Living in a Camper/RV Full-Time (Our Experience as a Family of Four in the Middle of Winter)
Not more than a few weeks ago my husband asked me why the lampshade in our living room has water stains on it. I had to explain this is a lingering reminder from our 6 month adventure living in a leaky aluminum can. Full time camper living is interesting to say the least. I had never stepped foot in a camper prior to my husband pulling this ugly, 39-foot monstrosity in the driveway of our home that had a newly posted "for sale" sign in the front. I had absolutely no clue what I was in for living in this 14 year old camper...
The only thing I knew for sure was that going from 1,900 to roughly 300 square feet would be a challenge. Only the bare necessities could move into the camper with us. As someone who kept three sets of measuring spoons stocked in my kitchen and had more towels than I could count, this was not an easy task.
What possessed us to move our family of four into a camper?
An opportunity to be more debt-free presented itself. We spent nearly two years completely remodeling our spacious ranch on 8 acres of beautiful rolling countryside. Along with the housing market rising, we had a ton of sweat equity built up. We decided to sell that property, and take the money from the sale to build a shed-to-house with our own hands that we would own outright. Our biggest problem was finding a temporary place to live between selling our house and making the new house livable.
Our target was to have the shed house completed enough to move into in just a few months. We did not want to have to sign a long lease agreement for an apartment, live further away from our property, or spend $1,200+ a month to live somewhere. This is where the camper came into play. We could purchase a used one for cash, and live basically rent-free in close proximity to our shed-to-house project.
Is it legal to live in a camper year-round?
The answer to this question depends on where you live. You will have to check local ordinances in the county you are planning to live in. This can be accomplished by simply calling your local municipality. We checked our area, and found one county only allowed a 6 month consecutive camper stay, and another county had no restrictions.
How did you sleep at night?
Honestly, not too well. I am convinced those four "stabilizers" at each corner of the camper are really more for looks. The slightest breeze would gently rock us to sleep at night. The camper swayed at the thought of someone rolling over in bed. You would think that you were experiencing an 8.0 earthquake as your toddler waddled from one end to the other. I think I still have motion sickness from living in an unsettled structure. The weirdest part of moving into our shed-to-house was actually the fact that the floors were solid. I could finally walk around my dwelling place and sleep at night without feeling like I was on a boat.
The sleeping arrangement was pretty easy to manipulate with the open floor plan of the specific camper we purchased. We purposely bought one that would fit a king size mattress. To our surprise, camper mattress sizes are smaller than standard mattress sizes. Fortunately, we were able to squish our regular king size into the spot meant for a camper king. The largest slide out allowed for a convenient place to put a mini-crib for my 1 year old, and I also found a slot to store a toddler size mattress next to our bed that I could place on the floor every night for my oldest son.
How did we manage water and washing?
The water situation in a camper was one that never even crossed my mind. I was used to running as much water in the shower as I pleased and having it all drain somewhere without a second thought. When I turned my kitchen faucet on, I always had hot water. The toilet contents flushed away never to be seen again. I owned a machine that effortlessly cleaned my clothing. These are luxuries I had taken for granted in my previous home.
Campers have holding tanks for all liquid. I had 30 gallons under my kitchen sink, and 40 gallons for all bathroom waste. It sounds larger than it really is and emptying these tanks was an absolute nightmare. A septic was on site, but the system was quite a ways away from where our camper had to be situated. Therefore, we needed a grinder, pump, and several hose lines to get waste water (read: literal sh!t water) from the camper over to the septic. All this was difficult in freezing temperatures in the winter. The hose lines would freeze solid, not allowing anything to pass, and the actual drainage spouts on the camper would freeze up making it impossible to even drain the tanks. The image of my husband setting up a torpedo heater to thaw out a poop tank spout is still fresh in my mind. He won "Husband of the Year Award" for managing the waste water while I relaxed on the couch.
We had to conserve water to avoid having to empty these tanks out every other day in the middle of winter. Military showers were common practice. (The water heater was not large enough to handle any longer of a shower anyways.) I filled a small plastic tote with water to bathe my toddlers in, and would then dump the bathwater outside to get the bathroom holding tank to last longer. I caught dishwater in a larger bowl and dumped the used water outside to avoid filling the kitchen drainage tank too quickly as well. I had to get used to planning out when I wanted hot water, as the water heater needed to be turned on ahead of time.
I hand washed laundry. This was not the easiest of tasks to complete inside of a camper, or out in the elements during the winter (or while pregnant). When it was not below freezing outside, I used a large double-sided washtub, old fashioned clothes wringer, and a large drying rack. My wash water was warmed with an electric coil heater that could be plugged into the exterior outlets of the camper. If it was too cold to be doing laundry outdoors, I would grab a 5 gallon bucket and wash only the necessities in the tiny camper shower. The hardest part of washing laundry while living in the camper was actually the drying of things. With the frigid temperatures, it would often take 2 days for clothing to dry outside. If the weather was not conducive for drying clothes, I used a collapsible rack tucked in the corner of a slide out.
What were some unforeseen challenges?
Heating: The camper walls are so poorly insulated that we had to run two electric heaters because the tiny, old furnace could not keep up.
Rodents: Imagine hopping into bed and closing your eyes for a restful night of sleep with squeaking and pattering noises coming from the bathroom sink cabinet. I had a consistent mouse problem. One day, I found my toilet paper chewed to shreds. Instead of dealing with my problems I sat down to enjoy some Oreo cookies, only to discover a mouse had been snacking on those too.
I was definitely paranoid with mice that ran around the same floors as my two young boys. It is one thing to share a large amount of square footage in a house with a mouse, but sharing a smaller territory is on a whole different level. To say I was fed up with these pesky rodents is an understatement.
Moisture: We purchased a camper that was in need of repairs, and paid a shop to fix them. Turns out, they did a crappy job and we still had leakage in one of the slide outs. If it rained just right, I had water dripping in the living room portion of the camper (hence the lampshade with water stains on it). A dehumidifier was required or else the windows would be foggy and dripping with condensation due to the amount of moisture in the air from the amount of cooking, cleaning, and breathing going on in such a tight space.
Freezing Water Pipes: We had the pleasure of living in a camper for 6 months, with the peak of our stay being in the middle of winter. I would often wake up in the morning without any running water in the camper due to pipes freezing. Even leaving faucets on drip would not prevent them from getting frozen. When this would happen, we had to run a heater under the camper, or wish that the temperature would be high enough that day for the pipes to thaw out.
Cooking and Food Prep: My stove had only 3 burners, but they were so close together I could really only use one large pot at a time. The oven was only big enough for a single 9 by 13 pan. Finding good meals that could realistically be made with the amount of cooking power I had was pretty tough. A seemingly easy meal like spaghetti and meat sauce took some planning to be able to serve hot. We ended up buying a large toaster oven so I could do some serious baking. Preparing food was difficult with the lack of countertop space. I was constantly moving things around and bounced between working at the dinette and the kitchen.
Would we do it again?
The goals we wanted to achieve meant we had to make sacrifices. We bought the camper we could afford to make home ownership a reality. The experience forced me to become a minimalist, and has had a lasting impression on how I do things in my home now. I have realized I do not need much to survive and thrive, and that a simpler life is an easier one.
After being settled in our unfinished shed to house for the last 8 months, I can leave my camper living woes in the past. I would never purposely choose to live in a camper again, but I'm so thankful for the experience and the better perspective on life that all of the challenges gave me.
See the exact model we lived in here.