I am a San Francisco bay area native who grew up and lived in the area for over 30 years. I’m back now, but just temporarily, and I can’t wait to leave! I’m going to give you a rundown of the bay area as an RVer, and why I’d rather live like a homeless person than stay at most of the RV parks and campgrounds around here.
My former life as a San Francisco bay area resident
I grew up living in a house in the bay area. We were middle class; my parents owned the house. I have also owned a house in the bay area, as well as lived in a rented house, a rented condo and a rented apartment. Most recently, I lived in an RV/trailer park in Marin County, right before we started traveling full-time in 2016.
When we first got into RVing, we moved full-time into an RV park in Mesa, Arizona. It wasn’t perfect, but we had a big lot, the rent was cheap, and they had decent amenities: a pool, hot tub, gym, rec room, laundry room, propane delivery, filtered water dispenser…compared to a lot of other places it was pretty nice.
Compared to most of the RV parks in the bay area, it was luxury living at bargain basement prices.
Then we wanted to move back to California. We knew we would never be able to afford housing in the bay area if we didn’t live in an RV. Our combined income was less than $50,000 per year, which put us in the “very low income” bracket by California/bay area standards. But we had no loan on our RV, and RV spaces ran about half of an apartment rental.
So it was a no-brainer to live in an RV park. We were better off than a lot of our friends, who needed to have roommates or live with family in order to get by.
But that didn’t stop them from making judgments about our lifestyle choices. One friend was having trouble making ends meet, and couldn’t afford a night out. So we offered for him to come over: we’d get a pizza or make him dinner and watch a movie in our living room.
He refused—saying it would be too “awkward” and “cramped” for him, without even seeing the place. The fifth wheel we owned at the time had a very spacious living room: a comfortable loveseat and 2 recliners, surround-sound speakers, a large TV, a fireplace and a desk.
Meanwhile, for $400 more per month than we were paying, my friend lived in a tiny apartment run by a slum lord. It was in such bad shape he was embarrassed to invite people over. He finally moved in with his girlfriend when the leaks in the roof started making the ceiling collapse, and the landlord had just increased the rent again.
Our living room was bigger than his, too.
We liked our rig, but the park we lived in wasn’t that great. The sites were uneven, with crumbling asphalt and run-down RVs. The police, ambulance and firefighters frequently visited our park, even though it only had a couple dozen residents. The washer and dryer at the park were bad enough that we drove to a laundromat to do our laundry. The campground bathrooms were old and most of them were out of order for months.
The park was also right next to 2 things: a marshy preserve full of homeless people who sometimes caused wildfires, and the freeway.
The spaces were basically long parking spots. Some of them were so close together you wondered if you’d hit the RV next to you when you opened your door. And, the space rent was 4 times as much as our lot in Arizona.
There were other parks that seemed to be slightly better, but we couldn’t justify spending an extra $200-400 per month, only to find out they were just as bad. Plus they were farther away from our jobs.
In the end, we really just wanted to travel. So we created that opportunity for ourselves and left.
San Francisco Bay Area campgrounds today
These days, things are worse. All the parks have raised their prices without increasing any of the amenities. Here’s a sampling of the costs when we checked around recently:
Marin County: $900-1300 per month; $80-100 per night
San Francisco (Candlestick RV park): $99-109 per night, max 28 day stay
San Mateo County: $45/night for no hookups at county park; $75/night+ or $1400/mo and up for parks with hookups
Santa Clara County: $30/night or $750/month at the fairgrounds for max 30 day stay; $950-1400 per month at private campgrounds
And those prices are assuming you can get a spot. Most of them are fully booked with permanent residents and have waiting lists.
Besides being over-priced and over-crowded, we’ve found that RV parks in the bay area also have terrible locations. They’re right next to busy freeways, off of old, narrow streets, and probably also have train tracks nearby and airplanes overhead regularly. There is no peace and quiet. This is not “camping,” it’s living in an apartment on wheels in a busy city. Your neighbors are not typically the happy, friendly travelers you meet on the road—they’re a mixture of tourists who don’t follow any of the rules or have consideration for their neighbors, and long-term residents who have no place else to go—and their RV would fall apart if anyone tried to move it, anyway. Then there are the retired and working-age people who are just looking for an affordable place to live and wish it wasn’t so depressing.
So what can you do instead of staying in an RV park near San Francisco?
We have solar, and we own a business that requires us to drive from place to place sourcing products. We don’t have a car because our RV is small enough to go most places. So it makes absolutely no sense for us to pay for a place to sleep.
So we haven’t been. We’ve been parking on the streets at night. We find places that nobody else wants to park. We make sure there are no signs forbidding overnight parking, or restricting the length or height of the vehicle that can park there. We arrive after dark and leave first thing in the morning.
The spots are not level, they are not quiet, and they have no amenities. Why would we pay for that at an RV park when we can get it for free?
Often at night we are surrounded by actual homeless people. The ones pushing shopping carts, or sleeping in cars, vans or beat-up RVs. They pretty much leave us alone (and we do the same).
So if you want to stay in an RV close to San Francisco, you have a few choices. You can pay the high prices for a place (I recommend booking far in advance). You can look for a place further away (although Sacramento, Stockton, Monterey, and other areas are pretty full as well). You can leave the RV elsewhere and stay in a hotel (will also be very overpriced). Or you can sleep on the street like we do.
I’m not going to tell you where these places are, because: 1. They’re too full already, and 2. I don’t want some local busybody making trouble for the homeless people.
Why am I sticking around San Francisco?
Because my mom needs me here. She can’t drive and she’s alone all day, 7 days per week. Ryan and I are the only people who offer to help her get around, and public transportation in the area is horrible. She’s not sick or poor enough for a lot of the transportation assistance programs, and the others are only available for certain types of appointments.
But now that we’re getting a bigger RV and she’s moving in with us (see my post about reversing minimalism), we can leave the bay area soon.
Why don’t we just get a “normal” place to live?
With our RV all shiny and new, I’m sure people question why we’ve made this choice to skulk around public parking lots during the day and sleep in questionable neighborhoods at night. But we’re used to that. As I mentioned in the story about my friend and his misconceptions about RV living, many people in our lives don’t understand what we’re doing and why. They either think it’s great and we’re on one very long, exciting vacation, or that we’ll get tired of it eventually and return to a “normal” life.
But neither one is true. This isn’t vacation, and the only way we’re giving up our nomadic lifestyle is if we don’t have any other choice. OR if we find the perfect place that we love so much that we want to stay forever. But after 2.5 years of travel, we haven’t found that yet.
Living off-grid in the bay area is annoying and uncomfortable. But other places, it’s easy and fun. Because outside of the bay area, there are lots of beautiful, affordable, or even FREE places to stay. Places where people stop by to admire your RV and ask about the lifestyle. Rather than give you dirty looks just for driving on public streets, or lean against your RV so they can take a smoke break, people smile and wave and welcome you. We love those places, and we’re sure there are many more out there we have yet to see.