Ask The Right Questions: How To Choose An RV To Live In Full-Time
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Choosing an RV to become your full-time home is a very personal decision and process. Only you know what kind of lifestyle you want your roadlife to provide. But if you’re reading this, you’re probably like us - eager to live outside the norms of stationary society, and even of the traditional RV community. My goal with this post is to help get you get started with some key questions about road life and lead you to ask yourself specific, tailored questions.
This post isn’t going to talk about the different types of RVs available, what their capabilities are, or breakdown the pros and cons of each type of rig. It also isn’t going to provide advice on how to choose a rig based on your budget. Nor is it going to talk about whether or not you should buy used or new, remodel it yourself, outsource the work, or keep it as-is. The reason I won’t go into any of those topics is that there are a handful of questions you should ask yourself first, before diving into any of that other stuff. If you start by choosing the type of RV you want to buy, your answers to the questions below may be molded to match the rig you’ve already chosen. But, if you answer these questions first, you can find a rig that matches your needs without any biases or attachments.
Before we move on to the questions, the key thing to keep in mind is that your routines and needs in a house aren’t going to end up being your routines and needs on the road. They will end up changing to fit your new space and your new nomadic lifestyle. But your current behaviors are still a good starting point in this decision-making process. Just remember to be open to things changing once you’re actually on the road.
HOW DO YOU WANT TO USE THIS SPACE?
This rig will be your home, and like all homes, it needs to match who you are. Not in the décor and aesthetics sense, but its functionality. Obviously, it’s not possible for an RV to provide all the things that a house does. This is where you start to prioritize the things that are important to you. For example: I love sunlight and good views, so I wanted a rig with a lot of windows. We’re thrifty and don’t eat out often, so a good size kitchen that’s also accessible without putting the slide out (to easily make meals on travel days) was important to us. We love the outdoors and needed a lot of storage for all our various gear. Ask yourself how you’re going to use the space inside the rig.
Things To Consider
What are your morning, meal time, and evening routines? These are the times when there’s the highest chance of conflict because everyone in your rig is up and about.
What’s your cooking style? Do you love to cook or do you prefer eating out?
How do your sleep habits differ between you, your partner, and kids? Do you need a way to close off the bedrooms from the rest of the rig? Or are you lucky enough that it’s just you and your pet?
Do you plan to hang out in your rig a lot or use it just as a place to sleep?
What does each person’s work (or school) schedule look like? Will people be competing for the same space (table) at busy times?
Does anybody in the rig need a quiet or “professional looking” space for video calls?
Are you okay with a bed that you have to put away each morning and set up in the evenings?
Do you want space for entertaining fellow travelers or family and friends?
WHAT AMENITIES CAN’T YOU LIVE WITHOUT?
What amenities are truly important for you to have in a full-time rig? Aside from having running water and electricity, my two must-haves are an indoor kitchen and a toilet. Jerud’s is to sit up in bed without hitting his head. While I love camping, I don’t want to camp every day of my life – and having to cook and poop outside is part of what makes camping, well, camping. I know having to do that every single day would make me miserable. But, not having a shower isn’t a big deal to me. I’m fine taking a “shower” using a bowl and small towel.
Things To Consider
Are you ok with a bed positioned so you have to crawl over each to get in and out?
What about the ease of making the bed?
Do you need to have a dedicated work space?
Do you want running (hot) water on demand?
Do you have health issues that create specific requirements?
Would you be ok with a wet bath?
Do you want to have a space permanently dedicated to a shower and/or toilet?
WHAT KINDS OF WEATHER WILL YOU MOSTLY BE IN?
Standard RVs are not meant for year-long, four-season living. Even though some offer “arctic packages” to handle cold temperatures, they’re still not as efficient as a house (they’d be extremely heavy if they were). But, your home on the road needs to be comfortable and safe for you and your family in the main types of weather you’ll be in. Getting caught in freezing temperatures a few times a year doesn’t justify forking out extra money for an arctic package. But if you plan to head to a ski town for the entire winter, every winter, then it’s probably worth buying a rig that does well in cold temperatures – even if you’re going to have full hook-ups – and even more so if you’re going to boondock.
Things To Consider
Do you plan to follow sunny, 70-degree weather year-round? Or will it be necessary to have A/C?
