Photo: Crescent Lake, Olympic National Park, Washington. Copyright Patty brower.

It’s September and Jeff and I are heading back east, having recently celebrated an important #vanlife milestone… August 22, 2018, was our six-month anniversary of heading out to live on the road in our converted Honda Odyssey mini-campervan (take a tour!).

Since we ventured out, we’ve definitely learned a few lessons. We’ve relaxed on a few non-negotiables  (see also: how much dust on one basset hound am I capable of overlooking?) And we’ve probably gotten more uptight on a few topics that used to be taken for granted (how much drinkable water and usable wet wipes are on hand come to mind). 

So I thought it would be fun to share a few of the very-important vanlife lessons we’ve learned so far. 

A review — where we’ve been. 

For new (and old) readers, a quick overview of what we’ve been up to. Since heading out in February, we’ve spent most nights in our mini-campervan. We had a few week’s worth of visits with friends and family since then, so we haven’t completely become wild things who can’t function in polite society. Here’s our rough itinerary since February:

  • February – National Forests in Florida
  • March – National Forests in Florida + a visit home to Daytona to see Jeff’s mom
  • April – National Forests in Florida
  • May – National Forests in Florida, Georgia, Virginia + a visit with Jeff’s son, daughter in law and family
  • June – drove from Virginia to Colorado, then hung out in Colorado for the rest of the month, staying at a mix of free city campgrounds, National Forest disbursed camping, and a few Walmarts thrown in the mix.
  • July – stayed in Colorado, spending most of the month camped at a National Forest disbursed (free) campsite that was close to Steamboat Springs
  • August – Oregon Coast and Olympic Peninsula in Washington, staying at a mix of casinos and Walmart parking lots

Now for the lessons learned.

Vanlife lesson #1  Boondocking is kinda fun

If you’re not up on road-slang, boondocking is parking for the night in a spot that’s not in a defined campground or RV resort. RV’ers refer to parking without water and electricity as ‘dry docking’… boondocking is dry docking in the boonies. 

Folks boondock in a whole bunch of places. Many Walmarts allow (even welcome) overnight parking. We stayed at the Walmart lot in Port Angelous, Washington, recently and there were still 20 rigs, from minivan to giant class A’s, in the lot at 10 a.m. when we headed out for the day. You can also boondock at other retailers, hospitals, churches, rest stops, trucker stops, or even residential areas. Out in the woods, most National Forests are open to disbursed camping — basically, find yourself a nice spot to park not at a campground and stay for free. Usually the free disbursed camping areas do not have any facilities or amenities. So no restroom, not even a vault (pit) toilet, no picnic tables, and usually no fire rings.

Before we headed out on the road and for the first month or two, the most stressful part of our new adventure was worrying about where we’d park at night. Note that I specifically said the worrying was the stressful part. Not actually finding the spots. 

When I travel, I like to know what I’m getting into. The first time I flew into Heathrow, I downloaded a map of the terminal so I could plan my route from my gate to the tube station. I’ve learned to ease my travel anxiety through planning, so heading off into the great unknown without knowing where we were going to park caused me a significant amount of stress at the outset.

I was also a bit anxious about spending the whole night in a Walmart parking lot. I mean, I usually don’t enjoy Walmart parking lots in the bright light of day. How much less would I like it at 2 in the morning? I couldn’t even speculate.

In fact, we went through ALL of February, March, April and May without any type of boondocking. We stayed 100% at National Forest campgrounds and with family.

In the beginning of June, we drove from Virginia to Colorado and even on that trip, Jeff mapped out a campground to stay each night. One particular low point in the six months we’ve been out was paying fifteen bucks for the privilege of parking in a boggy, bug infested ‘county park’ (field) near Shelbyville, Kentucky, where there wasn’t much to look at, the bathrooms were about a half a mile from our site, and the dew point was a couple of degrees higher than the air temp, lending a pea soup quality to the evening.

Finally in Colorado, we broke the ‘seal’ and tried our first night in a Walmart parking lot. Turns out, it’s not that bad. On the plus side, most Walmarts are open for 24 hours, which means a close-by loo for middle-of-the-night trips.

