#BUSLIFE: Is it difficult to drive the bus?

One of the biggest sources of anxiety, for me, when we first started thinking about building a school bus conversion, was having to drive the bus. Before buying the bus I had spent plenty of time towing trailers and had even spent a few hours behind the wheel of our friend’s school bus-turned-rafting-party-vehicle, but the idea of having a 38 foot “daily driver” was pretty daunting.

When we answered the Craigslist ad and met up with the previous owners to look everything over, I wasn’t fully expecting to have a chance to drive the bus around that day. Getting behind the wheel, seated next to a panel of buttons with flashing lights on the dashboard and alarms ringing was hugely intimidating. As we pulled out of the driveway, the previous owner (who had been truck driver in his working life) explained to me the basics of air brakes and the importance of breaking the habit of looking over my shoulder – rather, I should be looking through the array of mirrors outside the vehicle.

We made it down the driveway and onto the road with no major issues, but when it was time to turn the bus around to head back towards their house, I pulled into a steep driveway with a loud “BANG!” and quickly learned one of the limitations of a long vehicle: the back of the bus had bottomed out in the road – nowhere to go but backwards!

Eventually, we got the bus turned around. My second lesson in bus driving was about to commence as I learned that there was nowhere to turn the bus around at the house and we’d need to back it all the way down the 1/2 mile driveway into its parking spot. Challenge accepted! It took me a few extra minutes, but the owner’s tip about the mirrors was spot-on and we made it down the driveway in one piece without destroying the bus or any of their beautiful landscaping.

Alyssa driving through a downpour in Monument Valley. Driving the bus is tricky on its own, but becomes even more complicated when you're surrounded by beautiful scenery!

Alyssa driving through a downpour in Monument Valley, UT. Driving the bus is tricky on its own and becomes even more complicated when you’re surrounded by beautiful scenery, but keeping your eyes on the road is a must!

Since that first day behind the wheel, driving the bus has been a constant learning experience for both Alyssa and I. Once we’re out on the open road, things are usually very straightforward, but navigating through tight mountain towns can still be tricky. Here are a few tips that we’ve picked up along the way:

Mirrors are your best friend

One of the best features of the bus are the plethora of mirrors mounted on the outside. Sitting in the driver’s seat, it’s possible to see almost much everywhere, with the one exception of directly behind the bus. This makes changing lanes, backing up, and most parking surprisingly easy, once you get the hang of them. We installed a backup cam thinking that it would be our primary tool for maneuvering the bus in tight places, but the mirrors are really the bread and butter of reversing and parking.

Turn signals are key

With a big vehicle comes both big responsibility and big consequences if a mistake is made behind the wheel. When changing lanes and making turns, we are always sure to use turn signals. Given the size of the bus, other drivers are normally quick to get out of the way and clear a path once they see the turn signals go on.

Right hand turns are tricky

This is another lesson that we learned very quickly. The long wheelbase means that we have to take wide right turns. If we cut anything too close, the rear wheels easily hop up on any close curbs. This isn’t normally a huge issue, but would become a big problem if any signs, posts, rocks, or people were near the corner.

The back has a mind of its own

Something that’s definitely unique to driving a bus is constantly thinking about what’s going on with the back. There is so much vehicle behind the rear wheels that it can get wiley at times! We learned about the dangers of steep inclines on my first day behind the wheel when I bottomed out the back. The other major concern is side-to-side tail swing. Making a sharp turn in either direction can swing the back of the bus up to a few feet. This can be particularly dangerous in tight traffic situations with cars next to you in an adjacent lane or trying to make tight turns in parking lots or at gas stations. Gotta watch out for those cement pylons!

Getting the hang of it on our very first day on the road.

Getting the hang of it on our very first day on the road. We were very excited to discover that the built-in cup holder fits our preferred beverage container, the Nalgene, perfectly!

The controls aren’t as complicated as they look

One of the first things that people notice when they get on the bus is the huge panel of knobs and buttons to the left of the driver’s seat. This panel looks super intimidating, but in reality it doesn’t have much function. When the bus carried children, these controls mostly handled climate control, music, and lights. We ripped all of that out during the conversion so now we’re left with a couple of switches for exterior lights and two knobs that work the windshield wipers. Easy peasy!

Slow and steady wins the race

Spending as much time as we do in the mountains, it’s impossible to avoid driving over steep mountain passes. Some of the passes are no big deal, but others have left our brakes smoking by the time we made it to the bottom, even after multiple stops. Just like with driving a car, the key is to let the engine do a much of the braking work as possible. Because of the way the bus is geared, this means that we need to get our speed under 35mph and gear down to second gear. For the gnarliest passes, we keep the speed under 25mph to stay in first gear. Going uphill is a similar story – it’s pedal to the metal, but depending on the grade we’re usually < 45 mph. One unanticipated benefit of these slow speeds is getting to experience the places we’re driving through – windows down at 25 mph gives you a much better sense of a place than speeding through at 75 mph!

