Urban Stealth Camping, Conservation And Realities

When I build-out Violet the campervan, I wanted her to be as self-contained as possible. I also wanted her to be functional. However, a van has minimal space, and options, such as a real toilet, were out of the question. I envisioned my camping adventures beyond KOAs. To achieve this, I had to carefully think about what I needed and what I could live without.

This summer has offered new camping challenges for me due to the COVID 19 pandemic. I was able to “dry camp” in the Medicine Bow National Forest, and I also camped a few National Park campgrounds. As I write this post, I’m urban camping. A family member in my home had a potentially significant COVID exposure, so I’m spending the next 10 days vandwelling in the western suburbs. Being a senior citizen and male places me in a high-risk category. Getting sick with COVID is something that I want to avoid at all costs.

I’m fortunate that I have had several offers to park on other people’s properties. Some of them have included amenities such as the ability to plug into their mains power. I am incredibly appreciative of all of the kindness that I have received. Still, I want to be a good guest and not overstay my welcome or overuse other’s generosity. Because of this, I have tried to rely on living in my van as much as possible, which means that I have had to deal with limited resources. The process has highlighted how much I waste during my everyday life, and how I should be a better steward of my environment.

Violet, the campervan, was designed to be self-sufficient. On her roof are solar panels, and her electrical storage capacity is approximately 3.5 kilowatts. She can recharge my phone. She can also run a 12 volt Dometic fridge, house lights, an exhaust fan, a microwave oven, and even an induction hot plate burner.

I usually carry bottled water for drinking, but I also haul around 10 gallons of tap water. I have equipped her with a cell phone booster and a ham radio when I am camping in the boonies. I even can purify stream water, if needed.

Violet does not have have a traditional bathroom, although she does employ an emergency “bucket” system. However, bathrooms are usually plentiful, and I also have a small gardener’s spade for those times when I’m in the wilderness.

Violet has many abilities, but her resources are finite, and conservation is an absolute must. I face similar challenges when I’m camping in the wilderness and the city, but there are also significant differences. I thought I would share some of the ways I have been coping in my van while urban stealth camping.

The toilet issue

Let’s be honest, everyone wants to know how you go to the bathroom when you are living in a van. Naturally, it depends on where you are. Due to COVID safety, I can’t use the bathrooms of some friends and family members. There are indeed public bathrooms in the suburbs. Still, it can be very inconvenient to drive to a gas station or Walmart when nature calls. At this juncture, I am relying on two resources. One of my landing spots is also one of my friend, Tom’s construction sites, and this place has a Porta-Potty. One of my favorite daytime spots is a local forest preserve, which also has a Porta-Potty. I’m covered between these two places, but let’s face it, a Porta Potty is a Porta-Potty.

Keeping clean

Violet is too small for a shower, and I’m a guy that likes to stay clean. I have been able to “score” a couple of real showers, but my daily hygiene routine has had to rely on more primitive methods. Everyone knows about baby wipes, and they do work in an emergency. However, I always feel like I’m smearing around as much dirt as I’m removing when I use them. A much better method is the “bucket bath,” which involves using a bucket (duh). I’ll leave a carboy of tap water out in the sun in an ideal situation until it is nice and warm. At other times I’ll heat a small amount of “mixing” water to accomplish the same task. It is surprising how little water you need to clean yourself, and I have found that I can do a complete “bath” in 1-2 liters of the stuff. My method is simple, put about a liter of water in a bucket and add a tiny amount of Dr. Bonner’s liquid soap. I then use a sponge to thoroughly wash, focusing on cleaner areas first. I then exchange my soapy water for some clean water and rinse using the same method. The bucket method requires a little gymnastic ability, but I feel as clean as when I shower. Showers have only been around for a short time, and humans have been cleaning themselves for thousands of years.

Power

We live in a world powered by electricity. My phone and the iPad that I’m now typing on require 5 volts DC, my camper fridge and vent fan use 12 volts DC, and my microwave and induction burner use 120 volts AC. I use a Goal Zero Yeti 1250 with two additional AGM batteries for these needs. The Yeti recharges when I run my car or passively by solar panels. It is nice to have free electricity.

I currently have three hundred watts of solar panels on Violet’s roof, and I’ll be adding an additional 100 watts this fall. This may sound like a lot of power, but it still has to be carefully managed.

I’m stretching my limits by using solar-generated electricity for cooking. I do have a small butane stove. However, I think that it cool to use free electricity. My microwave and induction burner each use around 1 KW of power/hour, but I’m only using these devices for 5-15 minute in any given day.

