Category Archives: Van Life

Free BLM Camping at The Box Recreation Area Near Socorro, New Mexico

Standard

The Box Recreation Area is just outside Socorro, NM.

To be honest, this is more like a parking lot than a camping area.

Pros: Camping is free there and it’s not far from Socorro, New Mexico. There’s a restroom (pit toilet) on site. The parking area is level. The surrounding nature (especially the giant rock formations) is gorgeous. The road that leads to the area is easy to navigate. It was very quiet the night I stayed there.

Cons: When I was there, the door to the restroom didn’t close completely, which meant it couldn’t be locked. There is nowhere to park a rig where it isn’t on display to everyone else in the parking/camping area. No only is there no privacy in the parking/camping area, there is no shade.

I’d been visiting the Salinas Pueblo Missions Ruins, and Socorro was the next logical stop. I ended up buying a can of beans and dumping my trash at Walmart, fueling up the minivan, and getting a pizza at Little Caesars. I’d been driving and was tired of driving and would be driving the next day. I was ready to stop for the day, chill out, and eat some pizza.

I got on the Free Campsites website and looked for the closest free camping spot that wasn’t Walmart. That place was The Box.

The Box is not far from Socorro, right off Highway 60 and very easy to get to. Once you get off Highway 60, the road is dirt, but well-maintained and easy to navigate. I had no trouble navigating the road in my Toyota Sienna

I’d read reviews of The Box camping area that said it was basically a parking area. Still, I was a bit surprised to find the area is for all intents and purposes a parking lot. It’s not a camping area. It’s a parking area where people camp.

The Silver Streak at The Box Recreation Area. This is the parking area where people in rigs also camp.

There were no signs that said “no camping” or “no overnight parking,” so I felt fine about staying there. Just know that there are few campground amenities save a pit toilet, a trash can (which had a sign saying there was no trash pickup while I was there), and a single fire ring made from stones. There are no picnic tables and no shade structures. There aren’t any trees to offer any shade. (I came in around 3 o’clock on an overcast afternoon and left in the morning. I didn’t experience the lack of shade myself, but I bet this place bakes at midday, especially in the summer.)

Single fire ring in the parking/camping area.

There is a restroom on site. It’s a pit toilet in one of those little square concrete buildings. It was fairly clean and even had toilet paper when I visited in mid-September of 2021. The problem came when I tried to close the door. It wouldn’t close completely. The door wouldn’t fit inside the frame. I tugged on it. I tried slamming it. Nothing worked. I don’t know if the door hadn’t been installed correctly or if a visitor had tried to tear it from its hinges and messed up the whole thing, but the end result was that it wouldn’t close. Because the door didn’t close completely, it didn’t lock either.

After spending several minutes tugging on the door and trying to get it to close properly, my use of the pit toilet had become nonnegotiable. I had to use that toilet even if the door was slightly ajar. I did what I had to do quickly and hoped no one would come along and swing the door wide open while I was in there. No one did.

Over the course of the afternoon, several cars pulled in and people, presumably hikers, disembarked and went off into the wilderness. After a while these people returned to their cars and eventually drove off.

A big group of what seemed to be locals stayed a few hours, having boisterous fun, mostly in the parking area. They left late in the afternoon.

Around twilight a van pulled in and parked next to a pickup truck that had been there for a while. Some young men hung out by the vehicles. One seemed to be cleaning out the van and fussing at the others. Two of the young men played Frisbee in the increasing dark. Other people arrived, but I couldn’t tell if everyone was interacting with each other or if people were sticking to the group they’d arrived with. I wondered if there would be partying into the wee hours, but all was quiet after about 9:30. Even when the people were active, there was no yelling and no loud music, just talking. Once the talking died down, the whole area was very quiet.

If you’re the type to sleep in a tent, there’s plenty of public land right there to pitch it on. Walk out from the parking lot and set up your tent among the majestic rocks.

The Silver Streak looks tiny against those giant rock formations. This is the parking/camping area of The Box Recreation Area.

If you’re like me and sleep exclusively in your rig, you’ll be happy to know the parking area here is very flat. After several nights parked at a slant, I certainly enjoyed sleeping in a bed that was perfectly level.

The Box was not a bad place to spend an afternoon and night. It beat the Walmart parking lot because after the sun set, it was dark and quiet, and I enjoy parking next to nature. I personally would not want to set up camp there for several days, but I liked it for an overnight stop.

I took the photos in this post.

Solving Your Cooler Problems

Standard

Having a cooler in your rig can really up your mealtime game. With a cooler to store your perishable food, you no longer have to eat out for every meal, live exclusively on canned and other packaged foods, shop for groceries each day, or some combination of these techniques. Having a cooler allows you to have fresh food on hand whether you’re stealth parking in the city or boondocking on public land.

(If you need tips on preparing meals while in your van or other rig without an indoor kitchen, check out my posts How I Cook on the Road, Ideas for Quick and Easy Meals to Cook on the Road, How to Eat Healthy on the Road (When You Don’t Have Time to Cook), and What to Eat When You Can’t (or Don’t Want to) Cook.)

Let’s face it though: maintaining a cooler can be a huge pain in the neck. The ice melts so fast, turning your cooler into some sort of human engineered lake for your food items to bob around in. Well, you’re lucky if your food items are bobbing. Too many times I’ve had food items in the cooler lake sink and become waterlogged, only to go into the garbage can the next time I cleaned out the ice chest.

Also, depending on where you are, ice can be really expensive. Up in the mountains of California, I’ve paid $4 for a seven pound sack of ice. Recently in Alamosa, CO I couldn’t even find ice at the first several places I looked. When I finally found a 7 pound sack at a liquor store, the bag cost over $2. Ice is a valuable commodity, so you want it to last as long as possible.

I’ve tried several different techniques to keep the contents of my cooler from becoming a waterlogged mess.

First I tried filling gallon-size, freezer-weight zipper bag with ice. The bags are easy to find at a variety of stores. Unfortunately, it seemed like no matter how careful I was, the ice quickly poked holes in the bags. As soon as the bags sprung a leak (or five!), my cooler was flooded again. I did not like the economic or environmental repercussions of having to replace those bags way too often.

My next step was to fill several reusable plastic containers with ice. I used Nalgene bottles, plastic ice cream containers, and large reusable food storage containers filled with ice and placed in the cooler. This technique was the least messy because there was no leaking and no spilling when I removed the containers. The drawbacks were the amount of time it took to pour ice from a bag into a bunch of containers and the amount of room the containers took up. Sometimes there seemed to be more containers full of ice than food in my cooler.

Wanting to stop wasting space for ice containers, I tried using a dishpan in the bottom of the cooler. The bag of ice went into the dishpan which caught the water as the ice melted This idea was great in theory, but inevitably there was eventually more water than the dishpan could hold. If I didn’t pour out the water in time, the dishpan overflowed and I ended up with at least a couple inches of water in the bottom of my cooler. The second problem arose when I tried to lift a dishpan full of water our of the cooler and out of my van without splashing and spilling all over myself and the inside of my rig.

At one time I used a Styrofoam cooler inside my plastic ice chest. The food went into the Styrofoam cooler and the ice went between the Styrofoam and the plastic cooler. The system left less space for food, but I was willing to make that trade-off in order to keep my food out of the melt water.

Obviously, there were problems with all of these techniques, and none left me feeling as if I had solved the problem. When I moved into my travel trailer, one of the biggest perks was having a refrigerator and freezer that worked. I’m still grateful for them every day.

Not everyone has the money to buy or room in their rig to install a refrigerator. As a part timer in a minivan, I certainly want to keep my traveling life as simple and inexpensive as possible. Luckily, The Man figured out the best way to get ice to last as long as possible in a cooler and to keep it from turning the ice chest into a lake as it melts.

