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Living small: how to choose an RV

I live in an RV. It’s funny, I don’t really even think of it as a “lifestyle”. I guess maybe because I’ve been doing it so long. 

I bought a camper van right out of high school, which I slept in during the week to avoid having to commute to work. My girlfriend of the time went on a 2000 mile bike ride, and when she came back she suggested we get a full size RV and move in together. 

Eventually an opportunity arose to join a traveling carnival in the mid-west, so we set out across the country. We ended up spending a year on the east coast before moving back to the San Francisco Bay Area. We upgraded to the current trailer not long before we ended up getting divorced. For the past 4 years I’ve been in one place, and don’t really consider the trailer to be a vehicle.

So I have been in 3 sizes and types of RV, full timed on the road and in trailer parks, and lived in different climates, different size cities, etc.

A $5 energy bill

All RVs are energy efficient, by their very nature. They are designed so that you can go out to the woods and live off of battery power and stored water for a week or two, so they have to be. There are ways to increase its efficiency even more (tinted film on the windows, LED lighting, instant water heater, solar panel), but it makes a lot less difference than it would in a house.

Its less expensive to heat and cool a small space, due to the fact that its a small space. Insulation still makes a big difference, and newer trailers do much better in that area than older ones. It also helps to put plastic sheeting over the windows (I use saran wrap) to make a cheap double pane, and to use spot heaters instead of the central furnace.

My current rig is in a park in the San Francisco Bay Area in CA (see video). I very rarely turn on the central furnace, opting to use a cheaper and more efficient electric space heater (to heat only the room I’m in).  Now that I’ve upgraded to an instant (tankless) water heater, I am only refilling my propane about once or twice a year ($40).  

I do still use the air conditioning when its hot.  Sometimes I end up paying $10 a month for electricity instead of $5.

So, you are inspired consider living small… where to start

Decide the basic type RV you want:

  • Class A – great big motor RV based on a bus body
  • Class C – slightly smaller motor RV, with an overhang above the driver compartment
  • Class B – much smaller motor RV, basically a large van
  • Travel Trailer – gets towed with a standard hitch
  • 5th Wheel – has a hitch similar to a semi truck – need a special mount installed in the pickup that tows it – usually larger than travel trailers
  • Pop-up trailer (or tent trailer)- a travel trailer, but one that folds down for easy transport, walls are made of fabric
  • Camper Shell – entire RV installs on the back of a pick up truck.


They all have to be registered, whether or not they are driven (although if parked on private property, that is rarely – if ever – going to be enforced). 

If it was parked you could register it as not being driven for a discount (this is all in California, I don’t know about other states.) If you are just traveling through, its fine to just be registered in your home state (even if “traveling through” means staying for several months, or even years in most cases).


Motorhomes have to be insured if they are driven. Trailers don’t (the tow vehicle needs to be insured). But its a good idea. I don’t have full coverage on my truck, but my RV is my home, and cost me a lot of money, so I pay for the full coverage insurance. Plus, it also doubles as homeowner’s insurance. It’s less expensive than full coverage for a car or homeowner’s insurance.

RV, motorhome or trailer

Every style has its advantages and disadvantages. The main considerations are how much space do you want, and do you want it to be self-propelled or towed. 

If you plan to actually travel, a built-in engine (Class A, B or C) is incomparably more convenient. If you plan to stay in one place, the engine in a motorhome just takes up space and makes it more expensive. The advantage of more size is, obviously, its more comfortable to live in and you can fit more stuff in it, but it becomes increasingly harder to drive, find a place to park, stay inconspicuous when parking on public streets, and is less efficient.

When I wanted to travel and stay low profile, I looked at motorhomes. When I wanted to stay in one place, I looked into trailers. With a motorhome driving is a lot easier. With a trailer you can separate the two and make use of the truck for errands or commuting. 

Size and price

Aside from that, the main considerations are size, age, and price. Size is a compromise between fuel efficiency (and ease of finding parking) and comfort. 

Another huge consideration is your budget. The newer you can buy, the less maintenance and repair headaches you will have. Newer will be more expensive up front, but it can be worth it. A motorhome is always more expensive than a trailer. The bigger the RV, the more it will cost. A higher quality RV will have more insulation, and more features (some of which are more useful than others).

Where to park

There are 2 types of trailer park. Mobile home parks are usually long term, and charge by the month, like an apartment. RV parks are short term, and charge by the day, like a hotel. They are geared toward vacationers, and are much more expensive. On the road you will more likely come across RV parks.

You can also always park at Walmart. Their policy is that RVs can stay in their lots (as long as there is space) even if they aren’t customers. That saves a lot of money on RV park fees. We would usually go to an RV park one or two days of the week in order to empty the waste tanks, fill the clean water, wash clothes…


I always use city water. Water in the US is safe to drink even in the worst cities. 

Bottled water has lower standards imposed on it, and is often tap water in a bottle. It is crazy inefficient. In a park you get pressure by hooking a garden hose up to the RV, the rest of the time you fill the water tank and use the onboard pump.

Built “green” RVs

I am not familiar with purpose built “green” RVs, but I am familiar with those systems. They would be fairly easy to retrofit (for much less money!!) if one wanted to. 

I have a instant water heater and am only spending about $40 a year on gas, so, although it would be cool to have a solar pre-heater, its really not worth it. Same with electricity – on my old RV I did install a solar panel, but in the new one I am only using around 50kWh a month, at $5 a month in electricity, I don’t have much incentive to buy a $500+ solar system.

Toilet paper and driving style

Things that might not be obvious to someone just starting out:

  • Use RV specific toilet paper. Regular stuff will clog. You can get it at RV parks, RV supply stores, or walmart.
  • Drive slow. In a big square vehicle mileage and safety are both going to drop really fast with even small increases in speed. No more than 55mph, or 5mph under the speed limit, whichever is lower. 
  • Try to drive with water tanks as low (or empty) as possible. The weight will affect mileage, handling, and braking distance. Keep tires fully inflated for the same reason. 

For the most part though, living in an RV is a lot like living in a house. Driving an RV is like driving a car.

RVs are terribly inefficient at driving. Here are some ideas of ways you could improve it:

Specs on my current RV:

  • Length: 35ft
  • Width: 8ft (slide out covers living room and kitchen, bedroom is smaller)
  • Total size: about 250 sq ft
  • Weight: 8500 lbs
  • Towing: My 1983 biodiesel powered F-250 can tow it.  However, I’ve only moved it twice.  It lives in the trailer park permanently.
  • Purchased: Used in 2005 (it was made in 1995)
  • Cost: $7,500
  • Manufacturer: Jayco
  • Model: Designer Series 3120 FK SS Travel Trailer

Prior to this one, I had a 1973 27′ “Robinhood” Class C motorhome (purchased for $2500) which I shared with my (now ex) wife and two cats.

Before that I had a 1969 converted Dodge B100 utility van Class B motorhome, which I never officially lived in full time, but stayed in during the week to avoid a long commute.