Tag Archives: home is where you park it

The AdVANtages of Living and Traveling in a Van

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I wrote this post before The Man and I ended up with a travel trailer and a truck to tow it. If I were single, I’d still be in a van.

I’m a van gal. I bought my first van (with the not-very-nice fellow who is now my ex) almost a decade ago. We upgraded to a newer, better van several months later. We spent two whirlwind years traveling across the country visiting cities, public lands, and music festivals. When I finally left that guy behind, I was homeless for a few months until, with the help of friends, I was able to buy a Chevy G20 of my own and return to van life.

During my time as a vandweller, people have suggested I “upgrade,” especially after The Man and I got together. Yes, we would have more room in a school bus, a travel trailer we could pull behind a vehicle, or a small motorhome. However, what we’d have to sacrifice in exchange for a bit more room isn’t worth it to me. Today I’ll share what I see as the advantages of living and traveling in a van.

Winding mountain road
I was able to navigate this mountain road with my Chevy G20 van.

#1 I can navigate most any paved road (and lots of dirt roads too).  During the second year I worked in the mountains of California, the camp hosts down the road lived in a converted school bus. Halfway through the work season, a wildfire was near, and two of the three roads off the mountain were closed. The bus couple worried about how they would get their rig off the mountain if we were required to evacuate. The one open road was narrow and curvy, and they weren’t sure the bus would make it around the tight turns. I had no such concerns. I’d driven my van up and down all three of those mountain roads and knew it could make it down (and back up again when it was safe to do so) with no problems.

I’ve driven conversion vans from California to North Carolina, Kansas to Minnesota, Maine to Georgia (with lots of crisscrossing the middle of the Unite States), and I’ve never been on a paved road I thought I might not be able to navigate.  Sure there are dirt roads that have caused me concern. I’ve been on  dirt roads I had no business taking my van on, and I’ve been prepared to turn around if necessary. Anybody traveling in a rig without four wheel drive is going to run into the same trouble on some dirt roads, but my van can get around in places where bigger rigs can’t.

#2 My van is (comparatively) easy to park. Granted, I’m not great at parallel parking (confession: I can’t really parallel park at all), but most bigger rigs wouldn’t even fit in a parallel parking spot. My van only takes up one space in any parking lot or residential street. Unless I’m in a busy downtown area where I need to squeeze into the only parallel parking space on the street, I don’t have a difficult time finding a place to leave my van.

Sometimes parking garages do pose a problem for my rig. More than once I’ve been at the entrance of a parking garage before I realized my van was too tall. While that’s a drawback to having a high top, I know anywhere I don’t fit can’t accommodate a school bus, motor home, or even a tall truck camper. My van can (and has) fit into some parking garages, but rigs taller than mine probably won’t have much parking garage luck.

The low-hanging branches in this campground worried some folks in big rigs.

#3 Not only does my van offer enough clearance to allow me to park in at least some parking garages, it affords me decent clearance in general. During my time as a camp host and parking lot attendant, I saw several drivers of motorhomes freak out about branches overhanging the road through the parking lot or above a campsite. One driver of an RV insisted on backing out of the one-way loop through the parking lot rather than continue through when he realized overhead branches were going to scrape the top of his rig. I suppose buses and tall motorhomes don’t utilize too many fast food drive-thrus. In my van, I don’t often have to worry about being too tall.

#4 Not only is my van (comparatively) easy to park, it’s also (comparatively) easy to back up. I didn’t get a lot of instruction on backing when I learned to drive late in life, but especially in the last few years, I’ve had quite a lot of practice. My van didn’t have a review mirror when I bought it, and the two back windows are blacked out, so I use my blind spot mirrors on the sides a LOT. (The Man opens the driver’s door and sticks his head out and looks behind him to aid his backing abilities when he’s driving my van.) I backed into a tree last summer, but other than that little incident, I’m doing fine (knock wood).

