Van travel: what we’d do differently

When we first planned to travel by van, we had no idea whether we’d love it or hate it.

It’s one of the reasons we kept our minivan conversion very simple: if we only traveled for a few months, it would be easy to turn the van back into a car and sell it.

Now that we’re winding down our van travels, we can step back and evaluate what we’d do differently. Chris and I recently asked each other, if we were starting today, what would we change?

We don’t regret our van travels, but there are certainly things we could’ve done better. Knowing what we know now, here’s what we would have done:

Invested in a bigger, better cooler

What We Did: Our current cooler setup includes two small coolers, roughly 10-quart capacity each. We purchase bagged ice to refill them. We liked this setup because we could stack them and they’d take up minimal space. Also, since we can’t open the trunk/lift gate entirely when our bikes are on the van, we liked that they were small enough to slide through a small space.

What We’d Do Differently: Cheap, small coolers don’t stay cool, especially in the heat of summer. Ice chips quickly turn into a pool of water that floods our food. Plus, they were so small we couldn’t fit that much in them anyway. We met a couple who got a Yeti cooler and uses a single block of ice. It lasts them FIVE DAYS. They can carry more fresh food, spend less on ice and don’t have to worry about spoilage or waterlogged hummus. And we could have organized our setup so we could have accessed it from the rear or interior of the van.

 

Spotted while driving along Highway 101 in Crescent City, CA

 

Powered our devices with a solar panel

What We Did: We used a power inverter so we could charge our phones and laptops off the car battery, driving or no. (It has a safety that shuts it off if we’re in danger of draining the car battery.) We also had an external battery pack for our phones. Solar panels are expensive and we figured that would be enough!

What We’d Do Differently: It’s really, really hard to do work online without power. While it’s doable, we found that we were having to plan our day around finding electricity. Or, if work was busy, we had to prioritize campsites with electricity. A solar panel that charged a house battery, or some other setup, would have freed us up big time and given us the freedom to go to more remote and interesting campsites. Instead, we were tethered to the grid.

Started out with Verizon

What We Did: We started our van travels with T-Mobile because of their unlimited data, including unlimited music streaming. We knew we’d be using a lot of data for working, so this seemed like a great idea! But guess what? It didn’t work. We rarely had cell service outside of major metropolitan areas, which, like our need for electricity, also tethered us to campgrounds on the outskirts of urban areas.

What We’d Do Differently: We figured it out halfway through our travels and switched to Verizon. I don’t care that this is free advertising for them: if you have to work while you’re traveling in remote places, Verizon is far more dependable. We used to have to drive around searching for bars of service — we’ve only had to do that once since we switched.

 

A stunning, $10 campsite in the Siskiyou National Forest in Northern California

 

Done more dispersed camping

What We Did: Because of the first three mistakes we made, listed above, we spent a lot of time at state parks. Don’t get us wrong — most state parks are beautiful. They also are one of the places that reliably have showers. But they also have some big downfalls: they’re more expensive and more crowded.

What We’d Do Differently: Even though some people would call us crazy for saying this, I think we should have de-prioritized some of the creature comforts offered by state parks. Here’s why: our favorite, favorite camping was in national forests, either in smaller, primitive campgrounds or doing dispersed camping.

Stayed places longer

What We Did: We determined our travel route based on some general milestone, like, “We need to be in Florida by March.” And then we’d make up a route to get there. This was great because it forced us to improvise and visit places we wouldn’t normally prioritize. But, it usually meant we had to keep moving to get to our destination. This made it tougher to stay places for more than a few days.

What We’d Do Differently: Even though some might say two months to get across the country is a long time, it really isn’t. It sucks having to drive every day, even if it’s only for an hour or two. And you can’t really get to know a place unless you spend at least a week there. If we’d decided to go slower, we could have stayed places longer and had a richer experience. On rare occasions, we were able to stay places for a week or longer — which is totally acceptable at most campgrounds. We never learned to give ourselves more time.

 

A garden we’re caring for during a house sit in Santa Rosa, CA

 

Done help exchanges and house sits earlier

What We Did: We tried to do house sits when we first started van traveling, but, with no reviews and a dog of our own, we weren’t great candidates. After our best friend Holly passed away, it didn’t cross our mind to try house sitting or help exchanges until much later. (We did our first ones about a year ago.)

