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Beg, borrow and (get it for a) steal – budgeting for a family gap year

You can’t expect to give up your job and travel the world without a little tightening of the purse strings. But how tight does tight have to be to fit within budget? As we head into month three of our big adventure and everybody else heads back to school and work, I thought I’d go into a bit more detail about how we we are managing to afford a gap year in a skoolie in North America.

Two months into our trip and we can already see that some of our budgeted figures were wildly wrong. Whether it is because of our location and the varying costs in each state, the impact of Brexit on the value of the British Pound or the unforseen costs of having to furnish our skoolie, keeping within the parameters of ‘the budget’ has been more of a challenge than we were expecting.

‘Guestimating’ our original budget

Working on the budget on a laptop in the skoolie
When the boys go out to play, Mummy sits inside and balances the books and sometimes writes blogs!

The word ‘guestimate’ makes it all sound a bit flippant. Don’t be deceived – we put a lot of effort into budget-planning. After all, to make this trip last a year we need to know we can afford to eat, wash our clothes, find places to camp, have fun, visit the attractions that we have travelled so far to see, cope with the costs of managing our UK lives from overseas and suck up the expense of owning and furnishing a bus in North America.

Several months before we even announced our plans to travel, the budget was an ever-growing beast of an Excel document. We factored in how much of our savings we wanted to spend on a bus and whether we could get any return on investment. We looked at our existing living expenditure, costs in North America and the reported spending of families travelling in the U.S in skoolies / RVs. We then ‘guestimated’ what it would cost us.

Hidden lake overlook at Glacier National Park
Our budget included an ‘America the Beautiful’ pass, which gives us access to all of the National Parks for free. We hitched a ride up to Logan Pass and trekked to Hidden Lake Overlook. 

We researched all the fixed costs (visas, national park passes etc) and included money to cover purchases like bikes. We built in a generous contingency and then factored in all of our UK outgoings and income. There are pages of figures, which I won’t bore you with unless you specifically want to know them!

In the end, it all boiled down to two crucial sums:

  1. Did we have enough in our savings for the initial outlay of the bus?
  2. Were our monthly outgoings likely to be less than our monthly income from the UK, making it a ‘cost-neutral’ year?

For both answers we came up with a yes.

The (rather large) cost of a skoolie home

Budgets must include full bus equipment
It’s not just the structure of the bus we had to think about. We had to fully equip our home for the year, make it feel cosy and prepare it for all kinds of weather – we needed everything, from blankets to bikinis. 

The bus cost about the same as a house extension, which in a funny kind of way it is. While we hope to get some money back if we sell it at the end / use it somehow in the future, we also had to accept that we may not make anything on it. If it breaks down and can’t be fixed or blows up in a huge propane explosion, our investment goes with it. Of course, after two months going feral in the wilderness, there is also the distinct possibility that Guy releases his inner Thelma (or is it Louise?) and drives us all into a canyon shouting “I’m never going back to work again”!

As discussed in our earlier blog, How to buy and convert a US school bus from the UK, we could have gone with a cheaper bus, i.e a secondhand one off eBay, but we felt there was too much risk. We also couldn’t justify the prices the more established conversion companies were quoting for a new bus, so we took a gamble with a new company who were prepared to reduce their prices to get the business. We wrote a detailed contract and ensured they bought insurance to make sure everything could be delivered safely and within the price agreed. We kept a small contingency aside just in case.

bus overhanging cliff with budget bikes hanging
We just wanted to get on the road and start enjoying ourselves (and park in the tightest of parking of spaces!)

It almost worked to plan. The budget ran out just a couple of weeks before we jetted out of the UK so we made the decision to use our contingency in order to get the bus finished. It wasn’t enough to cover everything, but it was enough to get us on the road.  

Lots of people have asked us about the contract and why we had to use the contingency. We just wanted the bus done in time for our arrival and this was the only way.  We figured it was all part of the skoolie-build learning-curve for both the company and us. When you are new to something, mistakes happen. You live and learn. We love our bus and it is mechanically sound, which is what matters.

Budget living means DIY whilst camping
Shelf building… that sucks. No-one else on the campsite has to do DIY!

The upshot of an unfinished bus is some unexpected DIY. We hoped we’d seen the back of tools and loose screws after trying to get our house, campervan and rental properties sorted before we left, but it turns out that ‘Guy the handyman’ has had to come on holiday with us; we furnish as we go – curtains here, shelves there – something new every month. It sucks up a lot of our cash as we have to buy materials and tools and we also spend more time in hardware stores and less time at attractions or dining out – such is life.

Grocery shopping – a budget busting exercise

noodles - the best budget meal
Noodles, mercifully, are cheap everywhere. I’m not quite sure we need this many packets though.

If we ignore the additional monthly costs of the bus, we felt our budget was roomy enough to cope with all other eventualities. Then we went grocery shopping. I had budgeted for the same spend as we had in the UK – keeping in mind that we are lazy at home and usually end up at the local Co-op buying over-priced broccoli, potatoes and some kind of 2 for £7 fillets for dinner (why is it that pre-planning meals and shopping in advance at the grocers / butchers seems so impossible?)

As we travelled through Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, prices seemed to go up and up. A loaf of wholemeal bread at home, £1.20. You want butter on that? Let’s say £2. In Montana, prices are at least double that for the most basic brands. Cheese, cereal, tins… same story.

Eating on the roofdeck of the skoolie
We have had to down-size our tastes – Guy has resorted to eating tinned oysters instead of fresh, doused in the vinegar I use for cleaning.

