My family and I recently wrapped up a few months of full-time travel in a super tiny travel trailer. This post is really long, and it’s a summary of how it went and why we stopped. Keep reading if you’re interested in this, otherwise, head to the archives to read posts on the things I usually write about!
Late last Fall, my family and I were in Northwest Arkansas- the place we’d called home for one very difficult year- looking for a house in Southern California. We’d followed God’s call across the country and gone on an incredible, wild journey. We’d started out as a stay-at-home mom and an internet technician and ended our time in Arkansas in a very different place.
I was now an entrepreneur with an armful of high-profile media features under my belt (I talked to friggin Jenny McCarthy in my living room! What is happening?!), a book agent, and the possibility of a reality television series on the horizon. Brian was still shell-shocked. Did this all really even happen?! Our lives had totally turned around so quickly. He was no longer bound by the job that had kept him away from his family for years- missing soccer games and prenatal appointments. We had no more ties in this beautiful state, and we could feel our hearts being pulled back to our roots. It was time to go back home and be near friends and family again.
We sat in our office on the phone with landlord after landlord hearing the same words over and over. Nobody wanted to rent to an out-of-state couple with a brand new business (no matter how much we had sitting in the bank), a dog, and not-so-great credit (we had struggled so hard to get to where we currently were).
We sat there feeling frustrated. I mentioned that one idea we’d always talked about since four years earlier… living in a camper and traveling a little. We tossed the idea around a bit but it didn’t really stick because we were tired and needed to sleep and start fresh tomorrow. The next morning we went to church and then took an afternoon drive. We saw a vintage Airstream travel trailer on the side of the road with a “For Sale” sign on it, and it seemed perfectly timed, so we pulled over. It was unlocked, so we snuck inside for a peak. It was so amazing, but so old, and it needed tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of work. Not for us!
Seeing that trailer made last night’s idea catch a new spark though, so I opened Craigslist up on my phone and we found another trailer for sale just down the road from where we were. We called the couple that had posted it and headed over. We talked, bursting with excitement about what it might be like to leave everything behind and live in a camper, visiting friends around the country. Even the kids were into the idea!
The trailer was perfect. It had a little water damage, but nothing my handy hubby couldn’t fix. It was decorated, well, like a camper, so we decided we’d renovate it. We still weren’t sure about living in it, but we knew we could at least use it to get back to California until a house worked out. We were feeling excited and a little trigger happy, so we handed them cash and left with a camper attached to our Suburban. Crazy.
December came around and we wanted to spend Christmas with family, so we said goodbye to the friends we’d come to love, packed our furniture into a POD storage container, and rolled out. December and January were spent on renovations, and finally, after what felt like years of painting and fixing and planning, we were off to live beachside for awhile.
It was sort of a weird place to be in… we’d just finished renovating our camper, but our hearts weren’t quite ready to go. We’d just come back from more than a year away from family; we found ourselves wanting to be around them still. The city Brian and I grew up in is just forty minutes or so from the beach, so we landed a site at a beautiful RV resort in Oceanside and decided to spend some time there so we wouldn’t be too far from loved ones.
We’d also realized, after renovating the camper and getting all the furniture and belongings we needed into it, that it was WAY WAY WAY WAY WAY WAAAAAAAAAAY too small for a family of six (plus a dog) to be living in. Like, way way way way way (okay, you get it) too small. Honestly, neither of us had a clue about camping, travel trailers, what kind of RV’s were even available (we now know there are basically estates on wheels out there), and like I said… we were a little trigger happy and just tried something crazy and ran with it. So we would keep running with it even if it was hard and imperfect. Because this camper was ours and it was special to us.
With what I do in my business, it was a fun challenge - minimalism to the extremest point. And that it was…
We spent two months living literally on the beach in beautiful So Cal. We would wake up in the morning and walk to get coffee and breakfast at the Buccaneer Cafe, watch the waves while we talked and ate eggs, go back to the camper to get some work done, and every time the kids needed to burn some energy or we felt cramped, the beach was right there.
We quickly learned that it’s hard to be productive in work and homeschooling when everyone around you is on vacation. You have to create your own boundaries and structure, and that’s really hard to do when the beach is outside your window. I’d hired several people to take on important roles in my business (a VA, a customer service rep, and a social media manager) in order to make my work load lighter, but working without an office was still a challenge that I was determined to figure out.
We had made an amazing deal with a huge website- they wanted me to create a mini course for their audience (a bite-size version of my full decluttering course). This was a huge opportunity for us and we were so excited about it! Brian had taken courses and learned to do the video/photo/media work I really needed done, so we worked as a team and took this project on.
It was terrible. There were so many problems and hurdles because of our lifestyle. The situation made us look so frazzled and unprofessional...we needed an office.
