrange for getting it fixed on your very next trip to town.
- When boondocking or in primitive campgrounds, avoid rodent nests. Check the immediate area for large accumulations of leaf litter in a shrub or large collections of branches on the ground or in shrubs. Where ground squirrels are common, look for large numbers of rodent burrows in a small area especially in grass. Rodents, particularly the various western packrats, are very destructive of vehicle wiring harnesses, fan belts and radiator hoses. Squirrels and chipmunks are seldom a problem unless you're parked for quite a while, but mice and packrats will come after you in the first night if they're hungry. Rabbits will start checking out your engine compartment after a week or so of being in one spot. Rats in rural areas are common but are seldom a problem unless you happen to be near a landfill or are in an established campground.
- For toilet paper, use the "Marina" brand. It is commonly available in rural groceries, because it is designed to quickly disintegrate in septic tanks. Works just as well in a holding tank as that ridiculously expensive RV stuff, and is much cheaper. It won't wad up in your holding tank and clog the drain like regular toilet paper will. When you find it, stock up with several four-packs.
- While in campgrounds, take the time to get to know the fellow camped next to you. He may become your best friend, and he can look after your stuff when you're temporarily out of camp. That can be really helpful.
- Don't try to see everything as soon as you can. You've got the rest of your life, so take advantage of that fact. Eventually, if you're like most full-timers, you'll get tired of the uncertainties associated with always trying to see new places, and start returning to some of your favorite campsites.
- There is better security in boondocking than in campgrounds. I know this is counterintuitive, but I found it to be really true if you follow my basic rule about boondocking: Ten miles from town, a mile from pavement, away from and out of sight of graded and/or graveled roads. In the six years I was on the road, the few times I felt threatened were when I had ignored that rule. If you abide by it strictly, I can almost guarantee you'll never have a problem.
- What about guns? I never carried a gun. And the only incident I ever felt like I wished I'd had one occurred when I was in an established campground in Southern Utah along the Colorado river with at least 15 other people in that same campground that night. In the six years I was on the road, I never encountered another boondocker who felt that a gun had ever helped him out or been useful in a security problem. Guns are a kind of security blanket for a lot of folks, but they're almost never of any practical use. Given the danger that guns pose, you're better off without them, trust me.
- Safety during the fall hunting season. Park your RV where it can't be seen from roads, including all jeep tracks. When out hiking, wear bright colors, preferably hunter orange. I kept some neon-orange tee-shirts and jackets for that purpose, along with a neon orange ball cap. Only once did I ever find myself in the line of fire (and I have reason to believe that one incident was deliberate). Stay off of jeep trails while hiking, and away from thickets and dense woods if possible. Being brightly clothed and out in the open in plain sight is the best safety. Be friendly and polite to hunters when you encounter them. If you do that, you'll have more to fear from the wildlife (mostly bears with an attitude problem) than from the people hunting them.
Well, that's about it. If you decide to do it, you'll be in for the time of your life. It'll be an experience you'll cherish, even if you eventually settle down again as I did.
Pretty soon, if you're like I was, you'll find yourself cruising down freeways at 45 miles per hour, because you've got all the time in the world. People passing you at the speed limit will become an annoyance. And going to town is something you thoroughly dread and you'll put off as long as you can, because you just don't like 'civilization' anymore.
When you get to that point, you're a full-timer in soul as well as name. And you'll be joining more than a million of your fellows in an increasingly popular lifestyle.
Copyright 2002 by Scott Bidstrup. Used by permission