Long-term travel is expensive. There’s the cost of flights and hotels, as well as rent for an apartment that stays empty while gone. In a converted vehicle, however, the cost of living is low and the opportunities for exploring are high.
In May of 2018, I bought a Nissan NV with my partner, named it Powerline, and spent the next six months building it out. We lived in our first van for about two years and loved it before eventually deciding we needed a larger living space: a passenger shuttle bus listed on eBay that had previously been used to transport churchgoers on Sundays.
We spent the next couple of months working non-stop to convert the bus into our next home and, once finished, hit the road. Along the way, we learned that while we love this lifestyle, it also comes with very real challenges.
If you’re considering living in a converted bus for some time, or even just considering taking a long road trip, here’s some advice for happy mobile living.
Choosing good campsites is essential
Finding somewhere to park every day requires constant planning, research, and decision-making. It can also mean the difference between having a pleasant, quiet night’s sleep or a terrible one at a loud truck stop.
Before beginning the hunt for a campsite, it’s important to know your personal needs and those of your vehicle: Do you need internet during business hours every day? Does your rig need an electric or water hookup? Do you need a paved road or is a 4×4 road okay? What is your budget for camping? All of these factors go into making the important decision of where to sleep.
They all operate a little differently, but in general, they show campsites and resources near your current location in a digital map format. Then, when you select a location, the description provides details about what the site provides — water info, power hookups, on-site showers, and boondocking. They also include user reviews and comments, which I find especially helpful in choosing a site.
In general, I always cross-reference between apps to read multiple user reviews to make sure a spot is appropriate for our needs. This usually is successful, though we still get the occasional location that ends up not working out. Parking lots sometimes change their restrictions to not allow overnight parking, and campgrounds close during specific seasons, or some spots just end up not being large enough for our bus.
Choosing a backup site in the same area while you have good cell service is a good idea.
Schedule remote work hours around good internet connections
This tip comes to you straight from a very bumpy highway somewhere in Tennessee.
If you have a flexible work schedule, make an effort to get work done anytime there’s a strong cell signal or Wi-Fi available. It’s super stressful having a looming deadline and only a bar of barely usable signal. It’s also a bummer to leave a beautiful spot just to send out a couple of emails.
Plan work days near towns to compensate for days when you want to disconnect in nature.
It’s a good idea to reference the same phone apps from the first tip to scope out the signal strength at upcoming locations. Many of them include a signal rating in the user review section of the descriptions, and I’ve found them to be fairly accurate predictors of what we can expect to find.
If you need consistent service regardless of location, consider investing in a cell phone signal booster to add to your vehicle. These boosters work with an antenna to amplify a weak signal. Note that these devices can only increase a signal, not create one, so you still have to find a spot with a little bit of service. It costs around $500 for a reputable one, and I’ve heard great reviews from other nomads that use one.
Pets require extra attention and care on the road
We travel full time with our two large dogs. Before we moved into our van, I would romanticize what it would be like to always have them with us. Now that we’ve been living on the road for several years, I have a more realistic view of what it means to have the additional responsibility of caring for an animal. We get to do many amazing things with our dogs and we love having them with us, but we also have to make sacrifices in our daily life to keep them healthy and happy.
Dogs limit the activities you can do and the places you can visit. We often have to skip hiking in national parks because they don’t allow dogs on the trails, and a surprising number of outdoor coffee shops don’t allow pets.
The dogs can only wait in the bus if the temperature is mild. That means planning grocery shopping, laundry days, and all of our other chores around times when it’s not too hot or cold outside. It also means we can’t escape into some air conditioning on extra hot days because our dogs are not allowed in most indoor areas.
Even in mild temperatures, we don’t like to leave them alone in the bus for more than a couple of hours. We also worry about leaving them behind anywhere there is a higher risk of break-ins, like parking on a public street. These limitations can make exploring cities more difficult, and we usually just end up going on a walking tour and skipping indoor activities like museums.
It’s also more challenging to find places to stay with pets if the bus is in the shop. Even hotels that allow dogs often have a size or pet limit to be aware of.
Rover is a great resource for dog owners on the road. I use it to find well-reviewed pet-sitters who have a background check when we need somewhere safe for them to stay at a predetermined nightly rate.
Learn how to maintain a comfortable temperature in your living space
In a traditional home, setting your thermostat to room temperature is all it takes to comfortably maintain your environment. Staying comfy in a vehicle, however, takes a little more effort. It tends to turn into a pizza oven in direct sunlight and a deep freezer on snowy winter nights.
We’ve experienced a huge range of temperatures living on the road, including freezing conditions in Colorado, a hot beach climate in Baja Mexico, and the most perfect temperate spring in Arizona.
One of the easiest ways to keep your house comfortable is to travel away from seasonal extremes. Most full-time nomads migrate with the seasons, heading toward cooler northern climates in the summer and warmer southern climates in the winter. It takes a lot of effort to change the temperature in your vehicle by more than a few degrees, and it’s much easier to just avoid super cold or hot temperatures all together.
We still need to be able to battle the elements when traveling with the seasons. When it’s warm out, the metal frame of the bus heats up quickly. In order to keep the bus cool on a hot day, we try to park in the shade, cover our windows with reflective materials to block out the sun, open all of our windows for fresh air ventilation, and try to cook outside.
My top tip for surviving summer in a bus is to purchase a high-quality circulation fan. We have tried cheap box fans in the past, but they didn’t seem to make a huge difference. The only way to make the inside of your rig significantly cooler is through air conditioning. Air conditioners are costly and require large amounts of power to operate, so they aren’t as common in van and bus rigs.
In the colder months, stay warm with lots of clothes as well as a wood stove or propane or diesel heater. Also include adequate insulation to help trap heat inside.
Be prepared for breakdowns
When your home is also your main form of transportation, breakdowns and mechanical issues are a pretty big deal. Being both homeless and stranded while your rig is in the shop is not fun, but it is likely to eventually happen.
Get your insurance in order and fully understand the policy before leaving for a road trip. Some questions I have found helpful to ask agents include: Does my insurance cover hotel expenses if the vehicle is in the shop? Does it cover my belongings if I have a break-in? Does it cover towing expenses?
In our first van, we only had the vehicle itself insured. If anything had happened to the build portion, we wouldn’t have been compensated for our investment. In our current bus, we pay a higher rate for a more comprehensive plan that covers the value of our build as well as the vehicle itself.
As great as good coverage is, being a little self-sufficient on the road can be super helpful in a breakdown situation. Camping in the middle of nowhere with no cell service is freeing, but also leaves you stranded if your vehicle won’t start. Carry some basic tools and know how to use them when you’re in a bad situation. In our bus garage, we carry a basic tool kit, an air compressor to fill our tires, a tire repair kit to patch a flat, jumper cables, extra coolant, and traction boards for getting unstuck from sand or mud. I also purchased a book on basic DIY car maintenance and repairs if a problem comes up and we don’t have internet access.
Towing services are another requirement of bus life that’s easy to overlook until you’re stuck on the side of the road. We’ve had AAA for years, but when we made the switch from van to bus, I learned that the service can’t always tow oversized vehicles or RVs, and when they can it’s often for hundreds of dollars in additional fees.
Instead, we use Good Sam’s roadside assistance policy. Good Sam offers towing and insurance options specifically tailored to larger rigs.
At the end of the day, the number one necessity for dealing with breakdowns is having the emergency funds to cover repair costs. A breakdown is bound to eventually happen when you live on the road full-time, and unfortunately it’s almost always both unexpected and expensive.
A rainy day fund to keep your hard-working vehicle running smoothly is a vital part of preparing for this lifestyle.