Six Months Travelling by RV
We’ve now spent half a year bumming around the US and Canada, travelling in a “small” $6,000 motorhome. There have been some great places and some not so great places, though everywhere has a charm if you look; some fun with the RV and some headaches. We’ve adjusted our travelling style along the way, and probably will continue to do so as we learn what works for us. Here is a recap of what we’ve been up to, what it’s been like travelling in an RV, and some of the problems and surprises we’ve run into along the way. For financial details and a bit of the costs associated with the travelling, you can see the previous post detailing how miraculously, six months without a job or a home hasn’t been financially ruinous (yet).
Minnie, our 24 ft Class C motorhome (a 1992 Winnebago Minnie Winnie), has been holding up relatively well. There have been problems here and there, but nothing disastrous yet. The problems we’ve encountered have have mostly been caused by 1) carelessness, laziness, lack of preventative maintenance or 2) visiting cities and other urban spaces in a motorhome, and trying to cram a large foreign object into a tight environment it wasn’t designed for (sounds similar to how child problems start; different problems, different post).
When we bought a 25 year old motorhome and set off to drive cross country (and then some), I was dreading running into all kinds of mechanical and engine problems. So far that hasn’t been the case, the car part of the motorhome has been rock solid and has not given us any problems: the engine has started up easily and ran reliably each time no matter the weather or terrain, we’ve had no breakdowns and the only maintenance costs so far have been an oil change (admittedly a rather pricey one). Part of that is undoubtedly luck, and only a matter of time. We were lucky enough to buy Minnie from a nice older couple and the gentleman seemed to take pride in taking care of it, staying on top of all the maintenance, keeping all the systems working correctly, and replacing wear and tear parts. We haven’t been as diligent as the previous owner about any of that, but we’ve babied it as much as we can: staying on top of oil changes, driving minimal miles, trying not to overload the motorhome with weight (we haven’t visited a weigh station yet, see laziness, but I think we’re doing well), and driving at reasonable speeds and going easy on uphills.
The house part of the motorhome has had more issues, with many of them becoming more evident recently. Most of these issues are in all fairness of our doing and fall into the “oh shit” category:
Salt Lake City: “Oh shit, that was a low hanging tree branch and we have a tall vehicle, we should probably inspect the roof…”
After leaving the dry west: “Oh shit, we never inspected the roof, this is a lot of rain, and we’re no longer waterproof…”
Chicago: “Oh shit, we drove into the city, forgot to retract our step, and got too close to a curb…”
Charlottesville: “Oh shit, stuff shifted while we were driving and we ended up with a sink and drain full of coconut oil…”
Ithaca: “Oh shit, that was a steep driveway and we have low clearance, there goes the generator exhaust…”
You get the idea: all the problems of a house & big vehicle combined with tight spaces leading to some rubbing and wearing. We still have to deal with a bunch of that stuff, it’s filed under deferred maintenance for now.
With that said, since we are on the “small” side, as far as RVs go, we have generally been able to visit cities without too much problems, and been able to park in most normal parking spots and driveways, which has given us a lot of flexibility. In general, a 24 ft motorhome has been enough space for us to travel in and let us take along everything we needed, without being too ridiculously large to drive or park. Note, see below, we’ve traveled, but not necessarily lived full-time in the RV; one nice thing about travelling by RV is if you find a cool city, you can get a short term rental and you have most of your worldly possessions already with you.