We tried renting a cute house in LA to record the course at, but the neighbor was working on his roof and it was so loud we couldn’t record, and we couldn’t convince him to stop either (he was kind of a jerk…).
$350 down the pipes.
We borrowed a friend’s adorable shop in Oceanside and spent an entire day recording with the camera set up on auto-pilot (so Brian could be with the kids while I recorded), and the footage turned out unfocused on fuzzy.
Seven hours of me sitting in a chair talking into a camera, for nothing.
We spent another $500 on furniture and set up a faux living room in the empty cottage my parents had in their backyard. Third time’s the charm I guess, because this time worked. However, we had leaked money on this very simple project and it had taken so much extra time… all because we didn’t have a home office to work from. We started to feel worried. Could we really do this with the type of business we had?
Pretty soon it was time to leave- we could feel the urge to travel and do what we’d bought the camper to do, so we planned a trip south and rolled out again. Our goal was to end up in Florida. My best friend of twenty-three years lives in Clearwater with her husband and two kids, and I hadn’t seen her in way too long.
We planned to stop in Arkansas for a week on the way to visit the friends we’d made while we lived there. We hiked, laughed, had slumber parties, met friends for lunch, and had a blast! We did all the things we couldn’t do while we lived in Arkansas because of the chaos of starting a business.
We left Arkansas feeling grateful for friendships but very behind on work. No matter what we did, this felt like vacation and it was nearly impossible to balance visiting with friends and not being “home” with getting steady work done. One of us needed to be with the kids at all times and we both had a list of work tasks to handle.
The camper was so small and cramped we really couldn’t all be in it at once, which was a really difficult problem to have. Every day felt like a battle we were losing and it really sucked the fun out of traveling. We decided to work harder to find a way to make this work because this life was a dream (and it seemed like everyone else’s dream) and we didn’t want to feel ungrateful.
I started staying in hotels whenever I had a live workshop to host or needed a couple days to catch up on writing. There was (pretty) reliable WIFI there and a nice background for videos versus the kids’ bunk beds or my tiny, always-messy kitchen with way-too-bright-and-unflattering lighting in the camper. Can you guys feel my stress as you read this? It was so. stressful. All the time!
As we traveled from Arkansas to Florida, making stops along the way, I had meetings while in the car with my four (very loud) children and spotty service and dropped more calls than I can remember. I wrote while Brian drove, and Brian edited videos while I took the kids to get dinner, I even hosted a live webinar from the camper pulled over in the parking lot of a Denny’s. Even though we got by and accomplished the bare minimum, none of it was really working. The stress of doing this and making it work wasn’t quite worth it to us, and we were really starting to realize that.
We saw some neat places, spent a day in Nashville (which I LOVED), and finally made it to Florida. We spent nearly a month there with our friends. It almost felt like the whole process- buying the camper, renovating it, traveling back across the country- like all of it had been to get to Florida to be with these people we loved so much. And if that’s true, it was so worth it.
I think we would’ve stayed in Florida longer if we hadn’t had a deadline. My little sister was graduating from high school and I didn’t want to miss it. We drove all the way back across the country in just three days. Our car made a huge difference though so don’t be too proud of us, ha! We ditched our beater Suburban and got a shiny new Yukon that came with a DVD player…. Yeah, road trips are much easier with a TV! But I’m really grateful we didn’t have one until last month. We had so many wonderful conversations, listened to great audiobooks, and built road trip habits that will last forever, DVD player or not. My kids don’t expect constant entertainment and they know how to busy themselves and have conversations during a long stretch of driving.
We’ve just gotten settled into a three-bedroom apartment on a short-term lease while we wait for the house hunting chaos to settle after summer is over. At that point, we’ll start looking into settling somewhere more permanently, and I can’t wait.
All in all, we feel that full-time travel isn’t for our family in this particular season. We think if we had known more going in and purchased a much larger travel trailer or RV with a space that could’ve acted as an office, things would’ve been easier. But that’s only part of it. We ached to be home. It felt like we weren’t home the whole time. Yes, wherever my family is is “home”, but we ached for a place to come to after a long day or travel. A place with the things we loved, a place to invite friends over to, a place to stretch out and not feel so squished, a place near family, a place with my personal touch all over it (I love to decorate and to live in a place where I feel inspired). The camper just wasn’t those things for us, as much as we wanted it to be.
Brian and I are so glad we bought the camper! It’s paid for and renovated and it gave us some amazing memories and adventure, and we will use it often (it’s being stored nearby). One of the biggest benefits to our business is that we have full control over planning the workload. If we plan ahead, we can take a very extended vacation, use the camper, and leave work behind while we take the kids on another adventure. But that is a totally separate issue from living and trying to manage a global business in it ;)
There are a lot of questions I get asked about living in a camper and how it worked, so I’m going to answer the most common ones here to clear the air.
