Van life observations thus far.

I've been on the road for 3 months and so here are my van-dwelling observations thus far. Perhaps some of the tidbits in this entry will prove useful or amusing to other van-dwellers or people thinking of van-dwelling. Warning: if you're not into van-dwelling this entry may make your eyes glaze over.

When I was on the east coast, it was often hard to find reasonably priced campsites. It was winter and so many state parks (normally the cheapest) were shut down. I spent the majority of my nights in parking lots of Walmarts and Costcos. As I've inched westward, it's become easier to find open state parks where you can get water, take a shower, enjoy the outdoors, and sleep overnight for $6 - $12 a night...

But those prices are still too expensive for me to do every night. I mix it up with parking lots and rest stops. My van is small compared to other people's rigs; it fills 1 parking space. I don't run a generator, I try to keep a low-profile, I arrive late and leave early. I aim for 24-hour stores like Super Wal-Marts where you're less likely to get in the way of a night crew that cleans the parking lot.

Ill will towards the labor policies of Walmart aside, there are many advantages to camping in these parking lots. Those towering, glaring security lights can actually illuminate the van enough that I can move around without my lantern or flashlight (when it comes time to sleep I just put on an eye-mask if it's bothering me). You always have access to a real bathroom as well as groceries. There is a security presence in case something goes wrong.

I eat cheap. It hasn't broken my budget. I usually eat fruit and eggs for breakfast. Nuts or a snack for lunch. Dinner is often some kind of canned food, preferably beans, or a sandwich, or both. A tall can of beans may cost 60 cents and last for 2 meals.

Water is easy so long as you're frequenting state parks. On one occasion, in the midwest, I asked the folks at a little coffee shop if I could fill up my water container in their kitchen. They let me come in through the back and fill it up. But other than that, I've always managed to subsist on water from campgrounds.

Early on it seemed wasteful to use my good drinking water for dish-washing, while meanwhile I was dumping my melted cooler water. I compromise by filling a gallon jug with the waste water from the cooler and using that for my dishes. This doesn't always work. Sometimes the cooler water gets contaminated by the food floating around in it.

As for cooking - you have to think through the entire process before doing anything. Every step must be considered because you have limited space and resources. For example, when frying eggs, you might crack the eggs into the pan forgetting that immediately thereafter you've got drippy egg shells and dirty fingers. So before I even light up the stove, I position the garbage beside it, as well as a cup of soapy water for rinsing off my hands. You also don't want to waste any of your fuel, be it propane or over a fire, while you're fumbling to find the next ingredient. I do all my prep-work before hand --- opening cans, slicing cheese, dicing vegetables, and so on. I position it all across the desk in the order I'm going to need it.

I have a Coleman two-burner propane stove. The 16 oz cylinders will last about 2 weeks. I have had some problems with them. On one occasion, the valve on a cylinder went haywire and sub-zero propane started spraying all over my van. Another cylinder was missing a thread on top, so it couldn't connect to anything. In both cases I returned them and got my $2.50 back. I don't really like using the propane stove. You're anxious the whole time about setting the inside of the van on fire; the flames, for some reason, seem to promote moisture; the hissing sound is irritating; and so on.

I keep a mini charcoal Smokey Joe grill in the back for campgrounds. This is my preferred cooking method. It's safer, it's more fun to cook outside, it's a dry-flame, and so on. I don't use lighter fluid; I use one of those brilliant Charcoal Chimneys which requires a few wads of burning newspaper to get the charcoal red-hot.

My Coleman "5 day" extreme cooler has been pretty reliable. I can't vouch for the 5-day claim. The make-or-break point seems to be whether it gets very cold at night or not. Obviously, when I was traveling on the east coast in the dead of winter, I had no problems with refridgeration. I would actually open the cooler at night to let it freeze over, or leave perishables sitting on my desk all day to stay cool. Once I crossed into Texas and struck heat, the cooler began to falter. The ice melted very quickly, even though I was only opening it 1x or 2x a day and keeping it in shade. Here in New Mexico, where it gets very cold at night, the ice has stayed more or less intact.

I don't have many perishables, though. And the ones I do have are flexible about getting warm. I keep butter for lubricating my frying pan. Cold cuts. And eggs. When I buy meat it is only when I plan to cook it that day (i.e. en route to a campground where I can grill).