Solving the Cooler Problems

First, buy a high quality cooler. I did a lot of research on the best coolers on the market. Of course, your budget is gong to play a role in what you buy. If you have a few hundred bucks to spend on a cooler, get yourself a roto-molded Yeti, Orca, or Engel. According to the GearLab article “Best Cooler of 2021” by Maggie Brandenburg, Senior Review Editor, those are the top three brands of ice chests available.  If you have about a hundred dollars to spend on a cooler, go to Walmart and get a Lifetime brand cooler.

According to Lifetime Coolers FAQ on the Hunting Waterfalls website, these ice chests are

NOT roto-moulded…Instead they are blow moulded…a different manufacturing process…Roto-moulded coolers are much thicker and stronger than blow moulded coolers.

The roto-moulding is why Yeti, Orca, and Engel are better than Lifetime. However, the blow moulding is why Lifetime coolers are better than all the lesser priced coolers on the market.

If you are concerned with the country of origin of the products you buy, according to the same FAQ, Lifetime coolers are made in the U.S.A.

From what I’ve read and from what I’ve experienced, the Lifetime coolers are a lot better at keeping your ice frozen and your food items cold than regular coolers are. If you have the money to spend on a Lifetime, I recommend you go for one of these.

The cooler’s insulation takes up some of the space inside. You might end up with less room for food than you think if you only look at the outside of the cooler.

A word on size: Before you purchase a Lifetime or any other roto-mouldled or blow moulded cooler, open it up and take a look inside. If you’ve never used one of these modern coolers before, you might be unpleasantly surprised by how much room there is (or more accurately, isn’t) on the inside. The insulation that’s going to keep your food cold takes up some of the interior space. I think it’s a worthwhile compromise. You’ll have to make your own decision.

The Man bought a 28 quart Lifetime cooler. He soon found that once he got a 7 or 10 pound sack of ice into his cooler, there wasn’t a lot of room for food. If you just need to keep your half and half, a pack of cold cuts, some American cheese slices, and a dozen eggs cold, buy all means, get a smaller cooler. If, however, you are like me and want to keep a gallon of milk, two pounds of cheese, a couple dozen eggs, and some fresh produce on hand for the next several weeks, get a bigger cooler. Learning from The Man’s experience, I bought a bigger (55 quart) Lifetime cooler, and I have never regretted it.

This is my 55 quart Lifetime cooler. You can see it’s a good place to display my sticker collection, including stickers I’ve received in trades via the RV Sticker Club.

What if You Can’t Afford a Lifetime Cooler?

I know that not everyone can afford a fancy new cooler. There was certainly a time in my traveling life when I would have laughed joylessly if you had suggested I spend $100 on an ice chest. (I was only able to do so last spring thanks to money I received related to the death of my father.) If you’re shopping for a cooler at a thrift store or gratefully accepting one a family member or friend doesn’t use anymore, I see you, and I’ll give you some tips for keeping your ice solid for as long as possible.

Buy block ice. I don’t often see ice in blocks, but if you do, it’s your best bet for lasting a while. If you have to buy cubed ice, keep it all together If you separate the ice, it will melt faster.

Don’t use a cooler bigger than you need. If you have a choice, don’t get a big cooler if a small one will do. The less space ice has to cool, the longer it will last.

Keep your cooler off the floor of your rig and off the ground. Both the ground and the floor of your rig will heat the cooler and melt your ice. In my last conversion van, I got The Man to build a low shelf for my cooler to sit on. Unfortunately, there’s not room for such a shelf in my minivan. If you’re boondocking, keep your cooler in its place in your rig, or if you must keep it outside, on the picnic table, on a stump, or even on a large rock.

Keep your cooler out of the sun. Put it in the shade, or cover it with a blanket. You want to keep it as cool as possible so the ice inside of it doesn’t melt.

Speaking of blankets, wrap your cooler in blankets, even if the sun isn’t hitting it. I keep my Lifetime cooler covered in a couple of blankets. The added insolation helps the ice last longer Also, it’s a great place to store extra blankets when space is at a premium in your rig.

Open the cooler as little as possible. Think about what you need from the cooler before you open it. Things heat up in there while you’re rummaging around. If you like cold drinks throughout the day, reserve a smaller cooler just for beverages so you don’t have to open your main ice chest every time you’re thirsty.

Don’t put hot things into your cooler. Whether it’s leftovers or beverages that have been sitting in the hot rig all day, putting  even warm items directly into your cooler is going to melt your ice. Let things cool off before you put then in the cooler. Try putting beverages in your ice chest in the morning  when the liquid is at its coolest.

Ice Is Gonna Melt

Of course, the ice in your cooler is going to melt no matter how careful you are. That’s the nature of ice. What about all the water that melting ice produces? How can you keep it from making a complete mess in the cooler? Don’t worry, The Man figured that out too.

I purchased the 20 liter size dry bag at Walmart. The price went up almost a dollar since I took this photo.

Get a dry bag. Walmart sells them. I bet most camping supply stores do too, but The Man and I both got ours at Walmart because that’s what was available in the little desert town we were in. Get a big one. You want 7 to 10 pounds of ice to fit in it. Ours are the 20 liter size. That’s not the biggest one available, but it’s been plenty big for my needs. At the time of writing this post, the 20 liter dry bag runs just under $7 at Walmart.

Once you put your ice in the dry bag, roll down the top and cinch it Put the bag full of ice in your cooler. Position the top of the bag so none of the water from the melted ice leaks from the top. Close the cooler. There, you’re done, until it’s time to dump the water from the dry bag and add more ice. If you can, leave the cold water in the dry bag until you’re ready to add more ice. The cold water will help keep your food cool.

I’ve never had the dry bag leak. The seams are sealed to keep water out, so they also keep the water in. Sometimes there is water from condensation on the bottom of the cooler, but that’s easy to wipe out.

I believe one time The Man put the dry bag full of ice flat on the bottom of the cooler and the bag leaked from the top. I don’t know if it leaked because it was flat or because the top wasn’t rolled down enough. Maybe the top wasn’t cinched adequately. I keep the top of the bag upright within the cooler, and I’ve never had a problem with leakage.

This is what the 20 liter dry bag looks like once it’s out of the box, but before any ice is put in it.

At only about $7 for the 20 liter size dry bag, most of us can afford this upgrade. Even if you can’t afford the best cooler on the market, you can probably afford a dry bag to cut down on ice chest lake aggravation and food waste.

I hope these tips help you solve your cooler problems. Do you have other tips to help folks deal with coolers and melting ice? Do you have other ideas for keeping your ice solid for longer? Please share your tips and ideas in the comments below.

I took all the photos in this post.

The RV Sticker Club

Standard

Have you heard about the RV Sticker Club? If you’re not on Instagram, you probably haven’t. Even if you are on Instagram, maybe you haven’t because Instagram is BIG!

I just found out that the RV Sticker Club has a webpage too, so you can check it out even if you don’t have an Instagram account and hang out there all the time like I do.

The Club is a project of The Flying Ham Travel Trailer Rentals If you’re in the Nashville, TN area, the Flying Ham folks will rent vintage style campers and glamping bell tents to you. Not only do they rent these cool camping accommodations, they deliver! According to their website, they will drop off and set up the camper or bell tent at the location you pick. When you finish camping, The Flying Ham will pick up the camper or tent. How cool is that? (Very cool!)

But back to the RV Sticker Club. If you’ve never heard of it before, you’re probably wondering what exactly it is. According to the Club’s webpage,

The RV Sticker Club is an international community of camping enthusiasts who trade RV/camper/van/bus stickers using the hashtag #rvstickerclub on Instagram! 

That explanation probably answered your first question: Is it only for folks who own an RV? NO! Although “RV” is in the name of the Club the real common denominators seems to be traveling and camping. You like traveling and camping? You’re in! You have a fifth wheel, motorhome, travel trailer, Airstream, popup, Casita, canned ham, Scamp, or teardrop? You’re in! You have a pickup truck with a camper that slides into the bed? You’re in! You’re have a van (mini, conversion, or cargo)? You’re in! You’re have a long bus? A short bus? A box truck? You’re in! You camp in a tent? You’re in! You’re full time? You’re part time? You’re a weekend warrior? You’re a snow bird? You’re in!!!! You can see this is a club with very loose membership requirements.

