From the vantage point of a couch in front of a TV, full-time RV living can look pretty alluring: driving open roads, camping next to rivers and lakes, going where you want when you want, living a life of luxury. Much goes on behind the scenes to make all that happen, though.
Because we relocate our fifth wheel every week or two, we always have plans in motion and on our minds. We don’t like to book RV stops far in advance so that we have freedom to change our route or destination on a whim. But we do like to have an idea of the direction we’re heading.
For that reason, we’re continually working on future stays — not an easy feat for two middle children who aren’t great at making decisions. This involves a number of factors.
Researching Destination Areas
Adequate preparation requires a lot of research. We use our Campendium app to find big-rig-friendly boondocking options, campgrounds, and fees. If we don’t find something we like in a certain location, we increase the search radius to an hour or so outside of that destination area.
We also check our Harvest Hosts app to identify if any big-rig-friendly hosts are in that vicinity. We pay an annual fee to be part of Boondockers Welcome, which was acquired by Harvest Hosts. This offers us free stays of up to five nights, depending on the host’s preference. Some hosts offer electric hookups, for a fee. This can come in handy when the weather’s warm and we want to run our air conditioners.
Additionally, we use Google Maps to look at the satellite view of any place we’re considering for a better picture of the feasibility of getting our rig into and out of it. And Google Earth allows us to measure distance to determine if our rig will truly fit.
Once we’ve identified a place we’d like to stay, we have to figure out the best way to get there. Google Maps may seem like the natural go-to, but it doesn’t take into account the height or length of our rig. Although the app’s suggested routes tend to be OK for us in the West, we can’t rely on them in the East, where low clearance and weight restrictions can be issues.
We use our CoPilot navigation app to steer us in the right direction. Originally a trucker app, CoPilot allows us to enter the dimensions of our rig and then navigates us accordingly, avoiding U-turns and roads with weight and height restrictions.
Identifying Fuel Stops
Finding our weekly destinations and routes is only part of the necessary research of RV life. We also have to locate places along the way where we can get fuel. Since upgrading the capacity of our fuel tank, we can go farther before needing to stop, which gives us more options to find the best diesel price using our Open Roads app.
Open Roads is a fleet fuel program that gets us discounts at TA, Petro, and Love’s truck stops across the country. After checking Gulliver’s fuel level to determine how far we can go before we need more diesel, we look at Google Maps to identify cities with truck stops.
Equipped with that information, we go back to our Open Roads app and enter the city name to populate fuel stations there, along with their prices. The app shows us the cost of fuel with our discount applied, not the publicly displayed price.
Finding Dump Stations
If we’re doing any sort of boondocking or moochdocking, we also need to identify RV dump stations nearby where we can empty our waste water tanks. Campendium can help with that, as can a website called rvdumpsites.net.
Finding dump stations is only half the battle. More importantly, we have to determine if our rig can get into and out of the facility. We’ve encountered plenty that weren’t compatible with the size of our 42-foot-long rig — even in established campgrounds.
To figure out if we’ll be able to get Tagalong in and out of a dump station, we once again consult the Google Maps satellite view and street view, if available, for accessibility and clearance issues.
Checking the Weather
Another big part of RV logistics is keeping tabs on the weather, as we don’t like to drive in rain or other inclement conditions. Working our way north for our Alaska adventure, for example, we had to wait for the weather to warm up before we could move on. This left us in the desert outside of Las Vegas for two weeks, and we still got snowed on in Twin Falls, Idaho.
As you can imagine, all of this research takes considerable time. It’s a not-so-pleasant aspect of full-time RV living, which is not for the faint of heart. Yet, it’s a necessary part. Thankfully, Bob is an excellent researcher and does most of this planning for us.
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Whether you live full time in an RV or in sticks and bricks, issues have a way of popping up when you least expect them. We’ve certainly had our share in both circumstances.
Things have gone incredibly wrong for some RVers, forcing them to hang up their travel hats and settle down. We’ve been very fortunate in our RV life. Although we’ve had plenty of challenges, we haven’t encountered anything we couldn’t get through — even though some things took many months to resolve.
Some of the simpler incidents in our fourth year of RV living included separating trailer skirting and losing a hubcap off the truck. An Amazon order remedied the hubcap issue, and some screws and bolts fixed the skirting problem.
