We first tried our hand at living the dream a few years ago. The goal: travel to cool places full time, riding our bikes on rad trails, working and living. Our attempt resulted in us living out of a Subaru in 2009 as an IMBA Trail Care Crew. While it was an amazing time, the reality is that living out of a car and a duffel bag actually is kind of horrible. (not to mention it’s a crazy company to work for)
To do it, we packed up everything we owned, moved it all into a storage unit and took off. We were essentially living out of suitcases, with hotels and long drives during the week and surfing couches on the weekend due to a minimal budget. The experience would have been a lot more enjoyable had we been living and traveling out of a van.
That said, these days our goals have changed. We no longer aspire to ditch it all for full time vanlife anymore. We simply want to travel and ride our bikes as much as we possibly can while still progressing forward with life and career goals.
I had been planning on acquiring a van for several years before making the life and financial changes needed in order to make it happen. Having it has been as amazing as I could have hoped. Now that the DIY build out has reached a point where we can start adventuring, we’ve jumped in headfirst.
Hanging out and traveling in a converted van you made yourself feels awesome. While I wish we had the budget for a fully tricked out van conversion, there is a satisfaction in knowing that if you don’t like something, you can simply rebuild it later and do it again. This is apparently common though with other DIY conversions since we’re all learning by doing with a crash course in the game.
I had been working to get the van ready for our first major trip of the year, driving from Portland to the Sea Otter Classic. Riding and working along the way, with over a week logged living out of the van, we learned quite a bit about what we needed and wanted in order to be comfortable and happy for future adventures.
Setting goals for the launch
Though we weren’t planning to live in it, we still wanted to get the build out to a point where we could take off for a week on the road. Building out a van takes a lot of time and effort, and as all DIY van types know, it’s a never ending project. In order to hit our take-off date, I had a check list with priorities and mile points I needed to hit in order to get it all road trip ready. My wish list became re-prioritized, and cutting the non-essentials it boiled down to the following:
- Insulation and basic walls
- Insulated window covers
- Privacy curtain for the front
- Bed platform
- Bike storage
- Gear storage
- Basic kitchen, stove as well as food prep area with storage
- Paper towel holder
- Spot to put garbage
(I covered much of this in the previous post Vanlife Part 2)
While I really wanted to sort out a solution for electricity, as weekend warriors, our needs are low. We really just wanted a way to keep our phones and devices charged. Ideally our power solution would also power a fan, as well as lighting. Eventually we’d love a fridge, but we’re not living in the van full time, so it isn’t essential.
Many turn to a company called Goal Zero for their power solutions. They offer plug and play power solutions as well as solar panels and would suit our needs perfectly. That said, they aren’t inexpensive and as my entire build out has a minimal budget (more on that in a future post) I wasn’t ready to pull the trigger without a substantial discount over retail.
I had also been researching a DIY solution using deep cycle marine batteries, but haven’t acquired the level of knowledge yet to implement it. Unfortunately, as it came down to the wire, I couldn’t commit to a solution, so we simply managed to make do and charge devices at houses and coffee shops as well as keeping things topped off when the vehicle was running.
In the meantime, we made do with a number of portable LED lights which we mounted throughout the van. After 10 days we were running low on batteries though, so for trip #2 to Oakridge over the long weekend I invested in additional rechargeable batteries. We had to poach charges for our phones from our new friend Dakota’s van though, so power is next on my list.
Installing running water and a sink in the van
Having running water was a major priority for our first big trip, and though it came down to the wire, I managed to figure out a solution, and being able to wash up after riding as well as clean dishes after cooking enriched our experience significantly.
Our set up is simple and more than fills our current needs. The sink is a Valterra Hand Pump we purchased off Amazon for only $26, paired with a Moen Stainless steel bar sink. ($40) Bar sinks require a 2″ drain, which Home Depot no longer stores locally, which I found out via trial and error. (this was super frustrating and involved over 3 trips before realizing they didn’t have the correct part.) I eventually just ordered the correct drain off Amazon (it was only $7!) which was a huge relief. At the moment it dumps into a bucket (my super low tech solution that I hope to improve on soon) via a Camco Flexible Camper Drain. ($11.67 Its connected with Valterra clear Vinyl Tubing. ($8.13)
Total cost of running water: $130.27
- Valterra Hand Pump $26
- Moen Stainless Steel bar sink $40
- 2″ Bar and Prep Sink Drain $7
- Camco Flexible Camper Drain $11.67
- Valterra clear vinyl tubing $8.13
- Reliance Rhino Pack 5.5 gallon water storage container $20
- Reliance Aqua-Tainer 7 gallon rigid water container $17.47
- Bucket (from mom)
- Note: this doesn’t take into account the plywood and screws for the cabinet I put together.