(If there were some terms in the above paragraph that you didn’t understand, see my post Lingo which explains a lot of expressions I’ve heard on the road.)

The RV Sticker Club website goes on to say that it’s free to join the club, but since the whole point of joining the club is trading stickers, you will need to purchase some stickers for trading. Before you order stickers, though, you’re going to need a design to put on those stickers. You will need a design that communicates to the world who you are.

I’ve had two Rubber Tramp Artist designs. You can read about both of them in my post Rubber Tramp Artist Has a New Logo! I’ve been so fortunate to have two very talented artists create two very special designs for me.

What can you do if you don’t have a talented friend willing to create a design for you? The RV Sticker Club FAQ says,

You can design one yourself on a paint program on your computer or hire someone to design it for you!

The RV Sticker Club folks then list the following seven graphic artists under the heading “Sticker Designers We Love”: BrewSleepDraw, courtney lemmons designs, Green Bow Editing, Clothe the Branches, Free from Ordinary, The Wandering Wardens, and Lucy The Glamper.

Once you have a design, you can have it put on a sticker. I’ve had all of my stickers produced by Sticker Mule, and I’ve always been impressed and happy with the outcome. The stickers are thick and durable and suitable for outdoor application. Their customer service is fantastic and the turn-around time is quick. The folks at RV Sticker Club recommend Sticker Giant.

Ok. So you have a design and you have stickers. Now what? The RV Sticker Club website says,

When your stickers come in, post them on Instagram using the hashtag #rvstickerclub and tag us (@rvstickerclub)!

People will DM (direct message) you to trade, or you can message them! 

​Exchange addresses. 

​Watch your collection grow!

Wondering where to put the stickers you receive? Some people have a special RV Sticker Club scrapbook and affix the stickers to its pages. Some people attach stickers to their rig, either inside or outside. Another popular sticker display place is an ice chest or cooler. I started trading stickers specifically to decorate my new cooler. After the cooler was completely stickered, I starting using stickers I received on the case for my camping stove. (Unfortunately, I put all the stickers on upside down. Oh well.) At some point, someone (I can’t remember who) said they put stickers on their poop bucket, so I started doing that as well. Once the stickers start arriving, you’ll think of all kinds of places to put ’em.

These are the places I’m displaying the stickers I’ve received in swaps via RV Sticker Club. Not all of the stickers are the result of trades. I also have stickers that I’ve won in giveaways and some that I purchased in places I visited.

I think RV Sticker Club is a lot of fun! Maybe you would enjoy trading stickers too. I’d be glad to answer any questions you have about trading stickers. Feel free to ask questions in the comments below.

My Recent Travels

Standard
My first camping spot at the start of my adventure. This photo was taken on the Ski Valley Road between Taos and the Taos Ski Valley.

I recently spent three weeks on the road traveling in New Mexico and Colorado.

I went from Taos to Taos Ski Valley to Tres Piedras, all in New Mexico. Then I went to Colorado, where I visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Crestone, and Alamosa. Back in the Land of Enchantment, I camped in the Carson National Forest near Tres Piedras for three days. Next I visited museums, thrift stores, and a friend in Santa Fe. From the capital city, I went to Moriarty, the three sites of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, the Very Large Array, the Box Recreation Area near Socorro, the Catwalk National Recreation Area, and the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. I also shopped in nine thrift stores in four towns.

Along the way, I mostly camped for free. I only paid for a campsite once, when I stayed at the Piñon Flats Campground in the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Otherwise, I spent my nights boondocking at no cost.

In the next few weeks, I’ll share with you where I went, what I learned, what I saw, and where I stayed. Stay tuned for all this great new content.

I had a terrific time during my three weeks of travel. It was fun to be back on the road. However, I am glad to be at my home base, settling in for the winter. It also feels good to write blog posts again. I hope you will enjoy hearing about my adventures as much as I enjoyed living them.

Footprints in the sand at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Colorado.

I took the photos in this post.

Tips for the Road Trip or Nomad Newbie

Standard

Recently a friend went on road trip covering 1,500 miles and crossing four states. It wasn’t her first road trip, but it was the first long one that she did alone. She wanted to arrive at her destination as quickly as possible, as safely as possible (in the time of COVID, no less), while spending as little money as possible. As we discussed her trip and I offered advice, I realized I had lots of tips I’d picked up from my years as a rubber tramp. Whether you’re going on a weekend road trip and plan to return to your sticks-n-bricks on Sunday evening or if it’s your maiden voyage as a full-time nomad (or even if you’re at some stage between the two extremes), these tips can help make travel in your vehicle safer, cheaper, and more enjoyable.

#1 Remove some seats, or fold them down. The minivan my friend drove on her road trip had seats that folded completely into the floor to create a totally flat surface. My Toyota Sienna did not offer such technology so I pulled all the back seats out as soon as possible. With seats out of the way, you’ll have more room for luggage, coolers, camp stove, and most importantly, space to sleep.

#2 Make yourself a place to sleep. On anything longer than a day trip, you’re going to need to catch some Z’s. (Even on a day trip, you might need to take a nap.) Camping can be fun and staying at a hotel/motel/Airbnb is a luxury I wish I could afford, but if you’re just trying to make it from point A to Point B, consider sleeping in your vehicle. With the seats out or folded away, you should have room to make a comfortable sleeping area for yourself.

My friend had a twin size futon mattress that she threw in her minivan for maximum comfort. If you don’t have a mattress that fits your vehicle, you could use an air mattress, a pad intended to go under a sleeping bag, the squishy mats that go on the floor of an exercise or play room, a yoga mat, or even a pile of blankets. If you don’t have a sleeping bag to go on top of your padding, just use sheets and blankets from your bed at home. Don’t forget your pillow.

If the seats in your vehicle don’t fold down or can’t be removed, consider using a car air bed. According to Noelle Talmon‘s article “Best Car Air Beds: Our Top Picks for Back Seat Comfort” on The Drive website, a car air bed is

…designed to be placed on top of a vehicle’s back seat to provide a more comfortable sleeping spot…

Air beds are designed to universally accommodate the back seats of most cars, including compact cars, sedans, and SUVs. A back seat bed includes two separately inflated “feet” that support the mattress, fit into the spaces in front of the seats, and contour around the console. Made out of lightweight, synthetic PVC, the beds weigh around 6 to 7 pounds…

A car air bed can be had for around $30 for a basic model, or you can spend $60 or more for all the bells and whistles if you desire optimal luxury. If you plan to spend several nights in your car, especially if you can’t get your seats out of the way, a car air bed may be a wise investment. For less than the cost of one night in a motel, you can buy yourself many night of car sleeping comfort.

By sleeping in your vehicle, you’ll not only save money (no camping fees, no charges for a hotel room), you’ll interact with fewer people if you’re dodging communicable diseases.

#3 You might be wondering where to park if you’re going to sleep in your vehicle. I wrote a whole post about blacktop boondocking you might want to check out, but I’ll give you a quick rundown here.

If you’re simply concerned with getting some sleep between Point A and Point B, truck stops, sometimes called travel centers, and rest areas are your best bets. Lots of people are coming and going at these places, and you probably won’t be the only one sleeping in a vehicle.

I prefer truck stops over rest areas because at truck stops you can fuel up, get a snack (maybe even a slice of pizza or a fresh cinnamon roll) or have a hot meal, get caffeine if you need it, use the restroom, or even take a shower. (Of course, you’re gong to pay dearly for truck stop snacks, drinks, and showers, so try to plan ahead so you won’t need such things.)

Truck stops to look for include Flying J (my fave), Pilot (now owned by the same corporation that owns Flying J), Love’s (The Man’s fave), TA (TravelCenters of America), and Petro. Beware: both Love’s and Petro have locations that are only gas stations/convenience stores and others that are truck stops/travel centers. Make sure a location is actually at truck stop if you’re looking to stay overnight.

