Strolling Amok

Pops goes on tour.

Van or RV?

When this represents "very cloudy", you know you’re going to like it here. What will you reside in while you’re here?

When this represents “very cloudy”, you know you’re going to like it here. What will you reside in while you’re here?

When a few hardy souls, by circumstance or free choice, decide that a mobile lifestyle is the way to go for them, the choice of what type of contraption they will live in can seem like a difficult puzzle to put together. That’s only because it is. The options are wide, and small differences can make or break a choice.

What to choose, oh what to choose?

What to choose, oh what to choose?

I’ll claim right here that I’m not going to deliberately try to steer you toward the one solution that I prefer myself, though my feature preferences will leak into this post, of course. It helps that I’m not living in the type of rig I actually prefer, but what I do have does work quite well for me. I think you’ll know when to filter out what doesn’t apply to you, and so know whenever a particular type of rig may not be such great shakes for you, because you’re not me. Thank your lucky stars for that! Personally, I consider a converted van to be just another form of RV, but for the sake of this article, I’m pretending it’s not.

The major caveat is that I’m going to babble on here about full-timing only, and having no other housing available in the foreseeable future. Anyone can make do in anything when you have friends or relatives to stay at now and then, or some other form of housing available and waiting, or if you only plan to live mobile for a couple of years or so, until something else comes along. If you plan to snowbird for a few months and then return home, this post will still be of some value, but maybe not much.

People do car camp in the boonies, but not very many.

People do car camp in the boonies, but not very many.

This post doesn’t include choices like full-time tenting, which a few people actually do and enjoy. It also doesn’t include living out of one’s car, which makes a converted van seem like the Taj Mahal. Most often, this option is not planned as permanent housing, despite its strong advantages in cost over any other type of rig. For true full-timing, it tends to be a necessary choice when no other options are possible. That’s my impression. People do it, and people enjoy it. But not enough to actually full-time uninterrupted, or plan on continuing it if other options become feasible.

This sign is a clue that the road ahead may be rough and, in wet weather, a mud pit. Unless you’re in a 4WD van or truck camper with aggressive tires, you’ll need to use discernment and start keeping tabs on potential areas to turn around in. Everybody can get in but, at times, not everyone can get out.

This sign is a clue that the road ahead may be rough and, in wet weather, a mud pit. Unless you’re in a 4WD van or truck camper with aggressive tires, you’ll need to use discernment and start keeping tabs on potential areas to turn around in. Everybody can get in but, at times, not everyone can get out.

And when you see deep ruts like this, you know it’ll be a good idea to stay on top of local weather forecasts and seasonal weather. Extended rain = deep mud. If you decide to stay put, how long can you camp before it dries out again?

And when you see deep ruts like this, you know it’ll be a good idea to stay on top of local weather forecasts and seasonal weather. Extended rain = deep mud. If you decide to stay put, how long can you camp before it dries out again?

My emphasis will also lean toward being able to boondock for extended periods of time in the boonies, which is not what everyone wants to do. It’s also about doing so at minimal cost, which is not a limitation that everyone faces. So, take what’s here and stir it into the mix of what you want from mobile living.

If you mainly stay at developed campgrounds like this, you don’t need to be quite so picky about choosing the right rig for yourself.

If you mainly stay at developed campgrounds like this, you don’t need to be quite so picky about choosing the right rig for yourself.

A minor caveat to keep in mind is that, to my knowledge, no new recreational vehicle is warranted for full-time living. If you were to buy one new, neither the vehicle nor its appliances would be likely to be repaired under warranty if they find that you full-time in it. It’s in the fine print. They are not designed or engineered for full-time, everyday use. A few high-buck motorhomes brag about being designed for it, but they are referring to the durability of their cabinetry finishing materials. Many RV brands aren’t what they once were in terms of quality, including structural and build. In the design game, they call it “taking the cash out”. Be especially wary of slides that also hold major appliances, because of weight stress that they aren’t properly engineered for.

I had many options (or so I thought) when I first contemplated going mobile and seeing the country. And I’m not now living in the type of rig I originally preferred – time, costs and availability narrowed down my options for me. But the basics of what to aim for still apply.

Your own decisions about what to live in should be guided not by the particulars I describe below – those are actually secondary. What is most important is what you are like, and what kinds of places you plan to spend the most time in. Are you an indoor person who likes to live in a home-like dwelling, or an outdoors adventurer who thrives on immersing yourself in nature’s bounty? Do you plan on cruising from campground to developed campground, or to roll your own in the deserts and forests of remote BLM and other public lands? Do you like to do things that require a heap of electrical power, or do you need only a little to amuse yourself? Decide on these things first, and your choice of rig will tend to follow nicely. Impulsively jump into the first pretty box you see, and in the long run you’ll be spending money like a drunken sailor, taking several jumps before you land what’s right for you.

Van or converted cargo trailer

This nice cargo van came with rear windows, and it has a large solar panel installed on a roof rack.

This nice cargo van came with rear windows, and it has a large solar panel installed on a roof rack.

A van as a dwelling is a different animal from other RVs. Whenever you convert a van, cargo trailer, box van or what-have-you into a living space, the same basics apply. I’m leaving bus conversions out of this, because they tend to be reconfigured in a way that places them much closer to motor homes than vans. Because of widely different needs, the depth of conversion for vans varies widely. Some are used in urban areas where prepared food, bathing and restroom facilities are readily available. Others serve out in the boonies, where only occasional food and fuel stores can be found. Because of this, I’ll have to generalize so that this doesn’t become a short novel.

Regardless of rig, the basic human needs still apply and must be met: shelter, food storage and preparation, sleep, water, waste, warmth. The van’s difference is in how you decide to provide these for yourself, because the van itself supplies none but shelter. This “lack of” can be a good thing, because the options are wide, and their reliability is what you make of them. If you have a flair for organization and improvisation, vans can be your hands-on creative outlet.

