Category Archives: All About My Off the Grid Van

It’s easy to find Seattle’s elite strolling Leavenworth’s fancy walking streets, but the intrepid observer sees another type of visitor among the throngs: the dirty adventurer with ropy calves and greasy hair plying the herd of clean city folks. They’ve been climbing or biking all day and now they’re hungry for Leavenworth’s great beer and food.

Leavenworth is a cute German-themed town full of touristy offerings, plus it has incredible adventures hidden in its surrounding mountains. We found it to be exceptionally good for van life and lingered longer than we originally planned. We lived in Leavenworth for a month in our van and we began to notice a few other vans which also seemed to be enjoying an extended stay in the area.

There are nice places to park near town on forest service land. We were given free water at Dan’s Grocery Store when we did our shopping, and there were many places around town to get rid of garbage. These things make van life much easier!

Leavenworth is a gem. Here are our favorite activities we enjoyed during our month there.

Mountain Biking

During our last week in Leavenworth we honed in on our favorite ride at the local ski resort. It’s a new one which doesn’t have a name yet, so for now I’ll just call it the Butter Loop. I found it by talking to a local who helped create the new uphill section of this loop as well as many other trails in the area. Kudos! You created something very special here.

The Butter Loop is the perfect short ride, with 6 miles of buttery, singletrack trails. It begins at the Leavenworth Ski Area with a steady, 1000 foot climb through the forest on a new, unnamed trail. Next you roll along a ridge with great views, then descend a section of Freund Canyon with well designed, super fun berms which go up and down like a roller coaster. The alternative to this fun roller coaster romp through Freund Canyon is a more challenging ride on the parallel Rosy Boa trail, but personally I found Rosy Boa to be too much! It had some very steep drops. Be cautious with choosing the Rosy Boa Trail.

After finishing either Rosy Boa or Freund, the final reward is an easy descent back through the Leavenworth Ski Resort on a trail called For The Boys. The Butter Loop is so good we did it three times in one week. Here is a map of the trails which make up this loop:
The Butter Loop On Trailforks

The Freund Canyon loop is an oldie and a goodie, too. It begins and ends on Freund Canyon Road near town. The only reason I like the Butter Loop better is that Freund Canyon includes about 500 feet of climbing on a dirt road, and I prefer the pure singletrack of the Butter Loop.

We heard about other great rides nearby at Horse Lake and Sage Hills, but didn’t have time to go there this trip. Next time! I love it that after a month in Leavenworth we continued to hear about new places.

Trail Running
The challenging and breathtaking 18 mile trail through the Enchantments near Leavenworh can be done as a one day hike/run. There is even a shuttle company to move folks from the lower trailhead to the upper trailhead at convenient times for only $10/person ( as well as a great private taxi service which can do the same (

The terrain is very challenging on both Snow Lakes Pass and Aasgard Pass, but the fantastic alpine zone and friendly mountain goats are incredibly rewarding. Go prepared with a headlamp and extra layers at the very least. This is a serious endeavor!

Another alternative is to hike up into the high country and then back out, beginning and ended at the Stuart Lakes Trailhead. We did this one day. and it took us 12 hours to go fifteen miles with about 4500 feet of elevation gain. This hike included climbing up Aasgard Pass and then going back down it, which was crazy. We saw some beautiful lakes and mountains at the top of Aasgard Pass, but it really just made us thirsty for more.

The trail run through the Enchantments is the big one, but there are other great places for trail running or hiking like the Leavenworth Ski Hill and the Leavenworth Riverside Park.

The Enchantments hike is best done as a backpacking trip. The Larch trees create some of the finest fall scenery in the state when they turn bright yellow in fall and we wanted to spend more time in this stunning area, photographing the landscapes and animals.

We had to be persistent to get a last minute permit for this hike. Each morning the forest service office in Leavenworth draws a name for permits to camp in the Enchantments and it can be very competitive. We went there three mornings in the middle of the week to try our luck at the lottery and each morning there were a half dozen people competing for a few permits. The first two mornings we lost the drawing, but the third morning we won!

Our four day backpacking trip in the Enchantments featured surreal beauty and relaxed mountain goats enjoying their alpine paradise. The larches were stunning and we had great weather. We climbed a peak in the backcountry called Little Annapurna, following nice granite slabs much of the way to the summit. Climbing Little Annapurna was a highlight for both of us.