The solution to escalating food costs? Give up those ‘middle-class’ tastes! No more handfuls of cashews for a snack, soba noodle soup with pak choi, almond milk on cereal and salads full of seeds and fresh leaves. No more last-minute Co-op. We are still rubbish at planning our meals but we buy in bulk, treat ourselves with ice pops from the freezer, enjoy box wine (it doesn’t seem to last any longer… or am I just drinking more?!) and when we are feeling frivolous, the odd tub of hummus ($5 – about £4.50 for a small tub!). We make do…

Not so healthy living

At the start of our trip, someone we met told us that we need to watch our weight and do more fun runs. It wasn’t based on the sight of us…. the bus was not sagging and the kids were still walking through the doorway without turning sideways, but as a travel tip in general.

The reduced budget has had a big impact on the type of food we eat. Much of the stuff we buy – the cheaper stuff – is full of sugar, salt, additives and preservatives that you just wouldn’t find in the UK. If you want to eat healthily (or even go for food without any of the bad stuff in it) you pay more. Even fresh fruit and veg is almost prohibitively expensive. It will be interesting to see if Canada is the same.

Finding food for free

Don’t worry – we are not foraging in the bins just yet. We have managed to acquire some rather spectacular free foods though. Soren caught a trout on his first ever day fishing, enough to feed us all. Of course you could argue that the fishing license made it quite a pricey meal, but Guy also caught a couple of little ‘uns and it was good sport.

We’ve also lucked out with some of the hosts we’ve met through Boondockers Welcome. Andrew the hunter shared some deer meat and burgers from his last season’s hunt, Ben the gardener gave us access to his vegetable crop and Liz the baker gave us some delicious sourdough bread and ciabatta. Boondocking is the way forward!

Going out

bears or beers
Beers or bears? The former is so tempting but we when you live in the woods most of the time, the latter is more likely. We had to spend our cash on bear spray, so it’s cans in the bus for us!

So far prices have been comparable to the UK. We can go out for a meal in a family-friendly restaurant, spend £50 and get a feed for four with a couple of beers. Of course that is if we were actually going out. This is always the area that gets cut when you are skint – going out.

Most people would think this wasn’t too much of a hardship for us – we have a kitchen so can cook – but life in a skoolie means we spend a huge amount of time living in the woods or out by remote lakes. It is such a treat to dip into a town and live the way we used to.

When we come upon somewhere with a cosy feel, where the hum of civilisation and the smell of coffee beans roasting is like a hug from an old friend; where the fizz of a cold IPA and the laughter at the bar threatens to overwhelm you with the first flush of drunk, it is all we can do to stop ourselves running foward with our wallets open. No can do when you live on a budget. Back to the bus my friend. Make your own coffee. Heat up your own milk in a frying pan and enjoy scraping off the milk skin. Drink your own booze out of melamine cups.

Missed opportunities (sometimes) worth missing

beavertails - a budget breaking treat
Occasionally we’ll find a delicious treat. It’s never a healthy one though (which Kit is very happy about!)

Luckily for our wallets, the opportunity to eat rarely crops up. We spent a month in Montana, which is three times as big as the UK but with a a population 60 times smaller and almost entirely from a different demographic, there is not the demand for the kind of eateries we are after. They don’t have a plethora of coffee shops and vegetarian restaurants around every corner – they couldn’t sustain them. This is not Brighton!

The reality of eating out is desolate looking cafes that serve pie and ‘drip coffee’, burgers and fries, pizza slices and fries, grilled cheese (not as nice as it sounds because American cheese is like eating slices of of plastic) and fries. If you want something better / healthier, you spend a whole lot more and then the kids complain it’s horrible and only eat the fries.

I think we may find more choice when we hit the west coast, but it’ll cost even more. Canada is already is proving to be tastier – we had some ‘strong’ cheese earlier that was faintly reminiscent of a mild UK Red Leicester. I was very excited!

Best shared with friends

Sitting around table
New friends! This is David – a mine of National Parks knowledge – who joined us for beers (not bears) in Glacier NP

Going out for dinner with the family is one thing but socialising is another. Because we are camping this is in many ways made easier. We’ve been invited to join people at their bonfires for s’mores (toasted marshmallow sandwiched between crackers with a chunk of chocolate), for card games with neighbours and then there is just the general interest in the skoolie, which means anyone passing stops for a chat and a photo.

A British love of booze

Harvest Hosts brewery
An overnight stay at a Harvest Hosts brewery is free… if you don’t count all the money you spend on beer and pizzas at the bar!

There is not so much of a drinking culture here – only one couple have invited us over for a wine and they were, ironically, from a town a few miles away from where we live in the UK. Guy lives in hope and when someone shouts ‘come join us’ from a firepit or they pop in to see the bus, he always brings out a couple of cans in case he can tempt someone. It rarely works – one fella drank half a can to be polite, another asked for ‘English tea’ instead and the third had a massive rehab story that kept Guy chatting, beers hidden in bag, for a good hour!

One place we have enjoyed a tipple is at the distilleries and breweries we’ve stayed at as part of the Harvest Host‘s scheme. They let you park for free as long as you sample their wares. It ends up costing more to stay at one of these places than the cheap campsites though as the quality of the booze is good and after one or two drinks, who cares about the budget?!

Fun on a budget

boy in rain
I am not bored.  

Now there’s a word. Holidays are fun – a couple of weeks of camping and mucking about in the woods is brilliant. How about 2 months of it though? Well I can report that it is still fun. Whether it is because we have slowed our pace down so much that the days just drift by, or because we are connecting better with the boys, the days seem to disappear with very little complaint.

I’ve banned the ‘b’ word, which helps (and no, that is not ‘budget’).  If anyone says they are bored then they lose a point. The points don’t come off anything particular but they seem to do the job of motivating the kids to stop saying they are ‘b’ and that is sometimes enough to stop it happening!