Right off the bat, you need to be an outdoorsy person to live in a van. The lack of space is palpable, and a couple of days of steady, blowing rain can create a raging case of cabin fever. Awnings or canopies are widely used in order to be outside yet out of the sun. Cooking outside is the norm, but being able to prep food inside is also needed. A portable heater powered by propane is the most common choice, with butane as the occasional alternate. Sleep is usually on a mattress and sometimes on a hammock. For comfort, finishing off the interior generally needs to include ample insulation all around. That thin metal body can rapidly add and remove heat at just the wrong times of day.

Food storage, water and waste are the main issues, compared to other rig types. Food storage ranges from none, to bins full of boxes and cans of prepared food, to a cooler with ice in it to keep fresh foods fresh, to refrigerated coolers. Refrigerated coolers need electrical power and plenty of it, requiring the addition of deep cycle batteries and either solar panels or a gasoline generator – and someplace to store it, with fuel.

An aside: You don’t want to try to press the vehicle’s starting battery into service as a dwelling battery – it isn’t made for it and will quickly fail, leaving you stranded. You also don’t want to rely on the vehicle’s alternator to recharge anything but the starting battery. It is horribly inefficient for hard service, will wear out faster, and won’t do the deep-cycle dwelling battery any good in the long run. Keep the two electrical functions completely separate, unless all you ever do is light a candle and plug in your iPod or cellphone. That’s about all you should be using your vehicle’s lighter socket and battery for. Modern vans already use their battery to keep circuits alive even when parked, and if you compete with that, you’ll lose.

Water storage is in plastic jugs or small tanks, and is usually gravity fed, since pumps require electrical power and can be just one more gizmo to break down. Water storage is usually very limited, with water commonly lasting for a few days before you need a trip to the store or water dispenser in town. Dishwater and sink waste, referred to as greywater, is simply thrown to the ground, which is perfectly legal in many remote areas. Vanners normally use prefab wipes to stay clean, in order to conserve water. Storing water for warm showers is a luxury not often exercised.

Toilet waste, referred to as blackwater, is gotten around in three different ways, depending on equipment. Solution one is to do like the critters, going outside in a cathole and burying it. Again, in many remote areas, it’s a legal approach. Campsite research is needed here, since many areas permit “self-contained” vehicles only, or take a “pack it in, pack it out” stance, where even dishwater dumping might not be allowed. Portable toilets are often kept in the van to allow for decent privacy, and consist of a seat and a plastic bag with some kitty litter in it. It works, and works well. The bags must then eventually be tied off and are disposed of in trash containers or dumpsters in a local town. Dumpsters are sometimes provided at developed campsites.

I must mention here that common trash disposal is the bugaboo of most true boondockers, regardless of rig type. Food and equipment packaging like bottles, vacuum-formed packaging and boxes must be regularly gotten rid of, and if you camp outside of developed campsites or BLM Long Term Visitor Areas, you have to impose on someone else to get rid of your trash for you, at their expense. I personally don’t like that, but there are no other options I’ve found other than burning some of it in campfires – which can be prohibited at times. The common workaround is to impose only a little: stuff trash in the same small plastic shopping bags they came in, and place one bag, whether trash or toilet waste, into one trash container at one store. Distribute the wealth, so to speak. Being a customer and asking, nearly always opens doors, or in this case dumpster lids for the whole amount. Stuffing somebody’s waste cans full is poor camper etiquette, and also a bad idea for the long term welfare of all campers. Walmarts and highway rest areas are often considered fair game, since they invite overnight stays and so have already outfitted themselves for somewhat larger amounts of trash.

The last waste setup: a few vanners have toilets with small holding tanks that can be emptied into small “blue boy” carriers that are then taken to dump stations. This approach is rare, because dump stations are often hard to find, and usually charge a fee. Some vanners furtively sneak into gas station restrooms and dump their raw waste into the toilets, or run hoses to vault toilets at unmanned campgrounds. All I can say is, let your conscience be your guide, if you have one. As one movie said, “Growing up is doing what’s right – not just right for you, but right for everybody…and it hurts.”

Trails like this are a no-brainer for cars, vans, and truck campers. They’re even do-able for many other types of small and mid-size rigs. But, not mine. I’d ground out and bend my dropped tube axles, and drag the tail. A man has to know his limitations.

Trails like this are a no-brainer for cars, vans, and truck campers. They’re even do-able for many other types of small and mid-size rigs. But, not mine. I’d ground out and bend my dropped tube axles, and drag the tail. A man has to know his limitations.

This one will give most folks pause for thought, except those with 2WD vans, and pop-up or lightweight truck campers.

This one will give most folks pause for thought, except those with 2WD vans, and pop-up or lightweight truck campers.

This rugged, loose and steep uphill requires a 4WD van or lightweight truck camper, and no trailer to pull.

This rugged, loose and steep uphill requires a 4WD van or lightweight truck camper, and no trailer to pull.

I see the strongest point of a van and similar vehicles as being comparatively cheap to buy, operate, and replace when they finally give out. They can usually get through rough forest trails to camp at the more scenic areas, in solitude. Additional cash can also get you a 4WD conversion, which can go nearly anywhere. Some vanners adapt AWD vans to accomplish the same thing.

Being single-unit, there’s nothing else to buy and deal with; it’s all in the van. There’s no need to search out a dump station (usually), and the lack of pumps, water heaters, and other such RV equipment aids dependability. This simplicity also aids cold weather use, since there are no pumps, valves or water lines in walls at risk of freezing. Breaking camp to head for town and supplies is usually no big deal. If you’re a wanderer and a camping/outdoor enthusiast wanting to full-time on a budget, a van may be for you. Vans and variants are also a very good urban boondocking choice, able to blend in nicely with surrounding vehicles. “Stealth” is a popular topic among urban full-timers, and a lack of it does tend to invite an unwanted visit from the law enforcement community at 2 AM. Urban boondocking is a whole ‘nother topic, though.