We also tried disbursed camping in National Forest land for the first time in Colorado, and loved it. One ‘trick’ we discovered is to settle someplace close enough to town or a ‘real’ campground for restrooms. 

Finally, in Oregon, we tried casino parking. Many casinos have programs and RV-specific lots that allow overnight parking for a certain amount of time — we’ve stayed in places that offer as few as 3 nights and as many as 14 nights.

Most of the Casinos request some sort of action — some just charge a small nightly fee, like $5, and some have a more elaborate system where you have to get a players card from the casino and play enough to get a certain amount of ’points’ each day you stay. We don’t enjoy gambling, so each day I just played electronic blackjack until I reached my point allotment, cashed out and left. Overall, we ended up spending about $20 for a few weeks worth of nightly stays!

As we head back east, we’re talking a lot about how much to budget for overnight stays, whether it’s casino, campgrounds, or anything else that pops up. Now that we know that we can find nights for free, we need to figure out how often we want to stay for free.

Vanlife lesson #2  Cell signal matters

Since I work full-time on the road, a strong LTE data signal from Verizon has become an obsessively important requirement for where we park at night. 

When we started out, I was pretty blasé about the internet. I figured we could stay wherever, and I’d just schlep to the closest coffee shop with wifi to get my work done. 

After six months of schlepping, I’ve come to reluctantly realize that while that’s ok for now and then, I have a really, really hard time when we spend the night somewhere with a bad or no cell signal. It’s how I tend to work — I rarely work eight hours on client work then stop and turn to my own work. My workday usually starts around 4 in the morning, when I check messages for the first time and wrap up any early work, then turn to my own morning routine for an hour or two before returning to client work. I work until 2 or 3, then stop to do something fun before sunset, then tuck back in when it gets dark. We spend the evening reading, playing games or usually, watching something on Netflix while I finish up client work. 

That doesn’t work when there isn’t a cell signal. 

I asked Jeff just the other day what his favorite place has been that we’ve stayed so far. On his list was a perfectly lovely campground in the Appalachacola National Forest near the Gulf of Mexico. I loved it too, but while it might have been one of my favorite places to stay, it was one of my worst experiences on the road. Not only did we have zero signal, but we had to drive 20 minutes each morning to get any signal at all. The stress I experienced from the moment I signed off at night to signing back in every morning was unpleasant and something I like to avoid when at all possible.

Vanlife lesson #3  Manage your power

Closely related to the need for cell phone data is the need for power for our laptops, phones, speakers, headsets, and my watch. When we headed out, we researched a bit on an onboard system with auxiliary power connected to the van battery and solar on the roof. Those systems provide more power for the money, but we ended up going with a portable Lithium Goal Zero power unit. Since we weren’t sure how long we’d stay in the Honda, we were reluctant to spring for an onboard system, plus the Goal Zero system is much easier to implement. you just buy it, use it, and recharge with solar or by plugging into the wall. 

While on the road, dealing with power is an every day, throughout the day, concern. While we love the Goal Zero, we need to be stationery for eight hours with full sun to recharge it. During July, when we were in the same place for a whole month that had a lot of sun, we had no issues with our power. There was more than enough to work, recharge, and do whatever we wanted. August was a bit more challenging, since we were staying in places that weren’t conducive to putting out our solar panel (although there’s plenty of people who have no problem with setting up a full camp in a Walmart parking lot). Also, the Oregon coast and Washington’s Olympic Peninsula are not so much with the sunshine, so recharging the Goal Zero had been a real problem. 

We manage with a few different strategies. First, we have two cigarette lighter-style outlets in the van, and we bought smaller inverters for each of the outlets. Each inverter has two USB plugs and one traditional. So our two phones and laptop charge in the front ANY TIME we drive, even if it’s just a few blocks. In the back, we always keep a few inexpensive rechargeable power packs plugged in so they are fired up and ready to go. They each cost about $10 and can charge up our phones, iPad, my bluetooth headphones, and our mini speaker that we use when watching Netflix on our phones. In addition to charging while driving, we are on the constant lookout for public (or sneaky-public) outlets. We’ve had luck finding free power at picnic pavilions at public parks, at the community restrooms in campgrounds (a good place to meet other digital nomads), behind public libraries, and at one super sweet casino setup which thoughtfully offered electric outlets on the light poles in the parking lot.