Once another vandweller and I were looking at a van that was longer than mine. I fretted that I would never be able to back up something so big. The other vandweller assured me that once I got a feel for the dimensions of any rig, backing up wouldn’t be a problem for me. He’s probably right, but I’d be terrified backing up a big rig while I was trying to learn its dimensions. Could I learn to back up a rig bigger than my van? I know I could, but I like knowing I can do a decent job backing up the van I already have.

Of course, if I pulled a travel trailer behind my van, backing up would pose a whole new set of problems. Could I learn  to back up a rig I was pulling behind my van? Again, I know that I could, but I don’t really want to. I don’t feel the need to complicate my life with complex backing.

#5 If I need to stealth park, my van blends in. Let’s face it, a school bus is not going to blend in on a residential street, even if it’s still sporting the customary school bus orange. If it’s been repainted some cool new color, it’s really going to stand out wherever it’s parked. A small motorhome may fit in a little better, but most people who live in in a house or apartment don’t park their recreational vehicles on the street. An RV parked on the street may call a little too much attention to itself.

I don’t stealth park on residential streets a lot. If I have to be in civilization, I’d rather spend the night blacktop boondocking in the parking lot of a truck stop or a Wal-Mart. However, if the only place I can find to spend the night is a residential street, my van can slip in and look enough like a regular passenger vehicle so that no one suspect I’m sleeping in there.

All the campsites in this campground where covered with snow when The Man and I camped here in May 2017.

#6 Not only can I stealth park in the city in my rig, but I can fit in most any campsite with a parking spur. Yes, I have been to campgrounds with only walk-up tent sites. (I’m looking at you Big Tesuque!)  We were at that campground in the off-season when the entire campground was covered in snow, so we simply slept in the van in the parking lot. However, the majority of campgrounds I’ve been to have offered plenty of room to park my van on the campsites.

While I was a camp host, I saw many people with big rigs have a difficult time getting into the two smallest campgrounds on the mountain. People in big RVs often struggled to find a campsite large enough to accommodate their rigs. I’d rather travel in a small rig that allows me to take nearly any campsite available.

My van’s gas mileage is better than the gas mileage of a school bus.

#7 The Man would tell you my G20’s gas mileage stinks compared to what he gets in his minivan. He is right about that comparison, but my mileage is great compared to what rigs bigger than mine get. The Scientific America article “Teenager’s Invention Saves Fuel for School Buses” says that school “buses…only get 4 to 6 mpg.” I’m guessing a motorhome (depending on its size) gets the same sort of gas mileage or maybe a little better. That makes my 12 to 15 miles per gallon look pretty good. Of course, pulling a travel trailer would reduce my gas mileage even further.

Diesel costs more than gasoline.

At the time I’m writing this post (February 2019), diesel costs more than gasoline. Because my van runs on gasoline, I spend less on fuel than I would if I drove a bus with a diesel engine or a diesel truck I might need to haul a big fifth wheel. Also, I found out when I worked in the mountains, diesel is sometimes not available in remote locations, even when gasoline is.

#8 I’ve had some tire troubles in the past, but at least I only have four to deal with and not six. Not only do full size schoolies and some larger motorhomes have two extra tires to deal with, getting the best, strongest tires capable of handling the additional weight of bigger rigs costs a pretty penny. After reading a few articles about the cost of tires for school buses and Class A motorhomes, it seems a single tire suitable for one of these rigs can run anywhere from $100 (plus a charge for mounting) to $430, with one article estimating an upper range price of $600. Ouch!

Although I do have expensive, strong Michelin tires on my van, they’re in the under $200 (each) price range, and I’m glad to save the money two more would cost.

#9 Because my van is a regular passenger vehicle with a gasoline engine, I don’t have to find a special mechanic to work on it when I have problems. Just about any trained and competent mechanic can repair most any problem. As a bonus, The Man is able to do some of the repairs and maintenance my van has needed. He’s replaced my all of my brake pads and put in a new radiator when the old one sprung a leak.

