Free wheeling: people who have turned buses into their full-time homes

We speak to people who have sold their houses, retired from the rat race and are living an off-grid life on four wheels

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As the sun sets over the lofty Beartooth Mountains in the US, Tawny McVay makes her final stop of the day on her school bus. After an eight-hour stretch behind the wheel, she is ready to head straight home and hit the hay – and she won't have far to travel.

That's because McVay, 35, is no ordinary bus driver, and this is no ordinary bus. She eats, works and sleeps on the converted 72-passenger vehicle, after spending only $25,000 (Dh92,000) on the unique home. She is joined on the renovated "skoolie" by husband Mike, 32, children Aidyn, 16, and Ellery, 14, and their 60 kilogram Great Dane, Apollo.

I could never go back to staying in the same place and living the same day over and over again

"We had everything you're supposed to aspire to," says McVay, who is from Montana. "We had a successful gym business, we had new cars, a big beautiful home, the works. But instead of feeling satisfied we just felt trapped."

In 2016, the couple took a trip to Rome, where they caught the travel bug and after returning to America they decided they couldn’t continue with their conventional lifestyle. Instead they sold their home, their cars, their business and all of their possessions and bought a $5,000 school bus, which they spent another $20,000 and 12 months transforming into their dream home on wheels.

Since June last year, the family have travelled around America in their portable home, making money as writers on the road, while homeschooling the children. "The sense of freedom we have now is incredible," says McVay. "I could never go back to staying in the same place and living the same day over and over again."

The McVays's Great Dane, Apollo, lives on the bus with them. Courtesy Tawny McVay  

The bus is powered by solar energy and batteries, and despite living off-grid, the couple aren’t against the odd mod-con. “We have teenagers to entertain,” McVay, says, with a laugh. “So yes, we have a 40-inch television, we have a PlayStation, laptops and all the kitchen appliances you need for a family.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s all fun and games. “Living in a small space with adolescents can be difficult,” she admits. “There are times we all want to kill each other and there’s nowhere to escape.

“There’s also all of the practical stuff like emptying the toilet and losing internet signal, but I’ll take that over bills and mortgages and stress any day.”

Eventually, the family plan to settle down on a patch and live self-sufficiently, but for them, returning to the daily grind will never be an option. “I no longer feel like I’m trapped waiting for my next vacation,” McVay says. “I’m now living a life that I don’t need a vacation from.”

Meanwhile, in Australia

"Skoolie" living is becoming increasingly popular across the world. In Australia, Marte Snorresdotter Rovik, 38, and her husband Jed Harris, 39, converted a 12-metre school bus into a cosy home on wheels. The couple now travel around the country full time with their two young children, Ellida, 5, and Embla, 2. They were planning to invest in a traditional property when they had a sudden change of heart, selling their home, their cars and all of their belongings and buying a dilapidated school bus for A$10,000 (Dh27,000) – all while Snorresdotter Rovik was pregnant with her second child.

“We didn’t feel like we were free,” says Snorresdotter Rovik, who is originally from Norway. “We were struggling to find the right home. Society was trying to push us down the traditional path but it never felt right for us. To cut a long story short, we thought instead of trying to get to a place where we have more money to get more freedom, we create a life where we need less money and we’re less reliant on living at the mercy of someone else.

“We just wanted stability, which is funny because we now live in a moving home, but we feel way more stable now.”

Don't wait for the right time to make a change, the right time is now

Their expertly designed bus is unrecognisable, with a homely living space, a kitchen complete with a full-sized fridge-freezer, stove and washing machine, a master bedroom with a spacious queen-size bed, an extra bedroom for the girls and even a bath and shower room. But it's taken a lot to get to this point. Harris gutted the entire vehicle himself, spending 18 months and A$30,000 rebuilding it from the ground up, installing solar panels and a hot-water system.

The family have been living on board for 13 months, with Snorresdotter Rovik working on the road as an online sleep consultant, and although it can be difficult to raise a family in such a tight space, Snorresdotter Rovik and Harris insist they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s been the best thing I’ve ever done. I can’t even imagine where we would be now if we hadn’t made this decision,” Snorresdotter Rovik says. “It’s brought us closer as a family and I don’t know if I can ever go back to renting or paying a mortgage. We’re changed people.”

The bus is now home to a homely living space, a kitchen complete with a full size fridge-freezer, stove and washing machine, a master bedroom with a spacious queen-size bed, an extra bedroom for the girls and even a bath and shower room. Courtesy Marte Snorresdotter Rovik    

So far the family have travelled all over Western and Southern Australia, as well as Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales, stopping in each destination for about eight weeks, and the parents insist that moving around is beneficial for their children, who are homeschooled.

“Embla knows no different,” she says. “We moved on to the bus when she was 18 months old. Ellida loves the bus and her confidence has really grown since we’ve been travelling around and she’s been able to socialise with other kids.

“When they get older we appreciate that we’re going to grow out of the space, and at that point we’ll park up somewhere and expand outwards, continuing to live off-grid, but I could never give up this freedom and go back to our old lives.

“If anyone else is considering trying a new lifestyle I’d urge them to go for it. Don’t wait for the right time to make a change, the right time is now.”

And in the UK on a double decker

For Adam Collier-Woods, the right time was seven years ago, when he saved a British double-decker from the scrap heap. The 49-year-old carpenter paid £4,500 (Dh21,000) for the crumbling vehicle, and a further £20,000 and six months transforming it into something spectacular.

With more than a million kilometres on the clock, the bus had travelled almost the equivalent distance of the Earth to the Moon, back to Earth, and then halfway to the Moon again. And it’s now unrecognisable.

The Big Green Bus comfortably sleeps six people and features a fully fitted kitchen and lounge, a cosy log-burner and a bathroom with hot water, and is now parked up on farmland in Brighton on England’s south coast.

“It’s been a labour of love and took way more money and time than I expected,” says Collier-Woods. “But it really is unique and I’ve never seen anything else quite like it.”

Adam Collier-Woods saved a British double decker bus from the scrap heap seven years ago. Courtesy Adam Collier-Woods 

During the recent coronavirus lockdown, he enjoyed lazy days on the deck and relaxing nights in the hot tub he installed nearby. And when he’s not donning the conductor’s cap himself, he rents the bus out as a holiday home in the Sussex countryside.

“I want everyone to be able to experience this lifestyle,” he says. “Life is more exciting on four wheels.”