When my husband and I were 24 we decided to move back to North Carolina and build a small house. We didn’t ship much from where we were living in Alaska. We had to pretty much start over with just a few things. We stayed with Matt’s parents for a few months to get adjusted and figure something out.
Our property had no structures on it but it is within ¼ mile of my father’s. We started out by staying there for a month and taking care of things and trying to make ourselves useful while we cleared some property and set up a tent. Within a short period of time, we had gone from a large 2-bedroom apartment to an 8 person tent in the one valley that is on our property. From working in an office to working outside and farming.
I kept my job for about a year after returning because I could do my financial planning assistant work online and on the phone down at my Dad’s where we had internet. But the 2008 recession ended all that.
We stayed in this off and on for a bit. We knew it wasn’t a realistic long term solution but it was away to be able to stay up on the mountain while we did some initial clearing. Our property was truly just overgrown pasture and woods. My Dad and Uncle’s cattle had been sold off when there was a big drought that drove the price of hay through the roof.
I want to be clear about our camper. It was really not something a lot of people would have considered livable. My Dad got it for us from my cousin. It cost a grand total of $300. It was a 1978 Holiday Rambler with a propane stove and fridge. The stove was a Magic Chef and it worked. The fridge was shot and the 12V electrical system would flicker in the rain. There were no hookups for water or toilets available at our site.
But we lived in that camper for 18 months and through two very snowy winters where we struggled to keep the camper 55-60 degrees on very cold days and nights. I remember the outside temp got down to -11 F one time.
But we did it and now we have a 480 sq ft cabin with loft.
At the same time we were both 24 and determined. No kids or health issues to consider. In the beginning, only one older family member down the road needed any care and it was minimal at the time. That changed later on and was one reason the house building had to slow down a little at times.
At the time we were concerned that living the way we were was not something we should exactly advertise. We occasionally had people up but not much. Since we live outside of town it wasn’t really convenient to go out a lot and going out cost money that would be better spent working on the house. We had got our fill of going out in the first 4 years of our twenties anyway when we had office jobs or were in college.
It seemed that we mostly just worked a lot and got in a lot better shape. There were animals to tend and goats having kids. We were building a house and clearing out the mess. People dumped a lot of garbage on the property before we moved up there. It took a ton of work. You can read more about how we cleaned up one spot and made a place to grow Shiitake mushrooms.
Household Systems and Organization
Please be aware when reading this section that the situation Matt and I were in was doing things with no big savings. There was a recession and not many jobs. We were slowed down by lack of funds and we had to learn things as we went. We made sacrifices so we could spend money on other things.
If you can afford to do things in an order that makes your life easier, please do. Putting in a septic system first and running water lines a little faster (it was a year or so I think before we did that) would have been helpful.
In short, if you can at all afford it, get a camper that has a functioning electrical system and bathroom.
We ran a large gauge extension cord 260 ft down the mountain from our temporary electric pole at the house site. The road was too bad at the time to get a camper to and the tires of the camper were questionable anyway. We had to limit our power to 20 amps. If we went beyond that the breaker would flip and then one of us would have to hike up a really steep trail to flip it.
Sometimes we got creative with laundry. I often just used the washer and dryer at my Dad’s but there were definitely times when I used the electric concrete mixer that we used to pour the footers and supports for our house.
We briefly had to haul water from a spicket that was 500 feet away and uphill. We had our own spicket installed off the communal family well system (we have our own well now) and that reduced walking for water to about 260 feet of fairly flat road.
Bathing and Bathrooms Needs
We heated water in barrels or on the stove to clean ourselves with or washed with cold sometimes. A garden hose in the warmer months would work well.
As far as the toilet goes, we were in a situation where we had to deal with that with shovels and going outside where there was no danger of water being contaminated. Without septic hookups, you are either going to have to have a compost toilet or outhouse generally speaking, especially for a family.
Tips For Living In A Camper
Possessions and Storage
Moving from Alaska forced us to get rid of everything except the basics so we had that part out of the way. Living in a camper doesn’t allow a lot of room for stuff. I will get into how we organized our camper and what we had a little later on. If you are planning on living in a camper, I recommend getting rid of everything that you never use and things that are not of sentimental value. I have an article that can help out with this.
Renting storage space can really add up and it can be very impractical if you live out in the country. Buying a small basic building is worth it. The first building on our place was a small metal tool shed. This served as a place to store tools and animal feeds and a few other items we did not have space for in the camper. Including the foundation, it cost us about $500.
Consider how many people will be living in the camper and the ages.
Campers and travel trailers that are affordable are still smaller spaces than many are used to living in. Generally speaking, smaller campers are less expensive to buy. Some people may find that having several smaller campers is a better deal and offers more privacy. If you have a couple of level headed teenagers, perhaps they want there own space and maybe you want some privacy and space too.
A family that bought some sheep from us bought a piece of property that they divided among themselves. I believe it was a husband and wife and then their 3 kids and spouses. They all had their own campers that they were going to live in temporarily.
Your camper roof is a weak point. They all seem to eventually leak unless care is taken.