Do you plan on chasing good ski (or other cold-weather sport) conditions? How will you stay warm in freezing temperatures?
Will you want a dedicated place to dry off rain/mud/snow before entering the rig? What about wet/muddy pets?
WHAT KIND OF PLACES DO YOU WANT TO STAY?
We knew as we were shopping for rigs that we wanted to boondock the majority of the time. Boondocking for us means BLM and national forest lands without any hookups (fresh water, RV dump, or electricity). We need to be self-sufficient and self-contained for the length of time we want to stay. We’d also needed a rig with the ability to handle the rough road conditions involved in getting to some of those places.
The capabilities of RVs vary greatly from how they drive to the amenities they offer on the inside. Your choice of RVs will be strongly affected by whether you stay in RV parks, developed campgrounds, moochdock with family or friends, or boondock on undeveloped sites.
Things To Consider
Do you need a large or small fresh water tank? For example: you may not need a large fresh water tank if you only stay at RV parks, but you may need it if you have a big family and plan to boondock, or just want to stay out for a long time. Note: there are ways to overcome a too-small fresh tank (link to water bag).
Do you prefer the standard RV toilet and black tank or are you interested in an alternative such as a composting or cassette toilet?
Do you need a generator to provide back-up power while boondocking?
WHERE WILL YOU GET ELECTRICITY WHILE BOONDOCKING?
Most people use the combination of propane and a generator to get their electricity while boondocking. But more and more full-timers are adding solar panels to their setup. You may not want any solar added because it does mean more work and money. Solar prep packages only get you a small head start on adding solar. But if you do want to implement some amount of solar on your rig, then how much of your electricity you want to get from the sun may affect the size and style of rig you get. Installing a lot of solar panels on a smaller rig (less than 20 ft. long) is possible but may require some compromises. Check out this document to help you figure out how much solar you may need.
Our main goal was to live in a 100% solar-powered rig, and that decision played a huge part in the rig we chose. To have 1,220 watts of solar panels meant we needed a lot of roof space, along with space inside for solar equipment. It could have been done on a smaller rig, but not without giving up other things we wanted to keep.
Things To Consider
Rooftop solar panels require periodic cleaning which means going up on the roof. If that doesn’t sound fun, ground-deployed solar panels are an alternative – but they take up storage space on travel days.
A rig with more space and higher weight capacity than you’d normally choose will be necessary if you want to add solar to your setup.
If you decided to add rooftop solar panels, look for a roof that has all the stuff clustered together rather than spread across the whole roof to make mounting the panels easier.
How long will you keep the rig? Solar power costs a lot up front but saves more money the longer you use it - we broke even after our first year - so in order to really compare solar vs. a generator, you need to know how long you’ll be using them.
WHAT’S YOUR TRAVEL STYLE?
How frequently you move from camp to camp may affect what kind of rig you get. If you plan to spend only a year on the road, but want to see the entire country, then you may only spend one or two nights at each location. Like most full-timers’ first year on the road, this was of our travel style. The newness of the lifestyle and our own eagerness caused us to travel extremely fast. Now we tend to max out the common 14-day stay limit on public lands.
Our longer stays means we don’t have to set up the Toaster as frequently as before: leveling the rig with blocks and landing legs, unhitching the Toaster from the truck, extending the stabilizing jacks, pushing the slide out, and storing loose items on the bed while driving. And then undoing all that to travel again. It got old fast when we did it every few days.
Things To Consider
How easy do you want setting up camp and breaking camp to be? Hydraulic landing legs, stabilizing jacks, and levelers instead of manual (hand-crank) versions and leveling blocks are very convenient if you plan to move frequently, or if you prefer not to do a lot of bending and reaching to set up camp.
Do you want to stealth camp in towns? If so, a rig with slides out or lights coming through the windows scream “I’m sleeping in here!”
Do you want to have to set up everything even for a quick overnight stay? Sometimes we don’t bother to put the slide out when staying in a parking lot or rest area for one night. If you end up with a rig with slides and consider doing the same as us, make sure you can access bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen without having to put them out.
WHAT KIND OF PLACES DO YOU WANT TO VISIT?
