What It's Really Like to Live in an RV, According to Someone Who Did It for Years

Here's what I learned while living and traveling in an RV with my husband for 1,353 days.

RV exterior with view of Grand Tetons

Jessica Dawson

Our first RV trip was a surprise for my husband’s 30th birthday, a rambling four-day ride through California’s tallest Redwoods. Turns out, it was also prophetic: The freedom and novelty of the open road sparked a previously unconsidered possibility for our next move. 

Two years later, stifled by the lack of space and cost of living in San Francisco, we bought a 27-foot Winnebago and named her Layla — a callback to the summers of my childhood when my dad would blast the Eric Clapton classic throughout the house. The idea was to not only see more of the United States, but also explore options for our next home base. 

Layla is a Class A motor home, and the cab where you drive is at the front of the house. Approximately 50 square feet, it has a queen-size bed (minus a few inches), shotgun kitchen, dinette, drop-down bed above the cab, three TVs, an outdoor bar area, and two slides that practically double the square footage. Though seemingly small, the design of the space — and mobility of the motor home — made it feel more expansive than our 450-square-foot apartment in San Francisco. 

To make Layla ours, we removed the '70s-inspired window valances and layered on a white tile backsplash in the kitchen. We also added 18 square feet of red-and-white wallpaper to the bathroom. It depicts a happy couple dancing with their dog in a desert-like country oasis (another prophetic choice). 

Woman sitting and looking at Crater Lake

Jessica Dawson

My father-in-law flew in from Austin to help upgrade Layla’s batteries so they could last longer, allowing us to spend more time off the grid instead of plugged into the power sources traditional of most RV parks. Thanks to this fix, we were able to “boondock” — where you camp for free (without power or water hookups) — just about anywhere, from national forests and Bureau of Land Management land to Cracker Barrel and Walmart parking lots. 

Finally ready, my husband, Brian, took his seat in the captain’s chair and I settled in next to him, Layla’s huge panoramic windshield clear of bugs (which would, of course, only last 15 minutes). Without much preconception beyond the idea that nature and space would be important in our search, we set out on what we thought would be a year-long journey around the country.

Flying Drawers, Cold Beers, and Wyoming’s Steepest Boondocking Spot

Landscape of Acadia, Maine in autumn with changing foliage

Jessica Dawson

Ten minutes into our first drive, I began reflecting on the magic of offline Google docs as we sped by California’s Wilson Lake. Mid-reverie, we turned a corner and the large drawer beneath the fridge flew off its handles, breaking immediately. A lesson we’d learn many times over: Don’t expect anything to work as advertised, and reinforce everything.

That night, we drove eight miles off-road to boondock with a front-row view of Mount Lassen’s snowcapped peak. We opened the bottle of wine my best friend, Chloe, bought for the "first night in our new house” and fell asleep to the sounds of the forest. (Unlike living in a cramped apartment, the thin walls of an RV have their benefits.)

Woman paddle boarding in a lake with view of mountains

Jessica Dawson

Over the next few months, we quickly discovered the joy of sipping cold PBR on a stand-up paddleboard in the middle of a calm lake. And the dread of knowing a package you thought might make it to the next town’s post office was delayed, which meant you’d miss it completely. We realized that (most) rest stops are actually surprisingly clean and safe. We also learned firsthand the difference between petroglyphs (carving in rock) and pictographs (drawing on rock).

Along the way, I fueled our journey writing about roadside burgers, fried pickles, cheese curds, and more for Michael and Jane Stern’s Roadfood. We moved quickly from California to Oregon, through the buffalo herds of Wyoming’s Yellowstone, and past mountain goats sunbathing on the crags of Glacier National Park in Montana. We ate sourdough pancakes with minted butter on the edge of Bighorn National Forest before carefully navigating the throngs of leather-bedecked bikers in town for the Sturgis rally in the Black Hills. 

Landscape of Grand Tetons

Jessica Dawson

Many times over, we felt the thrill of gambling on the first camping spot we saw versus waiting for the perfect one — like the space just outside Grand Teton National Park that sits at a 10-degree angle, forcing us to flip our sheets so the blood didn’t rush to our heads while we slept. It was worth it for the most spectacular, unobstructed views of the sleeping giants.

