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Why I Chose a Minivan (an Interview with The Man)

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In my years as a vandweller, I’ve lived in four full-size conversion vans: three Chevy G-20s and a Dodge Ram. While I knew others lived in full-size vans, it was probably at my first Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in 2015 that I realized some vandwellers live in minivans. Wow! I thought my living quarters was small, but folks who live in minivans have to make do with a bare minimum of space.

When I met The Man and he told me he wanted a minivan to live and travel in, I was surprised. Minivans aren’t very sexy! I blurted out rudely. The Man’s had been living in a minivan for a little over eight months when this interview was conducted. I decided to ask him what he likes about living in a small vehicle, what he hates, how he’s got things set up, and what advice he’d offer to other people who are considering living and traveling in a minivan.

Rubber Tramp Artist (RTA): So my first question is, why did you decide to buy a minivan to live and travel in rather than a full-size cargo or conversion van?

The Man (TH): Ah, well, the main reason was gas mileage…

RTA: Did you ever live in or travel in a full-size van?

TH: Yes I did.

RTA: What kind?

TM: It was a Chevy Starcraft.

RTA: And how long did you do that?

TM: A couple of years.

RTA: By yourself or with other people?

TM: By myself [and] with other people. I would pick up hitchhikers and…I did a few months roll with my ex-girlfriend, we did about 3½ months in the van.

RTA: And was that difficult to live in a full-size van with other people?

TM: [long pause] You know, sometimes it was; sometimes it wasn’t. You know, it all depended on the company.

RTA: What do you like best about a minivan vs. a full-size van? Would you say gas mileage is the deciding factor there?

TM: Well yeah, the gas mileage, but…the more I have the minivan…because my girlfriend has a full-size van…when I go to work on a full-size van, it’s really tough. [T]he things are huge, you got to  have…powerful hydraulic jacks to deal with a big giant van like that, so I think that’s another disadvantage of…having a full-size van as opposed to a minivan.

RTA: What kind of minivan do you drive now?

TM: I drive a Honda Odyssey.

RTA: What year?

TM: 2001

RTA: Why did you decide on that particular make and model?

TM: …I did a lot of research…First I bought a van and went through a terrible ordeal with it. The transmission didn’t last…When I bought it, it didn’t even last all the way home. I got the greater portion of money back for the vehicle [from the seller] for which I was very lucky…After having that experience of immediately the transmission going out, I [knew that] if I [was] going to buy a vehicle, I need[ed] to buy the most reliable vehicle or at least one of the most reliable vehicles on the road. So basically what I did was an in-depth study…and it came down to Toyota and Honda…As I was growing up…it was always Toyota and Honda were the better vehicles, and I guess things have never really changed…It was a tossup between a Toyota and a Honda…and the Toyotas were a little more expensive than the Hondas…I opted to go with the Honda which was less [expensive] but still the second best, in some instances maybe even the first best rating as far as durability, long lasting, runs for a very long time reputation.

RTA: How tall are you?

TM: I’m six foot tall.

RTA: Can you stand up in your minivan?

TM: No, I cannot stand up in my minivan. But even if I had a big giant conversion van, unless it was like one of the modern day ones like they’re making now, I still couldn’t stand up in it.

RTA: Good point! Can you sit up in your bed?

TM: No I can’t sit up in my bed, but I do have it arranged where I can make one of the corners in my minivan sort of like a place I can…One of the things about getting inside of a van seems that it takes a very long time or for me it’s taken a very long time to arrange things in such a way that it’s optimal for what I’m doing or how I want to live…One of the things I realized is that if I pack all my clothes in the back of the vehicle, I could also create a back rest. So I recently began putting all my stuff in the back because I can sit up I can…partially sit up with a back rest I’ve created with my clean and dirty clothes.

RTA: What is your sleeping arrangement?

TM: I just have a cot. I bought a cheap cot the first time, and it was a very bad mistake. I didn’t go with the highest grade cot but I did go with a mid-grade cot.

RTA: You mean the replacement cot?

TM: Yeah.

RTA: The second one.

TM: Yeah. The second cot. I had to get a better cot. [The first time] I just got the $30 one off EBay, $35 or something and that’s just not durable enough. I wanted mine a little…smaller or thinner than the one I got now, but I sleep with my dog so it’s probably a good idea that I did get a bigger one…[T]his one’s holding up much, much better.

RTA: About how much did it cost you?

