For those who know me, I used to talk about this idea of living in an RV. I liked the idea of achieving true location-independence and minimalism early on, freeing up expenses for more important things. Having a remote job, keeping my physical possessions to a minimum, living wherever I want; win-win-win. I especially liked this idea of travelling to wherever I wanted in the continental US and living in different places for a month or so at a time.
I realize I'm not alone in considering this. There are many retired people, for one, who rent or buy RVs and pursue this. There are a group of people called workampers, detailed in Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, who RV full-time and take seasonal jobs through programs like Amazon CamperForce. Then there are the working homeless, in places like the Bay Area, who may not be able to afford housing, or simply choose to live in cars and RVs instead of paying exorbitant rent prices.
Most people are not workampers, nor are they living in their cars, luckily. This piece is mainly for that group of people who are working hard daily and may be putting things like travel off until they can retire and get an RV.
In October, I decided on a whim to take my car and drive west and haphazardly threw together a travel plan on Windows Notepad (it helps that I have no wife and kids, and I saved up all my PTO). I currently live near Boston, MA and I decided to take 9 days and do a loop around the country and visit 10 national parks scattered across the northern US.
5800 miles later, what I realize is that much of what I wanted out of my old RV dream is achievable through other means. In fact, there may be a better alternative. It's called the Fast car, cheap motels (FCCM) strategy.
RV vs. FCCM
If you've driven for a long period of time, I'm sure you've realized that the size of the US is surprisingly manageable. Much of the US is forests, farms, and ranches and while these are quaint and charming, you probably aren't going to spend more than a few hours in these areas unless you work there. So you're bound to spend time around areas of human life such as metro areas, towns, and designated natural areas.
While you could explore every nook and cranny of a certain state, there just isn't enough time, and even people living in those small towns might tell you to go on to more interesting places. So you're mostly left with exploring metro areas and designated natural areas.
So if the goal is to explore these metro areas and designated natural areas, with limited time and money, what is the best way to do this?
If you think about it, what does an RV provide? A bed, a bathroom, maybe a kitchen. So, you're dragging along a huge hunk of metal just for that? That's a huge amount of gas wasted just to have those comforts. In addition, you have to deal with the hassle of having a vehicle that cannot fit in a standard parking space. This is less of a problem out in the middle of the country, but closer to the coasts, urban crowding can make space real tight.
For a bed, there's not too much difference between the back (or backseat) of a car and a nice twin size mattress, not to mention the climate control built into cars.
For a bathroom, the infrastructure in the US is very well built out and there are restrooms available at gas stations and truck stops all across the US.
For a kitchen, there aren't really communal kitchens available, and having a freezer or refrigerator in a car isn't really an option, so you might have to settle for takeout, or something like Soylent or Huel.
The crux of my argument is that RVing is a very inefficient means of traveling, for not much gain. Renting an RV can cost more per day than a nice hotel, even before tacking on RV park spot or campsite rentals. In addition, you have to worry about having a large vehicle, blackwater and graywater, electricity, Wi-Fi, heating, security, and maintenance.
The alternative is a fast car and cheap motels. Why buy or rent an RV, when a car works just as well? You're saving a boatload already, with the option of spending $50 a night at a cheap motel, when you need to. This strategy is suitable for all family sizes, though you would probably have to opt for the motel every day if you have multiple people, which is a significant cost similar to renting a $1500/month apartment.
For most purposes, I think the fast car, cheap motels strategy of traveling is the pinnacle of travel in the continental US, assuming you have the time to even consider RVing. Obviously, there is a place for RVs, and that is when you're staying in relatively remote, warm areas for long periods of time. But be wary of upkeep. A $1000/month apartment is about $32.25/day, which doesn't seem too bad considering the protection it gets you. I imagine that RV site rentals and maintenance can get up to that number fairly quickly, so be wary.
For reference, below are the approximate route and budget of the 5800 mile trip I took.