The extra cargo space we added to the roof of the RV has worked out perfectly, it’s been convenient and a great place to store extra sporting goods out of the way. The storage and bike rack on the back (to be detailed in a future post), has also been useful, but a bit more cumbersome, namely that it is a good way of making a 24 ft motorhome almost as much of a pain to park as a 27 ft motorhome. It also has the side effect of turning your bikes into bumpers for nearby poles, if you are not paying attention and forget how long and awkward a vehicle you are driving, oh shit…
Outside of the city, the RV has been great and pain free to drive, park, and live in. Being able to plug in at a RV park or campground and get electricity is a nice luxury to have, but the main advantage has been being fully self contained and being able to camp wherever we want, which has allowed for some awesome free camping sites. Interestingly, even with all the free camping we’ve been doing, we haven’t needed the generator. That has led problems related to the generator sitting untouched for several months. After finally getting around to reading the manual, I now know that we were supposed to run the generator at least once a month when we aren’t using it..oh shit…
The takeaway has been that having the amenities and space of a small motorhome is great when stopping in the middle of nature (or a Walmart parking lot, or someone’s driveway for the night); but the driving and visiting cities and parking is a bit of a pain, but doable. Ideally, we’d want something that drives and parks like a car, but lets you live like a motorhome. One option would be towing a car, which might help in some cases, but our use would be minimal for the extra cost, weight, and hassle. Since we like to stay in cities, not just visit for the day, we would then end up having to find somewhere to store the motor home. Another solution to this problem would be a smaller van based Class B motorhome, this option is tempting me, but high quality Class B motor homes are hard to find at decent prices on the used market. Since we already have a functional Class C motorhome, and now that our family is expanding to four humans and two dogs, I’m not sure if a Class B would be the right size for all four or six of us. We used to be perfectly happy in luxury subcompact with a tent, now we turn down our noses at a fancy van? Lifestyle inflation at it’s finest people… I’m saving this train of thought for future experiments, and as a reason to browse used Class B motorhomes on Craigslist.
Routes and Destinations
Leg 1: West to East Across the Country
The adventure started late last year with a cross country road trip from California into Canada allowing us to enjoy the late summer and early fall weather across the country, it also meant we got to test RV camping in chilly mountain nights. Highlights of this segment included an awesome experience at our first RV park (many RV parks proved to be disappointing); visiting Yosemite; several free camp sites with lake views; a scenic drive through Nevada and more great free camping; visiting Salt Lake City; great scenery and weather in Wyoming; slowly and steadily heading up and over the Rocky Mountains; a wonderful explosion of green as we entered Nebraska: the Midwest is beautiful in the Fall and Nebraska had one of my favorite free camping sites, a secluded wooded spot at the edge of a large hydro reservoir; a lot of long and flat and frankly semi boring driving toward Chicago, but we were running late and didn’t take time to explore, I’m sure we missed some gems and for what it’s worth Iowa has some really nice rest stops; beautiful beaches and sand dunes outside Michigan City in Indiana (that was confusing), beautiful state parks in Michigan and a fun visit to Ann Arbor; finally a lot of rest and relaxation while visiting friends and family in Southern Ontario and making the most of the beautiful fall weather as long as it lasted.
Leg 2: North to South Along the Coast
We were having so much fun, and busy being lazy that we ended up sticking around too long in the soon to be frozen north. The weather turned quickly and we decided to hightail it and flee the first snow. Our lack of planning meant this segment of the trip was colder than it needed to be through the northern states and thus travelling and camping in a motorhome with a built in propane furnace came in handy. The upside was that we had most campsites to ourselves; we were heading south in a hurry, but did take time to enjoy some beautiful late fall scenes along the way, including an awesome free campsite and great hiking in Western NY; we headed south blowing through perhaps the worst RV park ever (I think we paid $30 to park on a gravel pit next to a 7-11 in the middle of PA) and checked out the area around Cumberland MD, it was fun, despite all the grey weather and chilly rain. From there, we spent a little time hanging out in the general area around DC, visited Richmond VA for a few days, and then an extended two week stay in Durham NC. By this point, the weather was more moderate, but still cold and we didn’t find warmer weather until getting down to Wilmington NC and Myrtle Beach SC, both which were beautiful and pleasant enough in late December. We spent a very extended two month stay in Charleston SC, which is a lovely town and very relaxed, and then checked out beautiful, but slightly touristy Savannah GA, which was somehow already hot and buggy by early March (Savannah has a great setup where you can stay in your RV at the visitors center in the middle of the tourist district). From there we were onto Georgia’s Golden isles for some beautiful scenery, beaches and bike riding, and finally down to Florida, as retired Canadians seem to do.
