SimplySailingOnline.com shows by example how easily you can eliminate stress, become more independent, raise your children in a safer environment (while spending more time with them, instilling values not based on the mighty dollar) and avoid the traps of commercialism. Because we live and sail simply, we have been wandering for 11 years with no intention of stopping. This is not a trip for us; it is our life, and I hope to share our success with stories of laughter and tears, as well as how-to tips and DIY projects for preparing, sailing and making a boat a home, so that others can join us.

Living and Traveling Simply--In a Van

November 4, 2013

Life is the adventure you make it. After making simplicity our goal and definition of adventure and fun for 12 years, we tend to look at situations a little differently than we used to. Before we started our sailing lifestyle we went on vacation like "normal" people. For the turn of the millennium we drove our boys from our house in Maryland to the Florida Keys, rented a house (with a small sailboat) and played tourist for a week before having to return to two careers, school, the anchor that was our house, and the life from which we needed a vacation. But this summer we decided to explore on land in a way that mimics how we now live: simply.


The view with the back doors open

The idea evolved as our best ones always do (slowly and with unusual results) into an adventure that makes people shake their heads. The spark was a combination of desires: we wanted to see our grandson for his first birthday in July and I wanted to go on a hiking adventure. I had just finished reading A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson and I was hooked. While I pestered Dave about how much of the Appalachian Trail he was willing to walk with me, he suggested I find a way to combine Ashleigh's birthday with my newfound fascination with hiking. Better yet, he thought we would get more joy out of several shorter hikes in different parts of the country than one long hike along a single trail. The McBride Summer 2013 Van Tour was born.


The galley

Just like sailing between Caribbean islands, the only way we could really afford to see as much of the country as we wanted was to get ourselves there and take everything we needed with us. We could no more fly to all these destinations and stay in hotels than we could fly to all of the islands we've visited. Our adventures would become a financial strain, making them "vacations" rather than lifestyles. So we decided to drive. And drive. Before we completed our 4-month tour we had driven over 14,000 miles across 25 states (and British Columbia) and visited 14 national parks and monuments. All for about $1,000 more a month than we spend normally, sailing and exploring in the Caribbean.

Not only did we drive wherever we wanted to explore, but we took our "house" with us, saving us even more money. Yes, we lived in a van for 4 months. Dave had purchased a 1996 cargo van for a large project in the Keys, so we decided to make it our new traveling home. We outfitted our van like we do our boats: simply, realistically, comfortably, and sustainably. Our lives were so easy for those 4 months that we were loath to return to "reality." But alas, a buyer was interested in Walküre and we needed to clean our stuff off of her. And our oldest son, who had agreed to watch our cats for the "2 months, more or less" that we'd initially predicted we'd be gone was threatening to sell them to the local Chinese restaurant if we didn't come "home" soon.


Bunk, storage, hanging locker

Before leaving on our summer cruise, we outfitted the van to make it comfortable enough to stay in for what we hoped would be most of the time we were gone. I reserved the right to request a hotel at any point but we never needed to stay in one. Our experience traveling simply on boats made us more aware of the types of modifications the van would require in order to be a comfy home, allowing us to stretch our financial resources and explore that much longer.

Our first requirement was a bed. Dave built a platform athwartships in the back part of the van. He has to sleep a little crooked since the van is only 6 feet wide, but a full bed fits on the platform perfectly. We bought a $17 inflatable mattress and filled it with the foot pump that we use to inflate Eurisko's shower and offshore floatation collar. The raised platform meant we had storage space under the bed. We took a minimal amount of clothes so there was ample room for his jewelry-making supplies and all the tools he would need to build a boat, "just in case." We also installed a short dowel to act as a hanging locker for jackets and jeans.

We slept in friends' driveways, in the national parks we visited, in nearby state parks, and occasionally in KOA's. But when we were making miles cross country and just needed a place to sleep without amenities, we often stayed in Wal-Mart parking lots. Many Wal-Marts will allow RV's and truckers to spend the night in their lots. We always chose one without a "No Overnight Parking" sign and parked along the perimeter. There is a free app called ONP Walmart that gives the location, phone number and the legality of sleeping in each Wal-Mart parking lot.

