Monday, May 24, 2010

The "How?" of van-dwelling

Unfortunately, the first thoughts to come out when someone hears about a person living in a van may go something like "unfortunate, poor, last-resort home, mental-case, strange, pedophile(if the van is white), hippie, creepy, and/or homeless."

I don't know much about the unpublished van-dwellers, but I know this is not the case for the ones that I have read about. Usually they seem to be enlightened and intelligent people, specializing in all sorts of skills from journalism to construction.

To make the case for van-dwellers, I decided to make a list of the materials I use in my van and a list of ordinary locations that I visit in order to show the effort/research/ingenuity used to live this minimalistic lifestyle.

 1. 55 quarter insulated cooler - stores fresh food for a week w/ one bag of ice. Combine with dry ice on the bottom for extended cooling times.
 2. GSI Camper's Kitchen set - "running water" and cooking surface. I would totally recommend these if you are planning to set up camp at a certain area for more than a day. To accompany this is a collapsible 5 gallon water container and a simple foot pump. With these powers combined, you have a sink with running water.
 3. Coleman dual burner propane grill - Couldn't eat raw foods without it. I love this thing! I usually plop down all my cooking and cleaning ingredients at a nature park about 2 days a week and get to cooking. I store leftovers in my cooler and eat them throughout the week.
 4. Tupperware and silverware - Store food, avoid messy hands. Ziploc bags are extremely useful as well.
 5. Cast iron skillet - Excellent skillet for cooking. Spray a little non-stick oil on it, get to work, eat delicious food.
 6. 600 watt microwave - This item is a huge convenience. I can use this to reheat my food, warm water for tea/hot chocolate, or make healthy popcorn.

 1. Optima D31M Deep Cycle AGM Battery - This is my secondary battery. I use it to power everything in my car. I plan on installing a second one in parallel soon for two reasons: Redundant/fail-safe power and longer electronic usage.
 2. Continuous Duty Solenoid - This is a special switch-like device that runs from my starting battery and alternator to my secondary battery (Basically, it charges my secondary battery whenever I am driving, but stops charging it as soon as the car turns off). Super essential piece. Get a pro to install it, it deals with a lot of electricity.
 3. Vector 2500 watt power inverter - This beautiful piece of technology converts DC energy (like a battery) into AC energy (like what you plug in at home). I'm not saying there's a point or that it's smart, but this device could most likely run everything I have in the van at once.

 1. Laptop - digital photography, Internet, work access.
 2. TracFone - at 30 bucks a month, this gives me more texts/minutes than I can use for both work and personal use. Soon, I will be recycling the TracFone for a Samsung Moment and data only plan from Sprint. This gives me unlimited DATA for 30 bucks a month, which means I get Internet anywhere I get signal! Then I will download the Skype app on the Samsung Moment, and buy an unlimited Skype voice plan for about 2 bucks a month. Thats a total of 32 dollars for unlimited data and unlimited voice. Can't beat that..
 3.  26" Vizio LCD monitor - I hook my laptop up to this wall-mounted beauty for a large screen where I can watch DVDs and TV.
 4. USB TV Tuner and HD off-air antenna - used to watch FREE digital HD channels broadcast over the air through the laptop. Total cost = 70 bucks.
 5. My camera - Right now, just a CHDK hacked Canon Power Shot A620, but I have plans to buy a DSLR soon. Overall, I am pretty happy with this tweaked unit since I can do time lapses, panoramas, long-exposure shots, HDRs, and run scripts/programs through it. Technology rocks.
6. SCUBA equipment - I am really into SCUBA diving. I'm on the way to becoming a dive master, which is the rank needed to operate a boat and take a crew of people diving. I keep my wetsuit, BCD, octopus, and toys in my drawer. I keep two giant tanks underneath my bed. Surprisingly, everything fits extremely well!

Hygiene, Health, and Fitness
 1. Laundromat - about once every two weeks, I start to run out of clothes and need to clean out my laundry bag. Everything I need to clean ends up costing about 7 bucks.
 2. YMCA - This is my home base for hygeine. I can shower every morning, brush my teeth, work out, get free water/coffee, and shave. I spent about 280 dollars on a year membership for the YMCA. Also, the company I work for pays for about half the cost as a fitness incentive since it lowers their insurance rates. The cost of a membership depends on your salary (if you have one).
 3. Walmart - Home sweet home. Depending on the area you live in, you can do just about everything at Walmart. I sleep here just about every night, and bask in the convenience of safety, 24/7 bathrooms, and lack of harassment.
 4. Nature parks - A lot of these have showers or running water, and are great places to clean up. I will use these when I am out wandering around the world.

