Copyright 2013 John T. Reed
Can you live really cheap in a pickup truck camper if you need to in a financial crisis?
I rented a pickup truck camper from the only place you can do that: FraserWay RV rentals in Canada. Nice people. They will pick you up at nearby Vancouver airport and take you back after you turn in your rental. In my case, they were too busy to pick me up so they told me to take a cab which they would reimburse. They did reimburse the $44 CAD. And they did take me back to YVR in their van when I turned it back in.
I particularly wanted to do a pickup truck camper because they seem to be the cheapest, the most flexible (can separate them and use the truck as a truck and the camper as an immobile house), and also seemed the best to convert to compressed natural gas fuel. Mine used gasoline.
Be sure you rent before you buy to try it out. For one thing, they are quite small. That would take some getting used to both with regard to the ballet of moving around in it with other people and the psychological adjustment of less privacy. I rented it alone for a week (their minimum time period).
The main problem I had driving a huge F350, Super Duty, XLT four-door behemoth was having to always talk in a low, gravelly, pickup-truck-commercial voice.
It had an Adventurer camper on it. I don’t know the model.
Here are pictures of it—a reader requested I take them and post them—with me next to it to show the size of it. I am 5'11". I should have taken another from the front so you could see how wide the darned thing was. The Canadian flag chair is one of two such chairs they provide with the rental camper, eh? The window above me in the side photo is the emergency exit—the only emergency exit—I wrote about below. God help the fat people trying to use that, or any of us who go out head first then have to fall nine or ten feet to the ground. In the second, rear photo, you can see the pool rail type arm that is perpendicular to the back wall of the RV when someone is going in or inside, but which folds against the door, preventing anyone from unlocking it from the inside. The two bottom steps on the back stairway I am standing on rotate up to lay on top of the top two steps when the vehicle is moving. You also have to close the roof vent you see open when you move. Note the contrast between the Acura next to it—which is about the size vehicle I thought I was getting, and the pickup and capmer.
I am aware there are much bigger campers but I was expecting a pickup truck like the gardeners use—about the same size as a car. Ha! Plus the capmer is far taller and wider than I expected.
These pictures were taken on Saturday, June 28, 2013 in Abbotsford, Canada. I had recently posted on Facebook about getting my weight back down to the 170 pounds I wanted just before starting this trip on June 25th. Also, I posted about my 67th birthday which was about a week later on July 5th and how I did not feel hardly any different from age 47. So these are also photographic accompaniement to those two Facebook threads.
If you own it free and clear, the only cost to live in it would be propane, getting fresh water into the tank for that, batteries or electricity, and emptying the gray and black water tanks. Living in it would be best in one spot. Where? Generally there are a zillion private properties where you could live in one if the property owner approved and it did not violate any law. The more rural the location, the more such choices.
At many properties, you could plug the RV into the electricity of, and attach a water hose to the hose bib of, an adjacent building if any. You would need to pay the property owner for the electricity and water charges, but that would be very little because the RV is so small.
Mine had no air-conditioning. That would be the main expense if you needed it. Better you do what I did and be in a location where the ambient temperature obviated the need for a/c. I was in southwestern British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada area) and northwestern Washington state in late June and early July. I think the cheapest way to handle climate control within the RV is to locate it where the ambient climate that month takes care of it. You can raise the ambient temperature by moving to lower latitudes, lower altitudes, or closer to large bodies of water in winter. And you can lower the temperature by moving to higher latitudes, higher altitudes, or away from large bodies of water. I was generally at sea level in the Vancouver, Canada area, but the temperature was relatively low even in summer because of the climate there.
My RV, like all those sold in Canada, was four-season. That is, it was designed so the water tanks would not freeze and had insulation. But I suspect it is a good idea to always be where you do not need that. “I summer here. I summer there. I never winter anywhere” is the way full-time RVers put it.
Plugging into a sewer or septic system would be more problematic. You can get a loose connection at an RV park where you pay rent. But a permanent connection at a house would require plumbing, maybe permits, and may not meet building code requirements.
