Now that spring is upon us and we have officially survived our third winter of full-time RVing, we thought it might be time for a little good natured competition. Snowbird style! For those of you not keeping track, we spent our first two snowbird seasons wandering around the wild southwest, while this year we headed southeast for 16 weeks in Florida. These two sides of the country are very different, and consequently our RVing experiences varied widely.
We’ve complied a set of criteria that each side of the country will be judged upon. These criteria are based solely on our particular style of RVing and may not reflect the majority opinion of our fellow RVers (although if you try to argue with us about how terrible the bugs are in Florida…there will be a fight!)
One note before we begin: For clarification purposes – the southwest includes the states of California (the southern portion), Arizona & New Mexico, while the southeast includes only the state of Florida. Plenty of people spend the winter months RVing around some of the other southeastern states, but since we spent the majority of our time in Florida, that is the state we chose to focus on.
Okay…let’s get ready to rumble!
Bring on the Free Camping: As passionate boondockers, we love the massive amounts of free camping around the southwest. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, more rewarding than finding a spot of your very own way out in the boonies, where with nothing more than an array of solar panels, a couple extra jugs of water, a full fridge, and a strong cell signal to procure our Internet (hey, no one said anything about roughing it) you can live and be happy… all for free. Well, until the fridge is empty and black tank is full of course. For us, this is what living in an RV is all about.
Flexibility: The abundance of boondocking options ensured that we didn’t have to plan out our entire winter. If we wanted to simply float from one boondocking location to another all we had to do was point our wheels in the right direction. And when we did decide to stay in a campground, it was always nice to know that if we showed up without a reservation, there would be a site available in the overflow section. All of the public parks that we encountered around the southwest had large overflow parking areas. They weren’t always the most choice place to stay (ahem…Catalina State Park), but it was great to know that we had the option and didn’t always have to make reservations.
Mind your Manners: We never really had a truly bad campground experience in the southwest, but I guess if we had to pick something it would be the poor boondocking etiquette exhibited by some. From trash strewn campsites, excessive generator use, disrespect of our natural resources, and those annoying people who insist on parking closer then necessary, sometimes you wonder who taught these people their manners.
The State Parks! During our 16 weeks in Florida we camped at seven different state parks and thoroughly enjoyed every one. We can’t say enough good things about the Florida State Park system. From the friendly and knowledgable staff, to the scenic sites, clean facilities, and laundry (!) provided by most parks, we think that Florida has some of the best state parks around the country.
The Price Tag: Since we only stayed at public parks in Florida we have no basis for comparison in regards to private RV parks. But we can say for certain that the public parks in Florida are on average more expensive then the ones in the southwest. One reasons for this is that Florida state parks don’t offer a dry camping option. While we were usually able to save a few bucks out west by choosing a site at a public park with no utilities, all the state parks in Florida offer at least an electric and water hook-up, which naturally makes them more expensive.
*side note* There are some free or very cheap camping options around Florida in places such as the Ocala National Forest. Because we had specific places we wanted to visit (and family to see) we didn’t explore any of these options. While it would be difficult, and you would end up missing out on a lot of the state (specifically the coastal areas), you could potentially RV in Florida on the cheap.
No Dogs Allowed: While it wasn’t an issue for us this year since we are currently dog free, state parks in Florida are not in the least bit dog friendly. In some cases dogs are allowed on trails, but never, ever on the beach. Even at a campground such as Long Key State Park where the beach is essentially part of your site. As dog lovers we think this is really unfortunate, and down the road when (if) we have another dog it might prevent us from returning to Florida for an extended amount of time.
Mountains and Rocks Galore: We fell in love with the scenery of the southwest. As life long north easterners, we really had no idea that the mostly desert landscape around the southwest was so varied and beautiful. We hiked mountains, explored slot canyons, marveled at rock formations, and road our bikes down long sandy tracks.