Navigation is a lifesaver

We drive the bus into a lot of unfamiliar places. Not knowing exactly where we’re going and when we need to turn can mean a lot of u-turns and tight maneuvers to get back on the right track. When I’m driving I normally rely on Alyssa to handle the GPS. This strategy fails when Alyssa spontaneously falls asleep so I often rig up the phone to sit on the dashboard hands-free so I can see exactly what my next move is.

Driving becomes much easier with an attentive copilot. Oh wait...

Driving becomes much easier with an attentive copilot. Oh wait…

The Biggest Vehicle Always Wins

There is something to be said about being one of the biggest vehicles on the road. It wasn’t something that I experienced before driving the bus, but cars are quick to get out of the way when the bus starts changing lanes or making a wide turn. People respect the size and probably have a little sympathy for the poor schmuck stuck behind the wheel of such a “difficult” vehicle to drive!

So…is it hard to drive?

Like anything else in life, getting good at driving a vehicle this size takes practice. Alyssa and I try to be conscientious about sharing driving responsibilities so that we both stay on top of our game – like the time that Alyssa had to make an emergency trip without me from Crested Butte to Gunnison after Hilde was porcupined. Given a few weeks of experience, I think anyone can become a pro at driving the bus!

Have any questions about driving the bus that we didn’t answer here? Add them in the comments!

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    I’m sure you’ve heard this countless times before, but thank you so much for this ongoing compendium of lived bus life experience! It’s utterly invaluable to a dreamer like myself looking into all the important practicalities of bus living.
    You two are an inspiration and living proof that my and my partner’s dream is so very feasible. Keep rolling, keep loving. ?

  • Boy, I wish I had read this last week! I had to drive a 16ft truck towing a car across four states, and everything you listed here definitely rings true. The mirrors were tricky to get used to, and I still kept trying to look in my rearview mirror (that did not exist). But most of all, you’re right that slow and steady is key: anything you have to do on the road (merge, turn, etc.) start it way earlier than you think you need to, because everything takes a little more time in such a large vehicle. Great article!

    Also, your sleeping copilot is ADORABLE.

  • Clement Langlois

    Hi There,
    First of all many thanks for sharing your experience so precisely, we’re currently planning a big roadtrip across america and your stories are truly helpful. Here (in France, and europe in general), a special driving license is required to be allowed to take a bus, or more globally any kind of truck-like vehicule to the open road. Reading this article it seems like no particular licence or paperwork have been necessary for you to go from your regular car to this oversized skoolie… Can you tell me more about this?

    • Correct! We re-titled the bus at the DMV from “Bus” to “Housecar” which puts it in the same class as any big RV. California, where it’s registered, requires no additional licensing to drive a Class A RV so we are good to go in all 50 states.

      • Clement Langlois

        Many thanks for your quick reply! What happens if you cross borders? does this apply in Canada or Mexico?

        • Will Hitchcock

          We haven’t had to deal with that yet so I’m not 100% sure, but I would assume that you would need to follow the rules of the road for whatever country you’re in. You can probably call the department of transportation (or whatever relevant agency) in those countries to see.

          • Clement Langlois

            Will do for sure ! Once again many thanks, wish you the best on the road.

  • MV

    Lol! I went the opposite route in life. I grew up in a converted bus, self taught. Left, went to University in Boulder, got a PHD and started a tech startup is the valley. 🙂

  • Labrat0116

    Great article and fun to read !

    My question is what is the operating cost per Mile of a converted bus ? What engine/transmission is in it ? MPG ? What is the cost to Insure something like this ?

    What other “gotch-ya’s” costs are there ? ie Maintenance, tires, oil changes, brakes etc… ??

    • Can’t say we’ve ever figured and operating cost / mile. It’s a diesel CAT 3126 and gets 8-10mpg. Insurance was liability coverage only and ran us about $300 / year (that was when it was registered in CA, the new owners have insured it in MN and the insurance cost went up about 3x) Regular maintenance & tires ran a few thousand per year, depending on what needed to be done.

  • Mary Ann Russell

    Finally a honest story to relate to the unknowing of mechanical and it’s ability is our struggle in learning and costing meanwhile
    Having no clue at all on brakes fuel and parking in friendly zones are making this a nightmare and frustration
    My community has a bunch of hate here in Los Altos hills CA
    Buying a already started conversion that’s main plumbing and electrical installed needing a forgiving g location to complete ourour future housing
    Was homeless saved to buy this project and STOPPED by local hater is costing and regretful . Need a break to just get this dream forward and possible . Getting to travel away is now the dream and as we do the big middle finger will follow us out to all that made it difficult and delaid I’ll update if we get to have those adventure s to share like u. Til then it’s 3 day here 3 dyas there and no real cinstrconstrs

  • Rose LaPlaca Freed

    I’m thinking of doing this with my husband and two dogs; kids are grown; may take Grandaughter. What size bus would you recommend for us to convert. I’ve seen some interesting party buses…