One problem with the melting ice is that your groceries end up floating around in a mixture of ice and ice water. It's not a problem for a bottle of beer, but it's disgusting when it's a stack of sliced cheese or a stick of butter. My solution: a screw-top plastic jar. They're 2 or 3 bucks in any kitchen goods section. I stuff in my butter and cold cuts, screw it closed, and let it float around in there as much as it wants. It stays dry inside but still gets all the cold from the water.

My van has a regular bed built in -- mattress, sheets, pillows, blanket. On cold nights, I unzip my sub-zero sleeping bag so it's more of a blanket shape and layer it in with the other blankets. On REALLY cold nights, I zip up the sleeping bag, put it in the bed, and use it the way you're supposed to, albeit inside a bed.

I prefer to sleep in as little clothing as possible, as I hate the feeling of clothes getting caught on sheets. This is also conducive to generating body heat in a mummy bag. But I've noticed that my legs and feet tend to struggle to stay warm so I'll often wear thermal socks and long underwear. I pull the tab on the sleeping bag over my head and sculpt a hole for fresh air, and voila, I'm set for the night.

When it's not sleeping time and the van is frozen, that's different. I'm a writer and I like to sit in the van at night and type. Sitting still like that, plus the cold nights, can be hard. I'll often sit bundled in long underwear, sweats, slippers, sweaters, winter coat, fingerless gloves, and with a blanket wrapped around my legs. I get up periodically and do push-ups to get the blood flowing. What can I say? The van is cold inside and that's that.

When I burn my Coleman propane lantern, it can take some of the chill out of the air. But it's a catch-22, because when I'm burning the lantern, I always want to have a window open so as not to die of CO poisoning. If anything, the lantern, with its warm, yellow light, seems symbolic of heat and works psychologically. Just looking at those blazing mantles makes you feel a lot warmer than, say, an LED flashlight.

My deep-cycle battery and inverter have done me well so far. The battery only ran down once and that was after sitting parked, without running the engine, in the mountains during a deep-freeze for 3 days. I can run my computer and charge my phone / camera on a daily basis. If I'm at a camp-site where hookups are cheap then I'll do that and run an extension cord and splitter into the van. I have a string of yellow chain lighting for those special occasions.

Wireless internet is very easy to come by these days. Starbucks is the most consistent source. If you have a Starbucks account with at least $5 on it and you show some account activity every 30 days, you get their free Wi-Fi.

In Texas, the rest stops offer free Wi-Fi --- an amazing deal. I've also gotten free wi-fi at Tourist /Visitor Centers, bookstores, and locally-owned coffee shops. RV parks offer "free wifi" but it's not free in my book if you're spending an absurd $30 or $40 a night for a parking space.

When I'm at these places I usually take the opportunity to charge up my computer and phone as well.

I keep a jug for peeing in the van. It was once one of those large kitty-litter containers with a curved handle on top. I also have a Thetford chemical toilet for emergencies, but I've barely used it. If I have to shit I'll go into a Walmart or use the campground toilets. As soon as you start filling up the Thetford toilet, you have to consider dumping it (not to mention worry about odors or spillage).

Then there comes the time when you have to dump the jug of piss. I don't believe in dumping it in parking lots. That's disgusting. It stinks and then the poor shopping-cart guy will walk through it. Not to mention that its behavior like that which has made many Walmarts ban overnight parking. I try to find woods or a grassy area where it'll be absorbed into the earth and not ruin anybody's day (and I try to do this in places where nobody will see me dumping it, either). Obviously, if you're in a campground, you should dump it in the provided toilets, or their dump tank.

Being a little dirty is part of living in the van, in my opinion. I wear under-garments for 3-4 days, while things like shirts and pants I'll wear for weeks without washing them. If you hang your clothes up to ventilate overnight or in the sun, it can go a long way toward making them last.
Eventually I run out of clean socks, underwear, and undershirts. I know I could wash them in my bucket in the van, but it seems less time-consuming and laborious to simply find a coin-op laundromat. It will only cost you $3 or $4 bucks for everything.

As for personal hygiene --- many state parks have showerhouses, so if you're visiting them, you should have no problem getting regular hot showers. Remember that many state parks will let you enter for free or a small charge (a few bucks) to just VISIT the park, assuming you're going to hike and enjoy the scenery then vacate by nightfall. If you're discreet you should be able to stroll over to the camping area, take a quick shower, and skirt back to your vehicle without anyone noticing you're not a camper.