We don’t visit cities much, which is a good thing because towing the Toaster through the busy streets of NYC or Seattle is a pain. Not to mention parking; even the truck on its own is tough to maneuver. If you plan to spend time in cities, then you may want a smaller rig that can easily drive through crowded streets and fit in tighter parking spots. If you like to explore dirt roads, then a rig that provides a lot of maneuverability on tight and rough roads is important. Or maybe a setup that includes a toad (a normal car towed by the RV) is the best fit.
Things To Consider
Do you want a rig that can go on uneven terrain?
Do you want a normal-size car to get around in or are you ok driving a big truck? What about having to park a dually (wide truck with “hips”) in parking lots?
Do you want space on your rig to carry a motorcycle or bicycle to use as your alternative mode of transportation?
Does your rig need to be under a maximum height to allow you to explore small, overgrown roads and remote locations off the main highways?
Do you want a narrower rig so you can get into tight spaces in the woods?
Do the places you want to visit require you to have 4WD?
HOW BIG IS YOUR FAMILY?
The size and type of rig you choose are affected by whether you’re a solo-traveler, have a newborn baby, have 3 teenagers, or anything in between. But there are no limits to what can be done: I’ve seen parents with a newborn live in a van, and a family of 5 live in a van. If they can fit into vans, then families of all sizes can live in rigs of all sizes. I feel like this is a particularly personal decision on what will work best for your family and keep everyone sane.
Things To Consider
What’s an acceptable sleeping arrangement for your kids? Can they share beds?
Do you want to be able to close your bedroom off from the rest of the rig? What about the kids’?
Do your teenage kids need private space?
How much storage space is needed for clothing, gear, toys, food, etc.?
Where will your children hang out and play? I’ve seen parents set up enclosed playpens outside their rigs for younger kids or hang a bouncy chair from the ceiling of their rig.
Do your kids need a dedicated space for school?
What do you do if you need a quiet place to be on a conference call?
DO YOU HAVE PETS?
One of the main reasons we chose a larger rig over other options was our larger dog Tybee. It was critical that we had a safe space for her (and of course Tyki). She was 12 years old when we hit the road and her mobility was already decreasing. We knew we could no longer bring her with us on every hike or any bike rides. So, it was important for us to purchase a rig that was big enough for her to easily move around in and comfortable enough for her to stay on her own.
Things To Consider
What kind of space to you need to keep your pet safe while she’s alone? Does she need to be crated? What about climate control (back to the decision to have A/C or not)?
Where will your pet sleep?
Does your pet have special needs? For example, Tybee couldn’t go up steps on her own, so we built her a ramp inside the Toaster.
Do you have a dedicated spot for a litter box for your cat?
Do you have a breed of dog that easily gets warm (like a Bernese mountain dog) or cold (like pit bulls)?
NEXT STEP: RENT AN RV
Once you’ve answered these questions, sit on them for a while. Then be brutally honest with yourself about your needs vs. wants. Frequently the things you think you absolutely must have, aren’t actually a big part of your everyday life. The reality is that buying an RV involves a lot of compromises. Even the largest RVs are small spaces compared to a house, which probably means between budget, size, travel size, and comfort, you’ll have to make some trade-offs.
That’s why the next step is to rent an RV and take it on an actual trip (preferably longer than a weekend). We never rented and only brought our rig on one test trip before we started the rebuilding process. But we often wish we rented a few different rigs. Yes, renting a few rigs cost extra money, but that expense is nothing compared to the cost of the rig you’re about to buy. It makes sense to spend a little extra so you can be sure you’ll be happy with your big purchase. It’s ok if you don’t know the exact types of rigs you’re considering buying yet. Having first-hand experience living in an RV and spending time on the road is invaluable. Renting an RV can help confirm your answers to the questions above, or help you realize things you’ve overlooked.
To help make this step a little bit easier on the bank, we’ve partnered with Outdoorsy, a company that connects travelers and private, unique vehicles available for rent. Outdoorsy has a special offer: use the code LiveSmallRideFree to save $50 on any bookings. Another perk about this code is it can be used twice per user, with no restrictions or expiration date! So, go make your next vacation be one in an RV and simultaneously start narrowing down what rig you want to live in.
We’re an Outdoorsy affiliate, but all thoughts and suggestions in this post are my own.