There are sani-dump stations all over, many free or very cheap. The stations are much less impressive than their name. Typically they are a 6-inch diameter pipe sticking a few inches above ground. It had a cap that has a lever on it. You step on the lever which pops the cap open and you stick a 5-inch (I think) diameter flexible hose into the pipe in the ground. Then you open the valves on your black (toilet) water (first) then gray (shower and sinks) water tanks. After you are finished, there is typically a hose bib and hose that you can use to rinse out your flexible hose before you stow it back on the RV.
The problem is you have to travel to the sani-dump stations to do this. That is not a deal killer, but it means you have to stay mobile. That may be a good idea in general because staying mobile is what exempts you from all sorts of expensive zoning and building code requirements. The idea in this article is to live cheap.
In addition to being able to separate the truck and camper—a big deal you would not want to do often—there are several other differences between a pickup truck camper and what I call self-propelled campers or towed campers. One is it is taller. That’s because the floor of the living area, instead of being down on the chassis is on the bed of a pickup truck which is higher. From there, they have to add the 6'6" or so that keeps you—barely—from bumping your head on the ceiling. So when you park near other type of campers, you will see that yours is the tallest.
Also, pickup truck campers do not need a license plate or vehicle registration which saves money on annual fees. The truck needs a plate, but not the camper sitting on the truck. Self-propelled RVs and towed RVs do need a license plate and registration.
Another difference is the door has to be on the back instead of the side. I told them afterward that this was a safety hazard. Two steps rotate down when you are parked and using the camper. There is also a hand rail like those in swimming pools that helps you climb up to the door. That hand rail sticks out perpendicular to the back of the camper when you are going in and out of the door, but it folds against the door when moving. They said this is a back up way to keep the door closed while moving. Here is a photo of one: http://www.storehound.com/ads/2012-alp-adventurer-980rds-truck-camper-for-sale-langley-bc/
I see. Tell you what it also is. It is a way to get locked into the RV. This could happen when a family member or other acquaintance folds it to the closed position not realizing that someone is in the RV. Or it could happen when a hostile stranger recognizes the rail being out means there is someone inside and wants to cause the person(s) inside great difficulty out of meanness. You can lock the door at the handle and unlock and open it from the inside, but you cannot lift the rail up to rotate it out from inside the RV. The only other way out is through an emergency window exit in the above-cab sleeping compartment.
That emergency window is another safety hazard in itself. It is small. I used my suitcase to block the light from it. It was tall enough but not wide enough. The suitcase is about 22" x 22" so the window appears to be about 22" high by 27" wide. I can get out of it. I have a 33-inch waist. My shoulders are a little broader than average—about 20 inches. But that’s with my arms down at my side. Going out such a window, they would more likely be over my head, in which case my width approaches the width of the window. I would get some more room by twisting diagonally, if I could in such a situation.
But then there is the height of the bottom of the window above the ground. I think it is about 8 feet.
I saw a whole lot of other RVers at the camps where I spent the night. To put it mildly, a large percentage of them do not have 33-inch waists. Plus a lot of them are in their 60s or 70s. Could I get out that window without injury? If I was not in a hurry, I think so. I would go out feet first and hang from the window before dropping another five inches or so to the ground. But if I went out head first—as in a fire—I expect I would be injured falling 8 feet and landing on my arms, shoulders, and head.
What about the fat, old campers? In a fire, I expect they would be toast, literally. I don’t know who set the standards for that emergency window, or who they think they are kidding, but it is obviously too small for a great many people.
The hand rail on the back also signals to knowledgeable people that someone in in the camper. RVers often want to do what is called stealth camping. That is, pull into a neighborhood after dark and go to sleep without attracting attention. I am still athletic enough to fold up the steps and climb up into the door, but there was no way to close that hand rail from inside the camper or to get it open from the inside if you did. So the rail being perpendicular to the back of the RV tells those in the know—like police cruising around at night—that someone is sleeping in it.
So for safety, and stealth camping, the hand rail should fold away from the door and they can figure out another backup for the door lock. Or they need to figure out a way to let a person inside the camper open that hand rail if it gets closed. It is cam operated. To open or close it, you lift it up a little. When you get to the other position—open or closed—it sinks back down into a slot that keeps it in that position.
I asked a full-time RVer who wrote a column for a full-time RVer magazine that question once. “How much does it cost to live in a house?” she shot back.