What We’d Do Differently: House sits and help exchanges are an awesome way to travel more slowly, take a break from the van and have a memorable travel experience. We’ve visited places we never would’ve gone, made new friends, and cared for gardens, orchards, goats, chickens, ducks, cows, dogs and cats. (And a turtle, but he was hibernating so I guess that doesn’t count.) The experiences we had were so memorable because they were things we couldn’t do while constantly on the move. I wish we’d started doing them earlier and found a way to do more!

 

Do you have other ideas? Have you experienced any of these issues? Let us know in the comments.

 

  10 comments for “Van travel: what we’d do differently

  1. ysabellaw
    2017-08-13 at 12:53 pm

    I was sad to read that you’re ‘coming off of the road’ as I’ve just started following your travels late last year. I’ve enjoyed reading your tips but, perhaps more importantly, have learned an equal amount from your candid sharing of what hasn’t worked for you. This post is no different.

    With each new cycle of travel and transition (I’ve been nomading and house/pet sitting since last year), I reassess my patterns and resources. For instance, I’m switching to a 12 volt refrigerated car cooler from my conventional one, saving space, and eliminating waste in the process. I’ve also learned not to underestimate the need for community, however short lived. So, make it a point to find a Meetup, chat up fellow campers at a site, and/or join online groups with similar lifestyles. In addition to the amazing tips and tales shared, I find it to be a reassuring antidote to the near present drumbeat of disturbing news reports and a reminder that the world is what we make of it.

    Thanks again for sharing your exploits!

    • Tamara & Chris
      2017-08-13 at 1:42 pm

      Thank you for sharing these excellent ideas! So important to find community wherever you can — I think that’s one of the reasons we enjoyed help exchanges so much. And love the idea of the 12V fridge.

      Thank you for following along and for the kind words. We’d love to follow your travels if you have a blog or are on Instagram!

    • 2017-10-27 at 5:19 pm

      I am also sad to see this! I literally just came across this blog and I am already missing it.

      • Tamara & Chris
        2017-10-27 at 7:56 pm

        That’s so kind. Thanks and happy travels, Veronica! 🙂

  2. 2017-08-13 at 6:12 pm

    Agree 100% with everything mentioned here.

    For the cooler issue we have a fake Yeti (which is an RTIC, the same thing as Yeti but half the price) and while it was holding 5 days in the beginning in mild climate, in the heat of the summer with 8 lbs ice we have 3 days max before we have to refill. It’s still good but we have to make sure the cooler is always under the shade.

    For the electricity problem, we bought newer computers with max battery capacity so we don’t have to worry too much an can rely on the inverter. We have techniques to max out battery usage, like using Turbo Boost Switcher on a Mac to remove unnecessary power usage, trying to not use high consumption apps like Photoshop without being plugged, and being careful with screen brightness (always better at night).

    We’ve only been doing this for 6 months but I would add that I wish we used public libraries more, since the beginning. Even in small towns we really found awesome ones, they’re like an oasis for us. I also regret we spent way too much money at Walmart instead of more ethical food stores (if any).

    • Tamara & Chris
      2017-08-13 at 9:06 pm

      All really good ones, Coralie. My laptop was older and it’s only been recently that I’ve been able to last ~3+ hours on battery. And yes to libraries! The ones in smaller towns are the beessssstttt.

  3. 2017-08-21 at 2:14 pm

    We also use an RTIC cooler. We have been happy with it and it is much cheaper than a YETI. We are living in our van for the summer and are currently spending a month volunteering at a land trust and hot spring in Colorado. It has been a great way to slow things down. We also love being able to give back to a place we love and we get to stay here and use the facilities for free!

    • Tamara & Chris
      2017-08-23 at 5:15 pm

      Thanks for sharing! Great point about volunteering helping to slow things down. How’d you find the volunteer gig?

  4. 2017-11-15 at 7:35 am

    Great post and thanks for the advise. These kind of posts made switching to vanlife far easier.

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