Paid – for activities vs free

kayaks are a good budget activity
Who needs to pay for a boat trip when you have packed your own boats?!

This is really for the kids. Guy and I don’t feel any desire to pay for aquariums or cable cars. Quite amazingly we manage to avoid most expensive activities by substituting them for cheaper / free versions. We dispensed with the Columbia Icefields explorer trip (a bus that goes onto the ice) by hiking up a mountain next to it instead – we had an amazing view of all the people trekking in a line towards the glacier lookout and all of us were glad we weren’t in it.

The wonderful Noni (my mum) bought us kayaks, so that keeps us busy near water. We bought the kids fishing rods which, if we have a license, means hours can pass untangling reels. The best thing has been bikes though (currently Soren’s favourite hobby – running, fishing and, mercifully, whistling have been relegated!). The boys go round and round campsites on an endless imaginary mission and when we are close to a point of interest, we have alternative transport to a 37 ft bus. What would have been a massive motivation mission to get the kids to walk a couple of miles /a massive motivation mission to strap down the whole bus and drive, now becomes a super cool bike ride.

Biking bonus

But how did we afford these bikes on our budget? Again, we found they were double the cost of those at home and so we started looking around in pawn shops and thrift stores. We were almost defeated by the lack of places big enough for these kind of stores, but then we got to Missoula which is a university town. This gem of a place was full of love for bikes and all those that ride them – “you want to get yourselves to Freecycle – they have second-hand bikes” said a friendly thrift store worker. And they did. For free. FREE! “We don’t sell them ma’am, they are free!”.

Come again? Free?

Yep. Freecycle is a community project to support bike-riding around Missoula. People donate old bikes or broken bikes to Free Cycle, they put them in their warehouse / yard and they teach people how to bring them back to good health. You do a course in bike maintenance, volunteer 4 hours and then choose your bike, they have all the tools, equipment, bike bits (from the stripped bikes that could not be restored) and lots of helpers. It’s such a winning idea, I loved it. Kids don’t have to volunteer, so they just get the bikes for free. And, bonus for us, if you can’t volunteer then you can just donate $30. We ended up walking out (or biking), after just 2 hours of hunting and maintenance, with 4 functional bikes. All for $60.

Livin’ in the city (or forest or prairies or the driveways or the car park)

skoolie parked by lake
Camplife. We never know where we will end up but it’s almost always beautiful and usually inexpensive

I mentioned in my last post – http://camping that our preferred camp spots were the free / low cost dispersed or un-serviced sites. That is still the case. Luckily, we are coming in way under budget on camping which has offset the high food costs. Hopefully, as we move to more populated areas, food costs will come down as I don’t think free campsites will be so readily available in places like California.

Of course you can’t always go for free. We have solar panels, water and propane so we can live off-grid for several days at a time, but not indefinitely. Water is usually available for free but we do need to plug in now and then to give our battery a boost. We try and tie those days into power, WiFi, laundry and lengthy shower bundles – get all the jobs and the enjoyable things done at once. It means we spend a shed-load but we all end up clean and sparkly!

Talking of laundry, we spend about $20 USD every 2 – 3 weeks. We could probably do it less but I can’t bear all the dirty stuff all over the bus. It’s a budget saving that I am not prepared to make!

Keeping the bus on the road

My transport budget covers fuel but also bus issues. Fuel has been cheap in comparison to the UK, but we had predicted as much. It’s more expensive in Canada but then they don’t charge as much for groceries – it all balances out. It costs us about $120 USD to fill her up.

We’ve only had one RV mechanic call-out for the bus – the batteries were dead and we couldn’t charge them. We also couldn’t get the heater to work. In the end, both issues ended up being settings errors and we were soon on our way.

The one thing it doesn’t cover is the decorating I mentioned earlier. We did some massive shops at Walmart and Ikea, which got us sorted on bedding etc, but with no budget set aside for this kind of thing and all our contingency gone, it is pretty painful to hand over the credit card. 

Feeling the goodwill

Now that we’ve found a few more charity shops, we have cut our costs significantly. We’ve come to rely on them and why not – they are well-stocked and cheap. We’ve replaced the hats that both boys have lost, the sunglasses that both boys have lost (twice), the shoes that both boys have lost, found life jackets, baseball mitts, bike helmets, school books, t-shirts for the kids, kitchen stuff, books, movies – it’s a budget shoppers paradise!

budget patchwork quilt from yard sale
A patchwork quilt for just $25 – bargain!

We’ve also made good use of yard sales. I was looking forward to these – sifting through piles of useful bus stuff whilst drinking homemade lemonade… that’s what happens, right? Evidently not. I’ve only found one so far and it was a miserable affair down a long, deserted road in a lot full of garages. All she was selling was old VHS videos and romance novels. I was just about to give up when I found a rather lovely king-size patchwork quilt. Just what I needed. Hurrah! There may not be lemonade but I’m still gunning for yard sales for potential bus furnishing on a budget.

And so the budget for next month…

Eating dinner outside
We’ve made it work for 2 months – let’s hope we can carry on for the next 12

It’s not quite Thelma and Louise time yet, we’ve managed to stay within budget both months and will hopefully stretch those good times for the next 10. Our balancing act will continue – the West Coast is potentially more expensive for camping but we’ve hopefully got less to spend on bus decoration. We have more visitors coming, which means more going out for dinners, but perhaps food costs will come down because more people = more choice and cheaper options. Then again, perhaps it won’t. Perhaps Brexit won’t happen, the pound will become strong and everything will be affordable again. Then I’ll be going out and hitting more than that first flush of drunk!!!