The downsides are, first, the lack of space. Doing something often requires putting something else away, as there just isn’t enough room to lay everything out and leave it, which is why good weather and some shade are so appreciated. At it’s core, it’s outside living. Passenger vans are seldom used because of cost and availability, but you may find the lack of windows in cargo vans to increase your sense of confinement. That gives translucent roof vents appeal, to let in a little more light and air. In good weather, most vanners leave everything open all day. An invasion of flies, mosquitos or gnats can get pretty unlivable in a hurry, but netting can help somewhat. If your hobby or interest requires square footage, you’re going to have to find a new, smaller one. Packrats and knick-knack collectors need not apply, because it’s a serious challenge to find the space just for essentials.

A more debatable downside is fuel cost, and wear and tear. Few vanners are prepared to last more than a few days in the wild before having to button things up and drive to town. They commonly get bored and like the diversion, but much of the potential cost savings of living in a van can be offset by having to drive so many miles, so frequently. Related to that is the tight link between the vehicle and the living quarters. Once you give up on the mechanicals of a van, you’ll have to go through the work and expense of converting its replacement. Predictably, some people like this and look forward to improving on what they did before as they salvage what they can out of the old van.

The converted cargo trailer does not suffer this start-over drawback, since it doesn’t care what pulls it. Its main drawback is poor ground clearance. To this point, I have yet to find a sizable cargo trailer high enough to serve well on rough trails, which makes sense because in normal use, nobody wants to load one that’s difficult to roll stuff into. A trailer also compromises the rig’s ability to negotiate and turn around in confined areas, and increases the likelihood of getting stuck in sand or mud (as all trailers do). The upside with them is that you get to pick the exact size and weight capacity of trailer that you want, from tiny to huge. The tow vehicle can be anything that can handle the load, and both 4WD and AWD become tow options to decrease the likelihood of getting stuck.

This passenger van with a walled canopy looks like a nice way to go.

This passenger van with a walled canopy looks like a nice way to go.

Just keep in mind one detail for this class of rigs, be they cargo vans, cargo trailers, or box vans. You may not care, but it’s a big deal for me: Light, and a window view. I find it difficult (and oppressive) to have to stay for long inside anything resembling a dark cave. Unless I’m sleeping or watching a movie, I need light, a lot of it, and something nice around me to look at regardless of weather and temperature. Inside a vehicle, that means windows. Vanners and the like get around this by opening up doors. That’s great for decent, warm weather. Not so good in 35-degree mornings, rain, insect-laden areas (like where I am now), or dusty, high winds. That’s where the true camper mentality comes in handy, something I don’t happen to have. I’d need to punch in a couple of sizable windows, but that’s just me. You may be more adaptable. Things like this are why nobody can validly insist that their rig choice is the best for everyone else, too.

This cargo trailer with windows and TV antenna let you know that the tent is the change of pace “office”. For this guitarist, it was his music studio.

This cargo trailer with windows and TV antenna let you know that the tent is the change of pace “office”. For this guitarist, it was his music studio.

Truck campers

A standard truck camper may have height clearance issues now and then, but can tuck into the bushes for privacy. Narrow trails and low trees are not its friends.

A standard truck camper may have height clearance issues now and then, but can tuck into the bushes for privacy. Narrow trails and low trees are not its friends.

Next-of-kin to vans is the truck camper, a self-contained living unit mounted into the bed of a pickup truck. “Self-contained” means that it has water and waste holding tanks built in. I gave very serious consideration to these when I was researching my own options. Truck campers are available both as empty shells and as ready-to-go luxoboxes. You can find them with wood, fiberglass, or aluminum structures. You can even construct your own, though I don’t recommend that for the non-engineer. You can choose austere Spartan or shamelessly over-equipped units. The range of capabilities is wide, depending on your interests, wallet and the weight-carrying capacity of your truck.

This pop-up from Four Wheel is the longest they offer, but you can see the difference roof height can make on clearance, fuel mileage, and center of gravity. It can go nearly anywhere.

This pop-up from Four Wheel is the longest they offer, but you can see the difference roof height can make on clearance, fuel mileage, and center of gravity. It can go nearly anywhere.

Notable variants include pop-up campers, which have a low profile until it’s time to stop and raise the roof. With a lower height and weight, and a much lower center of gravity, they are well-suited for difficult back country trails, height-restricted areas, and nearly anywhere a 2×4 or 4×4 pickup truck alone can get to. Fuel mileage is better, too. If you slide a modestly-equipped rigid box into the bed of a pickup, cut off the flat roof and raise it, connecting the two parts with weatherproof fabric, that’s a pop-up truck camper. They aren’t as durable as a hard-sided camper, but if truly remote areas and best-of-the-best vistas are your bag, they’re the only way to go, aside from a converted 4×4 or AWD van. The fabric section can usually be replaced at the factory. Adding solar panels to the roof of a pop-up truck camper can be an issue because the extra weight can complicate trying to raise the top. Small panels can usually be added, but larger ones will need to go on the ground or elsewhere. This makes small generators a popular alternative. A few pop-up campers are built to replace the truck’s original bed, and so gain a lot more space.

The same model with roof raised up offers full-height stand-up camping.

The same model with roof raised up offers full-height stand-up camping.

Conventional hard-sided campers start out thin on amenities, and the penalty of adding on toilets and showers and closets is length and weight. Trying to approximate travel trailer or motorhome conveniences quickly prods you into needing a formidable and costly truck underneath to carry it. Generally speaking, electrical power storage is very limited, and water and waste tank capacities are sized for weekend boondocking only. In this regard, they are similar to a van. Unlike a van, all space is already fully allotted for you, so adding more battery power or waste capacity can be a problem. The bed of the truck is already full, so there’s very little space left to add more, apart from the cab of the truck or perhaps adding a small trailer in back. That said, there are variations out there with much more respectable water capacities – some nearly quadrupling my 26’ TT! This is also where buying a bare shell can come into play, since you’re then free to mimic the simplicity of a van, and leave out bulky and unreliable systems and features that you don’t need or want.