As a consequence of always looking for and managing our power needs, I’ve gotten much better at understanding what an amp is and how much power I need. I know that we need about 8% of our Yeti battery available to run a fan all night and that my laptop recharges way faster if it’s closed versus charging up while I’m using it. 

Semi-related: number of times we’ve had to get our van a jump because we were cheating and recharging a phone with the key in the accessory position: 2.

Vanlife lesson #4  Keep moving

Another important life lesson we’ve learned over the last six months is to keep moving. This, at least, works for us. We don’t always follow this lesson, but Jeff and I have found that the sweet spot to stay in one place is between one and two weeks. 

This is super-important as we consider what’s next. We agree that we love this life and want to stay out on the road, but Jeff, in particular, gets frustrated with our lack of space. Our van is set up with a kitchen in the rear hatch and the rest of the back of the van is our bed, clothes stashed underneath. So when we are boondocking in parking lots, we can’t easily make food or even lounge. When camping, we set up our canopy and table and have a nice little outdoor living room and kitchen, but we haven’t set that up since we left Colorado a month ago. 

So we’d really like to upgrade to something a little larger — A Sprinter’s probably out of our price range for the next upgrade, but a conversion van with a hightop or even a small class B would provide just the right amount of space. 

The problem is the cost of fuel. Knowing that we like to move a lot, we need to factor that in. We’ve averaged around $550 a month in fuel costs, and our  Honda gets around 19 MPG. The larger rigs we’re talking about get much lower gas mileage which will have the net effect of basically doubling our monthly fuel budget from $550 to $1100. 

That’s a lot of cabbage. 

So this secret is important! How to balance quality of life (more space) with a reasonable budget and financial security (I’d rather use $550 a month to pay off debt, not pay for fuel) with our wanderlust ways? Luckily, there are a lot of options and ways for us to construct a life we like, keeps us feeling comfy and supports our financial goals. But six months ago, before starting out, we had no idea exactly what would be most important to us!

Van lesson #5  Embrace the updo, toss the makeup

This is a short and simple one, and probably pretty obvious. I headed out on the road with shoulder length hair and a hankering for a cute, manageable bob. Luckily, I came to my senses rather quickly! While we bathe a lot, albeit unconventionally, I don’t get a chance to full on wash my hair every day and I’m not willing to waste any of that precious power (see lesson #3) to straighten it. Two things that are somewhat critical for cute manageable bobs when one has thin, frizzy, wavy hair like I do. Luckily I love me some spaceballs (double buns) and that’s a hair style that does quite well, no matter what condition my hair is in. 

It makes sense to me, now, why men go for the man-buns. Long hair is, oddly, easier to keep up on the road. 

Jeff has stayed with the short hair, no man buns for him! He has, however, given in to a more untamed beard than he has been sporting the last few years. He has his clippers with him, and they don’t take too much of that precious power to operate. But so far, he’s a had a hard time finding a mirror situation that works for him while shaving on the road. 

On the makeup front, I am not much of a makeup girl in general, although I love lipstick and will never toss that. I did, however, come on the road with my collection of skincare serums, which I love and rely on to keep my face looking smooth. That collection ended up making it’s way to the trash bin by mid-summer. While I still love skin care, I found that it was more important to have a simple storage setup and I needed the bin with the facial serums to stash clean undies so I wasn’t always pulling out three plastic bins every morning and night. On my list ‘to buy’ is one of the nicer serums that are all-in-one — my collection was mostly from The Ordinary line, which is fantastic, but packages each ingredient separately so users can custom-mix. 

