Adventures In Downsizing Pt. II: Full-time RV living at its finest or living in a tin-can nightmare?

Since moving from a 7 bedroom, 3600 sq. ft. house in the city into a 300 sq. ft. RV to live off-grid, high in the mountains below Mt. Shasta nearly eight months ago, Robin and I have learned some very real and sometimes difficult – if not downright harsh – realities about full-time RV living.

SEE RELATED: Adventures In Downsizing Pt. I: Songs of the mountain

A peak into the origins of our current insanity

For us, the dream of RV living all started when we were young parents and would take the kids out camping. Like many couples when they are just starting out, we began our camping adventures in tents before graduating to camping trailers and then RV’s. Basically, as our finances improved so did our toys.

Like many young couples, our camping adventures started small and in tents.

Back then – when we were young, dumb and foolish – we were absolutely enamored with the idea of RV living. All we saw we viewed through rose-tinted glasses, with none of the real-world experience needed to make an educated decision about how ready we really were.

Before reality hit us like a 2×4 in the face, all we saw was the open road and the freedom RV living represented. The glorious sunrises in the morning and spectacular sunsets in the evenings. The incalculable, bright stars in the evening sky. The campfire sing-along’s. The fresh, pine-scented air on a frosty winter morning.

More than anything, we were blinded by the vacation-based, lack of regular, day-to-day worries and issues.

Year after year, we would regularly go “dry-camping” (RV’ing without water, electricity or other vitally important hook-ups necessary to survive – such as cable TV or Internet) with all our children when they were growing up.

Whether we were heading out to the desert during motorcycle season or out to the lake or river during boating season, we were out there in our RV. Usually for two to three weeks at a time.

Between those seasons, we would head out on adventurous road trips, usually for weeks at a time. We loved visiting National monuments and state parks and seeing places of historical value.

One particularly wet fall we even spent two long and soaking wet months on the road during an absolutely insane – but incredibly memorable – cross country road trip with our wild brood of children.

Visiting every theme park we passed while on a two month road trip was possibly the real beginning of our current insanity.

I believe it rained nearly every day of the trip but in spite of the never-ending deluge we visited almost every single theme park from California to Florida and then hit all the ones we missed on the way home.

And I mean Every. Last. One.

Did I mention it was an insane trip undertaken by insane people or that it never stopped raining once?

Of course, we only had nine children at the time – not like the thirteen who now insist on calling us Mama and Pops – so it wasn’t too crowded, at least by our standards.

Oh, and of course we had to take along Robin’s – uhm… I mean – our six dogs, since we couldn’t leave her beloved fur-babies at home. Ever seen the damage just one hyper-anxious Chihuahua can do to an empty home? Multiply that by six and you might, just might, have a concept of our true insanity.

Not to get too distracted or too far off course, but just think about that for a moment and let that math sink in.

Take two adults. Add in nine children. Multiply that by six yapping, overly anxious, fur-demons. All crammed into one small RV for two very long and nearly torturous months covering more than 6,000 miles while zig-zagging across the country.

The size of our family never kept us from enjoying grand camping and RV adventures.

I am not quite sure what the sum is, but I guarantee you it is somewhere between sheer lunacy and nearly brain-dead. At least that was how it felt towards the end of that epic road-trip.

Yet in spite of what should have scared us away from RV’ing forever, it all seemed so wonderful. We had always talked and dreamed about just retiring some day, packing up the RV and heading for the mountains.

But nothing, and I mean absolutely NOTHING, could have prepared us for some of the harsh realities of actually living full-time in an RV.

So, for the king’s ransom of a mere five minutes in a hot shower and ten minutes of quality Internet time I am more than happy to share some of my experiences and lessons I have learned. At least what I have learned so far.

Living the RV dream or stuck in a tin-can nightmare?

Because we had already owned several RV’s and camping trailers over the years, when our golden opportunity to flee the “dirtiness” of city living and go off-grid finally came we truly believed we were more than a bit well prepared.