When I didn't have access to campgrounds, I had to do it the old-fashioned way - with a bucket, or in a bathroom sink. I have very short hair now, but early on in the trip it was lengthy, and I had to sneak into bathrooms and shampoo it in their sinks to keep the oils under control. Obviously, single-user bathrooms are the only way to do this. I found I could get in, wash, dry, and clean up in 3 minutes just by thinking through the process beforehand and arranging the towel and shampoo properly in my bag. I always wipe up all the suds and fallen hairs after, too - having had to clean bathrooms in different jobs over the years I don't like leaving a mess for anybody.

What I find to be more difficult than personal hygiene is dishwashing. It takes alot of water and time to scrub a pot clean in a van. If I could rebuild my kitchenette again I'd install a much deeper sink and a stainless steel countertop to give me a better work area. In the morning, i fill my tea kettle up with a little extra water. After I pour the hot water into my mug, I pour the extra hot water into a dirty pot for cleaning. The warm water is better at loosening up the gunk and it's easier on your hands when you're washing. Again, campgrounds often solve this problem, especially onces that have designated dish-washing stations.

Before leaving Rhode Island, I rented a mailbox at a UPS Store and re-directed all my bills to it. I talked to the manager and explained I'd be traveling and would need to call in once a month and have my mail forwarded to strange locations. The staff at this store has thus been very accomodating; when I call in, they'll sort through my mail with me over the phone, telling me what it's in there, so I can decide if its time to forward it or not. It costs about 6 bucks to have it forwarded. If I am nearing the home of a friend, I'll have the mail forwarded there. Otherwise, I have it sent General Delivery to a post office. A phonecall ahead of time to a post office to give the staff a heads-up is also helpful.

I also informed my health insurance and car insurance companies that I'd be traveling and that there might be delays in communication between us. They supposedly put notes on my record as such.

It's a major issue for living in a vehicle - one which, I think, doesn't get enough attention. You want fresh air, obviously, but more importantly, you want all your stale, wet air to constantly be on the move OUT.

In my van, the only vent I can keep open 24/7 is the one on top, which is sheltered against rain. The pair of slider windows cannot be kept open during rain. In cold weather, its tempting to close the sliders to keep out that frigid draft.

I do wind up with a lot of moisture on the walls, so much so that its caused the paint to peel. This is obviously a failure in the design of the van itself. I didn't plan properly for ventilation. If I could do it all over again I'd install a fan system in the cieling - perhaps one of those solar fans.


That's all for now; maybe I'll update these thoughts in a few months.


The Roving Gambler said...

Nice info post.

I have a membership to 24hr Fitness and I'm really glad I got it. They have clean bathrooms and showers, and of course, you can get some much needed exercise. $30/month may seem like a big expense, but not when you compare it to daily campground fees. Since most of them never close, it gives me another option for overnight parking. I've slept there several times without any problems.

For mail, I have an Earth Class Mail account (www.earthclassmail.com). They give you a street address (so you can get UPS/Fedex packages) and they scan and upload an image of all your mail. Then you log into your account and tell them what to do with it. It's probly more expensive than what you have, but it's very convenient.

For shitting, hospitals are where I usually go. And I've slept overnight at a few hospitals as well.

Nomad said...

Good post on your experience and solutions so far.

If you can, insulating the sides and ceiling of your van will go a long way to solving your condensation problems, though increasing ventilation is always a good idea

MsBelinda said...

Great post. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

Anonymous said...

Ditto what Nomad wrote..

I admire the van design and observing your photos photos and happen to notice something missing in some of your trip pictures. Absence of any coverings, insulation on most of your doors? And all around the sides and top of the fiberglass shell.. That's bound to get wet!

A case to visualize.. A dry glass filled with ice-cold water, over time chills the glass to a point where the surface gets colder. Any surfaces colder than the dew point, condensation occurs.. Now try covering the glass with a foam beer cooler.. You'll solve the condensation problem by keeping it above dew point.

Same issue inside your van. When it gets cooler, check the weather for the dew point and you'll know what surfaces would need insulated and how much. Doors, Ceiling, and window coverings overnight.

Then you have your body heat and so forth and that can be vented out via convection after solving your insulation issue.

You got a great layout in your van regardless!

Frugal Canadian Hermit said...

That was a very interesting read, and educational.

jcomeau_ictx said...

if you ever grow your hair long again, consider dry shampoo... google it for more info. when i was in the desert and on the road, it was whole wheat flour. dust it in with your hands and then brush it out, works great. baking soda works too but can irritate the scalp.