Category Archives: All About My Off the Grid Van

P1410733 (Large)Imagine a workday like this. You wake up in a beautiful location. You look out the window at the sun coming up over several layers of forested mountains. You’re parked right next to a quiet lake and can see small fish jumping, creating concentric circles on the flat surface of the water in the soft morning light. You don’t need an alarm clock because the light streaming through the windows signals that it’s time to wake up and begin another joyful, productive day of work.

You get up, make coffee and get to work immediately on your laptop in your camp chair. There are no distractions here, no co-workers to come over and ask about your weekend, your favorite sporting team, or to describe their cat’s recent, fascinating activities. There is no commute. There is also no complicated routine involving fancy clothing, make up or hair styling. Because work begins at 7 AM, the afternoon is free for biking, climbing, reading or just relaxing.

alaska_officeThis is the remote work lifestyle I’ve been enjoying for over 3 years. I feel extremely fortunate to have such freedom and because of the perks this job offers, I am a very loyal employee. I have an office and go there occasionally but usually I just work from the van in beautiful, remote locations with good cell service. Some of my favorite places to work have been right next to a roaring rapid at my campsite in Alaska, or next to a river in Idaho where kayakers paddled by as Brian and I sat there working on our laptops. Over the summer, I spent 7 weeks on a remote work trip in Alaska, British Columbia and the Yukon.

virgin_riverThis camp along the Virgin River Gorge in Southern Utah was one of the finest ever, with both roadrunner and coyote sightings (at different times) and a great mountain bike trail, the Jem Trail, right across the river. We stayed here in late October when the weather was glorious and the trees were bright with fall colors.

How is this lifestyle possible, when a full time job seems analogous to being chained to a desk, or confined to an inhumane cubicle for at least 40 hours per week?

P1410108 (Large)It’s possible because working remotely is the best situation for both my employer and myself. The alternative is hunkering down in a cubicle or office to produce software 40-80 hours per week. I know how that feels because I did it for a decade. Often I wasn’t as productive as I could have been. The working conditions were sometimes dark, distracting or otherwise uncomfortable. Food (and other) smells drift through the air in a sea of cubicles. A co-worker’s family drama can permeate the work environment as sounds of children being disciplined by phone are overheard. The office can be a very social place, with co-workers stopping by to chat on a regular basis, either with you or with the people around you.

792268_10200592147745013_1936272389_oEven in this wonderful office I have at my current job, distractions are numerous. Even when I close the door, I see people walking by and overhear conversations outside my office. Each time a programmer is distracted from concentrating on a technical task, it will take at least 10 minutes to return to full concentration and productivity. Imagine this happening once or twice each hour, and you can see why programming productivity is greatly reduced in an office environment. Although some programmers thrive on the collaborative environment of an office, some may find themselves many times more productive when working independently.

It just makes sense to offer a programmer peace and solitude to concentrate on technical tasks and create quality software products. It can make the programmer happier and easier to retain, too. These are the reasons programming can work well with a remote lifestyle when the programmer is able to work autonomously.

P1410876 (Large)How can you convince your employer to let you do this? First, pay your dues by working at least a couple years in your position. At least, that’s what I did before I was granted permission to work remotely. Get really good at your job. Your level of remote work freedom will be directly proportional to your talent, the value you add and the level of dependence your employer has on your fine work. Make yourself indispensable and the remote work lifestyle becomes easier to negotiate. With one or two great performance reviews under your belt, it’s completely reasonable to request a trial period where you will work remotely for say, two weeks.

During this trial period, you are going to work very hard on something that will delight your employer. Or just try to increase your productivity noticeably. You’ll want to prove this lifestyle works for you and that it’s in everyone’s best interest to allow you to continue this way, free from the distractions of the office. You may need to come in for an occasional meeting, but for the most part you are free to travel and work via a laptop and smartphone with Wi-Fi. Why not? Communication via email and phone is usually sufficient and in-person meetings can be scheduled when they are needed.

