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Camping in a Skoolie in America​

Camping in a Skoolie in America

How easy is it to get around in a 37ft school bus and where do you sleep? We have all the answers!

 

This is where it began – the change of scene that we all need now and again. 

ruth wimpory skoolie stays

By Ruth

The beautiful part about living in a Skoolie is that your home comes with you, whatever the destination. We left Utah, snaking our way up past Bear Lake and into Idaho, before crossing the border into Wyoming for our first National Parks: Yellowstone and the lesser-known, Grand Teton. Throughout this first month of our travels, we learnt about the wide range of options for those living in a home on wheels and what worked for us and our bus. 

Life on the road

We may have been sleeping in campgrounds but we were sleeping in relative luxury. Living in a Skoolie is not like traditional camping – we didn’t have to store our food in a coolbox full of melted ice or sleep on slowly deflating airbeds for a start! Our bus-home had everything we might need for a comfortable life: a hot shower, toilet, fridge freezer, cooker, comfortable beds. Of course all that takes up space. We measured in at 37ft plus few extra feet for our bike rack. So how easy was it to get around?

 

Americans truly love the road. In the UK, if a drive is longer than a couple of hours we start to wonder whether it is worth the effort. Three or four hours and we have to wait for a bank holiday weekend – we need to ‘recover from the journey’. It is completely different in America – there is nothing they like more than a road-trip.  In Yellowstone, we met campers who had travelled 10 hours in their truck, with two kids under 10, to camp for the weekend.  

They may like the road but they also like their space and comfort. As we drove through Utah, Idaho and Wyoming we passed numerous 40ft motorhomes, often towing a car or a boat, as well as a plethora of gigantic trailers (caravans) attached to huge, 6-seater pick-ups. Many of them had slide-outs too (weird little boxes that emerge from the side of their RV like some kind of growth) to make the living space bigger. Our 37ft skoolie looked small in comparison and size was never an issue as we navigated our way north.

Campsite camping in a Skoolie

Skoolie at a state campsite
In National Parks, there are less options. If you want to stay in the park, you have to stay in a National Park campsite. These are usually the most basic - just a toilet, with a waste and water station. Unfortunately those that perfer amenities tend to resort to generators, which can make the sites a bit noisy.

We budgeted our trip based on staying at proper campsites with all the amenities but campsites in America really varied in cost and facilities. You could be looking at anything from $7 to $100+ a night depending on where you are and what type of campsite you choose.

 

As a rule, campsites run by the state, national parks, US Forest Service and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) are much cheaper and in more rural locations but often come with more basic facilities – They may not have power or they might not have a shower block.  they invariably have terrible mobile phone coverage. The privately owned campsites are more like holiday homes and have big sites with plug in electricity and water, waste dumps, play areas, laundry, little shops etc – but they often felt a bit big and impersonal. Lots of people live in RVs in America and it felt like many were just holed up in their front rooms watching cable television. 

 

Because we could live off-grid and wanted to explore the outdoors, we quickly realised that we preferred more basic camping, but that’s not a choice for everyone. If you do prefer to have all your amenities close at hand, you can show allegiance to a particular chain and sign up to get a discount. The Thousand Trails Pass, for instance, breaks America up into different zones and you can pay for individual or multiple zones. Coast to Coast do something similar as I’m sure do others. If $800 sounds like more than you can afford, you can just join a membership scheme like KOA (campsites of America) or The Good Sam Club– you sign up for their card and get a small discount off each stay. 

Basic camping in a Skoolie

Beautiful camp spots
This stunning site cost us all of $7 in an honesty box

State camping options vary according to each State. In Montana, as well as other more remote places on the west coast and in the desert, we had no facilities other than a long drop toilet, but they rarely cost us more than $10- $15 a night. On the west coast in Oregon, Washington and California, the state sites were on the beach and had lovely shower blocks etc. They were often closer to $50 a night. 


The state camping sites are lovely and you are more likely to find people properly camping in tents or little trailers, enjoying the great outdoors. People were incredibly friendly and accommodating – they were all thoroughly interested in our journey and the experience. They loved the Skoolie and usually went bananas when we told them we were English!

Free Skoolie camping: Dispersed sites

Wilderness camping spots for free
Sites like these are completely free

If you don’t want to spend any money on accommodation at all, that is possible in America. If you don’t mind driving a little further down the track into the National Forests or to reach BLM land, there are free places to camp – ‘dispersed sites’ (not ‘depressed’ as one person with some helpful advice for us remembered them!). These are rarely more than just a space to camp (although sometimes you get a long-drop), so you need to be self-sufficient, but if all you want is a parking spot and nature, you are on to a winner. They are not even that far from the action; we visited Grand Teton NP and Yellowstone in high summer and stayed in neighbouring forest land for free most nights. It took us just 20 minutes to bump our way back down the track and get back into the park.