Leavenworth is the climbing capital of Washington. We enjoyed nice climbs on granite near Icicle Creek and saw many people bouldering. We found the rock in this area to be good quality. There’s a helpful guidebook for this area but it is currently out of print. The nice people at Leavenworth Mountain Sports have a couple copies you can rent by the day.

We also went to Peshastin Pinnacles to explore the sandstone routes and found varying rock quality there. We found some good rock and some very crumbly kitty litter. After we explored the easier climbing options around town we decided our favorite spot was Playground Point near the Icicle River.

Reindeer Farm
We visited a Reindeer Farm right outside Leavenworth for a fun tour. While it’s not really an adventure, this was such a great experience it would be a shame to miss out on it. We learned a few things about Reindeer, and then got to go in the pen with them and pet them. Did you know their fur is made of hollow fibers, allowing them to float like a Polar Bear? Neither did we! Here is the website for the reindeer farm, reservations are recommended:

If you happen to come in October the town of Leavenworth erupts in merriment for three weekends in a row for Oktoberfest. Everyone celebrates with beer, Lederhosen, Dirndls, German food and dancing. This festival has a very celebratory mood and is a lot of fun, especially when you dress up!

So, there you go! Leavenworth is the perfect place to enjoy beauty, adventure, mountain goats and van life. The town is also delightful and we’ll definitely be back.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADecommissioning a boat sucks. It’s hot, dirty and you know you won’t see your beloved boat for a long time. There are dozens of tiny bits of canvas to tie on the windows to protect them from sun damage, piles of ropes to wash and dry, and many things which must be somehow stuffed inside the boat or cockpit so they don’t blow away during a hurricane.

And, to top it all off, at the end of the decommissioning process we had a rather memorable overnight bus ride back to the U.S. It was one of those bus rides where the time to your destination is doubled because the bus stops at so many places along the way. Plus they kick you off the warm bus and into the cold night several times to clean the bus and go through customs. Basically, they torture you as you try to sleep. But the grande finale was after nearly 12 hours on the bus we were dropped off at 5 AM in an empty parking lot in Tucson, Arizona. There were no open businesses. Everything was dark and quiet.

IMG_2238 (Large)Then things improved. We took a taxi to the most wonderful AirBnB in Tucson where I got to pet a dog, bird and cat when I arrived. The backyard was a peaceful sanctuary with bird feeders outside the window and the sounds of chickens clucking from a large pen. The cat, Chico, was beautiful, loved to sit on laps and came when called. He was a dreamy cat. Animal therapy worked and I felt better right away.

We went to get our Sprinter and Jeep from storage and found the Jeep had a drained battery which was too old to accept a jump. We got a new battery and Brian tried to install it. The wires attached to the battery were too corroded and they fell apart. Back to the auto parts store we went for a second time.

Brian was able to get the Jeep working pretty quickly after we got the parts. We went off to tackle errands, one of which was getting Brian a nice outfit for an upcoming family trip to New Jersey to celebrate our brother’s graduation from Princeton.

IMG_2338 (Large)We shopped at REI and found a very nice outfit for Brian, one he may actually wear for occasions other than the graduation. However, we were both so sleep deprived that we somehow left the outfit sitting on the bench in the shoe department. We purchased other items at REI, and neither of us noticed the outfit was missing until we drove to the airport the following morning. By then it was too late to buy anything else. Luckily Brian’s family understands his casual nature and no one batted an eye when he turned up in board shorts and a tech tee.

I purchased a couple dresses online beforehand. Luckily, one of them was perfect so I did not have to do any shopping in Tucson. Whew! I was really not rested enough to go solo dress shopping at the mall.

IMG_2314 (Large)The trip to New Jersey was awesome. We enjoyed lots of good family time and the graduation events at Princeton University were well done with great food. Also, the campus is beautiful and we loved walking around everywhere. We once again lucked out with a great Airbnb next to a forested area with hiking trails.

After the trip to New Jersey I was exhausted. Our plane landed in Phoenix and it was nearly 100 degrees and forecast to get even hotter. It was way too hot for van life. The van wasn’t really ready for living either, with no food, water or organization. No way could I move into the van that day. I fired up and by a stroke of luck, saw a room with a jacuzzi tub for only $14 more than the cheapest room I was about to reserve.

IMG_0099 (Large)It may have been the best $14 I ever spent. We spent two days in the motel room and I practically lived in the tub. The body wash the hotel provided foamed up into huge clouds of bubbles. I could hear the bubbles popping softly all around my head. I floated motionlessly in a soft, warm bubble cloud and all my stress melted away. I ate breakfast in the tub. I watched tv in the tub. I wrote emails in the tub. I did everything possible in the tub!

