Pictured above: Author Colonel Mike Lockwood in front of his trailer “Bell”
The military is an organization of many moves. As a military brat and later an Army officer, I have moved at least 20 times; half of that in my adult life and moving my family across the world. Don’t get me wrong, I have loved it because of the ability to see and do things that many people don’t ever get to do or have to wait until retirement to experience.
For last 18 months, I have been in Washington D.C. My lovely wife fell in love with Carlisle, Pennsylvania, (I don’t blame her) and decided to dig her heels in. She expressed that she could not return to Northern Virginia for a variety of reasons. We were in Carlisle for War College and became endeared with this sleepy little community. Cozy, with a great country feel, and full of things to do, Carlisle was just in range of a host of big cities, the East Coast, and the mountains and valleys of West Virginia. This made the perfect spot for retirement.
So, she wasn’t moving, and I had to figure out how to manage two households. That’s when I discovered the travel trailer life. Unbeknownst to me, I was joining a large community of service members who have decided to be geographic bachelors or bachelorettes who think that living full time in an RV isn’t so bad and that the little bit of trouble is worth the savings.
Moving back to DC for a second tour without my family was going to be expensive. The average cost of an apartment was a little over $2000. So to save money, I bought a small Keystone Passport travel trailer and decided I would live in it during the week and drive home to Pennsylvania on the weekends. Economically this was a better choice for me at half the cost of an apartment rental.
Once I committed, I began looking for a place to set up camp. Settling on an RV park in Stafford, Virginia, my daily routine began. As I would start my commute in the morning, I noticed other uniformed personnel leaving the park and returning in the evening. And as I began to tell my new co-workers where I was living, they would comment “Hey, I knew a guy that did that too.” I would hear their stories of service members living away from their families who were trying to save money as they try to make the best of stressful situations (something service members are adept at doing).
Many military bases have RV sites associated with them. In the D.C. area, both Fort Belvoir and Andrews Air Force Base have RV sites. While these sites might be cheaper, they limit the amount of time you are able to stay in an effort to be fair and offer opportunities for everyone. They are not designed to be a permanent housing arrangement and typically are meant for the vacation crowd. To get around this, ingenious and energetic service members will make the periodic (and often painful) moves back and forth between these RV sites, packing up every two weeks or so to save money and commute times.
So, as I stood outside my little trailer and noticed the many military members commuting, I thought that I would see if anyone else had commented on this lifestyle. I really couldn’t find much. What I did find was lots of questions in different forum posts like this one from iRV2.com:
“We're a young military family (myself, former AF), my husband is active duty Army Officer with 10 years left. Lately, we have been very seriously considering moving on from all of the rentals, post housing, waitlists, buyer/seller markets, etc. stress and living in an RV full time. We have one son also, who is 4. We move on average, every 2 years, so for us, full time would mean parking somewhere and living there for the duration of his assignment. Ideally (and I'd love more info on this) we would like to be able to stay year round… Thanks everyone and God Bless!”
Or this one from Allnurses.com:
“Hello, quick question...I'm hoping to be getting in Army Nursing by next year. I know as a single person, I was told we generally live off base, as families are the ones who generally live on base. So my question is, how difficult would it be to live in & move around in the military if I bought a 5th Wheel RV? I know there are military RV parks by each base, but it sounds like those are more for "temporary" leisure stays & not for actually living in. Other than that, I know nothing else about the possibilities of this. Can anybody help? Thanks! Holly.”
After reading some of these posts and looking at a lot of answers that were uninformed or weren’t very helpful, I can answer Holly’s question. Yes, you can live in a trailer full time, live well, and have a great time! My friend Lance, a Lieutenant Colonel and longtime RV owner had this to say about the RV lifestyle:
“I have met some of the welcoming and kindest people living in RV parks in California and Montana. I have known several military acquaintances and friends who embraced the RV lifestyle. For one of my best friends who I talked into the fulltime RV life, I bought him a metal sign “Trailer Trash” which he proudly displays in his office at work. I have also bought myself one which I proudly have mounted inside the wall in my RV.”