P1420022 (Large)I’ve been at my current job as a senior programmer at a University nearly eight years, and the ability to work remotely has been one of the major factors in staying this long. On my last performance review I received the highest rating, excellent. The remote lifestyle works!

Not all jobs are suited for this, but many computer programming positions certainly are. I’m surprised more coders don’t pursue remote work situations. Adventurous people who are interested in a nomadic lifestyle may want to consider a career in computer programming. After all, just look at the places we’ve lived and worked. This is the best job ever.

How I set up my 4x4 van for off the grid living and working - Van Vagabond Adventure BlogThis is Vanifest, my beloved year 2000 Dodge Ram Van 3500. When you live in a van it must be named. Vanifest is the longest model of Dodge Ram Van (19 feet) and had been converted to 4×4 before I purchased it. It also has a 3 inch lift. It’s big and creepy, and it keeps people away when I’m parked at night. I have only been approached twice while boondocking in my van, and I’ve been sleeping in random places since 2010.

When I bought Vanifest, I wanted to create a rolling, off the grid cabin. I designed a solar power system and picked out all the components online. I then had a local shop install the components since I don’t have the skills to tackle an electrical project like this (although I hear it’s not that difficult). Below are the components I chose.

2013-06-14_08-46-38_637 (Medium)130 watt solar panel. This panel is designed for a house, but it also easily attaches to the van roof. It was a good price for the large amount of wattage it provided and that was why I chose it over a specialized vehicle solar panel which tend to be smaller and more expensive. Click on the photo at right to see the solar panel.

200 amp hour, sealed, agm battery. This battery is a beast and weighs over 100 pounds. I had a custom plywood box built for it to enclose it, but for smaller batteries plastic boxes are available. Once again, the plywood box was the cheaper solution. The plywood box is bolted to the floor under my bed and vented to the outside through a small, plastic vent. In the unlikely event the sealed battery offgasses, the gasses go outside through the vent and not into the sleeping area. I didn’t want to take any chances with this huge battery right under my bed.

2000 watt pure sine wave inverter. Being a computer geek, it was important to me to keep my electronics safe while plugged in. The pure sine wave is safer for electronics.

Battery isolator. This is a small box which goes under the hood of the Vanifest. It charges the battery from the van alternator when I’m driving.

shoppingThe solar system is spectacular! I can power a 1500 watt appliance for about 5 minutes each day, such as the electric kettle at left which boils water in just a couple minutes. Boiled water is handy for coffee, soup mixes or rice noodles. It allows me to use my propane camp stove less. I also have plenty of power for smaller items like my laptop (and curling iron, blow dryer, haha) whenever I want. The amount of power available is highly variable based on the sun and amount of driving I do, but for my lifestyle it has worked out well. I like to spend time in sunny areas and tend to move around every couple days. I did a lot of calculations to decide how much power I needed, and I recommend you do the same. Then, get twice or four times the battery you think you need. There are two reasons for this.

Using up all the power in the battery will damage it over time. It’s best to just sip 50% of the power and only on rare occasions take it lower than 50%.

Sometimes you need more power than anticipated. Maybe the sun isn’t strong, or you haven’t done much driving lately to charge the battery from the alternator.

IMGP2496 (Medium)In addition to the solar power, I got a few items to make the van experience more comfortable. These items have made the van lifestyle so much better for me and I think most van dwellers would benefit greatly from these items.

Engel Refrigerator. This is a wonderful, tough 12 volt refrigerator which uses very little power. I have it hooked up to my sealed battery and it’s draw is so low I hardly even notice it. Click on the picture at right to see the Engel. Ice is expensive and so is ruined food, so I feel this expensive fridge was a good investment.

Thetford Portable Toilet. I don’t have any desire for the stress of searching for a bathroom early in the morning, hair rumpled, looking homeless. This porta potti is always ready when I need it, doesn’t smell at all when properly closed, is easy to empty in an outhouse and fits right under the sleeping platform.