IMG_0129 (Large)We also found a fantastic Thai restaurant nearby and ate there twice. I went shopping, did laundry and organized the van. Now the van is a peaceful, pleasant place, and we are living happily in it at a free, forested vagabond spot near Sedona, Arizona.

We made the transition! But I always forget how hard it is, and next year I’ll remember I need a really big bathtub during times like this.

P1070383-3 (Large)The newest addition to our gypsy caravan is a fun 2001 Jeep Wrangler, which we have been towing behind our 2004 Sprinter van.

Our caravan has reached a point of perfection. We have a comfy converted Sprinter for living and a spunky little Jeep for exploring. The Jeep grants either of us the freedom to go where we want, when we want. We can enjoy 4×4 terrain not accessible to us in our van. On a more practical note, we have a spare vehicle in the event of a breakdown. And yes, the Jeep is insanely fun to drive.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s become important for us to have the freedom to do things separately sometimes. Go ahead and make your jokes that the honeymoon is over, but all the married couples out there will hear me loud and clear that a little breathing room is essential sometimes.

Brian and I got married a little over a year ago and we live together in our Sprinter van and on our sailboat. We are rarely more than 40 feet away from each other, which is like being roped together on a glacier for years at a time. Yes, we adore each other but sometimes we have different ideas about what to do and when to do it. I want to spend a lot of time with my friends. Brian wants to do endurance adventures which sound too painful for me to want to participate, like 40-50 mile trail runs.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe’ve done pretty well together in a small space, but we were starting to dream of a handy escape pod either of us could use whenever we wanted. We bought a Jeep from a Craigslist seller in St. George, Utah. It was reasonably priced and already had a tow bar! Score!

Immediately after buying it the Jeep began paying big dividends. I was driving it for the first time, following Brian in the Sprinter. Big, black clouds of smoke started to come out of the exhaust pipe of the Sprinter and I texted Brian frantically: “pull over!”. A hose Brian recently replaced came loose and caused the clouds of smoke. No worries, Brian hopped in the Jeep and went to the hardware store to get the correct tool to tighten the hose clamp on the new hose. Problem solved!

12029689_10153817719588072_9194444911192391510_oNext, we arrived in Springdale, Utah. Several of my friends were going to a music festival that night and I hadn’t seen them for several months. I was beyond excited to be with them and Brian wanted to relax that evening and not go out. I raced off in the Jeep and stayed out late with my friends. I felt light, elated, like the world was at my fingertips again. No longer did I need to reach consensus with my partner to go out and impulsively enjoy myself. The next evening I watched an eclipse with the same dear friends, and it became an evening I’ll always remember.

The Jeep has already proven to be a great thing for us and I’m surprised more people are not towing Jeeps behind their vans. As we began to explore the idea of towing a Jeep with our Sprinter we didn’t find much information. A lot of RVs tow Jeeps but it’s rare for a van to tow a Jeep. I think MORE vans should tow Jeeps, since it makes a nomadic lifestyle more satisfying and fun.

One of my goals for this blog is to provide useful information about living in a van, so here are the details about towing the Jeep. I am just the reporter. Brian did the work, and he did a great job!

1. Get a tow bar and trailer hitch, obviously.

2. Add an Auxiliary Braking System to the Jeep
Most RVs towing Jeeps don’t have this, but a Jeep weighs little compared to the monstrous weight of a large RV. Our Jeep weighs about half what our Sprinter does, with an approximate weight of 3,300 pounds for the Jeep and 6,300 pounds for the Sprinter. The brakes on our Sprinter would wear out quickly if they were providing braking for both the Sprinter and the Jeep being towed.

Here is how our auxiliary braking system works. When the brake pedal in the Sprinter is pressed, the auxiliary braking system also presses the brake pedal in the Jeep. We chose the SMI Stay n Play Duo auxiliary brake system and have been happy with it. Brian and our wonderful family member, Tim, installed it in several hours. It does require cutting the brake line, so be ready for that. This braking system is easy to set up each time we tow, with only a simple switch to activate it.

3. MPG
When we’re not towing the Jeep we get about 20 mpg in our Sprinter. While towing the Jeep it decreases to 15 mpg, which we are still pretty happy with.

