Boat vs RV Life: How to Know Which is Best for You
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Traveling by RV or boat allows you to explore with the convenience of taking your home with you.
Every year in the U.S., more people are interested in living an alternative lifestyle to travel with their home. Terms such as “going tiny” and “off-grid living” are more common than ever.
Below are the specific areas we will explore as they relate to traveling by RV and sailboat.
- Size & Space
- Weight Capacity
- Off-Grid Living
- Visiting Family/Friends
- Learning Curve
Here are our comparisons of the boat vs RV lifestyles after a year of full-time RVing and two years as liveaboard cruisers on a catamaran.
Size & Space
Space is a big concern when you’re traveling in your home. Will there be enough? What about storage space?
More space can also equate to more cost. Here’s the rundown of space in an RV and on a sailboat.
Storage & Living Space
Despite the relatively small space of most RVs, they make great use of storage and living space. Here are a few examples:
- tons of cabinets and drawers
- Murphy beds
- couches and dinettes that convert to beds
- over the cab storage/bed
- swivel cab seats
- under the bed and under-seat storage
- basement storage you can access outside under the rig
- many newer models have outside storage you can access from the inside
Because RVs are box-shaped, they efficiently maximize space in a way boats don’t.
The nice thing about traveling in an RV is the outside can become part of your living space. Having a comfy outdoor setup for your camping spot can make it an extension of your indoor space.
Width & Length
With an RV, there is a width limit of 8.5 feet wide. Because, after all, you still have to take this thing down the road. Some RVs come with electric slides that allow you to make the rig wider when parked. Keep in mind these add to the rig weight and require maintenance.
As for length, the longer you go, the more space you’ll have. It also means driving a bigger rig and fewer options when looking for campsites at parks and resorts. Space is always a trade-off.
In most situations, a sailboat is going to be bigger than an RV. For us, living on a catamaran, it’s definitely bigger.
Still, you’ll discover sailboat storage is not as convenient as the RV. You’ll contort yourself to all sorts of positions to retrieve things from under berths and deep in outside lockers. You’ll also find you need so many more tools and spares on a sailboat. When you look around, you’ll realize most of your storage is filled with things to operate or maintain the boat.
You also have to think about how you store things on a boat. What if there’s a leak in the storage locker? It’s going to get humid in there as well, and a dark place is a perfect breeding ground for mold.
On a monohull sailboat, most of the living space is inside the hull. It can be cozy on boats under 35 feet.
There are two hulls on a multihull (or catamaran) sailboat and a bridgedeck between. This creates more indoor living space. A catamaran will also have a lot of outside living space due to its wide nature. This is why multihulls are usually twice the price of monohulls of equivalent length.
Headroom is also lacking on any type of sailboat. Since Ross is 6’3, we were always taking note of the headroom in various areas of boats we viewed.
OVERVIEW: RVs make good use of the space they have. Sailboats tend to be bigger and have more storage compartments, but they aren’t always easy to access.
Weight capacity is often overlooked when shopping for the right home to travel in. RVs and sailboats can be weight sensitive impacting the cargo and resources you can carry.
Weight is a significant consideration in an RV. Most RVs are built pretty close to their GVWR when they come out of the factory. This means the manufactured RV weight plus a full gas tank and engine fluids is close to its max weight (GVWR). The GVWR includes all cargo, water tanks, propane, gray or black water, and the persons in it.
Weight is also a concern on a sailboat and definitely on a catamaran. Because catamarans sit on top of the water more than in it like a monohull, they sail better when lighter.
We have a lot of storage room under our port berth, but the hefty house batteries also live there. We don’t add any other weight in that area despite having space.
OVERVIEW: Most RVs are built close to their max weight, which won’t allow you to pack them full. Monohull sailboats can take a lot of weight. Catamarans are weight-sensitive and can underperform if over packed. On average, you will be able to sail more weight across the water than you can pull down the road.
When we talk about living off-grid, there are a few things we think about.
RVs come with many different size tanks. The bigger the fresh water, gray and black water tanks, the longer you can stay off-grid or ‘boondock‘ in your RV. However, RV tank size is usually relative to the size of the RV. A 40-foot class A motorhome has big tanks. Still, this limits parking off-grid due to the rig’s undercarriage clearance.
Small class C motorhomes have come on the market recently that feature larger tanks. These same motorhomes usually come prewired for solar. They are targeted to customers who want a smaller profile RV for access to more remote campsites.