Leg 3: Northward through the Mountains
St. Augustine FL was a beautiful town, and has a great state campground right next to it, but reservations are hard to get in the winter so we only had a few days! And then for some reason, it was onto Daytona Beach, to check out the tourist and spring breakers… and away from Florida we went, rushing away with bad timing and in too much of a hurry due to other engagements. With another detour through Charleston, we headed north through the mountains, taking the time to check out some cool towns including Greeneville SC and Asheville NC, where we got the chance to visit some very awesome 30 something retired Canadians; we were then into Great Smoky Mountain National Park, early enough that we didn’t have to fight with crowds. While we were checking out National Parks we got the chance to have most of Shenandoah National Park to ourselves, and check out bits of the Blue Ridge Parkway on the way. Along the way, we got to check out a bunch of cool cities including Roanoke VA, Charlottesville VA, Havre de Grace MD, and Ithaca NY. As bad snowbirds, we learned that when you head North too soon, you get caught in snow and rain (and possibly suffer water damage?). Don’t leave the South too early…
Accommodations Along the Way
Part of the reason for all the travelling is to check out interesting cities and see if there is a a new place we’d like to hang our hats. Some towns we only stopped in for a day or two, parking the motorhome in the city and walking around, or parking nearby and finding our way into town. When we’ve stayed in a town for a bit longer, we’ve experimented with a few different ways of finding places to stay, both in and out of the motorhome. Having total flexibility in our schedule and no definite plans has opened up many opportunities for short term accommodations that we wouldn’t have considered otherwise.
Most recently, we found out about Boondockers Welcome, and had some great experiences being hosted on fellow RV’ers driveways, often in walking distance of the city center. This has worked well for a night or three, but I’m not sure if it would be a good solution for longer stays without imposing on your host. We only have a few stays under our belt, but will report back when we have more experience.
For staying indoors and out of the motorhome, Airbnb, VRBO, etc have potential and something we experiment with, but does involve more advanced planning, and gets a bit expensive. Once you start looking for places that are affordable, dog friendly, and that can accommodate parking a motorhome, you don’t have many to choose from. Similarly, in a pinch, bad weather, or wanting to be centrally located, we will use a hotel for a night or two, mainly on points, but you run into the same problem of requiring dog friendly, RV parking, and minimizing costs (pet fees add up, even booking on points).
One of the most pleasant surprises has been finding short term rentals and sublets on Craigslist. You have to do your due diligence to weed out scams, but we’ve found some good options: a student going away for two weeks over the holidays who wants to sublet; someone moving out of their apartment six weeks early and not able to break their lease, etc. Through Craigslist, we’ve ended up with a couple of well located and equipped apartments in Durham and Charleston, allowing us to check out those cities for two weeks and two months at a time respectively. Both of them fell into the category of luxury apartments, with nice amenities including lounges with coffee/espresso/latte machines (and a good reason to get away from the toddler), gyms, pools, etc. It was a nice way to stay and see the cities.
One thing that has been a bummer has been RV related parking woes: just because you have a small motorhome and can find a creative way to park it in a normal parking spot, it doesn’t mean you will be welcome. It turns out many HOAs have rules against RV parking, and similarly hotels in tourist destinations. This is a pain, and expensive at times. Something that can sometimes be avoided by “better to beg forgiveness than ask permission”. I’ve started to wonder if this is situation where a van based Class B motorhome has it’s advantages, since you might be less conspicuous in a vehicle that looks more like a van and less like an RV.
Much like spending for the average American, when you are travelling by motorhome, the big three costs you need to tackle end up being: housing, transportation, and food.
On the housing side, RV parks can be very expensive, and while sometimes you get your money’s worth, often you don’t! National and State Parks have been cheaper and scenic, but nothing has beaten free camping. Our go to source on the road has been FreeCampsites.net. There are a lot more awesome free camping sites West of the Rockies, and they are easier to find. On the East Coast, it becomes a bit more difficult. If you are simply going from one location to another, and need to stop for the night, we quickly became fans of Walmart parking lots (a handful of times over six months, not every night), it also usually meant a good place to get a hot chicken and cold beer for the night.
Driving a motorhome eats gas. We’ve been averaging 10 MPG, and I think that is considered good mileage for an RV. The best thing to do is drive less, stay longer at each place, and amortize that burnt gas into longer more awesome stays. There’s should never be a hurry to leave an awesome place.
Managing food on the road is something we are still working on figuring out. With a small RV fridge, and sometimes uncertain cooling power, the tricks that we would use normally don’t always work. We love stopping at Costco for cheap gas and the occasional pizza or rotisserie chicken, but if we aren’t careful with bulk grocery purchases, we can quickly become overwhelmed. One thing that has worked well is to do a bit of our bulk cooking while we stopped somewhere with electricity, freeze it, and then eat through that while we boondock and are tired out from travelling or hiking. Most dishes are easy enough to reheat on a propane stove.
Free and cheap activities is where travelling by motorhome really excels. Hiking, biking, and lounging by the water are all free.