The best way to find a truck camper that meets your needs is to get on the Internet to research brands and models. There are many. Look at the specs and capacities. I shouldn’t have to even mention this, but never try to use a dealer to get basic information. They are there to sell you, not inform you. Use them to look at actual product later, or head for RV shows. Same thing.

The hardside version of the same model shows what a difference fixed height can make.

The hardside version of the same model shows what a difference fixed height can make.

Be aware that what I previously said about warranties when full-timing applies most strongly to truck campers. Even major brands can literally start coming apart in hard use, especially those with wooden structural members. Water leaks and the resulting mold are not uncommon, either. Truck beds flex, support of the camper may be less than perfect, and weight and vibration can take their toll, especially if the camper is also used while dismounted. You just have to ask around, and use your own judgement.

Truck campers tend to be more adaptable to cold weather than any other type of self-contained RV, since they place water and waste tanks below floor level in the bed. This offers the ability to more easily insulate the entire water/waste systems against freezing, and to use heat leakage from the living area to do it, whether passively, by vent, or by furnace ducting. Pop-up models are more problematic in this regard, but some brands offer special insulation mats that can be added to the fabric section.

This Camplite 11 is their biggest, with separated restroom and shower, and all-aluminum construction. Dry weight is 2,600 pounds, too much for my own F-250, but that’s actually light for something of this size!

This Camplite 11 is their biggest, with separated restroom and shower, and all-aluminum construction. Dry weight is 2,600 pounds, too much for my own F-250, but that’s actually light for something of this size!

The variety in truck campers makes it difficult to generalize about their need for dump stations. Differences in toilets and holding tank types change the options. Many systems use a smallish cassette that can be dumped into a toilet if required, while others demand a real dump station and a big waste hose.

The key with a truck camper is knowing exactly how much it weighs when stuffed full and ready to use (available from the manufacturer), and the weight-carrying capacity of your truck (same). The tendency is to go by guess and by golly, and wind up overloading the truck with too much camper. Overload the truck, and components wear out rapidly and, sometimes, suddenly. Tires, wheel bearings, brakes and transmissions go bye-bye. 1500-class (half-ton) trucks are best for pop-ups and featherweight hardside campers. 2500-class (3/4-ton) trucks can take a range of sparsely-outfitted hardside campers, and are preferably fitted with dual rear wheels for stability. Once you get into the luxo class that hang off the back of the bed and has all the features you could want, you’re talking one-ton and better, and absolutely ones with dual rear wheels for stability. If the truck is not factory-fitted for dealing with a top-heavy camper, you’ll need to add a thick rear anti-sway bar just for starters. Match well, and you will have a great time. Match haphazardly, and you will have the kind of exiting adventures that you do not want. Truck campers are the one form of RV that require matching or exceeding specs between vehicle and camper. Mismatches present problems that just never seem to be entirely fixable.

You can get a sense of the tippiness of tall, hard-sided truck campers here. This one weighs about as much as a small car, set high on the bed. It doesn’t take a very rough trail to rule them out.

You can get a sense of the tippiness of tall, hard-sided truck campers here. This one weighs about as much as a small car, set high on the bed. It doesn’t take a very rough trail to rule them out. 

You might think that once the truck wears out, you can remount the camper in a new one. This can happen, but is often not the case. Pickup trucks are not standardized in bed dimensions and cab heights, and often change over time even within a single brand. You may well wind up having to locate a used pickup identical to what you already have, but hopefully in better condition. Then, you can swap the camper over. The camper manufacturer is usually the best source for year and model interchangeability. If yours is out of business, getting this information can be difficult.

This Eagle Cap jaw-dropper has an interior dressier than your home, three slide-outs, a 75-gallon freshwater tank, and weighs in at a spectacular 4,600 pounds dry. If your extended family includes a banker, a gas station owner, and a Ford, Dodge or Chevy dealership owner, this baby is for you!

This Eagle Cap jaw-dropper has an interior dressier than your home, three slide-outs, a 75-gallon freshwater tank, and weighs in at a spectacular 4,600 pounds dry. If your extended family includes a banker, a gas station owner, and a Ford, Dodge or Chevy dealership owner, this baby is for you!

As with vans, you have to be a special person to full-time in a truck camper. It’s tight. Well-outfitted and space-efficient, but tight. I dwell on the behemoth models in the photos, but that’s just for kicks. They vary in width, height, and length, and features. In the general market, a truck camper is generally not considered to be a realistic option for true full-timing, but then neither are vans. They can drive some people to go a little off-kilter, while others do well. It’s up to you. Some might claim that you need to be a little off-kilter first, in order to live in one and enjoy it! Should you later need to add a cargo trailer to add either living or equipment space, you can do that as needed. But then you have to ask yourself if you wouldn’t have been better off just getting a trailer or motorhome large enough to hold you in the first place. As with everything else, only you can decide what the best fit for you is.

Travel trailers

This cute little retro bumper-pull trailer somehow packs in livable space, along with all the equipment and features of a much larger trailer. Propane tank size is a starting tip-off as to how long a trailer is designed to be able to boondock in the outback.

This cute little retro bumper-pull trailer somehow packs in livable space, along with all the equipment and features of a much larger trailer. Propane tank size is a starting tip-off as to how long a trailer is designed to be able to boondock in the outback.