Temperature Control:
 1. Fan-tastic fan - This is an amazing device embedded into my roof that will move air in/out, automatically open when a user-defined temperature is reached, close when rain hits the sensor, and use below 3 amps even on high speed. Price tag = $200. Actual worth = much, much, more.
 2. Van A/C and Heat - When traveling down the road, a working A/C and heat unit are a great convenience.
 3. Insulation - Just like in a house, insulation is an energy saving necessity. In the winter, you will want to keep all the warmth in your mobile abode that you can. In the summer, you want all that warmth to stay away from your inner coolness. Although it depends on your van and situation, I recommend installing both styrofoam and fiberglass insulation in the walls/ceiling/floor of the van.
4. Sun reflectors - Most heat will enter your van through windows in the van. Luckily, sun reflectors can deflect a huge amount of those warm, damaging sun rays away from your van's interior. Currently, I only have one for my front windshield, but I plan on buying two more for the passenger and driver windows.
5. Electric blanket and Coleman thermal camping bag - I haven't been through winter yet, but ohhh yeah.. I'm ready.

 1. Three-drawer wooden cabinet - This big ol' cabinet stores ALL my clothes in the top two drawers, and most of my bulky SCUBA stuff in the bottom drawer. I put the microwave on top of it in an effort to waste ZERO space. To stop the drawers from opening while I drive, I have a tension rod directly in front of the drawers that goes from the floor to the ceiling.
 2. Six-drawer plastic organizer - This can be used for anything, but here's my setup so you can get some ideas:
Bottom two drawers - Dry foods and sauces
Third drawer from bottom - Cooking supplies (matches, skillet, pot)
Fourth drawer from bottom(smaller drawer) - Tools, screws, miscellaneous items
Fifth drawer from bottom(smaller drawer) - Toothbrush and medicine
Top drawer - Soap, shampoo, face wash, deodorant, and cologne
3. Long, skinny plastic organizer - This stores all my rarely-used items underneath my bed. Everything from extra cooking equipment, silverware, propane tanks, tools, and small blender go in this hodge-podge bin.
4. Briefcase w/ passcode - This is temporarily storing all my sensitive, personal information. Eventually, this will all go into a safety deposit box.

I continue to add more effective pieces of equipment to the van as I think about them or have a necessity to change. It is a continuously changing environment that I can create to suit my every need. Mobility, comfort, basic human needs, happiness, and most importantly... freedom. Free from debt, free from unnecessary waste, free to discover, and free enough to be flexible, happy, and appreciate the temporal nature of this world.

Thank you all for taking the time to read and think about my blog. Best wishes to everyone!

Friday, May 14, 2010

The van-dwelling life begins

WOW I have been busy. The past month and half involved me moving out of my ex-girlfriend's house, moving into a hotel, buying a van, learning about electricity/woodworking/cooking, remodeling the van, THEN moving out of the hotel and into the van. A month and a half.. that's it.

I am currently learning how to adapt to this new lifestyle and have been keeping an off line journal on my adventure so far. Here is what I have written so far:

May 11th 2010-
After a month of rushed preparation to move out of an Extended Stay Suites, I decided that today would be the first day to stay in my camper van. It took a well orchestrated effort by my friends and family to design and construct my new humble abode. Armed with a few months of campervan lifestyle knowledge that I acquired from the internet- I knew that I would be staying the night at Wal-Mart, finding wi-fi wherever I can, cooking with a propane stove, going to a Laundromat for my stinky clothes, having a PO Box as a mailing address, and using the YMCA for showers. With this basic setup, I could continue my “normal” work life at NASA Langley.

So far I have been giving a lot of my stuff to goodwill while trying to build some last minute items inside the van.

I will be writing a larger article on the layout, planning, and work that went into making the van. I wanted to write this article so I could start a habit of keeping a journal while I am living this lifestyle.

Sleeping at Wal-Mart is surprisingly relaxing, there have been no interruptions and very little noise (partly due to the insulation in the van walls). Sleeping at Wal-Mart is great for several reasons:

1. Always an open bathroom
2. Fresh, cheap food at your disposal
3. Security cameras constantly monitor the parking lot
4. There are usually other people (mostly truckers) spending the night there, so you aren't alone

Overall, I am very happy with my lifestyle choice. It allows for great flexibility and spontaneity. It also doesn't hurt I just avoided paying 700 dollars in rent yesterday :) My plan is to save 1000 dollars a month and put it towards savings. I don't have a plan with what to do with the money, I just want to save it for when I think of a good enough plan. Or if I get laid off it's pretty nice to have some savings you are sitting on.

Ahhh... it feels so good to not have rent or mortgage over my head. Now is just the need to keep up the maintenance on the van.

May 12th 2010-
After going to the DMV to mess with the title and registration, my vehicle is almost 100% legal. All I need is the inspection and I will actually be allowed to be on the road :)

It's storming pretty bad here in the peninsula right now. It started as soon as I bought all the goods needed for cooking a steak dinner with my propane burner. I still haven't gotten the chance to use the thing! I'm a bit anxious about using it, but I will just follow the instructions and hope for the best. In the back of my mind theres always the explosion factor.. I'll just have to get over that.

