Skip to main content

Confusing Geographical Freedom with Lifestyle Flexibility

When a meme on the internet coasts along, year after year, without ever being challenged or tested, it is only natural for it to get flabby and to load up with blarney. So take the following post in the spirit of sportive iconoclasm. It's not aimed to hurt the feelings of any individual.

There is a persistent meme out there in the travel blogosphere that needs to be debunked and de-glamorized for no other reason than it could mislead RV wannabees and newbies. I'm referring to the "go anywhere, camp anywhere for free" meme. It is over-rated. 

It is usually an advertisement for van-camping on a street or in a parking lot, casino, or Walmart. (I should probably add that I like vans, have owned one for the last 16 years, and might be buying another one next year, for pulling a small travel trailer.)

A small rig might allow you to park overnight on more streets and parking lots -- without being booted out -- than larger rigs. But so what?! It won't mean that you're in paradise.

Don't think that this style of travel is the stuff of romantic "road trip" escapism, as in 'freedom of the open road' in a hippie bus circa 1970, 'freedom's just another word for nothing else to lose', Simplicity, Mobility, etc. How much good does it do somebody to "grin and bear it" for one more night in one more noisy city? And with police helicopters thump-thumping overhead; ambulance sirens screeching; asphalt-cracking boom-cars at all hours of the night; raucous music blaring out of a polelight in the casino parking lot; the parking lot "Zamboni" intentionally strafing your rig at 330 a.m.; and a garbage truck missing your bedroom by a couple feet at 430 a.m.

Freedom and flexibility should be aimed at improving your lifestyle choices, rather than finding one more parking lot to squat on. When your rig is huge, it will give you more lifestyle choices to go to a medium-sized rig. But this is not necessarily true if you go from a small rig to a smaller rig. If a rig is so small that you become a de facto slave of state parks (for their showers), casinos (for food and restrooms), truck stops, Walmart parking lots, etc., then I say that ostentatious Downsizing is subtracting more from your life than from your rig.

Small rigs tend to surrender on self-containedness. Typically they skimp on (or eliminate) the shower or one of the holding tanks. I wish I had a nickel for every holy prophet-of-the-parking lot who said they didn't need a shower because they can just take a baby-wipe and rub here and there. Yea sure, if they never exercise and have no need to strip off serious dust, bug goop, sunscreen, pet slobber, and salty dried sweat.

But that's my point: they might benefit from adding outdoor exercise to their lifestyle. But they aren't even trying, even though a mobile life allows them to have good weather all year. It should be at the top of list of the advantages of an RV life. They are content with having missed it. Meanwhile they brag about how long they squatted for free at the...

Too small of a rig might keep you from staying in cooler winter or warmer summer weather, if you have good reason to be there. And sometimes you do. Any kind of a seasonal job or volunteering gig will probably pull you into some non-ideal weather. So too will any kind of connection to interesting locals: a hiking club, a political cause, a church group, or whatever. Small rigs constrain you on pets and toys. Neither of these is frivolous, but in fact, can be an integral part of a more interesting and mobile lifestyle.

Small rigs can't store many days of food, water, propane, or waste water. This means an extra trip to town. So much for Frugality.

Challenge yourself by making a list of the ways that your lifestyle could be improved. More times than not, these ideas require a few things, things that need a little space. It's time for Downsizing to be called out: it is a shibboleth, devoid of any moral or philosophical value. It should be replaced with something that does have positive value: Selectivity. Downsizing for the sake of itself is just the flip side of the same coin as 'the bigger the better, the more the merrier.' Neither side of that coin is thoughtful.


TrailYogaMark said…
I through hiked the PCT for over 4 months with nothing but what I could carry on my back or scrounge up in little towns along the way. Never was happier. I am now planning a whole year of trails. Less is more.
I believe you about your 4 months. But 4 months is a long vacation. I was writing about a lifestyle.

Don't forget how Thoreau concluded "Walden". Paraphrased, it was 'And so concludes my first year at Walden Pond. The second year was much like the first.'
In this last year of my full time rv life, I have looked at a lot of smaller rigs. Since my total additional cost for towing runs less than $100 a month, there is no real money to be saved in going smaller. My trailer box is 20 feet long and has fit in anyplace I have had any business being. My decision last year was to go ahead and do mods to my current trailer. This rig can and has done an easy two weeks without skimping, frugal on water yes but not skimping. A warm but quick full shower every night. You have nailed the concept exactly for some of us comfort driven rvers.
The minute you put a rough number on it, you showed that you were thinking like a rational grown-up, instead of a pseudo-religious sub-cult member. Your rig is about like mine. If it were smaller we could get turned around a lot easier in the mountains, in national forests, and in canyons. But many places are OK as is.
Desert Scruff said…
Hey, Boonie, were these thoughts brought on by you thinking of going from a 17-foot trailer to a 10.5 footer?
John, yes they were partly brought on that way. But the 10.5' long Kalispell is self-contained, unlike the smaller trailers that I knew about when I bought my current (17.5' long box) trailer in the late 1990s. I utterly refuse to accept any RV that is partly self-contained.
Anonymous said…
I couldn't agree more. When a newbie asks for advice about buying a rig for fulltiming, I always tell them, "Buy the smallest rig you're comfortable with--not the largest one you can afford." But the key word there is "comfortable." If you're not comfortable, your lifestyle needs to change.

