youtubeYears before our parents, Jim and Margaret, retired from the careers that put 4 kids through college, they came up with a plan they called “The 4 M’s of Retirement: Muscle, Memory, Money, and Meaning.”  This defined their goals for living “the good life” long after leaving the workforce.  They saw wealth not just in terms of how much money they set aside, but in how much vitality remained in their bodies, how engaged their minds were in the world, and in what made getting out of bed worthwhile. 

 

Before we knew anything about RV life, our assumptions came from what we’d seen in advertisements – tanned retirees driving luxury motorhomes off into a desert sunset and a long-line of manicured RV parks and golf carts marking out the golden years.  While the slick ad copy appeals to some, it failed to inspire us.  We hadn’t yet seen the diversity of people, and RVs, living on the road on their own terms.  Nor, had we experienced any of it for ourselves. 

Thoughts of our parent’s 4 M’s kept resurfacing when we began traveling in our tiny RV.  We marveled at how the full-time camper life seemed to be a short-cut to “the good life” even though we were decades away from traditional retirement.  Our lifestyle costs a quarter of what it used to, we had more time to be active outside, the natural places we frequented became our classroom, and being somewhere new filled each day with an excitement we’d not felt in years. 

And we are not alone.  In our travels, we’ve met countless others, some retired, some almost there, who’ve discovered how life in an RV can help target the 4 “M” sweet spot.  These past couple of weeks, we chatted with a few and their responses are truly enlightening.

Muscle

“Exercise, exercise, exercise, it’s the most important thing a retiree can do.” - Jim Hutchison

Few people launched themselves into full-timing with the same zeal of Pat and Barb McGarry.  With their date fixed years before, they sold their house, shed all their excess belongings, and moved into their 22-foot travel trailer at the nearby state park months before Pat’s last day at GE, his 60th birthday.  By the next morning they were out of town and headed for the nearest national park.  “You don’t know what you are going to see!” says Barb, “the unknown of what’s out there really drives us.”  They both found hiking to be their favorite activity and each day they’d awake early and plan to explore the trails in the park.  Barb reflected, “We’d end up hiking anywhere from 5 to 10 miles a day, and if you do that 5 days a week, getting all that sunshine, you can’t help but feel better and healthier than when we were both going into work every day.” 

During their first 18 months, the McGarry’s wandered the country discovering their favorite hikes, always wanting to see what was around the next bend.  They set up their trailer on BLM or National Forest Service land nearby other public areas that they wanted to visit.  From this temporary basecamp they could drive to any trailhead in the vicinity.  They surprised themselves by how little they actually hung around the trailer.   While in camp, Barb admitted thinking, “I can’t just be sitting here, what else am I missing out there?” They found the landscapes they encountered so inspiring and so different from their hometown of Louisville, KY.  Pat reflected that even the daily chores of setting up camp, cooking outside, and getting water all caused him to stay active.  

Another semi-retired road warrior friend of ours, Cathy, loves both mountain biking and kayaking and many of her destinations provide great opportunities for one or the other.  Mindful of her current abilities, and sometimes aching knees, she hopes to retain what she has through stretching and resistance training, “before aging has other plans.”     

Many of the folks we talked with mentioned that being outside and enjoying the natural world was a major contributing factor in their decision to go full or part-time.  Spending time close to the best trails for hiking, or mountain biking, motivated them to get out and enjoy them.  “Getting exercise” no longer involves going to the gym, but simply becomes time well spent exploring a beautiful location. 

Memory

“Many RV’ers seek to visit the natural wonders of our country; but it’s not enough to just see it.  The experience is enriched through curiosity, if you are driven to explore questions such as: Why is this place here? Why is it this way? and Why can I now access it in the way I can?” - Jim Hutchison

Public lands play a huge factor in intellectual stimulation as each state or national park has a specific reason for its creation, usually something geologically or historically unique and amazing.  Much of the park’s time, resources, and staff are dedicated to educating the public.  A few respondents noted that they never really spent much time in park Visitor Centers before retirement.  While just on vacation from their jobs, the McGarry’s never felt they had the time to watch the park film or browse through the exhibits at their leisure, they always wanted to be out on the trail.  Giving enough time to the Visitor’s Center now better prepares them to appreciate the unique landscapes, flora, and fauna that each park protects.  Barb McGarry enthuses, “As long as you keep your curiosity level up, you never know what you’re going to find.”  Learning how much we didn’t know about the world we live in has a way of humbling, of inspiring awe, and of making new connections between us and this big blue planet.  This small reminder of something we didn’t know also makes us wonder, “what else don’t we know?”

“Travel itself is stimulating, but it causes you to act and think differently than you would at home.” Bob and Gloria Buntrock never fully cut loose from their home base for longer than 5 weeks at a time, but annual trips were a highlight of the year.  Bob describes how they loved to spend weeks researching a travel destination, learning what they might want to see along the way, or other side trip tangents.  Their pre-trip logistics would build anticipation and excitement for what they might experience, but they remained flexible enough to adapt their plan as they went along.  