Our Spiny Friends: Did you know that there are over 2000 varieties of cacti? While we didn’t even come close to seeing them all, we did enjoy discovering a wide variety of these interesting, if somewhat unfriendly, plants. We had fun learning their names, and got to see a large number of them sporting bright, colorful blooms last spring.
Sunsets: We challenge you to find a better sunset than the ones occurring nightly around the southwest desert. It’s a mystery as to what force of nature is behind this spectacular end of day ritual. All we know is that southwest sunsets are some of the best we have seen anywhere.
Tree Lovers Despair: Despite the surprising variety of desert plants, we did occasionally miss a good old fashioned tree. I still remember last spring when we arrived in the mountains of Cloudcroft NM after spending months in the desert. We were so happy to once again be surrounded by trees. No one is admitting to anything, but there might have been some tree hugging that week.
The Beach: Florida has some really, really nice beaches! Yes, there are beaches in the southwest. San Diego has a few that almost come close to rivaling Florida, but in the end Florida beaches win out hands down. We were particularly impressed by the beaches in the panhandle where the gleaming white sand and clear turquoise water never failed to amaze.
Lush and Tropical: If you want to surround yourself with palm fronds, brightly colored flowers, and trees dripping with edible fruit…go to Florida. If you enjoy all shades of green, colorful birds, and giant leaves…go to Florida. The botanical delights of Florida are a treat for the senses. We loved waking up every day with a palm tree or giant oak outside our window, and simply couldn’t get enough of the greenery that surrounded us on a daily basis.
Same is Lame: There are three basic scenery options in Florida: the beach, the scrub brush filled inland area, and the sprawling cities surrounded by gated communities. After awhile it starts to get boring. While there is only so much you can expect of a single state, we found that in general the southwestern states offered more variety in terms of landscape then Florida.
Give Me My Space!!! It doesn’t matter where you go in Florida, it all has a congested, over-developed feel. With the exception of the Everglades, and maybe a few spots smack in the middle where no one wants to live, Florida is severely lacking in open space. Honestly, it got tiring after awhile. We wanted to drive for more than 10 miles before coming upon another town, go for a long hike with not another sole in sight, or gaze out across the open land. In Florida none of these things is possible, and by the end of the winter we were left feeling a bit claustrophobic.
Hiking: We went on some amazing hikes in the southwest. Hikes where we climbed mountains with views for miles in every direction, discovered caves and old mining operations, shared the trail with giant saguaros, trudged alongside towering red rocks and deep canyons of flowing water…you get the idea. The hiking is the southwest is excellent.
Biking: We fall into the category of cautious (or maybe just smart) mountain bikers. We don’t usually go for the trails where your chance of procuring a head injury is greater then the chance of seeing some great scenery. We also don’t enjoy trails where you’re practically climbing a mountain with your bike. Which is what makes biking in the southwest such delight. We experienced some of our favorite bike rides in the county parks surrounding Phoenix. Sure, the spiny cactus lined trails give you extra incentive to stay on your bike, but the gentle curving paths and rolling hills provide the perfect balance of adventure and safety.
~The Bad ~
The Altitude: If you’re a sea level kind of person, hanging around areas of the southwest where the altitude can easily climb up to the 6,000-7,000 ft. range can take some getting used to. We never experienced altitude sickness, but we did notice a definite shortness of breath while out on the trail in some of the higher areas.
Watch Where You Step: The desert is full of things that are out to get you. Cactus, snakes, scorpions. Even the most innocent looking leafy shrub is secretly sporting sharp thorns. We were lucky that we never had a serious incident with any biting or stinging animal, but we did have a few thorny experiences. The desert is one of those places where you always have to be on your toes.
Beach Walking: Who doesn’t enjoy a nice stroll on the beach? If you enjoy walking along the shore with sand under your feet and the waves nipping at your toes, then Florida is the place for you. We made it a point to walk on as many beaches as possible.