Mr Heater Buddy Portable Propane Heater. Yes, you can sleep with this heater on but I usually just turn it on in the morning or evening when I relax in the van. It doesn’t use much propane and quickly warms the interior of the van. It has some neat safety features, too, like automatically shutting off if tipped or if the CO2 sensor detects that there is too much CO2 due to the heated area not being vented enough. I just crack a window open in my van and this has never been a problem.

P1430293 (Medium)Six Gallon Aquatainer. I went through some other inferior water containers before finding the perfect one. This one seals completely and doesn’t leak, is easy to pour from, and has a flat surface for food preparation. In my Dodge Ram Van, it’s easy to position the spout at the side door over the plastic step. This allows for easy water pouring while cooking or cleaning up.

After three years of heavy use, I can happily report that the van is perfect for me and makes my lifestyle pretty comfortable. I have power, heat, water, a refrigerator and a toilet. The van is a pretty self sufficient little home. I do rely on dump stations or outhouses to empty the toilet, faucets to refill the water, and propane to run the heater and camp stove. I only need to worry about these things once per week at most, and could go much longer if needed.

Now, to decorate the van and make it girly and comfortable. You can read about how I did that here.

How a solo female customized her 4x4 van for comfort using minimal toolsThe essential living components of the Vanifest, such as the solar panel, battery and accessories are covered in this previous post: How I Set Up My Van for Off the Grid Living and Working.

Now I will show what I did to decorate the interior and make it comfortable and pretty. I started with a fairly blank canvas when I bought Vanifest. The previous owner was a man and he hadn’t decorated Vanifest except for putting cool bumper stickers on the interior. He installed a great sleeping platform made of wood which is still in the van and now has a plush memory foam mattress on it with many girly accessories. Otherwise Vanifest was empty and ready for customization. First, I insulated the roof and covered it with two polka-dotted twin-sized flat bed sheets.

P1430294 (Medium)P1430295 (Medium)The roof was bare metal, and as soon as the sun would shine on it the metal became hot and the entire van started to heat up like an oven. The solution? Sheets of pink foam glued to the ceiling with a generous coating of liquid nails. All the supplies were purchased at Home Depot and the project was pretty inexpensive. The pink foam insulation made a surprising difference in the amount of heat radiating into the van when the sun would shine on the metal roof. It also helped a little bit with insulating from the cold.

The next step was to cover the foam with something that looked nice. Once the foam was tightly adhered to the ceiling, I pinned two twin sized bed sheets over it. I used upholstery pins which are curly and can be twisted so they really bite into the foam and help the sheet stay put. No longer was the inside of the van a big, green, metal shell. Now it had a nice upholstered ceiling which was easy to change whenever I wanted to redecorate in the future.

P1390631 (Medium)I definitely wanted a nice bed. I got a memory foam mattress and the finest sheets I could find on I also got a high end down comforter from, and it’s very fluffy and warm. I got a designer duvet cover and matching shams. I also got four pillows. All around the bed are windows where I can see the sun come up and light streaming in. The sleeping area is soft and girly. It makes the van feel like home. I even found a 12 volt heated mattress pad, which is really delightful and even allows me to comfortably sleep in temperatures below zero. One February I boondocked near Arches National Park in southern Utah, and the temperatures dipped to -20. I cranked up my heating pad, slept with warm pajamas and a hat, and was pretty comfortable.

IMGP2501 (Medium)The other customizations in the van have changed over the years. At first, I wanted to bring a lot of stuff and needed a lot of drawers for storage. At that time I had two towers of plastic drawers from Wal-Mart and a small ottoman for storage. The photo at right is the first setup of the van in 2010. Clearly I didn’t have a boyfriend back then, because all my interior van customizations were crudely installed with zip ties and i-bolts. I would drill a hole through the floor of the van, install an i-bolt, and then attach things to it with zip ties. I gooped silicone caulk all over the bottom of the van where the i-bolts protuberated. Crude, yes, but everything stayed in place and didn’t fly around when I drove 4×4 roads. It was also pretty satisfying to design and customize the interior myself with minimal tools.

