How to live off-grid in an RV camper long term?
January 31, 2011 8:51 AM   Subscribe

Living off the grid in an RV camper: Legalities, practicalities, and advice?

I'm getting tired of paying rent, and I have some money saved up, so I'm thinking about buying an RV camper, finding a site for it, and living in it off the grid (I will not need ANY connections). I am located in Sonoma County, California.

I have several questions related to this:

1) Finding a site. Ideally I would like to "rent" about 1/4 of an acre on a farm/ranch. Somewhere with road access and some privacy. What would be the best way to find such a situation? Are there any legalities I should be aware of? How should I present it to a landowner? Given that a room in a house around here goes for $600-800 per month, is $200/mo a fair price to offer to rent a patch of land?

2) How practical is it to live "off grid" like this?

I see several things that will warrant changes:

Showering: I can do this at my gym.

Water: I have several 7-gallon containers I can fill up periodically elsewhere.

Cooking: The camper would have a gas stove.

Refrigeration: I have a large cooler that I could keep stocked with ice (it lasted for 4 days in the heat of Burning Man, so I expect 5-7 days here in the north bay, even more if I build an insulated box to put it in). Plus the fridge at work has a bunch of room in it.

Laundry: Find a local laundromat.

Trash: I don't generate much at all, and what I do I could put in the dumpsters at work.

Waste: Composting toilet made from a 5-gallon bucket, some sawdust, and a toilet seat.

3) Does anyone know of any blogs or other useful resources that I should consult when planning this?

posted by buckaroo_benzai to Home & Garden (34 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Lots and lots of baby wipes.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 8:53 AM on January 31, 2011

Oh and maybe solar charger & 3g antennae if you like internetting.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 8:54 AM on January 31, 2011

Cheap RV Living is my go-to source for information on this topic.

Here is the blog of a woman who lives in a van and contributes to that site
posted by ChrisHartley at 8:54 AM on January 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have no knowledge of the legality of this (though if you're planning on renting the land as opposed to just squatting in various parking lots/campgrounds, I would think you'd be in the clear). As to practicality, my personal biggest concern would be social/romantic life. You are not going to have much room to entertain, and it may be a turnoff to potential partners (compost toilet? No shower?). Not everyone is up for that experience.
posted by Bebo at 8:57 AM on January 31, 2011

If you are considering power generation needs, there are rollable solar panels that are much cheaper and portable than the crystalline/glass panels you would install on a house. You can get them on Amazon.
posted by sararah at 9:00 AM on January 31, 2011

Great point, Bebo. I am planning to do this for only a year or two while I build a tiny house on a trailer. It won't be much bigger than an RV camper, but it will be a lot nicer. And I hope that by the time that happens I will have found solutions for running water and electricity. Though the type of women I usually date probably won't mind too much :)
posted by buckaroo_benzai at 9:01 AM on January 31, 2011

I have not done this, but my brother did as a tree planter for paper companies. Just one quick observation about it: stuff wears out really fast. Stuff like the the trailer in particular. My brother was a rather fastidious type and not one to abuse things. Still, that trailer looked pretty bad after a couple of years in the woods. He had an Airstream, so it was a nice trailer too.

Anyway, just be prepared for things to break before you might be used to. RVs are really not made for full time living.
posted by lampshade at 9:03 AM on January 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

What do you plan to do with your five-gallon bucket of sawdust and bodily waste once it is full? Are you concerned about the legality of this plan? (I don't have an answer myself, just wondering).

How much would you spend on ice at your predicted rate of consumption, and how does that compare to e.g. a gas powered refrigerator? Or can you get other kinds these days?

Do you mind (or, given that you have a job, do you think your colleagues will mind) that your clothes will steadily acquire the smell of something that lives in close proximity to a bucket of poo? I spent a while living in a shed that smelled of creosote and didn't usually notice the smell, or think my clothes smelled bad, but would occasionally get a whiff of it and yeah, it was noticeable.
posted by Lebannen at 9:03 AM on January 31, 2011

This comment on a blog seems to indicate that it is not generally legal to live in an RV in Sonoma county unless you are in an RV park. These sorts of laws vary on a county-by-county level so you should check around locally. It may also be the case that it is technically against the law but as long as no one (ie the neighbors) complains then you don't get hassled.

Done right a composting toilet system will not cost much money nor smell bad.
posted by ChrisHartley at 9:06 AM on January 31, 2011

Rather than a bucket and sawdust (which is not actually the same as a real composting toilet), you might want to get an RV with a toilet made for that kind of thing -- one where the waste collects in a tank and you go to a special pump-out station at an RV park to empty it. It's going to reduce the smell problem and it's going to keep you somewhat more legal. (Dumping sawdust covered waste is no better really than just dumping raw sewage.)
posted by rhartong at 9:09 AM on January 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are lots of second homes vacant half the time there. Why not advertise as a "groundskeeper" or something and have your RV there for free in exchange for whatever amount of work you agree to do?