Biking: While the biking in the southwest is quite a bit higher on the adventure scale, there is still some great biking to be found in Florida. For one, with zero hills, it’s EASY. For two, we were able to find biking trails at nearly every campground that we stayed at in Florida. We even did some beach biking at Grayton Beach State Park. We also biked around Key West, on an old bridge over gleaming turquoise water, and through an ancient hammock filled with giant cypress trees.
Getting out on the Water: Florida is a great place to get out on the water. Not only are you surrounded on all sides by ocean, but since the interior of the state is basically just one big marsh, you can’t go far without encountering a body of water. While we still haven’t pulled the plug and bought our own kayaks, we were able to borrow some while we were in the Keys, and had a blast paddling around the mangrove canals and through the clear, shallow waters near the beach.
It’s Sooooo Flat! With the exception of a few tiny rolling hills around the Orlando area, Florida is completely flat. Sure, this makes biking easier, but it also makes getting in a good workout a whole lot more challenging. We really missed hiking in the mountains during our winter in Florida.
Pay Up: It’s no secret that we enjoy free recreation. Partly because we try hard to maintain a sustainable budget and not act like we’re on a perpetual vacation. Usually it’s pretty easy because a lot of the stuff we like to do is free. Stuff like discovering new trails, hiking mountains, and riding bikes. We found that in Florida there was a lot of outdoor recreation that cost money. If you want to go snorkeling, take a ride on an airboat or a glass bottom boat, charter a fishing boat, or walk around a historic fort, you better be ready to break out the wallet. It’s not that we’re entirely opposed to shelling out a few bucks in the name of a good time, but in general when it comes to outdoor recreation, Florida seems to lean more toward the expensive side.
Sunshine: The southwest is truly the land of perpetual sunshine. We kept track one year and I think we went three and half months without seeing a drop of rain. All this sunshine is great when you’re depending on solar power, but it’s also good for maintaining a sunny disposition. I’m one of those people who feels gloomy after a few days of clouds, and let me tell out out in the southwest I never had an excuse for being in a bad mood.
Perfect Temperatures: During our two winters in the southwest we did a a pretty good job of avoiding excessive heat. The trick is to move around the area according to the weather. During the coldest months we visited the southern parts, and in the spring when the heat started to come on we moved north to higher elevations. We both prefer temperatures between 70-80, and found this to be a completely achievable goal.
Chilly Nights: With no humidity and a higher altitude than anywhere in the east, the nights can be downright chilly in the southwest. Those perfect daytime temperatures quickly plunge to a bone chilling cold that have you reaching for an extra layer, and sometimes even cranking up the furnace. The drastic difference between night and day temperatures can be hard on the body. And for those of us who enjoy getting out early for some morning exercise, at times it can be tempting to just stay in bed.
Consistent Warmth: Not all parts of Florida are warm all winter long. Try spending a winter in the northern half of the state and you’re practiallcy guaranteed some cold and probably even a few frosty nights. We avoided this hazard by going as far south as we could. During our three months in the Keys the coldest it ever got was that one week when temps dipped down into the 60s. For the most part, it was warm both during the day and at night. We happily donned shorts and sandals during our entire visit.
Bugs: Oh man, are the bugs terrible in Florida. We entered Florida from the east and spent about a month in the Panhandle where the mosquitos were annoying, but generally not too bad. Then we moved into the middle of the state where the bugs increased, but were still not swarming us in epic proportions. And then we hit the Keys and discovered no-see-ums. Or rather, they discovered us. Those tiny, pesky creatures will forever be on our list of hated species. For the first few weeks we were both covered in giant red, itchy welts. To put it bluntly, it was miserable. Eventually we learned to deal with the bugs a little better, but we never got over our hatred of those no-see-ums.