I know folks with small motorhomes who’ve had trouble finding a mechanic with a shop big enough to accommodate their rigs. All of the vans I’ve owned, including the two with high tops, have fit in every shop they’ve been brought to.

#10 I don’t have to dump grey or black water tanks. Yes, it would be convenient to wash dishes or my hands in my van. Yes, it would be convenient to have a rig with a flush toilet. I’m sure I could learn how to dump grey and black water tanks, and with practice, dumping would become just another routine. However, at this point in my vanlife, I’m happy to be without the burden of staying aware of the levels in grey and black water tanks, finding dump stations, (possibly) paying to dump, then going through the smelly process. I’m content to wash my hands and the dishes outside and find a toilet whenever I have elimination needs. (Of course, I have a system in place for when I’m boondocking.) The lack of black and grey water tanks makes my life a little simpler.

I’m not trying to tell you what rig you should live in. I’m only telling you why I do what I do. By all means, make your own decisions based on what works best for you.

New Mexico State Parks Annual Camping Pass

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The New Mexico State Parks Annual Camping Pass, is a great deal for anyone who wants to spend more than month exploring the state and staying in the campgrounds of its state parks. The Man and I both bought New Mexico State Parks annual camping passes in the fall of 2017 and camped at several of the state parks campgrounds separately and together.

I’ll tell you everything I know about the New Mexico State Parks Annual Camping Pass (abbreviated to NMSPACP in the rest of this article) so you can decide if it’s right for you.

As of late November 2018 when I’m writing this article, the fees, permits, and rentals page  of the New Mexico State Parks website gives the following price breakdown for the pass:

Sunset in the day use area at Brantley Lake State Park.

New Mexico Resident (Proof of New Mexico I.D. and Vehicle License Plate Number are required at time of purchase.) $180

New Mexico Resident *Senior, 62+ (Proof of Age and Vehicle License Plate Number are required at time of purchase.) $100

New Mexico Resident *Disabled (Proof of disability required.) $100

Out-of-State Resident (Proof of I.D. and Vehicle License Plate Number are required at time of purchase.) $225

If you lose your annual camping permit, no problem! You can get a replacement for only $10.

If you are a resident of New Mexico with a disability, there are several things you can use to prove  your disability to the satisfaction of the folks at the New Mexico State Parks. See the aforementioned fees, permits, and rentals page to find out what documents you need to get your reduced-rate permit.

Primitive camping at Brantley Lake State Park

Permits for seniors and folks with disabilities can only be purchased at the New Mexico State Parks’ Santa Fe Office, located at 1220 S St Francis Drive #215 or at any  New Mexico State Park Visitor Center. The passes for New Mexico residents and out-of-state residents can also be purchased online. I purchased my pass in person at the visitor center at Leasburg Dam State Park, so I don’t know if there are any extra charges for buying the pass online.

If you have a NMSPACP, you can camp in any primitive camping area (usual cost: $8 per night) or on any developed camping area with no hookups (usual cost: $10 per night) in a New Mexico state park for no additional charge. According to the aforementioned fees, permits, and rentals page,

Primitive campsites offer no special facilities except a cleared area for camping. Sites may include trash cans, chemical toilets or parking.

Primitive camping also offer no designated sites. You’re basically boondocking when you camp in a primitive area at a New Mexico State Park.

I’ve camped in primitive camping areas at Caballo Lake State Park, Elephant Butte Lake State Park, and Brantley Lake State Park. In both of those parks, primitive camping was lakeside. I also witnessed primitive camping next to the lake at Bluewater Lake State Park. Although the primitive areas offer few or no amenities, campers are welcome to venture into other areas of the park and use the water spigots, restrooms, showers, and dumpsters if such facilities are available. (To find out what amenities are at each park, take a look at the printable New Mexico State Parks brochure.)