4. Drivability
Driving the Sprinter while towing the Jeep feels good. Acceleration is a bit slower and so is braking, but otherwise driving it is a smooth experience. Brian and I have both driven it on highways and in cities and we agree it drives well. It is important to go more slowly on highways and to drive defensively in cities, but that’s true anytime a vehicle or trailer is being towed.

5. Never back up while towing the Jeep. No, really! Even if you’re an experienced trailer driver, like Brian, the Jeep is nearly impossible to back up successfully.

I hope after reading this more people with Sprinters will consider the added benefits of towing a Jeep. It has made living in a van better in many ways for Brian and I and we love our Jeep!

On a side note, it’s important to follow proper procedures when towing the Jeep. Towing it incorrectly will ruin the transmission. We had to rebuild the transmission in our Jeep soon after purchasing it, and the shop who repaired it suspected it was towed incorrectly by the previous owner. It’s important to follow a checklist and approach the towing process with the proper diligence. It’s kind of early for us to pay a big repair bill, and we’re quickly learning about the extra love a Jeep needs (and deserves).

IMG_1506 (Large)You know that routine you go through doing the dishes, scrubbing them hard with hot water and smelly antibacterial soap? Stop doing it. It’s totally irrelevant. You’re wasting your time. I’m about to tell you why.

As I adapted to a nomadic existence, some of my routines had to change. I began van life clinging to standard rituals I learned indoors, like washing dishes. Washing dishes was especially challenging in the van with no running water and I couldn’t think of a way to do it that didn’t require carrying an extra container of water and a wash tub. So I got creative. I put my dirty dishes in my gym bag and after working out I would take them into the shower at the gym and wash them!

The showers were private and I never got caught doing this. I also never washed off large pieces of food into the shower at Gold’s Gym. That would be gross. I just did a quick soak, scrub, rinse as I was washing myself and then put the dishes right back in my gym bag before anyone could see what I had been doing. Easy solution.

I know, I probably just lost some of my blog readers. So uncouth, these things van vagabond does. Forgive me, dear readers, for I was just trying to keep my dishes clean and avoid getting sick. I truly believed something terrible would happen to me if I ate from a dirty dish.

During the next few years living in a van I evolved more and so did my dish washing routine. Every now and then I would just have to eat from a dirty dish because I hadn’t been to the gym in a couple days. Each time I ate from a crusty dish I was sure I would get sick. It was like eating from a petri dish, right? The bacteria were sitting there multiplying as the dirty dish sat in my van.

But you know what? I never, ever got sick from doing this. I never got any sort of food poisoning or intestinal distress from eating off dirty dishes. Due to circumstances and just a change of priorities that is bound to happen with such a drastic lifestyle change, I started eating from dirty dishes more and more often. My confidence grew and I realized this wasn’t going to make me sick.

Of course, whenever I would deal with raw meat (which was very rare) I would go through the proper washing procedures and then sterilize the dishes with alcohol-based hand sanitizer gel. I never wanted to test the limits of consuming raw chicken juice. I’m daring, not stupid.

Once I realized a dirty dish probably wouldn’t make me sick, dish washing became merely a matter of aesthetics. I didn’t want little pieces of granola intermingling with my salad so I would give the bowl a good wipe with a wet paper towel between uses. Still, no sickness, so I took it up a notch. I got even lazier.

I stopped washing dishes completely. Now I will only wipe a dish between uses if flavors are strong and will ruin the taste of the next food to go on the dish. For example, a dish must be wiped between a curry stir fry and a bowl of cereal. However, I do no cleaning whatsoever between two savory meals, such as a salad and a stir-fry.

This has been going on for years with no adverse effects. I have tested the limits of crusty dishes, and can assert that you all can safely re-allocate your dish-scrubbing, hot-water-wasting, rubber-glove-wearing time to more important activities.

IMG_1008 (Large)We made the transition from sailboat life to van life on May 1. We put the boat into storage in Guaymas, Mexico and then took a bus to Phoenix to get our sprinter van out of storage. The last few weeks have been incredibly action packed. Wow, has it really been a month since we started living in the van again?

We had three main goals when we reunited with our beloved Sprinter:

1. Get back into shape. Life on the boat tends to be relaxing. It’s difficult to find tough outdoor objectives at sea level without a car or bike to go inland. We’re changing that this fall and bringing bikes onto the boat.

2. Finish customizing the van. We built out the inside of the van in December and all the main components were installed, but smaller things were saved for later.