You can find all the cheap / free campsites by searching on Campendium or Wikicamps. We loved the dispersed sites, not just because of the price tag (or lack of), but because they were always a surprise. You read the briefest of details about them and then throw the dice – most of them involve a tense journey up an unpaved road. Will the bus do it? Would we be able to turn around? Were we going to fall off the edge of a cliff?! Then you round the corner and discover the most incredible view, the money shot. It adds a whole new dimension to the experience; we had a view over Grand Teton at sunset from our roofdeck (a celebratory beer) that was better than any paid-for boat-trip or mass-attended boardwalk hike. It was awe-inspiring.

Free Skoolie camping: Boondocking

Harvest host at distillery
Our quest to sample local produce saw us drinking potato vodka in Idaho, eating cheese in Oregon, trying lavender oil in Washington, eating sourdough and pickles in South Carolina, drinking wine in California and whisky in Tennessee.

There are other ways to keep it cheap and meet nice people. Americans are much more open to the idea of people camping than the Brits are. There are various truck stops and Walmarts that let you sleep in their parking lot, as well as official schemes that help to hook you up with people willing to offer you space on their land. We had several great experiences using Boondockers Welcome, staying with a lady in Montana who showed us how to bake bread, a Texan who let us pick fresh fruit and veg from his veg patch and gave us some of the deer shot last year (well, we were in America!) and many more. 

 

We also signed up to Harvest Hosts. This was a bit more expensive – about $70 – but it gave us details of wineries, breweries etc that were happy to put up RVs. It’s proper to buy a bottle or do the tour, but you benefit from that anyway. For a family with kids, this was often the best way for us to sample the local wares – parking in a city to go to a restaurant was not an option, our bus was to big and our budget too small. It turned into a real highlight of our trip. America does have foodies after all!

camping with goats
We had some friendly neighbours at the Goat farm in Tallahasee

We also used Hipcamp, which often meant paying a little to stay on someone’s land, but that was a good option too. We found ourselves volunteering on a goat farm in Florida and a pig farm in Georgia that gave us and the kids the kind of opportunity you just wouldn’t find at the regular campsites. 

 

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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

Happy Campers

Everyone (mostly!) agrees that camping is fun. Roughing it with your family and your pals, sunkissed and merry on whatever tipple is being passed around, cursory barbecued dinners and endless bags of the kind of bad-for-you snacks you’d never normally purchase at home. Somehow, the bonfire’s dancing light makes everything magical and you no longer care about the rules – who gives a crap if the kids turn feral and don’t go to bed until midnight? Nobody cares if you can’t sing in tune – there is a guitar and someone said singalong!

At some point, usually part way through day 2 of your camping weekend, the slightly grimy feeling suddenly gets unbearable. The bonfire-smoked outfit starts to feel itchy and the idea of another marshmallow makes your teeth hurt. It’s not long until all you can think of is heading home for a a soak in the tub and a cup of tea (from a kettle that boils in 30 seconds rather than 30 minutes), putting the kids to bed (on time) and going into another room several shut doors away from them.

Messy skoolie
It’s hard to keep a small space tidy when you live with 3 boys!

We are 3 weeks in now – has the day 2 feeling hit?

RV Camping in Style

I’m doing my best to make sure that since arriving in America, living outdoors stays enjoyable. We’re not in some poky little tent with a coolbox full of melted ice and soggy packets of bacon. We have a 37ft long bus with a hot shower, toilet and a fridge freezer. We are hardly roughing it; as I type this the kids are watching a movie in the bedroom (powered by solar), Guy is cooking in the kitchen on a 4-burner propane gas oven and I’m in the living area on my sofa drinking a cold wine from our full-size fridge freezer!

Watching movies
Anyone for Harry Potter Chamber of Secrets (for the tenth time??!!)

Our 37ft skoolie sounds huge but it isn’t. Well not in comparison to everybody else’s vehicles. In the two weeks we have been here, we have seen more than one 40ft motorhome, often towing a car, and a plethora of gigantic trailers (caravans) attached to huge, 6-seater pick-ups. And it doesn’t stop there – they roll up to their site for the night and crank open the slide-outs; weird little boxes that emerge from the side of their RV like some kind of growth. I assume they are making space for their gigantic beds, everything is of course bigger over here, or perhaps even a dog walking area. Americans seem to have dogs but we haven’t really seen anyone walking with one.