But, oh how very wrong we were.

Heading into town is always an adventure.

If only there had been someone – anyone – who had been willing to school us regarding the realities of living in an RV full-time… because we can now assure God Himself that spending a few weeks out “camping” in an RV or trailer – no matter how big or luxurious it might be – it is simply not the same as full-time RV living.

Since beginning this latest of life’s grand adventures we have spoken to so many people who dream of doing exactly what we are doing. These naive and innocent individuals believe, just like we once did, that it all must be a giant slice of heaven. But let me tell you – while that slice of heaven does exist, it comes with a heavy dollop of cold, hard reality on the side.

I’m not trying to sound harsh, but knowing now what we didn’t know when we began this adventure I can tell you first-hand that anyone who excitedly says how lucky we are and how they would “just looove” to be doing the same thing is either ignorant, delusional, or possibly both.

I say that because now we know – having learned the hard way – that those starry-eyed and hopeful adventurers have clearly never tried such an undertaking.  We also know that much like us at one time, they have probably never really thought of some of the very real pitfalls to off-grid RV living.

Before – with our honestly minuscule amount of RV experience – we would share with others the dream of full-time RV living and we would think longingly of the supposed “freedoms” such a life would offer. But now when we listen to others with the same fool-hardy dream we just smile, nod our heads, and look at each other knowing the real truth and harsh reality of it all. All with the full knowledge that those people’s dreams are actually full of… uhm… so much nonsense.

Rules of the proverbial road and some experienced words to live by

For anyone who dreams of moving onto a plot of undeveloped land and living in their RV – whether permanently or only for a time while building their dream homestead – here are just a few helpful hints and some full-time RV living “fun facts” to keep in mind:

Once the snow starts falling everything you thought you were ready for will suddenly change.

— Have a good running generator and at least a few full five or ten gallon tanks of gas handy. Or at least have a decent quality – and indoor safe – space heater and a few of the best blankets you can afford. Other than water, there is nothing like running out of power, fuel, or other necessary resources in the middle of winter.

— No matter how much propane or water you have in your holding tanks it is never enough. If you don’t plan ahead you will most likely run out – usually of both – right when you need them the most.

So, even though you can’t trust them at all, remember to constantly check your gauges and water lines. Like daily. Especially once the winter freeze sets in, as RV water lines can and will freeze and crack.

Keep in mind that if you are basically dry camping with no full-time hook-ups or alternative resources you can end up in real trouble, real fast. We have learned the hard way to always have a back up plan for all your necessary resources. And then have a back-up plan for your back-up plan.

Just remember, if you don’t properly plan ahead you will most likely die a cold and hard death once the snow starts falling in earnest – assuming you don’t die of thirst or cabin fever/RV insanity first.

— Speaking of holding tanks, having 100 gallons of waste tanks seems like a lot at first, even when split 50/50 between black and grey water. But let me tell you, even with only two people sharing those tanks, it’s not a lot and those tanks fill up fast.

Again, constantly check your gauges. Even though, as I have already mentioned, you can’t trust your RV’s gauges worth a shyte. And yes, the pun was intended.

As before, always have a back up plan or you will most likely find your RV’s waste-tanks really backed up and find yourself having to hand-pump poo-water out of your tanks and into your once full, but now very empty gas cans, five gallons at a time.

Have I mentioned these are all fun facts I have had to learn from first-hand experience? I can assure you my friends, that is a crappy job and there is nothing funny about it. Even if your wife does fancy you to be the next Mike Rowe or Dave Berry. Trust me on this.

Once we realized we would be rationing every drop of water, we figured we might as well turn our shower into a closet.

— If you are a messy person, you had better break that habit and I mean right away.

Nothing will make your RV mate madder than tripping over your size 12 boots (or in my one-legged case, the even deadlier and harder to spot single right boot) while groping their way to the bathroom in the dark at 3 a.m.