3. Deal with mail. It’s been six months since I’ve picked up my mail and there will be a large pile to wade through.

P1000068-1 (Large)First, getting into shape. We had a canyoneering fest planned for Memorial Day weekend. Canyoneering tends to serve up big helpings of difficult terrain. I respect the physical demands of this sport and I’ve learned from personal experience that it can be brutal when I’m not in good condition. My last canyoneering trip was in Death Valley, one of the more challenging canyoneering areas. I didn’t train enough for it. I had been living on the boat and jogging at sea level but it wasn’t enough, and the off-trail approach hikes felt grueling at times.

photo (21) (Large)We got back to the US with three weeks to prepare for our upcoming canyoneering trip. We hit the ground running as soon as we arrived in Phoenix and drove straight to Sedona, a mountain biking paradise. The next day I rode one of my favorite trails, the Mescal Trail. Riding was hard but I felt on top of the world. I had been away from my mountain bike for 6 months and had missed it so much. Later that day we went swimming in Sedona at Grasshopper point. After months at sea I craved the feeling of water and even though it was ice cold I swam around in the aerated water below a small waterfall for several minutes. It felt good to experience an adventurous day on land again.

IMG_1053-1 (Large)We continued to bike as hard as we could at least five days per week. We went to Colorado and rode trails at higher elevations. We rode classics like Phil’s World and the Colorado Trail at Junction Creek. We rode every trail we could find that wasn’t muddy, and some that were.

There is nothing like pedaling a bike up the side of a mountain to whip your body into shape. After three weeks of hard riding we went on our canyoneering trip, and we handled the grueling terrain without much difficulty. The three weeks of mountain biking had worked! Canyoneering was still hard. It always is. But I had enough conditioning to perform well, and that felt great.

IMG_1215 (Large)During our mountain biking frenzy, we would use our spare time to customize the interior of the van. I set up a convenient van kitchen with all things in easy reach. Brian installed many accessories like a fan and a rack to hold wine glasses. In such a small space, everything must be done to add organization and storage. Brian dreamed up an idea for a wonderful bungee net above the bed, and it holds a lot of items. Soon I’ll write a post showing our new customizations in more detail.

P1000280 (Large)Ugh. Last topic is mail. I hate mail. After sifting through my mail I had a pile of junk mail three times as high as the mail I care about. I suppose I shouldn’t have let it go this long, but we’ve been busy cruising and scuba diving and the thought of mail was so far away.

The bright spot in my homeless mail situation is definitely the UPS Store. I have had a mail box at their store in Boise, Idaho since I started living in my van in 2009. This is a terrific service. They will send your mail to you wherever you are, and you just pay the postage for forwarding the mail plus a couple dollars. They will even sort out the junk mail beforehand.

P1000116-1 (Large)Having a consistent address is essential for us. When you own property and cars certain agencies absolutely insist on mailing you important things. They refuse to send these things electronically. If you miss mail there can be big penalties, like losing your vehicle registration for missing an emission test, or having your insurance cancelled because you missed a notice in the mail. Mail is a necessary evil.

Now that we’re back in shape and the van has been customized to our liking, we are looking forward to a summer of adventure. We have backpacking, kayaking, canyoneering and kiteboarding on our schedule. It’s going to be quite a summer!

P1410733 (Large)If you’re used to living in a traditional house, living in a van will turn your life inside out. It takes time to harness the new powers granted to you by van life. The extra time and money you now have on your hands are valuable resources. They can be used for personal enrichment and getting ahead financially, or carelessly squandered. I’ve done both.

Most parts of my life are pretty typical. I work, pay taxes, own property and fill my free time with outdoor activities. Instead of traditional housing, I choose to live in a van or on a sailboat. I like the simplicity and flexibility of living in small, mobile spaces. I’m one of the lifers. Even when I‘m taking a break from living in a van I’m thinking about how to start doing it again. After five years of facing the challenges of van life and living the dream, I still want to live this way.

I’ve learned many important lessons along the way which make it easier to embrace this lifestyle long-term.

alaska_office1. Have a job or some other source of income. My remote computer programming job has been such a good thing (as soon as I took it on the road and got out of the office, anyway). Money in the bank eases many concerns on the road. Living in a van is risky, and money helps to mitigate the risks. Something like a vehicle breakdown can cost you your vehicle and your lifestyle in an instant if you don’t have extra cash. Also, don’t you want to enjoy your lifestyle, drive to exciting places, and do incredible things? It’s hard to do that while living in the Wal-Mart parking lot.

