This article is by staff writer William Cowie.

The era of spending unending retirement days on a golf course in plaid pants and interminable games of bridge with the blue-rinse set seem to be on the wane. Younger people are looking for more adventure, with more activity … and lower costs. Few strategies deliver like (of all things) the recreational vehicle (RV) retirement lifestyle.

A few years ago, my wife and I got a glimpse of it in the most unexpected of places: the I-10 freeway somewhere in the vast, empty desert that is western Arizona. Interstates out there tend to be lonely, and the driving boring, except when you do “desert multitasking” — keeping your eyes on the speedometer while scanning the roadside for black and whites. You can imagine our surprise, then, when, far out in the nothingness, we began encountering more and more traffic — slow traffic. Soon, we were down to around 50. The culprits? RVs of all sizes and descriptions, from old school buses done up in vivid hippie colors to snazzy million-dollar mobile mansions, towing a double garage’s worth of luxury vehicles. Every turnoff brought more. On a rare chance to see ahead of us in the relatively fast lane, we could see them: an endless phalanx of behemoths, as far as the eye can see, all trudging west. What was up?

Our answer came when we passed the exit for Quartzsite. The freeway after that exit cleared up like fog before the hot desert sun, and then we saw the oncoming side of the freeway, solid with another crawling phalanx of big white ants, this group trundling eastward. When we got home, we googled Quartzsite and discovered that the sleepy town in the middle of nowhere has a population of just over 3,000 in summer, when temperatures can hit over 120 degrees. In winter, though, that population swells to around 400,000 every year. Excuse me? That’s almost as large as Miami, Oakland, Omaha or New Orleans, according to the latest census numbers. A sliver of exaggeration may have slipped into that number, but there’s no doubt that the real population is quite large.

Who can stay in the desert for months at a time?

Retirees, that’s who. Their numbers are growing as the Baby Boom population reaches retirement age. According to national media like the “New York Times” and “Forbes,” two main reasons fuel the growth of the RV retirement lifestyle:

  • a desire to capitalize on the freedom retirement brings from the fetters of highly structured careers, and
  • its surprisingly low cost.

I decided to interview Mike to get an up-close glimpse into the RV retirement lifestyle. He sold his house last year, bought a motor home, and hit the road with his wife.

One person’s observations may not be representative of the overall phenomenon, but they are real and they offer an insight many of us would never have gotten another way.

Here is what I asked Mike about, along with what I learned from his responses.

1. Finances: RVs can be had for anything from $3,000 to $3 million. The models people live in tend to go from around $40,000 to over $200,000, depending on age and features. Mike and Karen bought theirs used for just over $50,000, less than the equity most people have in their homes when they retire.

Then they joined what amounts to a campground chain called Thousand Trails. Mike: “There is an up-front/one-time fee of $4,900 to join and fees/dues of $499 per year. We can stay in the campgrounds for up to 21 days and move to another campground and start over. There are campgrounds all across the U.S. The campgrounds have full hookups and facilities with WiFi, etc. There is no daily fee for the stays as they are covered in the yearly dues. During the stays, we visit the area around and take in the culture and sites of that area. With the motor home getting nine to 10 mpg, staying somewhere long term is a help. We tow a Toyota Matrix that gets 31 mpg so that is how we save money on fuel. In retirement, we have an income of almost half of what we made prior and we seem to have more money. There is no rent or utilities.”

2. Preparation: Few people embrace the RV lifestyle for retirement on a whim. Most who do it grew up camping with their families or took up camping along the way. Mike, again: “What we are doing is called ‘full-timing’ and my parents did it for 12 years. I have been wanting to adopt this lifestyle for as long as I can remember. We lived in Texas for 35 years and vacationed in Colorado every other year. When I retired from my job in Texas, I wanted to move to Kansas City. After 5 years in KC, I got the opportunity to move to Denver, where I always wanted to live. Six years later and on the third retirement, we got the motor home and started to travel.”

3. Challenges: According to Mike, phones and Wifi have been the biggest problems in most of the campgrounds. They discovered they need a smartphone for its hotspot capability and bandwidth, because most campgrounds do not have good WiFi at the actual sites. You have to go to their office to get Internet access, which prompts many to get smartphones with 4G and hotspot capabilities. They cut the cord and use Internet-streaming for their TV-watching, which “eats up the gigs,” as they quickly discovered.

Another challenge is space. By the time you retire, you are likely to have accumulated a lot of stuff (or “sh-tuff” as someone said, correcting herself mid-word). Karen is the packrat, while Mike found himself eager to get rid of things. The compromise is a storage unit “somewhere,” for the day when the RV lifestyle will end … which it usually does at some point.

4. Pleasures: Isn’t that what retirement is all about — being able to do the things you want to do? Back to Mike: “Our main desire is to see places we have not seen and to revisit our favorite places, spending more time where we stay and really see, not just look and run. We learned this while … visiting Estes Park, experiencing the place and meeting the people. It was so much fun coming back to a place and having people greet us by name and us knowing their names. Being able to bless and being blessed.”

Their family grew, too. “While we were in Lake Whitney, Texas, we found a female cat under our RV. So we checked around and found that she belonged to no one. We had a vet check her out and found out she is about 8 months old. Shots and spayed, and now she is a part of our family. We named her Whitney. She has become our joy to watch and love on. We have talked to other RV’ers who have cats and they say that after time their cats adjusted and traveled without any problems. It is amazing what joy a little four-legged animal can bring to a family.

“We enjoy the freedom and people we meet. I am very outgoing so I am in hog heaven. Karen likes her (spiritual time on the Internet) and walking and listening to me visit with others.”

5. Downsides: Not all is moonshine and roses. “Least enjoyable is dumping the holding tanks and driving in cities. We try to plan a route that takes us around big cities. This may be hard when we go to the coast in Southern California. Another problem was finding a doctor that we like. While in Colorado, we had Kaiser. Now our mailing address is Texas, where Kaiser has no coverage. We finally found a great doctor in Fort Worth and love her.”

As I said above, this is one person’s view and experience, but it does offer a glimpse into something you may not have considered for your retirement.

Have you given any thought to what you want to do when you retire? What do you expect your version of retirement to cost?

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