Every so often, as I’m mindlessly scrolling through Instagram, I come across a staged, romanticized picture of “van life”. You’ve seen these. It’s usually a couple sitting outside an $80,000 pristine, luxury vehicle just after dusk. They seem to be traveling with a 4 foot potted cactus, 16 floors pillows, a projector, screen, and 50 feet of white string lights. There may or may not be a guitar involved. These photos irritate me. Like, where did you shower and curl your hair, and is that a charcuterie board you have there? They just aren’t honest reflections of what it’s really like to be on the road – at least, in my experience.
So, my aim here is to be precisely not that. I have some utilitarian advice – mostly knowledge gained from messing up. And, luckily for you, reader, I’ve messed up a lot.
Everyone has a different rig, budget, route and objectives, so I’ll try to keep this general.
Have a full size spare and jack, and be comfortable changing a tire. It’s easy. If you’ve never done it before, find a youtube video and figure it out in the driveway before you go. Make sure you have a tire gauge and jumper cables too.
Pay attention to your fluid levels. Especially if (like me) you’re driving an older vehicle. Everyone knows to check oil and coolant, but don’t forget transmission fluid. This can sometimes be tucked away in the back / a little more difficult to get to, but figure it out, because a transmission fluid leak can be catastrophic. For example, once upon a time, I had a leak I didn’t know about and ended up blowing the transmission and consequently spent the next 2 weeks living in a mechanic’s parking lot in rural Oklahoma. Lesson learned.
On Where to Sleep
The truth is not every night will be spent somewhere with a view. There will be times when you are just trying to cover ground and in those instances, especially if you’re on a major highway, truck stops might be the best option. Many of them have free WiFi, the others usually have WiFi available for a fee. What they also have is super nice showers. Seriously, truck stop showers are fantastic. They are clean, safe, and absolutely worth the $8-$15 dollars you’ll pay for them. It isn’t actually just a shower either. You’re given a large bathroom with a toilet, sink and (generally) a huge shower. They almost always provide towels as well. There is no time limit, so you can go in there, take a deep breath, and pretend you’re in a nice hotel. (Side note: another option around showering is to get a Planet Fitness membership that allows you to visit any branch in the country. That runs about $20/ month, and if you’ll be spending a lot of time in towns, rather than boondocking, it might be worth it.)
The parking situation at truck stops varies, but keep this in mind: If you are parked among 18-wheelers, truckers will be coming and going at all hours. They are exhausted and when they pull in at 3AM, they are looking to avoid hitting semi-trucks, but when they are reversing, they may not see your little van tucked in there among the giants. So, park somewhere out of the way, where you are unlikely to be accidentally backed into. (Yes, this happened to me.)
Not All Walmarts are Created Equal
Not all Walmarts allow you to stay overnight, and they will ask you to move. Especially on the West coast. Ask the parking lot attendants, because the official company line and what actually happens may not be in perfect alignment, and these people will know what’s up. Other large retailers like Lowes, Home Depot, and Costco might also be options – again, ask the parking attendants. Most Cracker Barrels allow overnight parking and I’ve even stayed in 24 hour McDonalds lots. (McDonalds has solid free WiFi too).
National & State Parks
National and state parks are wonderful, and they are the highlights of many of our trips. Here’s my two cents on those. If you plan to go to more than two national parks over the course of a year, it is worth getting the National Parks Pass, which costs about $100, and lasts 1 year. The entry fee for National Parks is usually in the $40 range. State parks are less expensive. While some may have campgrounds, they are usually pretty pricey (again, state parks less so). My advice is to go enjoy the parks and see all the sights / use the facilities during the day, and when it’s time to set up camp, drive just outside the bounds of the park. In many cases, the surrounding area is federal/ public land you’re able to camp on for free. You can find maps through the Bureau of Land Management website: www.blm.gov/maps
Public Libraries: I’m a librarian now, but I wasn’t prior to my last big trip, and at that time I had no idea the extent of services and resources public libraries provide. If you’re going to be in a town for more than a day, I would look into it. Many libraries now have what they call a “library of things”, and you can borrow all kinds of stuff. Every library will be different, but chromebooks, WiFi hotspots, household tools, sewing machines, lawn games, binoculars, and bike locks are all examples of what you might be able to borrow… also, they often have books. They’ll have free wifi as well, and if you need information about the town (or anything else), it turns out librarians really are an excellent source. (You may be thinking, “but I won’t have a library card”. At my library, we let people get a card even if they will only be in town a day or two, and I know many libraries are like that. If not, explain your situation, I would bet on them working with you.)