Or worse yet, tripping over said boot and landing on your hapless hubby’s fishing gear, which he left out after getting them set up and ready for his morning fishing trip.

Trust me, you just do not want to be having to pull a sharp fishing hook (or 3!) out of your fuming’s wife’s favorite “cold-weather sleeping parka.” Especially when your morning wake up call is in two hours.

— Accept early on that trying to find space for everything you once loved, cherished and held dear is dang near impossible. Wait, did I say nearly impossible? Make that absolutely, positively impossible.

So, get ready for the inevitable arguments over what gets to stay and what has to go. If you are married, especially if to a strong-willed woman such as I am, prepare to lose that battle – should you be foolish enough to even try to win.

— I’ll soon be providing handy arguing tips for full-time RV living, but first, let’s have a chat about dirt. Seriously – think about all the mountain dirt and serious lack of available water or even fuel to heat that water for a two-minute, speed shower. If it is anything like the fine mountain dirt we have here in Shasta County then let me tell you, it sticks to absolutely everything and never, ever goes away.

Also, keep in mind that no matter how much you would absolutely love a nice, hot shower, you have to always remember that if you are lucky, you might have about 100 gallons of fresh water available. And that is only when it is fully topped off.

So, when it comes to the “desire” to be clean or the “need” to save and conserve water, being clean is vastly overrated and deodorant will become your new best friend. Or else that will become an issue too. Just ask my youngest son. At 18-years-old and about to graduate from high school, he is the only child who still lives with us.

Of course if you are lucky enough to have a stream or creek nearby, you will never be in need of a shower again, I suppose. But if not, just keep telling yourself that dirt is the new black and know that “baby wipe bathing” will become your new reality. The only way to really deal with it is to just accept that you are going to get dirty and stay dirty. Period.

Since our shower is now a closet, whenever we are in need of a quick rinse off we head out to the outdoor shower.

— Clean clothes, like clean bodies, are also a luxury and vastly overrated. Like your disgusting bodies, just accept that what you wear is going to get dirty and stay dirty.

— Once winter hits in the mountains, being cold is really just another excuse to cuddle with your always dirty spouse – whose last “real” shower was probably sometime last month. Or was it around Thanksgiving? Man, has it been that long?

Of course your mountain man or mountain woman is probably cleaner than you, so snuggle up with that filth-monster and be thankful you have something… er… someone warm to cuddle with.

Winter hasn’t even really hit yet and we are still waiting for the real snow to start falling, but last night it got down to 33° inside our RV, so cuddling is a survival essential.

It was so cold we could see our breath and after a while the condensation our breathing was causing began to form miniature icicles on the metal door knobs and other metallic objects within the RV.

— Along the same subjects of dealing with cold-weather and lack of readily available resources is the subject of hair. Hate too much of it on your beloved’s face, arms, legs, well…everything? Too bad.

There is a real reason mountain men tend to have hairy faces. Not only are available resources a constant problem and downright hassle to obtain – ie, soap, water, electricity for razors or just razors in general – hair is warmth and warmth is life. Want to survive the cold, harsh winter living in an icy, metal tomb? Then just plan now on growing hair. And lots of it.

— Some other real issues when learning to adjust from house living to RV living are meal storage, preparation and cooking. After you have gotten accustomed to having an enormous, fancy fridge with 36 or more cu. ft. of space, trying to adapt to only having a tiny, RV-sized fridge with a mere 12 cu. ft. of space is almost a ridiculous proposition.

Get used to it.

Our tiny kitchen is effective, but has taken a while to get used to making regular meals in.

I would suggest you make use of all that available snow that surrounds you like a built-in, surround-style fridge, but bears, coyotes and bobcats are a very real and ever-present fact of life here.

Unfortunately, just like a cat, dog or child, accidentally leave food out and feed them once and you will never get rid of them.