On our first real trip off the grid, we found that you use a lot more water than you think you might. Washing dishes takes a bunch, but we also use it to wash our faces and bodies (I also took advantage of the river as much as possible) which took more than expected. That said, the sink is working really well and aside from the aesthetics we’re very happy with it. My system needs improvement though; dust can get into the water, so we’re not using it as drinking water, and will be using a separate container for that.
On the subject of aesthetics, I have to confess, I’m not very happy with the unfinished look of things. I’ve taken to calling the interior the “tree fort” due to the mis-mash of plywood I’ve sourced. I have spent as little as possible, and have chosen the least expensive wood I can, acquiring recycled wood where ever possible. I also never took shop class, something I highly regret. If I had the time, I would take a woodworking class or workshop immediately. Fortunately, YouTube fills that niche, and though I’m unsatisfied with my current level of craftsmanship, there is a lot I can still do in terms of finish work to hide the flaws and change the look of things… once I settle on our long term floor plan at least. I halfway feel like I may tear everything apart and re-do it again this winter, so for the time being we’re going to enjoy the hell out of what have and build in what we need as opposed to what we simply want. I do need to finish the ceiling though, as we will need the second layer of insulation.
I’ve done a few things right, and I’m pretty happy with how they turned out. For example, while it’s over built and probably weighs a ton, our bed is rock solid, and we have slept very well on the foam mattress. On our trip to Sea Otter we were consistently getting offers to sleep in beds and hotel rooms, which we declined. After all, the whole point of the van is to bring our bedroom with us. Plus I prefer sleeping above my bikes, knowing they are secure.
A proper food storage solution is a necessity
In terms of livability, keeping food cold was our biggest challenge on trip #1. Our inexpensive cooler was almost a waste of space. We had to replenish ice regularly and our food not only got soggy, but we had to throw out much of it when it got warm one day. It was so bad I was calling outdoor stores to check stock to find a better option; I came close to heading to an REI and dropping a wad of cash on a Yeti model. Once I priced out a cooler and accessories with enough storage capacity for what we wanted though, I went into sticker shock and we decided to wait until we had a bit more time to do our home work. We both work in the outdoor sports industry, so paying retail wasn’t logical based on our limited budget.
Upon returning home, I dove head first into researching high end coolers. Coolers have come a long way in the last few years, with extra thick walls that provide a serious amount of insulation. Many of them utilize rotomolded polyethylene construction, similar to how kayaks are constructed, which provides serious durability.
Our requirements were fairly basic: it needed to keep food cold for days at a time with a minimal amount of ice replenishment. Having to run back into town regularly in order to keep food from spoiling was not something we were interested in. We ended up going with a 55 quart cooler from Canyon Coolers, just in time for our Memorial Day weekend road trip. Though I think we could get away with the 35 quart model, insulated coolers work best with a significant amount of ice, which takes up much of the carrying volume, and we wanted to make sure we had ample capacity.
We’re in the midst of posting a write up where we sing the praises of this thing, but long story short, the addition of a high end cooler is a game changer for us. We can pack as much food as we want and not worry at all about it going bad. After four days we still had ice. It’s amazing!
Next on the to-do list: additional storage and organization
Other than power, we really don’t need that much more to get out and have all the adventures we want. Most of the upgrades we want to perform next are to enhance livability. Buying a van and a house has us on a tight budget and I’m super stoked I’ve managed to get us to this point spending as little as we have. (my time is a different story altogether of course) Having spent a bit of time hanging out in our friend Dakota’s van, we’re inspired, and organization is the next step. Though I have spot for tubs we use to organize our gear, for the most part, we each have our clothing divided into two duffel bags each: one for casual clothing and one for riding gear. I also have a mesh duffle I use for dirty laundry that lives in the back with the bikes. That said, it would be nice to have drawers we could leave clothing in so that when Friday rolls around, we can just load up bikes and drive away to the weekend destination.
That said, I really want to add a swivel to the front passenger seat soon as possible. To be continued…