TM: It cost me around, I think about 65, 70 dollars, about a $70 one.

RTA: And so you’ve taken out all the back seats in the van, is that right?

TM: Yeah, and in the Honda Odyssey, the back seat folds down into the floor so I’ve left that in place [in the floor] and I just put the cot to one side. Now…when I chose what side to put the cot on…it seemed more reasonable that I put it on the passenger side because when I usually park the vehicle, the driver door is pointed toward me so I’m always gaining access from the driver’s side so…it made more sense to put the bed over on the passenger side of the vehicle.

RTA: Describe your setup. Like do you have a kitchen, do you have a bathroom? You’ve already talked about where your bed is positioned. Where do you have storage?

TM: …Actually I have plenty of room in my vehicle now that I’ve decided to pile most of my stuff in the back…I could put a lot more stuff in there now. I only packed it up to the bottom…of my back window because I still want to have…as clear access as I can for my rear view mirror so I only stack it up that high. I have plenty of storage, but then again, I’m a real minimalist…so I don’t have a lot of things.

RTA: Do you travel with everything you own in the van?

TM: No. Not everything I own. I own a few things outside of what I travel with. I could travel with everything that I own at this point…

RTA: Do you have any sort of kitchen set up in the van?

TM: You know, I’m not a big guy on the kitchen thing and I have just a one burner…that takes a one-pound [propane] tank that you can buy at Wal-Mart and I just use the one burner and a big cast iron skillet to cook out of…I just have that back in the back in a milk crate.

RTA: And what about bathroom? Any sort of bathroom setup?

TM: You know, I’ve had bathroom setups in the past, and I would acquire a bathroom setup if I was in a position where going to the bathroom wasn’t easily accessible…I’m not opposed to—if I’m camping I’ll just go dig a hole if necessary. But for the most part only in certain circumstances do I arrange a toilet situation. Other than that I just dig a hole, or I’ll go to a convenience store…

RTA: Do you ever wish your rig were larger or are you satisfied with things the way they are?

TM: Well, you know, there’s pros and cons to everything, Of course I wish my rig was larger but then, you know, I have to think about maneuverability and really the gas…When choosing a vehicle, really what it comes down to is…what kind of lifestyle do I want to lead? Ok, I want to be a nomadic traveler. I want to do a lot of traveling. Well, then, you know, if you’re doing a lot of traveling and you’re on a budget, I would suggest…getting a minivan…But if I was a person that…wasn’t too focused in on the traveling part, just living cheaply and…staying…mostly still, well then I would opt for  a larger vehicle. But here’s where I’m at…my personal thing…if I was going to go and pay the money that  a big Chevy G20 or [some] giant conversion [van] requires in gas, then I wouldn’t…even get…a giant van. I would get, especially in my condition, the height factor here, I wouldn’t even get a van. I would get myself a small RV, preferably not like a Dolphin…preferably something with a V8 in it…And of course, that’s what I would plan on doing when I was older…and I didn’t want to do as much traveling, well then I could get myself a motorhome and then stay more stationery and fuel [wouldn’t be] such a big issue.

RTA: Tell me about your curtain setup.

TM:  Well, I’ve…got these handles…the “oh-shit” handles…

RTA: [giggles]

TM: … some vehicles have ‘em by the upper part of the door, something…to grab ahold of if you’re on some rough terrain. Well it just so happens that my vehicle has two, one at the driver’s and also one on the passenger’s… I don’t understand why the one’s there for the [driver]…Who’s driving a car while he’s got one hand on the…“oh shit” handle.

RTA: [more laughter]

TM: But anyways, I…found these extremely long bungees and [my vehicle] is also equipped with rear [seat belts] and…I was able to take those very long bungees and stretch them all the way from the front of the car to the rear of the car, attaching them around the “oh shit” handles and the seat belt…housing in the rear. When I put those up there…I could just drape things over and create curtains for like 15 bucks. It was a good deal and I think even if you didn’t have those “oh shit” handles you could just do it around your visor, you could attach these bungees around your visor…

RTA: So you attached these bungees and then you found some blankets on sale, right?

TM: Yeah, they were $2.50, and they were like…What do you call…?

RTA: Fleece. Fleece.

TM: Yeah, like fleece.

RTA: Like fleece throw blankets.

TM: Yeah.

RTA: So you just put those [fleece throw blankets] around all the windows and you have a little nest back there.

TM: Yeah. Yeah. It was a really simple, cheap solution. You gotta be creative! Gotta be creative!