We also had a loose window in the trailer that would occasionally open on its own as a result of travel over bumpy roads. Closing it required powering open the dining room slideout part way.
The last time that happened, while driving through Canada, I went to close the window and discovered a loose screw in the control mechanism. Since tightening the screw, we haven’t had any issues with the window. Who knew it was such a simple fix all these years!
Here are some more significant excerpts of things gone wrong in RV life from the past year:
Right before setting out on the Alaska Highway, we noticed a puddle under our kitchen slideout — the last thing we wanted to see before hitting a notoriously rough road, especially after all the water problems we had already dealt with. Upon examination, Bob quickly found the culprit: a plastic, instead of brass, tee joint connecting the pipe to our ice maker.
Yes, you read that right. Our rig came equipped with an ice maker. We used it early on but quickly realized its ineffectiveness for boondocking, with no water connections. So, we stopped using it and resorted to a couple of silicone ice trays, which also save precious freezer space.
Bob bandaged the pipes and made a point to keep an eye on them until he could replace the tee with something more effective, which he did when we were in North Pole, Alaska.
For our first overnight stop on the Alaska Highway, we pulled into a downward-sloped rest area. We had learned from other leveling challenges that for best operation, our refrigerator couldn’t be at a pitch more than 3 degrees. Knowing that and not wanting to sleep so that we rolled off the bed, we attempted to raise the rear of the truck to make the front of Tagalong more level.
This involved driving up on some stacked plastic leveling blocks, which we use for the trailer all the time. With the dually wheels on each side of the truck and the weight of the trailer on top of them, the plastic crunched and broke into pieces as soon as Bob drove onto it. So much for that idea.
We ended up disconnecting the trailer from the truck for that stop so that we could get the trailer even from front to back and enjoy our evening there.
Upon arrival at an overnight stop, I attempted to go inside the trailer to open the dining room slideout. But I couldn’t get in. Although the main door opened, the screen door attached to it wouldn’t budge. That meant we couldn’t lower our stairs, which fold up inside the door, to get into the rig.
Bob grabbed his cordless drill and removed hinges from the screen door to allow us in. That worked temporarily but didn’t correct the underlying issue. After much scrutiny, we realized that one of the brackets on the stairs was bent, catching on the screen. Bob successfully straightened out the bracket and filed it down, fixing the problem.
Missing Smoke Detector
After arriving at a location and setting up camp for the week, I looked up and noticed two screws hanging from the ceiling above our kitchen island. As I stared at them, I racked my brain trying to identify what used to cover the screws. Then it dawned on me.
I asked Bob if he had moved the smoke detector. He said no. A search high and low for the device didn't uncover it. I suddenly remembered I had been having difficulty opening the dining room slideout. I pulled it in a few inches and, sure enough, the smoke detector sat atop it. Bumpy road conditions must have rattled it loose from its ceiling perch.
No Hot Water
Our rig has two ways to heat water: with propane and with electricity. Upon arrival at Fool Hollow Lake Campground in Show Low, Arizona, Bob noticed the lack of hot water coming out of the tap, despite the electric water heater being on.
He tried to heat the water with propane, but that didn’t work. We had encountered a similar issue another time, so after some troubleshooting, he pinpointed the problem: a faulty thermal cutoff. It’s a safety device that prevents melting if the water gets too hot. He happened to have a spare, and replacing it produced warm water out of our faucet.
It’s not uncommon to accidentally leave possessions at places and have to return to fetch them. When that act of fetching involves driving a tall, heavy fifth wheel through traffic in Portland, Oregon, it’s downright nerve-racking.
That’s where we found ourselves after I realized I had left my purse at McDonald’s north of Portland, about a half hour away. With white knuckles, Bob graciously drove back through the city — and then through it a third time after retrieving the purse to get to our destination. I try to double-check that I have my purse with me now before we hit the road from anywhere.
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Ah, boondocking — wide-open spaces, beautiful views, quiet serenity, and economical cost. Since our rig is prepped with solar panels, generators, and large freshwater and wastewater tanks, we like to take advantage of dry camping when we can.
An ultimate destination of Alaska in 2023 kept us in the West, providing abundant off-grid camping opportunities. Because of that, we did a lot more boondocking in our fourth year of RV travel than we did in the first three years combined.
