Right now, an NYT article on the #vanlife business boom is trending on LinkedIn. It looks like a lot of professionals are dumping cash into glamping vans with so many of us barred from offices during these lockdown times. You’re geographically free! Might as well travel the country and live in a van, right?
Hold on there, partner. Before you dump $100k into a lifestyle the late Chris Farley famously mocked, please hear out some cautions. Why listen to warnings from me, though? Because I bought a van for vanlife — or at least to turn into a mobile office — before all the other engineers thought it was cool. Her name is Beverly.
Building out a vanlife van is a daunting task to begin with. However, there are additional caveats you should consider. Counterintuitively, the unpredictability that COVID-19 reactions brought makes this lifestyle more difficult than usual. You can watch the video here to learn about these main points:
Why I Made the Leap (Or Tried To)
I have a legal residence, but for most intents and purposes, I am homeless. In 2015, I stuffed what belongings I couldn’t sell into a storage locker and took off. From then until the Fall of 2019, I backpacked the world. This wasn’t for fun so much as for necessity. I quickly realized physical, in-person networking was an absolute requirement for building my engineering business. Also, a lot of the cool tech things I got to cover for Solid Smack came from people and places I traveled to meet.
After a while, having to toss out things I needed because they didn’t fit in my backpack took its toll. Not being able to bring key textbooks with me was another bummer. I also started to accumulate prototype samples from clients and those can’t be canned! Real estate for my personal belongings was shrinking.
Additionally, I wanted more time to work. I’d been shoe-stringing my business and travel expenses by house sitting everywhere I went. This put the squeeze on both my schedule and my sanity. Having to be back to your accommodations by exactly 5:15 pm to make sure a pit bull doesn’t pee on the carpet, or up every morning at 5:30 AM to feed a rabid, wall-climbing cat are tough to be cool with after a while. In September, when I got knocked in the face by a Great Dane and lost a tooth, I was done.
Having to come up with thousands of dollars to repair my chompers revealed to me housesitting wasn’t even economical anymore.
I would buy a van and travel everywhere in that instead! It was a great idea. All year, I’d been learning about van builds and #vanlife on YouTube out of sheer curiosity. Now, it seemed like a prudent life path.
As is always the case in all physical product development, there were “gotcha” costs and time delays with this project, too.
For several weeks, I scoured the interwebs for the perfect van. I wanted to be able to stand inside, so I searched for a high-top, aka “turtle top”. I also wanted one with extended length; it would be my office, after all, and I needed room to work. This narrowed the pool down quite a bit, but eventually, I found Beverly, a slightly beaten-up extended 2006 Ford E-350 with a high-top in Ohio. The dealer and I settled on $2,900, which was a bit beyond my original budget.
Insuring Your Monster Wagon
Insurance was another issue. If I registered the vehicle in New York City, my legal personal residence, insurance quotes came back between $1,300 to over $3,000 per year. This was in part because I haven’t owned a car in many years. If I registered it under my business name in Tennessee, it wasn’t much better. These costs would render the whole vanlife idea infeasible, so in desperation, I reached out to a group on Facebook for women doing the vanlife thing solo. One suggested I look into registering in Vermont as she’d heard insurance was much cheaper there, and Vermont doesn’t care if your address is out-of-state. Turned out she was right! Currently, I pay about $115 every 6 months for insurance.
If you’re like me and have been getting by with public transportation in big cities for the past several years, this one might surprise you, too! Make sure to shop around between both insurance companies and geographic regions where you’re legally able to register your vehicle.
The biggest obstacle to registering the vehicle in Vermont would be the tougher rust inspection regulations. That’s why, on my way to that state, I had to stop in New York to touch up some gaping rust holes in the body. Luckily, a gearhead friend of mine in Rochester, NY “knew a guy” and S & T Finishing Touch performed this magic trick, below.
There were some other minor things that needed repair or upgrades that I was able to do myself. Even though they were small issues, they did start to rack up. Old windshield wipers, several shorted switches, a boat battery with inadequate Cold Cranking Amps (CCA) and missing rubber around multiple doors were on the list. For some of those, I was able to go wild at a junkyard and cannibalize a few of Beverly’s departed relatives.