Travel trailers come in two categories: bumper-pull and fifth-wheel. Unlike cargo trailers, they come fully outfitted and ready to go. Floor plans vary all over the place, and while many have glamorous features, it’s important to turn a blind eye to that and select one that is internally arranged the way that seems to best fit how you want to live. Boondocking in remote areas dictates the smallest TT that you can comfortably live in, and that in turn demands efficient use of space. Twin exit doors generally means you’ve lost some internal storage space to another aisle. Slides (wall sections that can be pushed outward) expand space slightly, but you still need to be able to get around comfortably when they aren’t extended, because there will probably be times when you can’t do that, like when overnighting in rest areas, truck stops, and Walmarts. They also greatly increase overall weight and tongue weight (the weight placed on the tow vehicle’s rear bumper or bed), requiring a much heftier tow vehicle. Slides, in the long run, are susceptible to jamming and water leaks. I personally avoid them as not worth the sole benefit they offer, but I’m in the small minority.

Like all motorhomes and many truck campers, travel trailers use built-in propane furnaces that are notoriously inefficient. It takes a lot of propane to stay warm in cold weather with these, and more than one newbie has awakened after one cold night to find that the furnace fan has completely discharged the house battery. Left plugged into the tow vehicle overnight, its battery can be dead as well. Not good. Portable propane heaters certified as safe for indoor use are used instead, and are effective.

Related to this, more modern TTs provide a fair amount of insulation, and sometimes try to give the water and waste systems some protection as well. If cold weather camping is your bag though, you will have to look for a trailer engineered for lower temperatures, which is a small niche of total production. You may also have to use the factory furnace for heat, if ductwork is used to keep the tanks warm. The use of commercial campgrounds allows the use of electric heat tapes where needed, but I’m writing this from the standpoint of low-cost living. Truly old trailers are rated “temperate weather only”, and skimp on insulation, providing no protection at all for plumbing runs. None of this matters if you always stay in above-freezing areas, but it’s worth knowing up front. If you see snow, you gots to go.

Travel trailers come in just about any size you could want. I’m not going to deal here with pop-up trailers or small teardrops, which for most people are not appropriate for full-time use. Maybe they are for you, if you’re a glutton for punishment, but I have to draw the line in this post somewhere. In the interest of brevity and appropriateness, I won’t cover toyhaulers or hybrid trailers, either. Mid-size and larger (18’-24’ and all the way up to 40’) travel trailers are considered appropriate for full-time use, technically speaking. They best represent a “home on wheels” potential, and as far as living comfortably goes, are a decent choice.

This scruffy, antique TT may not have much ground clearance for rough areas, but does offer unusually good ventilation and light in a workable size.

This scruffy, antique TT may not have much ground clearance for rough areas, but does offer unusually good ventilation and light in a workable size.

Just watch the size, though. If you intend to camp in remote areas and use forest roads to get there, I recommend a high-clearance 16’-22’ version and no more. Fifth-wheel versions can be a little longer, because they inherently minimize total rig length, there’s no danger of grounding out bumper hitch weight distribution components, and grounding out the tail poses little overload danger to the hitch. Even with a modest trailer, you have to pay close attention to trail conditions and potential turn-around areas along the way, because the combined length of the tow vehicle and trailer can make it very difficult to maneuver on more challenging trails. Many scenic campgrounds cannot accommodate more than a 24’ trailer at best, reducing your site options when you go large. Even a few paved highways going through mountainous areas impose a 40’ combined rig limit, so knowing where you’re going and exactly how you’ll get there is a really good idea. There’s nothing like wiping your trailer along a guardrail or swinging out into opposing traffic to bring the excitement to an unwanted peak.

An instant show-stopper for trailers of every stripe, as far as full-timing is concerned.

An instant show-stopper for trailers of every stripe, as far as full-timing is concerned.

Single or dual axle trailer? Well, that’s pretty much determined for you, based on trailer weight capacity. But you should know that there’s a difference in performance characteristics. Single axle trailers handle sharp turns easily, but will bounce around more on rough roads. Maybe you won’t care, because you won’t be in it – but your pots, pans, and glassware might. Dual axle trailers will pitch around less over short bumps and potholes, making for a smoother ride on rough dirt roads and choppy pavement. That’s because only one wheel at a time will react on a given side, while the other still supports the load (or tries to). Their drawback is tire scrub on turns. A dual axle trailer wants to go straight because all four tires are always perfectly aligned straight ahead. Whenever you take a turn, you’re forcing it to change direction. Since the tires can’t turn into the curve with your tow vehicle (like your steering wheels do), something has to get dragged sideways. That something is the trailer’s tires, which suddenly fight each other for traction. On clean pavement, the most stressful surface possible, you may actually see a faint rubber trail being laid down. On my rig, I can watch my driver’s side trailer wheels in the side mirror as they flex under the stress. One wheel leans outward and the other leans inward. It’s unnerving. Fortunately, dirt roads and campsites don’t offer the traction to cause such stress.

Word: Older “vintage” trailers are supremely affordable, but by design do not have the ground clearance of more modern trailers. They can put a crimp in the selection of remote trails and campsites open to you, and make finding turnaround areas more difficult, since many forest and BLM trails have a substantial berm or rise on both sides. Me, I’ve got a 26-foot 1994. The unusual floor layout and space are perfect for me as a newbie, just perfect. But if I’d gladly hack off 4 or more feet if I could keep its interior efficiency. Such trailers are not unworkable for remote boondocking, but they do keep you alert when crawling down an unfamiliar forest road. Grounding out can get you stuck. Seriously grounding out can damage the trailer and/or your tow vehicle’s hitch. The thought of having to back up a mile or more when trapped does not appeal.

In brief, bumper pull trailers are cheaper, lighter, and offer less sidewind resistance because the entire living area is at floor level. With smaller, lighter trailers, the tow vehicle does not have to be a pickup truck. A suitable SUV or hybrid can often do.

Whoa! Can you see yourself pulling this big 5th-wheel down a winding, tree-lined, rugged forest road, or a hairpin mountain turn? On grades, weight and traction issues abound. Nice for other places, though.