Humidity: If the onslaught of bugs wasn’t enough, we also had to deal with a whole lot of moist, sticky air. Humidity sucks. In addition to frizzy hair and sweaty body parts (ewww!) it also adds an extra challenge to living in small space. Since we both hate air conditioned air, and try to use it as sparingly as possible, we were left dealing with towels that wouldn’t dry, sheets that always felt damp, and a sticky film on our floors.
Spontaneous Gatherings: The last few winters in the southwest we had the pleasure of attending some incredible social gatherings. From large crowds in Anza Borrego and Quartzsite, to small intimate get togethers in places like Ajo, Phoenix, Tucson, and Albuquerque. It felt like everywhere we went there was someone new to meet. With so many opportunities for boondocking around the southwest, spontaneous large gatherings are not only possible, they are practically assured.
Long Distance: Since we originally hail from the east, spending two winters in a row in the southwest didn’t allow us to see many of the family and friends who we had left behind. We were lucky enough to have Tim’s mom visit us twice, but due to work and family obligations no one else could make the journey. And we can’t blame them. California and Arizona are a very long way from the northeast.
Family: Spending the winter in the southeast allowed us to have more family time then normal. We spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with family, and a few months in the Keys with my dad. Our position on the east coast will also allow us even more family time this summer and fall as we head north visiting family and friends along the way.
Missing Out: While we were over here in the southeast frolicking on the beach we missed a whole bunch of social opportunities in the southwest. Don’t get me wrong, we got to meet some incredible RVers during our winter in Florida. But hanging out for an evening at the campground or a restaurant is not the same as spending a week or longer camped next to someone in the desert. This lifestyle makes it hard to form close, lasting friendships. It’s easy to meet people, but not so easy to really get to know someone when all you have is a single evening followed by a possible second meet-up six months down the road. We felt like we didn’t really get the chance to develop those relationships in Florida. Due to the nature of fully booked campgrounds and the lack of wide open space for large gatherings, it’s nearly impossible for a group of RVers to spontaneously gather and camp in the same spot for an extended period of time.
And the Winner is…
Ummm…no one? Sorry to disappoint, but the truth is that after RVing around both the southwest and southeast we simply can’t say that one is definitively better than the other. I know, we are as surprised as you are. We obviously love the southwest, and when we decided to spend this winter in the Florida we honestly expected it to pale in comparison. I mean, how can a swampy state filled with retirees (no offense to all you retirees out there) and biting insects compare to our beloved desert? Let’s just say that Florida stepped up to the plate and fought the good fight. Despite its reputation for massive crowds and subdivisions, we were able to find some nearly empty beaches and lots of gorgeous campsites. We were also swayed by the weather that had us leaving windows open all night and keeping our socks tucked in the back of the drawer for months.
Yes, we missed hiking, and mountains, and rocks, and those amazing cactus. Yes we were sad that we missed out on some epic gatherings, and disappointed that we didn’t get to spend our third New Year’s in a row dancing in the desert. But we were also thrilled to spend time with our family, eat coconuts and mangos straight from the tree, and see some of the most gorgeous beaches our country has to offer.
In the end there is nothing left to do but declare this Snowbirding Smackdown a tie. I suppose the lesson is that no place is inherently better than another. If we’ve learned anything from our nearly three years of wandering around the country, it’s that everywhere is somewhere special. (But really Florida…must you have so many bugs?)
Fantastic article Amanda. We’ve enjoyed our winter out west, but we realize we didn’t move around enough. We stayed around Phoenix TOO LONG. We definitely had a very social time and had time to make some new friends, which has been fantastic. The beaches in Florida look amazing, but the bugs sound epic!!!
Happy travels up the East Coast.
Yeah, the Phoenix area can get old very fast. At least there’s not bugs though :)
I loved this post! I spent my first year of full timing on the east coast (though not as far south as Florida, I traveled up through the Outer Banks as far as Niagara) and my second year out here in the west. As I was reading this post, the thing that kept jumping out in my mind was the biggest factor for me, feeling like I was “missing out.” I just didn’t encounter as many like-minded full timers in the east as I have in the west. I am going to stay west for a while, but when I grow weary of the bloody red rocks and bloody limbs from the cactus, I know which blog I will turn to for a resource. ;-) Thanks for all the great intel this past winter!