Seeing New Places With Old Friends and Dodging Alligators

We stopped just about anywhere we wanted, saw more taxidermy for sale than I knew existed, and experienced the therapeutic hum of the laundromat weekly. We learned the importance of building in rest days and that there’s not much worse than arriving at your RV spot after a long day only to realize that someone else was in it.

Our people were happy to meet us along the way — St. Louis, Ohio, New York, the Outer Banks, Savannah, New Orleans, Santa Fe — sleeping in the bunk over the cab or in the kitchen on an air mattress Brian rigged to optimize space and comfort for our taller visitors.

Close up of prickly pear cacti in bloom and a long road in Death Valley

Jessica Dawson

We sipped martinis and ate medium-rare burgers at Stewart’s in Saint Paul, Minnesota (now closed). We listened to the blues in Memphis and hung on for dear life as we bumped along the pothole-dotted roads of Interstate 40. We heel-toed through the streets of Nashville and walked the yellow bridges of Pittsburgh. We woke up near Mount Tabor in Green Mountain National Forest to a barred owl roosting outside the window. 

We walked 21 miles in two days in Washington, D.C., fueling up with sandwiches at Bub and Pop’s. I almost stepped on an alligator in Brazos Bend State Park. We spent our first Christmas alone in the Everglades eating mussels and attempting to learn chess.

We stayed about 10 months longer than we thought we would with friends in Florida, moved from family to family during the pandemic, and finally made it to the arid landscapes of the Southwest almost three years after we started, photographing cacti at every angle and eating enough chiles and tamales to satisfy even my insatiable desire for them.

Still Learning Every Day 

Bike riding through idyllic fall foliage in Acadia and a view of a barred owl in a tree

Jessica Dawson

Brian and I were 12 years into our lives together when we began this trip. Though joyfully married, the uncharted territory afforded no alone time and came with a steep learning curve. Things that tested our marriage often centered around the physical components of living in an RV, which are never intuitive and always complicated. This included backing into our spots, checking tire pressure and putting air in them, almost running out of water in the fresh tanks, switching drivers (once in the rain, and never again), and listening to the creak of the leveler as it made its fourth attempt to balance the RV. 

On the flip side, early morning hikes and drives were uniquely calming and never disappointed. Choosing the perfect restaurant or activity for a new town was a challenging, but satisfying exercise that was met with jubilation when we got it right, and a sense of humor when we didn't. 

Then there was the giddy shock of seeing a moose nibbling on his lunch while hiking on the east side of Many Glacier in Montana. The delight of eating fresh doughnuts from the farmers market in Portland, Oregon after biking up a deceivingly steep hill in Washington Park. The relief of finally getting a full tank of water again. The marvel of watching the brightest stars in an International Dark Sky Park. And reaching Acadia, Maine just after the tourists thin out and kids go back to school, but just before the last trees shed their leaves. 

In short, the vast, beautiful country was our backyard.

The majority of the time, it was just Brian and me experiencing all these extreme emotions and scenes together. The tough times were prickly, but often and almost immediately soothed by the next cool, interesting, and unexpected thing. For better or worse, the RV forced us to live in the moment — a gratifying and humbling practice that stitched us closer together.

Home Is Where the Adventure Lies

Layla was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made, and we wouldn’t change a thing about it — except maybe bolting in that kitchen drawer a little tighter. The journey was completely unpredictable, downright frustrating, and awe-inspiring in equal parts.

Exploring the country without the burden of a big-city rent or stress of a typical office job was a luxury that seemed unreal at times, and my immense contentment often propelled me to turn to Brian and say, “Can you believe this is our life?” It’s a mantra we hope to maintain as we step into each chapter of our lives, continuing to prioritize each other, nature, and the adventure of the unknown.

Four years and one pandemic later, we are proud parents to six chickens and a wacky Irish doodle named Scarlet, and just bought our first (stationary) home in the cacti- and oak-filled Hill Country just outside Austin, Texas. The amount of space and alone time is startling. In the RV, I’d have to squeeze by Brian just to get from the bedroom to the kitchen. Now, I can be in one room and not see or hear him for hours. While we once craved the open road and will continue to travel as often as we can, we now relish the cozy reassurance of a home base. And dancing is a common occurrence.

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