Put a heavy-duty tarp over the roof. If you really want to take care of it and live in it long term, I advise building a simple roof over it, preferably out of sheet metal. It won’t cost a lot to build and it will pay for itself if you have a nice camper. Since our camper was old and appeared to still have the original tires, it was clear that no major care was taken. We bought a tarp with dimensions significantly larger than the roof area so it could be draped over sides and attached well.
Note: Airstreams and other rounded all-metal campers are different. Airstreams are much less likely to leak. There is a reason why they cost more and you still can find used ones dating back from a long time ago. If I was going to live in a camper long term, I would get an older Airstream and spend a little time and money restoring and improving it. Even if you spend $15,000 on a used Airstream and another $10,000 fixing it up, you are still spending half of what some of those poorly made tiny houses cost.
Sorry but I have toured some tiny houses at expos and while I am sure there are exceptions, they are not built that well and I consider them a rip off for what people are charged for them. They are not made for the heavy highway use that a regular camper is made for either.
Pop Up campers are not for living in for any significant length of time.
Don’t be tempted to buy and live in a pop-up. They are not designed for long term use and have some special problems. A lot of those for sale have not been stored properly and have issues. You might get away with it for summer but long term, I wouldn’t try it.
Advice For Couples
After nearly 16 years with the same person, I think I can give a little bit of helpful advice regarding living in close quarters. Matt and I have been apart twice in nearly 16 years. Once was for a week-long trip to the beach he took with his family the first few months we were together and then one overnight trip in Alaska when he had to stay over while fixing a copier. So basically one night the entire time we have been living together.
That’s just the way we are.
By the time we were 24 and living in a camper, we had spent a lot of time just around one another so we knew we would be ok living in a camper environment, especially since we had acres to explore.
Rule number one is that if you cannot stay at home with your spouse for a few days without any major conflict, then don’t try living in a single camper or under rough conditions if there is any choice in the matter. This is not living conditions for people that need their space within the home. If you need more space then have two campers on a property for spreading out and having personal time and space but don’t try it in one.
If you are living in a camper while building a house, remember that it always takes longer than you expect.
Living in a camper can be a longer time period than you expect. Even with contractors building a place for you, it often takes longer. Things happen that no one can plan precisely for.
If you are doing a lot of the work yourself there tend to be even more delays because it takes time to learn how to do things and you are not going to do them as quickly as someone that has done it a million times. No one turns into a super carpenter or craftsman overnight.
Check your laws before living in a camper. There are some ridiculous rules in some areas.
From what I can tell a lot of laws regarding living in campers or non traditionally are complaint-driven and the odds that someone is going to report you are pretty low if you are on your own property and not making a nuisance of yourself, throwing trash around, etc.
That being said, there are some laws in certain areas that can make your life hard if they are enforced. If you are new to an area or just don’t know the rules, you may want to check it out.
Alternative power is less expensive than it used to be.
When Matt and I started living on our property, solar panels cost double what they do now on a per watt basis. It is so much more affordable and easy to get panels now. Back then you had to order from specific places and the shipping costs were prohibitive. The two panels we bought cost nearly $900 with shipping. We could get the same thing for about $450-$500 now.
There are so many little power centers that you can get to use with a small panel for some extra electricity on the go or for just living simply off-grid. Power centers like the Jackery 500 or the Goal Zero Yeti can also be charged off a car outlet in an RV or whatever you are towing your trailer/camper with.
I advise having some extra power on hand or planning for your electric needs in advance if you plan on living in a camper off-grid or traveling a lot while living in a camper.
Nomadic Lifestyles and Campground Living
There are plenty of people that have decided to be nomadic and live at KOAs and various private campgrounds so that they can see a lot of different places without the expense of hotel rooms or paying rent on a permanent dwelling while they travel.
Costs will vary a lot based on the campground and area that you plan on parking your camper. You can easily spend $1,000 on a month at a campground but that often includes all the utilities and amenities you would expect from an apartment.
There are campgrounds that may offer you a better rate if you sign up for a long term stay. Some people have even stayed a night here and there at a Wal-Mart parking lot when traveling but I think they have started booting people or citing them for that in some areas. Personally I would not feel safe sleeping in a camper at any of the Wal-Mart’s in my area.
Concerns For Those With Children In School
I remember kids getting made fun of for living in RVs when I was in grade school in the North Cascades. I am not sure what it is like now for kids but I think it is worth mentioning that kids may be given a hard time if parent’s choose to live full time in an RV in one location for an extended period of time. This is just something to be aware of so that you can offer support.
Other parents or adults in an area may become concerned as well. I know people that have had neighbors act like they were going to get others involved just because kids were on a porch in a city while the adults were inside. The world we live in can just be like that. If you choose to live in a way that others don’t understand, these things can happen and cause you some grief.
That being said, a lot of people that are making the switch to off-grid living, choose to homeschool. In fact, this can be necessary if you are so far out of the way that school takes too long to get to or bus service is not at all available. Homeschooling also opens up the opportunity for a period of nomadic living and travel.
Have you lived in a camper for an extended period of time? What did you like and dislike about it?