Travel is a big part of retirement for many, but it can be expensive. Owning a small RV is one good solution for traveling relatively cheaply in retirement. House swapping and off-season journeys are others. However you do it, developing your own personal angle for reducing travel costs is an essential part of retiring on a budget.
In this article I want to focus on some of the techniques for living in a very small space effectively and comfortably. Whether you own a small RV, live in a small apartment or condo, or are just a frugal retiree, there is always the potential to live better with less.
And many of the tips and tricks learned for living well in a small RV transfer equally well to more permanent dwellings….
Packing and Organizing
Let’s start with the obvious. Having less space, you’ll need to own and transport less stuff. However that’s not as significant a limitation as you might think. Our small Class B van-based RV is still able to hold an astounding number of possessions.
In fact, we just had an excellent illustration of this when we unpacked our van, over the space of half a day, into a one bedroom apartment, about 600 square feet in size. Other than furniture, virtually all the personal possessions needed to outfit our apartment and live our life — clothing, linens, dishes and utensils, toiletries, computers, office supplies, tools, bicycles, gear, and several days worth of groceries — had fit well in the van!
So the main issue isn’t space — you’ll have enough — but how you organize it. For starters, it is critical that you do organize it. In other words, because there is so little usable living area in a small RV, things simply must be packed away in drawers, cabinets, and closets when they aren’t actually in use.
Occasionally I have the opportunity to glance in other small RV’s and vans. Sometimes, what I see is a waist -deep pile of stuff stretching from the cockpit to the rear window. That’s what happens when you don’t stay organized: your possessions claim your living, sleeping, and cooking areas — and you no longer have a functional vehicle!
Usually, I don’t expect others to live up to my admittedly hyper-organized organizational standards. I’ve learned that family life is much more congenial without imposing those expectations. But RV living is not the place to make compromises in neatness and orderliness. If you do, you’ll find yourself driving a cargo van, not an RV.
As far as how to organize, the ideas are no different than any other living or working situation. Here are a few simple principles that stand out in my experience:
- Keep similar things together
- Keep frequently used items on top or in front of other stuff
- Use containers like cartons, bins, stuff bags, and pouches to organize items in larger spaces
- Designate “his” and “hers” cabinets or sides (She’ll probably need more space: Get over it guys.)
- Pick a few “mud” areas for dirty or wet gear or clothing and outfit them with appropriate waterproof containers or mats (For example, we keep a waterproof bin near the door for shoes.)
- Stow anything liquid or fragile or top-heavy with extra care: if in doubt, isolate it in a separate container
- Keep a few duffels, reusable grocery bags, and/or totes on hand for miscellaneous packing and transportation tasks like campground shower trips or occasional hotel stays
- Have a ready supply of disposable garbage and Ziploc bags
- Unpack foods, especially dry items in bulky boxes, for more compact storage in pantry cabinets
- Maximize the use of oddball spaces by identifying items that can fit in corners and under the bed
- Get a dozen over-door/cabinet hooks from The Container Store or Camping World and spread them liberally around your living space: these will be essential for hanging clothing, towels, bags, and so on
Living and Working
Other than driving, we don’t tend to spend a lot of time hanging out inside our rig while on the road. After all, we are traveling in order to go places and do things, not to hang out indoors. But in the mornings and evenings, and maybe on one “office” day each week, we need to be inside for longer. During these times it’s key to be flexible and mindful, if you both want to stay comfortable. In our rig there is only a single completely comfortable chair — and that is the passenger’s side front seat rotated to face the living area. We trade off using this. But, I’ll confess, as the major computer user in the family, I tend to claim it the majority of the time.
Whoever doesn’t have the chair, makes do with pillows on the bed — which is soft and spacious, but not particularly well configured for sitting. Yes, we could fold it back up into a sofa at the push of a button, but we rarely seem to do that, perhaps because it would require some extra time storing then rearranging the bedding.
To be comfortable living in a small RV, you probably shouldn’t have an aversion to being on the floor. It’s the best place for assorted activities, including donning shoes or stretching. We’re both dedicated stretchers and take turns using the floor and bed for this purpose. (One of the downsides of a very small RV is I wind up having to suspend my usual indoor exercise routine while on the road, though I can keep doing a diminished version of it. And of course we are usually plenty active in other ways during the days.)
We’ve never done much TV or movie watching on the road, even though our rig has a decent video system. We don’t even find ourselves listening to music much. Perhaps it’s because we are more tuned in to nature, or just that we are too busy with other activities. However we are heavy computer and Internet users on the road. Email is a constant, and running a blog is a 24/7 commitment. We couldn’t survive without our trusty Verizon smartphones and their mobile hotspot and tethering capabilities. (Though we will be continuing to investigate more economical options: see Republic Wireless for one possibility.)