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Skoolie Stays

Our year in an American school-bus

A year in a Skoolie

Finally, after months of planning, we flew out to Utah in the United States to begin our year-long adventure travelling in a converted school bus – a Skoolie

ruth wimpory skoolie stays

By Ruth

The start of the adventure - summer 2019

When we started planning our trip on a map in our UK living room, we had a route that spiralled through the Lonely Planet highlights of America, weaving our way through Alberta, B.C and the Yukon, eventually reaching Alaska. I wanted bears, Orca and wild salmon leaping. I wanted to camp out in the Denali Park wilderness under the Northern lights   – it looked incredible. We soon realised though, incredible did not mean realistic. Our trip was entirely dictated by two things: where our builder lived and when the kids broke up from school. That meant flying into Salt Lake City, home to our builder, in mid-July 2019, with temperatures in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  

 

Alaska has a narrow summer window – we simply wouldn’t make it – and there was no way we could travel south in such intense heat, which struck off many of the National Parks that America is famous for: Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Moab… it was a sharp blow. But then we realised, it actually took the pressure off and gave us freedom. Travelling in a home on wheels to places you know very little about meant we could meander wherever we wanted, follow the good weather and stay as long as we liked. We ended up having a unique and incredible adventure – a real road-trip into the unknown.

Picking up our American school bus

We picked up our bus two days after we arrived in America.  Our builder did not send us many photos of the progress because he was so busy, so although we had seen the layout on paper and had seen some of the wooden structures for the sofa, kitchen and bunks, we had no idea what it looked like. It was so strange to step into the space and see it for real. 

Mirrors are your friend

Skoolie driver
Guy had to learn how to drive the bus fast - one loop around a car park to practice and we were on our way!

It’s pretty scary hitting the road in a 38ft, 14 tonne vehicle. You have to have a special HGV license to drive something of that size in the UK but in America, once the bus is registered as a personal vehicle, you can drive it with your standard license. Taking his family out on the road was the bit that Guy was anxious about. Our builder had given him a quick lesson the day before in a parking lot – “rely on your mirrors to see where you are” –  and he’d watched a few You Tube videos (I kid you not!) about ‘squaring corners’, but that first journey was a test of his nerves. He nailed it though and we were on the road, just the 4 of us, ready to go camp America style. 

Utah, Idaho & Wyoming

We spent a glorious two weeks soaking up the sun in the slightly cooler northern Utah, making the most of the National Forest campsites, finding our way with the Skoolie and learning its (and our) travelling quirks. When you live a self-sufficient life you need to get used to relying on solar (not a problem in a Utah summer), composting toilets (also, amazingly, a simple smell-free solution) and reduced water (more problematic as we didn’t know where to refill!). 

Our route towards Yellowstone dipped into Idaho, where we kick-started our Harvest Host’s membership (a scheme that gives Skoolies and other RV’s the chance to camp for free and try the produce at small farms, distilleries, breweries, vineyards etc.

 

After some debate at the distillery bar about how steep the passes into Yellowstone were, we opted for a longer drive through Wyoming that took in more of the incredible scenery. It allowed us to approach Grand Teton and Yellowstone from Jackson Hole in the south. 

We spent a week in the Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park. You can read more about this trip, as well as how we managed it on our budget, here.

Montana

Montana is so heavily wooded that fires are the norm during summer. They ravage the landscape, affect visibility and leave a smoky smell everywhere. Happily for us, Montana was having an unusual weather year  – a wet spring kept temperatures cooler and Montana’s summer was hot, clear, lush and fresh. Many people told us we were experiencing it at its best and they were right, it was a total joy to travel and camp. 

 

Living in a Skoolie gave us the freedom to enjoy Montana – we spent a month fishing, hiking and kayaking, we bought bikes and explored further afield, we spent a week hiking in Glacier National Park, one of our favourites, and got dangerously close to grizzly bears.  It was the perfect way to settle into Skoolie life. This was no longer a holiday, it was a way of life.  

Alberta & Vancouver

The Canadian Rockies had long been on my list of places to visit. Right at the top was the Icefields Parkway, part of Banff and Jasper National Parks, which runs from Lake Louise to Jasper. It is is one of the ‘must-do’ things in Canada in a Skoolie (according to every list ever written!), full of epic scenery, amazing hikes and wildlife galore.

We arrived in autumn (or fall!) and the weather was getting chilly. Just like Montana though, we lucked out – we had gorgeous sunshine for much of the time and could fully enjoy the reds, golds, yellows and greens of the autumnal forests set against the turquoise glacial lakes. It was stunning.

 

Our route took us from Lake Louise to Vancouver (yay, city fun with old friends!), then on to Vancouver Island and Pacific Rim Nature Reserve. This must have been one of my favourite sites – right in the heart of the old forest, surrounded by  Douglas Firs and Red Cedars. The forest floor was densely packed with fallen logs, ferns and fungi, tiny creatures and earthy smells. I loved it. To make it even better, a short path led to a huge beach – miles of crashing waves and yellow sand covered with twisted driftwood and long ropes of seaweed. 

 

You can read more about the hikes we took and the places we explored in our travel blog. You can also read about how we fared with visitors – in Canada, four became six for three weeks.

 

Washington & Oregon

After a month in Canada, cold weather nipping at our heels, we felt ready for a new chapter of our travels. Our plan, guided by a need for sunshine, was to scoot down south as quickly as we could, leaving the forests and mountains behind. Night drives down Highway 5 beckoned – one long freeway that would take us from Vancouver through to Southern California. But then, as is always the case, we looked at the map and doubt entered our mind. What about Washington and Oregon? Rain-forests and Redwoods, wild seas and sprawling beaches, how could we miss all that? Should we continue to gamble with the weather and take it a little slower?