As a result, we feel much more experienced at it than we did when we got busted for camping where it wasn’t allowed. We’ve learned a lot since then about the importance of conserving all the water and electricity we can. That means reheating coffee and leftovers on the stove rather than in the microwave, among other things.
Here are our favorite boondocking hacks that make living off the grid easy and enjoyable:
1. Plastic Grocery Bags
One of the best practices of our boondocking success is using plastic grocery bags instead of tall kitchen trash bags to collect our waste. We learned this trick early on from full-time RVers Tom and Molly and continue to use it to this day.
Because we don’t have a grocery-bag-size trash bin in our kitchen, we still line our normal-size waste can with a tall kitchen trash bag and hang the smaller grocery bag inside the larger bag, attaching it to two corners. This prevents messes from contents that don’t quite make it into the smaller bag.
Plus, we can store about three full grocery bags in the tall kitchen bag. Then when we make a trip into town, we take the bags with us and deposit them in multiple bins for easy disposal.
2. Fat Trapper
Another thing that helps with our trash situation is a gadget called the Fat Trapper (paid link). It’s a sealable plastic container that comes with heavy-duty bags for collecting grease and fat from cooking.
We don’t want to put used oil and grease down our pipes because of odors and possible clogging — not to mention the water that would be required to wash it down. Nor do we want to put that in our trash bag as it could make a mess and sit there for a while, reeking, until we venture into town.
3. French-Press Coffee
To avoid having to run our generators to make coffee every morning, we invested in a 50-ounce stainless steel French press (paid link). French presses work better with coarse-ground coffee than they do with what you can typically buy already bagged.
For that reason, we purchased coffee beans and a manual coffee grinder (paid link) when we first moved into our fifth wheel. After a week or so, we traded elbow grease for a power drill to grind the coffee. That worked great. But then we got even smarter.
We decided to buy whole beans and use an in-store grinder at the supermarket, allowing us to select the coarseness of the grind. Finding grocery stores that offered that feature during the pandemic became quite challenging, so we learned to stock up on bags of self-ground coffee before hitting the road for our annual trek.
4. Once-a-Day Dishwashing
Because our freshwater supply and gray water tank capacity are limited when living off the grid, we let our dishes pile up in the sink and wash them only once a day. On rare occasions, we use paper dishes and plasticware, but those create more trash that we have to store until making a trip into town.
If we’re camped at a place where campfires are allowed and firewood is abundant, we can burn our paper dishes. In reality, however, we don’t have campfires all that often.
Another thing that can help with dishes is spraying dirty ones with a water/vinegar mixture from a spray bottle before leaving them in the sink. This can make the eventual cleaning process easier. Along those same lines, we often wipe food remnants from our plates and bowls using a napkin or paper towel before leaving them in the sink.
5. Prewashed and Sliced Produce
In addition to washing dishes only once a day to cut down on water use, we try to buy pre-washed and pre-sliced produce when stocking up for a boondocking adventure. This can save quite a bit of water that we would have used to wash mushrooms, for example.
That may not sound like a big savings, but cleaning produce uses more water than you might think. Tasks we took for granted in our sticks-and-bricks home aren’t always optional when boondocking.
6. Cast-Iron Skillet
One of our best buys that we use on a daily basis is a 10-inch cast-iron skillet (paid link). After seasoning it well, it cooks great food evenly, helps us maintain healthy iron levels, and is easy to clean — saving water. Most uses require only wiping the pan with a paper towel and adding a little more oil to it.
7. Window Shades for Temp Control
Our RV came equipped with two shades on each window: a privacy screen and a black-out shade. The latter came in quite handy in Alaska’s land of the midnight sun.
We use both shades to keep the interior of our rig temperate. Closing the screens on cold nights helps prevent warmth from escaping. And closing them on warm days helps keep the inside temperature tolerable.
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Each year of full-time RV living leaves us feeling more comfortable and experienced in our lifestyle. Despite that, we continue to encounter challenges and even scares along the way. Our fourth year of RV travel was no different. Here’s a countdown of our scariest experiences in our fourth year on the road:
6. Police Visit
While camped in the parking lot of the Museum of Mountain Flying in Missoula, Montana, with permission, a loud rap at our door made us stand at attention. Glancing out the window, we saw a white truck marked POLICE and an armed, uniformed officer standing at the base of our stairs.