Rest areas are shown on paper maps. (You are traveling with a paper map, aren’t you? If you have no idea why you might need one, read my post “In Praise of Paper Maps“.) Check out your route on your map to see if there are any rest areas on the way. You can also look at a map of rest areas on the Interstate Rest Areas website.

Each state has different rules about how long you can stay at a rest area, so do your research before you decide to spend the night at one. Even if you are not allowed to stay overnight at a rest area, you can usually get at least a few hours of shut-eye at one.

If you’re on a leisurely trip and think free camping (often known as boondocking) might be fun, use the Free Campsites website and Campendium to find cool places in nature to spend a night or more. Before boondocking, be sure to read my post “10 Fundamentals for Boondockers.”

#4 Once you’ve decided where you will stay for the night, you might wonder exactly where to park your vehicle. On her first night at a truck stop, my newbie road tripper friend texted me, Was I supposed to park with the trucks?

The answer is no, don’t park with the big rigs unless you are driving a big rig yourself or maybe if you’re driving a giant Class A motorhome, but even then, try to avoid it. Typically there are more truckers who need to take a mandatory break than there are spaces for them to park in at a truck stop. Do not take one of the limited spots an 18-wheeler can fit in. If you’re in a passenger vehicle, park with the other passenger vehicles.

The ideal spot for your rig (in my opinion) is on the end of a row so you’ll only have a neighbor on one side. If you’re away from light shining on you, all the better as far as I’m concerned, although some people feel safer parked under lights. I’d try to avoid parking next to pet walking areas, trash cans, entrance/exit doors, or anywhere with lots of foot traffic.

Now you’re parked for the night. What next?

#5 Use your windshield sun shade to block light and provide privacy at night. We all know a windshield sun shade helps reduce the heat in a vehicle when it’s parked during the day, but it can also provide you with some privacy at night, as well as keep the light from parking lot security lamps out of your face. You may not want to hang curtains in your vehicle. Maybe the windows are tinted enough to give you the privacy you need. Since the windshield is not tinted and it’s a big piece of glass, it’s easy for people to look right in. Pop your sun shade in the windshield at night and you’ve just made your vehicle more private. The sun shade will also block the light that otherwise pours in all night and can disturb your sleep.

#6 If the windshield sun shade doesn’t give you all the privacy you need, hang some easy curtains. The side curtains in my minivan hang from bungee cords and attach to each other with clothespins. The back curtain is pinned up with clothespins. When my friend went on her road trip, she made a “tent” within the back of her minivan with sheets and binder clips. You could also cover windows with a sarong, a skirt, a sweatshirt, a bath towel, or a pillowcase. My point is that you don’t need an elaborate, permanent system to cover your windows. Plan ahead or make do with what you have in a pinch, but covering your windows can really increase your coziness.

#7 I’m a big believer in locking the doors. I just sleep better knowing no one is going to open one of my doors during the night. I can use the remote lock on my key fob to lock all of my doors from the inside of my minivan. I can then manually unlock doors from the inside as needed. Experiment with your key fob if you have one to find out what works for you.

#8 The first rule of vanlife is always know where your keys are. This is a tip for both night and day, but I always sleep better when I know I can grab my keys in an instant if I need to.

My friend the newbie road tripper was going to sleep with her keys under her pillow, but thought better of it. She worried she might move in the night and hit the button for the alarm or the one that unlocked all the doors. She found another spot that felt more secure. You will have to find the spot that works best for you, but you want to be able to reach out and grab them without much thought or struggle.

#9. We’re about to get real here. If you’re sleeping in your vehicle, having a pee bottle/jug/bucket is going to come in handy. Trust me, once all your curtains are up and you’re snuggled under blankets or in your sleeping bag, you are not going to want to find your shoes, pull on some pants, get our of the vehicle, and walk across the parking lot at 2 o’clock in the morning. A way to pee in your rig is super convenient. (For lots of info about using the bathroom when there is no bathroom, read my post “Going to the Bathroom in Your Van, Car, Minivan, or SUV.”)

People with male anatomy probably know all about this, but as a reminder, use a bottle with a lid that screws on tightly, such as a disposable water bottle, a Nalgene bottle, or a juice or milk jug. Just make sure you don’t confuse your pee bottle with a bottle you drink out of. (Yuck!)

The process is not as easy for people with female anatomy, but it can be done. Ever squat to pee when you’re out camping or hiking? What you’ll be doing is the same principle, but without a tree to lean against and into a container instead of on the ground. I use a tall plastic coffee can with a snap-on lid. Any wide-mouth, leak-proof container is a possibility. If you already use a stand-to-pee device, try using it in conjunction with your container.

In the morning when you emerge from your vehicle, carry the container into the restroom and dump the contents into the toilet.

Photo by Nico Smit on Unsplash

#10 To save money and time, pack snacks. I mentioned liking truck stops because snacks are available there, but I can’t remember the last time I bought food at a truck stop or a convenience store. Snacks bought in those places are so expensive! If you’re going on a road trip or travel vacation, pack snacks you already have at home, or buy some at the supermarket, discount store, or dollar store before you go. You can save a lot of money by purchasing food before you hit the road.

You can save more money by not eating restaurant meals while you travel. If you have a camp store, you can stop at rest areas or city or county parks and cook meals on-the-go. There are soups, noodles, oatmeal, and mashed potatoes you can prepare with just hot water. Often you can get free hot water from coffee dispensers at gas stations and truck stops, so you don’t even have to drag out the camp stove. (If you’re not sure if the water is free, just offer to pay for it at the cash register.)

If you bring a loaf of bread and pack cold cuts and cheese in your cooler, you can slap together a sandwich and call it a picnic wherever you stop. Peanut butter and jelly works the same way. You could also stock the cooler with pizza and boiled eggs if you don’t mind eating those cold. Maybe some fruit, nuts, or trail mix eaten while you’re driving would be enough to get you through.

There are lots of options less expensive and healthier than a fast food burger and fries or a meal in a sit down restaurant. (Learn to save even more cash while on the road in my post “How to Save Money While Visiting Tourist Attractions.”)

#11 Are you a night owl or an early bird? In either case there are some real benefits of driving from dark to light.

A very wise woman shared this concept in one of the lady van groups I’m in. If you get an early start, even before the sun rises, you’ll be able to more easily handle any problems you might encounter. If your vehicle breaks down, mechanics and auto parts stores will be open in the daytime, but probably not in the middle of the night. If your tires goes flat or has a blow out, tire shops and sales locations will be open in the daytime. Driving in the daytime tends to work better for me because driving at night puts me right to sleep. Also, it’s getting more and more difficult for me to see well while I’m driving at night. I’d much rather get an early start, stop and see cool attractions along the way, and still get to my stopping point before dark.

I hope these tips for anyone just starting out on the road are helpful. What did I forget? What do you wish you had known when you were starting out? Please share your favorite road trip tips in the comments.

Going to the Bathroom in Your Van, Car, Minivan, or SUV

Standard

Content warning: urine and feces, as well as mention of excretory anatomy

Once at the RTR, I said to Coyote Sue, Folks who can’t talk about pee and poop probably shouldn’t be here. The same can be said about this blog post. If you can’t stand reading about pee and poop, this is not the blog post for you. If, however, you currently live and travel in a vehicle that does not come equipped with toilet facilities (or plan to do so in the future), this may be the blog post you’ve been looking for.

The first thing I have to tell you is that there is no one-size-fits-all formula for solving the problem of living in a rig with no bathroom. A lot of factors are going to determine what system is right for you. Some factors to consider include the following: the size of your rig, your size, your physical abilities and limitations, your squeamishness level, your budget, and your location when nature calls. In this post I will share what works for me and what other folks have told me works for them. You will have to decide for yourself what works for you. You may not come to that decision without some trial and error.