Here are the expenses:
• water (unless you can get it for free which you probably can)
• sewage dump every several days (free at some government-owned parks)
• truck fuel if you move (I would try to get a truck that had been converted to Compressed Natural Gas—CNG—or Propane— LPG—because it’s cheaper and would likely be more available during a financial crisis because it is all produced in the U.S. and Canada whereas petroleum is partly imported to the U.S.)
• propane (for refrigerator unless you are hooked up to electricity and heat/cooking/hot water regardless of whether you are hookup up to electricity and generator if you have and use one) Note that my RV rental came with two propane cylinders. They did not charge for consumption and said I almost certainly would not empty the first one I used during the seven-day rental. They were correct even though the frige was on burning propane all the time except when I plugged into hookups on three nights. When you plug in to electric, the frige automatically turns off the propane and switches to electric and does the opposite when you pull the electric plug.
• electricity for microwave, air-conditioning if you are hooked up to a utility electric grid
• batteries including large vehicle batteries and batteries for portable lanterns and other small appliances
And here are some expenses that you would have in a fixed home that you would not have with an RV:
• property taxes (some jurisdictions impose personal property taxes on things like RVs; but since others don’t, RV dwellers typically do not establish legal residence in such jurisdictions)
• homeowners association
• water company charges
• city sewer
• gas and electric utility charges
• landscape maintenance
• irrigation of landscaping
• trash pickup
• major capital expenditures to replace roof, pavement, furnace, etc.
You have some expenses in both an RV and living in a fixed home, like insurance, but because the RV is so much smaller, and costs so much less, the expense in question is proportionately smaller. Also, the ability of the RV lets you move to where your various activities are cheaper—like mild weather making it cheaper to heat or cool your home or moving to a no-sales-tax state to make a major purchase or a no-income-tax state to make your living.
Telephone is a thing that you need in both an RV and a house. Used to be there was no phone in an RV. Now you have cell phones and satellite phones and Internet phones. That is too technical for this article, but one thing is true: you will have no land line in an RV unless you park permanently somewhere.
Similarly, you will have no cable or high-speed land line Internet access in an RV. You can have wifi, which requires some extra security steps.
Television requires satellite which is also beyond the scope of this article. Whether these communications means are cheaper in the RV or not depends on how you do it, how much free wi fi is available in your area, and so on. On my 7-day rental, I have no TV, but I frequently had wifi either in the RV or in McDonalds or at Starbucks including in their parking lot.
I researched how to recharge my laptop, etc. from my truck cigarette lighter. You need an inverter to do that with high-wattage appliances like a laptop computer. Inverters convert direct current into alternating current. Smaller appliances like an iPod, cell phone, and iPad may be chargeable with another device that just uses the direct current from the cigarette lighter. I bought an inverter from Radio Shack and used it to recharge my laptop in my pickup truck camper while driving. It takes like 65 watts.
If you are driving, using the vehicle to recharge stuff makes sense. But you would not want to run the vehicle engine just to recharge. It is an extremely inefficient generator.
Many RVs have solar panels on the roof, which work while moving, or that they set up when they stop. Those can recharge small appliance batteries.
There are also wind power generators that can by used by RVers.
When you are moving, you encounter numerous opportunities to freeload various living requirements. For example, you can generally recharge your small appliance batteries like laptops in libraries, Starbucks, airports, Internet cafes, and so on. Obviously, you can slow the rate at which you fill your black water tank by using public rest rooms as often as possible. Some truck stops have showers you can rent just for the shower. Many convenience stores have a microwave where you can heat meals you buy from them. You can get ice from fast food restaurants when you buy a drink from them and they have a serve-yourself fountain.
When the weather is right and you have a fresh water beach, you can use that water to bathe—although not using soap. Many public salt water beaches have free fresh water showers for washing off the salt and sand. if you are a member of a widespread health club, you can usually shower there as part of your membership.
RVers don’t pay for trash collection directly because they use trash receptacles in fast food restaurants, parks, on public streets, in shopping centers, and so on.
One of the things that intrigues me about RVs is how cleverly designed they are so that as many things as possible serve two or three purposes to conserve space and weight. The same is true of most boats that have living quarters. And when I took a backpacking trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, I figured out the need to do the same to lighten my load as much as possible. For example, I bought a spork—combination spoon and fork—so I could have both utensils without having to carry two separate ones.
