Boat vs RV, which is better? Both offer the comforts of home and the joy of family travel, but they also have their differences.
It was after dark when we pulled into the campground in Middle-of-Nowhere, California. We were already frazzled, knowing we had broken our golden rule to, “Never land in a new place after dark.” My 10-year-old daughter Ziva knew instinctively to hurry and plug in the power, while the grownups deployed the camper’s stabilizers and hooked up the water. It had been a long drive from Arizona and we were ready to settle in for the night.
“Power is connected!” Ziva announced proudly.
“Great job baby! Let’s double-check it before we flip the switch,” I said.
The last thing we needed was a misaligned cable blowing our electrical system that night. As she lifted the outlet cover and shone the flashlight toward her handiwork, we both let out a scream. There, an inch from her hand, was a nest of black widow spiders. It was a miracle she had not been bitten. That close call reminded us, once again, to never break that golden rule about landing after dark. A rule, like so many others we use when traveling in an RV, which was created not on land, but at sea.
Our family has spent the better part of our children’s lives living in portable homes.
Lifelong travelers before kids, my husband and I took our daughters on adventures early and often. Ahava’s first road trip was from Monterey, California to Tucson, Arizona when she was two weeks old. Ziva took her first flight at just 4 days old. But when you love your kids AND your sanity, you quickly realize that traveling the traditional way—i.e. dragging your luggage and crying toddlers through airports and rest stops—can quickly drain the joy of travel right out of your life.
At the same time, staying anchored to one place was not an option for my gypsy soul, which meant we had to find more creative ways to travel.
When our daughters were 2 and 4, we moved onto the sailing catamaran, “Hakuna Matata.” My husband referred to that boat as, “My wife’s midlife crisis.” Little did he know, I was just getting started.
After Hakuna Matata, we added baby Samuel to the crew and traveled through most of the contiguous United States in RVs—first in a tiny, triangle pop-up and then a 27-foot, Jayco Jay Feather Ultra Lite travel trailer. Now our kids are 15, 13, and 9 and we recently returned to the liveaboard life on the Lagoon 450 sailing catamaran, “Dawn Treader.”
After all our years of experience on the road and waterways, I don’t pretend to be an expert on boats or campers, but I do have a pretty good idea of the pros and cons of these two family travel styles. While there are some obvious ways they differ, you might be surprised to learn just how similar they really are.
One of the first things you learn when living on a boat is also one of the first things you learn from full-time travel in an RV; close quarters means having a lot less stuff. While on the surface this is obvious, the reality is if you are prone to clutter in a house, it will follow you to your smaller, mobile home.
Because one of my superpowers is being able to fit anything anywhere—perfected from years of packing all the kids’ clothes, toys and snacks in one suitcase—I could sink a boat with stuff, if left to my own devices. Gratefully, my sweetheart is the opposite and helped me develop solutions for the minimalist lifestyle of both a camper and a boat.
My first, best advice is KonMari. Before we ever left our home in New Mexico to move onto the boat we turned to Marie Kondo’s brilliant book, “The Lifechanging Magic of Tidying Up” and her “KonMari” system. This is how we downsized. By following KonMari we figured out what sparked joy and only brought what we actually needed.
This was invaluable for life on the road and on the water. In both cases, having clutter around your counters is a recipe for disaster. When your home is in constant motion, anything lying around becomes a danger to you and your family. Which is why my husband’s number one rule for boats and campers is the same:
“A place for everything, and everything in its place.”
Nathan learned this from his own parents as their family traveled in an Airstream trailer back in the 60s, 70s & 80s, while his doctor-dad offered medical care to remote communities. They were a Fulltime Family—the popular community of people who live in RVs—before “Fulltime Families” were a thing.
All those bumpy dirt roads taught them the importance of putting things away every time you were done with them, or risk them turning into projectile objects. The kids and I have adopted this too. If we add something new to the camper or boat, something else goes to Goodwill. Having everything put away at the end of the day makes it easy to hit the road (or waterways) early the next morning which, of course, helps us honor our, “don’t arrive after dark,” rule.
There is nothing as humbling as discovering your sewage holding tanks are full and your kid desperately needs to go to the bathroom. Unfortunately, this is a scenario that has played out in both our RVing and sailing lives. The cruising lifestyle, both on land and at sea, requires you to spend a lot of time handling sewage and other things you wouldn’t give a second thought to in a land-based home.
The top 5 areas that require a lot more work in portable homes are:
How difficult these really are will depend on whether you plan to be tethered to campgrounds and marinas or if you prefer to be off-grid, anchoring, or boondocking.