Instead of eating that steak, I'm thinking about where I could cook in bad weather. I am going to go check out a few campgrounds and picnic pavilions in the area to see if I could cook a quick meal without paying any fees.

I cleaned out the van a bit more by bringing some stuff into my work. I brought my nice computer speaker set and some decorations I bought from Costa Rica. Basically stuff I don't want to throw out.

I am off to borrow some more wifi from these unencrypted folks in this crowded neighborhood, then I am off to the park, and then off to bed at Wal-Mart.

..I'm back from Shady Grove park and currently parked outside of the Yorktown Wal-Mart. It's raining extremely heavy outside right now so I can't really do so much right now other than hang out in my new home.

So, about the park. I was able to set up my mobile kitchen which includes soap, water, propane stove, silverware, cast iron skillet, plate, matches, a hand towel, and a scrub brush for cleaning up. I then began to cook about seven sirloin steaks, all of which cost me about 8 dollars from, guess where, Wal-Mart. These will be good for microwaving for dinner/snack in the next few days to come.

I was a bit nervous when the park ranger drove by because I didn't know if the place was free, but turns out he was pretty friendly and just waved at me. A little before 8PM he came by and said the park was closing up. This is great news. This means when I get off work at 4PM, I will have enough time to prepare and cook a meal as long as it is before 8PM. In a matter of two days I have found a solid kitchen workspace that will give me plenty of space to cook. As much as I would love to huff propane fumes inside the van, I really prefer to live and cook outside.

My battery on the laptop is running out and I don't feel like powering up the inverter, so I am going to head to bed a bit early. I'm trying to make it a habit to prepare my YMCA gym bag at night time so I'm not scrambling in the morning looking for my work stuff. Off to bed I go!

Well, before I go to bed I'm going to run a lap around Wal-Mart so I can get my excess energy out. Then I will be hitting the sack.

Buenos noches!

May 13 2010-
Ahhh, my third night of van-living. I tried to get my van inspected today, but the place was packed. I will probably end up going after work tomorrow to get it done. I want to make a trip down to Hatteras, NC this weekend. I will check the weather and feel it out tomorrow before I make the trip.

Currently, I am hanging outside a Hardee's fast food joint. I just filled up on my gas tank (2.69 a gallon with a 26 gallon tank) and I am waiting on a friend to call me up and let me know when she wants me to come take a look at her PC. I have been working on restoring it back to working order throughout the week, and I will most likely complete the job today. Her place will give me a spot to charge my deep cycle battery and cell phone while I do the work. I'll also get paid 80 bucks for the work. Win-win!

She has been pretty open to the idea of me living in a van, which is hard to come by. She thinks I am too educated and fortunate to be doing it, but she supports it nonetheless. I have to admit I admire such an open mind. She made a parody of MTV cribs and posted it on YouTube, it's pretty funny for a no-prep skit :)

Well, my battery is about to die and I left the cord at work. The plan tonight is to finish the PC, setup my new portable camper kitchen, and then clean up the van a little bit. Maybe even find some more cabinets to store my floating stuff in.


May 14th 2010-
  While I was at work today, I thought of what to do with my weekend. Sure, I have a lot of stuff I need to do to the van...

My to do list:

1. Get van inspected. Yeah, making it legal to do what I'm doing is pretty high up there on the list..
2. Install my new kitchen-on-the-go:
3. Permanently screw in my cabinets to the paneling.
4. Have a continuous duty solenoid installed so my secondary battery charges off the alternator while I drive around. I have the solenoid, I just need the work done.
5. Permanently install my 2500 watt power inverter.
6. Run all cords through conduit.
7. Install insulation and paneling on the ceiling.
8. Find more storage containers for space optimization.
9. Get an oil change. Probably synthetic oil so I have to change it less often.
10. Perform maintenance and give some TLC to the transmission. I want this thing to last!
11. Install trim to make paneling look pretty.
12. Probably more I can't think of right now..

... BUT, I don't want to spend all weekend doing this stuff while I could be enjoying the great outdoors and working on some photography. So, I headed down to Hatteras, NC. I am currently outside a hotel right now borrowing some wireless internet and a safe spot to stay for the night. My theory is I look just like a hotel guest and no one will bother me. We will find out if that is true soon :) The only thing bothering me is the loud drunkies in the hotel. I hope they pass out early, it's only 8PM and they sound drunk.

My plan is to wake up early enough to get some pictures of the sunrise on the ocean. I'd like to get a timelapse of it coming over the horizon. While I'm waiting, or after it's over, I am going to cook some eggs and bacon on my propane grill. I bought the food right down the street and I am storing it in an insulated cooler. Supposedly the cooler keeps ice for 5 days at 90 degrees. 

I already went for a little run before it started getting dark, so now I am going to surf the web for more ideas and maybe try to keep in touch with a few people.

Yes, I will be taking pictures of the van's construction soon - I would like to write a whole article on that subject. 

Good night for now!

Hatteras, NC - Close to the Ocracoke Island ferry