July marks nine months of living on the road in Moby. During this stretch of time we’ve experienced all four seasons across three countries and temperatures ranging from -30°F to 103ºF. The weather & forces of nature that we’ve enjoyed have included heavy snow, torrential rain, biting flies, aggressive mosquitoes, deep sand, forest fires, strong winds that rocked us like a boat and a unique clay-rich mud outside of Fruita, Colorado that is akin to trying to drive through peanut butter after a rain storm.
Through these seasonal and regional transitions, we’ve been mostly comfortable, dry and self-reliant though we have of course received a tremendous education on the various “van build” things we should have done differently as well as ample opportunities to make home improvements along the way. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be sharing seasonal, structural and self care #vanlife tips that we’ve learned through experience. If you are in the process of building out your own van or plan to move into one with another person, hopefully this will prove useful.
First, what winter taught us.
1.) 4WD: To Have or Have Not?: Moby is a 2010 Freightliner Sprinter 3500 with a 170 wheelbase. She measures 22′ 10″ bumper to bumper and while she has four wheels in the back, she is not 4WD. Back when we were looking at vans to purchase, we had to decide between having more storage & living space (170) and less mobility vs. having 4WD (144) and less space. Since we planned to live in our van full-time, needed access to all of our toys, and wanted space to entertain friends, we went with the larger (and less expensive) van without 4WD.
As it turned out, the lack of 4WD hasn’t proven too problematic. For extra traction, Remy outfitted the back wheels with burly off-road tires which have performed well in all terrain & weather, including some heavy snow days in the Wasatch. Weight probably aids our traction too as our hefty girl tips the scales at around 8,000 lbs, but we’ve put chains on only twice and only shoveled ourselves out of a snowbank once.
At the same time, not having 4WD has forced us to be more conservative about which roads we choose to venture down. Sometimes the tradeoff has been a a few additional approach miles or a less epic campsite, but that’s OK with us. I’d rather not regularly clean up shattered bottles of olive oil that were ejected from their storage nook during an ill-advised rock crawl down rutted out jeep roads.
When considering your own needs for 4WD, think critically what you want to use your vehicle for and how much stuff you want to carry. For a future van that is more of a weekend adventure mobile than our home, we’d definitely downsize our space to the 144 and opt for the 4WD. But if you want more of a home on wheels and the ability to comfortably host more than two people inside at a time, the extra space is probably worth the lack of 4WD.
2.) Insulate Your Floors! If you plan to use your vehicle as a mobile ski hut or spend any time parking above snow, you will want to insulate your floors. We did not.
Our model of Sprinter grants nearly 6’5″ of interior standing height prior to making any customizations. Remy is 6’1″ and thus had a realistic fear that too much insulation would drastically reduce his ability to stand upright as the ceiling insulation & panels already consumed two precious inches. We also failed to appreciate just how much heat is lost through the floor (the build was done in California after all) and opted not to insulate the bottom. Instead, we installed our interlocking faux wood flooring (similar to these: d’phlor 63503 Planks Interlocking Flooring, Weathered Wheat Field) atop RattleTrap & thin plywood planks to fill in the grooves. Consequently, Max’s water bowl froze solid most nights and we gradually acquired a collection of ugly throw rugs in an attempt to avoid contact frost-bite upon hopping out of bed in the morning.
Seriously, the floor was so cold at times that it was painful. Do not make this mistake. Either head south to warmer climates for the winter or insulate your floors. Unless you are extremely tall, in which case you probably can’t stand up inside of a van anyhow, the extra inch lost to insulation will be well worth it.
3.) Insulate Your Windows: Sleeping in a van in the winter is much like sleeping in a tent. As you slumber deeply like a hibernating bear, your exhaled breath has nowhere to escape to and upon contacting a cold enough surface, turns to ice. The cold enough surface is generally your windows and thus every morning of the winter was spent by taking an ice scraper to the inside of the windows. This created a little snow shower across the dash which had to be swept up and tossed outside less it melt, evaporate and start the cycle again.
While I sewed thick blackout fabric into our curtains, they definitely don’t have any R value. If I make van curtains again, I’ll add a middle layer of Reflectix Bubble Pack Insulation. This will make the curtains bulkier and more quilt-like but will also go a long way to retain heat and prevent condensation build up on the interior of the glass.
4.) Splurge for a Water Heater: About a year ago I made the bold proclamation that I wanted to live for a year without hot water or regular hot showers. As a lifelong long-shower taker who has been known to destroy books from reading in the shower (super weird, I know) I viewed this as an opportunity to atone for my water-wasting ways and form a healthier relationship with showering.
Recalling the water cycle detailed previously, liquid becomes solid when exposed to extreme cold. At some point in early December, our 35 gallon water tank (which sits on our uninsulated floor) turned into a giant ice cube. Without any heat source to force melting it remained that way until late March. Attempts to thaw the waterlines by wrapping them with electrical heating tape only succeeded in draining the batteries. So we used a collapsible 5 gallon water jug for our daily needs, replaced the shower head with heavy-duty outdoor hosing after the first one burst from frozen waterlines and sought out community and REC centers about once a week for a real shower.
