I’ve written before that there are times when we need a few days to take stock, catch up, and plan our next adventure, so how do we do this? When we first set out, we were total novices and in the last six months we’ve started to develop a better understanding of this lifestyle and to build a network of resources that help us get the most from this year. There’s a big country to see (I’m writing this from Texas, which is nearly 3 times as big as the whole UK) so deciding where and when we will go takes some thought.
Yesterday, while John was off getting the oil changed (a Groundhog Day-like chore that seems to pop up way more frequently than I expect), I was busy plotting our course West, including some options for sites along the way. It tends to be me who finds our campgrounds, partly because John has other priorities (like driving and keeping the trailer safe!) but also because I love finding interesting places to go and comparing different camping options.
It’s important we have a balance in the types of campground we choose. When we got to our current campground, on the outskirts of Austin, Texas, we needed a stable base with amenities for a few days, having driven 1000 miles over the last two. We’d been ill and pushed through it to get down here, so needed a bit of R&R, and we are also entering a new phase of our trip so the free wifi here is useful for research. Other times, like when we visit Big Bend National Park next week, our priorities are to be close to nature, to have access to hikes and to appreciate the scenery, so I’ve chosen a spot in the National Park itself. This means we will be ‘dry camping’ (without any hook ups to water, electric or sewer), with no wifi, laundry etc and we will prepare for that over the next couple of days.
We arrived in Austin on Sunday night, after two tiring days of towing the trailer right across Arkansas and into Texas. We overnighted en route without unhitching the trailer, and then pushed on, via Dallas to pay our respects at the site of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. That stop itself was made possible by some advice from our lovely friend Nadia, trailblazer for this trip, who told us that they had managed to drive into downtown Dallas on a Sunday and park their A-class. Some great parking from John, 3 parking spaces, and three parking metres fed to accommodate our 40 foot length, and we were on foot to the Grassy Knoll in minutes. These kind of tips make life a lot easier, as driving a trailer round a city centre can be a risky business if you don’t know the lie of the land.
There are times, though, when we must strike out in unchartered territories and blaze our own trail, and at those times we use some or all of the following to help us:
Not something either of us expected but the community of like-minded people I have connected with on Instagram has really opened my eyes to the fact that the RV life in 2016 is not just for retired Americans or people camping for holidays (although they are definitely still the greater proportion); others our age are making this journey and while we haven’t yet found anyone else who’s come over from the UK, it’s been great to connect with people who have decided to make a life for themselves on the road. People post photos of where they’ve been, where they’ve camped, and generally of life on the road with hashtags like ‘homeiswhereyouparkit’ and ‘trailerlife’, so if you see me using those it’s because this is how I discover ideas and share back our experiences. Yesterday I trawled through some of the photos that have appealed to me from fellow travellers in order to get some inspiration for places to stop when we get into New Mexico and Arizona later in March; for me the visual journey is endlessly inspiring and helps me focus on where to look into further.
A couple of my favourite IG follows are also fellow bloggers and their stories are amazing – if you want to see a young family living on the road in a really small space and creating some stunning memories, take a look at thevaliantlife.com. A couple we love to follow are Rebecca and Ryan from ourstreamlinedlife.com. They have a really similar rig to us (Blue SUV and travel trailer), though if you get to their posts on trailer renovation, you’ll see they are a lot cooler than us and have made a beautiful space by ripping out all the ugly 90s-esque fittings. We haven’t had the budget or time for that in this year but if we were to make this a permanent life-style (does anyone have a spare couple of Green Cards?!), we’d love to do something similar and ditch the ugly green valances!
Sometimes people also get in touch through our own blog, like the lovely Sherry, who has never met us but takes the time to send us really thoughtful emails giving us ideas on places near where we might be going. I love when we get emails like this! And we’ve also just been put in touch with Marc and Julie from RVlove.com whose website has a wealth of useful info for anyone doing this full-time.
When it comes to RV parks, we’ve experienced the good, the bad and the ugly! They can vary so much and it’s very hard from the websites to know what the reality will be. There are a few review sites we use to give us a general sense of what others have thought, including rvparkreviews.com, which allows users to write reviews and assigns an average rating out of 10. Like TripAdvisor for hotels, you always get the odd fanatic who rates a park a 1 because they can’t get perfect satellite tv reception, but it gives you a general sense.