Everything I covered so far hasn’t even touched the tricky parts of living and working out of a van. Also, if you’re like me and need to work on a laptop or computer and beat the living daylights out of its processor for long periods of time, you have even more points to consider over a typical vanlifer. My work uses 3D rendering and raytracing to do optical simulation and design, and also video editing. If you’re reading Solid Smack, chances are high you’re doing some 3D modelling which similarly takes some computer muscle power.
Power and The Internets
If you’re an engineer or designer and intend to work from the road, 2 of the top things you might be concerned about are: 1. powering your pc, and 2. connectivity.
Planning a Solar Power System
To keep my electronics juiced, I was originally thinking of building a custom solar system. I wanted the battery to hold enough power to last my specific devices several days off-grid. I also wanted to maximize the available surface area of Beverly’s strange roof shape.
In the end, when other hiccups squeezed my time and monetary budget for solar, I opted for 3 flexible solar panels of 100 W each and a solar power station. The power station included both the battery and inverter. These components just needed simple wiring to connect it all up, so the brainpower expended was minimal here.
The number of Watts you get for solar panels tells you how fast you can get solar energy. In my case, that would be 300 Watts total. I would have liked more, but I was going with the minimum to get on the road.
One thing you have to consider in choosing solar panel wattage is how sunny it will be where you intend to go. Also keep in mind how many hours of daylight you can expect during the time of year you go. I expected to spend most of the winter in Nevada, Arizona and California, so I figured I could squeeze by OK with the 300 W.
The battery Watt-hours tells you how much power you have to run your devices if you fill it up; it’s the size of your “tank”. Then, the inverter gets you from DC to AC. For that part, you need to make sure your devices won’t suck a higher surge power than the inverter can put out. Pro tip: if you want to bring any device that gets hot or cold, those are at higher risk of breaking your system because they suck a lot of power. Be sure to check that your inverter or AC output power can handle your specific electronics!
If you’d like to learn more about building your own, I highly recommend you check out the YouTube Channel DIY Solar Power with Will Prowse.
Prowse does experiments to compare different brands of products. Additionally, he offers tutorials on how to design your own solar solutions. His reviews are also what led me to choose the above solar generator and solar panels.
I didn’t have any bright ideas for getting extra data on the road. Instead, I figured, when I was in a pinch, I could stop by any local coffee shop offering free wifi. Then, I’d simply turn it into my office for a few hours. This was the same solution I planned to use when I needed more electricity than my squeezing-by solar system could yield.
As you might have guessed, these are no longer reliable options! With many states and cities shutting down access to these types of places at random times now in the pandemic, this isn’t a fall-back you can count on.
My brain doesn’t work too well when it’s hot out, but my computer does far worse. Even when I’d stay at expensive homes in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’d encounter living environments that didn’t have A/C and my laptop would sometimes completely shut down in the middle of a several-day long ray trace — more than once!
Unfortunately, this is one of the more difficult situations to avoid when working inside a very large toaster oven. Cooling requires a huge amount of power, and for that reason, it’s rare to see solar-powered air conditioning units in vans. Here, again, my fallback when the weather required it was going to be the now unreliable coffee shop option.
On the other side of the climate coin is staying toasty. The cold is something your pc might handle OK, but I, for one, experience soul-crushing bitterness when the frost sets in.
Originally, I only budgeted for $50-70 for a used propane convection heater. Later, when I started digging more into the subject, I learned that long-term exposure to even very low levels of carbon monoxide could potentially cause health problems.
I decided I needed to splurge instead on a catalytic heater which is more efficient and should therefore theoretically produce less carbon monoxide. This Olympian Wave-6 heater is what I purchased instead.
Even with the upgrade, however, I didn’t feel comfortable living fulltime in a van for a long time. Vanlife would still need to be my very temporary bootstrapping solution to canvas the US for clients and subcontractors.