RTA: When I first heard that you were interested in getting a minivan, I remember saying, “Minivans aren’t very sexy!” What do you have to say about that?

TM: I’ve never had a concern with being sexy. I guess when you know you’re sexy, then there’s no…doubt. I don’t need a van to reflect my inner sexiness that I already possess.

As far as that goes, you know, I like my van and to be quite honest with you, I think it’s [quite a bit] stealthier than a G-20. A lot of these G-20s are getting old now and…hippies are really associated with G-20s too…I don’t think they’re as stealthy as people think, but…my Honda Odyssey looks like the [suburban soccer mom housewife]  car, and I think I could get away with a lot more stealthiness that way than a person in a G-20.

RTA: Is there anything else you want to add?

TM: There’s always the donation button.

RTA and TM: [boisterous laughter]

 

 

10 More Items to Make Your Van Life More Comfortable

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Like I said in my post “The Rubber Tramp Artist’s Ten Essential Items for Vandwelling,” you don’t need to get a bunch of fancy stuff before you start your van life. Just get a van, start sleeping in it and voilà!—you’re vandwelling.

However, if you do have the money and the inclination to get things to make yourself more comfortable, here are ten more items that enhance the quality of my van life.

#1 I love to drink cold water. When I’m in civilization, I fill my water bottle with ice whenever I fill my gas tank at a convenience store or eat at a fast food restaurant. In the past, I drank the ice melt from the ice containers in my cooler, but a lot of cold air escaped from the cooler when I reached in and rummaged around for the ice containers Last fall I bought an Igloo 5 gallon cooler with a dispenser. I put in a bag of ice (no problem with such a wide opening on top) and three or four gallons of water (the cooler fits in a Glacier water dispenser), and I can drink cold (or at least cool!) water for days. When the water gets too warm for my taste, I just add more ice. Easy!

#2 When I’m boondocking, I have to bring enough water with me for all my washing and drinking needs.  There are two kinds of jugs I like for storing water.

The first is the Reliance Aqua-tainer BPA free 7-gallon jug with a spout. While seven gallons of water (over 55 pounds!) is more than I can carry for more than a few steps, the spout (which can be opened and fully closed) is super convenient for handwashing. It also helps me conserve water because I can dispense the amount I need without spilling excess water on the ground. If I’m traveling alone, I usually put five gallons of water in each jug to make carrying the container manageable.

I also like the American Maid BPA free 3-gallon water jugs with handles. I can totally carry three gallons of water with no problem, so these are my go-to water jugs. They are stackable when they’re empty, saving space on the way to fill them.

EcoVessel BIGFOOT Triple Insulated Stainless Steel Water Bottle with Tea - Fruit and Ice Infuser
#3 I’ve tried a lot of water bottles, but I’ve never found anything else that keeps drinks cold like my Eco Vessel. I’ve kept ice in mine for over 24 hours on more than one occasion (depending of course on the temperature of the liquid I’m adding to the bottle and the temperature of the air outside the bottle). It’s not unusual for me to drink all of the cold water from the bottle, then have to wait hours for the ice to melt into drinkable form. (I solve this problem by filling my Eco Vessel from my 5-gallon Igloo jug as needed.)

My first Eco Vessel was the 750ml Boulder, which I bought at a natural food store on a whim one exceptionally hot summer day. I used it (and loved it!) every day for about two years before upgrading to the 1300ml Big Foot. I still use the smaller bottle for backup. If I fill both bottles with cool water in the morning, I have plenty of cool water to drink during an 8-hour work day on the mountain.

#4 During my first six years vandwelling, I used 1-gallon propane canisters to power my stove and my Mr. Heater. (For a short time, I had a butane stove, and that was before I owned my Mr. Heater, so during that period, I didn’t use any propane at all.) In any case, until I met The Man, I used 1-gallon canisters for my propane needs. Almost from the moment we met, The Man encouraged me to use a large, refillable propane tank. His reasoning was sound: refilling a large tank is more cost effective than buying multiple 1-gallon canisters and keeps a lot of waste out of landfills. Win win!

#5 I’ve used the single-burner style stove that sits on top of a 1-gallon propane canister and found it cumbersome and unstable. Food seemed to take longer to cook on that style of stove too. (I never did a scientific experiment to test the cooking time required on different stoves, so the difference in cooking times could be my imagination.) Also, the single-burner stove didn’t work so well when connected to our large propane tank. I’ve mostly blocked the experience from my memory, but I think there was a puff of fire and unusually  quick thinking on my part when I reached over and turned the knob on the propane tank to CLOSED. In any case, we figured out the single burners are not designed to be used with the large tanks.

