Real freedom: RV retirement

Bernice and Mogens Jensen couldn’t be happier. If you paid them a visit in their little home and saw them curled up on the couch together, you’d be as likely to think of a couple of Beatrix Potter characters living in a tree trunk as two adults in the midst of retirement. And little is definitely the operative word when it comes to describing their home: the Jensens’ tree trunk sits on four wheels and measures exactly eight feet by 21 feet (2.4 metres by 6.4 metres), providing them with a total of 168 square feet (15.6 square metres) of living space. To put that in perspective, the average one-bedroom apartment runs anywhere from 700 to 800 square feet (65 to 74 square metres).

Amazingly, it’s a space that contains not only two adult human beings but a kitchen, bathroom and dinette, as well as a seating area with two easy chairs and a fold-out chesterfield where the Jensens sleep at night. All this in addition to a driver’s cab Bernice and Mogens can climb into any old time they want and move everything they have down the road to any old place they choose.

“People ask us if we don’t get tired of looking at one another or bumping into each other in such a small spa,” Bernice says. “But we don’t find that at all. We love it.”

Husband Mogens concurs with a smile. “I’ve never been happier,” says the retired denturist.

It’s not like Bernice and Mogens aren’t used to having more space or more stuff in their lives. Before they bought their 21-foot (6.4 metre) Sterling recreational vehicle in the spring of 2001, they lived in a house on Vancouver’s fashionable West Side. But then their three kids grew up, retirement came knocking, and the Jensens found themselves staring down what looked like a dead-end road. 

Keep boredom and expense at bay
“You hear a lot about people retiring and getting bored with life,” says Bernice. “We decided we wanted to do something different and exciting. We’d always loved camping and travelling, but travelling is so expensive so we decided to do this instead. It’s a lovely way to travel because you have everything you need with you. You never have to go into restaurants, and you get to sleep in your own bedding with your own pillows.”

These days, home base for the Jensens when they’re not actively exploring is the Peace Arch RV Park, located near the Canada-U.S. border just south of Vancouver. It’s one of those places you drive by, see all the vehicles parked cheek to jowl and think to yourself, How can people live like that? As it turns out, the vast majority live there very happily. And, of course, the beauty of it all is they can pull up stakes any time they want and take off down the road with all the comforts of home attached — and they do so with fair regularity. The Jensens spent their first year of RV living visiting relatives in Saskatchewan and followed that adventure with a trip to the Yukon and Alaska. By the time we ran them down at Peace Arch, they’d just returned from wintering in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

Next page: You can spend how much on an RV?

Unusual though they may seem, the Jensens are hardly unique. There are an estimated one million RVs beetling around North America at any given time and, according to Ernie Hamm, executive vice-president of the Recreational Dealers Association of Canada, business in both new and used vehicles is booming: dealers in Canada alone did $2.5 billion in sales in 2001. These sales are being driven by the arrival on the retirement scene of the baby boomers, many of whom have been encouraged to satisfy their wanderlust at ground level following the devastating events of 9/11. Canadians tend to be snowbirds, fleeing south in winter to escape the cold, while American sunbirds head north in summer to avoid the blazing sun.

How much was that again?
As for RVs, they come in as many shapes and sizes as the people who own them. Tent trailers and campers selling for a few thousand dollars mark the entry level, but the sky’s the limit. Motorhomes in the 40-plus-foot (12-plus-metre) range and containing more amenities than Air Force One are available for anywhere from $200,000 to more than half a million dollars. Many feature electric pull-outs, sectional pieces that expand the floor space sideways once you’ve got your rig parked. And while it’s true RVs are gas-guzzlers, aficionados argue that the savings realized by carrying your bedroom and kitchen on your back more than compensate for the shock you get at the pump.

According to longtime RV enthusiast Peggi McDonald, temporarily anchored at the Spring Lake RV Park in London, Ont., there are two types of RVers in this world: part-timers and full-timers. Most are part-timers. They retain a fixed abode and own an RV, spending anywhere from a few weeks to six months or more a year on the road, visiting relatives (driveway camping), escaping winter or just meandering about the continent. Peggi and husband, John, are bona fide full-timers and have been for the past 17 years. They retired from the Canadian military in their 40s, bought their first rig and fell in love with the lifestyle. And despite having no fixed address in the literal sense (for tax and other reasons, you must have some place for the mail to go), Peggi operates a website for RVers ( and writes books — Spirit of the Open Road (We Publish! 1997, $19.95) — and magazine articles about the tumbleweed lifestyle.

The McDonalds currently occupy a $180,000 38-foot (11.6-metre) Winnebago Luxor diesel engine pusher (with the engine in the rear) with all the bells and whistles.

It’s not all asphalt
“You don’t spend all your time driving,” Peggi says. “You drive some place and drop anchor for a while, make some friends, play golf, tour around and then move on, maybe across the country, maybe just a hundred kilometres or so down the road.”

As a rule, you cannot just park your rig and set up camp any place you please; most jurisdictions simply won’t allow it. As a result, most folks stay in RV parks, and these are many, varied and plentiful in number.

If you settle into an RV park by the month, you can expect to pay anywhere from $300 to $500 for your pad, a fee that will get you water, electricity and cable TV. Daily drop-in rates are usually in the neighbourhood of $30 a night.

Being sociable types by nature, most RVers belong to some type of club such as Good Sam, Escapees or the Family Motorcoach Association. Members frequently travel in caravans, meeting up at pre-selected RV parks, renewing old friendships and making new ones.

Like most full-timers, both the Jensens and the McDonalds have no idea when they’ll turn in their keys and say “so long” to the open road. The Jensens eventually plan to retrieve their furniture from storage and retire to some kind of fixed abode, but Peggi McDonald says that when their time comes, she and her husband plan on parking their Winnebago under a tree and putting their feet up. As for which tree that will be and where it’s located, that remains to be decided.