Aspirations of Communal Living
One last thing I haven't mentioned about the idea of living in a RV is the vision of community that can come with it. I wrote a piece called The Most Important Thing in which I talked about how important the camaraderie of fellow humans can be to people's lives. In search of this, people often default to the idea that you need to pursue a nuclear family (husband, wife, kids) or some type of shared housing. What if this was not the case, and people could live in close proximity without all the hoopla of shared leases, expensive apartments, marriage, etc.? Why not bring together a bunch of RVs, something similar to Tony Hsieh's Airstream park in Las Vegas, to form a surrogate family? Of course there are the real world practicalities of renting land, cold and snowy weather, and finding quality people, but it's a nice idea to aspire to.
Route and Schedule
Note: Both the route and schedule are approximate. In particular, Google Maps seems very averse to taking WY-14 West from Cody, WY and then WY-191 South to Jackson, WY. Probably because there is only one gas station for hundreds of miles on that route. I added some stops to fix that, but the linked route seems to have messed that up again.
- Boston, MA => Cuyahoga Valley National Park (10 hrs)
- Explore Cuyahoga Valley National Park (2 hrs)
- Buffer (4 hrs)
- Sleep @ Cuyahoga Valley National Park (Motel 6, Richfield, OH)
- Cuyahoga Valley National Park => Indiana Dunes National Park (5 hrs)
- Explore Indiana Dunes National Park (2 hrs)
- Indiana Dunes National Park => Minneapolis, MN (7 hrs)
- Buffer (2 hrs)
- Sleep @ Minneapolis, MN (AmericInn by Wyndham Bloomington - Minneapolis)
- Minneapolis, MN => Theodore Roosevelt National Park (8 hrs)
- Explore Theodore Roosevelt National Park (6 hrs)
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park => Glendive, MT (1 hr)
- Buffer (2 hrs)
- Sleep @ Glendive, MT (OYO Hotel Glendive, Yellowstone River)
- Glendive, MT => Yellowstone National Park (5.5 hrs)
- Explore Yellowstone National Park (Drive from Cody, WY to Jackson, WY) (4 hrs)
- Yellowstone National Park => Grand Teton National Park (3 hrs)
- Buffer (3.5 hrs)
- Sleep @ Grand Teton National Park (Super 8 at Wyndham Jackson Hole)
- Explore Grand Teton National Park (4 hrs)
- Grand Teton National Park => Yellowstone National Park (3 hrs)
- Explore Yellowstone National Park (4 hrs)
- Yellowstone National Park => Douglas, WY (5 hrs)
- Sleep @ Douglas, WY (Booked Covered Wagon Motel in Lusk, WY. Actually slept in car in Douglas, WY)
- Douglas, WY => Wind Cave National Park (3 hrs)
- Explore Wind Cave National Park (1 hr)
- Wind Cave National Park => Mount Rushmore (1.5 hrs)
- Explore Mount Rushmore (1 hr)
- Mount Rushmore => Badlands National Park (1.5 hrs)
- Explore Badlands National Park (4 hrs)
- Badlands => Sioux Falls, SD (4 hrs)
- Sleep @ Sioux Falls, SD (Motel 6 Sioux Falls)
- Sioux Falls, SD => Gateway Arch National Park (9 hrs)
- Explore Gateway Arch National Park (1 hr)
- Buffer (6 hrs)
- Sleep @ Gateway Arch National Park (Loyalty Inn Maryville)
- Gateway Arch National Park => Mammoth Cave National Park (5 hrs)
- Explore Mammoth Cave National Park (2 hrs)
- Mammoth Cave National Park => Lewisburg, WV (6.5 hrs)
- Buffer (2.5 hrs)
- Sleep @ Lewisburg, WV (Slept in car)
- Lewisburg, WV => Shenandoah National Park (2 hrs)
- Explore Shenandoah National Park (Drive Skyline Drive South to North) (3 hrs)
- Shenandoah National Park => Boston, MA (8 hrs)
- Buffer (3 hrs)
- Sleep @ Home