Sitting at my parent’s kitchen table in Indiana, I was back in the land of my childhood for a personal revamp.
I had already lived in five different states, was out of college, and was 26 years old aimlessly searching for my life’s purpose. I had last left a small, secluded mountain town where I resided for the past year.
Where did I want to go next with my life?
At this point, my priority was developing a lifestyle that would support me with my impulsiveness and constant desire for change. The continuous apartment search was beginning to feel like a drag.
My rationale was that a Recreational Vehicle could keep the excitement and curiosity of moving and traveling in motion while ridding of the technical moving process.
I decided to travel back to the Midwest and snag a cheap, used, and likely not without its problems trailer. Living in an RV was more than just the dream of traveling around North America. I’ve always considered myself a minimalist and have taken pride in the fact that whenever I was ready to move I could throw all of my belongings in my car and be on my way.
Quite frankly, I had never in my life felt “home” in the traditional sense.
Moving a lot during your formative school years can do this to you: you expect constant change in your adult life, even when it’s not necessary, or even when you’re making headway in your professional life or social community.
Consistency was never my strong point. So at this time in my life, I decided to lean into that inconsistency instead of beating myself up about it. Once purchased, I drove the 38-foot, fifth-wheel, toy-hauler behemoth back to Southern Colorado, where at the time the cost of living was cheap and RV parks were plentiful.
We hear about this type of living now all over Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, and it’s no longer necessary to search the depths of YouTube to find an amateur-looking vlog about the lifestyle.
This kind of perception also varies depending on the region. In the U.S., in particular, this kind of lifestyle may be unheard of, whereas there are other places or camps that are quite friendly to the long-term stay—usually in the year-round warmer climates.
Mind you, this article doesn’t exist to discuss the technicalities of how to hook up your grey water, why straw isn’t the best material for defeating drafts, or the best way to wash your dishes without running water. I have yet to read an article on RV or van living that delves into the deeper lessons that the lifestyle can teach us.
So, here are five deeper teachings during my time living in an RV:
1. People pitied me.
There is a distinct difference between a working person living in an RV versus a retiree. Being around people all day at my workplace tended to bring up the conversation of home life and living situations. Once others discovered I was living in an RV, the next question that followed was typically “Why?”
People would offer to help me look for a house or an apartment. Some would ask curiously where I was staying or if I felt safe. This is also a concern that may have shifted over the past 10 years with van and RV living being more common.
The interesting thing about being asked, “Are you getting along okay?” by my well-intended peers was that I was financially at my best during this time. I purchased the RV cheap and outright in the Midwest U.S. and it was costing me a few hundred dollars per month to park at a camp and use their facilities.
I was still spending a fraction of what I would spend on a one-bedroom apartment at that time.
With these inquiries, it felt easy for me to explain my goals without minimizing the challenges and their concerns. It was a great way for me to financially save, live more freely, and have something of my own.
2. Not everyone chose to live that way.
“I’ve been down on my luck for the past 30 years,” my neighbor in one of my long-term camps told me.
He had a disheveled look to him, staring down at the gravel surface, kicking rocks, and narrowly missing a random syringe that someone left for the public eye. “My son’s disowned me, I lost my house, and now at 65, I’m trying to figure out the best way to survive and the best place to live doing it.”
Mark and his girlfriend lived right next to me for about a year before he moved back to Nebraska to start a new life.
Of course, not everyone lives out of their car, van, or RV for just the simple pleasure of it or because they enjoy the minimalist lifestyle. Housing and rental prices around the U.S. have made it impossible for many citizens on disability or less economically fortunate to be able to afford a safe home to live.
Camps and RV parks vary in population type. Not all are filled with vacationers and retired snowbirds. The people I met along the way brought perspective to varying types of lifestyles, economic situations, and even domestic or family struggles.
Talking to my neighbors felt more intimate than ever before, particularly in the urban-like parks. The vulnerability in these discussions was palpable. I’m thankful for these interactions and I tend to encourage others to gain perspective in their lives by learning about others’ life situations.
3. I worked harder just to survive.
We take for granted how easy it is to turn on the tap for water or adjust the thermostat for heat in our “stick and brick” homes. I lived in the RV through several winters, which provided an additional challenge considering my specific RV was not winter-proof. I stuffed socks where I found drafty holes, I closed off any inside doorways to preserve heat, and I used space heaters for heating (turning them off when I left, of course. Space heater-related RV fires are all too common!).