One option is a portable toilet such as the Bestgoods 20L Portable Camping Toilet Travel Potty, the Thetford 92860 Porta Potti 135, the Hike Crew Advanced Portable Outdoor Camping and Travel Toilet, and the JAXPETY 5.3 Gallon 20L Flush Porta Potti. These toilets range in price from about $50 to $110 before taxes and shipping fees. I have no personal experience with the models I just mentioned, so I’m not recommending any of them. I did a Google search for “camp potty,” and those are some of the results.

I’ve never tried a camp potty for a number of reasons. They take up quite a bit of room, and can be pricey if purchased new. (For most of the time I lived full time in my van, even $50 was a major expenditure for me.) However, the portable toilets do look more comfortable than do-it-yourself options, and if the model has a storage tank for waste, it won’t have to be emptied each time it’s used. One person I encountered in a Facebook van group shared her experiences with a portable toilet she used in her van. She loved it. When the waste tank was full, she emptied it in the ladies room at the nearest rest area. I’m not sure what she did if she didn’t encounter any rest areas when she needed to dump the toilet’s tank. Personally, I don’t know if I’m confident enough to carry a waste tank from a portable toilet into a restroom at a Wal-Mart or truck stop.

Another option are disposable human waste bags. As Sarah Laskow explains in her article “These Magic Bags Turn Pee to Goo And Make Poop Portable,”

Combining the principles of kitty litter and plastic bag-based poop-scooping…these bags rely on trade-secret combinations of gelling agents, enzymes and deodorizers to sequester human waste into a manageable package.

The gelling agents almost instantly transform urine into goo…The enzymes break down solid waste, enough that the bags can be disposed of in regular old garbage cans.

A generic term for these items is WAG (Waste Alleviation and Gelling) bag. Two companies that manufacture bags that can handle solid and liquid waste are Cleanwaste and RESTOP. There are many more companies that sell disposable urine bags. A search for “disposable urine bags” on Amazon yielded over a dozen choices.

Several years ago, I got a free sample of a disposable urine bag. (I can’t remember how I got the sample or the company it was from.) The bag was fairly easy to use, but did require squatting. The gel in the bag trapped odors, so my van didn’t smell like urine. The used bag was easy to dispose of discreetly with the rest of my trash.

However, I find the cost of these bags prohibitive. At 75 cents to $1 (or more!) per bag for the disposable urine bags and around $4 each for the bags that can handle solid waste too, I’d be spending a lot of money to use these things. If I used one of these bags for every elimination function, I could easily spend $8 a day. I’ll do the math so you don’t have to. At $8 a day, that’s $56 a week, $224 a month and whopping $2,688 a year! Even if I managed to use public restrooms to pee all day and make one solid waste deposit and only used one urine disposal bag each night, I could still spend $300 a year on these things! In my opinion, it’s better to leave the WAG bags to people who really need them like backpackers and mountain climbers.

Most van dwellers use a 5 gallon bucket for solid waste deposits and some sort of bottle or jar for liquid waste. (Most people are going to tell you to keep solid and liquid waste separated. I’ll share my thoughts on that topic later.)

if you’re a person with a penis, you probably know how to urinate into a bottle. (If you don’t, you probably need to get advice from another person with a penis or check out this WikiHow article.) I can offer a few tips for anyone who’s going to urinate into a container. Make sure to close the camp tightly when done and don’t confuse the bottle you drink out of with the bottle you pee in. If you’re going to dispose of a bottle of urine, throw it in a trash can, not out of your vehicle’s window and on the side of the road.

Urinating into a container might be a new experience for people with female anatomy. If you already have a stand-to-pee device such as a Pstyle, GoGirl, Shewee, or Tinkle Belle, it might be helpful when peeing into a container. (If you have no idea what the aforementioned devices are or if you need some help choosing which one to buy, check out Christina Cauterucci‘s article “You Should Be Using a Stand-to-Pee Device.”) Some women I’ve talked to use a regular funnel from the kitchen or automotive department as a less expensive urination deice option. If you don’t have any sort of urination device, you’ve going to have to kneel or squat over your container. Use a container that will held plenty of liquid and will not leak. Unless you know you will always be able to empty the container immediately after you fill it, be sure it has a tight fitting lid. Make sure the container’s opening is wide enough to accommodate your urine stream.

I use this coffee container as my urine receptacle in my minivan. I found the container on top of the trash in the dumpster where I live in the winter. It was clean, with a trace of coffee dust inside.

I like to use a 37 ounce plastic coffee container as my urine receptacle. I’ve used smaller containers, and they’ve worked, but I like to have plenty of room in my receptacle in the event I have to pee several times in the night. One woman I talked to prefers to urinate into a Pringles can held up against her body. Another urinates into a large container, then uses her funnel to pour urine into empty individual serving water bottles which she finds easy to dispose of. A large yogurt, sour cream, or cottage cheese container may meet your needs. I’ve often seen round plastic canisters with wide mouths and screw on lids at Dollar Tree, or perhaps you’ll find your perfect urine receptacle in the recycling bin. Different containers and systems work for different bodies, so be willing to experiment.

Any container that’s reused to hold urine can develop an odor, especially if the urine sits in the container for hours. After dumping the liquid wasted from my container (away from camp if I’m boondocking or in the toilet if I’m in civilization), I rinse it with a bit of water and let it air dry with the lid off if possible. A bit of dish soap added to the water and swished around can help cut the odor too. If an odor does develop, add a little bleach or vinegar to the container, swish it around, and let it sit for a while.

As I said before, most vandwellers and other nomads with rigs lacking toilet facilities use 5 gallon buckets for solid waste disposal. Five gallon buckets are most popular because they are easiest and cheapest to acquire.I lucked out and was given a smaller 2 (or maybe it’s 3) gallon bucket. I like it because it takes up less space in my minivan. Depending on your physical capabilities to get up from a low sitting position, a small bucket may not be for you. Another option may be a large plastic kitty litter container with a lid that snaps on securely.

You probably don’t want to balance your butt on the naked rim of a bucket. I know I sure don’t! There are a couple of ways to remedy this uncomfortable situation.

I splurged and bought a special toilet seat/lid combo designed to fit on a bucket. (The number of gallons a bucket holds does not determine if this seat will work with your bucket. The diameter of the bucket’s opening is what determines if the seat will fit. ) The seat snaps securely onto the bucket so it doesn’t slide around when in use.The lid does not seal, so odor can still escape, but it dos snap closed so it won’t flop open when moved. The seat typically costs under $15. (My bucket came with a tightly sealing lid, which I kept. If the contents of my bucket are ever particularly stinky, I can seal in the odor with the original lid.)

My two gallon bucket with removable plastic seat and lid.

The do-it-yourself approach to making a bucket more comfortable to sit on is to fasten part of a pool noodle or similar pipe insulation sleeves around the rim of a bucket. To see how this is done, watch Eugene Valkovsky‘s video “How to Make Portable Toilet Bucket.”

Once you get your bucket outfitted for comfort, you’re ready to use it. Or are you? How will you prepare your bucket for the easiest disposal of waste? There area a few different methods.

The first thing you want to do is line your bucket with a plastic bag. You can use a disposable grocery store bag, but you want to be absolutely sure it has no holes in the bottom. Also, whether you’re using a plastic grocery store bag or a trash bag, you want the bag to be big enough to bring the open end of it over the rim of the bucket and fold it down against the outside of the bucket. This will (hopefully) keep the bag from falling down into the bucket when you make your first poop deposit. I find that the plastic seat snapping over the bucket’s opening does a good job holding the bag in place.

Some people defecate right into the plastic bag, deposit their used toilet paper in there, tie off the bag, and leave it all in the bucket until it can be thrown away. Some people take an extra step and add something absorbent (like kitty litter) to the bag before using it. The kitty litter crowd tends to add an initial layer of litter to the bottom of the bag before use. After each poop deposit, another layer of kitty litter (and possibly a sprinkle of baking soda to help control odors) is added. I’ve never tried this method, but it seems to me by the time the bag is full (or even half full) it’s going to be heavy and stinky. However, as I’ve said before folks have to decide for themselves what works best for them.