When it comes to housing or shelter, saving space and weight saves money. In backpacking and RVs and boats, you try to make space and equipment serve a purpose when you are awake but not moving—like eating or sightseeing or taking care of personal hygiene, when you are moving from location to location, and when you are sleeping. In an RV, the breakfast nook table and benches becomes a bed at night. The bathroom is so tiny that the same space is a toilet, shower, and lavatory. And so on. This is one of the main ways RVs provide extremely cheap housing.
Why couldn’t you do that in fixed housing as well? There is no physical reason why not, but with fixed housing there tend to be many rules against cheap housing because the neighbors do not want to live near a cheap house. They fear it will hurt the value of their house or bring riff raff into the neighborhood. The mobility of RVs and boats exempt those forms of housing from zoning and other such anti-cheap rules.
Stealth camping—trying to look like an unoccupied, parked vehicle—can get you towed or fined or both. But roughly speaking, that is only true when you do it in the dark. (In Alaska and northern Canada, where it does not get dark hardly at all in some seasons, it might go by what time it is.)
So if you can “work the night shift,” and sleep during the day, you can park almost anywhere for sleep purposes. Owners of the parking lots in question assume the vehicle is empty during daylight hours or that any occupant is awake.
What would you do at night? Shop. Eat. Do laundry. Drive to a new location. Work out at 24-hour fitness. Work or relax in your RV with all the lights on. Trade currencies or securities in distant markets around the world. Make phone calls to or have other electronic conversations with countries in different time zones. Watch sporting events broadcast live in distant countries. Actually work the night shift in someone else’s business. Visit a casino (although most let you sleep overnight in their parking lot anyway). Go to the hospital. Study or research in many college libraries.
Sleeping during the day probably requires a quieter than average parking spot and maybe shade in warm weather since you typically have no a/c unless you are hooked up to utility electric or running a generator. Running a generator is probably a bit too much making yourself at home when you are parked in someone’s parking lot or on a street.
A reader sent me this link to a blog by a guy who made a project of loving cheap in an RV: http://earlyretirementextreme.com/do-i-have-to-live-in-an-rv-to-retire-extremely-early.html He reportedly got by on $7,000 a year per person in the family. That would be less than three of my social security monthly deposits. Note on the sides of his page titles of the other pertinent articles he has posted.
Here is a blog by a couple that lives full-time in an RV and posts their expenses: http://www.gonewiththewynns.com/rv-living-cost. Note, this couple mostly buy their food at Whole Foods, a liberal, politically correct grocery store that has been called Whole Paycheck because that’s how much it takes to shop there.
On the road again enroute to Vancouver, Canada. Used my GOES/Nexus card for the first time. Security directed me to the left—shorter line to x-ray machines and all that—but arriving 3 hours early for an 8AM departure meant more than the GOES card. There was no one in my line but hardly anyone in the other line either.
I previously told readers the GOES/NEXUS card only helps with getting into the country to which you are heading. That was wrong. It also gets you into a shorter line for security when exiting the U.S. or another country. For details on the GOES/NEXUS (Trusted Traveler) card, which I recommend, type those words into the internal search engine at any of my web pages (www.johntreed.com).
I have never used my laptop for getting email and other wifi actions. Doing it now as part of becoming more nimble in case of hyperinflation. In that, I am probably behind most of my readers.
For the really backward readers, the SFO airport has free wi fi in the International Terminal, and probably elsewhere. Also, places to plug in and recharge. I am a bit concerned about keeping my laptop, cell phone, and iPod charged from the pickup truck I am about to rent. I have been trying to do that with the inverter I bought in my car recently. Pretty slow way to recharge. The inverter plugs into the cigarette lighter of a vehicle. It is 75 watt. You need at least 60 for laptops.
Capital One's Canada web site says they know Canada from “Eh?” to “Zed.” Cute. I recommend, and am carrying, their credit card because they do not charge a percentage for non-U.S. dollar transactions. I do not use their card in the U.S.
I thought pickup campers would be small. The one I got today sits on a Ford F350 Super Duty XLT.The truck has four doors to the cabin. And the camper is wider than the huge truck and sticks out way farther in the back and is about ten feet tall. They gave me like 40 minutes of instruction but mainly on operating appliances. The IMPORTANT INFORMATION I needed was stated only in writing and its implication left off. You may not back up without a guide and I am traveling alone.