 

Of course we did! And it was well worth the wild weather we experienced. After a hairy drive / slide over black ice on a mountain pass and freezing, snowy nights at Olympic National Park, we took on the coastline. We joined the infamous Highway 101 south of Aberdeen and followed it south, crossing into Oregon at Astoria. The coastline was rugged and impressive – huge spurting blowholes, cliffs and miles of golden sand dunes backed by thick forest. 

 

Read more about our Washington and Oregon trip (and how we incorporated home-skooling into our adventure) here.

California

We envisaged our route through the Golden State as a string of sunny beaches and glitzy cities full of beautiful people (as well as a fair amount of  suburban sprawl and 14-lane highways!).  It ended up as a trip through towering Redwoods, autumnal vineyards, sun-scorched gold-panning towns, breath-taking National Parks and barren plains filled with spiky cactus and dust clouds. We didn’t go near the cities and we barely saw the beaches – the California fires had taken hold and we had to go inland. 

 

We found a side to California I was barely aware of. Small gold-panning towns and stunning vineyards, incredible Halloween extravaganzas, cheesy neon diners , huge slot canyons and more critters than you could dream of. We somehow managed to sneak into Yosemite before the fires closed it off and had three idyllic days searching for Alex Honnold on El Capitan through our binoculars, and even made it to Joshua Tree National Park for cactus and bouldering fun. 

 

Read about how, six months in, we felt we had adapted to life in a Skoolie in California.

Arizona and New Mexico

Suddenly, instead of heading south along the western length of America, we were headed east. Looming in the distance was the Rockies – a literal hump that represented a much bigger marker, the half-way hump of our trip. 

 

Nowhere does empty roads quite like the American desert. It was a long drive of nothingness; mile upon mile of scrubby land and windswept bits of tumbleweed. We were relieved to see our first Saguaro cactus and the colourful lights of Tucson. After weeks of barren desert, everything sandy yellow or spiky green, the landscape suddenly shifted into a state of colour and life. As we reached the Mexico and New Mexico border there were even a few bodies of water – Patagonia Lakes and Whitewater Draw – a Mecca to migrating birdlife. Crested birds of different colours swooped above us; herons fished alongside our bus and owls called out at night. We got up at dawn to watch thousands of cranes take to the skies, squawking and croaking like a group of cranky pterodactyls.

 

The boys discovered a love of caves in Arizona’s Kartchner Caverns so we took them to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. They said it was the best thing they had done in America – this was closely matched by White Sands National Park– where you can sled down the pure white gypsum dunes.

 

Read more about our quest to find friendship and fun in the desert here

Texas

We knew it would take us an age to cross Texas in a Skoolie but over the course of the journey we’d leave the desert behind and find the Gulf Coast and the Deep South as well as music, art, fresh produce and delicious Tex-Mex food.

 

The first Texan treat for us was Big Bend National Park – every moment brought us something new to look at – from the funny bobbing heads of the road runners on the campsite to the tinkling bells around the donkey’s neck on the nearby Mexican shore. Turtles swam in the rivers and at dusk the Sierra del Carmen literally glowed. 

 

Texas continued to reveal its treasures: we biked on the deserted shores of Padre Island; fished from the rooftop at sunset on Goose Island pier, watched the heavy flying-boat-shaped pelicans skim the waves as they touched down at Magnolia Beach and spotted alligators lurking in the shallows amongst the ibis and egrets at Brazos Bend.

 

Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama

The Deep South. The words conjure up an array of images, each promising a very different picture of America to that which we have experienced so far. We were entering Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, each state a centre for the chequered history surrounding slavery, war and poverty, but also a heartland for the music, food and Southern way of life that charms travellers from around the globe. It offered a completely different element to our road-trip.

 

We visited a plantation, making sure to go to one that recognised slavery rather than the many that focus more on mint juleps and hoop skirts. We also managed to find somewhere to stay in New Orleans the weekend before Mardi Gras. We watched the parades, caught the beads and soaked up the street life of one of the coolest cities in America. 

 

 Read more about trip in the deep south here

Florida

What do you think of when I write the words Florida? Sandy beaches, glorious sunshine,  Disney? It’s the perfect holiday destination…. well until you realise that every other RV traveller and European winter escapee has that same image of themselves sipping cocktails at the sunset beach bar, watching rockets launch from Cape Canaveral, taking day trips into the mangroves to spot alligators and swimming with manatees in the fresh water springs.

Florida was full. Every campsite we tried was rammed, every activity was booked up and we spent every evening poring over road maps and trip planner books to try and find the best solution. How on earth would we ‘do Florida’? The answer was to do it in the way we had done every other state – on our own agenda.

 

We had three incredible weeks enjoying the beaches on the panhandle,  touring Harry Potter World at Universal Studios and kayaking in the mangroves and springs with manatees and alligators. Our wiggly route also saw us volunteering at a goat farm and joining a crowd of locals across the water from NASA to watch a night-time rocket launch. Florida ended up being one of our favourite destinations. 

 

Enthuse with us over Florida at our travel blog.

Georgia

We arrived in Georgia at the same time the news arrived that the UK had gone into COVID-19 lockdown. America was not far behind, so we took refuge with a group of Skoolies at the Skoolie Homestead Community. We expected to stay a week or two but the healthcare crisis in America, coupled with our travel insurance company refusing to cover anything pandemic-related, we ended up there for two months. 

 

The Homestead was the perfect place for us to experience a lockdown. Although it was hot, humid and full of gnats and mozzies, it had a brilliant communal area and lovely people, all of who had chosen too live a bus-life. This was the first time we’d really met other Skoolie families and there were several of them within the same field. There were other kids to play with and space to run around,  people played music and chatted, offering Skoolie advice and stories. We had found the community we had been looking for for months and it was here that we started to hatch our plan – could we take our bus back to the UK? 

