In September 2016, Andy and I went on a three-hour sailing lesson at Chatfield Reservoir near Denver, CO. I had found a Living Social deal (like Groupon) that sounded like fun. Since we’d never tried sailing, we were both eager to learn something new. Turns out we loved it! We liked it so much that Andy started researching how we could sail more. He started watching YouTube videos of full-time sailors and reading about how to get trained. Not long after, we decided to get certified and make sailing a retirement goal. We developed a plan that involved training our skills, downsizing our material items footprint, and shoring up our financial readiness. In December 2018, we became ASA 104 certified after a six-night on-board outing. Our multi-day stay on a boat solidified that we were on the path that we wanted. To continue towards our goal, we sold our house and downsized into an apartment in April 2019. While we longed to see the world from the water, I also wanted to see our own “backyard” first. Therefore, we changed our plan to include a year in an RV. In May 2020, we bought our Jayco Greyhawk 31FS. After another year, we were financially ready to embark on the beginning of our adventure. In July 2021, we sold the rest of our belongings and moved into our RV permanently.
Seven years after initiating the idea to travel for an extended time, we have completed the RV phase of our plan. It was quite a year; filled with exploring the outdoors, visiting family, and reuniting with friends. We are beyond grateful for this year of touring places that we’d never visited and spending quality time with family and friends.
Our total route is shown in Image 1. This trip started in Denver on July 27, 2021, in a northern direction, and generally went around the US in a clockwise manner. We aimed to venture through the north before colder temperatures started creeping into the nights. After staying in Maine, we made our way south. Due to the seasonal temperature gradient, we were able to experience fall colors for a couple of months as we drove south from the Northeast. Around Thanksgiving, we ventured into the midwest to visit with family and friends. For Christmas we were able to spend time with family in Texas. We had some additional time built into our schedule during the winter months and decided that it was an ideal time to go back to Denver for a few weeks. Once we got back on the road in the RV, we were trying to time our locations to work well with the weather to avoid our RV plumbing from freezing. Therefore, we stayed along the southern border of the United States as we headed west. After experiencing California prices and giving the weather a chance to warm-up, we went to the mountainous southern regions. After that, we began heading north and toured the Pacific Northwest. It was ideal to have our Canadian sites at the end of the trip since Covid restrictions remained a factor throughout the year. Our trip concluded in Glacier National Park, MT. From there, we headed back to Tennessee (Andy’s parent’s house) to regroup for our next transition.
During our trip, we kept track of data that we knew we’d find interesting. While there’s always more information that we would love to see boiled down into numbers, we captured enough from our daily activities to create a high-level assessment of our past year, shown in Table 1.
We drove through more States and Provinces than illustrated in Graph 1, however, the graph represents the States and Provinces where we camped. We toured places like Alberta, Canada, and went through places like Wisconsin, but we didn’t stop for the night. As you can see, most of our time was spent in Texas. We stayed with family while we were there, but we also ventured into several State Parks and saw friends along the way. Texas was the best spot for us to shelter during many winter days since our RV doesn’t have the insulation for colder temperatures to prevent the water lines from freezing. Unfortunately, we still experienced some freezing temperatures while we were in Texas, but we were able to empty the water lines and prevent any damage to the RV. On cold nights we used every single one of our blankets and even covered Archie, our Newfoundland dog, through the night.
We utilized many types of lodging throughout the trip. Moochdocking was our most common method when visiting family and friends. Moochdocking, staying in someone’s home or parking in their driveway, got us through some of the other winter days. Those nights were certainly more comfortable in controlled temperatures. As you can see in Graph 2, moochdocking was about one-third of our trip stays. We participated in a Boondockers Welcome membership that provided access to a network of people that accepts people staying on their property. We found this to be a fun, cost-effective option throughout the trip, but especially in the northeast where other options were scarce. While a campground
was typically not our first choice for a stay due to cost, they usually were able to provide hook-ups or amenities (electricity, water, waste dump) that were convenient for easy replenishment, additional comfort, and Instant Pot meals that could be cooked and then frozen for eating later. Boondocking was our most resource-challenging camping, but also provided the cheapest choice and some of the best natural environments and views.
We often chose our lodging type according to what resources we needed. The amenities at each of the lodging types varied quite a bit, even within the same type of lodging. Graph 3 shows the amenities available throughout the year. Amenities labeled as not applicable (N/A) include locations, such as moochdocking and Airbnb, where we had access to a home with all of the “creature comforts” we could want. We often saved our laundry days for these locations since it was more convenient and didn’t cost extra at a laundromat. Primitive camping, which means no amenities, was experienced while boondocking, at many Boondockers Welcome sites, at multiple campgrounds, and at most Harvest Host sites. Electricity while primitive camping never became a burden for us. For electricity, in addition to our two RV house batteries, we supplemented with a portable ECOFlow Delta solar battery. While we had a generator, we rarely needed to use it for power. For water, our tank held 40 gallons which could last us 6-7 days if we were conservative with its use. We also stored an additional 18 gallons in three six-gallon water jugs tucked into the shower area. Our reserved water wasn’t required very often, but we were thankful to have it when we needed it. We found that waste removal was ideal around day 5, but we could stretch to a few more days if needed. Not only were we planning our resource management, it became a daily part of our activities.