We’ve definitely had that same feeling of missing out. Our last two years in the SW gave us so many more opportunities to connect then this winter did. Hope to be on the same side as you one day so we can meet in person!
Excellent smack down. After having spent many of our winters in Florida, we just experienced our first southwest winter. And have to agree.. each offer their own positive traits, and we concur with many that you listed. Although for us, we had huge extended convergences on both sides of the country (not as spontaneous as you get out west however, you have to do a little planning in Florida.)
The wonderful thing about our lifestyles is.. we can choose. The downside of our lifestyles is.. sometimes that choice is difficult, as each has compromises.
Hopefully one of these years we’ll all end up in the same general location and finally meet and hang out in person.
Yup, we love the ability to move around and never have to choose a permanent location. Whenever people ask if we’ll ever settle down our reply is always why? I am sure one of these days we’ll be in the same place :)
I enjoyed reading your comparisons. We’ve never wintered in the west, and probably won’t ever spend an entire winter away from the Keys. The ocean always draws us back. We’ve never had much of a problem with bugs in Florida and we lived here 30 years before going fulltime. Our site in the Keys doesn’t have the lush vegetation like you had here, so bugs are no problem at all. I don’t think I’ve felt or seen my first mosquito or no-seeum and the I might have seen a roach or two, but that’s it, and we’ve been here 5-6 weeks already. Of course we are looking for those “bugs” that you can eat…at least until lobster season is over in a few days.
It’s funny that you mention not having a problem with the bugs because my dad, who has wintered in the Keys since the 70s, is not at all bothered by them. I guess we are just especially tasty to those critters. I can totally understand not wanting to spend a winter away from the Keys. We loved our time there, and even casually looked at some property with dreams of maybe wintering there for good (I think they call this phenomenon the “Keys Disease”.)
Great summary! Your description of Florida really resonates with me and what we’ve experienced. Especially the part about the bugs. I’m covered in bites – you know you shouldn’t scratch, but you can’t help yourself :-)
Try tea tree oil diluted with coconut oil. It was the only thing I found that took away the itch and helped them heal. And resist the urge to scratch!
What a fun post! Haven’t yet wintered in FL but so many things (the bugs, the crowds, the flatness) sound unappealing to us that we’ve been reluctant to give it a go (plus all the family in San Diego). For now, the SW wins for us!
I am not sure we would have committed to a whole winter it the SE if it wasn’t for our families. But I have to say, those beaches really won us over.
So interesting that you had big bug problems. As fulltimers we’ve been forced back to Florida to winter for 5 years due to unforeseen circumstances and only two or three times have bugs been an issue. And those were nothing like what we found in upper MIchigan. We have been in Florida for varying lengths of time from November through March and have loved that we can camp in the woods and near the swamps without bugs. We’ve been to the Everglades several times but not to the Keys although we have friends who spend most of the winter there and rarely complain. Maybe the bugs just really like you guys. We’ve been to the SW and enjoyed it. Hope to get to spend the winter there one of the years. Fingers crossed. Although being away from the water is a tough number for me. That’s where I spend most of my time, in it and on it.
I guess there’s something about us that the bugs love :) I hope you can make it the SW one of these winters. While not as abundant as around FL, there are a surprising amount of small lakes and reservoirs for kayaking.
Well, having lived in Georgia for 60 years spending as much time as I could at the ocean, and never having been west, I have to say that winters are definitely better in the southwest. I do agree that the panhandle has the prettiest beaches, but absolutely enjoyed the beaches around San Diego so much that Joe had to drag me away!