The developed camping areas typically offer a fire ring and a picnic table. Sometimes the developed areas offer

This is what the developed campsites look like at Brantley Lake State Park. Beware: At this park, ALL developed sites have electric hookups, so if you plan to stay in the campground, you’re going to have to pony up $4 a night, even if you have the NMSPP.

shade covers too.These campsites tend to be in campgrounds, closer to toilets (either flush or pit, depending on where you are) and sources of potable water. I’ve stayed on developed sites at Brantley Lake State Park, Percha Dam State Park, Elephant Butte State Park, Rockhound State Park, Leasburg Dam State Park, and Oliver Lee Memorial State Park. The Man spent some nights at City of Rocks State Park; while I have visited that park during the day (and think it’s a gorgeous place), I’ve never had the pleasure of camping there.

Your NMSPACP does NOT provide for free electric or sewage hookups. If you have the annual camping permit and want an electric hookup, it will cost you an additional $4 per night. A sewage hookup if you have an annual camping permit will also cost an additional $4 per night. If you have the annual camping permit and you want both an electric and sewage hookup, that will set you back $8 per night. New Mexico State Parks do not charge for water hookups where they are available.

According to the New Mexico State Parks page devoted to camping,

Sunset over Oliver Lee State Park.

Campers may reside in a park for a maximum of 14 days during a 20 day period. Campers shall completely remove camping equipment and gear from the park for 7 calendar days during the 20 day period.

Here’s what that means if you have a NMSPACP. You can stay in any New Mexico State Park for up to 14 days, then you have to leave that park. However, you can go directly to another New Mexico State park and stay there (for free if you camp in a primitive area or on a developed site with no hookups) for seven days, then turn around and go back to the park you left a week ago.

If you wanted to save money on gas, you could stay in an area where there are state parks not too far from each other (such as Elephant Butte Lake State Park, Caballo Lake State Park, and Percha Dam State Park or Rockhound State Park, Pancho Villa State Park, and City of Rocks State Park) and go in a circuit from one to another, staying two weeks at each.

This was my view of Caballo Lake when I stayed in the primitive camping area of the state park.

The NMSPACP is good for only one vehicle per site. I called the New Mexico State Parks main office to make sure I understood this point correctly. I was hoping that even though The Man and I have separate vehicles, we could share one pass. No go! However, when we were camping together at Leasburg Dam State Park, there was only one developed campsite with no hookups available, and we were allowed to have both of our rigs on the site with no problem. (Note: I had a Chevy G20 and the man had a Honda Odyssey, so both rigs fit easily on the site, facilitating our sharing of the space.)

I bought my NMSPACP early in November 2017. When I bought it, the park ranger gave me a sticker to attach on my windshield. This sticker showed that I was a pass holder and it gave the expiration date of my pass. At the time I purchased my pass, there was space for the month and the year the pass expired. (The passes may be configured differently, depending on when you read this post.) My pass said it expired 11-18 (November 2018). I didn’t think to ask at the time, so I again called the New Mexico State Parks main office to find out if that pass expired on the first day of the month noted on it, or the last day. The answer: the last day! So even though I’d bought my pass early in November 2017, it was good through the last day of the month in 2018.

The campground at Rockhound State Park near Deming, NM.

I think that’s everything I know about the New Mexico State Parks Annual Camping Pass. If you have questions on topics I didn’t cover, I strongly encourage you to call the New Mexico State Parks main office at 505-476-3355. I’ve called the office several times with questions and the woman who answered the phone was always exceptionally pleasant and helpful. Talking to her was always a joy.

The information included in this post is subject to change, especially the information on prices. Blaize Sun is not responsible if the information she gave you is no longer applicable when you read this post; this information is a starting point. Everything was correct to the best of her knowledge when the post was written. You are strongly urged to call the New Mexico State Parks office or check internet sources for updated information.

So much cool at City of Rocks State Park.

I took all of the photos in this post.