Curiosity often drove their travels, not just the beautiful books on national parks that Bob fondly remembers from his hometown library in Minnesota.  When Bob and Gloria discovered a pair of nesting Sandhill Cranes on their property, they decided that a trip to see other destinations along crane migration routes was in order.  This linked their backyard to a larger network of ecosystems and wetlands spanning thousands of miles, and helped them see the world through the eyes of this ancient bird species. 

The daily decisions of traveling, the whole getting from one place to another facilitates engaging with the moment beyond the necessary logistics of buying groceries, doing laundry, and making reservations.  Even with GPS navigation, we still have to choose where we want to camp, and which route offers the most scenic or direct way.  Many respondents found the challenge of moving around so engaging and inspiring that they stopped making reservations altogether.  Committing in advance to a specific campground or route of travel is simply too limiting and might take away from further discoveries in their wanderings.

We noticed that folks simply lit up while sharing their fascinating travel stories.  The memories sparked other memories, and stories sparked other stories.  Sharing our traveling story is just one more way to keep minds and memories healthy.

Money

“An income stream cannot just be turned on at the first day of retirement unless it has been established by prior action.  Just like money, the other factors must be laid down by continued focus during your working life.”  -Jim Hutchison

Carol and Peter Owens spend 5 months of the long Canadian winters traveling in their RV, and much of the summer sailing their boat on the shores of Lake Huron.  Both retired from long careers with good pensions and benefits, providing enough income to travel nearly half the year and keep their home.  They picked up their first RV trailer on a whim, and almost immediately drove it to Florida for 4 months.  As they learned about living in an RV by fire, they worried about finances, having never before traveled that way nor been absent from home that long.  As sailors they usually spend 2-4 weeks every summer in the North Channel of Lake Huron, an archipelago of islands with hundreds of free anchorages.  During that first winter, they chose less expensive campgrounds and RV parks whenever they could, focusing on National Forest Service, State Parks, and National Parks.  They rarely went out to eat, prepared meals in their camper or outside, and chose museums, or visitor’s centers, and walks along the beach, rather than more expensive forms of entertainment.  Eight years later, they are old pros at stretching their budget through the months of travel without deprivation, practicing many of the tricks our other road warriors discovered.

Here are some of the best RV retirement saving tips:

Go West! – Any atlas of the United States shows where the majority of public lands are located.  The US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Army Corps of Engineers, National Parks and National Monuments all provide beautiful, inexpensive campgrounds or free dispersed camping.  Pat McGarry from Louisville, KY admitted, “I’d never even heard of the BLM before getting on the road, and now those are my favorite places to camp.”  Once the Owens started going west each winter, they stopped worrying about making any reservations and instead found joy in finding beautiful locations to park it for a while.  They prefer remote areas not only to stretch their budget, but also for the solitude and connection to nature. 

Go Solar! – Charging the batteries via solar panels means that the lights and appliances can stay on without needing to be plugged into an expensive full hook-up campsite.  One full-timer, new to the RV life, expressed an urgency to install solar on her rig because her friends kept asking her to park about ¼ mile away whenever she ran her generator.  Solar panels won’t annoy the neighbors. 

Boondock! – Many public lands allow campers to stay for up to 14-21 days without relocating for little to no fee, some even offer low-cost permits for longer stays.  The less an area charges the fewer services they provide (water, electricity, toilets, showers).  However, most RV’s are designed to “dry camp” for at least a few days, so with a little bit of preparation, creativity and practice, anyone can do this for a short time.   Carol and Peter Owens began boondocking 6 years ago just a few days at a time before returning to campsites with service, this winter they spent nearly two months unhooked.  

Don’t Eat Out, Eat Outside! – “We probably only cooked inside our camper about 5 times, only when it was raining.  Otherwise we were cooking outside on the grill or two-burner stove, and we loved it. ”  The McGarry’s set up their outdoor kitchen and used it to not only stretch their budget but also their living space, prefering to be outside as often as weather and temperature allowed. 

Find Entertainment in the Natural World – The Senior National Park Pass for anyone over 62 is $80 for a lifetime and cuts camping fees literally in half.  Bob Buntrock pointed out that he got his when it was only $10, but even at $80 for a lifetime, “I don’t know any deal better than that!” These beautiful destinations offer more than just stunning visuals taken in from the front seat.  For anyone interested in human history, natural history, ecology, geology, hiking, boating, wildlife viewing, and more, the national parks offer both entertainment and destination. 

Dollar Stores Provide More Than Savings – Cathy, a semi-retired traveler in a 1996 Roadtrek van “Sunny,” commented that she hasn’t yet started living off her retirement income.  During her first few months she really focused on saving every penny and worried about splurging on dinners out with friends, or other luxuries that she used to take for granted as a working person.  These days, she worries much less about money, though she still keeps it frugal, going to the “dollar store” before anywhere else.  Not only does she save money on some essentials but she also gets a real feel for the communities through which she travels.  Coming to terms with when she is going to splash out and when she’s going to pinch pennies has really helped her find a balance with her goals for travel. 