Camper Living Q+A
Q: How did doing this change your family?
A: We are so much closer! My kids' relationships with each other is much closer, Brian and I are closer, and we each feel closer to our kids as well. It bonded us together in a way I didn't think was possible. We've always been a very tightly knit family since we've homeschooled our kids and are always together, but this brought us to another level that I'm very thankful for.
Q: How did sex work in the camper? TMI?
A: Not TMI- I get it, you’re curious how we could make it happen with the kids literally RIGHT THERE in their bunks. Let me first say that where there's a will, there's a way, and Brian and I defintiely had a lot of will! Here’s how we got it on…
Behind what Brian calls the “security curtain”, haha! This was a doubly thick black curtain with sound-reducing cushion sewn in between the layers. The curtain was up 24/7 and closed like a bedroom door every night at bedtime.
Thanks to stabilizers. If you’re going to have sex in a camper, get the best stabilizers you can find. We did, and the camper didn’t budge. It took a huge worry off me and helped me enjoy the ride ;)
Q: I noticed you stayed in hotels pretty much every night you were traveling from one state to another. What’s the point of having the camper if you’re going to stay in hotels?
A: What most people don’t understand is that we were not camping, we were living on the road. This means that we didn’t just have a week or even a month’s worth of stuff in the camper… everything we needed to have with us for living was in there. When we were actively traveling, bins of clothes, chairs, tables, our rug, everything that lived outside against the wall when we were stationary went inside the camper and you could barely squeeze in to use the bathroom! Hotels took a ton of time and work out of the experience for us, and obviously we lived in the camper once we got somewhere.
Q: What was your daily routine like while you traveled?
A: It was constantly changing depending on where we were, what time zone we were in, and what we had planned for each day. But a typical day looked pretty normal. I didn’t wake up very early while we lived in the camper because it was such close quarters that I’d wake the kids and they’d be grumpy later (although some days I did rise early and just head to Starbucks right away before waking anyone). We’d wake up together most days and start with coffee and breakfast, then spend the late morning getting work done before moving into some homeschooling, then spend the afternoon exploring our area.
Q: What was the hardest thing to get into a rhythm with while living in the camper?
A: Homeschooling, actually. By the time we did breakfast and cleaned up, worked for a few hours, made lunch and cleaned up, the last thing any of us wanted to do was school.
Q: How did grocery shopping and meal prep work with such a small fridge?
A: This was almost my answer to the last question- it was HARD. We ended up choosing to eat out a ton. It ended up taking a burden off of us. We eat very clean most of the time (for me it’s a necessity because of health issues) so when we eat out the price difference isn’t very much more than when we shop at Whole Foods. We grocery shopped every other day for fresh produce, snacks, and breakfast foods and still barely had enough space to store things in the fridge and pantry.
Q: How much did it cost to renovate the camper? Was it worth it?
A: It cost about $6,000 - $7,000 in renovations. Yes it was worth it! I recently did a really long Instagram Story about how home matters and I care about how I feel when I walk into where I live. I want it to be decorated well, to feel like mine, to have my touch all over it. Whether we're in a home we bought, an apartment we'll live in for less than six months (currently), or a camper, I want it to make me happy when I walk in. That's why we renovated the camper, and it was worth it.
Q: What was most surprising to you about the full-time travel lifestyle?
A: How expensive it is. I’ve always heard a lot of people say they live in campers and travel to save money, but this doesn’t make much sense to me. Yes, rent is less. I mean, we lived beachside in Southern California for $1,000/month. And we bought a Thousand Trails membership which let us stay at their sites free of charge, but they didn’t have many sites in the states we stayed at. There’s also a lot that increases in price when you decide to travel full-time, like the phone bill. We needed to have constant access to strong internet connection because of homeschooling and running the business, and the best way to get that is through your phone (personal hotspot), so our bill went up to $280.
Q: What size trailer do you have?
A: A 26' travel trailer with no slide-outs.
Q: How did you do laundry while living in the camper?
A: The resorts we stayed at always had laundromats. Once a week either Brian or myself would spend most of the day there catching up on all the laundry. With four kids and basically camping full-time, it was hard to not be able to wash whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, but we made it work, just like everything else about this lifestyle!
Q: How did your kids feel about this lifestyle?
A: They loved it. It was such a sweet adventure, even with all the hard parts. Brian and I were afraid it’d be too squished and they’d hate it, but they loved snuggling into their little bunks every night and giggling themselves to sleep. They were constantly telling us how much they loved living in the camper. Towards the end, they started talking about “going home” and missing everyone. I think we all felt the pull to call it quits at the same time.
So there's my super honest post all about our time in the camper. I hope it answered your questions! Now back to my laundry, which I can now wash anytime I want to in the machines inside my house.... ;)