So the inside of our camping experience is cushty, but what about the outside?

Home-from-home; camping in America

On the road camping in a skoolie
On the road – hitting Grand Teton National Park, part of an endless caravan of massive rv’s.

We chose a destination that is set up for and relishes road-trips. America is a nation of campers and the roads seem built to accommodate their need to roam. In the UK, if the journey is longer than a couple of hours we start to wonder whether it is worth the effort. Three or four hours and we have to wait for a bank holiday weekend so there is time to ‘recover from the journey’. In Yellowstone we met campers who had travelled 10 hours in their truck to camp for the weekend – and they even brought kids. I’m yet to discover what the American version of calpol is but I’m guessing they look at it in the same way as sugar and salt for kids over here: bigger portions = happier families. Either that or their weekends are longer.

Once you have tugged your weighty rig into its new resting place, you can continue the home-from-home experience. Campsites have everything a travelling family might need – plug in electricity and water, waste dumps, play areas, laundry, little shops… just plug in and unleash the marshmallows.

Of course you pay for the pleasure of a temporary piece of land to call your own – we’ve seen sites ranging from $30 to $80 per night. If you are on the road for a long time though, as many people appear to be, you can show allegiance to a particular chain and sign up to get a discount. The Thousand Trails Pass, for instance, costs $585 for 5 zones. Add additional zones for just $54 and this allows you to stay in their sites for free for a year. Coast to Coast do something similar as I’m sure do others. If $800 sounds like a lot (yep!), you can sell your membership to someone else when you leave, which helps recoup some of the outlay. Alternatively, other skoolies have recommended KOA (campsites of America) as a budget option – you sign up for their card and get a small discount off each stay.

The hills are alive with the sound of … generators

Roof top view from camping in Tetons
Room with a view. A magical backdrop courtesy of the National Forest land surrounding the Tetons – a beauty when the sun went down.

We budgeted for campsites with all the amenities but within days we realised that the kind of camping was not the kind of camping we liked. The sites are big and a bit impersonal – they look at bit too much like car parks with a bit of nice landscaping. Even if the site does not have power – in some of the parks you have to make do with what the State provides – it seems to be the norm to park up and whack on a massive great generator. It’s so noisy and anti-social!

We’ve actually got a generator – Oquirrh believed that we could not live without aircon and that we would have to have a generator to power it if we were intent on camping off-grid, so we took their advice and used all of our contigency funds on something that weighs 16 stone, sounds like a massive lawnmower parked right outside our door and takes up a huge chunk of our storage space. Needless to say we haven’t used it once. To solve the need for cooler air we just left Utah and travelled north up the Rockies where the mountain air provides the evening chill! I guess we need to get on and sell that generator… anyone interested (after I’ve sold it so well!!)

RV budget camping in America

If you don’t mind missing out on the serviced shower blocks and restaurants, National Forests and BLM land are full of great sites that do not require booking and are usually close to all the places that you want to go. Some of these sites have rangers or on-site managers, invariably retirees called Buck or Bud or Wade, who live in their own RV and just occassionally come out to drive around in a golf buggy to ‘check y’all are ok?’. They cost about $15 to $25 and they have long-drop toilets and water.

The state camping sites are lovely and you are more likely to find people properly camping in tents or little trailers, enjoying the great outdoors. People are incredibly friendly and accommodating – thoroughly interested in our journey and the experience. Most of them love the bus. All of them love the fact we are English as it gives them licence to tell us about their great, great, great whatever who came from Lancashire or their undisputed link to the Saxons.

Dispersed camping

Dispersed camping in Wyoming
Oh hello, I am completely free and totally gorgeous – come and camp in your skoolie Chimps…ok!

If you don’t want to spend any money on accommodation at all, that is possible in America. If you don’t mind driving a little further down the track into the National Forests or to reach BLM land, there are free places to camp – ‘dispersed sites’ (not ‘depressed’ as one person with some helpful advice for us remembered them!). These are rarely more than just a space to camp, so you need to be self-sufficient, but if all you want is a parking spot and nature, you are on to a winner. They are not even that far from the action; we visited Grand Teton NP and Yellowstone in high summer and stayed in neighbouring forest land for free most nights. It took us just 20 minutes to bump our way back down the track and get back into the park.

