I grew up in a house. I've owned houses, rented apartments, and just stopped living in an RV after nine years, including three years where we traveled full-time. So I've got plenty of experience with the unique ways that an RV contributes to minimalism--which go way beyond the size of the space.
There are many resources out there about minimalism in houses or apartments. I think that subject is well-covered for the moment, so I'll let you peruse those if you wish. I'll delve into my experiences about staying minimalist in a house after RV life in future posts. But for now, let's focus on RVs and minimalism.
What it's like living in an RV as a minimalist
In case you didn't catch it, I said I "just stopped living in an RV." This has been a long time coming, and not an easy decision to make. There are a number of reasons why it's the right choice for now, but it (hopefully) doesn't mean we're going to stop RVing forever.
The decision has nothing to do with the pandemic, either--it's something we were looking into since last summer. In fact, there has been a surge in "pandemic palace" sales because many people realized that RVs are a great way to continue social distancing but still be able to travel. But the reasons why aren't really relevant to this post, so let's move on to what it's like.
Whether an RV is big or small, motorized or towable, there are a few constants that every RV dweller has to deal with:
- Every time an RV travels, it's like putting the rig through an earthquake. So ideally, everything should be put away or attached to something when you're on the road. And just like when you move from one house to another, even the most carefully-packed items can break in transit. Would you risk bringing your grandmother's fine china with you in the car every time you left the house? Probably not. The rattle factor limits what you can bring in an RV--a plus for minimalists who focus on minimal possessions.
- Each vehicle also has weight limits, and exceeding these limits can put dangerous amounts of stress on the axles and tires, increasing the risk of a blowout. In our experience, you can usually fit more stuff in an RV than you safely should for weight considerations. So keeping the storage half-empty is better for safety and makes you naturally more minimalist!
- It's fatiguing to pack up your whole life each time you have to move the RV. Not necessarily if you rarely move, but if you change spots every day or two, you are going to get tired of spending an hour or two putting stuff away each time. Especially if you have better things to do, like earn an income, take care of your family, or go out into the world. What's great about RVs is how most of them are designed with tons of built-in storage space. This makes it easier to keep things organized and behind closed doors, where they are less likely to get damaged. Ryan and I got into a routine of having less stuff but also putting things away immediately after use. During the time when we traveled often, it took us about five minutes (often less) to get ready to leave. This habit was reinforced with the reward of wasting less time packing.
- Since RVs are heavier than an average passenger vehicle, fuel consumption is typically higher. From both an eco-minimalist and financial minimalist standpoint, there are pros and cons to RV travel. We found that compared to when we commuted to work in a car (just one car for the two of us), we drove much less in our RV lifestyle. So while each trip we made with an RV used more fuel because of the weight fo the RV, over the course of the year we traveled fewer miles than when we drove to jobs. It's also possible to travel in ways that reduce your carbon footprint and save you money--you just have to do some advance trip planning.
- Speaking of one's carbon footprint--the smaller square footage of an RV means that there's less space to heat and cool than a typical home. On the flip side, approximately 100% of RVs have thinner, less-insulated walls, roofs, and floors than your average sticks-and-bricks home. So unless you aren't bothered by extreme indoor temperatures, your climate control system will be running a lot if you stay in hot or cold places. If you're hooked up to electricity at a park, it's possible to pay just as much (or more) than you would on standard house utility bills. Many RVs also use propane to run the furnace, which is an additional cost and more fossil fuel use. The beauty of RV life is that you can change locations as desired, so you can live in your ideal climate year-round. This is called "following the weather" or being a "snowbird." This freedom is in my top five reasons why I loved being an RVer--life just feels better when you can choose to live in the climate you like best, year-round. You can also add a solar power system to help offset your electricity use, although it's difficult (and more expensive) to set up a system that can run an air conditioner.
- RV pipes are a smaller diameter than house plumbing, and cannot withstand the same amount of water pressure. Additionally, a typical RV hot water heater is exceedingly small (6 gallons is the norm, or 10 gallons if you're really lucky). All this means you're more likely to use less water. This is especially true if you choose to camp without water hookups. It becomes second nature to never leave the water running while you brush your teeth, wash dishes, or even take a shower. If you want to increase your water conservation as part of your eco-friendliness, an RV will get you accustomed to some of those habits.