Whoa! Can you see yourself pulling this big 5th-wheel down a winding, tree-lined, rugged forest road, or a hairpin mountain turn? On grades, weight and traction issues abound. Nice for other places, though.

Fifth-wheel trailers use a specialized hitch mounted in the truck bed to carry tongue weight, and this puts considerably less stress on the truck’s rear suspension. As a result, handling and maneuvering is often easier and safer. Placing living space over the truck bed also shortens the total rig’s combined length for a given floorspace. The drawback is that the special hitch uses up most of the practical truck bed space. Also, modern fifth-wheel trailer designs are considerably taller than they used to be, increasing wind resistance, total sidewind surface area, and raising the center of gravity and sidewind leverage point in the worst possible place. Being able to walk around easily in the raised bedroom area carries a few drawbacks. Most owners don’t care, however.

Needless to say, travel trailers require dump stations. Fifth wheels must be regularly towed to one. Bumper pull trailers are similar, but also offer the option of fitting the truck bed with holding tanks that allow the trailer to stay in camp while the truck heads for the dump station solo. It’s really up to the tow vehicle’s bed length, and how much of it is already taken up by a fifth-wheel hitch or other permanent equipment.

Regardless of your RV rig type, finding out your individual wheel loads at a Smartweigh station is a really good idea.

Regardless of your RV rig type, finding out your individual wheel loads at a Smartweigh station is a really good idea.

Oh, and if you love to boogie on the Interstates when you travel, doing whatever the speed limit is or 10 over, pick another style of rig. All travel and cargo trailer tires are load-rated at 60 MPH, with air pressure right at the maximum listed on the sidewall. Virtually all commercially manufactured travel trailers, when loaded moderately and carrying full water tanks, are normally within just a few percent of their maximum rated weight capacity. That’s tires, wheel bearings, and springs, and that load never goes away. Actually, the club Escapees has found that the majority of RVs weighed showed an overload somewhere. The problem for tires here is that speed lowers weight capacity, and fast. Do the 75 MPH speed limit available in the Southwest, add just a tad of age and neglect, and you’ll be joining the many thousands of RVers who have tales to tell. Uprating tires to the next higher class tends to take them out of the equation (within limits), but the bearings and springs remain unaffected. When those go, it can be both exciting and disappointing at the same time. It must be an odd sensation to feel a judder and then watch one of your own trailer wheels pass you on the highway, or have someone pull alongside and try to hand-signal you that your wheel hub is on fire.

Motorhomes

Like marauding gangs of bikers, there are roving groups of motorhome owners that travel together, hoist flags, and run generators in their frenzy of crazed debauchery. Byarrr, Matey!

Like marauding gangs of bikers, there are roving groups of motorhome owners that travel together, hoist flags, and run generators in their frenzy of crazed debauchery. Byarrr, Matey!

Drop a travel trailer onto a truck or bus chassis, and you have a motorhome. Motorhomes come in several styles, commonly referred to as classes A, B, and C. I’ll gloss over them here, but you’re probably better off Googling the topic for details. Motorhomes use either a van or a bus as their basis. I have seen a few large freight trucks pressed into duty here as well – kind of a box van on steroids. Except for a few home-brewed bus conversions, all are completely self-contained. The letter assignment is arbitrary, so don’t consider them like grading.

This old MCI may look like a converted bus, but it’s a factory-converted bus!

This old MCI may look like a converted bus, but it’s a factory-converted bus!

This unique fixer upper is another MCI, offered at $8,500. All those doors under the floor-line access huge storage compartments.

This unique fixer upper is another MCI, offered at $8,500. All those doors under the floor-line access huge storage compartments.

The Class A motorhome is the easiest to describe. It looks like a full-size bus. Ones which are based on rear-engine diesel bus chassis are the most mechanically durable and costly, while others are based on specialty chassis adapted from other types of vehicles. Starting at $90K and running up into millionaire territory, they can bristle with amenities and storage space difficult to find in a house. Although comfortable and roomy beyond belief, they are a headache to head into town with because of their sheer size. Most folks using them tow a smaller vehicle behind to address this issue. Most include an onboard generator for power. One can boondock with them, but only in easy-access areas with relatively smooth roads. Getting the running gear serviced can be problematic, since you need to locate someone who can handle that chassis/ engine brand.

A Class C is at left, with two Class A’s behind.

A Class C is at left, with two Class A’s behind.

This class C with slides is big enough to be comfy in, yet has reasonable ground clearance.

This class C with slides is big enough to be comfy in, yet has reasonable ground clearance.

Class B and C motorhomes are based on vans. Officially, the only difference is that, in Class C motorhomes, a portion of the living space extends over the cab for a little extra room. That is used for a bed, a TV, or storage. B and C motorhomes may be based on either compact or full-size vans, normally have raised roofs that allow standing upright, and use either the standard van body converted for use as an RV, or have a much larger custom body fitted behind the cab of a long-wheelbase van “cut-away” chassis. A few owners will tow a car behind in order to make local errands and touring easier and more practical.

This Class C is astounding, based on a heavy-duty truck chassis instead of a van. The advantage here is engine access and generic components for servicing.

This Class C is astounding, based on a heavy-duty truck chassis instead of a van. The advantage here over a bus-type Class A is engine access and generic components for servicing.

Interior space and amenities vary wildly, as does fuel mileage. The smallest versions drive just like a production van and can fit inside a garage. The bigger ones can be quite livable for full-timing, though excessive rear overhang and poor weight distribution can cause stability and clearance problems in the very longest ones. Most are fairly adaptable to trails in poor condition. Truly rugged trails are a no-go, however. I’m not sure about steep climbs, even if traction is available. The longer, heavier motorhomes can exert one hell of a strain on the van’s torque converter and transmission. That said, some coachbuilders will make a standard-size van-based motorhome for you that’s built on a converted 4WD chassis, so anything is possible.

