It’s time for awkward and embarrassing admissions about RVing, people!
Overall we are very satisfied with the decisions that we made in preparation for hitting the road for several years of full time RVing, and we have not been shy about sharing our self-affirmation. We post plenty of fawning comments and photos of our fairly nimble and oh-so-shiny rig. We sing the praises of our truck even when dealing with weird repairs (packrats, anyone??).
In our first retrospective post — after being on the road for 90 days — we reflected on whether our predictions about full-time RVing had been accurate. Like any decent self-evaluation, we gave ourselves exceedingly high marks. We continued preening in our one-year anniversary post, where we were talking about things that were surprising, but mostly in a good way. By our second anniversary we were ready to admit that it was time to establish a home base, but that was by no means an error — we of course always planned to do that.
Despite our clearly superior prediction skills, it turns out that in a few respects our original expectations about full-time RVing were totally off the mark. We did a lot of research before hitting the road, including reading many, many travel blogs like this one, but as people with no RVing experience, we also had some pretty wild misconceptions and, sadly, at times we acted on those misconceptions.
Well That Was A Mistake
Planning on Boondocking. Probably our biggest miss was our expectation that we would spend lots of time camping for free on public lands, or boondocking. Whether through dispersed camping in national forests or on Bureau of Land Management land, our initial plan was to get “out there” quite a bit and enjoy the budget-friendly cost of $0. We outfitted our rig specifically for off-grid performance, with fixed solar panels on the roof and portable panels deployed on the ground, large water tanks, and most systems running on our large propane tanks.
I think most people contemplating RV travel have salivated over those photos of secluded free campsites hidden down minor roads with absolutely spectacular views. Here’s an example from our pal Marshall, who spends most of his time out west and boondocks at least 98% of the time. He enjoyed this spectacular free campsite near the Grand Tetons several years ago along with friends and fellow Airstreamers Tim and Amanda Watson (WatsonsWander):
It looks great. And we could sure picture ourselves there.
But here’s the thing. Those minor roads? They are often in terrible shape, to the point that it may be a risk to take the rig down them. When the whole area is a potential campsite, it’s surprisingly difficult to decide on where to park and what direction to face. And the fact that camping in the area is free and open to the public means that you never know when some yahoo is going to show up, park 20 feet away from you, and proceed to run a super loud contractor generator while setting up a personal firing range. Saving all our trash until we reach a public dumpster is a hassle. And many of the best boondocking sites are pretty remote from attractions in the area; driving umpteen miles down a terrible road to get to a paved road to drive another 20 miles to go hike in the “nearby” national park gets old fast.
We soon confirmed that we don’t particularly enjoy the uncertainties associated with boondocking, so our boondocking time has ended up being much less than we initially expected. We had 27 nights of boondocking in our first year, including some of the best campsites we’ve ever experienced at the Badlands and Grand Tetons. But by year two we only managed a measly 9 nights of boondocking.
Despite this, outfitting the rig for off-grid camping has paid plenty of dividends. Most national park campgrounds have no hookups, so with our capability for dry camping we have been able to enjoy many truly magnificent camping sites in unparalleled locations that are located on paved roads. BLM and national forest campgrounds (as opposed to dispersed camping) have the defined sites we like, typically in excellent and quiet locations, at such affordable prices that we don’t mind the nominal camping fees. In fact, the only only time we even think about our failure in this regard is when preparing our annual year-end summary, when we see that anemic little number of total nights boondocking staring back at us accusingly.
Shovel. Since space is at a premium when you’re carrying all your worldly possessions in a 25-foot aluminum tube, tools must earn their place on board. One that we carry, for no apparent reason, is a shovel. Maybe we expected that our campsites would be so unlevel that we would have to do excavation work. Maybe we thought we might get stuck in sand and need to dig ourselves out. Maybe we expected to take up treasure hunting? Whatever the reason, we’ve been lugging around a (folding) camp shovel for years and we can’t quite figure out why.
Bicycles. Some RVers make biking a central part of their travel experience, hitting mountain bike trails in every state they visit. We are not those people. As a native Floridian I am morally opposed to having to pedal uphill, and I think biking downhill is scary. Despite that, we were absolutely certain when we hit the road that we had to carry bikes. So many places have bike trails! So many people we follow post photos of themselves biking, and they are always smiling while biking! As a result, we had a bike rack installed on our trailer by our Airstream dealer, and we bought bikes on Craig’s List within the first several weeks of moving into the rig. I had to really dig through the archives to find a photo of when we still carried them, because this little experiment did not last long.
As may be evident from the photo above, the bikes sat right behind our rear panoramic window — which we open whenever possible. Opening the window required taking both bikes down off the rack. Packing up to leave involved some tricky maneuvering to fit two bikes on the impossibly skinny Italian-made aluminum rack. We quickly determined that we spent far more time racking and un-racking the bikes than we did actually riding them. So when one of the support arms on our bike rack snapped (likely because we exceeded the weight limits) we promptly disposed of the bikes by donating them to the next private RV park we visited. After about 60 days in our lives the bikes were history. Bikes, we hardly knew ya.