As I mentioned, many people say solid and liquid wasted must be kept separate. I don’t know if this is a difference between male and female bodies or just a unique quirk of mine, but (TMI coming right up!) I just can’t seem to produce solid waste without producing liquid waste too. I just can’t seem to poop without peeing. If I have to poop and try to pee first, well, let’s just say that doesn’t work either.

What I’ve found works for me (on the suggestion of a woman who shared at an RTR women’s meeting I attended) are puppy training pads. These are the pads you get when you’re house training a puppy. I buy them at WalMart for about 20 cents each (before tax). After I put a plastic bag in my bucket, I line it with a puppy pad. The pads are supposed to hold 2cups of liquid. The pad absorbs any liquid I deposit and offers a tiny bit of protection if the plastic bag has a hole in it or if it tears.

After I finish making my deposit, I drop my used toilet paper in to the bag, squeeze as mush air as possible out of the bag, and tie it off securely. I try to set up bag and puppy training pad combo (or several combos if I’m feeling particularly efficient) in advance so when nature calls, I don’t have to waste time setting up my supplies. I drop the securely tied used plastic bags back into the bucket until I can dispose of them. (I take them out before I use the toilet bucket again.)

A word of warning: Even when it’s entirely empty, a bucket that’s held feces is going to smell pretty bad. Turns out the smell of feces cannot be contained by a regular plastic bag, and the plastic bucket soaks up the scent. Airing out the bucket when you can (like when you’re boondocking) helps, as does baking soda, vinegar, and bleach (but not all together!), but the bucket will probably never be the same.

I understand that human waste can be difficult to discuss and difficult to deal with. I hope this information about the systems I and others use while van (or car, truck, minivan, or SUV) dwelling helps you decide how to deal with your own waste. For folks who have already spent time on the road in a rig without a built in restroom, how do you deal with your waste? Feel free to share your tips and suggestions in the comments.

I took the photos not credited to someone else.

Why the Rubber Tramp Artist is Driving a Minivan

Standard
A silver Toyota Sienna is parked in a parking lot.
My new minivan. I call it the Silver Streak.

I’ve always been a conversion van sort of gal. I’ve owned five conversion vans (4 Chevy G20s and 1 Dodge Ram) since 2010. When I decided to sell my truck and buy a van, I was pretty sure I’d buy another conversion van. Then I started seeing what used vans were actually available in the state of New Mexico.

On Craigslist I found newer traditional conversion vans and Sprinter vans on the used vehicle market, but those rigs were wildly out of my price range. If I’d had $10,000 or more in my pocket, one of those big van could have been mine. Since I only had around $7,000 in my pocket, none of those vans were to be mine.

My last conversion van was a 1992. Did I really want something that old again?

The vans in my price range were older. I saw vans from the 90s, 80s, and even 70s advertised on Craigslist. I was unsure how wise it would be to invest in a vehicle that was more than 20 years old. My friend Brent strongly suggested that I get somethings manufactured in the 21st century. Besides just being old, the majority of full-size vans I saw that I could afford were high mileage. I saw vans for sale with 180,000; 200,000; 250,000 miles on them. How long could something with so many miles on it last before I encountered a major problem? I was really worried about buying myself a big ol’ problem (or a bunch of smaller problems) in the form of an older van.

After looking at all of the Craigslist ads for full-size vans in New Mexico and finding nothing suitable, I started looking at ads from Arizona. There were more large vans available in the Copper State, and I thought maybe I’d have to go Arizona and stay with friends while I shopped for a van there.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic complicated everything. (What hasn’t the COVID-19 pandemic complicated?) I had received both of my vaccine shots, but none of my friends had received theirs. The last thing I wanted to do was infect anyone, especially people I care about. How could I keep everyone safe during my visit? Where would I sleep while staying with friends in order to not risk anyone’s health? Should I use public transportation to go van shopping? Would it be safe to have a friend drive me to see vehicles? How dangerous would it be for me to meet with a variety of strangers and test drive their vehicles? How would I get to Arizona anyway? My truck was sold, and there’s no Greyhound service from the town I live in. I probably didn’t want to be on a bus with strangers and their breath for 6 or 8 hours anyway.

On the second day of my ad search, I realized I was seeing a lot of New Mexico ads for minivans in my price range. I’ve always been a conversion van gal, but I started thinking maybe driving a minivan would be ok.

The biggest factor I considered when I thought about buying a minivan is that I’m no longer a full-time rubber tramp. I’m keeping my little trailer parked in the little RV park, and I’ll live in it 7 or 8 months out of the year. Because I won’t have to shove everything I own (and believe me, I am not a minimalist) into a minivan, I was able to imagine living and traveling in one for 4 or 5 months at a time.

Of course, gas mileage is the siren song of the minivan. When I interviewed The Man about why he chose to live and travel in a minivan, the main reason he gave for his decision was the minivan’s good gas mileage. After years of driving my vans and truck and getting 15 miles per gallon at best, I was ready to spend less on gas. Not only will the minivan give me good gas mileage during the 4 or 5 months when I’m traveling, I’ll save money when driving around town running errands when I’m living stationery in my travel trailer during the winters. If I want to take road trips during the spring, fall, and winter, I can do so without worrying that stops at the gas station will break my bank.

Reliability was another important minivan attribute. When The Man was in the market for a minivan, he spent hours researching the best on the market. He found the two most reliable minivans available were the Toyota Sienna and the Honda Odyssey. I figured if I got one of those van models and maintained it properly, I could probably drive it for a long, long time.

As I looked through minivan ads on Craigslist and Facebook, one in Albuquerque caught my attention. It was a 2005 Toyota Sienna with under 100,000 miles on it. It was being sold by the original owner. I sent the owner lots of questions throughout the day and he answered each one promptly. By the end of the day, I had an appointment to see the van the next afternoon.

My mechanically inclined friend drove me out to look at the van, crawled under the van to look for leaks, checked the fluids, rode with me while I drove the car, and took it out for a spin himself.

On the plus side, the vehicle seemed to be in good mechanical condition. There were no leaks. No “check engine” lights were on. The owner said the van had passed the emissions test the last time it had been inspected, about eight months prior and had never been in an accident.. The owner also said the minivan had never been his family’s primary vehicle. His family had always had another vehicle, so the minivan mostly sat in the garage except for the few times they drove it to Vegas on family trips. On the minus side, the van needed new tires, a new battery, and new windshield wiper blades. All things considered, I decided to buy the vehicle.

I had the van’s oil changed right away. I bought a new battery for it, new windshield wiper blades, and four new tires. The nice man who helped me at AutoZone confirmed what my friend had said: he neither saw nor smelled any evidence of leaks. He said the engine compartment looked very clean. The young man who put on new tires at Discount Tire said the can’s alignment seemed fine; the tires weren’t worn unevenly. I’ve driven the minivan over 600 miles in the weeks since I purchased it, and all seems well.

The minivan drives smoothly and quietly and practically parks itself. Its got more get up and go than any conversion van I ever drove. I am so relieved that I no longer practically need a ladder to get in and out of my vehicle. The air conditioner blows cold. The stereo sounds good.

I named it the Silver Streak.

I’ve pulled most of the seats out, and I’m getting it ready so I can sleep in it and live in it. I’m about to take it out on the road for the start of my summer travels. Hopefully it will hold up as well as I think it will. Stay tuned for more posts about getting the seats out and how I set everything up.

I took the photos in this post unless otherwise noted.

Vandweller Report: Working at a Christmas Tree Lot (Guest Post)

Standard

This blog post was written before we knew about COVID-19 as a threat, before there was a global pandemic affecting us all. I’ve decided to share this post today in the hopes that it will be helpful to someone, but I don’t know if Christmas tree lots are open this year or if they are hiring. If you want to follow up on the information offered here, you will have to do your own research.