Keeping our phones, laptops, and other devices fully charged is an ongoing challenge. I’ve written more about generators and inverters and their benefits in my article on choosing an RV .
Assuming you aren’t plugged in to the grid, you have essentially three choices for power in an RV: (1) use the house battery (an auxiliary battery dedicated to RV functions), possibly with the inverter to get 110V; (2) run the generator; or (3) use the vehicle starter battery. The house battery is ideal, but is generally only good for a few hours, or a night at best, before it must be recharged, by running the generator or vehicle engine. The generator handles almost any power load and runs as long as you have fuel, but is noisy and unwelcome in certain times and places. The vehicle battery is acceptable for charging cell phones anytime, even overnight, but runs the risk of discharging completely and leaving you stranded if used for more demanding purposes while you aren’t underway.
All small RVs will have even smaller kitchens. Ours is among the tiniest, with a compact sink, modest countertop, 2-burner stove, 3.8 cubic foot fridge, and microwave. But, perhaps surprisingly, we always eat well when we’re traveling. That’s partly because I travel with an excellent cook — my wife — who seems to enjoy the challenge of combining limited ingredients in new and interesting ways. Anyway, even on some of our longest trips, we rarely grow tired of the cooking possibilities.
Of course, preparing meals in such a small space, it makes sense to take a few measures to reduce the workload and increase efficiency. Breakfasts tend to be simple cereals or yogurt with fruit and nuts. Lunches are often a combination of healthy snack foods, fruit and nuts, and maybe some leftovers from the night before. For dinner, we favor one or two-pot meals when possible. Favorites include quesadillas, spaghetti or other pasta, veggie burgers, soups and salads. A non-stick frying pan handles multiple duties — sautéing, of course, as well as makeshift grilling and toasting. And, we do make liberal use of leftovers from eating out, plus deli foods purchased along the way. So we aren’t preparing every dish in our RV kitchen.
When it comes to eating, we don’t stand on formality. We long ago removed the two small tables that came with our rig because, though they looked cool, they weren’t an efficient use of space. Instead we have a couple of deep serving trays that we lay out on the bed or in our laps as the “dining room table.” These are quick to deploy and clean up, and protect against spills while eating. Paper towels serve as napkins.
Doing dishes without an automatic dishwasher might sound like a chore, but isn’t much of one, since we only keep a limited number of dishes and utensils in the van. We’re careful to generate fewer dirty dishes and reuse utensils more often than when a dishwasher is available. So there is never that much cleanup to do. Having hot water on tap in modern RVs is an enormous help too. Dishes get wiped free of food scraps, washed in soapy water in the sink, then rinsed with hot water and hand dried. The entire process usually takes less than 10 minutes.
A good night’s sleep is essential to enjoying life on the road, or elsewhere. Our PleasureWay Excel TS model is outfitted with a particularly flexible and comfortable sleeping system. At the press of a button, the jacknife sofa opens flat and, with the help of some adjacent ottomans and bolsters, you can make it up as either two singles, a double, or a king size bed. There are advantages to each arrangement. We’ll use different configurations for different trips, but our “go-to” arrangement is as two singles, connected for about half their length, so they are still relatively cozy.
Several years ago I bought the last two “Travasak Sleep Systems” available from a major marine outfitter. These are an ingenious solution for mobile bedding. Essentially large, rectangular sleeping bags, they are lined with real cotton sheets that are held in place with velcro closures that easily separate for cleaning. The outsides are an attractive, supple microsuede fabric insulated thinly for summer on one side and thicker for winter on the other. You flip the bags over, with different sides on top, depending on the season. When inside you feel like you’re in a conventional bed, but they are much easier to make: just unroll them. And when rolled up and stuffed they are reasonably compact for traveling. We’ve spent hundreds of comfortable nights in them in all conditions. Unfortunately our particular brand may not be made anymore, but you may find some alternatives, or be able to make your own if you’re handy with a sewing machine. (You’ll save a bundle if you do: ours weren’t cheap.)
In addition to the Travasaks, we carry two each queen-size sheets, cotton blankets, and synthetic fleece blankets. These cover all the weather contingencies. When it’s extremely cold, everything goes on top of the Travasak to increase its insulation. When its extremely hot, everything goes on the bottom, improving the padding, and we sleep in sheets on top. If the temperature changes during the night — getting cooler, for example — we can move a few layers down in the stack without half waking up. (Temperatures can fluctuate widely in a small RV, and usually do over the course of a night.)
Staying comfortable in a small rig is one part engineering, one part art, and one part acceptance. Ideal sleeping conditions are in the 50’s with the screened windows open and cool, natural breezes cross-ventilating the back of the van. But we’ve slept in temperatures ranging from the 30’s to the 80’s.