 

Read more about how Covid-19 affected our Skoolie road-trip and the amazing Skoolie community here

Tennessee North and South Carolina

We were hesitant about leaving the Skoolie Homestead when Covid-19 was still a threat, but we only had one month left of our year-long adventure. The delay in Georgia had already meant that we would fail to do the east coast in its entirety, but we still had time for a trip to the Smokies. It had to be done. Besides, what better way to isolate than keeping to yourself in a bus in wide open spaces.  

 

The campsites started to open up so we took that as our sign and headed through South Carolina into the mountains, stopping at several Harvest Hosts breweries and distilleries along the way, which helped us learn more about how the virus was affecting small producers. The Black Lives Matters debate was also raging across the cities in America and, though we saw very little of it in the rural parks, it was fascinating to see how suburban and rural Americans responded to the crisis. 

 

We finished our trip off with a visit to Charleston and Savannah. We were meant to be in New York for 4th July celebrations. Instead we parked opposite downtown Savannah, across the river, listened to jazz music floating across the water and toasted our incredible trip. 

 

Read more about how we found the Black Lives Matter debate in rural areas of the deep south. 

Completing our tour of America
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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

America – we have arrived

We are one week in to our year long tour of North America. In some ways it feels as if we have been here for ages. In others, as we navigate past incredulous Americans in our big yellow bus, it feels as if we are total newbies. Who cares though? We are very happy to finally be here.

We’re leaving home, bye bye

Before we could get on the plane to America we had to go through a hectic, stressful month that was filled with anxiety, tears, late night DIY sessions, hours on the computer researching insurance, many trips to the dump and the charity shop, several long and stressful what’s app / skype conversations with Oquirrh Mountain Bus (the company doing up our skoolie) tackling last minute bus issues and so many leaving drinks that our livers felt sodden. 

No matter how much you plan in advance, most of the effort for this kind of trip has to take place just before you leave. Guy became a DIY and property-management machine, working all hours to get our house ready for our tenants whilst also trying to sort out the damage and rental changeovers at our flats. My month was spent packing up our house and offloading the contents of our lives on whoever had space (good work Nicole and Ros!), getting the kids out of school and prepping Bill the campervan for his new life as a Quirky camper listing (which means you can hire him – check him out here).  

When we shut the door on our home in Hove, closing that chapter of our lives that has lasted 8.5 years, it felt very strange. The boys found it pretty sad. A year seems forever when you are 6 and 8 and after an emotional departure from school, it was no great surprise to see that moving out upset them. Even though we know they are going to have the best adventure, it’s hard to see them crying because of the enormous upheaval you have brought into their lives. 

Packing for a year in America

Things got a bit easier once we had left the house. Short of buying insurance, sorting out visas and flights, we hadn’t bothered preparing for America – the idea was that if we didn’t already own it or know about it, we could just buy it or research it when we arrived. We had 10 days before departure and so anything that might be useful was thrown in the van for sorting out at my mum’s house. Over the following 10 days we decanted, repacked, decanted, dumped stuff, repacked, weighed-in, decanted, repacked and so on.

London to America baggage
Weighed down with bags

The last time Guy and I travelled we had two rucksacks. 11 years later and with 2 boys in tow, we arrived with 4 x 23kg bags, 4 x 8kg bags and 2 car seat bags (free with most airlines). It was ridiculous that we had so much stuff to take to America and even more ridiculous that we were able to take that much luggage as our allowance. How on earth can people need that much space for a 2 week holiday?!

Getting to America

The flight to Orlando was long and dull – what flight isn’t – although we were pleasantly surprised with Thomas Cook. The seats were roomy and the snacks were plentiful. For £6 we could access the movie library so we plugged the kids in and barely heard from them for 8 hours! We arrived at what would have been a late night for them but was just lunchtime in America. The plan was to find a quiet corner in a transit lounge for them to nap for 3 hours, Orlando had other ideas. We had to pick up our luggage, deposit it again in about in a pile just before customs, then join the world’s longest customs queue to go back into the main airport where we had to check in again.

America tourist visas
Visas – about the only thing we got sorted before we left

I was anxious about our America custom’s check. We have B2 visas which allow us to stay for a maximum of a year in the US. That doesn’t mean you get a year though. We had read in a few places that you are at the mercy of the security officer on the day and when we were beckoned to move forward in the queue by the grumpiest face I’ve seen in America, I didn’t feel too confident. We asked for a year and Mr Negativity did a lot of head shaking, telling us that our visas are not valid for more than 120 days etc. Eventually he said he’d stamp 6 months and we could reapply but he didn’t think it was likely we would be approved unless we had a VERY good reason for staying. Whatever you say Monsieur Miserable – we’ll take our chances. 

Jet lag, film sets and big yellow buses

Salt Lake City orange flags to cross road
The weird world of Salt Lake City where pedestrians are so rare that you have to grab an orange flag when you cross the road so that drivers notice you.

We inadvertently kicked jet lag in the face by arriving at our hotel at 11pm, having not really slept for 24 hours. I don’t know how the boys kept in such good humour. We all passed out and actually slept a regular American night and woke up on our new time zone.

We had a day to relax in SLC before picking up the bus, so we took to the streets to explore. We made it through deserted streets to Temple Square to see the big Mormon temple, then overheated and had to retreat into the mall. I overheard someone telling their daughter that it was 100 degrees Farenheit outside, which perhaps explains why no-one was outside. It is so strange to see a backdrop of snowy mountains when the air around you is so hot you feel as if you are melting.

All we could do was escape into the aircon of the planetarium, which proved to be a great choice – there were loads of amazing, free exhibits and a movie screen that covered a domed ceiling. We watched coral reefs from recliner chairs, flying above the water and diving deep into the sea. A world very different to the dry lands of SLC outside. 