When we weren’t managing our resources, an assortment of activities kept us busy. As expected, we spent a lot of time relaxing. However, relaxing doesn’t only involve putting up our feet and reading books. Graph 4 shows nearly a quarter of our time was relaxing, but this category also included journaling and planning logistics for where to visit, where to hike, where to bike, where Archie could go, coordination with family and friends, etc. Conservatively, I estimate that time spent on logistics is roughly 263 hours (35 National Entities x 4 hours + 123 locations to camp x 1 hour). You may notice that driving is not a listed category. Using our total milage of 36,172 miles and driving at an average of 65 miles/hour, I estimate that we spent approximately 556 hours driving. On our driving days, we generally drove the RV for two to four hours. Driving time is interwoven into other main activities for the day, including Relaxing, Family Visits, Friend Visits, etc., and is not shown as a separate activity.
Again, we are grateful that over one-third of our last year was spent with family and friends. The exploring category encompasses visiting new cities, including driving around, eating at a local spots, or just clowning around for the day. While we hiked several days in National Sites, I simply included those days in the National Sites bucket and not in the Hike bucket. For hikes less than 5 miles, we usually could take Archie with us, which he loved. His excitement on a hike in the woods was definitely higher than on a typical bathroom walk around the campground.
For us to make this trip possible, we saved for several years. Our original budget was $45,000. However, after having empirical data from our first month, we decided to adjust our budget to $50,400. At the end of each month, we reviewed our actual spending compared to our planned budget. We weren’t too hard on ourselves since we had enough money saved for contingency, but our budget helped keep us aligned with our goals better than if we didn’t have a target. For instance, we both love food from local spots and probably could have easily blown our budget enjoying that luxury more often than we did. We also found that we tended to spend more on activities when we were with friends. We were able to save money on lodging when moochdocking, boondocking, and using Boondockers Welcome. As shown in Graph 5, we quickly exceeded our (revised) budget. After October, we were able to reign in our spending and keep our rate of spending level for the next several months.
Taking a closer look at monthly spending, Graph 6, we show spending spikes in October, March, and June. To our credit, I’d like to note that we were able to recover some of our budget in January and February. Taking a more detailed look, as shown in Graph 7. Monthly Spend (By Commodity), we show that in October, we experienced maintenance expenses of nearly $1000 to get a major repair to our car. March included high gas expenses and a wheel replacement for the mountain bike, both which were unplanned. As we neared the end of the trip, the gas rates were higher than average (West Coast and Canada) which increased our spend rate. Furthermore, our time spent in Canada included an Airbnb and several times eating out. Admittedly, we became less restrictive on ourselves knowing that this was our last hurrah of the trip.
Looking strictly at gas expenses, Graph 8 shows the cost/gallon for each trip to the gas station with the RV. Again, starting in March you can see when we entered the West Coast, in addition to worldwide increases of fuel. Due to the high taxes on California fuel, we opted to limit our travel in California. Since we lived in Livermore, CA many years ago, we had been able to explore a lot of the state at that time. While we would have loved to visit those locations again, we were excited to explore new places in Oregon and Washington instead.
While we aren’t planning to take another RV trip, I found it interesting to compare our Budget by Commodity (Graph 9) to our Actual Spend by Commodity (Graph 10). Note that the percentages are relative to the Budget and Actual Spend, respectively, and that a percent on one graph is not equal to a percent on the other graph. Therefore, the percentages on one graph do not equal the same dollar amount on the other graph.
I hope that the comparison may help someone else that could be considering a similar adventure. For us, we would like to plan a sailing expedition in our future. While these percentages aren’t directly relatable to the choices that we’ll encounter on a sailboat, they provide insight into our personal habits (i.e. food is something we’re willing to spend more on) and other unexpected comparisons (i.e. maintenance costs more than planned).
Overall, this trip was worth every penny! There are few other ways to experience such a large area and variety of terrains with such a small budget. Plus, we drove in regions that we would have never experienced if we were to fly directly to vacation destinations. If you consider traveling to a location for three or more nights as a vacation, could you do it for an average cost of $1000/location for over 50 locations nationwide? I don’t think we could have done it without an RV. This trip enabled us to do just that! Additionally, as a bonus, we saw nearly another 70 cities for free along the route.
While I love looking at the numbers, there was more to this trip than what can be tallied. Non-quantitatively, this trip was more than I expected. We appreciated all of the time with family and friends. We enjoyed slowing down our pace of life, living simply, and viewing sights that are postcard worthy. We’re often asked the favorite part of our trip and that’s a complicated question. The U.S. and Canada have so much diversity in the variety of terrain that they are incomparable in many ways. However, to satisfy that lingering question…
Here’s a Top 10 Highlights and Surprises List that encompasses some of the variety we experienced:
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, MI - looks like it would be on some exotic ocean coast, not the northern U.S.
White Mountains, NH - steep, tree-rooted hikes and mountain bike routes with expansive views; we loved the whole Northeast actually
Acadia, ME - elevated hikes next to clusters of islands and seafood
Bentonville, AR - the whole town is built for bikers of every skill level
Big Bend National Park, TX - yes, it’s worth going into the remoteness for this NP
Bryce National Park, UT - hoodoo pillars unlike anythings we’ve seen
Zion National Park, UT - massive canyons and unique hikes
Oregon Coastline - days worth of cliffs meeting the ocean with postcard-worthy views of haystack rocks and beaches to run along
Mount St. Helens, WA - the timeline photos of before and after the volcano erupted and then to stand on the new terrain is humbling
Yoho/Banff National Parks of Canada - glacial lakes in the setting of peaky Rocky Mountains