Off-grid features such as composting toilets and lithium batteries are also becoming more popular.
On a sailboat, living off-grid for an extended amount of time is more attainable. There’s more storage space for batteries and solar setups. Plus, boats can take more weight. The marine environment allows for setups for wind generators and hydro generators. You can get rid of waste off-shore. You don’t need to worry about grey tanks, and with the right equipment, you can make your own water.
OVERVIEW: RVs are more restricted on space and weight. This means smaller tanks and less room for power generation. On a boat, you can install a watermaker.
Everything is relatively easy to access in an RV. You can easily park most rigs in a Walmart or grocery store parking lot. Depending on the length and height, you can get into or under most places. The ability to have a car is a perk of RVing. So when you have your campsite set up, you can venture out without tearing everything down. If you have a trailer, you have a separate vehicle once you unhook the RV. With a motorhome, many folks will pull a tow car or a “toad.”
When you are on the water in a large vessel and need to get to land for any reason – provisions, laundry, parts, appointments – it requires quite a bit of planning. You might have to:
- Make a reservation at a marina
- Find an anchorage with an accessible dinghy dock
- Rent a car
- Book an Uber, taxi, etc.
- Wait for good weather
All this to get to your destination and then reverse the process, sometimes with many bags in tow.
OVERVIEW: Being on the water limits where you can go. Getting places in a sailboat requires more planning and may be impacted by the weather.
In an RV, you are driving down the road. You can cover hundreds of miles in a day if you choose.
Driving an RV is more intense than driving a car due to its size, windage, etc. Five to six hours on the road daily was about the max for us.
For the most part, driving an RV is not relaxing or too exciting. I should note that I don’t love driving and really didn’t like driving the RV.
Driving a big RV, especially in traffic, requires every bit of your full attention. Features such as side cameras, sway bars, and stabilizers can make it easier to see and keep your RV sturdy.
Travel on a sailboat is either going to make or break your experience. Living and traveling slow can be extraordinary, but it has its pros and cons.
Moving the boat is definitely a big part of the whole experience living aboard. I enjoy cooking underway and getting boat chores done. If Ross is at the helm, he will often yell to me to come outside and see something – dolphins, bald eagles, or just a gorgeous view on the water. It’s usually more hands-off than driving an RV down the road. You can turn on the autopilot and cruise while staying alert of what’s around you.
The weather plays such a massive part in how the experience plays out each day. It can be all highs or (to be candid) an absolute nightmare.
It can’t be overlooked that one of the most appealing things about a sailboat is traveling by the power of the wind. There’s something freeing about traveling this way, and it’s one of the big highlights of the lifestyle.
OVERVIEW: Travel time in an RV is pretty uneventful compared to a sailboat. Traveling by boat is more than just getting from point A to point B; it’s a huge part of the lifestyle.
Despite moving your entire home, RVs are relatively easy to pick up and go.
Most things are easy to access. Groceries, fuel, etc., can be found along the road.
Finding Places to Stay
When on the highway, you can usually find a campground, Walmart, or Cracker Barrel parking lot along the way to park for the night. We typically make plans for the night along the road.
If you want to be in a specific spot or park for certain nights, that can be a different story. Some state and national parks fill up months in advance. Some resorts can be full in high-season as well. If there’s somewhere you absolutely want to stay, you should book in advance. But if you’re going to wing it, you can almost always find something.
If you have a smaller rig, you can sometimes fit into “tent” campsites. We were allowed to do this a few times at state parks where we wouldn’t have had a spot otherwise.
Moving a sailboat requires more planning – weather, routing, etc. If ‘Plan A’ doesn’t work out, you’ll need a backup plan.
If you plan to head to the dock, calling a few days in advance is usually on most of the east coast. Florida in high season is another story, as well as making plans for the hurricane season.
Accessibility isn’t a characteristic of boat life. Getting freshwater, provisions, fuel, etc., usually requires thinking a few days ahead.
Depending on where you are, you might need to plan for bureaucratic requirements as well.
OVERVIEW: On average, traveling on a sailboat requires more planning than an RV. However, when traveling in the high season on either, you’ll need to plan for campsites and dockage.
Our experience with RV maintenance wasn’t too bad. In hindsight, it seems minimal after living on the boat. Our list was a whole lot shorter – pages shorter. And at times, having only 3 or 4 minor things that needed fixing.
For perspective, our RV was only a couple of years old when we bought it, and our boat was 14 years old. But we still had to change the oil, check the engines, grease things, etc. RV maintenance costs were also a very small fraction of what it costs to maintain a sailboat, even if you do your own boat work.