Finally, the school bus

We arranged to meet Blake from Oquirrh with our bus on day 2 of our American adventure. I felt sick to my core travelling in the taxi to his grandfather’s house. What would we do if we hated it?  Worse still, what would we do if there was no bus? Were we going to find out we had been scammed? This was one of our biggest fears – we had, after all, found someone on the internet and paid out a whole lot of money without being able to see the work in person. It is exactly what people always say you shouldn’t do. Anxiety levels were high.

Of course it wasn’t completely foolhardy. We had done all of our due diligence.  

  • Oquirrh were new but the business was registered.
  • Blake was happy for us to rewrite the contract and to get the liability insurance we requested.
  • We spoke to another customer for a reference and she could not have been more positive 
  • Our friends Pip and Ade met him (and the bus) whilst travelling through SLC some months ago and gave both the thumbs up. 
  • The final lump-sum payment was to be made after we had seen the bus.
  • Overall, Blake and Katie came across as trustworthy, good people and sometimes you have to go with your gut instincts about a person. We liked Blake. 

Honk Honk – there is the bus!

We pulled up in our Uber and saw the bus from the road – we recognised the roof deck. What a relief. Blake then appeared, smiling, to welcome us to our new home. More relief!

We literally couldn’t wait to get inside. Blake did not send us many photos of the progress because he was so busy, so although we had seen the layout on paper and had seen some of the wooden structures for the sofa, kitchen and bunks, we had no idea what it looked like. It was so strange to step into the space and see it for real. 

Skoolie interior
Stylish inside and out

A tour of the inside

Soren made a video tour of the bus!

The floor is dark wood and the walls and ceiling are white. The ceiling has been lined with length-way planks, which stretch the space, it looks amazing. As you step past the driving seat, there is a big u-shaped sofa and a large dining table – plenty of room for dining and working. The kitchen has white cabinets with a gorgeous dark wood butcher block on top that matches the floor. The fridge has plenty of space (such a luxury to camp and have a good fridge) and we even have a full size cooker. Oh lordy, does that mean I have to cook? 

Behind the kitchen area is the boys space, toilet and shower. We’d hoped that the bunks would be roomy enough for them to store their toys and to sit and read etc, but although super comfy to sleep in (and Kit’s favourite part of the bus), it’s a bit too coffin-like to hang out in. Luckily though,  there is a reading nook opposite their bed. We’d wondered if that was wasted space when Blake suggested it, but he was totally right. It’s a great little space for two boys who like to snuggle up on cushions to read. Even better, it keeps them and their dusty bodies off our bed. 

The shower is roomy and works well. We have hot water (propane heater) and there is good pressure. This was important to me – we plan to stay off-grid most of the time and I can only rough it long-term if there is an option of a proper shower. Of course it only works if we actually have water. Even though we have a 100 gallon fresh water tank, we need to check the levels in this heat – I learnt that lesson whilst we were at a remote campground in Utah where water was not available. It was so hot we had to preserve what was left of the tank and I had to stick my head in a stream to wash my hair – more ice-cream headache than Badedas moment.

Washing hair in a waterfall in America
It was freeeeeeeeezing!

The other necessity is a working toilet. We went for a Nature’s Head – well known by the skoolie community – a compost toilet. That sounds gross but it is the best option for a bus as it reduces the amount of waste water you accumulate and removes the need for chemicals. It doesn’t smell at all because the system has a filter that separates liquids from solids. The latter go into an area filled with peat moss and it can take about 90 ‘deposits’ before you need to change it, you just have to rotate it with a wheel on the side. It doesn’t smell at all. The liquids go into a bottle that you empty out in the toilet, or even as fertiliser. When we met with our headteacher at the school he suggested we incorporate everyday activities into our maths learning and so Guy is planning a question relating to the gallons of piss he will have emptied by the end of a year living in a bus… it’s pretty high (and pretty gross!).

legs on a bed in a skoolie
People always post pictures of their bronzed legs, draped over a beautifully made skoolie bed with a jaw-dropping view in the background. Well here is one of my dusty thighs and crusty feet. Ooooh the glamour!

At the back is our bed – a proper king size (or queen as they call it here). Blake installed a T.V here so that we can watch movies in the bedroom. There is also a roof hatch that we can climb up to enjoy the world’s best roof deck. It is lush up there – perfect for a sundowner (or a game of chequers if you are a 6 year old!). This was Guy’s long-awaited dream and it is both his and Soren’s favourite spot on the bus. 

Mirrors are your friend

It’s pretty scary hitting the road in a 38ft, 14 tonne vehicle. You have to have a special HGV license to drive something of that size in the UK but in America, once the bus is registered as a personal vehicle, you can drive it with your standard license. Taking his family out on the road was the bit that Guy was anxious about. Blake had given him a quick lesson the day before in a parking lot – “rely on your mirrors to see where you are” –  and he’d watched a few youtube videos (I kid you not!) about ‘squaring corners’, but that first journey was a test of his nerves. He nailed it though and we were on the road, just the 4 of us, ready to go camp America style. More on that next time!

Categories
America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

We bought an American school bus

Yes, it’s true. We now own a 37ft yellow school bus that until recently was ferrying kids to lessons in Nampa, Idaho. We plan to rip out the seats of our iconic vehicle and turn it into a motorhome, otherwise known as an RV or, to those in the know, a ‘Skoolie’. We leave this summer to travel North America and we will be gone for a year.

A family gap year

For a long time, my husband and I have felt like we wanted to do a bit more with our lives. Climbing the career ladder has never been a priority for either of us; we work to live not live to work. But when you have a family, a mortgage, school term dates to adhere to, you can’t just give up your job and your home and head off into the hills….. or can you?