My questions are -- how do you get to work, and what impact do your parking and your coming and going, have on the land itself (compaction, erosion)? I've heard of people being required to "diaper" their vehicles for long-term parking to keep oil leaks, etc., from polluting the area.
posted by salvia at 9:20 AM on January 31, 2011

Do you have a specific "elsewhere" in mind to get water? A place where the folks won't get pissy if they see you taking 25-50 gallons of water out of their spigots every few weeks?
posted by Johnny Assay at 9:26 AM on January 31, 2011

I guess I should make it clearer: I am looking to get an RV trailer only, not a full vehicle, and will not be moving it once I find a suitable place to park it.
posted by buckaroo_benzai at 9:28 AM on January 31, 2011

Instead of an RV, you might consider something like a Tumbleweed, which costs about the same but would probably not only hold up better, but look and feel nicer too.

If you're going the RV route, you might want to consider a "park model". Most manufacturers offer these (They tend to be the standard-tow (not fifth-wheel) type trailers, with nicer, more durable appliances, cabinets, and fixtures. They are more expensive than a regular camping trailer, but hold up much better to live-in use. Park models are meant to be semi-permanent installations, in contrast to a standard camping trailer. The floorplans also tend to be more open and company-friendly. Some even have lofts for added sleeping/storage space. Many trailers (both camping-style and park models) feature "tip-outs", which slide portions of the trailer out to the side to expand living space, and can slide in for transport.

You're definitely going to want some kind of installed composting toilet or septic system, as having to haul your trailer to a dump site for waste disposal is going to become a real headache.
posted by xedrik at 9:28 AM on January 31, 2011

Johnny Assay: Yes, I will get water either from work or from friends' houses.
posted by buckaroo_benzai at 9:29 AM on January 31, 2011

xedrik: My eventual plan is to build a tumbleweed-style house on a trailer, but I need somewhere to live while I do that. I didn't bring it up in the original question because I didn't want to confuse the issue. But yes, great idea :)
posted by buckaroo_benzai at 9:31 AM on January 31, 2011

I wholeheartedly recommend making the investment in a "real" RV toilet, and then driving it somewhere to dump it once a week or whatever. Or if your location is more fixed, setting up a proper outhouse.

I think the biggest obstacle you're going to have to overcome is convincing people that you're not cooking meth in there.
posted by ErikaB at 9:34 AM on January 31, 2011

If you're willing to rent space from someone, why not from an RV park? You can then have running water, access to showers and toilets as well as laundry facilities.
posted by onhazier at 9:53 AM on January 31, 2011

onhazier: I'm pretty sure I'd pay more to live in an RV park than I would in regular rent, no?
posted by buckaroo_benzai at 9:59 AM on January 31, 2011

The practicalities you list: water, composting, etc, all are a challenge but you can keep on top of them.

The real challenge is what to do when you are sick. How will you get fresh water, get fresh ice, and so on?

That's what I'd be thinking about.
posted by zippy at 10:13 AM on January 31, 2011

I'm pretty sure I'd pay more to live in an RV park than I would in regular rent, no?

I'd investigate that before jumping to that conclusion. I have a friend who lived for quite some time in an RV park and I think her rent was $200/mo (she owned her trailer, although some RV parks have trailers to rent).

Admittedly it might be more expensive where you are. And you'll need to weigh whether the cost is worth the added convenience of having water/wastewater/electricity right there.
posted by adamrice at 10:20 AM on January 31, 2011

As far as renting a piece of land and parking the RV on it, you have to worry about:

(1) how the land is zoned

(2) any restrictions on land use independent of zoning, like city/county ordinances, development and building codes, environmental regulations (for example, stream buffer regulations), and historic preservation regulations (some cities enact these so that the exterior appearance of structures and sites deemed historical look appropriately historical). Land use is usually left up to the local government with the state created procedural requirements imposed on that authority, and

(3) anything restricting the landowner personally (for example, lots of subdivisions have covenants that bind all the landowners, but even a one-off deed or devise or whatever could have restrictions).

For (1), you can usually look up the zoning of parcels on the local government's website. For (3), you have to talk to the landowner or go to wherever the deed is recorded and look at it. For (2), the website Municode,, is a pretty good way to look up city and county laws and ordinances. Lots of state laws are online too, just google around.

Good luck!
posted by lockestockbarrel at 10:36 AM on January 31, 2011

Check out my friends' blog, While they have been traveling rather than staying in one place, they boondock a good deal of the time. Some of their experience might translate to your interests.
posted by tar0tgr1 at 10:38 AM on January 31, 2011

Memail I have property in siskiyou. County.
posted by pianomover at 10:38 AM on January 31, 2011

Here's a blog written by a woman who lives in an RV with her four kids. Necessity brought her to this situation rather than choice, but there is probably some good info about the logistics of RV and off-the-grid living.
posted by Felicity Rilke at 10:52 AM on January 31, 2011

It sounds like you'll be depending on your workplace for several important things.