My skincare/makeup stash now is only SPF 60 for my face, Cetaphil for washing (I know, parabens, but you can use it without WATER!!), and two shades of lipstick (berry and deeper red). Oooo… and the Sheseido girl-razors I’m addicted to. TRUST ME THEY ARE AWESOME!!

Van lesson #6 — Find go-to non-cooking meals or embrace a $1K a month restaurant budget

So, that’s a little tongue in cheek! We found that our style of eating changed a lot when we headed out on the road. It makes sense that so many van lifers are vegan. Vegan food is much easier to store (butter, meat, cheese, yogurt are much more sensitive to being stored in warmer temps) and it’s also much harder to clean up animal-based proteins. Think of cleaning up after frying a steak versus steaming some broccoli. When you are hauling water AND boiling it one coffee-pot at a time to wash dishes, it’s easier to stay away from meat and dairy. 

Once we got out to the pacific Northwest and we switched to parking lot boondocking, we completely fell off the bandwagon. We didn’t have a list of foods we enjoy that don’t require much cooking and we didn’t have a place to easily set up our little Coleman stove or wash dishes, so we ate out. A lot. 

Granted, we also were around a lot of great seafood restaurants, but our August restaurant spending was just over $1,000 which is a lot for us! We’ve realized that our problem was that we didn’t have a plan or options, so we’re working on that list now. It’s much more difficult for Jeff, as I’m happy to eat the same thing every day, whereas he likes a bit more variety, but this is a great example of how our not knowing/not being prepared crept up on us and our budget. 

Van lesson #7  Have a dog? Stay out west.

As many of you might remember, we are traveling with our six year old basset hound, Peppermint. She’s been a great road dog. For the most part. On the plus side, she’s super chill, happy to just hang out sleeping for most of the day, and she’s super friendly, so she doesn’t growl or get in fights or do anything else to embarrass us or get us kicked out of campgrounds. In fact, she’s an excellent friend-maker on the road, everyone wants to meet a basset hound and most have a story of their uncle/grandparent’s/neighbor’s basset that they grew up with.

So there’s three reasons having a dog out west has been so much better than out east. 

First, the weather. We only leave Peppermint alone in the car if it’s between 40 and 60-ish degrees. If it’s not sunny and a bit windy, maybe as much as 65. Basically, if I need a sweater, she can stay in the car. We’ve been loving staying out on the coast and up on the Olympic peninsula where it’s cool enough to leave her in the car almost anytime. In fact, it’s still second nature for us to park and sort out who is going into the store and who is staying with Peppermint! 

Second, the culture. Colorado and Oregon were super dog-friendly and we loved it! We use an app, Bring Fido, to help us find restaurants where Peppermint is welcome, but I haven’t needed that app very much the last few months. Almost all restaurants are dog friendly, even allowing dogs are their nice ‘decks’ — something we didn’t see a lot of out east. Wandering through any cute town on a weekend, almost everyone has a dog in tow, just like us. A lot of the restaurants even have big signs that say ‘dog friendly’, which is incredibly welcoming!

Third, the beaches. Coming from Florida, we knew of one free beach that allowed dogs in Flagler, about a half an hour away from where Jeff’s mom lives near Daytona. There’s also a county park near Daytona that allows dogs on the beach for a fee. But all of the beaches in Oregon are dog-friendly, which has been super fun! Even the amazing beaches in the Olympic National Park in Washington are dog-friendly, which is doubly amazing since dogs are not allowed to go hiking in most national parks. 

Van lesson #8 — Don’t be scared

I really could have distilled all of the tips above into this one tip: don’t be scared. Thinking back to last winter when Jeff and i were planning our conversion, reading everything we could get our hands on from others who were already living on the road, I had a lot of anxiety. Would we like it? Hate it? Be lonely? Get broken into one night? Get in trouble with the cops? Get sick of each other? Get sick of the dog? Miss ‘home’ (wherever that is)…. after all the buildup, the biggest piece of advice I’d give myself six months ago is the super simply, always useful ‘don’t be scared’. 

So what about you? have you spent a log of time camping, on the road, or in some other way, ‘living small’? What are your tips?

Vanlife Lessons

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