Yes you can. There is a lot more planning to do, but it is possible to go travelling in your forties without (hopefully) losing all your worldly possessions in the process. We will have to be careful – indeed it won’t be so much a holiday as a time in which we will be living differently – but the benefits far outweigh the negatives, both for us and our kids.

Why take a gap year in America?

Antelope Canyon. Ridiculously gorgeous

Of all the places in the world we want to go, the U.S has never been near the top. Both my husband and I have travelled extensively and America just seems a bit too much like home. It’s not just about us though; we have two little boys to think of.

America offers deserts, mountains, plains, swamps, canyons, bears, whales, snowboarding, kayaking… cities full of great architecture, music and literary history… there’s so much to see and do for two kids that have never been any further than the Algarve. On top of all of this, the language is the same, the culture and food are recognisable and we have friends there, which makes travelling and making new friends easier. We can also get reliable WiFi; the kids can keep in touch with their grandparents and we can continue freelancing.

There was concern about whether we could get on board with a country where the current political climate honestly scares us a little. In the end we figured that we’re coming from a country where the current political climate scares us a little, a Brexit-battered Britain.

Once we decided to start in the U.S we looked into the visa situation. Whilst it may tick a lot of boxes for a family gap year, it’s not quite so easy to execute that plan – the ESTA visa gives UK citizens just 90 days. You also can’t pop in and out of Canada or Mexico to renew – you have to leave Norht America entirely. There are other, more expensive, options though and we are in the process of applying for a B1/B2 visa that will allow us to stay for longer.

Why did we buy a Skoolie?

Because they are so flippin’ cool!

Amazing camp spots: Image from theskoolie.com

In truth, this was how we justified America. When we visualised a trip around the States from behind the wheel of a big, yellow bus, it became a totally different destination. It became the beautiful America, rather than the political one.

Of course one of the first things we found out is that ‘Chrome Yellow’, the famous particular shade for US school buses, is not allowed on converted RV’s. It’s a shame we have to change it but I guess it would be a bit awkward if you pulled over to take a call and a queue of schoolkids boarded your new home…

I plan to write a whole lot more about how we found our bus, how we learnt everything there is to know about skoolies and how we will convert it in this blog. If you fancy following our journey, sign up for blog updates.

But living in a bus for a year?

I’m sure it will be hard. Sometimes our 4 bed house doesn’t feel big enough for us all! We’ll just have to get used to it.

Family of 4 in campervan huddled together
We are used to small spaces!

I’m confident we will. I know it’s not the same, but we know we can adapt to a small space – our campervan quickly becomes home whenever we go away it it. We also know that this kind of travel works for us – heading out in Old Bill (our campers new name since it joined the Quirky Campers website for hire) we get the kind of spontaneity that is hard to find with young children. We can travel anywhere we fancy, sleep wherever we like (more or less!), discover places off the beaten track and enjoy random, unexpected adventures.

Of course a 37ft bus is not quite so manoeuvrable, we won’t be able to ‘stealth camp’, but the roads are bigger in America. The conversions are much more homely as well – proper tiny homes.

How will you convert it?

Who wouldn’t love living in this gorgeous space – photo from insta @laststopalaska

We did an enormous amount of research into the best way to convert a school bus. Buying a good bus is cheap (about $5000 USD) but the conversion process and storage of a vehicle is not.

We looked at whether my husband could fly out early to do the work himself, but without being in the US this was always going to be tough.

We looked into conversions that people were selling. There were some great value options but, again, we are not in the US so we can’t check them out and store them. We’d have to wait until the last-minute which is scary.

We looked at established companies in the US who do the conversions for you: Skoolie Homes, Colorado Custom Coachworks, Paved to Pines, Chrome Yellow and many more. Prices leaped to the $60k mark.

We even looked at whether it was do-able to bring it to the UK to convert it with a friend over here who has his own school bus conversion company. (Check out Shred & Butta for more on them). It opened up a million import and export issues. There is a whole blog piece I plan to write about our investigations if you are interested (or want something to fall asleep to!).

We’re now working with a company who build tiny homes in Salt Lake City. It’s taken us a while to work out contracts and insurance etc as he’s new to the skoolie conversion process. Everything is in place now though and the team are as excited as we are. Our bus has been collected and is currently sitting with them in SLC.

Will you have to home-school?

Award at school
No trophies and certificates at the school of mum and dad!

Yep, we plan to home school the kids. This scared me at first but it’s totally do-able. Amazingly, you don’t actually have to follow a curriculum if you teach your kids yourself. As we are only taking them out of school for a year, we will try and follow some of what their classmates are doing – just to help with continuity and to help them keep in touch.

We met with the headmaster and he thought it sounded like a great adventure. He said we should focus on maths and literacy but ‘the rest would just naturally come’ with the trip. The only minor concern he had was for the 6 year old who will be at a key learning point – at that age they get a much better sense of how they fit in the social structure of their class and how to interact with other kids. It’s important we ensure he mixes with other children. Another tick for America.

I’ve read lots of forums about schools making life tricky for families that want to home-school instead. We did not get this experience. Our headmaster was happy for us to work with the school and make it interactive and has told us he will sit with us himself to show us the school’s ‘maths philosophy’, which will help us teach the kids.

But yes, before you ask, we have to formally remove them from the school and then reapply when we want them to return. There is no guarantee that either child will be accepted – it all depends on space. Although this is a cause of concern, we won’t let it stand in the way.

How will you fund the trip?

We are going to realise our assets! That means we shall be storing our stuff and renting out our home and campervan. We’ll also continue to freelance – we both have the kind of jobs where remote working is completely acceptable. We may even look at opportunities for sponsorship. Ever fancied seeing your name on the side of a bus?!