It might be worthwhile to discuss this plan with your employer, and/or to think about how it might impact your relationships with your coworkers.
posted by box at 12:12 PM on January 31, 2011

I'm not sure you've got a solution all worked out on the "waste" issue. The homemade "composting" toilet also needs a well-managed compost pile, where you periodically dump the waste to do the actual composting. This arrangement might make the landowner pretty squeamish. And I'm not sure that one human, off-site for much of the day, would generate enough waste to get the compost magic going. So, smelly.

You can use biodegradable plastic bags to line the bucket, which would make emptying less unpleasant, but where are you going to dispose of the bags? If you're thinking office dumpster, ugh? Though it's not much different than scooping the poop from a big ole dog and tossing the baggie in the trash. But "improper disposal of human waste"--is that a legal problem I smell in the air? In many jurisdictions, probably.

Perhaps you could rent your bit of land from someone with livestock, and add your bit of waste to the animals'. But then the landowner would own the legal problem, if anyone who cared about these things were to make an issue of it.

I'd be very interested to know your solution to this little issue--I was thinking of one of those bucket toilet arrangements for times when I have no water supply due to power failures. (The cats' litter box looks pretty good....)
posted by Corvid at 12:24 PM on January 31, 2011

I'm pretty sure I'd pay more to live in an RV park than I would in regular rent, no?

I'd investigate that before jumping to that conclusion. I have a friend who lived for quite some time in an RV park and I think her rent was $200/mo (she owned her trailer, although some RV parks have trailers to rent).

No investigating, but offhand I would think the cost of renting the park space would be the cheapest part of it. I would expect the constant repairs, maintenance, jury-rigged conveniences, and trailer depreciation to add up to a bigger expense. Combine those costs with the land rental, and if you're coming ahead over renting a small apartment, it doesn't seem likely to be by very much.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:59 PM on January 31, 2011

I'm going to buy a used trailer, so I think most of the depreciation will have already happened. In any case, what I would pay for a decent used trailer will be less than what I'd pay in 6 months rent, so the math works out favorably. I do appreciate all of the concerns that everyone has brought up though!

As for the waste issue, I do admit I have to look into it a bit. I'm not much of a homebody so it just happens that most of the time I'm not taking a crap at home, anyway (maybe twice a week). I have the Humanure Handbook but haven't opened it in a while... definitely need to give that aspect some more thought.
posted by buckaroo_benzai at 2:35 PM on January 31, 2011

Google the word "boondocking". You should find a ton of info on this subject.
posted by Jess the Mess at 4:39 PM on January 31, 2011

As for the waste issue, I do admit I have to look into it a bit

Yes, please, as it sounds like the current plan is even a couple of steps below Kaczynski, who, if I recall correctly, incinerated his.

Should you purchase a trailer that doesn't have a toilet, investigate a portable boater/camper toilet.
posted by sageleaf at 4:42 PM on January 31, 2011

Also check for the blog of an eccentric 20-something self-made millionaire who chooses a minimalist lifestyle and lives in an RV that he's constantly upgrading. He's been doing it for several years now, and he seems pretty happy.
posted by holterbarbour at 5:04 PM on January 31, 2011

My eventual plan is to build a tumbleweed-style house on a trailer, but I need somewhere to live while I do that.

Some serious questions: How are you going to build the tumbleweed-style house off the grid? Hand tools only? Possible, but good quality work with hand tools takes experience and care. Power tools are faster and easier to set up for consistent, repeatable results, like every cut at the same angle or every board to the same length. But if you go with power tools will you get a generator? A generator designed for more continual use is more expensive than one for sporadic, emergency-only usage.

How are you going to lock all your tools up? Theft from construction sites can be a major problem and RVs generally aren't very secure. Access to a garage or shop or barn isn't strictly necessary but it's sure can be nice to work inside, especially if it's a place where you can leave things set up while work is in progress instead of having to pack everything up and lock equipment away. Or if it's very hot or cold or raining and you just want to keep working.

A construction project even on the scale of a tiny house is a significant task, which is further compounded if you are inexperienced with construction, and then further compounded by being completely off the grid. It's doable and I completely understand the appeal of living in a place you built off the grid. But, while I know this doesn't answer your question, I think you need to approach this in a realistic way so as not to set yourself up for failure. If your ultimate goal is to build a tumbleweed-style house to live in then figure out what steps you need to take to make that happen. If buying an RV and living off the grid now helps you achieve that goal then by all means do it. But if it's going to be a hindrance then another approach may be warranted.
posted by 6550 at 12:28 AM on February 1, 2011

Nthing what someone said higher up - check the laws and ordinances where ever your land will be located. I know in my area you are not allowed to live in a camper or rv on acreage unless you are currently building a home on that same acreage, and must show measurable progress. The permits alone for keeping a temporary structure (and the horrible steep daily fines) may make actually staying in an rv park more feasible until your home is actually built.
posted by tar0tgr1 at 1:58 AM on February 1, 2011

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