Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Ten Van Life Essentials

A few weeks ago in the desert a friend asked me what I thought my top van living essentials were. At the time I wasn’t really sure what was essential and what just made living easier. With a bit of reflection I realize now that the van life by definition is easier living and so those conveniences make it what it is. They help me not work, whether that’s by saving money or not having to pump my whisperlight a thousand times when I’m cooking a multi course meal.  And so I’ve compiled the top ten things that make living in a van super bitchin’. This list is not assembled in any particular order, though there are items that are certainly, in my opinion, more important.

1.       Some quality light proofing. This is one of the more important ones. This is nice, certainly for the summer when the sun is rising at 5:15 and you just want to sleep in a little longer, or to block out the light from the neighbors raging bonfire. However, if you are like many van dwellers you will find yourself camped alongside a road, in a town, in a parking lot with ‘no camping’ signs, etc. and it is rather important to keep a low profile to prevent a light night conversation with the sheriff or park ranger. Also, in those same situations as well as when one is in a crowded camp ground, it’s nice to prevent the fishbowl effect, particularly if you’re changing or spending some quality time with your significant other.

2.       A cast iron cooking implement. I think I’ve mentioned this before but cast iron is so great it has earned a second mention. They’re great because they add some flava flave to your meal just by being cooked in, they are non-stick if you treat them well, you can earn edgy cool points when cooking over an open fire with them (just watch the handle) and they could double as your weapon of choice in a zombie apocalypse.  Oh and if you have a lid or your implement is a dutch oven you can bake a cake, brownies or cinnamon rolls while on the road and that also will earn you edgy cool points.

3.       A nice warm down jacket. Again, I know I’ve mentioned this before but I was just watching an interview with some sponsored athlete and they were talking about how they’ve traveled all over the world, through every climate and every season and the only piece of gear that they’ve taken with them on every single trip is their down jacket or puffy. They pack down small when you need them to, they’re super warm, often very comfortable, stylish, light weight and by some magic they seem to be relatively easy to regulate your body temperature. That being said I don’t recommend wearing them to the beach in the summer; you will almost certainly experience heat stroke.

4.       Easy to reconfigure sleeping arrangement. Like going out in to the mountains when driving around you want to be able to add or drop layers while sleeping. You never know when you might have a friend stop by that needs to share your bed and you don’t want to overheat or when seasons change and you can pull out that heavy quilt that is just super awesome, or those light cotton (or if you’re a super classy dirtbag, silk) summer weight sheets that seem to keep just enough of the chill off at night for the perfect night’s sleep, rather than wallowing in your sweat and misery.

5.       A good cooler. This is one of the more important ones as well. It keeps your beer cold while you’re out climbing, hiking or mountain biking. It keeps your fresh fruits and vegetables…and wine from freezing in the winter. It’s an extra chair around the camp fire or kitchen table.  It is a podium to gather everyone that’s drinking coffee and lazing about in the mornings. I’m all about the chest coolers; they’re compact and fairly cheap. That being said I would be super psyched to get a YETI cooler (YETI if you’re reading this I would be happy to do some gear testing for you), as they’re bear proof, really well insulated and can still do all of the aforementioned things.

6.       Two burner stove. I have a regular propane Coleman one that has done the job for years and was about twenty dollars. I know Camp Chef makes some pretty nice ones as well, though it’s hard to find replacement parts. The cheaper stoves are definitely lacking in quality and features so it’s best to get a nicer one.  The secret beta on this in my experience is buy a Coleman from Wal-Mart (it pains me to say this) because not all of them are of the same quality and some will crap out pretty quickly, so you can take advantage of their return policy and get hopefully a better one. Two burner stoves make cooking way easier than over a normal backpacking or single burner stove (I’ve paid my dues with years of cooking on one of those and I’ve seen the light), they also will save you a ton of money if you get a small propane tank that costs a bit more initially but is super cheap to refill and then you’re keeping those green bottles out of the landfill!

7.       A pee bottle. I won’t get into the details of this one again, if you want to revisit them check out previous van living in the winter tips post. But for guys super nice especially when covert camping and a bathroom is not readily accessible, you could use wag bags also if you’re super desperate.

8.        Entertainment sources, again I’ll not rehash this one too much as there’s already been a full post on it but , since you’ll be spending so much time in the van doing something enjoyable like twiddling your thumbs or reading is way better than wishing you had something awesome to do.

9.       A quality organizational system. This is definitely a super important one. It doesn’t matter if it’s shelving, bins under your bed or stacked milk crates, so long as you have a system that keeps your belongings in place while driving and keeps them organized. This is so clutch because with such a small space it is super easy for it to become extremely cluttered, with an organizational system in place it moderates the mess that can occur and expedites the cleaning/reorganizing process. There have been many different systems that I’ve seen with varying levels of success. If you want more details or suggestions feel free to shoot me an email or leave a comment as I’m psyched to geek out on van builds.

10.   High levels of psyche. Sometimes living the dream ain’t so dreamy (as a friend once put it) but just pause and think about what your initial motivation was and why that’s still relevant. Think about the number of days a year you’re able to pursue your passions and go on some grand adventures.

Check out Alex Honnold's van rig, all he's missing is a truck topper for some standing room...

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Art of Choosing a New Van.

The Art of Choosing a New Van...or Home on wheels.