You can find all the cheap / free campsites by searching on Campendium or Wikicamps. We love the dispersed sites, not just because of the price tag (or lack of), but because they are always a surprise. You read the briefest of details about them and then throw the dice – most of them involve a tense journey up an unpaved road. Will the bus do it? Will we be able to turn around? Are we going to fall off the edge of a cliff?! Then you round the corner and discover the most incredible view, the money shot. It adds a whole new dimension to the experience; we had a view over Grand Teton at sunset from our roofdeck (celebratory beer) that was better than any paid-for boat-trip or mass-attended boardwalk hike. It was awe-inspiring.

Boondocking

Slightly blurry… too much potato vodka with other travellers at the Grand Teton Distillery

There are other ways to keep it cheap and meet nice people. Before we came out, we’d heard that boondocking was an option – free camping, not on campsites. From what we could gather, there were various truck stops and Walmarts that let you crash in their parking lot. All that is good, and we have made use of them, but we’ve also signed up with a couple of boondocking sites. Boondockers Welcome costs about $30 and puts you in touch with locals that are happy for you to park up on their land. This may be farms or even larger properties. We are yet to try it out but we have heard good things.

We’ve also signed up to Harvest Hosts. This was a bit more expensive – about $70 – but it gives you details of wineries, breweries etc that are happy for you to visits and stay. Its proper to buy a bottle or do the tour, but you benefit from that anyway. We had a lovely stay at Grand Teton Distillery and were very happy with our potato vodka! You can also pay to upgrade and stay at golf clubs – some of which require you to actually play a round but many of which are just in lovely locations. It was on offer the day we signed up so we took the plunge. It looks as if Montana has several, so we’ll do our best to get around as many as we can!

This blog has some good explanations on boondocking that include dispersed camping options.

Camping with real Americans

Soren has a lesson in the mighty moose from Ron Swanson counterpart from Eagleton – Ron Dunn (look him up if you are not a Parks and Rec fan!)

We’ve also met some fascinating people in the free sites. There was a great volunteer ranger at one of our first free sites – Dan Harris (American’s always introduce themselves with both first and surname). He told us in his thick Utah accent , grey ponytail swinging, that we had met ourselves ‘a real hillbilly but not a redneck ’cause I don’t agree with Trump’.

Unlike the UK, the land belongs to the people and is just managed by the Government on their behalf. Trump wants to privatise this and Dan Harris felt it would be a loss to the people. He’s a hunter, but much of our chat was about the positive benefits of hunting to the eco-system – apparently hunting has increased the amount of wildlife in the area and, because of the cost of permits, funded improvements to the land. If the land is privatised, what will happen to it?

We showed good British interest in his stories and so he invited us to see the mounted head of the moose he’d shot in his living room. Apparently, it was quite a small moose but stuck up on the wall of a tiny living room, scattered with hunting magazines, it looked absurdly massive. On the opposite wall was an elk head, attached to a plank of wood wedged in a doorway so you couldn’t actually get through, and a deer head. There were pictures of cougars he had hunted (but deliberately not killed) and more elk. He said “elk was just about the best meat ever” and that he would have offered us some, but what he had left in his freezer was 2 years old and not as good as when it was first killed. I was pretty thankful for that. Guy was probably not! As we were leaving I spotted a gravestone on the floor – apparently it was his great-great-great grandmother’s headstone which he had salvaged from the churchyard. Yep, a true hillbilly!

RV camping with American creatures

Arrrgghhhh chipmunks…. far too much like squirrels (my nemesis)

We Brits don’t really have to worry about wildlife when we go camping. What’s the worst that could happen… a daddy-long-legs gets into your tent and casts weird leggy shadows everywhere? A dog escapes the confines of it’s leash and eats someone else’s picnic? Over here it is a bit more serious. We were merrily running around at our first camp in Utah, wading in the stream and building rafts from tall reeds, when a friendly camper came and told us she’d seen a couple of rattlesnakes in the grass so we should be careful with the kids. Oh, and we should also watch out for tics and poison ivy. Gulp!

Now we are up north in Yellowstone area, it’s less rattlesnake and more bear. I am very glad we have an indoors toilet and I don’t need to try and find the campsite one in the dead of night! Our biggest problem though is mosquitoes. We don’t have bug screens on the bus and if we camp in the woods we get them bombarding us. Tonight we are staying in the most beautiful spot in the Shoshone National Forest, a hop and skip away from the North East Yellowstone. We are near a rushing river backed by two huge, snow-capped mountains – again staying for free – but I can’t open the doors for fear of attack. I have literally been around the bus twice to wipe the blood marks from squashed mozzies off the walls. Oh the glamour of it all!

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America road trip Travelling chimps UKA2USA Skoolie

Can you still go travelling in your forties?