Like vans and any other single-unit rig, motorhomes last as long as you can keep repairing the motorized chassis. Once you give up on it because of repair costs or damage, you must start over on a completely new rig – new to you, anyway.

Motorhome people don’t fit a universal description, mainly because there’s so much variation in this segment. To each his/her own! I can say that folks who live in big Class A motorhomes find it very difficult to trade down to the smaller versions without feeling cramped and somewhat martyred. Big Class A’s may be budget busters, but they also tend to be the most popular choice for wheelchair-bound people.

Bus conversions

Like vans, box vans and other home-made conversions, bus conversions are what you make them, but on a larger scale. They can contain rudimentary service systems, or bristle with sophistication. The completed ones I’ve seen are pretty admirable in their own ways, being kind of a testament to the creator’s ingenuity and skill. Unlike motorhomes, buses tend to last a long time, both from drivetrain and body standpoints. Some can look a bit dumpy and uncompleted, while most stand out with character and a style that are hard to match. I won’t go into them in detail here, but just take a look.

This old Flxible’s owner is a heavy equipment mechanic, so it contains a modern diesel motor as well as great looks.

This old Flxible’s owner is a heavy equipment mechanic, so it contains a modern diesel motor as well as great looks.

This school bus was selected because it’s from Michigan and has a factory insulation package, taking some of the work out of its conversion. With a short wheelbase and fairly decent ground clearance, off-road camping options multiply.

This school bus was selected because it’s from Michigan and has a factory insulation package, taking some of the work out of its conversion. With a short wheelbase and fairly decent ground clearance, off-road camping options multiply.

She may not be pretty, but these folks stayed in Quartzsite for five months before having to turn the key.

She may not be pretty, but these folks stayed in Quartzsite for five months before having to turn the key.

Ol’ Blue may not have had an easy life, but it’s a more satisfying one now.

Ol’ Blue may not have had an easy life, but it’s a more satisfying one now.

The Disclaimer

This article sounds authoritative, don’t it? Keep in mind that I’ve only been full-timing – or even RVing – for just a year at this point! Everything in here merely reflects my research, observations, bias, and experience for a very limited time as a travel trailer denizen. Take everything with a grain of salt. Add your own bias, knowledge and experience as a comment below!

Executive Summary

Since the range of choices can be overwhelming, it can be a mistake to pick an RV type by how cool you think it is. What do you expect to be able to do in it? What kinds of locations do you want to be able to camp in, and what may the access roads be like? What’s cozy and what’s claustrophobic to you? Do you love the outdoors, or simply like a vast front yard with a scenic view? How to you want to be able to cook, stay comfortable, sleep, and move around each and every day, good weather and bad? What are your expectations for carrying out your personal hygiene? What do you want to be able to do for such things as hobbies and entertainment? Do you welcome frequently heading for town, or do you prefer to be able to stay remote for awhile? In short, how do you want to live?

Then assemble a few choices. Imagine yourself out there in it, on a glorious day as well as on a miserable one. Will it do everything you want? How much will you miss what it can’t do? Review your choices again, do some more research, and rule out all but one. There you are.

If you discover that your finances will not allow acquiring even a well-used rig of your preferred type, you may have to back down to another, but that’s okay. At least you know what’s what for yourself. If you’re still stumped and have some disposable income, rent something for a weekend. You’ll learn a lot about it.

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22 thoughts on “Van or RV?

  1. Going by the pictures it looks like you spent some time around Quartzsite… then again (I’d guess) one desert with RVs parked in the brush looks a lot like another.

  2. Hi Doug,

    Thanks for the great informative post, lots to think over.

    Tina

  3. Excellent article

  4. Most van dwellers limo-tint their windows for privacy reasons. I almost bought that theory until I realized how important daylight is to me. Curtains work just fine. One more thing to think about as your readers make their decisions.

  5. So, what is the rig you would like to be living in?

    • Oh boy. I was afraid someone would ask. Well Steve, I’ll just rattle it off as best I can. Plan A was to have a bare 20’x8.5′ concession trailer custom-built and then modify it. A concession trailer is nothing but a cargo trailer with several large, screened and closable glass windows. Sections of wall are cut out and each section is hinged at the top to pivot out and create a hard mini-awning. Leaf spring suspension would be used with straight Dexter axles and raised spring mounts. It’d have had Dexter’s EZ-Lube system and a couple of Dexter’s sprung equalizers that help smooth the ride on violent bumps.

      Bare interior heavily insulated all ’round, including awnings as possible. Roof vents, shielded and screened floor-level vents, and 800W solar panels on roof feeding 800 AH’s of AGM batteries, using adequately-sized wiring. Enclosed shower fed by portable propane-fired water pump unit. Kitchen counter, sink, desk and all furniture are standard residential stuff, much of which I already had.

      Water storage via multiple 7-gal spouted jugs stored in truck bed, used one at a time by gravity feed. Porta-potty style toilet using disposable bags, though I was also researching a compost type, so no blackwater tank. Conventional greywater tank under floor for sink & shower waste, to widen campsite choice options. Two 12v refrigerated bin coolers, for frozen and fridged food. Propane camping stove on counter. Like the TT I modified, a full office area allowing use of my existing desktop iMac with external drives, etc.

      I had not yet worked out all cabinets, closets, or compartments, so storage would begin with the common bins I use now. Heat via Mr. Heater propane, like now. Given proper storage, it had the potential for better space utilization than the 26′ TT I now use. The TT is now kinda similar overall, but is longer and heavier with miserable ground clearance, and its furnace, water pump and propane fridge have all had problems – none of which Plan A would have included. If you don’t have it, it can’t break. No A/C either, of course. The need for it is too limited to be worth it. Roll-in portable A/C could easily be added/vented if camping circumstances changed for some reason and shore power was available. If anything seems unrealistic, keep in mind that I had never camped other than once in a tent, and never walked through an RV of any type.