Even though you have propane-fired heat, battery-powered fans, and an AC-powered air conditioning unit onboard, you are limited in when you can use what. The fans are the easiest solution: you can generally run them all night with no concerns. The air conditioning is safe to use when you are plugged in to shore power at a campground, but not with the generator when sleeping (because of carbon monoxide dangers). The propane heater is vented outside and is designed to be safe to use when sleeping, however it is quite noisy as it cycles on and off. We prefer not to rely on it during the night, and carry a small electric heater for use when we have shore power. Altogether you have the tools to remain comfortable in a wide variety of conditions, but they do require your active involvement, sometimes during the night. It’s not the “set-it-and-forget-it” experience of a home thermostat with central heating and air conditioning.
Lastly, here’s a tip for keeping things close at hand in the night, if your small RV doesn’t have room for a nightstand. I installed a small hanging travel kit on the seatbelt that hangs beside my bed. The kit has several compartments which keep items within easy reach, but out of the way and secure while the rig is in motion.
Hygiene and Housekeeping
Having access to a pleasant and functional bathroom goes a long ways toward making an RV a comfortable home. That’s a challenge in a space the size of a large van, but our PleasureWay rises to the task, for the most part. Though, dumping an RV’s holding tanks can be an exciting experience in public sanitation. Having trained as a civil engineer, and paid my dues inspecting sewage treatment plants in my early years, I’m not easily shocked by such matters. There are plenty of how-to’s on safely dumping an RV and I won’t belabor the point. But note that a box of disposable surgical gloves is an excellent investment. And if there was ever a time to be detail-oriented and double-check connections, this is it!
Also high on the list of requirements for comfortable traveling is a hot shower. Even our small rig affords this. In a remote mountain campground after a day outdoors, or at a highway rest stop after a day of driving, it is pure heaven. But you do have to work for it in a small RV. Our shower is a sit-down affair, where the toilet seat does double-duty as a stool, and the bathroom floor with built-in drain is the shower pan. A lightweight shower curtain wraps around to protect the non-waterproof sides of the bathroom. And a flexible hand-held hose with shower head and easy on/off valve extends inside the curtain to provide hot water.
That probably sounds like an unlikely proposition. In fact, we owned our rig for nearly a year before I even got up the courage to try showering in it. But, once I did, I was amazed at how well it worked. Mind you this is a military-style shower. You use the minimal water to wet down. Then you soap up. Then you quickly rinse off. Done right, it only takes a few gallons of precious on-board water. But the end result is that you get clean, and feel great.
Unfortunately, it’s not the relaxing soak most of us modern humans have come to expect. And, when you’re done, you usually need to dry off the bathroom, so it’s a bit of a project. That’s why we use campground showers when possible. The campground versions are sometimes wonderful, occasionally dreadful, but usually passable. Another option can be a local gym. In sum, a luxurious shower is one aspect of routine living where a small RV can’t equal the larger options. But, if you’re looking for frugal adventure, it simply adds to the cachet!
Keeping the rig itself clean is child’s play. RVs were designed to be low maintenance. And if you aren’t overly obsessed with cleanliness, they can be virtually maintenance-free. We shake out the rug and wipe down counters while traveling. At home we run the vacuum around, wipe down the fridge and bathroom, and wash the linens. And we generally wash and wax the outside once a season. That’s about it.
Life on the Road
So that’s a picture of everyday life in a small RV — organizing, living, cooking, sleeping, and housekeeping. It’s a remarkably efficient system, but it is still some work. Traveling in an RV, there will be a few more chores than on a typical “dream” vacation, but it’s well worth it. All in all, we love our small RV and treasure the many adventures it’s taken us on.
To be truthful, after all our travels — and we’ve now put about 50,000 miles on our rig — the hardest part remains the driving. Though our van-based RV is among the easiest to drive, piloting an RV just can’t be as easy or relaxing as driving a smaller, lighter passenger vehicle. That’s especially true in cities, heavy traffic, or bad weather. You’ll want to schedule and pace yourself accordingly, so you stay rested, and enjoy your travels as much as possible.
Most couples can adapt to living well in a small space. There is as much opportunity for togetherness, adventure, and good laughs as ever. Keeping a sense of humor and generosity pays great dividends as always. Willingness to take on any job, while remaining receptive to which tasks match which partner best, is a good recipe for harmony. Being organized, flexible, and patient — as well as spending as much time as possible outdoors — will ensure your days living in a small space are happy ones.
And how about you? Do you have any stories, lessons learned, or tips for living efficiently in small spaces? What works best? Leave a comment below….
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