So what is the implication of that?
At the risk of sounding like a politician, you must always move forward.
And what does that mean? It means you don't pull into a McDonalds parking lot planning on pulling into a car parking slot then backing out into the lane between car parking spaces after you finish eating. I read somewhere in my research that one of the great advantages of pickup truck campers over self-propelled RVs was you could park them like cars.
Not even close. I had to back out of such a parking lot. With no guide, that meant getting out of the truck every four feet or so to see where its four corners were.
So where do you park such a monster? Where you can stop to park it then pull forward to leave. Like on the side of a road where the front bumper is located at a driveway or a corner, then no one can park in front of you.
I am at an RV park for the night. They require all rigs to back in so they can leave by pulling out forward. I had to get the manager to be my guide for the back in. I have another spot picked out for the future. It is on the side of a road where it will be the front-most vehicle. To leave, I just pull forward and around the corner.
I am not Troy Trucker, but I have driven U.S. Army deuce-and-a-halfs, a 60-ton M-60A1 Army tank, 3/4 ton Army trucks, an Army road grader (I was grading a road), U-Haul vans and trucks, vehicles towing a trailer. The issue is not the difficulty of driving it. It is the need to anticipate situations where you might need to back up and the need to find those pull-through parking spaces.
I have been through similar before. My wife and I lived in the big city twice: Boston and San Francisco. In the suburbs, where we live now, you go wherever and just assume there will be a place to park. After living in the city for a while we got into the habit of wondering “Okay, if we go to that restaurant to eat, where would we park?” You envision your path and, sometimes ask the reservation clerk for a parking recommendation. Nowadays, we often Google parking in a target area before we go. Indeed, I figured out that I would not be able to park in garages in Vancouver and spent a lot of time in Google satellite wandering around Vancouver virtually looking for surface lots. But it's much tougher than that. Surface is not enough. You have to have that easy off onto the shoulder then back on to the road or straight pull through.
Being in an area where I have never driven before makes it much harder to visualize the route.
It is not a substantive issue with regard to a decision to buy a pickup truck camper. It is just a habit you will need to get into if you do. But if such a vehicle is new to you, be prepared for this shock. The RV that actually parks like a car is the so-called Class B. It is a van with a roof tall enough to stand up in. But their interiors are even more submarine like than the pickup truck campers.
I have now spent two nights in the pickup truck camper: one at a 5-star RV camp where I was hooked up to water and electric and one parked on the driveway of a friend with no hookups. She offered to let me use her house shower but I wanted the use the camper shower. At the RV camp the previous night I showered in the locker room there. Also availed myself of their indoor heated pool and hot tub at the camp.
So the camper shower is a little more complicated. You have to trun on the hot water heater about 30 minutes before your shower. You can hear the propane heater kick on when you flip the switch. And, when you are not hooked up to a water hose bib, you have to turn on the camper’s water pump, which makes dopey noises during the shower. Probably would not want to do that where the noises might disturb nearby people.
I also noticed my truck battery was a bit below full so I ran the truck engine until it was at the max before the shower which uses electric to run the water pump. After the shower, the battery was again a little below full so I ran the truck engine again. I assume the full-time RVers get totally used to all this and it just becomes part of their daily routine
It reminded me of Vietnam showers (pull chain attached to 55-gallon drum on the roof heated by the sun), but quite adequate. You probably get used to it after two or three showers.
I am in Abbotsford, Canada. Similar climate to Vancouver. Thank God because I have no A/C. But it was cool enough to sleep.
RV rental place has a 10-point checklist on the visor. You call that a checklist!? If I did this for any length of time, I would have a much longer one and many different ones for each function like shower, toilet flush, cooking on the ranger, cooking in the oven, filling the water tank, emptying the waste tanks, etc. For example, they do not have turn the water pump off on the checklist. I think it is only supposed to be on when you use water faucets, shower or flush while not hooked up to a hose bib.
Could you live full time in one of these during a financial crisis? Sure. You would have to get into a routine and learn skills like finding places to get water and dump your holding tanks, not to mention parking the beast.
Here is more RV stuff that probably becomes second nature if you do it full time.