What it doesn’t do is provide photos or videos so I was pleased when I came across campgroundviews.com through Instagram, a site predicated on having accurate, traveller-uploaded photos and videos of campgrounds. At the moment, Mark from the site is running a competition to encourage people to get more photos and videos on there, which, given my love of a good review, I’m fully on board with! Once this gets rolling, I can see this being the go-to site for reviews; if you can compare what the campground’s website advertises with some actual photos from fellow travellers, you can get a reality check before you arrive.
The other site I found through Instagram is Campendium, which I’m getting into now we are heading West and are looking to learn about free camping (known as ‘boon docking’) as they’ve got some really great articles.
Our friends recommended to us that we get a Passport America membership – a flat fee of $44 (about £32) allows us access to discounted rates at campgrounds across the country for the whole year. This is the kind of scheme that normally sounds too good to be true but this one is well worth the money and pays for itself in a matter of days. You really do get a 50% discount off the campground’s stated rate, subject to the terms for each (often’no weekends’ or ‘only for 2 nights’) so when we’re looking for a quick midweek stop, this can really provide some leeway in the camping budget. John set ours at an average of $31 a night and when you consider a lot of parks charge $50 and upward, that seemed pretty low when we set out. We’ve had three nights here in Austin, two of them half price, which put the whole 3 nights at $100, for which we’ve enjoyed full hook-ups (electric, water, sewer), a laundry, free wifi, a laundry, a pool and gym, as well as being minutes from the city. Luxury at half the price! It comes with an app so when we were on our long drive the other day, we were able to pinpoint another site where we could stop over for a night for only $14.
We are also Good Sam members. This gives us discounts on some campgrounds (normally 10%, but every penny counts!), fuel at certain garage chains, and at the ubiquitous Camping World. We haven’t used this as much as PA but it’s handy when you pull in somewhere with the Good Sam logo and see the price is going to be a little better than you expected.
Having woken up this morning to images of devastation on the Panhandle, where tornadoes have ripped through homes and RV parks from Florida to Louisiana, we’re reminded how important our weather app has been (see this post and our one on Mississippi for our own tornado tales). Checking weather fronts and systems is part of how we decide where to go, not just so we can maximise vitamin D, but in fact so we can stay safe. We also get help in this from our friend Steve, who often sees fronts coming before we do!
Another handy app is RVParky, which plots campgrounds as well as other places useful for us on the road, like restaurants and gas stations. It also offers reviews, but they can be a bit sketchy.
Oh and of course we use Google, most often GoogleMaps app. Today I’ve been plotting various points we’d like to get to as stars so that when we’re off in the deserts in the coming weeks, we will have an idea for a rough route, linking up the stars.
State and Federal Sites
We spent almost the whole of December and January staying in State and National Parks in Florida, and this was made a lot easier because they can all be booked through Reserve America. It allows you to search near a town or area and shows you what state or federal camping is available for your type of rig, and what amenities there are, as well as storing all your reservations in one place. Prices for state park camping are, we think, incredible, especially considering that at many of our sites we’ve had a lot more peace and privacy, a more beautiful environment, a great location, water and electric, for half the price of a busier, concrete-covered, private campground. Whenever we can, we opt for those, thought they can vary; state Parks in Florida are almost universally excellent, whereas move into Mississippi and you turn up to a flooded site with a cracked concrete pad.
We’ll see how we get on in other states – earlier today I referred back to some posts I liked on IG and found a couple of parks that we’re planning to head for in New Mexico, checked them on Reserve America and found we can get partial hook-ups for $14 a night. Contrast this with California, where we’ve booked two nights beach-front in San Diego for $50 a night, no hook ups, and you see the differences between the states.
We were very lucky that in starting this adventure, we had help from some very good friends, who tipped us off about some of these resources. For anyone just starting out or thinking about a similar adventure, we hope this will be your head start. Do get in touch if you’d like to know more – comments below or you can email us through the ‘contact us’ option. And if you are already on the road and have any good ideas for us, please let us know – we’re learning every day!