There are many employment options for people living in vans. Seasonal work is easy to get in Alaska. Driving your van to Alaska to work for the summer will be an amazing adventure, I guarantee it!

2. Go to the gym or find other ways to exercise. Every day. This is the best use of the extra time you’ll have on your hands now that you’re not cleaning, organizing, and maintaining a home. Going to the gym gets you into an indoor environment so you can enjoy a comfortable temperature and spend time around other people. You can take a hot shower. Getting indoors to escape the heat of summer, and especially the cold of winter, can be very soothing. It feels good to see other people at the gym, whether you talk to them or not. This can reduce feelings of isolation common to van life. Sometimes I would sit in the hot tub at the gym after working out and enjoy a nice conversation.

Plus, exercise is good for your physical and mental health. Taking good care of your health is absolutely paramount while living in a van. Conditions affecting your health will be more difficult to manage when you’re living in a van. You may not have ready access to your family doctor.

P1430442 (Large)3. Find your tribe. Find people who support and encourage your dream to live in a van. Maybe this will be your friends and family, and if so, that’s fantastic. My family wasn’t supportive of my choice to live in a van, but my adventurous canyoneering friends certainly were. They gave me their encouragement, invited me to events, and loved my van as much as I did. Their approval and inclusion meant the world to me. I needed that validation in my early days of vehicle living while I was still figuring it out.

4. Do something meaningful with your money. Once you’re living in a van, you will probably have extra money on your hands. Pay off debts. Save money for a down payment on some investment property like a duplex. Only buy property you can rent out and make a profit on. If it puts money in your pocket when rented, great.

5. Find a house you can go to occasionally while you live in a van. Between trips to Utah and Colorado, I enjoyed parking my van behind a house of roommates while I was in Boise, Idaho. I found them on Craigslist. I felt safe there, had a legal place to park, was able to prepare meals in the kitchen and use the bathroom. Parking behind the “feral house” in Boise was a wonderful time in my life and my roommates were incredible. I contributed $100 per month to the household and helped with utilities. They liked having me around and thought my lifestyle was cool. After I moved on and stopped parking there, one of the roommates started living in an old school bus in my old parking spot.

6. Have a plan for winter. Living in a van in winter can be tough. It’s cold. Days are short. Go south and find a place you enjoy, or plan to spend more time indoors during winter.

7. Don’t be afraid to do it by yourself. Many people are interested in living in a van but hesitant to do it alone. It’s really, really hard to find someone to live in a van with. If you have the chance to pursue this dream, go for it! Don’t worry about finding someone to ride shotgun. Maybe later on you’ll fall in love with someone who absolutely would never want to live in a van. Then you may settle down without ever having the chance to experience this way of life. Don’t put your dreams on hold!

I hope these tips can help more people live in vans successfully. Living in a van can be a beautiful, enriching experience. Let’s defy that old stereotype of “eating government cheese, living in a van down by the river” that we all saw on SNL. There are as many ways to enjoy this lifestyle as there are people doing it!

More van topics:
How I Set Up My Van For Off the Grid Living and Working
Living and Working Remotely as a Computer Programmer

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are so many ways to select and customize a sprinter. First, we had to think about our priorities. Second, we had to find a reliable sprinter and didn’t want to spend $50,000 on a new vehicle. Buying a used sprinter in decent shape is a tall order. They are typically commercial delivery vehicles which are sold when the mileage is high and the interior is used up.

We found a sprinter in fantastic shape with low miles at a reasonable price, but it also had a short body – one of the shortest that is offered. We could search for months before finding another sprinter this nice, and it was also only 20 minutes from where we were staying in Phoenix. It just seemed like it was meant to be, so we quickly scooped up this nice little sprinter. We would have less room for storage than we would in one of the longer sprinters, but still a little more than in Vanifest, our current 4×4 Dodge van.

Really, the biggest question was how much were we willing to minimize. Our answer? Plenty!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis small space needed to be designed for maximum efficiency, and we also only had three weeks to complete the conversion before going back to Mexico. We would be staying with Brian’s family for the holidays and they generously allowed us to use their garage and tools for the project. There was a deadline, though. They were preparing to rent their house and spend a year travelling in an RV. This is why the customization had to be finished so quickly.