There are 2 things you still may need to rely on the rest of the modern world for if you’re roughing it on the cheap, and those have been hard to come by lately. First on the list is toilet paper. I don’t think I need to mention that the supply chain for this good in particular has seen perilous interruptions this year. Unless your build includes a bidet, any future supply disruption might make vanlife tougher than normal.
Remember how limited storage space is in a van! It’s tough to stock up on any consumable.
The other very important good you need to consider is water. While it’s true that you can get a large water tank and probably be alright with topping off at RV filling stations, you might not be able to afford the cost or space of a large tank. In that case, it may not be safe to rely on being able to pick up additional gallon jugs on an as-needed basis. This was my original plan in addition to a small, less than 5-gallon water container, but in March of this year, I experienced a long shortage of bottled water.
While t.p. and bottled water are back in good supply now, it’s quite possible shortages will happen again in the future. Normally, neither of these products is a worry if you want to do the #vanlife thing, but times have changed.
Once you start using solar panels, the clock is ticking. Word on the street has it that within 6 months of beginning to use solar panels, they start to noticeably use efficiency. So, if you’re doing a build with just-enough solar panel wattage to power your work electronics, you might be hurting before a year has passed. For the same reason, it’s also best not to install them until you’re ready to hit the road.
The other time constraint you should consider is: how long can you work on the build? Do you have to be out of your big city rental by a certain amount of time? Do you need to be using the van at a certain place by a certain date?
Van builds are no different from anything else you build: it’s probably going to take a lot longer than you’d reasonably expect. Life is full of surprises.
For me, those surprises included rust holes in the flooring I discovered after I pulled up some chipboard covering.
There were also leaks in the doors and ceiling. I couldn’t add any permanent flooring, insulation, or paneling until I made those repairs, and I found these issues too late in the game to get them done. Fixing it all would have also put me even farther beyond my monetary budget.
Unscheduled Work-Type Work
The other devastating surprise to my schedule was a bunch of last-minute, panicked, house-on-fire requests from multiple engineering clients during the time I set aside to exclusively work on the van. With what time I had left, it wasn’t even feasible to throw together a super-rough, makeshift solution without jeopardizing my safety.
These jack-in-the-box SNAFUs ended up being catastrophic. Ultimately, I had to return all the build equipment that was returnable. It didn’t make sense to install the solar panels if I wouldn’ t be able to use them while they were new and still working well. It was also a wasted exercise to build any internal structures if the shell of the van was ruined. I’d eventually have to re-do it all.
I very sadly had to admit defeat, but let it be a lesson to you! Fight to hold onto every minute you set aside for your build and, if possible, budget for significant delays.
Where to Stay
Another huge coronavirus-related problem with vanlife has to do with where you park your vehicle. If you planned to hang out in state parks for the majority of your travels, did you know many have seen sporadic shut downs? Did you hear that many campers got kicked out of campsites unexpectedly from COVID reactionary measures?
This is an especially important point because even before the pandemic, it was challenging to find places to park each night if you lived in your van fulltime. There are a couple apps you can use to help find unofficial spots. When on long road trips, I still use my van to sleep in. I found iOverlander to be a good resource to find places on the fly.
A workaround to some of the aforementioned problems is to spend gobs of money. If you’re planning on handing over a brand new Sprinter van to a company to do a luxury build 100% for you, you may not experience some of these issues. However, you might also spend over $200k doing it that way.
Otherwise, keeping to camping sites with water and power hookups might ease some burdens. However, these can be surprisingly expensive with many charging upwards of $35/night.
If you just want to get away from the city, consider that perhaps a discounted Airbnb makes more sense. It might even be cheaper! I’m currently staying in one in a tiny town. It has A/C, wifi, a dishwasher and a real bed for under $25/night. The current decline in travel nationwide influenced many rental properties to offer steep discounts.
For Beverly, her vanlife build is on hold. I’ve considered selling her, but for now, I’m delaying deciding what to do. Right now, I can’t travel to meet with clients in-person anyways, so it doesn’t make much business sense. Maybe I’ll pick it all back up in the future. In the meantime, I’m still driving her around the country with some bare minimum furnishings for random apartments I find. At least buying her wasn’t a total waste. If you see us out there, say “hi”!