Meaning

“The opportunity to meet new people, to show them love, non-judgmental respect and acceptance, spreads the meaning you’ve found in your life and that enriches the lives of others.” -Jim Hutchison  

Many people are worried about leaving their hometown, hobbies, and friends for a different life on the road, but many retirees find a way to travel and stay connected to those they love, all while creating new relationships and deeper meaning in their lives.  RVillage even helps like-minded travelers meet others nearby.  It takes some practice, they told us, but each interviewee we spoke with reflected on how their quality of life has improved.  They seem to agree with our anonymous motto, “travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.”

For our interviewees, the connections made during adventures, their fellow travelers from all over the country (or world) with whom they shared a meal or conversation helped make their experiences more meaningful.  “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” Mark Twain reminds us.  Just getting away from the ubiquity of the television and news feeds and talking to other human beings outside of distractions helps settle in on what is truly important.  Gloria, an avid quilter, found a sewing group among the other women at the RV park they stayed at in Florida and they became fast friends while contributing to each other’s projects.

Cathy has been on the road for almost two years, affording her the time to be alone as well as the chance to forge new friendships, and she really enjoys both.  Being able to dedicate time to journaling and blogging, solo riding along winding miles of single track, learning about the wildlife she sees, as well as putting herself in new social situations are all valued opportunities.  She refers to her travels as a process, a “journey of growth,” through which she’s discovered a great confidence.  Keeping calm in stressful situations and getting out of her own head helps her keep perspective.  She admits that as in any life, she’s going to have good days and bad, but she’s not about to start regretting her decisions. 

Some find volunteering an engaging way to give back, all while meeting new people.  Both Carol and Peter love to volunteer back in their hometown, and one season they found a way to add new meaning into their road life.  Coordinated by one of the parks where they stayed near Tucson, they spent a day a week picking fruit with and for immigrant populations who were in need. “There’s such an abundance of fruit this time of year, and much of it ends up on the ground instead of feeding people. We really enjoyed doing that for the few weeks we were there.”  

As we’ve traveled across this great land, we have met hundreds, if not thousands of retirees spending a season in a place that they love while volunteering as camp hosts, visitor center greeters, environmental educators, maintenance, tour guides, and more.  Using skills from their previous careers and building new ones, they have the opportunity to engage their minds and offer a much-needed service by volunteering for a few weeks to months at a time.  Get started via volunteer.gov.  You’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you find, and many offer places to park your RV for the duration of your stay.

The 4 “M” Sweet Spot

If one kind of RV worked for everyone, we wouldn’t have the smorgasboard of options available.  So, it’s no surprise that everyone we talked to expressed differing RV retirement  goals within each of our four categories.  All seemed to agree, however, that spending significant time in an RV helped them explore their own sweet spot for “the good life.”  Our parents have also jumped onto that bandwagon.  At the age of 77, they sold their sailboat and bought their first RV, a new 22-foot travel trailer.  Keeping themselves in motion is all part of the plan! 

Learn more about our solar-powered adventures on our website and follow us on the road via social media at Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube!

Images in this blog contributed by:  Carol & Peter Owens, Cathy @tridtraveler, Jim & Margaret Hutchison, Pat & Barb McGarry, and Shari Galiardi.

A version of this article originally appeared in the RV Issue, 2019: Stories on thedyrt.com.

Shari and Hutch
Author: Shari and HutchEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
In 2012, David Hutchison “Hutch” and Shari Galiardi left behind careers and a comfortable home in North Carolina to travel with the vintage camper trailer they lovingly restored, outfitted with solar, and named “Hamlet.” What they thought would be a year or two adventure around the continent transformed into a new lifestyle. 7.5 years later, with no end in sight, they share stories and insights from their mid-life adventure to large industry travel shows, intimate college campuses, open tiny houses in REI parking lots and a growing online audience. Traveling over 100,000 miles to 49 states, countless National Parks and other public lands, the couple pursues what it means to live the good life on their own terms and sustain it. The writing and photography duo currently pen the popular “Full-Time Campers” column in The Dyrt’s online magazine and contribute to Renogy’s solar blog as well as other publications.

Comments   

0 #2 Shari & Hutch 2020-06-02 00:31
Thanks, Michele! Glad you enjoyed it. We are truly national park nerds at this point, so understand your desire to see as many as you can. If we can answer any questions about RV living and choosing a rig, we'd be happy to help. All the best!
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0 #1 Michele K Hervol 2020-05-31 19:17
What a great article. At almost 62, I've been to many of the US wonderful state and national parks and I'm looking forward to more in the future. I didn't know about the senior lifetime park pass, so I'll look forward to purchasing that one next year :) I don't have an RV - yet - but I've been researching for awhile...
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