- When you visit a campground in an RV, you're just renting a spot, but during that time it's your home. You naturally have concerns for the appearance of the campground--namely, you don't want to see trash lying all over your "yard." I think RVing makes people who love nature want to take even better care of it, and more conscious of how their actions impact the environment. Not only do you make sure to pick up your own garbage, but you pick up everyone else's, too. Sadly, this isn't the case for everyone--there are still plenty of people who live in RVs and litter. But hopefully, they are the minority.
- If you want to be more minimalist as a way to spend more time with the people you live with, traveling in an RV is certainly one way to do it. For better or worse, personal space and separation are cut down dramatically in an RV. If you move around a lot, you'll be socializing with each other more than anyone else by virtue of not knowing anyone in places you visit. But even if you are stationary, when you're in the RV, you're only steps away from each other. Managing this closeness successfully could mean finding new ways to have alone time and deal with conflict. This micro-sized habitat can magnify positive bonds as well.
- "Resetting to zero" is a term used by Colin Wright, author of books such as How to Travel Full-Time and Becoming Who We Need To Be. In his blog, Exile Lifestyle, Colin talks about how at least once per week he resets his home to its "resting state." This means cleaning all surfaces and putting everything away. Getting his inbox to zero (a goal I would love to start striving for) and checking off any urgent items on his to-do list. Colin says that if you aren't a minimalist, this reset is a great way to get a taste for what minimalism feels like. Well, imagine how much easier it is to reset to zero in a tiny space like an RV. Most of the time you can deep-clean the interior of a rig in an hour or two.
- RV travel gives the opportunity to explore new places while still living your day-to-day life. It reduces or eliminates the hassles and discomforts of sleeping in strange beds, lugging around suitcases, and dealing with airport security. You also can take your time visiting, because you don't have to worry about using up all your vacation days. Any day you can achieve a balance between how you make money and how you spend your free time, it's like going to work and then being on vacation five minutes later--all in the same day. It's so much more relaxing when you are someplace new but still have the comforts of home. The peace of mind this type of living provides gives you a sense of freedom because you aren't taking up your time and emotions worrying about what you left behind "back at home." And freedom leads to a feeling of control over your life and how you lead it--a penultimate achievement in minimalism.
A summary of my thoughts on minimalism as an RVerOverall, I think being in an RV can make minimalist aspirations more efficient. There is less chance that you will hold on to things you don't need. If you're unsure whether your possessions or hobbies are really important to you, a few months of shuffling items around to get to other stuff should help clarify that.
If you're like me and having an uncluttered space helps your mind feel uncluttered, then RV life can get you to that clearheadedness faster. You're forced to find a home for every single item, so it doesn't become a projectile during travel. Knowing where each possession you own lives when not in use makes it so much faster to put things away. You also spend less time trying to find lost items since there are only so many places you can look (although it's still completely possible to misplace things!). In short, you can easily set up your life to be cleaner and more organized than it ever could be in a bigger place.
You'll also find out quickly which relationships are built to last. Superficial connections probably won't survive when you leave people behind to travel and have to make an extra effort to keep in touch. The same goes for spending 23 hours per day with your significant other five feet away. But you can also build more friendships with people you'd otherwise never have met. And you can strengthen ties with previously-distant relatives if you add visits to them along your travel route.
As for costs, aesthetics, and environmental concerns, there are lots of tweaks you can make with an RV lifestyle, the same way you can with a house. I mentioned water conservation, solar, and trip planning before. Lots of newer RVs are also built using eco-friendly materials--our last two RVs were certified green. The tiny spaces are harder to ventilate, so you may find yourself switching from harsh, smelly cleaning products to something gentler (and cheaper) like diluted vinegar.
Even something as simple as owning a smaller trash can will make you more conscious of how much waste you're producing. And the first time you're parked next to a hoarder who's got junk piled both inside and outside of their RV (we dubbed them "Fortresses of Solitude"), the aversion you feel will make you want to never be that type of RV dweller.
There are even ways to modify the space if you have physical limitations. People replace their steps with ramps or add wheelchair lifts. Small areas are fairly simple and cheap to remodel. If you're handy, so you can raise or lower countertops, make walkways wider, and replace fixtures with more ergonomic ones without breaking the bank. Even if you just want it to look prettier, you'll need smaller quantities of materials to get the job done.
No, RVing is not for everyone. And there are a lot of things that are different in an RV from a house that could be dealbreakers for people. But as someone who's been an RVer for many years, I can tell you it's my first choice for a living space. And I know I'm not the only one who feels that way!