Category Archives: Van Life

Van Life: Green Remodeling: Demolition and Underlayment

In this series I’m documenting the remodeling of my 2003 Dodge Ram 1500 Conversion Van from a family travel model to an RV. Work was done in the spring of 2014 and written about 6 months later, so my memory is fuzzy.

Demolition

Starting from right behind the driver’s compartment, I ripped out almost everything from my van, down to the bare steel floors and walls. The exceptions were the foam on the floor, the rear air-conditioning, and two of the rear speakers.
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Van Life: Weather

In this series, I explore some of the practicalities of living in a van in the United States. For context, I am relatively privileged: white, perceived as male, raised middle class, able-bodied, in good physical shape. My advice may or may not be useful for others in my or similar situations.

I’m one of those stupid travelers who rarely takes seasons into consideration when I travel, so I find myself up north in the winter and in the southeast in the summer with an alarming regularity. Yes, it can get really hot or really cold in my van. It’s rarely unbearable, however.

Curtains

The single most important thing I’ve done for my van is put in thick, multi-layered, light-proof curtains. All the back windows are covered with curtains made out of blackout fabric sewn between two layers of thick, black felt. These are screwed into the wood and/or plastic sills above the windows, and part in the middle so I can tie them back. I’ve got another curtain that goes from ceiling to floor right outside my bed, blocking light and visibility as well as keeping the bed area well-insulated. I bought all the fabric new, and probably spent a bit more than $100 on all of it. One of the best investments I’ve made.

Heat

I rarely sleep with my windows open, because I don’t want anyone able to break into my car as easily as that, and because it seems (to me) to make it more obvious that someone is sleeping inside. I do have three small vent windows that open a crack, which help, but honestly not much. What I’ve learned is to master parking in the will-be-shady-in-the-morning, put the sun shield on the windshield, then pull my curtains tight. The sun and heat will rarely force me out of bed before, I don’t know, 10am. By midday, however, the van is essentially unbearable. I keep a clip-on fan, with a separate battery pack, hanging above the bed, and this gets me through the worst nights or the worst naps. In the future, I think I’ll just get another fan. Some people put second AC units in their vehicle that run off of a battery, but unless I move to the desert or something I doubt this is really necessary.

I do wish I had windows that slid open, and if I did, I’d get screens—keeping out bugs is obviously pretty important in the summer.

If you’re somewhere where it might be socially acceptable to do so, it’s also possible to idle the engine and run the car’s AC to sleep. I would never recommend making this a habit, and I’ve only done it once, myself, when it was 100+ degrees out and I need to sleep during the day, but it appears that it only burns about 1/4 a gallon per hour to do so. Anyone who would give you shit for it might want to realize that if they ever drive 5 miles just because they want to go pick something up, they’ve burned more gas than your hour-long nap.

Cold

If the curse of summer van life is that it’s hard to sleep in, the curse of winter van life is that it’s hard to get up. The answer to winter sleeping is honestly pretty simple: close your curtains, put an extra blanket down on the bed (an amazing amount of cold comes in through the bed platform and futon mattress), then get inside a sleeping bag or two, pull a blanket up over your head, and wait uncomfortably during the few minutes it takes to warm up.

Then, in the morning, you’re all cozy and warm and look over and see your frozen water jug and think to yourself, “damn, maybe I’ll just stay in this sleeping bag and read a book.”

When All Else Fails

Or, you can do what most travelers secretly do in extreme weather: take their friends up on offers of floor space and/or couches.

Other Van Life posts

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Van Life: Money

In this series, I explore some of the practicalities of living in a van in the United States. For context, I am relatively privileged: white, perceived as male, raised middle class, able-bodied, in good physical shape. My advice may or may not be useful for others in my or similar situations.

Spending Money

Money is probably one of the first things on people’s minds when they ponder living in a vehicle. How much does it cost? Most people who move into vans are probably saving money. Me, I’m spending it, because it’s a hell of a lot more expensive than living out of a backpack. But that said, my expenses are pretty low. A good running used van likely costs in the 3-10k range. After that, it’s insurance, gas, repairs, increased cost of food, and the occasional short-term rent.

Insurance: this apparently varies a lot from person to person and state to state. I hear rumors about RV insurance being a lot cheaper. I pay roughly $80 a month, with a clean driving record.

Gas: My van gets about 15mpg. My minivan got 22-23. Other people get better mileage—particularly diesel engines. Some people convert to veggie oil, but that is its own huge can of worms. I personally estimate that it costs me $15 an hour to drive anywhere. This is based on paying $4 a gallon and driving 60mph. In reality, it’s a little bit cheaper, probably $12-15 an hour, but I estimate at $15 when I decide whether I can afford a given trip.

Repairs: This is the big one, and the always-unexpected one. Actually, I can reliably estimate when I will need repairs: as soon as I get a decent paycheck. As soon as I get a decent paycheck, something breaks on my van and eats all my money. DIY work helps a lot, of course, though vans are harder to work on than trucks, because the engines are more compact.

