RV Fulltiming

Is It Right For You?

A page of advice for those considering an RV fulltiming lifestyle by Scott Bidstrup

My home for six years

I lived on the road for six years, with no permanent address, no phone, no job, no responsibilities. It was one of the best periods of my life. But then, I'm not an ordinary guy. What I did was right for me, 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 fulltimers, living in their motorhomes 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 fulltiming 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:

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 domicility 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 domecility requirements much more stringent than you might imagine, and enforce them vigorously. To help prevent running afowl of the domicility 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 specificially prohibited by domicility law. In many states, the use of a mail forwarding agency address does not constitute legal domicility. 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:

Once you've settled on a state, you'll need a mail forwarding service, which of course will become your residence for domicility 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. Fulltimer 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 fulltimers, and offer coverages that standard policies won't. Be aware that most standard motorhome policies are void if the owner is fulltiming.

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 fulltimers. It has a package of services as useful to fulltimers 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 bedspace). 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 motorhome 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 motorhome 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 motorcoach, and he told me he could take it to any campground and get in, as it clearly looked like a custom motorcoach.

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 outgasses 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 neccessary. 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 bigtime, 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 aluminium 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.

General Considerations

When You're Finally Ready For The Road

Some tips: 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.


Resources

Here is a webpage devoted to boondocking. It's got a lot of really great ideas for places to go in the U.S. and Canada, and practical advice on how to do it.

The Escapees RV club is an organization designed to support full-time RV'ers with everything from mail and email service, phone cards, messaging service, help with vehicle registration and insurance, etc. It's a great resource for someone looking to go fulltiming.

This page offers a list of free campgrounds, if you're into that sort of thing, in various places throughout the west.

Here's a list of web pages by escapees - people who have done what I did. Lots of great ideas, good photography and tricks and hints.

The folks at Camping World can send you spare parts no matter where you are. Their catalog is great to have handy. They also offer fulltimer insurance policies.

Source URL: http://www.bidstrup.com/fulltime.htm

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Revised 9/2/02