Aerin (the author of this post) and I are both in a vanlife Facebook group. When I heard Aerin was going to work at a Christmas tree lot during the 2019 holiday season, I asked if they would be interested in writing a report for my blog. I was excited when they said yes.

Working at a Christmas tree lot is one of those seasonal jobs I’ve heard are available to nomads but have been able to find precious little real information about. The information that is out there is from the perspective of RVing couples managing lots. I thought I’d do my readers a favor by sharing the insights of a vandweller who spent a couple of weeks before Christmas slinging trees.

Are you a fan of the holiday season? You know, that magical time of year when some traditions call for bringing the carcasses of dead evergreens into our homes to be the backdrop for our revelry. 

I’m talking about Christmas trees.

Photo by Rodolfo Marques on Unsplash

How Did I Hear About the Job?

Well, I was just an unsuspecting nomad looking for work at the beginning of December when I spotted the post in a workamping Facebook group. It wasn’t more than 20 minutes old and had one comment so far. Usually I don’t see these kinds of posts until much too late.

Labor in a Christmas tree lot? How hard could that be? 

Was Living In a Van Helpful to Get the Job?

Not really. I was looking to park onsite as part of my employment, so living in a small rig that is self-contained and doesn’t need hookups made that possible.

I could have parked elsewhere and driven in to work. There was no requirement to live onsite, aside from the managers, and the rest of the staff drove in. However, it was a selling point that I would be around in case things got unexpectedly busy and they needed someone to jump in right away. That didn’t actually happen, but it made the managers feel more secure since they were learning the ropes too, and it helped get me the job.

The person who had responded to the post before me had a large RV and was looking for something that offered hookups. This job was literally in a parking lot. One that was technically the property of the swim school next door, so space could be at a premium when both businesses were crowded. One extra vehicle of regular size was not going to crowd things.

The Job

The lot that hired me is affiliated with Valley View Christmas Trees. Valley View has lots all over the Phoenix metro area. Each lot is managed by a workamping couple who have the authority to hire staff.

From conversations with my managers, I learned that they get bonuses at the end of the season if they hit a certain threshold in total sales and keep labor costs below a certain percentage of sales. Otherwise, they are paid a flat salary, and at least one of them is expected to be working 9-9 every single day.

For me, I was labor staff. Pay was $11/hr gross. Not awesome, but it did come with several useful perks:

  • a parking spot for the duration of my time there
  • regular access to their port-o-pottie so I didn’t need to find another bathroom or use the one in my rig
  • unlimited water for drinking that I could have gotten straight from a hose and filtered myself (if I had a filter) but my managers were kind enough to let me use the faucet in their RV so it went through their filtration system
  • grocery store within walking distance

Each lot had the same five types of fir trees: Douglas, grand, Fraser, noble, and Nordmann. A big part of my job was knowing the difference and a little bit about each to assist customers. After a sale, I moved the tree to the back area and processed it for loading. This involved removing the stand, cutting a little off the bottom of the trunk so it would absorb more water once in the customer’s home, and trimming any branches as requested. Loading was either putting it in a truck bed or tying it to the roof of a car.

Tying a tree to the roof of a car is not fun. At all.

Aside from sales, my job also involved restocking. Trees that were delivered from Valley View (grown in Oregon) needed to get the bottoms drilled (for our center spike stands), stands pounded in, moved into place, twine wrap cut off, and bowls filled with water.

Most trees were in some partial state of readiness. For example, if things were slow, we might drill a bunch of trees in succession so it would be easier to restock later. Drilling takes a minimum of two people, sometimes three or more for larger trees, so getting that done all at once is more efficient.

The drill and drilled trees waiting to be put out. Photo provided by the author.

Drilling is also not fun. 

Trying to guess whether a tree is standing up straight is difficult. If the hole isn’t straight, it becomes super obvious once the tree is on a stand. Redrilling an unwrapped tree is even less fun.

My hours varied week to week depending on when the managers expected to be busy as we got closer to Christmas. Valley View does not pay overtime, so a strict cap of 40 hours also meant some creative shifting to make sure enough staff were working. The lot itself was open from 9am to 9pm every day. The managers were required to work all day every day for their salary.

The result of experimenting with painting trees. Photo provided by the author.

Towards the end of the season, one of the operations managers for Valley View came with a sprayer so we could try painting the trees. It was a mess. We did end up with a purple, blue, and white tree though. Believe it or not, the blue and white ones did sell.

The only thing I didn’t do was cashier because managers were the only ones allowed to run the register.

The Experience As a Vandweller

I liked it overall. Technically the job started towards the end of November, but I came in a bit later. I started on December 5 and the job ended December 24, so I was working or on call for 20 days. Also, my paychecks came on time, on approximately the 15th and 30th of the month.

Positives:

It is a lot of manual labor. That meant I was being paid to exercise. I am primarily a digital nomad, but it can be difficult to make time for physical fitness. I was sore a lot and developed bruises on my legs from the trees, but nothing serious.

The port-o-pottie was pumped out every week, so using it was not an issue. It never got to smelling bad. I was happy to not have to use my camp toilet or walk somewhere.

I was a paid employee of Valley View, meaning they took taxes out of my pay. This may not be a positive for everyone, but I prefer to have the money taken out now and worry less about paying it later. Also, my paychecks came on time. The first came by paper check to the lot because of a snafu, but this wasn’t an issue for me. The second check went through electronically.

Near the end of my time working at the Christmas tree lot, I found that the Crunch Fitness nearby has a drop-in rate of $5.08 (including taxes) so I got to work out and take a shower. I don’t have a shower in my rig, so this was nice.

It was cold, but never unbearable. However, I would not want to do this job any further north.

Negatives:

I was muddy and wet a lot of the time.

I had pine needles EVERYWHERE.

Photo provided by the author.

It is easiest to just wear the same outfits over and over again. I had two pairs of pants, three long-sleeve shirts, and two vests that I cycled through so things had a chance to dry out before being worn again. I did laundry maybe twice the whole time I was there.

Since I wore my heavy work boots every day, I had a towel down as a kind of rug by the door so I could take them off and let them air out a little before the next day. They needed to air out for a full 24 hours once I was finished.

I didn’t feel comfortable setting up an outside area to cook, so I relied a lot on convenience food from the grocery store (which was a 5 min walk away). Not very healthy or frugal. 

All of the above are tough in a very small space. Everything gets everywhere. I was constantly sweeping dirt and pine needles out of the van. The walls were slowly coming in with dirty clothes draped to air out in the cab with the windows open, boots by the door, and trying to keep my bed relatively clean.

Bottom Line

I enjoyed myself. It was hard work, but I don’t mind that. I got paid to exercise, a free place to park, access to a great grocery store, and excellent managers. My hope is to work with the same couple again next season. A month of part- to full-time work with parking is a welcome thing at that time of year. The positives more than outweighed the negatives and the mehs.

I enjoyed the challenge of a new job, learning about the trees, and meeting some wonderful people. Being a vandweller was both a help and an inconvenience for a job like this, but I found ways to make it work. I learned a lot about how I use the space and made some changes.

I would definitely do this job again. It isn’t for everyone, but definitely worth investigating.

Aerin is a vandwelling nomad who has big dreams and is using a combination of frugality, zero waste, healthy living, alternative sources of income, and whatever else comes along to help achieve them. Aerin also makes masks, modular utility belts, and more at Hermit Crab Creations .


Southern Colorado Lake

Standard

On trips to Colorado, I’ve seen a lake on Highway 159 between Costilla, NM and San Luis, CO. There are no signs at the entrances on Highway 159 naming the lake, but from my research on Google Maps, it appears to be Sanchez Stabilizing Reservoir. The area around the reservoir is Sanchez Stabilization Park; it’s also a Colorado State Wildlife Area.