— Speaking of feeding time at the zoo, cooking with an RV-sized stove and oven inside an RV-sized kitchen takes a whole new advanced-level skill set. Gone are the days of cooking an extravagant meal, at least on a regular basis, until those upper-level skill sets are learned.

Easy to make meals with few and simple ingredients, such as sandwiches or canned beans, will become your new best friend until you have learned the ins-and-outs of successfully navigating and using your tiny micro-kitchen.

Unless one of you are prone to gas, of course. Because you simply do not want stinky, bean-fueled farts defiling the air inside your cramped and miniature living-space. The dogs are bad enough.

— Speaking of dogs, having a dog is a great way to help warn you when hungry predators come knocking. That being said, having six insane, tiny crap machines is pushing even the best of luck. Especially when the tiniest two believe they are supreme rulers of their new, wooded jungle and want to challenge anything that moves within 200 yards

However, if your spouse is a habitual collector/rescuer of all things endangered, homeless and needing absolute, pure, and unquestionable love, then make sure to pick your battles wisely.

Since I have somehow – unwisely, some might say – opened the door to the sensitive subject of arguing with spouses, I suppose I should cover the whole delicate and dangerous act of RV arguing next.

Still considering full-time RV living?

Buckle your seat-belts folks… it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

So, now that I have schooled and scared away at least some of those city folk dreaming about the “joys” of full-time RV living, it really all boils down to this.

In spite of all the new lessons to be learned we wouldn’t change a thing.

If you ever do find yourself stuck in a tiny, micro-sized living space and trapped on a snowy mountain top with nothing but vast views around you and no one to hear your screams for help – never, ever, choose to argue with your RV mate unless you are ready to suffer the consequences.

Especially if your spouse always happens to be right, as is my case.

Even when you feel the walls closing in and RV insanity rearing its ugly head, just remember – there is absolutely no place to go to cool off other than out in the snow. Also remember that there is only so much room in an RV to try to hide from your loving spouse’s angry stink-eye.

So, if you do happen to screw up or make the mistake of arguing – just accept your guilty plea, do your time in the proverbial doghouse, and hope your prison sentence is short.

That way you can get back to all that dirty, hairy, stinky – but absolutely wonderful – cold-weather cuddling.

Adventures in Downsizing is a semi-regular series, chronicling my move from a 3600 sq. ft., seven bedroom home to an RV with about 300 square feet, which coincidentally happens to be about the size of my old walk-in closet. I will also be going back and publishing a number of earlier “Adventures in Downsizing” and “Small Town Living” meanderings and observations I previously posted on social media. I hope you all enjoy my wandering, nonsensical ramblings.


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Trevor Montgomery, who recently moved from Riverside County to Shasta County, runs Riverside County News Source and Shasta County News Source. Additionally, he writes for Riverside County based newspapers Valley News, The Valley Chronicle and Anza Valley Outlook as well as Bonsall/Fallbrook Village News in San Diego County.

Trevor spent 10 years in the U.S. Army as an Orthopedic Specialist before joining the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in 1998. He was medically retired after losing his leg, breaking his back and suffering both spinal cord and brain injuries in an off-duty accident.

During his time with the sheriff’s department, Trevor worked at several different stations, including Robert Presley Detention Center, Southwest Station in Temecula, Hemet/Valle Vista Station, Ben Clark Public Safety Training Center and Lake Elsinore Station, along with other locations.

Trevor’s assignments included Corrections, Patrol, DUI Enforcement, Boat and Personal Water-Craft based Lake Patrol, Off-Road Vehicle Enforcement, Problem Oriented Policing Team and Personnel/Background Investigations. He finished his career while working as a Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Investigator and was a court-designated expert in child abuse and child sex-related crimes.

Trevor has been married for more than 27 years and was a foster parent to more than 60 children over 13 years. He is now an adoptive parent and has 13 children and 14 grandchildren.