I was initially concerned with privacy, so we made that an outfitting priority. We started with a free windshield screen (from a dumpster) and added window tinting to all of the windows. The front two could not legally be as dark as the back windows, so we bought two different shades. We installed the tint ourselves ($14) and were pleased that in addition to keeping out prying eyes during the day, it also kept the interior cooler. But of course, if we had a light on after dark even the window tinting would not be enough privacy. So we bought curtains ($3 at a thrift store) and installed them over the back and side windows. We used wire for curtain rods, held up by a screw on either end. The side curtains gather in the middle (held together with another bit of wire) and the back curtains slide to either side for complete visibility when driving. We also used two clamps to hold up a flat twin sheet ($2 at a thrift store) just aft of the front seats, closing off the "aft cabin" so that even at night you can barely even tell a light is on in the van, much less see in the back. (For a light we used our Davis anchor light since it is 12-volt and draws very little. We can run it all night and the van battery never even notices it. A dome light would have killed the battery in a few hours.)


At home in Glacier National Park, Montana

While we were considering comfort, we tried to devise a way to keep the van cool. We bought two small battery operated fans and installed them with string over the bed. The lack of ventilation was a concern, so we designed screens for the front two windows. We had fiberglass screen material off the boat, so we cut two pieces that were oversized. Then we found a line that was the perfect diameter to fit in the gasket around the front windows. With the windows rolled down, we draped the big piece of screen over the window and pushed it into the gasket with the line. We now laugh when we think of all the effort we went to to keep the van cool. Once we were west of the Mississippi, keeping cool was the least of our problems. So much of the time we have spent in this country has been on the east coast that we had forgotten how cool it gets at night out west, especially at altitude. In July we were borrowing extra covers while we were at our son's in Montana. What we should have brought, but never even considered, was our alcohol heater.

With comfortable sleeping and privacy taken care of, we started considering little details to make our van more homey. We bought a piece of carpet ($5 from Habitat for Humanity) for the back to cover the plywood floor he had laid down and turned our attention to saving money while underway. Besides sleeping, we figured our biggest expenditure was going to be food. The easiest way to spend less money on food is to cook rather than eating out or eating prepared foods. A friend was selling a one-burner propane stove ($35) so we added it to our van outfitting list. Dave mounted it on a piece of wood attached to the side of the van. If you're going to cook, you need to have a way to clean, so Dave built a small countertop between the stove and the bed. He included a cutout for a removable plastic dish pan. Under the countertop we tied in a 5-gallon water jug off the boat and on the countertop we installed Walküre's old hand pump from the head. (In an effort to simplify, we decided a 29-foot boat doesn't need two faucets.) For drinking water we reused gallon water jugs (88 cents each), always having 5 or more gallons of drinking water onboard.

Between the seats we tied in the cooler that has been our "fridge" for over a year. As life onboard boats has taught us, there is no need for refrigeration or even ice. We just use the cooler for food storage out of habit more than anything. We bought a tote ($3) to store dry goods, cans, dishes, French press, etc. It fits perfectly under the stove when we're underway, though we have to move it to install the 1-pound propane tank when we cook.

We screwed a line across the front of the area under the countertop to drape dishtowels on. A Tupperware holds our utensils; a potholder keeps the vegetable basket from sliding off the counter when we go around corners; and a 5-gallon Home Depot bucket serves as an emergency head. About 5,000 miles into the trip, after stopping at countless used book stores, we realized that our pile of books was outgrowing the corners into which we kept stuffing them, so we broke down and bought a "bookcase"--a $3 crate that sits behind the passenger seat. Total cost for outfitting the van: $100.

During our journey we visited more than 30 people, some of whom we hadn't seen for over a decade: former students from my teaching life, former customers of DCC Boatworks (from the States and St. Croix), friends from the Caribbean and from our high school days, and all the family members we could cram into a 4-month trip. We hiked 100 miles or so along dozens of trails. And we were present for our grandson's first birthday. All in all, a successful trip. Now we have to figure out how to top it. Any ideas?

We were contacted by a reader who has lived in his cargo van for over a year! He does it a little differently than we (we use no refrigeration for example), but there are some great ideas in here. Worth the read.

While cruising on land, we discovered amazing similarities to sailing. MONDAY we'll look at some of the more humorous analogies.

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