As you described, there are people who make a fetish of going too far in the other direction (living full-time in a Ford Escort is one example), enduring all kinds of annoyances for the sake of being able to boast that they've "never paid a nickel for a campsite." But my philosophy is that being needlessly uncomfortable isn't a virtue. It doesn't make you a better person. Over the past eight years of fulltiming I've found the minimum rig that keeps me acceptably comfortable, and I'm sticking with it till I drop. :-)
Unknown said…
Guessing that you are "preaching to the choir". I doubt that your readers are Prevost or diesel pusher "campers". Comfort is important. Small is great. However, after living 10 years in my current -- small and heavy -- 24 foot fifth wheel with no slide (less than 200 sq. ft.), there were times I've had thoughts about a Class C and toad. However, that would have meant a large outlay of cash (and two motors) for something that was not better than the Wandrin Wagon. In years past, I did more boon docking. (Walmart is not boon docking). Today I do less boon docking because there are times I like the good life of an RV park and big city experiences. I plan to spend the money I earned and saved. Better to enjoy my earnings than leaving it to my kids.
Agreed. Is there a better word than 'comfortable' in your first paragraph? I'm afraid that a reader might interpret that to mean EFFORTLESS comfort/cushiness, the kind that comes from conventional bourgeois patterns of consumption.

And I'll bet you didn't mean that. You probably meant putting in some effort, being inventive, and finally achieving comfort that you can be pleased with; comfort that is truly yours because you created it; not the comfort than can be merely purchased.
Teri said…
I agree with you. Living at Walmart is not why I am out here. I purchased my RV because it had a bathroom I could live with...And it did not have some of the things I did not has an unusual floorplan for an RV and I am in the process of making the inside suited to my needs. I do not like public showers and baby wipes are for babies. I have looked at some smaller RV's but don't think I would be happy full-timing in them. I do hope to add solar at some time and then I will go to some of the "forest-service" campgrounds or BLM land. Since I am workamping right now, I do not need solar, yet.
Bob Giddings said…
To my mind, the ideal combination of size, comfort, and maneuverability would be a really small full-height fifth wheel, say 19 feet. That would extend only about 15 feet behind your bumper. A fifth wheel can be turned inside it's own length.

They used to make such things, 30 years ago, but I haven't seen one in a long time. The Scamp doesn't count, at least for people six feet high.
Tom said…
Thanks for another insightful post...
"it did not have some of the things I did not want". That is a good way to put it. The issue is not about size, per se, but about selectivity.

(Don't get psyched out of doing solar by the endless quibbling of people in the blogosphere. Just about any solar arrangement helps considerably. I doesn't have to be perfect.)
Bob Giddings said…
Did Solar get a lot cheaper? When I did the figures, about 10 years ago, a Honda 1000 generator cost about $650. Solar in the amount that would even come close to replacing normal use cost twice that. And wouldn't work in the shade, in winter, or on cloudy days.

Solar fell in the same undependable class as swamp coolers, which work fine if you never leave the desert.

The little 30 lb. Honda generator was so quiet you couldn't hear it on the other side of the trailer, used a quart of gas in 7 hours, only needed to be used maybe an hour every third day or so, and was a dependable source of electricity in all weathers and climes. Only downside was you had to carry or fill up a little gas container every week or so, when you filled up your truck. When I had the class C I rigged up a tap on the gas tank so I didn't even have to carry the portable gas.

The choice was a no-brainer for me. Now, if Solar has gotten dramatically cheaper, that may change the calculus.
Brian said…
What can I say Boonie? Bingo?

I'd like to get smaller (lighter, less highway stress, less fuel consumption, simply less "Stuff", greater camp access yada yada yada) ... but "saving money" costs Money! ;) and I've been protecting myself from that heavy burden by not keeping any around!

... and then in those periods of time when we're stacking cabin fever 'cause it's been raining for three days and we can't move from camp without tearing things all to hell... we're kinda grateful that we have the 260 sq feet we do... rather than the 105sf we WANT! :)

sorry 'bout the dots... old habits are hard to break. Especially if you like the old habits! ;)
Yes indeed, those rainy days are the times when too small of a rig would be dreadful. Having wheels under your house means that you don't have to suffer entire seasons of bad weather, but there will always be short-term losing streaks.