According to Wikipedia,

Sanchez Reservoir lies in far south-central Colorado, west of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Costilla County. Its inflows include Ventero Creek and the Sanchez Canal, a diversion canal that takes water from Culebra Creek and two other creeks…The reservoir’s earthen dam was built in 1912.

I took this photo of Sanchez Stabilizing Reservoir in March of 2020.

Brown signs labeled “Recreation Area” on either side of the highway are the only indication that the lake is on public land and not private property.

There are no signs about camping, nothing to say camping is either allowed or prohibited in the area. I’ve been of the mind that if there’s no sign explicitly prohibiting camping or overnight parking, then it must be allowed. (I find this way of thinking particularly acceptable in the U. S. Southwest. Results may vary in other areas.)

I took this photo of Sanchez Stabilizing Reservoir in the spring of 2017, probably in May.

According to the Colorado Birding Trail website, I was right about camping at Sanchez Stabilization Park. That website says primitive camping is allowed in the Park.

I’ve seen people seemingly camping at Sanchez Stabilization Park in truck campers and small-to-medium pull-behind campers. I’ve typically seen the area more crowded in the summer, but have noticed campers there in all seasons.

The aforementioned birding website also says,

Sanchez Reservoir is among the largest in the San Luis Valley, as well as among the most productive. The southern end can be frustrating to scan; most of the birds are usually on the north end.

The folks at the Colorado Birding Trail say the Reservoir is owned by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and is open all year. The recreation area does not provide accommodations to folks with disabilities, but for birders, some viewing is possible from one’s vehicle.

According to Uncover Colorado

Colorado has 350 State Wildlife Areas, covering more than 684,000 acres. With a valid fishing or hunting license you can access the properties for recreation, including hunting, fishing, hiking and wildlife observation.

I take that to mean that in order to camp at Sanchez Stabilization Park, you need a valid Colorado fishing or hunting license. However, I’ve never seen any notice of such a requirement on site.

According to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Website, a Colorado annual fishing license for a nonresident over the age of 16 costs $97.97. A one-day Colorado fishing license for a nonresident older than 16 runs $16.94, while a five-day Colorado fishing license for a nonresident over 16 costs $32.14. If you’re a Colorado resident over the age of 16, an annual fishing license costs $35.17. A one-day fishing license for Colorado residents over 16 costs $13.90. Colorado Parks and Wildlife says you can purchase a fishing license in person at hundreds of retailers​ or at a CPW location. You can buy a license by phone by calling toll free 1-800-244-5613​​, or you can buy a fishing license online​.

If you’d rather pay for a hunting license, a nonresident small game one-day license costs $16.75 and an annual nonresident small game license will set you back $82.78. For Colorado residents, a small game one-day license costs $13.90 and an annual small game license runs $30.11. Colorado Parks and Wildlife says you can buy a hunting license in person at hundreds of retailers​ or at a CPW location.  You can buy a license by phone by calling toll free 1-800-244-5613​​, or you can ​​​buy a license online​.

As I was researching this post, I found some references to a Wildlife or Habitat Stamp. At first it seemed that a camper only needed a Wildlife/Habitat Stamp in order to spend time in a Colorado State Wildlife Area such as Sanchez Stabilization Park. However, in a May 5, 2020 Hiking Bob column by Bob Falcone in the Colorado Springs Indy, I learned

…in an effort to make sure everyone pays equally to use SWAs, CPW will be requiring all users to purchase a hunting or fishing license, effective July 1 [2020].

Hiking Bob goes on to say

The least expensive option for Colorado residents would be to purchase a single day fishing license, for $13.90 per day, and the required Habitat Stamp for $10.13 per year. A yearly fishing license can be purchased for $35.17, however senior citizens (over age 65) can get the annual license for $9.85 and are also exempt from the Habitat Stamp requirement.

There are two entrances to Sanchez Stabilization Park from Highway 159. You can take each entrance to several parts of the recreation area. The dirt road leads to the pit toilet restroom at the front of the area, to the tree-lined dirt road where the picnic tables sit in the middle of the recreation area, or to a series of dirt roads that go around the lake.

Pit toilet restroom at Sanchez Stabilization Park near Highway 159. The entrance to the toilet is on the other side.

When I’ve looked in at the pit toilet restroom on a couple of occasions, I’ve always found it fairly clean. Someone is sweeping out the building housing the toilet. There’s usually graffiti on the walls, which is typical in a building that’s probably not attended daily. I must admit, I’ve never lifted the toilet’s lid to find out if anyone is scrubbing down the risers or wiping the seat and lid. While I have seen toilet paper in the restroom, I suggest travelers stay prepared by carrying their own stash of TP.

If the toilet ever gets a thorough scrubbing, whoever does the cleaning must truck in water or haul some from the lake, because there’s no faucet or spigot on site. Again, I suggest preparation if you plan to spend time Sanchez Stabilization Park. Plan to carry in your own water for drinking and washing. I don’t know what might be running off into the lake water, so I don’t know if it’s suitable for washing dishes or the human body. I certainly would not drink it.

While there are no signs saying not to eat fish caught in the Reservoir, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife webpage about Sanchez Reservoir SWA says

Anglers should take note of [the] warning issued by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment regarding mercury levels in fish caught in this reservoir.

Another view of Sanchez Reservoir State Wildlife Area. Photo taken March 18, 2020.

(When I clicked on the link in the above quote on the website, I was taken to an empty link, so I don’t know exactly what the warning says. You can get more information about the Health Department warning in particular or Sanchez Reservoir in general by calling the area Colorado Parks and Wildlife office in Monte Vista at (719) 587-6900.)

These picnic tables at Sanchez Stabilization Park are built to last and resist theft. The benches don’t look comfortable, however.

There are about a half dozen picnic tables in the part of the recreation area between the restroom and the lake. There are stone fire rings near some of the picnic tables,and I’ve never seen signs prohibiting campfires. If you decide to build a fire in this recreation area (or anywhere!), make sure there is no fire ban in effect and please follow Smokey Bear’s Campfire Safety Rules.

There is a line of trees between the picnic tables and the dirt road running behind the picnic area. The trees provide a little shade. Whenever I’ve stopped at Sanchez SWA, I’ve always parked near one of the trees and escaped the sun.

I have seen people camped on the beach next to the lake. After reviewing my photos of the lake, I see that the only trees in the area are the ones near the picnic tables. People camping on the beach don’t have the benefit of the shade trees provide. I bet it gets hot out on that beach in the summer.

This photo was taken from the opposite side of Sanchez Reservoir and shows the line of trees near the picnic tables. I believe this photos was taken in September 2019.

I’m not sure how soft or wet or loose the sand on the beach is. I would be very careful about driving a car on the sand, much less a motorhome. If I were going to pull a rig onto the sand, I would be careful about that too. Before I drove my rig out there, I would walk over the area that sparked my interest and survey the conditions in order to determine if my rig could handle the terrain.

I usually park in the shade of these trees.

Since I haven’t spent a lot of time at Sanchez Stabilization Park and haven’t spent the night there, I’m not sure if bugs are bad out there. They may be worse in the summer (as bugs tend to be). Again, I suggest visitors arrive prepared to keep bugs away.

The lack of signs also mean there’s no indication of how long one is allowed to stay at the reservoir. I looked online, but could find no rules on camping limits at State Wildlife Areas. The upper limit of staying on public land is usually 14 days, so I wouldn’t plan to stay for more than two weeks at Sanchez Stabilization Park.

I don’t know if I would buy a fishing license and Habitat Stamp for the sole purpose of camping at this reservoir. If I liked to fish and didn’t mind throwing back what I caught, it might be nice to spend a week or two here fishing a little and enjoying the peace and quiet.

There’s another way to access Sanchez Reservoir. The Colorado Birding Trail website gives the following directions:

From the intersection of CO 159 and CO 142 in San Luis, head east on the continuation of CO 142 (CR P.6) about three miles to CR 21 and turn right (south). From here it is about five miles south to the SWA.

I took all the photos in this post.