Preparations and Plans

There are an estimated 200,000 people in the U.S. who live full-time in a camper, but very few live in something as small as a pickup camper. I’d guess the number is in the hundreds. There are probably two main issues: living space and storage space. The former can be addressed by spending as much time outdoors as possible when in camp, so that the surroundings become your living room. The latter is subject to significant constraints. In our current rig, about half the storage space is in the camper itself, and half in the back seat area of the truck. Eileen and I felt that we needed some additional storage to live in a camper full-time (as opposed to our average of about 70 nights per year for the 14 years we’ve owned our camper).

So we decided to build a new Alaskan camper, this time for a flatbed truck. Flatbed pickup campers are uncommon but have the significant advantage that all the space taken up by the sides of a pickup bed and the wheel wells is recovered and can be turned into useful space. With the same outside dimensions of the camper plus truck, storage space in the camper itself is about doubled. The camper is also stronger, as the sides are straight with no unsupported overhang over the sides of the pickup bed. Building a new camper also would allow some upgrades, including a better refrigerator, a hot water heater, and even more window area.


Chassis cab showing the two parallel rails on which a flatbed can be mounted.

With our current pickup having about 80,000 miles on it, we decided it was not worth having the bed removed and a flatbed installed. Instead we’ll buy a new chassis cab truck, which has no pickup bed but rather just a set of rails on which a variety of things can be built (these are principally used to construct commercial vehicles such as tow trucks). The chassis cab provides a longer wheelbase, larger gas tank, and more flexibility for storage under the flatbed. The new truck will have some nice features, including better payload, lights, cameras, and rear access, as well as a 400-watt inverter for powering medium-sized 120-volt devices.

We’ll have a custom aluminum flatbed fabricated and mounted on the chassis cab, and then the camper will be attached to the flatbed. When the truck wears out, the flatbed plus camper can be lifted off as a unit (e.g., with two forklifts), and then attached to a new chassis cab. We did this once with our current camper, and it took less than a day. Barring an accident, the flatbed and camper should last the rest of our lives, but we might go through four or five trucks in that time, so the modularity is a big plus.

Although the camper itself was the key element of the retirement plan, several other aspects of the transition were important as well. Every citizen of the U.S. must be a resident of exactly one state, and the laws related to domicile are not simple. Only South Dakota, Texas, and Florida allow you to be a resident without a non-commercial permanent address, so all full-time RVers must become residents of one of these three states. With Eileen having parents and two siblings in El Paso, and two more siblings just 5 hours away, Texas was the natural choice for us. Escapees RV Club has set up facilities in each of these states, which can be used as legal addresses by members. They also provide mail forwarding service, holding your mail until you request a packet to be sent, or even scanning it and sending it by e-mail.

We plan to spend a couple months each winter in El Paso, in extended-stay housing (like a studio apartment, or a motel room with a kitchenette). This will give us a chance to visit family; to schedule routine medical appointments; to research the next year’s travel while having a good broadband signal; and to have a break from being on the road. By renting a small commercial storage compartment, we can stow items for the apartment and extra books and gear that might go into the camper some years, depending on destination.

But even with the increased storage in the new camper, and the ancillary storage in El Paso, we still wanted to reduce the volume of our belongings by nearly an order of magnitude. Downsizing is not easy, either emotionally or procedurally. We decided that we would donate everything we were divesting, except vehicles and, of course, our house. We actually started working on downsizing almost five years ago, tackling some of the most difficult problems first, such as what to do with our plant collection (donated to a university) and photos (slides and negatives professionally scanned, larger prints donated). Over the past year, Eileen worked through about two filing cabinets of papers, letters, travel info, etc., discarding info now available online, and scanning the rest. It’s very convenient having so much in digital form, where it is easy to find and will be readily available to us on the road.

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