You mentioned that saving money costs money. I wonder if large rigs sell really slow on the used marketplace these days. They should!
Brian said…
Bob... we live 97% on solar power, and I'm on the computer probably 5-8 hours a day working. The 135 watt panels I have cost 'bout $610 bucks in 2006. They're 5 watts larger now and cost $310 bucks.

Considering the hassle of having to run a generator, carrying and storing the fuel, the tax CREDIT for installing the solar system, and the virtual elimination of having to deal with preventing the generator from growing legs... and the convenience of those Solar panels replacing the power we used, as we're out riding, hiking or whatever... it's always been a better option to me.

and... with our battery bank, a couple days of bad weather has never been an issue. Just to say it... routinely leaving your depleted batteries un-recharged for three days at a time Greatly reduces their lifespan (and increased your ultimate expense)... but as always To each his own. We have to dance to our own drummers.
Brian said…
It depends on the price I expect ;) You sure lose the "investment" quick for a "quick" sale... as in you won't get much... adding to the cost ;)

As for a big rig, I don't really think of our 30 footer as "Big"... if you consider that there's two of us living in somewhere around 260 sq ft... along with two 45 pound dogs... that leaves me 'bout a foot and a half in one corner. ;) Even so, I'd like to find a happy medium somewhere in between. Something that would allow a little more spur of the moment when we're moving camp.

When you're of a "certain size", it inhibits spontaneous diversions from the "Planned" route :) but the reality of diminishing returns kicks into effect when you get south of sufficient space for "reasonable" long term efficiency; just for the sake of being able to say; "Look how little I am!"

Better, I think maybe, to think in terms of "Modular" (or flexible like you said). Have "parts" that can break off for those "excursions" into the tighter places, while the "Big House" (still as small as you can reasonably make it) can stay out on the fringe.

... and simply accept that when you're moving camp, you can't go the places your detached, modular parts can go! :)

Small is good, as long as you maintain sufficient room to turn around in, and can carry the "tools" your mind might require to build out its creativity.
Bob Giddings said…
My drummer here is economy and reliability. If the economics changes, so do I.

I settled my mind on this back in 2002, and my choice has never failed me enough to reconsider. I will say I had 4 golf cart batteries for most of the time, and very rarely did I get below half charge, and the generator recharged them fairly quickly. Those batteries lasted 7 years before they started to fail, and I think the failure then was due to neglecting to check the water enough one summer when the temperatures ran upwards of 100.

So how many of these 135 watt panels do you need to keep up with your use, and how many amp-hours do you use per day or week, on average? I am encouraged that the price of the panels have halved since 2006.

Another thing is that I've changed RVs three times since 2008, and would have had to swap out the panels that many times, but that is more or less an accident. Another thing, not an accident, is that I like to camp under the trees. At best, in the cool of dappled shade. Being required - or otherwise committed - to camp in the sun would mean breaking old and congenial habits. There would have to be a compelling reason for that.

I guess I'm saying that Solar is not without hassles of its own, aside from cost.

Perhaps it is time to reconsider solar. If only as an adjunct. But I'm more than used to the little generator, and it's running fine. Carrying the little bit of gas involved is not a hassle for me. I have to get the pickup filled up anyway.

I'd have to be having trouble to change over, and I'm not. But if I did, perhaps I would have to put a pencil to it again.
Bob Giddings said…
Brian, I tried the modular approach for a while.

I had a 22 foot Lazy Daze Class C hauling a 16 foot utility trailer containing 1 or 2 road bikes and a 14 foot kayak. It worked pretty well. I really liked parking the LD in the lower approaches of the mountains of the Southwest and roaring off for daylong rides round and round those twisty roads. One day jaunt was over 300 miles around Colorado. I even managed to use the bikes for running into town to do laundry.

A better combination for me alone might have been a road bike and a smaller dirt bike. But before things got that far my brother had a disabling accident on his bike and I lost interest in the whole thing. But his bad luck doesn't kill the concept. Except for me.

I even met one fellow in my travels that hauled an ultralight aircraft in a small trailer behind his small motorhome. Now that's modular RVing for maximum versatility. Another guy used a small and inexpensive Uhaul type truck to pull a travel trailer. The box on the truck served to house his Harley and a workshop. His mileage wasn't much worse than I got pulling a fiver.

There's lots of creativity out there. And such schemes work about as well as you want them to. I'm back to a small truck and small trailer, but that's just me.
Anonymous said…
Good point, Boonie. You're right--of course I didn't mean "wallowing in luxury." You put it perfectly: "putting in some effort, being inventive, and finally achieving comfort that you can be pleased with; comfort that is truly yours because you created it." That's exactly why I put together "Eureka! Bright Ideas for Your RV":

There are so many small, inexpensive things you can do to make your RVing life easier. Eureka collects my favorites in one place. The point is that it doesn't take a big rig to be comfortable... just a little inventiveness.