Our experience with the bikes is obviously a personal one, based on the particular setup of our rig and our own preferences. There is nothing inherently wrong with biking and plenty of full time RVers happily tote around bikes and use them frequently. Our mistake was in thinking that living in an RV would magically turn us into bike-loving people.
Hatchet. We own a hatchet. I think we expected we would be chopping lots of firewood, for the very good reason that every single advertisement for RVs ever produced includes pictures of people sitting around toasty campfires (singing being merely optional, to the great relief of people within earshot of me). Imagine our surprise when we discovered that most campgrounds sell firewood in bundles of handy pre-cut pieces. Oh, and we basically never make campfires either — in our experience making fire is an activity enjoyed by weekend campers much more than full-timers. So that hatchet we carry around still has the sheen of a fresh-forged instrument. It’s been so long, and the purchase is so ridiculous, that I can barely even remember our motivation for this one. Maybe we expected to use the hatchet to gather firewood when boondocking, since there is obviously no kiosk selling firewood in the middle of nowhere. But is it any less awkward to admit to carrying around an item you don’t use that you purchased specifically for an activity you don’t do? No, it is not.
While several of the mistakes above are cringe-worthy, there is a whole other category of mistakes we almost made, but narrowly avoided. Ah, the sweet smell of redemption. This is the stuff that we seriously considered buying, and decided at the last minute to pause on the purchase. And it’s a good thing we did, because we don’t need any of these things. Procrastination for the win! (As noted by of one of my favorite Demotivators, hard work often pays off over time, but laziness always pays off now.)
Lithium Batteries. Our pre-traveling research included an exhaustive study of just about every post ever written by long-time RVers Nina and Paul of WheelingIt and Chris and Cherie of Technomadia. It quickly became apparent that all the cool kids have outfitted their rigs with acres of solar panels and lithium batteries. Using basically the same technology as the batteries in your phone, lithium batteries for RVs offer many advantages. They are smaller and lighter than lead acid batteries, provide far more usable power (we could damage our lead acid batteries if we discharge below 50%), have a significantly longer lifespan, and charge more easily using solar power. We knew that lithium batteries need a little special attention in the form of living inside the rig — so precious interior space must be repurposed to create a new interior battery compartment, and wiring on the rig may need to be modified to feed electricity from the new battery compartment. But without lithium surely we would be rejects! Outcasts! Pariahs!
We had a long discussion with our Airstream salesman about having our house batteries converted to lithium before we even towed the rig off the lot, and he recommended against it. While he could refer us to a professional to do the work, he thought the $5,000 price tag wasn’t worth it. In a fit of laziness and/or stinginess, we conceded that we could always do the conversion later.
Guess what? The batteries that came with our Airstream (solar-ready absorbent glass mat, or AGM) have been just fine. They are still going strong several years into the adventure, and have met all our needs. We have very rarely needed to pull out our generator, and that has only been in situations involving deep shade or dense cloud cover — where the real problem is the lack of solar generation, not the batteries. Maybe when our existing batteries give up the ghost we will look into switching over to lithium, but for us there is no urgency to tackle this project. Oh, and there was no reason to worry about being judged over our traditional batteries. We’ve been fortunate to meet many of our RV heroes in person, and they are incredibly kind, supportive, and non-judgmental people who would never choose their friends based on the type of rig or accessories they use.
Firearms. We really didn’t know what to expect when we headed into the great wilderness of the West. We were moderately concerned about potential encounters with brigands and with dangerous wildlife, especially since help isn’t readily available in remote places. We debated whether we should acquire some sort of firearm for self-protection, with appropriate licensing and training, obviously. In the end, we decided that we would be far more likely to accidentally shoot ourselves than actually ward off an attacking bear or an intruder, and we dropped this idea. In well over two years of travel, I can confirm that we have encountered exactly zero situations where having a firearm would have been remotely helpful. In retrospect, it was a pretty dumb idea.
To recap, no weapons were needed for any of these situations:
So there you have it: our most memorable mistakes and misconceptions about full-time RVing. We share it in hopes that we can serve as a guide to others in avoiding expensive (or bone-headed or merely trivial) mistakes. The biggest lesson we learned is that it’s very useful to have some experience in the rig and have some idea of one’s preferred travel style before plunging into an investment. But even without experience in the RV, some objective self-assessment can be helpful. As we’ve noted in our annual budget reviews (2019 here and 2018 here), in many respects our lifestyle and costs stayed the same when we hit the road. Our hobbies and interests haven’t really changed. Moving into an RV did not induce us to take up bicycling, campfire building, animal shooting, or even treasure hunting. Like in most things, waiting to make a purchase or rig modification until it’s proven to be necessary can save a lot of money and hassle. Plus, it’s an excellent way to demonstrate the virtues of procrastination.