To go on the Internet at home, I just turn on the computer. In an RV, you need a laptop or cell phone and wi fi. I have a Galaxy S III cell, which can do damned near everything. Captain Kirk’s communicator is a joke in comparison. But I still prefer the bigger screen of my laptop and find the phone screen nonusable for many Internet actions.
Last night, I stayed in the Bellingham, WA Walmart parking lot. Walmarts have McDonalds and McDonalds are among the many places that have free wifi these days. You can Google, say, free wi fi Bellingham, WA and find dozens of places.
So I used McDonalds at Walmart to do my email and facebook. This morning, I went back there to plan a move to a Starbucks and see more of the town. Why Starbucks, whose products I do not care for? Because unlike McDonalds, Starbucks fee wi fi is also often accompanied by the ability to plug in and thereby recharge your laptop. I bought a 75-watt inverter so I could recharge my laptop from my car or, at present, truck, 12-volt generator (plug into cigarette lighter). I did that while driving from Abbotsford, Canada to Bellingham—45 minutes. But after working on the laptop in the RV and in McD’s, its battery is running low. I needed a place that has not only wi fi, but also electricity. So I am at the moment somewhere in Bellingham at a Starbucks doing my email, and facebook and also getting recharged—excruciatingly slowly I must add. And I had to buy some of their high-calorie, expensive food.
I prefer to recharge at a free location like a public library, but it’s Sunday and they are closed.
Businesses being closed on Sunday does have its advantages. My RV takes up, but does not fill, four parking spaces where cars park face-to-face. You park so you can leave by just pulling forward. My RV is a bit too wide for one space so it takes up two and it is too long for one car space so it also takes up two more spaces behind the one it fills. On Sundays, lots of businesses that are closed have empty, surface parking lots where you can park in the pull-through configuration necessary with a large RV.
I went to McDs this morning to use their wi fi and my laptop to plot an RV-friendly (main roads, no dead-end streets) course to the Starbucks and to use the Google satellite aerial photos to find a parking space near the Starbucks. It’s like planning a military mission or scouting an opposing football team before you play them. But I am a lot more used to it already than the first day when I drove into a McDonald’s parking lot. (I wince at the thought.)
I did take photos of the RV with my cell phone with me in the photo to show scale. Now I have to figure out how to get them from my cell to facebook or another web site.
God bless libraries. Even in these little towns along the border, they are full of welcome climate control, rest rooms, electric outlets, free wi fi, and nice, helpful, knowledgeable people. As libraries go, small libraries are not very strong in general. But you can be damned sure that, say, the Lynden, WA library has the world’s best selection of books on Lynden, WA, and that is what I am here for.
A bit more precision on some aspects of the pickup truck camper. If I fit it perfectly into a marked parking spot, as I did by dumb luck at Barnes& Noble Bellingham on Saturday, it completely fills the space. My side mirrors encroach into the next space until I retract them. However, I would not be able to get in or out of the truck if anyone parked in the adjacent spaces. In addition, the length of the truck and camper encroach about 3 feet into the parking space behind me—more when I put the stairs down, which is necessary to get in and out of the camper. So you have to deliberately straddle the line dividing two spaces to make sure you can open your doors when you park in a marked parking lot.
Contrary to what one reader posted, RV parks do not always set all circuit breakers on off. They can’t be bothered. The breaker is set by the prior occupant of the space. You have to always make sure it is on in case some prior tenant always made sure it was off when he left.
I am composing this in Word. The reason is I am again staying at Burnaby Cariboo RV Park. They have free wi fi—for two hours.
I exceeded it last time. Composing off line then just going on the air to transmit is an old World War II military trick to enable the sender to get out of Dodge before the enemy triangulators locate and vaporize him.
What a delightful, picturesque town Lynden is! Reminded me of Solvang in California. They make a big deal out of their Swedish heritage and are a tourist attraction as a result. My wife and I stayed there for a week once. Lynden seems to be comparable, only Dutch. But the main road that carries you near Lynden barely mentions the existence of Lynden let alone that it is worth seeing. The main business street is quite retro. On this trip, my pickup truck often seems to be “Marty McFly’s” Delorean time machine of Back to the Future fame taking me back to the 1950s.
John T. Reed