P1390634 (Medium)Over the years Vanifest evolved into a more social space. I wanted to invite friends into the van on chilly evenings and after a couple years of van travel, I became comfortable with the idea of less stuff. Here is the current setup of the van with only one tower of drawers and a small couch. The “couch” is actually an underbed drawer from Ikea with a lid that flips up for storage. A nice Home Depot employee took an interest in the project and cut some 2x4s and pieces of melamine to the perfect dimensions so I could finish and install the couch with only a drill, i-bolts and zip ties. Girly carpentry was at work once again. To top off the couch, a friend helped me create a pretty cushion for it. Now the van has a nice social space as well as plenty of storage!

P1390667 (Medium)The kitchen in the van includes an extensive selection of spices which are affixed to the door of the van in small glass jars attached with strong magnets. The photo at right shows the spice jars, and the little “chasing the sun” graphic is something I came up with for my 2 month long solo journey north to Alaska during summer. The further north I drove, the more sun I would get.

For cooking in the van, I use an electric water kettle, which runs off the solar powered electrical system. Also, my propane camp stove comes out when more complex dishes are created. Cooking in the wilderness is a lot fun, especially when I have a lot of time on my hands at a remote location. Raw salads are very convenient, and I also love making spring rolls, quesadillas, polenta, stir fry, and other fancy meals.

P1410687 (Medium)After many refinements, the current set up seems perfect and the the van is my favorite home of my entire life. I’ve spent all the previous years of my life in big, comfortable houses but Vanifest is better. It’s simple, pretty, comfortable and I can choose my location every day. I can open up my doors to any view I want and enjoy it as my home for as long as I want. Oceans, rivers, trees, mountains, lakes: the choice is mine. This is the best lifestyle I can imagine. Having a comfortable living space which is aesthetically pleasing, pleasurable and economical makes this a viable lifestyle.

After three years of living in my van full and part time as a single lady, I finally have someone to share this wonderful lifestyle with! Here is the story of how we met.

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P1390884 (Medium)I have this habit of sleeping in my van on little side roads with great views. After three years of doing this, it finally got me in trouble. I like the quiet and solitude of these side roads. I feel safer in the middle of nowhere than I do at a campground or rest stop. I also have all I need in my van, so why would I seek out an outhouse and running water? My full sized memory foam mattress, porta potti and two 5 gallon water jugs meet my needs.

I also have this habit of driving whatever road I please and not thinking much about it. If it’s a road, I can drive it with my 2 feet of clearance and 10 ply tires. Even if it’s not a road, maybe I can still drive it. I guess I was a little overconfident about my van’s abilities. The Alaska wilderness tends to smack down those who are overconfident.

P1390933 (Medium)It was the evening of the summer solstice and I was driving the Top of the World road in the Yukon. The time was around 10 PM and the sky was still filled with soft, yellow, arctic light. The entire road follows a ridge line with layers of mountains on either side. Anywhere I camped would have had a great view. I started exploring the little roads branching off the Top of the World road. Some were slippery from the recent rain but I barely noticed. I just rolled around the back country, scouting for a supreme camp to celebrate the longest day of the year.

Then I saw a little tan ribbon sloping gently upward to a rounded green summit, taller than anything else around. This was my solstice camp. I have a policy of investing only a mile or two in a side road. If it doesn’t look promising by then, I turn around. At about mile 1 the road turned rough but was no problem for the van. I decided to keep going and turned a blind eye to the obstacles because the van was able to drive right over them. The ruts and rocks didn’t matter. I was headed for my solstice summit.