Bob went out to greet the man. They chatted for a bit as Bob explained our connection to the museum, which we had visited a couple of years earlier while on tour with the Commemorative Air Force. Satisfied with the discussion, the officer wished us well, climbed into his truck, and drove away.
5. Honked at While Camping
We had just gotten set up at a beautiful dispersed campground in McCammon, Idaho, with a panoramic view of red maple leaves. We saw no other soul at our three-site campground, 50 feet or so from the main camping area.
Before long, a vehicle came to a stop next to our rig and emitted the annoying beep of a horn. I looked out the window and saw a car with a driver accompanied by a dog in the passenger seat. We had no clue who the person was and no inclination to exit our trailer to find out. We figured if they really wanted to talk to us, they could knock on our door.
Meanwhile, Bob looked up info about the campground and learned it had 10 RV sites and five tent sites. Were we in a tent site? The car had no signs of being an official vehicle and eventually moved on. A short time later, a truck marked RANGER drove through and didn’t bother stopping, leaving us relieved.
We later discovered after a walk through the campground that we were definitely in one of the RV sites, as we found the five clearly identifiable tent sites. Maybe the driver thought we were someone else.
4. Parking Lot Knock
On our way to Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to reach the start of the Alaska Highway, we overnighted in a Calgary, Alberta, mall. We had found the option online. Staying at the mall only required signing in at guest services inside the complex, where we received a dated paper to put on our truck dash.
After a delicious meal at one of the mall’s many restaurants, we returned to our trailer and settled in for the night. At about 9:30 p.m., we heard three pounds of a fist on the side of our trailer. I thought someone had knocked on our front door, but that was not the case. Some kids walking by decided to try to scare us. It worked on me.
3. 4 a.m. Truck Alarm
On our return trip to the Lower 48 after a wonderful summer in Alaska, we stopped at a rest area in the middle of nowhere about an hour north of Watson Lake, Yukon, in Canada. We had stayed at the same place on the way to Alaska and liked it there.
After an unsuccessful attempt to spot the northern lights for the second time, we dozed off to sleep. At 4 a.m., the beeping of a car alarm woke us from our slumber. It turned out to be Gulliver’s alarm, something that had never happened before. We quieted the disturbing noise and went outside to investigate, finding no signs of foul play or anyone around, for that matter.
The next morning, when we got into Gulliver for the next leg of our journey, the culprit became evident: The monitor for our rear trailer camera had fallen from the windshield in the cold of the night.
2. Tsunami Warning
We arrived in Homer, Alaska, on a foggy, rainy afternoon. When I looked at my phone to check the weather, I saw a tsunami warning. Talk about a wake-up call. I quickly took a screenshot. But later when I looked, the warning had disappeared.
We had been through four tornado warnings since becoming full-time RVers, so we knew to take these things seriously. No longer finding the tsunami warning readily available, I did some quick research and discovered it had been issued after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake off the Alaska peninsula. The tsunami warning had been canceled five minutes after issuance, so we were in no danger.
1. Stuck in Museum Parking Lot
Our scariest encounter in our fourth year of RV travel happened the day after the Calgary mall incident. We had made arrangements to park overnight at the Alberta Aviation Museum in Edmonton, Alberta, which houses a B-25 WWII bomber similar to the one we work on with the Commemorative Air Force.
We pulled down the road leading to the museum, finding it lined with cars on both sides. The museum lot offered nowhere to park our big rig, so I pulled into the fire lane, facing a fence, while Bob went inside to talk to the staff. As it turned out, an organization had leased part of the building to host a reptile show that weekend, drawing quite a crowd.
The museum supervisor came out to assess the situation and, finding illegally parked cars, essentially told us there was no safe way for us to work our way out of the parking lot. Yet, the executive director, who had approved our stay, wanted us to leave and come back later.
I suggested maybe Bob could back into a parking lane so that we could pull forward to get out, despite people moving about in every direction. A friendly gentleman helped direct foot and vehicle traffic while Bob’s years of trailer-backing experience led to a masterful job of getting us out of a sticky situation.
People inconvenienced by the maneuver proved understanding and supportive, which we appreciated. We returned later to a virtually empty parking lot and spent an uneventful night there.
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This is the travel blog of full-time RVers Bob and Lana Gates and our truck, Gulliver, and fifth wheel, Tagalong.