A 35 gallon tank imposes its own limits on how much water one can use at a time, as does showering in a space with a 1.5’x2′ footprint, half of which is taken up by a cartridge toilet. It would have been nice to have hot water, even if only to prevent our four months of deep-freeze from happening. In our future van, we will have hot water.
5.) Have Ample Solar: Another possible byproduct of constructing our van in sunny California was a failure to realize that solar power is only great if the sun is shining. And in the winter, if Ullr is as good as he was this year, this often isn’t the case. We found out that between the heater and the fridge, we were drawing the batteries down too far with just two solar panels designed to capture 100 watts each. Each battery had 125 Ah capacity, but subjecting them to cold temperatures greatly reduced their efficiency. The bottom line is that you should keep your batteries warm and make sure not to draw them down too far. We ended up installing two more 100 watt solar panels in March and haven’t had an issue since.
6.) Have an Indoor Heat Source: Based on a perusal of Instagram #vanlife accounts, it appears that most people use either a dog, an electric blanket, a space heater or nothing as their interior heat source. Max must wear two coats in the winter and steals more heat than he shares so the dog was not going to cut it for us. Enter our Espar Heater, a diesel air heater similar to this one but manufactured in Germany. While the install was not flawless (Remy had to do a full install twice) once the heater was properly installed it worked beautifully.*
Positioned within the base of the swivel passenger seat, the heater has a low profile and is the perfect height for speed drying wet boot liners. It is relatively quiet, emitting only a faint ticking noise when cycling on, uses negligible diesel, is EPA approved and easily kept the interiors toasty (though not toasty enough to defrost frozen waterlines that were run against exterior walls.) The one negative is that the heater is not stealth; when running, a small but steady cloud of diesel smoke is emitted from under the passenger side, so you aren’t going to fool anyone into thinking your van is unoccupied.
*Initially Remy installed the heater with the ducting that was too constricted so the heater kept overheating and turning off. He corrected this and we never had a problem since.
7.) Vitamin D & Aromatherapy: As I mentioned in our previous post about Baja, I found the winter months to be a surprising challenge. Despite my new found love of skiing and the great fortune to have several months to chase the good snow wherever it fell, I battled a lurking background sadness from roughly December-March. Contributing factors may have been:
- The realization that I had separated myself from a solid community and friend group in Seattle,
- That staying in touch meaningfully and being present in people’s lives is hard once there is a barrier of physical space,
- That it is challenging to find personal space and time for yourself when it is -20F outside, you are parked at a remote trailhead and you can’t turn around without running into your housemate,
- That working remotely and requiring internet connection affected our recreation plans more than anticipated,
- That suddenly not having a routine is surprisingly overwhelming after years of being hyper busy and programmed and,
- That Remy and I were severely mismatched with our skiing abilities and thus were not the greatest backcountry partners.
I hesitate to call what I experienced depression. I never sought professional medical advice and feel that using this term would be disrespectful to those who live every day of their lives with a serious mental health issue. But I did have a heavy case of the SADS and felt very unlike myself. From internet research and talks with my brother and trusted friends, I chose to pursue a routine of aromatherapy (clary sage & bergamot), Vitamin D supplements and yoga classes when we were in a town with a studio. Maybe they were all just placebos and the simple act of believing that I was actively combatting the darkness that had shaded my existence was enough to lift the cloud, but renewed focus on a self-care routine certainly helped. As did heading south to Baja.
8.) Get a Pee Bottle & a Pee Funnel: Who among us hasn’t had blissful and warm camping slumber ruined by the sudden midnight need to urinate? While the obvious solution is to go take care of business, it is tempting to convince yourself that you can avoid the unpleasant outdoor elements (particularly in the winter months) and hold it until morning, in the process wasting the better part of an hour while you wrestle with the inevitable.
A pee bottle was the obvious solution for Remy. No more cracking the door to let in howling wind and swirling snow! Just pop the top of the clearly marked Not-OJ bottle and you are good to go! For the ladies and those not naturally endowed with a urination hose, you’re going to need some help to make this happen. A pee funnel is the game changer you need to eliminate the loss of sleep while you try to shrug off the urge to go. Kristina Ciari said it best in her recent blog post praising the pee funnel. Check it out.
What We’re Reading/Listening To:
We both recently read The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. 95% of this book is excellent, weaving together interesting characters, a bit of post-WWII Spanish history, mystery and suspense. But the end wraps up too neatly and quickly. The ‘happily ever after’ finish made me feel like perhaps the author realized that he was rapidly approaching 600 pages, grew tired of writing and just needed to close things out. I would still recommend it, especially as I don’t normally gravitate towards mysteries and found the book compelling enough to finish it in a week. But oh, that ending. Thumbs down.
Trying the new podcast LeVar Burton Reads…the audio version of Reading Rainbow for adults who grew up with Burton’s literary recommendations. Stories are short works of fiction generally not more than 40 minutes long. So far so good.
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