I encountered some mud that looked like nothing at all. It was a short patch of mud and it didn’t even look wet. It was the only place along the road where a bunch of small logs and steel mesh littered the side, though. Those must have been used for traction. This should have been my first clue this place had trapped a lot of people.

I was confident my van could do it. I slowly pressed on right into the middle of the mud patch. The front tires spun and wouldn’t get traction. No problem. I backed up, moved over a couple feet and tried a different spot. Moving to the right two feet sank my front passenger tire so deeply into a patch of gooey tundra mud that the van would no longer move at all. I could also see that with each press on the accelerator my front passenger tire was only sinking deeper into the goo.

P1390949The other three tires were on solid ground but it didn’t matter. With the one tire clutched in the mud I wasn’t going anywhere. I got out and started digging through the mud with a plastic cutting board. I didn’t even have a real shovel. The cutting board was sturdy and was pretty effective with its sharp corners. It must have been a ridiculous sight for any animals watching me from their hiding spots. Clouds of mosquitoes tried to bite through my special mesh shirt as I dug vigorously among the bright green tundra plants with my plastic cutting board at midnight.

I didn’t lose my composure, but I was afraid. Really afraid. I didn’t understand how this mud trapped me so quickly and so completely. It had looked like nothing at all. Were there other threats I just had no clue about, waiting to smack me down? My whole sense of confidence about the trip felt shaken.

I persevered with my plastic cutting board and freed my front passenger tire from its wet, muddy cocoon. I put branches under the tire and propped logs behind it, but the tire just spun helplessly no matter how much wood I placed around it. All I needed was a little push to get me onto the logs, and it would have been an easy downhill push at that. Now that the tire was dug out, all I needed was a push to get the tire moving while I pressed lightly on the gas. There was absolutely no way to hit the gas and push the van at the same time. That was the most frustrating part about this ordeal. I felt helpless. A small problem had suddenly become a crisis because I was alone. Why did I do this drive alone? Why, why, why?

Would anyone even come up this road tonight to help? The Top of the World road is already incredibly remote, and then I took a side road to get even more remote. What sort of person would show up and would they be helpful or creepy? Whoever showed up would find out I was by myself with no way to escape. I couldn’t let worry take over. I just had to trust that things would work out. A good person would help or give me a ride to cell service. I could pay money to retrieve my van, although as far as I was from services it was hard to imagine the bill I would incur for this.

At midnight the light was still streaming in the windows of the van. I needed to get some sleep. I put up my blackout curtains and tried to get comfortable on the bed with the van pitched toward the right. I propped myself up with several pillows and started to form a plan for finding help. It would be safer to ask for help during the day so I decided to stay here for a few more hours. If no one came by morning I would walk down to the Top of the World road around 10 am and try to flag down a big pickup truck. I would hope to find a burly truck capable of navigating this road, with a driver willing to help with a stranger’s muddy mess. I realized this was a lot to ask and I would need to find a person with a heart the size of the entire state of Alaska.

It was difficult to sleep because I felt the constant urge to get out and dig more to try to get free. It was hard to admit that I couldn’t do anymore to fix this. The more I spun the tires trying to get free, the lower the van sank. The front axle was already lightly touching the ground. I would only make things worse if I drove the axle into the mud.

I finally slept a bit and had euphoric dreams of rescue. I awoke and wondered if this was really happening. Yes, I was still sleeping on a severe incline in the middle of nowhere. It was really happening. Back to sleep. I heard dogs barking in the distance. Back to sleep.

Finally the restless night was over and I gathered my valuables in my backpack and began the “walk of shame” down to the Top of the World road. My tail was tucked and it was time to admit I underestimated the Alaska wilderness. Immediately I noticed fresh wolf tracks on the road and I remembered waking to the sound of dogs barking last night. I realized those were wolves and they probably traveled this road last night to investigate my van. I was completely on edge. I had to talk myself through the entire 30 minute walk to the road. Ok, 20 more minutes to go before I was at the road and near other people. OK, now only 5. Almost there. I tried to sing to calm my nerves. I recalled my plans to hike solo during my trip. How can I possibly hike solo in Alaska if this 30 minute walk inspires this much terror?