Like lots of people our age, our twenties and thirties followed a pattern: university, backpacking, move to the city for a cool job (usually undertaken with a hangover),  find partner, do some slightly more glamorous travelling, move in together, buy a house, get married and have babies. It doesn’t have to be in that order, ours wasn’t, but we ended up ticking all those boxes in a way that felt very spontaneous and exciting.  Whoop whoop we said as we toasted our forties, we are winning at life!

Then we hit 41.

This day…

Every time Google or Facebook reminds me of where I was 8+ years ago, I feel less enchanted by my set-up.

Cool travel jobs
In my thirties my job involved photo-shoots abroad and product testing supercars and spa days

Life is very different in your forties. Here we are, tick-tocking along in suburbia with kids ensconced in the school system, a mortgage, a car that we need to take the kids to their various after school activities, careers that we’d like to rethink, the occasional night out when the grandparents are available to babysit and a campervan trip every year to France. We laugh with the kids and we try to fill our weekends with activities. It’s a nice life and we know we are very lucky. 

The problem is that we’re bored with it. We seem to spend a lot of time doing stuff that I don’t consider to be fun, particularly when the weather goes all cold and grey.  I don’t want to go to Thailand and drink buckets of Sangsom and red bull, it’s not about going back to being twenty, but I also don’t want to wile away my days on Amazon choosing plastic tat for birthday presents or comparing household appliances. I don’t want the best part of my day to be a bargain in Aldi or the right combo of wind and sun to ensure a ‘good drying day’. Surely there is more to life?

An epiphany

Lightbulb moment - new idea

After our amazing family adventures in Scotland last year. We kept talking about how great it would be to jack it all in and travel with the kids, sending each other articles about families adventuring in the world and following family travel bloggers on Instagram.

Then it hit us….. why couldn’t we? What was actually stopping us from travelling the world?

Family responsibility

When we last travelled, in our early thirties we dreamt of staying away – living in different places for 6 months at a time. We couldn’t because we felt the weight of responsibility. My father had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers and was fading away from us, bringing a whole host of logistical challenges and heartbreak to my mum, sister and I.  At the same time, my husband’s brother was seriously ill and he needed , and wanted, to be around. Being away from the UK wasn’t really an option.

Jumping into Lake Atitlan whilst travelling
Short-lived freedom

The passing of both my father and brother-in-law overlapped with the births of our two sons. Now our responsibilities are our children. We need to ensure we make their childhoods the best they can possibly be – full of happiness, learning and experience. We also need to keep them safe and provide a secure home for them.

We are achieving all of those aims with our current set-up. The big difference, we’ve realised, is that we don’t actually need to be based in the UK for that to happen. Children can go to school anywhere and if we want to keep moving, we could in theory home-school them. Given the current challenges with UK education, taking the boys out of school could be a positive rather than a negative.

Financial responsibility

Travelling the world with kids costs a lot of money – we are not blind to this – but whilst we don’t have endless savings, we do have assets that can be leveraged. This is where the freedom years of our thirties bear fruit; the flats that we kept as rentals, our trusty campervan and our house. If we can make them pay, we can potentially cover our travel costs. 

Of course when you leave your life behind, you potentially need to leave your stuff behind. But do we really need all the junk we have accumulated? Sometimes I look at all the kitchen appliances, the vases and plant pots, the nick nacks, pictures on the wall, the gifts we’ve received over the years that are not to our taste, the pinterest-inspired crafty things that I should never have tried to recreate and the bookcases full of other people’s stories and I feel weighed down by it all. How much of this do you actually need to live a good life? Very little I’m guessing.  Maybe a forced de-clutter would  be a good thing. 

Work is obviously an issue. A regular paycheck is a big reason to stay put. We can both freelance though, it just takes a bit of work to build contacts. As long as we have access to WiFi there is no reason why we couldn’t work from anywhere in the world and maybe a break would help us work out exactly what it is we want to do.  

This is starting to sound more do-able than not!

Fear of the unknown

Let’s take a reality check. Taking the kids out of school, relying on freelance  work, home-schooling selling all of our stuff, renting out our house, using up our savings to travel the world – it’s scary stuff that is not to be taken lightly. 

On the other hand, one thing I remember from times sitting in the hospital with my dad was that life is short and you can’t see what is coming. If you want to do something with your life, don’t delay it.

So what are the Travelling Chimps going to do?

Untitled-1We are going to research whether travelling in our forties with kids is actually do-able. We need to know that it is the right decision and not completely irresponsible.

We’re also going to stop buying so much unnecessary stuff, filling our house with things we don’t really need. Who knows – it might be that we need to put it all into storage so that the Travelling Chimps can go on a real adventure.