For several months before I met The Man, I used a one-burner butane stove. I liked its flat, stable design, but I was awfully unhappy on the occasions when I couldn’t find the necessary butane bottles at the store (including Wal-Mart once). The butane seemed to go faster than the propane in the small green containers, but again, I didn’t do a scientific experiment to test my theory.

Coleman Stove Ppn 2 BRN Ml Triton
These days I use a Coleman two-burner stove connected to a large propane tank. A half-dozen years ago, I tried two different models of Ozark Trail two-burner stoves because they were less expensive than the Coleman stoves available. Both of the Ozark Trail stoves were junk. I was never able to light the cheaper one, and the more expensive one (that I thought would be of better quality) only lit once when I tested it immediately after purchase. Luckily I’d saved the receipts and boxes for both stoves and was able to bring them both back for full refunds. I hope to never again be in a situation where I need a stove and can only afford one made by Ozark Trail.

Several Coleman two-burner stoves I’ve used over the years have been made well and all have worked great. I enjoy the convenience of being able to cook in two pans at once when I’m doing something fancier than my usual one-pan meal. I like the stability of the flat burners and the convenience of being able to fold the whole apparatus for easy transport and storage. Also, I just found out that if the regulator on the stove quits working properly, I can buy a new regulator for around $13, instead of having to spend $40+ on a whole new stove. I love a company that lets me replace parts!

(Read more about my stove experimentation in my post “Cooking While Vandwelling.”)

#6 I like to sleep in the dark, and I like to be surrounded by beauty, so I have colorful curtains to cover my windows.

My side windows in the back of the van are completely blocked with thick foam board my sibling gave me when it was no longer useful in the windows of the family home. Over the foam boards, I put up colorful curtains. At night I hang a cloth shower curtain I got at a Goodwill Clearance Center over the windows in my side doors. The driver’s area of the van is separated from my living space with heat and light-blocking curtains I got at a thrift store. The mismatched curtains give my van an eclectic, free-spirited feel.

#7 I have difficulty sleeping if I’m too hot, but my small, battery operated fan gives me just enough breeze to facilitate my slumber when the nights get warm.  I would like a fan I could run from my 12-volt outlet; such a fan would need a long cord to reach from the front of the van to my bed. Until I find the right fan for the right price, my 8-inch O2Cool brand fan works well enough.

PROTIP: It’s really worth the money to buy Duracell or Energizer batteries to run fans. I learned that while the Sunbeam batteries from Dollar Tree only last one night, the more expensive batteries last at least a week.

Schumacher Electric 140W Power Converter SI1
#8 Speaking of running things off my van’s 12-volt power outlet, I love my 140 watts Schumacher power converter. It has both a USB port and a good ol’ electrical outlet so I can charge my phone and laptop. If I don‘t need to charge my laptop, I use a smaller USB power adapter. It has two USB ports so I can charge two phones at once. It’s nice to be able to charge my devices even when I’m away from electricity.

NOTE: The small devices have never drained my van’s battery, but the large power converter did once when I charged my laptop several times in day without running the van. If I’m not driving the van, now I only use the power convertor to charge my laptop once in a day.

#9  My foldable 24 Watt solar charger manufactured by 1 by One is a gift I cherish. If I’ve got sun, I can charge my phone.  I haven’t tried to use the solar charger to charge a tablet, but I think it would handle the job. I like that it’s lightweight and folds up small and thin for storage. It’s easy to hang and easy to transport. Love it!

#10 When The Man built my bed, he made sure there was plenty of storage space under the platform. The platform is tall enough to fit large tubs under it. Now that The Man has his own van, I’ve thought about going back to a single bed, but I’d hate to lose my storage area. I’ve decided it’s better to have a roomy double bed (especially since Auntie M gave me a comfortable double mattress she wasn’t using) with room for lots of stuff under it.

Note: I’m endorsing these products because I like them. No one asked me to endorse them. No one paid me to endorse them or gave them to me for free to review. The pictures you see in this post are Amazon affiliate links. If you click on any of those links, you will zip over to Amazon. Anything you put in your cart and buy after clicking on my affiliate link will earn me a small advertising fee at no cost to you.