I reached the road and saw a truck pulling a fifth wheel camper. I didn’t even care it wasn’t the type of truck I envisioned for a rescue. I flagged them down and started rapidly describing the events and asked what they thought I should do next. I probably sounded like a crazy person. They said they would give me a ride to the border so I could call for help. These people represented safety, which I had craved for the last 12 hours. I didn’t want to hang out on the side of the road with the wolves until the right truck came along. I looked at the clean interior of their truck and kind faces. Everything I saw looked so very safe and comforting. I got in.

They were travelling with another couple. When we all met up a couple miles down the road I described the situation and showed them pictures of the stuck van. They said it didn’t look so bad. They started to look for tow straps and unhooked the truck from their trailer. It was a smaller truck but maybe it could navigate the road. If we could reach my van there was a good chance we could free it from the mud. I just felt ecstatic to have found someone who would even try at all.

We started up the road and the first mile went smoothly. When the small truck hit the first rough spots we got nervous and almost turned around. They said they had no idea why I would drive this terrible road by choice, why it even existed in the first place, and I needed to have my head examined. I heartily agreed with all statements. They pushed past the terrible obstacles on the road and we finally arrived at my trapped van.

We connected webbing from the front of their truck to the rear bumper of my van and I got behind the wheel to gently give it gas. With just a little tugging the tire was freed from its cauldron of mud and now my ecstasy could not be contained. I got out, saw I was free and started jumping up and down with happiness. Thank you! I yelled to them and threw my hands in the air with delight. I wasn’t stuck anymore and could drive out of here without paying for a rescue. Ecstasy.

I felt so grateful. I offered money but they refused, so I grabbed a copy of my Idaho Canyoneers book and wrote inside: “To my Top of the World angels, may you receive 10x the blessings you have bestowed upon me. Much love, Lisa.” What else could I have done to show my gratitude for the kindness of these strangers? Now, when they tell the story about the woman from Idaho they helped out of a jam, they have photographic evidence.

P1390960 (Medium)We made it back to the highway and posed for photos together by the van. This rescue would be a treasured memory for all of us.

As I rolled down the road away from my angels, I felt so filled with gratitude I hoped I would have the opportunity to help someone else along this road. Usually helping someone is just an impulsive act when the need arises, but today I really wanted an opportunity to pass on the kindness I just received.

About 30 minutes later, I got my chance. I passed a group of bikers clustered around a motorcycle. I pulled over and saw they were working on a flat tire. The tire had been patched but the patch wasn’t holding. There’s nowhere to get a tire out here and the owner of the bike looked concerned. I happen to have a lot of supplies for fixing a tire and surely this big group of bikers will know how to use them.

P1390979 (Medium)I was excited to help and started grabbing my repair items. The first thing I produced from the van wouldn’t work on a motorcycle, but the second thing I produced was a true motorcycle tire repair kit. I’m not sure why I chose it several years ago at Walmart since I’ve never even owned a motorcycle, but it rode around in my van until the perfect moment arrived. I presented the kit to a very happy recipient, and after chatting with the group for about 10 minutes the tire was fixed and holding air! Now this new friend with the previously flat tire had the same light in his eyes that I had earlier. Maybe he felt the same swelling in his heart that comes from a total stranger seeing your distress and caring enough to solve your problem. He wanted to pay me for the kit but I said, “no, that’s ok”, and I told him what happened to me earlier that day. He was all smiles. He rode away on his bike and I rode away in my van.

What could have been the lesson in all this? We may try to be self-sufficient but some problems just cannot be solved alone. This realization up on the tundra in the mud shook me to the core, but it also forced me to trust in “people helping people”. This is probably the best thing to trust in, anyway, and it provides more protection than control and planning ever can. We’re never really in control of our own safety, anyway.


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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