When I’m living at home, I don’t think that much about electricity. I just assume that it will be available when I plug something in. I have become immune to my electric bills, which can run in the hundreds of dollars, but living in a van has given me a new perspective. The other day I was able to plug into a friend’s house electrical system. During that time, I made a grilled cheese sandwich on the induction burner, heated up some tomato soup in the microwave, and boiled some water for a “bucket bath.” I calculated the electricity cost that I used based on 10.7 cents per kilowatt/hour (the cost of power in their town). I used less than five cents of electricity. This gave me a new perspective on how much energy I am wasting every month at home.

Meal Preparation

You may have watched YouTube vandwellers make elaborate meals which they wash down with Vita-mix smoothies. They always seem to start their day with a cup of fresh cappuccino made with their $1000 espresso machine. That’s not me.

I think that my cooking style would be more comprehensive if I was always living on the road. However, I’m a temporary vandwellers. I am a guy who knows how to cook, and I don’t mind whipping up a meal for my family. However, when I’m in the van, I mostly don’t feel like cooking. Part of this is due to the van’s confined space, and part of it is that I’m just less interested in food. Granted, there are times when I’ll crave bacon and eggs or some good pancakes, and I’ll make an effort to cook these items. However, I’m usually more interested in quick and easy options. -Alright, I know you are thinking, “Mike, bacon, and eggs are quick and easy.” I agree with you when I’m at home, but not so much when I’m vandwelling.

The van has limited storage, and so each food purchase has to be carefully selected. I am always refining my grocery list, and it seems like I’m ever simplifying what I eat. I’m fond of scrambled eggs, microwaveable soup, grilled sandwiches, canned hash, and Belvita breakfast bars on this adventure. Since I’m “camping” in an urban setting, I’ll sometimes grab lunch from a restaurant.

I’m also in a “use it up” mode. When food shortages appeared during the pandemic, I made an effort to finish leftovers instead of eating what I had a taste for. This tendency has continued during my van experience. If I have leftovers, I eat them, and if I have groceries, I use them up before I buy more.

Washing dishes

If you cook, you will have dishes to wash. The “art” of washing dishes in a van balances convenience with conservation. Conservation is a given, as the more dishes that I make, the more things that I have to wash. When you carry less than 10 gallons of water, it is not practical to wash dishes in the traditional soapy way. I have adopted a method that has been espoused by more experienced vandwellers, the vinegar method.

I scrape away anything that I can remove from a pan or dish and wipe it out with a paper towel. I then spay ordinary white vinegar on the object (as a grease cutter) and wipe that out with another paper towel. This method works surprisingly well and doesn’t use any water. I would use something other than paper towels in a perfect world, but this is not an ideal world. However, I am very conscious of the fact that I have limited towels on hand. So I’m pretty conservative in their use. For those who are wondering, The vinegar evaporates and doesn’t leave any aftertaste.

Garbage

Creating garbage is a fact of life. In some ways, I’m probably creating a little more waste as I’m using more paper towels and some paper products. However, I’m very aware of the garbage that I am creating, and I genuinely try to limit it. It is imperative to toss your trash daily in a small space, which I do at my local forest preserve-in a dumpster, of course.

Entertainment

Urban vanlife severely limits my activities. I don’t have a house full of things to amuse me. COVID limits options even more. I have a radio, my phone, an iPad, a Kindle, and a Bluetooth speaker. That is enough electronics.

I typically spend some time with my friend, Tom, in the mornings, and then I drive to a place where I can “hang out” for the day. This is usually a local forest preserve where I write, walk, cook, and live. In some ways, vanlife is a healthy life as you want to get out of the van to do physical things.

The downside to urban camping

There is a certain unsettledness when you don’t have a permanent address. I have three sleeping spots that I had prearranged before this week of urban camping. I don’t want to draw attention to myself or overstay my welcome, so I tend to rotate from place to place. Each presents with its own challenges. One site is about 25 minutes away. Another shares its driveway with several other townhomes, and the third is an open church parking lot. I feel like I need to quietly move in and set myself up without drawing too much attention. Also, I must be stealthy during the night. Although I’m not doing anything wrong, there is a sense that I am, so my bedtimes have been a bit on the hyper-vigilant side.

Although I have found ways to cope, there is simply more stress in a situation where you are using chemical toilets, sleeping outdoors, and bathing using a bucket. Urban camping is definitely more stressful than regular camping. I imagine that I would eventually adjust to this lifestyle, but I’m not there yet.

The bottom line

Dear readers, if you have read some of my prior posts, you know that I’m all about learning from experiences. Like most experiences, I have learned from this one. One of the significant lessons that I have learned is that conservation is most effective when you have some skin in the game. I try to be respectful of my environment when I’m at home, but I still let my shower run too long, and I have a tendency to leave lights on. I have no problem running the AC, and I waste too much food.