A few nights I remember sleeping in my winter coat because, despite my efforts, it felt too cold for comfort. Though, there are ways to insulate your RV hookups. I didn’t use my hookups during the cold months simply because I didn’t want to deal with them freezing at any point.
I’d fill up two to three jugs of water at once at the common park ground pump. I used this water for drinking and washing dishes. I used the park laundry rooms or went to the laundromat in town. And sometimes at 3:00 a.m., I was running outside to the restrooms just so I could run back and try to get back to sleep.
Most of the time, I either showered at the park or went to the gym before work. Everything simply involved a bit more planning than being able to perform all of these duties in the comfort of your home—in one place.
In this way, there was also more at stake if something went wrong with the RV and it needed to be fixed—your home would be in the shop.
I actually enjoyed the fact that this type of living made me work harder just to perform simple tasks. It’s not like I was out hunting my own food or surviving in the wilderness, but there was that aspect of it that made me feel a sense of satisfaction that I could live comfortably in more challenging conditions compared to others.
4. I realized I didn’t need as much space or stuff.
After living in the RV for about a year, I became accustomed to the smaller size and found myself desiring to live in an even smaller space. Thirty-eight feet is large by RV standards, so I had my eyes set on either an old 20 to 24-foot airstream or perhaps a van next.
I had to think about every item that I brought into my home. Where would it go? How often would I be using it? Is it truly necessary? The items that I continued to accumulate seemed less and less important, so I ended up giving more and more things away without missing them at all.
I had a roof over my head. My doors locked. I had access to water and food. I felt safe, but if I didn’t feel safe I could always drive away. I had a bed, a fridge, a stove, and a table. Space seemed plentiful the more I lived in it on the daily.
I think partly because of this experience (and previous experiences as well) I continue to think about the items that I bring into my house now. I don’t want owning a house to give me an excuse to accumulate physical things indiscriminately.
But living in a small space makes it much easier to rid of personal belongings because you don’t always have a choice. If you don’t have the room, you can’t take it with you. In addition to the practical reasons for reducing “stuff,” minimizing reduces the noise of life.
I’ve had experiences with hospice and bereavement patients in my volunteer work that involves helping them “tidy up,” either immediately before a death or after. The effects of having lots of “stuff” as you or a loved one is dying is not only distracting but can be extremely burdensome.
This obligation of mass purging all at once is a fatiguing commitment and can hinder the actual mourning process or dying process. You can’t take these things with you. In the meantime, they end up not only cluttering your living space, but your mind as well.
5. I was more at the whim of nature, and thus, felt more in tune with nature.
But in the moment, some of these points were exhausting. It didn’t help that I lived in a “hot” tornado area right along the plains of Southern Colorado. This area invited not only tornados but high winds on any given day.
Imagine your house rocking and whistling alongside every wind gust, jerking you awake every several minutes. Depending on the wind direction, the RV had to be moved so the reeling was lessened.
I was the type of employee who never called in sick or left work early, but I remember one day in particular when I had only two hours of sleep due to the particularly high winds the previous evening. I was exhausted by 1:00 p.m. and asked to leave early since I was graced with a fortunately slow work day.
This frustration required me to pay extra attention to the weather to the point where I felt like my own personal meteorologist even without the weather app or technology lending me a hand.
I definitely had my moments of worrying about the weather more often than I’d like to admit. But at the same time, I felt appreciative. I felt like I more readily understood the struggles of nomadic people, animals who live in the wild, and those who are simply less fortunate to have a stick-and-brick home (and want one).
As humans, many of us in the Western world have lost our ability to read or care what nature is doing at all times. There’s no essential need to do so outside of perhaps planning outdoor recreational activities. Our ability to gather food, our sleeping habits, and our lives don’t revolve around nature anymore. We make our own nature.
As someone who feels “cooped up” by staying indoors for too long, I enjoyed the fact that it kind of felt like I was outside all the time, with a bit more protection, of course. I guess, I’m like a big kid who wants the chance to camp whenever possible.
“I’m just happy you’re not living out of a car anymore,” my dad expressed when I graduated from my airline cabin crew training program a few years later. I didn’t settle for a traditional life by any means, and I guess I swapped living out of a car for living out of my suitcase.
I suppose there’s something more relieving about that change for a perpetually concerned parent.
I still don’t take for granted the fact that if the weather is violent or windy, I won’t always hear it or feel it. And despite my home base now being a house, I can’t say I won’t spend some nights in my tent in the backyard—preferably on a calm and pleasant night.