      I worked out the floor plan and then the wiring routing for quotes, then had to go direct to a builder (which many dealers parade as being). They balked at custom-ordering Dexter and upsized wiring heavier than their 16-GA(!), and I’d have to buy things and ship to them! Even what was left was way too expensive and I was out of time anyway. I needed to start with an existing much cheaper decent-quality cargo and roll my own on conversion to a raised concession. Time for a TT!

      Not exactly short and sweet, but there it is! Sorry you asked now, aren’tcha?

      • Wow…that is trailer I have never heard anyone talk of converting but that would be cool. Some of your ideas for water, stove tanks etc….you might want to look on my left sidebar on my blog and read how Glenn at “tosimplify”….redid his stripped out VW van…he implemented some really great ideas. I would also need a place for a desktop iMac and my 2nd monitor, would hate to downsize to a MacPro or Air with the smaller screen.

        Thanks for your reply, I enjoyed. it.

        • Thank you, Steve. Nice to see some other poor soul is into screen real estate even worse than me. The only way I could give up an existing 27″ iMac is for it to break, and break bad. Extremely handy for blogging, allowing side-by-side cut & paste etc, without having to keep changing from one app to the other. I’ll have to check out Glenn’s mods. Haven’t seen his blog for awhile.

          • When I bought my iMac I couldn’t make up my mind between the 21.5 or 27. I bought the 21.5 but never forgot that 27″ screen, bought the monitor 6 mos later as as a 2nd monitor and my main monitor.

            Glenn gutted a VW van and did a great job on the rebuild with some really cook ideas about propane, a water tank, solar, etc

  6. Michael on said:

    Doug,

    This comment is a little late. ‘Not sure how I missed this post…

    Thanks for putting all those thoughts and observations into writing. It’s especially helpful to those of us who haven’t yet made our choice of vehicle/living space.

    • You’re very welcome. It’s a tough decision when all the info sources are pushing particular rig types for one reason or another, and negatives are ignored or glossed over. I call it the “everything is wonderful” syndrome.

  7. This is such a useful post that I’m here re-reading it a second time.

    Something you don’t mention explicitly is what I’m planning: start with a strong-engined cargo van and a small amount of overflow stuff in a little storage unit (~$30/month.) I plan to live in the van for a while, maybe as long as 2-3 years (like you say, what a person can tolerate short-term versus long-term are different things.) While the lifestyle will create a few new expenses, it will free up most of the $500/month I currently pay in rent plus utilities. (I expect phone/Internet costs to remain the same as I am planning to switch over to one of those portable satellite set-ups)

    That freed-up rent money — or, realistically, most of that money — gets squirreled away to later be converted into a travel trailer the van can tow, plus upgrades (nicer tires, solar power, fixing the inevitable things that need fixing in an older travel trailer) with the rest forming a “cushion” of savings for the inevitable road emergencies, upgrades, repairs, etc.

    It’s my fixed-income dream of freedom, bootstrapping myself up into a lifestyle I crave but couldn’t afford otherwise. That’s where the modular nature of the travel trailer plus a vehicle to tow it becomes an extra feature. Depending on how daring I get as I come closer to realizing my plan (this year is for downsizing stuff and the waiting period for Medicare to kick in) I may bootstrap up to a better van by starting out in good weather, tent camping locally (I live on the edge of a 3 million acre National Forest) with my ancient car to save up for a nicer cargo van.

    Sometimes it takes a little time, patience, and ingenuity to achieve escape velocity.

    Thank you for the wealth of information you’ve shared in your blog to help me as I shape my own future dreams.

    • An evolving rig – that’s good! It sounds sensible and workable, but being an inherent coward, I’d caution/remind you to keep researching & analyzing your expected expenses, and assume the worst when you acquire used equipment. It’s that “fixed income” limitation that tends to gum up the works when the unexpected shows up to demand more resources. In other words, assume that something on/in it will need replacement or repair. Since vans are rarely equipped to stay encamped for more than a few days, fuel costs normally outstrip most other expenses, at least until the big-ticket components start folding. It’s a relatively inexpensive way to live for sure, but can be unforgiving if resources fail to meet ongoing expenses.

      Tent camping out of a car is no particular fun (in my opinion), but it would accelerate savings a bit and make a van seem like the Taj Mahal. I’m just glad that you’re carefully thinking this through and trying to anticipate, rather than impulsively acting on an idyllic dream. Makes it a lot easier to encourage you to keep planning and then go for it!

  8. I was glad to see an enclosed rooms both off the van and then that bus in Quartszite – I was afraid it might not be possible with the winds I’d read about in that area. Out of curiosity have you noticed whether people tend to pull them when the winds come up? Or do they take a lot of care in staking? I noticed that the van seems to have been parked with a lot of care to give that room a windbreak on both sides. Course you’d have to ensure your door was in the right place – something to think about. Usually the doors to those rooms are straight out in relation to the side door. On the bus, hard to tell. When you are in Quartszite is the wind direction consistent – or is it just all over the place? Thanks for all your posts. I especially enjoyed your solar solutions!

    • Thank you very much, Hequet. Although wind direction can vary, it normally doesn’t. So people are usually careful to provide a wind break for their tarp, and stake down well too. Nothing like a tied but loose stake waving around in a high wind – right next to a vehicle. Kinda depends of what you’ve got to work with, and how long you intend to stay.

  9. My first foray (1981) was a 60’s era station wagon with 2 other people, in Winter, in the Canadian Rockies; ah youth! 2nd time around was 1989, in a small hatchback with an 8 x 8 screen tent (putting that up alone taught me patience!) I REALLY appreciate this overview of current options; hopefully next time will be a little more comfortable (for my old bones ;o)

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