The project was such a whirlwind. Brian did amazing things with our conversion and I am so incredibly proud of the work he’s done on our new home. First he created a project plan and ordered everything online. The FedEx and UPS trucks made daily stops at the house, sometimes more than once a day. Brian spent a lot of time on the roof of the van installing two large solar panels and a nice roof rack for kayaks.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHe did all the custom carpentry for the interior and his skills grew exponentially throughout the duration of the project. In the beginning, we didn’t know the true dimensions of a 2 x 4 and were shocked to find out they were actually 1.5 x 3.5 and all our measurements would need to be recalculated. Brian quickly figured out how to use simple plywood and 2 x 4’s to create custom cabinets, a bed platform, a vented box with a gasket for the propane canister and a protective box for the huge auxiliary battery under the bed. He removed and re-installed the headliner to install insulation underneath, plumbed the sink and propane fittings, and cut a corian counter top so it would hold a recessed refrigerator and a sweet combination sink/stove. He even hunted down special hinges online which would hold the upper cabinet doors up when they were open.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHe also did all the electrical wiring and installed RGB LED lights which can produce every color of the rainbow. I really wanted these special lights and they are so enchanting. Last but not least, he installed a wonderful heater which will sip a small amount of diesel to provide as much safe interior heat as we would ever want. All that is left to do is to have a sprinter technician drop the fuel tank and install a stand pipe to feed diesel fuel to the heater.

Brian has made my van dreams come true. Oh, how I love this man! I did what I could to assist, like painting, sanding, and making curtains. He did everything else.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was not able to get many photos of the van after the conversion and I plan to do a better write up with more photos after we return to the US this spring. Toward the end of the project I became very sick. And I mean sicker than I have ever been. I picked up a scary respiratory illness in Phoenix and struggled all night to breathe. I felt like we may need to call an ambulance at any moment as I struggled to get enough oxygen. We went to an Urgent Care clinic and found out this kind of thing is very common in Phoenix with all the dust and exotic plants there. This had been my longest stay in Phoenix, and I was also exposed to a lot of dust from the project and stress during the holidays. The nurse just gave me a routine breathing treatment and an inhaler and sent me on my way. It was my first time using an inhaler, exciting!

We had plane tickets to fly to Mexico in two days, and I wondered whether we should stay in Phoenix with the Urgent Care clinic just minutes away, or leave the area since something there was making me very sick. Should I go to Mexico with this health issue looming? Do I trust my body to recover, or will this problem get worse in Mexico?

To be continued…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABrian and I got a new van! Ever since the van vagabond dream began in 2009, I’ve wanted a Dodge (or Mercedes) Sprinter for better gas mileage and a higher roof which would allow me to stand up inside. We found the perfect Sprinter in Phoenix, Arizona, where we’re taking a break from sailing for the holidays.

So where is Vanifest, our beloved 4×4 Dodge Ram Van and former home?

Vanifest is stored in Alaska, lovingly wrapped in a large tarp and sitting at Brian’s family’s fish camp near Kenai. I miss Vanifest and a part of my heart is still up there in Alaska with it. We plan to fly to Alaska next summer to rendezvous with Vanifest for fun and adventure. We’ll leave Vanifest in Alaska and live in “Sprinterfest” in the lower 48.

The story of finding Sprinterfest is not as dramatic as the one of finding Vanifest (which I’m writing about in a book about my first year in a van), but I believe all van stories are worth telling.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe bought the very first Sprinter we looked at. We knew we wanted as many windows as possible and a vehicle with low mileage. We also knew we had to have a Sprinter; no other van would do. We searched Craigslist and found exactly what we wanted. We test drove it around 10:30 am, took it to the mechanic that afternoon, gave the seller a cashier’s check and then went to the DMV for license plates. It was the day before Thanksgiving and the DMV clerks were in a festive mood. One of them wore a red ball cap topped with a comical turkey head bobbing around on a long neck. It would bounce around as she did her job, which we liked watching as we waited.

IMG_0729 (Large)Our new plates in hand, we went on a quest to find a new mattress for the Sprinter that evening. Vanifest has a full sized memory foam mattress and that is one of the things I like best about van life. I had my heart set on a nice bed and preferred to buy it before our canyoneering trip to Death Valley. We planned to leave the next morning. There is nothing better than sleeping on a nice bed at the end of a long day in a canyon. I know how soft that sounds but it’s true.