Food: When I live in punk houses instead of in vans, I pay barely anything for food, because we buy in bulk, dumpster, and generally just share and eat communally. But I’m really lazy about cooking for myself, so I eat out a lot. Usually cheap food, like burritos, but not always. I pay more for food living in my van than otherwise—probably twice as much. It doesn’t have to be that way, however. I have a pretty functional kitchen, just no fridge to store vegetables or leftovers.

Rent: What? Rent? This is about living in a van! I know, but if you’re parked in someone’s driveway for a month you might want to kick down for rent and utilities. And if you pay your share, you can often run an extension cord out to your van. Also, when you move to Minneapolis in December, you’re better off subletting a room for the month and parking.

Making Money

It’s hard to hold down a “regular” job while living in a vehicle, particularly if you’re on the move. But plenty of people do it anyway. You can get gym memberships for showers, or have your own shower in your RV-converted vehicle, or “bird bath” in public bathrooms, or take showers at friends’ houses, etc. and then just use a friend’s address for a legal address.

But a lot of people, like me, live in a van because we’d rather be nomadic. Regular work is out. What’s left? Getting money can be tricky, but it’s not impossible. I’ll stick to legal methods of getting money herein.

Freelancing: This is what I do, for most of my work. I’m a freelance graphic designer, photographer, and editor, so most of my work can be done anywhere. Nothing beats settling down in a town’s anarchist cafe to get some work done. If you want to support me, you could buy some of my books. Other people freelance with skills that aren’t telecommuting, like tutoring; teaching music or language classes; dancing; modeling; or housecleaning.

Seasonal work: This is really classy, because it fits the 100+ year old definition of hobo. Most of the time, people work intensely for a few months and then live off the proceeds for the rest of the year. Agricultural work is common at harvest time. Other people work summers at or near national parks, or work in fisheries in Alaska. Apparently a lot of people with RVs do something called workamping (or workcamping… they are two different things I guess?), where they work part- or full-time as campground hosts in exchange for a place to park and maybe some money.

Odd jobs: Odd jobs are your friend. Get paid for the day to plant strawberries or tear down a house. Housesit, petsit, or babysit. Paint some walls. Whatever. I mostly get my odd jobs by letting my friends in town know I’m broke, and they usually let me know if they hear about something.

Medical studies: Some people sell their bodies to medical science. There’s good money in it, sometimes, but it’s not always easy and it’s not always safe.

Crafts: Make things and sell them. I make jewelry and buttons and sell them on Etsy or while I’m tabling.

Other Van Life posts

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Van Life: Introduction

In this series, I explore some of the practicalities of living in a van in the United States. For context, I am relatively privileged: white, perceived as male, raised middle class, able-bodied, in good physical shape. My advice may or may not be useful for others in my or similar situations.

So… I live in my van. I have for 3-4 years now.

Here’s where you say “Oh! Is it…. ‘down by the river!’”

Which is really a very clever reference to Saturday Night Live and definitely something I’ve never heard before. You’re very original. Congratulations.

Yes, I live in a way that is both unconventional and somewhat cliche. I’m comfortable with this.

Why Live In A Van

For me, van life is actually a step up in terms of stability and longterm access to resources. I’ve spent at least five or six years living out of one backpack or another. I’ve been nomadic more or less my entire adult life. So when I think about the advantages of living in a van, I’m likely thinking about it from the opposite point of view as others do.

  • I live in a van because it offers me a sense of home. I have my own bed. You should see the look on people’s faces when I explain I’d rather sleep in my van than on their couch. It’s as though I’ve told them I’d rather sleep in brambles than in a hotel. But I like having my bed and my home.
  • It offers me a sense of freedom. I know that at any point, if I needed to, I could leave almost any situation: just get in my van and go.
  • It gives me a place to keep my stuff. I’ve got a million semi-professional hobbies, and by living in a van I can keep bins and boxes and bags of tools and supplies and equipment.
  • I live in a van because I like to wander. I like forests and I like cities and I’d hate to have to pick between the two. I also tour a lot, usually as a writer, and a van is obviously quite good for such things.
  • I live in a van because it’s awesome.

What’s Crappy About It

  • Sometimes people break into your van and you’re stuck replacing the window and/or whatever was stolen. Also, very few people steal houses. (Banks do, though.) Also, getting your house towed is awful and stressful. You’ll never take parking lightly again.
  • I can’t stand up in my van—some people can, I can’t. I also have a harder time curbing my wanderlust when getting from place to place is just so easy and convenient.
  • There’s social stigma, which I feel more and more as I get older, but honestly I don’t really care. I’ve been a weirdo my whole life. Now I’m a guy named Magpie who lives in a van and wears women’s clothes. Whatever.
  • It’s probably dangerous. But honestly, I apparently drive as many miles as the average american (15-30k a year), so maybe I’m not increasing my risk of dying in an accident at all. I do spend too much of my time sitting though, what with all the driving.
  • It’s an anchor. If I want to leave the country or even just fly somewhere for awhile, I have to find somewhere to park my van and ideally someone to let the engine turn over once a week.
  • It keeps me from getting a normal-people job. I’m not sure whether this goes here or the “Why Live In A Van” section.
  • It’s a money pit. I throw almost all my money into my van, and then when I run out of money, I run out of van until I get more money to throw into the money pit. But then again, other people do this with their houses, so whatever.

Other Van Life posts

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