Home is where you park it.
Since the advent of the Airstream in 1929, Americans have enjoyed exploring the West’s nooks and crannies in campers, trailers, and recreational vehicles. Today, more than 9 million U.S. households own an RV—a number that’s increased 16 percent since 2001. Pop-top and cargo vans, such as retro Westfalias and kitted-out Sprinters, have also come back into fashion.
What’s driving so many people to take extended vacations on wheels and even ditch their stationary digs entirely for roving homes? Observers cite the rise of telecommuting, minimalism, and social media. All three have fueled what Instagrammers and other devotees now know as #vanlife, a movement that’s inspired free spirits of every generation to hit the road for weeks, months, or years.
Here’s how to roll with them comfortably without spending, say, six figures on a camper van conversion or using up your savings the first time out.
Ease into it.
Before hitting the road full-time, make sure you and your family are well-suited for the lifestyle by traveling in short bursts or long weekends.
“If you want to see what an RV is all about, you don’t have to go out and buy your own right away,” says blogger Bryanna Royal, who has been traveling full-time for more than four years with her husband, four kids, and two dogs. “Instead, you can rent an RV from an owner through a company such as Outdoorsy or Mighway. Those companies are like Airbnb for RVs and a great way to see if this lifestyle is right for you before purchasing your own.”
Lengthen your stay.
The amount of time you spend in one place can help reduce your overall campground fee, says blogger Andi Fisher, who spent a year and a half traveling in an RV with her husband before they settled in Arizona.
“The longer you stay at an RV park or campground, the cheaper it is. Most places have weekly and monthly rates,” she says. “You may find that reserving for a week and only staying four days or reserving for a month and only staying three weeks will actually be cheaper than a reservation for your exact dates.”
Setting up camp for longer stints can also help you slow down and deeply explore an area. You’ll save on gas, too, because you won’t be driving to a new spot every couple of days.
Boondocking—or going off the grid and camping for free in the wilderness—is a rite of passage among longtime RVers and vanlifers.
“After you’ve had your RV awhile and you feel comfortable with how it functions, one of the best ways to save money is by boondocking,” Fisher says. “This type of wild camping allows you to get closer to nature and be away from the crowds. You won’t have water, electricity, or sewer, but you will have more money in your wallet, because boondocking is free.”
Royal agrees. “You can find many free boondocking locations out West and throughout the country on Bureau of Land Management land. There is some prep and planning that goes into this … but it’s totally doable, and there are some really amazing places you can stay.”
The Bureau of Land Management oversees a tenth of the land in the United States—or 245 million acres—a map of which is available on the BLM’s website. You can also stay for free in National Forest dispersed campsites and along many National Forest roads.
Before setting up camp, always ask a ranger about the best sites in the area, current road conditions (finding out too late that there’s nowhere to turn around your 40-foot rig is not the best introduction to boondocking), and any restrictions that may be in place, such as a campfire ban. Before going off the grid, you’ll also want to make sure you have ample water and enough power to get you through your days away. Many of the best boondocking locales are remote—in other words, there’s no cell service—so be prepared for anything. Pack an emergency kit of first aid, navigational, and roadside tools. You are also responsible for carrying all of your own trash out and leaving without a trace.