What a cool post Amanda…
Hopefully we’ll be spending more time in San Diego next winter so I’ll have another chance to compare the beaches. While the one’s in the panhandle are gorgeous, I don’t think the weather in that part of Florida is nearly as nice as southern CA.
We spent time in both Florida and Arizona this winter and the winner was very clear to us…..the southwest! There is just no comparison for us; the people (other RV’ers, the weather, the landscape and activities. The only thing that might bring us back to the SE is family and food, you just cannot beat the seafood in Florida!
Oh yeah, I didn’t even mention all the great seafood we had in FL! But then again, we loved feasting on the green chilies in New Mexico.
Great article! And I was surprised at your conclusion – I was fully expecting you to go with the SW as the winner, just because I know you’ve really enjoyed your time there. Obviously we like FL in the winter, but we are considering spending some time out west next winter. One interesting thing – we just spent a week with Denny & Veronica (RV Outlawz) who also wintered in the Keys, and they were shocked when I mentioned to them that you had bug problems down there. They said they didn’t have any in Key Largo – maybe you were just in an unlucky/particularly buggy area? I don’t know. But funny enough, when they got to Cedar Key (where we met them), the noseeums were so bad they had to go buy a tent! Fortunately for us the noseeums were not bad the week that we were there. Anyway, glad you enjoyed your FL winter and if you ever do it again we should plan to spend more time together.
I was surprised too. In the end the beaches and the tropical flavor of Florida really won us over. We noticed that certain areas of the Keys have more bugs than others. D & V are in Key Largo which has much less vegetation then Big Pine Key (most of which is a wildlife refuge), or the state parks where we stayed. We also never noticed bugs in Key West. I hope you make it out west next winter so we can spend more time together!
Absolutely great and well-balanced comparison, Amanda. How fortunate we are as full-time RV’ers to be able to experience both worlds. We love the desert landscape, the hiking, and the great weather (and lack of bugs) in the Southwest, but we also love the gorgeous beaches, tropical vibe, incredible springs and rivers for kayaking, and unmatchable seafood in Florida. I’m just happy we don’t have to choose one over the other.
I couldn’t agree more. I really don’t want to have to choose. I love that we have the freedom to experience everything our country has to offer. Imagine how boring life would be if we lived in the same place all the time – oh yeah, we did that and it sucked!
I absolutely loved your post Amanda. Having spent a winter in Florida after spending the previous one in the southwest I have to agree. There are wonderful things in both places. We’re just now heading out for a year in the southwest and can hardly contain ourselves. Its so wonderful to be able to live this lifestyle and go where we please, to be able to make these comparisons for ourselves!
Amanda you have said it all for me. Like you we have wintered in SW AZ , last winter in Florida and this winter in Texas. And boy there are a lot of comparisons to make.
However, I am thankful that living in this lifestyle afforded us to experience both sides of the continent. But being a California girl, I chose the Southwest as the best place to winter, hands down.
This is a great post!
Amanda, this was my first time reading your blog. Enjoyed it so much. Your comparisons were fun to read. Next fall, my husband Kevin and I are planing our first long term (6 months) traveling from Rhode Island too Texas through North Carolina, Florida and then all the states in between to Texas.
Visiting friends and family along the way while seeing the sights. Any tips would be appreciated for GA; TX; and LA.
Also if you are traveling up the east coast, there are some nice dry camping sites on the water here in RI. Thanks again for a great article.
How funny…we had a very rough first winter in the SW (2012) when it snowed on us in Tucson and then our pipes froze in Benson, AZ. So we opted to spend the next winter in Florida (Cedar Key)…and while it was lovely (mostly) and our pipes didn’t freeze we just didn’t “feel it”. Then, this past winter we spent back in Arizona and let me tell you, it was like coming home. We have a new love for the SW and now that we have solar it’s even more alluring. I don’t know that we will ever choose Florida again for wintering…maybe a short visit…but that’s it. Nice write up. =)