Ask the locals. About everything – where to go, what to do, where the best tacos are, etc. I find this question effective: “If you had a friend visiting from out of town, who had never been here before, where would you take them?” This usually helps bypass the typical tourist traps people feel obliged to tell you about. When I asked people in Sedona, AZ that question, more than one of them said, “actually, I’d go to Jerome”, which is a small town about 40 minutes from Sedona. So, I went to Jerome. As expected, it turned out to be one of the coolest towns I’ve ever been to. It’s an old mining town literally built on a cliff with narrow switchback roads, so that the main street feels like it has levels rather than blocks. If you’re ever in the area, you should check it out.
Fill up water jugs every chance you get – especially when traveling with a pet. Most rest stops have water bottle filling stations. Where to get free, clean water is another good question for a local.
Light, Power, Heat
There are lots of options to get these jobs done, and I would never attempt to cover them all. I can only speak to what has worked for me. My priorities have been, primarily, low cost and low profile. I need it to fit in the budget and in the vehicle.
I have these small, cylindrical, inflatable solar lights. They’re great. They’re waterproof, and take up no space at all when deflated. During the day I stick them in my window to charge, and they’ll provide light all night.
I have a portable battery pack – a bit smaller than a classic lunch box. It can be charged by plugging it into the wall or while you’re driving via the cigarette lighter (or however you charge your phone). I love it, and it’s really all I need as it has a couple USB ports and a couple regular outlets, so I can charge all of my things at the same time.
I also have a small solar charging bank with two USB ports. It’s the size of a couple phones stacked on top of each other, and it folds out to be about 16” X 4”. Again, I charge it in the window, or lay it out on the hood of my camper when I’m parked.
If you have the space, and can afford it, those larger portable batteries with jumper cables attached are pretty awesome. They are about the size of a small, rolling piece of carry-on luggage, and they have the power to not only charge your electronics, but also jump your vehicle, should you find yourself alone with a dead battery.
I use a portable indoor/ outdoor propane heater that runs on the little 1 pound camping propane tanks. The brand I have is “Mr. Heater, Portable Buddy”, and it’s worked well for me. It’s about the size of a fat briefcase.
The other thing to remember, if you’re traveling in the winter, is to do your best to insulate and conserve heat. For me, that meant hanging a blanket to block off the cab area when I was parked in order to keep heat in the living space. I also used the insulating plastic that covers windows/ skylights to prevent drafts (you use a hair dryer to shrink it / remove wrinkles and it’s barely visible if done correctly) and it was effective. Of course, it can be easily removed at any time. Lastly, don’t forget the floors – they can be a major heat sink. A rug (or several) will do wonders to keep your feet and rig warm in even the coldest weather.
(If you’re driving a vehicle without a working toilet / blackwater tank)
Lots of people travel without a toilet. It’s totally possible (I’ve done it) and the reality of that, if you’re in the middle of the desert, for example, is digging a hole every day after your morning coffee. It’s easier to get used to than you might think. (The book, How to Shit in the Woods by Kathleen Meyer is an excellent resource that covers environmentally responsible, sustainable, shitting practices and procedures. Seriously.) Of course, you can also just make sure you’re never too far from a public bathroom. However, if you both want a toilet and want to be away from civilization for extended periods, there are myriad camping / composting toilets on the market. They are more expensive than you might think, so mentally prepare for that before you go shopping.
Composting toilets are, of course, the most eco-friendly option. I didn’t go that route because I just didn’t want to have to interact that closely with my own “waste” every day. (In almost all composting toilets you have to at least dump a container of pee daily.) I’m not proud of my squeamishness, because I do try to be as kind to the environment as I can, but that’s the truth of the matter. Instead, I opted for a dry flush toilet. These things are basically just like a diaper genie, but in toilet form. I have the Laveo Dry Flush Toilet, which costs about $700 (wild, I know). Google it if you’re interested, but essentially, it twist-seals every time you use it (so it doesn’t smell), and after about 15 waterless “flushes” (twist seals) you end up with a garbage bag full of individually wrapped poos. You can then chuck this garbage bag in any dumpster. I use it sparingly, and it’s worked well for me. As I said, there are tons of different options around toilets. I recommend doing the research and putting some thought into this before you make a decision. I certainly have no interest in telling anyone where to poop. You do you.
Some days are like that…
Finally, you might have bad days. You’ll almost certainly have difficult moments along your journey. (If it was easy, everyone would do it, right?) Of course, all of that is part of the adventure and the tough days teach us the most and make for the best stories (so try to remember that when you’re mid-meltdown). I tend to, on my worst days, imagine my life as an HBO series. I find it strangely and wonderfully comforting. I’m sure there are healthier coping strategies, but I can only speak to what works for me. And, for me, the protagonist in a smart comedy getting stuck in Oklahoma with a blown transmission is more fun than me being stuck, alone, in Oklahoma with a blown transmission. So, maybe give it a try on your next bad day. But also, remember to check the transmission fluid.