Oh man this winter has brought nearly endless day dreams and discussions with fellow dirtbags and van livers. Diagrams have taken care of a number of trees (of course they were all drawn on pre-used paper) while pondering new setups, alterations, ways to maximize storage as well as figuring the finances of buying a new van, building it up, making necessary repairs etc.

After months of planning and figuring out what kind of van would be the next in my fleet, as well as combing through Craigslist emailing and texting folks about vans and after spending a month traveling all over the place drooling over vans with rims and spoilers, vans of the perfect dimensions and vans already built up to live in I returned to Glenwood ready to upgrade. After spending another week chasing leads and trying to fix the old van and with a climbing trip looming I knew not to let desperations get to me.  So one day while perusing what Craigslist had to offer Taryn walked up just as I saw this crazy looking van slathered with bumper stickers and half joking I showed her the monstrosity I’d found.

Long story short, one blown water pump, giving in to my desire to spend a week and a half climbing rather than dawdling around Glenwood and a little price talk down I found myself in a new van with exception headroom, a comfy bed and insanely poor fuel efficiency out in the desert, needless to say psyche was high. However, now that I’m in the process of moving in, rearranging and redesigning I guess I more fully understand the saying about battle plans being great until the battle begins. So now I have scrapped all the previous plans and am working with what I have, while also thinking about the van I really want.

 So now I’m challenged with the task of building up the new van in such a way that I might (if I can find an even better van) easily transfer and reuse the get up for the ultimate van build up. That’s not to mention the hours spent cleaning the van with pounds of dust, hair, dog food and trash removed to give it the ol’ livable feel.

Here is what I am working with, let me introduce Sabrina the Frankenvan.

Luckily for me the game of Mooseballs got thrown in as a bonus.
Photo by Taryn Pearce.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Zambia travel journal #2: understanding the rainy season.


Ahh the adventure of uncomfortable moments… After getting into Mbala after catching a ride from Kasama without any issues I tried to resupply my wallet via the local ATMs, however none of them would accept any of my cards so a little frustrated we departed the town; though not before swinging by to see a couple of Nick’s friends Lazarus and Annock and having a quick beer, that was a bit more leisurely than intended, resulting in a dusky departure for the start of our 20K bike ride to Nick’s village.
I’d say spirits were high while avoiding being clothes-lined by fences and navigating the dirt roads by failing light and we actively convinced ourselves and each other that this was the best course of action. Then the rains began, just a few small drops here and there, growing in to more of a misty fine rain. So as per Nick’s direction we pulled over and did our best to batten down the hatches and protect our stuff as best we could from the water, as Nick so accurately said “It can just open up at the drop of a hat here.” So after hopping back on our bikes and riding for a few more minutes, the rains acted just as Nick has predicted and really introduced me to the reason they call it the rainy season. Were we bothered, ha! Of course not, it was just part of the adventure after all, so we continued barreling on, now in total darkness, down a flooded and actively washing out, pot hole ridden dirt road with no moon or stars to guide our way with some laughter and physical exertion to keep us warm and spirits high. Packs and packages were lashed down and despite the conditions we were making pretty decent, time all things considered.

The culprit
I distinctly remember on one fairly mellow spot the thought of ‘Oh man all this mud cannot be good for the life of these chains’ popping in to my head. That single though was all the encouragement my chain needed and then there was a ping CRGHHHHH and my chain suddenly became a lot straighter. So we stopped and regrouped at the nearest house with a family cooking up dinner on their porch while the rains continued to fall. We busted out the bike repair kit the Peace Corps had supplied Nick with, only to discover a fully disassembled chain tool. Upon reassembly, we realized that one of the tool’s crucial parts that punches out the pins of a bike chain was conveniently snapped off, but that was just an opportunity for some extra Macgyver points, and so with a little teamwork and creative engineering we muddled our way through the process of getting the chain put back together. During this process I turned to Nick and said (half as a warning and half as an excuse for the dicey workmanship on the chain) something along the lines of the chain being pretty much toast and it would be a miracle held through the rest of the ride. Regardless, we were unfazed as we hopped back on our bikes to continue on with our mission. Two pedal strokes later, snap zzzzzz and the chain was off again.

The drying process, luckily no harm was done.
So we hopped back off and walked the bikes back to the house and inspect the chain to find that the repaired link totally mangled. So we returned once more to set up our make shift chain repair shop. After spending some time fixing the chain once again, watching the family watch us and admiring the stars that came out with the clearing of the storm; the chain was fixed once again. This time before embarking into the darkness we reassessed our situation and with my chain being as unreliable as the minibuses we has been riding the past week, we decided another 15K of bad roads in the darkness to Nick’s house wasn’t maybe the best bet. So with our tails between our legs we began our retreat back to Mbala and the promise of food and a bed at Annock & Laz’s house. After a half mile of pedaling along, cuhchunk and the chain was 15 feet behind us lying in the mud for the third time. This time we discovered that it had snapped in an entirely new spot. We walked, talked and marveled at the constellations overhead for a good 40 minutes before coming to the final downhill to our destination that I could coast down. We were warmly received, despite our soaked, muddy and late arrival. We feasted on some chili mac, spread out our stuff to dry and proceeded to crater into bed with the intention of sorting everything out in the morning. 

The dance floor at Laz & Annock's
A few curious kids checking out the visitor.
Setting off once more with a perfectly balanced load.