We drove around Phoenix until 9:00 pm looking for a mattress, down comforter, sheets and pillows. We finally found the perfect mattress at Ikea.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next day, we tossed canyoneering gear into the Sprinter and drove it to Death Valley. We got 24 MPG, which is double Vanifest’s mileage! To the right is a photo of the new Sprinter in true canyon fest mode, shuttling our friends Louis and Everett back to their vehicle after a day of canyoneering. We love our new Sprinter. We plan to customize it over the next few weeks and make it a nice home with storage, solar panels, a stove and even a sink. I had a lot of fun writing about Vanifest’s customization here, and will do a similar write up about the Sprinter when it’s complete.

I have great news – Vanifest is fixed, runnning well and preparing to make the long trek to Alaska again this summer! Vanifest’s leaf springs failed last month in California, creating the “perfect storm” for much inconvenience and expense as we got stranded in the California ghetto with a packed schedule of adventures ahead of us and and no transportation to get there.

A shop in Richmond, California took apart Vanifest’s front end and then couldn’t remount the leaf springs because one of them broke when it was removed. Therefore, Vanifest was stuck at that shop and became difficult to move. There was not much we could do but wait for the shop to work on our van.

The shop certainly took their sweet time (over 2 weeks) to fabricate new leaf springs for Vanifest.

IMG_0327 (Large)The shop was in a place we did NOT want to spend weeks waiting. We went there for a sailing class but otherwise this was not a fun place to hang out. There was nowhere to camp. The less expensive motels were rumored to be infested with roaches and frequented by prostitutes. The more expensive motels were completely booked. The best thing we found was an inner city community garden with some incredibly cute chickens nesting in raised garden beds.

In the midst of this crisis, we lost faith in Vanifest and started talking about getting a new van that would be more reliable. I cried after spending the second night in the lot of the auto shop and finding out they had no estimate when the repair would be done. I ended up missing one of my favorite canyoneering fests of the year. I had an important project coming up in Boise I had been planning for months. I made plans with the local television show Outdoor Idaho to take them along on a two day canyoneering trip in the Idaho backcountry for one of their upcoming shows. With a dozen people committed to this project, I couldn’t really reschedule it.

10357752_10204044871260943_5740297626429417380_oThings were looking dark, and then Brian saved the day by renting a big SUV. We were ecstatic to escape from the auto shop parking lot! We loaded all our toys into the SUV and cheered as we drove away, leaving Vanifest behind for an undetermined length of time. We drove the rental car back to Boise and got Brian’s Toyota 4-Runner out of storage. A couple weeks later, the Outdoor Idaho show had been filmed and Vanifest was finally fixed. Brian flew to California at 6 AM one Saturday, and drove all the way back to Boise in one day.

Now that the “family” is reunited (Brian, Lisa, Vanifest), we are back in love with Vanifest and ready to enjoy a summer in Alaska. The dream is alive again!

photo (12) (Large)Living in a van and having adventures all the time is great. Except when it’s not. We just spent two nights living in the van in the parking lot of an auto repair shop in Richmond, California. My, how our fortune changed from free van camping by the ocean and mountain biking in a forest of redwoods to cooking dinner on our propane stove in a dirty, noisy parking lot in the California ghetto. The prognosis for the van isn’t good, either. One of Vanifest’s leaf springs was on its last leg, and when the shop took apart the front end one of the leaf springs completely cracked when it was removed. The shop is having trouble finding another one since Vanifest has a custom suspension and they are unfamiliar with the vehicle. I truly think they’re a competent shop doing their best, but our van is special. Oh, how I wish I were closer to my mechanics in Boise, Idaho at Oakley-Moody. They could always do anything for the van, but now they are too far away to help.

photo (13) (Large)The van has been making a banging sound since our Grand Canyon trip, and although a $1000 trip to a shop in Phoenix decreased the sound, it slowly returned and then became louder as we drove the coastal highway in California. By the time we reached Richmond where I was scheduled to take a three day sailing course, Vanifest was banging loudly on even minor bumps in the road. Driving through San Francisco traffic with the van making scary noises was distressing and we were very happy to arrive at the marina safely. We camped next to the marina, and the next morning took Vanifest into the shop.

I hope this story will have a happy ending.

To be continued…


About the Author

Hi, I’m Lisa. I’m a tall, blonde superhero and I live in a van and on a sailboat with my superhero husband, Brian. I do it all. I rappel big waterfalls, scuba dive with sharks, dodge encounters with bears and wolves, and work remotely as a full time computer programmer.
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About the Van

Hi, I’m Vanifest. I’m a big, 4x4, off-the-grid van complete with solar panel for power. I'm a 2000 Dodge Ram Van and Lisa has had me since 2009. Read more about me here.


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