Another military friend, RJ (whom I went to US Army War College with), says this:
“We bought an RV after my last deployment. We were really fascinated with seeing America from a different perspective. It also allowed us to PCS with everything (2 dogs, cat, 2 kids, etc.) and have fun as opposed to traveling from hotel to hotel in a hurry to get to our next duty assignment. I enjoy seeing America from a different perspective. Meeting people along the way and traveling off the beaten path is a unique experience you don’t get going from hotel to hotel. I know and see tons of other military members while out RVing. There are also a ton of retirees on the roads and at camps. “
I have come to view my travel trailer, which I affectionately refer to as “Bell,” (I named my truck Blue, which combined make “Bluebell,” the name of my favorite ice-cream), like a home away from home. For me, knowing I have a place of refuge to go to after work where I can relax away from the world is great. I even set up some resistance bands to the tree outside and can get a work out in.
Travel trailers are generally leisure vehicles, and if you are looking to save money, well you don’t want to drop 100K on a new vehicle since the payment and insurance plus the camp fee could be more than a house payment. So consider buying a used travel trailer. If you plan on using it in the winter make sure it is large enough that you are not going to get cabin fever when you have to spend days inside because of bad weather.
Travel trailers are not designed for a full winter environment. They are generally lightweight and meant to be on the road. There are plenty of tips on the internet of folks who have been able to go through a cold spell or two in their trailer.
Since my little Keystone was an “ultralight” you can imagine that it could get mighty cold if you weren’t prepared. Not only that, your flexible piping could freeze pretty quickly which I learned the hard way my first winter in Bell. That first winter, I lost my water pump due to ice expanding and causing the seals to leak. I had problems with my water and drain pipes freezing.
Make sure you are prepared for this. So off to Home Depot I went searching for some way to keep the water running in “Bell”. First I bought the heated water hose to go from the faucet to the trailer. Then I bought a large plastic trash can to put over the faucet after I wrapped the faucet and pipe with insulation. Then I bought a 60ft deicing cable and dropped the bottom of the trailer and using zip-ties ran the cable along all the pipes and plugged it into the outside outlet on the trailer. I bought another one and wrapped it around the discharge pipe and the corresponding hose to the dump station, then wrapped it with a cheap tarp and secured it with tiny bungees.
Keeping warm was another matter. I didn’t want to go through a bunch of gas trying to run the furnace all winter. I was paying for the electricity at the campsite, so why not use it. So for my little trailer, two small space heaters and an electric blanket worked for me.
Your home on wheels is just that…a home. And like all homes, things can go wrong. As I said above, I had some water issues during the winter. But that isn’t all. During the spring storm season, while I was away, I had a limb come through the roof and had to find a place to stay while Bell was repaired. Big items like this are a rarity. However, there are lots of little things that can and will go wrong. The screen door handle breaks, tires go flat, a hose breaks. Be prepared, be resilient and have a good set of tools ready and know how to use them to get things fixed. All the minor things should be done by you or else you are going to have to move your RV to a repair shop and end up having to pay for a hotel or stay at a friend's while they fix it.
My friend Lance again:
“As for fulltime RV living, I have dealt with frozen pipes, leaky roof, blown tires, mice infestation (after parking in a field in Montana for a few weeks), hornets’ nest, appliances being finicky, etc. Like everything else, RVs require maintenance. In almost every RV, you will eventually get cabin fever and will need to go outdoors to get some space. RVs with slide outs make your inside world more comfortable.”
As I read responses to Holly several comments insinuated that living in an RV was not appropriate for military members. That the perception of, “trailer trash” as my friend affectionately calls us, is beneath us somehow. The military lifestyle is hard on us and our families. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong in looking for ways to reduce the burden that the military lifestyle brings. Additionally, military folks are, in some ways, more suited to such a lifestyle. They know what it is like to have to live in austere environments and deal with the issues that come with that type of living. They have the resiliency and fortitude to conquer the problems that will come. So, If you decide you want to try the RV lifestyle I say “Go for it” and “Happy Camping.”
Michael Lockwood is a Colonel in the US Army with over 38 years of service. He currently lives in “Bell” outside of Washington D.C. and is also the President and CEO of UpClose-RV. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his facebook site @celebrateRVlife
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