I cannot say enough about how different sailboat maintenance is from RV maintenance. The time and money are so much more than you will think on a boat.
A sailboat is fighting the elements daily – from the salt air and seawater to the sun exposure and wind. Everything is repeatedly beaten down. Your maintenance list will be long – always. It’s something you’ll get accustomed to.
For us, we take care of what absolutely needs fixing and slowly tick away at the things that aren’t immediate. This is how we manage the time and cost to keep the boat in shape while still enjoying the lifestyle.
OVERVIEW: Sailboats are exposed to the elements and will require more maintenance to keep things operational. On average, there are more systems on a sailboat that need to be maintained. Sailboat maintenance costs are much more than you’ll find with an RV.
A perk of having an RV is the ability to visit friends or family and take your home with you. You can park in their driveway, use power and water if available, and still have the luxury of having your own home.
Moochdocking (as it’s called) is nice for extra space on your visit. It might even allow you to visit longer, avoid sleeping on the couch, etc.
This is a huge perk for pet owners. We can easily take our cat with us in the RV — no worrying about finding somewhere for him to stay or boarding him.
It’s definitely harder to visit friends and family from the boat. To travel off the water, you need to find and pay for a dock or mooring. If you have pets, it can be even more complicated to find a trusted boarding facility. Don’t forget to factor in the cost of renting a car or buying a flight, or both.
We have made very few visits living on the boat. We have visited family that lives near the coast, but it’s still quite a bit of planning and costs. Docking the boat, packing (including the cat), and renting a car, all require preparation and money.
We have made other trips where just one of us travels while the other stays on the boat. We always find a dock since we aren’t comfortable being at anchor as a crew of one.
OVERVIEW: Visiting friends and family is much smoother and less cost prohibitive in an RV. Planning trips from the boat requires more planning and usually more funds.
When we started RVing, we didn’t have any experience. We bought something we thought we could handle, a 26-foot Winnebago motorhome.
After a few weeks of organizing and running through the systems, we were ready to head out.
Sure there are things to learn – like finding free places to park, finding dump stations, driving your rig, and setting up camp. However, it’s not hard to get on the road and start traveling. You can get better at the rest as you go along.
The learning curve of living on a sailboat is a different beast. It’s a real commitment if you are new to boats.
We did a four-day ASA sailing school course before deciding to live on a boat. Once we bought the boat, we spent a month going through the systems, organizing, and learning how things operated. A boat has many of the same systems as an RV, plus more, and is amplified on a catamaran.
It took us a few more months doing the following before we started cruising:
Diesel engines and the saildrives were something we had to learn from scratch. Being able to troubleshoot problems, especially engines, is a critical skill. On a sailboat, you are more likely to be out of reach of mechanics. And to be honest, sailboats just break often.
Anchoring and gaining confidence in your anchor is also something that takes time. I’ll never forget the first time we anchored. We were definitely nervous. But dropping your hook is a skill you can only learn by diving in head first! The more times you do it, the more confident you’ll be.
Only when we felt comfortable operating the vessel as a motorboat did we start using it as a sailboat. Learning to sail is a welcome and rewarding challenge among the other to-dos. And frankly, it’s a lot easier than boat maintenance.
OVERVIEW: The learning curve on a sailboat is much steeper than an RV. Learning to maintain and operate a boat will take more time and commitment. An RV will get you traveling faster.
The Biggest Difference Between RVing and Sailing
When looking at a boat versus an RV, the biggest differences between the two lifestyles is the learning curve and the extremes of living on the water.
You might have heard the saying, “the highs are high, and the lows are low.” Although this applies to RVing and sailing, there are big emotional and mental swings when you live on a boat.
When you’re living aboard, you are constantly aware of the safety of your vessel and its crew. The more experience you gain, the more confidence you’ll have in your decisions.
In an RV, the weather impact is usually minimal as related to safety. You also don’t need to worry about your parking brake malfunctioning. Luckily RVs don’t drag anchor!
On the flip side, there’s the reward of being on the water. Something about living on the water is magical — the views, the sounds of nature’s orchestra, and the self-sufficient lifestyle. The water environment is what makes this journey hard but also very special.
Whichever method of alternative living you choose, know your hard work will be rewarded! Both avenues are excellent ways to get out of your comfort zone and enjoy the experiences that accompany traveling with your home.
RV or Boat
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