Sometimes, I sit in my lawn chair at night next to the campfire, and look at the big blue bus in my campsite spot—or wherever we may be at the moment—and I think: “Wow. This is all I own in the world.” Everything in the world that I have to my name is currently inside a 1975 International Harvester school bus, and really, we don’t have much. We bought the bus in Alaska and have driven it over 4,000 miles in 6 months, exploring the Yukon Territory, British Columbia, and the Pacific Northwest.
When deciding to become a full-time RV’er, a tiny house inhabitant, or even a minimalist in a standard-sized house, you really have to think a lot about what you own versus what you need. With five kids traveling with us (we have eight in total, but five are still at home), you have to consider their needs as well.
Clothing and Kitchenware
The first step is evaluating your overall needs. Rather than going through your stuff and trying to decide what you like and don’t like, grab only what you will need instead. For us, that meant picking out 7-10 days worth of clothing, to start. Every person has a 58-quart clear plastic bin with a different color lid. In each bin goes the clothing for each person: shirts, pants, undies, socks, hair rubberbands – whatever. Once a bin is full, you’re done—everything else gets donated.
Each of us gets one heavy coat and one set of boots. We put them in a large utility bin near the door of the bus, and since we traveled through Canada from October through November, we used them often. Every child gets one bin of special toys. Believe it or not, this has actually been consolidated to one Lego bin and one big bin of toys, but that’s how we started, and we donated everything else.
Kitchen stuff was hard. We have an outdoor kitchen, so we kept cast iron pans and enough plates, bowls, and utensils for everyone to have one. Everyone also has one cup, except for mommy who has a coffee cup and a wine glass. Don’t judge. Sometimes I miss the Kitchen Aid mixer and Cuisinart, but I’ve gotten over it.
One set of sheets, blankets, and towels for each person. This means we have to be very conscientious about drying things, and if someone gets sick—which has happened a couple of times since we moved into the bus—it means that we have to visit a laundromat straight away or someone sleeps cold!
We may be off grid, but technology is our friend. We all have our own Kindles, tablets, laptops, or whatever and can watch movies, read books, and do school work (even me) on them. This reduces the amount of workbooks and paper books we keep in the bus, although we do have about five milk crates full and a school bin filled with activity books, paper, and other supplies. I can’t imagine how many we would have if we didn’t have Kindles and laptops to use.
Find resources outside the home. We go to local libraries all over the place, and will often hang out there instead of just checking things out and going home. The kids play with the toys or puppet shows and I’ll read magazines I would never buy normally, or parts of books I want to read. It’s nice to clean up and go back to the bus having had a lovely afternoon as part of the community, but without anything to sort (or lose) afterwards. The amount of items you can lose in a 200-square-foot school bus is truly amazing.
Eat simply. We have learned to eat simply by eating well. We have lots of variations on salads, tacos, and vegetable bakes, and although we still order a pizza or go out for Chinese food once in a while, we have way more fun sitting around a campfire and hanging out while Daddy cooks (he volunteers, I swear). We do have one new tradition where we go out to Sunday breakfast every Sunday; something we can now afford since we don’t have a house payment or a high food bill.
One of the biggest benefits to living in the bus—or any tiny home, I would imagine—is that you really have to think about what you buy. Is it going to fit in the bus? Do we want to make room for it? Is it that important? At Christmas, for example, I couldn’t just buy the kids a bunch of stuff and put a bow on it. I usually like to use Christmas as an excuse to get the kids all the sorts of stuff I normally won’t buy the rest of the year, but this last Christmas was different. We determined a budget and a limit for the amount of items each kid could have. Four presents (for us) seemed to be the best, plus stockings. We actually came up with a sort of rubric: determining the biggest thrill, when the present thrill lags off, time to put items together, and of course, what the kids wanted.
When I asked the kids what they really wanted for Christmas, they really only had a couple of things in mind. All of them wanted to go out for dinner (something we never do, especially at Christmas) and all of them asked for experiences rather than stuff. So, it was fairly easy to put together a thrilling Christmas morning that fit in the bus!
While becoming a minimalist can be difficult, we have gained so much in return. I, personally, have gained hours in my day by only having to clean a tiny space. If I can get all the kids outside, it takes me about 30 minutes to clean the bus front to back, including sweeping and shaking out the rugs. Love that. Living in the bus has made me more organized. Everything has to have a place in the bus or it’s in the way. We have only a small aisle through the center in which to walk, so the bin and milk crate system is fantastic—but only if everyone puts their things back every time. This, in turn, is a great lesson for kids.
Quality over quantity has become a common phrase. We don’t like to buy more stuff, but when we finally decide on something, we try to buy a high-quality item that we know will last. I also find that our lack of stuff, and the need to clean it and put it away, has given me, (as the mom), more time and less stress overall. I have been able to head out the door with the kids on a daily field trip, confident that I’m not leaving behind some hidden chore I’ve forgotten about.
I won’t lie, though: there are some days, like long, cold, below-zero days in Fort Nelson, B.C., when we were stuck in the bus for a few days at a time. There were minimal activities, we had little cash (because we had to spend a fortune to heat the bus), and we were starting to get on each other’s nerves. Days like that will make you wish for a 2,500 square foot house all day long.
But we go through and we continued down the road and still enjoy each day. I have a few wishes for the bus, like a taller kitchen counter, for one, and an oven, but we’ve lived without both for six months, so I know they’re not urgent. That’s likely the biggest lesson that we have all learned: just what is essential and what’s not. Family, fun, and bean bag chairs for under the loft bed (the kids chimed in) are very essential. Lots of plastic toys, not so much.
Photos by Michelle Kennedy Hogan