Tethered: Marinas & Campgrounds
If you are using facilities, then boats and RVs are remarkably similar. At most marinas and campgrounds you can hook up easily to water and power (minus the occasional, deadly spider infestation).
In the sewage department, I think RVs are the winner, as most of the places we visited had a convenient sewer hookup right at the campsite. For marina sewage handling, either you have to move your boat to another dock with a pump-out station or the deckhand has to bring the pump-out equipment over to your slip. This setup has led to raw sewage on our deck on more than one occasion. Definitely a win for campgrounds in my book.
As for Garbage disposal, this is generally a win for boaters. Most marinas have bins close to the slips or deckhands that will gladly take your bag of trash away (tips encouraged). Campgrounds tend to have large trash bins situated a good hike away, to keep critters from campsites. Also, many campgrounds are slow to empty them, so your garbage run will lead to stinky trash bins, overflowing with garbage, and rummaging raccoons. An upwind campsite is always a good idea.
On the laundry front, it is pretty much a tie between marinas and campgrounds, where you can expect a long hike to and from the laundromat, overpriced washers and dryers, and unreliable functionality.
Bottom line: when comparing campgrounds and marinas, it’s a toss-up. If, however, you are interested in taking it off-grid, things get exponentially harder.
Off-Grid: Anchoring & Boondocking
As I write this, I am sitting on my boat at an anchorage in Mount Desert Island, Maine. My kids are asleep in their cabins and my German Shepherd is snuggled by my side. There is a loon calling in the distance and my sweetheart just brought me a steaming cup of coffee.
Even in the middle of a global pandemic, all is right with my world in this moment, away from it all. Our family’s home is an island unto itself and we could stay here for weeks if we needed to. We have had similar, magical experiences while boondocking in campers. The major difference is the setting (tropical islands vs. redwood forests, for example) and the length of time we can stay off-grid.
Water is the most pressing issue, as you can’t live without it. On this point, I believe boats come out ahead.
In an RV you generally have a freshwater holding tank of 20 – 100 gallons. How long you can stretch that for a family of 5 depends on how water frugal you are willing to be. We like to shower every day so we have never spent more than a couple days boondocking.
Most Liveaboard boats have larger water storage tanks. On s/v Dawn Treader we have four tanks with a combined capacity of 184 gallons. Our Jayco travel trailer had one, 42-gallon tank requiring us to stop somewhere with a spigot every few days (you can find these at campgrounds, national parks, and several other places in the US).
On a boat, when your tank runs dry you can pull up to a marina to fill up or you can use the miraculous invention called a “watermaker.” A watermaker literally converts seawater to fresh. Not every boat has one, but for those that do it is absolutely a game-changer.
The game-changer in the power department, which we only just discovered this time around, is solar. When we first lived on the s/v Dawn Treader, we mostly relied on marinas for power, but after we sold her and bought her back again we added 740 watts worth of solar panels, allowing us to truly cast off the bowlines and live off-grid for extended periods of time. While a solar setup is possible on an RV, we never added one to our camper. With less surface area on the roof limiting the number of panels you could add, plus the weight of the solar storage batteries, it just never made sense for us.
Finally, managing your own waste disposal while taking the road less traveled means planning ahead to avoid problems. Both boats and campers have holding tanks for sewage which have to be dumped periodically (our catamaran has three “heads” or bathrooms with three, 21-gallon tanks).
There is always the option to go to a campground or marina, but if you plan to stay off-grid, you will have to find a dump station for your RV, or “walk the dog” in a boat. “Walking the dog” is what cruisers call the act of heading the three miles out to sea required by law in order to dump the holding tanks. Far less pleasant than septic or sewer systems of land-based homes, but a small price to pay for the freedom this lifestyle offers.
Boat vs RV – A conclusion
A friend once said that her boat, without a watermaker and a daily shower, was more like camping, and ours was more like living in an RV. Which makes an important point; there are as many ways to live on a boat or fulltime in an RV as there are traveling families.
The tips I share here are based on our personal experience, but your adventure will look decidedly different.
That is the beauty of this lifestyle; you get to set up your life YOUR way, not the default way of the masses. A boat suits me better than an RV because I am called to the sea. But there is also a lot to be said for enjoying the freedom of the open road.
If you are finding the traditional ways of travel more trouble than they are worth lately, then consider exploring this world by boat or RV. Whichever you choose they offer the perfect way to rediscover the joy of traveling, while still enjoying the comforts of home along the way.
- 15 Campervan hacks you need in your life
- Sailing across the Atlantic Ocean
- A cross country cycling adventure
- How to avoid the most common family travel mistakes