The consequences of such behaviors are much more significant when you are living in a van. If I use too much power, I lose my refrigeration. If I waste food, I don’t have anything to eat. Cleaning myself involves energy and effort; I can’t heat gallons of water because I don’t have the electrical power to do so. Water itself is a scarce resource when living in a van. I have to make sure that I have it and think twice when I use it. I never waste water.

This urban camping experience has illustrated to me that one of the most effective ways to encourage people to live more green is to make it worth their while. My vanlife situation forces me to conserve not only because it is the right thing to do but because not doing so has a direct negative impact on my day to day existence.

I have watched countless videos about the joys of vanlife. Videos where people are perpetually happy and always experiencing a new adventure. These portrayals seem synthetic to me. I feel grateful that I have a roof over my head and food in my camper fridge. But urban vanlife is stressful. However, life is not about running away; it is about making the most of where you are.

The above realizations are not to say that I’m unhappy with Violet, the campervan. I remain ecstatic about her, and I’m entirely grateful that I have experienced our country while carrying my home.

I continue to think that life is about focusing on the positives. I believe that my cup is half-full, not half-empty.

Dear readers, let’s celebrate today and focus on the positives in our lives.

Outrage Porn Addiction

1963

I always hated my basement. It was dark, damp, and dank, but I saw something in it that I wanted. There, on a dusty shelf was my prize. It was larger than a breadbox, but roughly the same shape. Made of wood, it had seen better days and its vernier finish was checked from past encounters with the sun. A large square speaker grill resided on its left side, the cloth cover stained. On the right was a rectangle dial, with two bands marked “Broadcast,” and “Shortwave.” Below the dial was a series of push buttons, and below the butters were four brown Bakelite knobs labeled volume, tone, band, and tuning. I was young, and it was heavy. I used my body as a brace as I pulled it off the shelf and onto the floor. It’s power cord wasn’t plastic, it was a braided cloth, and it looked broken and worn. I struggled with the radio’s bulk as I slowly dragged it to one of the few electric outlets that our basement possessed. My heart was racing as I plugged it in and turned on the power switch. In moments I was met with a buzzing sound, and the smell of hot dust and hot metal. I didn’t see smoke, so I pressed on. I turned up the volume control, which crackled with the sound a corroded potentiometer. I turned the dial knob, but its pointer didn’t move. The radio was broken. Yet, I was filled with the confidence of a grade schooler who did ‘t know better. I convinced myself that I could fix it. I could bring it back to life.

I carried it to my father’s workbench and placed it on the bench’s thick birch surface. My dad rarely used the space, and I was certain that I could work on my masterpiece without interruption. The back of the radio was protected by a thick piece of pressed cardboard, which was secured by several screws. I removed them and carefully pried the back off. The radio’s chassis was filled with giant components. Vacuum tubes were common in the early 1960s, but these radio tubes were huge. I turned the radio back on and observed each of its tubes’ filaments. They all were glowing. Fantastic! I thought.

After a lot of maneuvering I was able is dislodge the chassis from its cabinet. It had an odd, mildewy smell. The radio was from the 1930s, it could have been sitting the the basement waiting for me for the last 20 years. I made a quick assessment of the damage. The string that moved the tuning dial had disintegrated, and some sort of a pressure piece used to disengaged the buttons had rotted. The power cord looked like it was ready to short, and there was so much dust in the cabinet that the air gap tuning capacitor was malfunctioning. The cabinet’s finish was in terrible shape, and the cloth speakers grill was stained and rotting. I thought to myself, “I’ll find a way.” But, I had very little money, and no skill set. I made a list of what was broken and searched the house for makeshift repair pieces.

I found some dental floss that could replace the tuning cord mechanism, but I wasn’t sure how the prior cord had be wound. A rubber cork could be cut and shaped to approximate the disintegrated pressure piece, an extension cord could be used to replace the power cord, an old woven placemat could serve as a new speaker grill. I also found some sort of solvent that I thought could clean the tuning capacitor and the volume potentiometer, and some old stain that might help refinish the cabinet. That weekend I went to Rex’s Hardware store on 55th street with my allowance money and scored a small can of paint and varnish remover. I was ready to do battle.

The project started with many attempts to restring the tuning dial with dental floss. By some great luck, I figured it out. The pressure “thing” was next, then the power cord, and so on. I saved the cabinet refinishing for the last. I painted on varnish remover and scrapped it off with an old putty knife. I lightly sanded the big box and then carefully applied the stain. I’m guessing that the stain was old as it had an orange cast to it. However, I still felt that the radio looked significantly better than before. Lastly, I cut down the placemat and stapled it in place of the old speaker grill. After a quick reassembly, I was ready to test my project.

I plugged in the old radio and clicked the on switch. After a few seconds it started to hum. I set the band selector to “Broadcast,” and slowly turned the dial. WIND boomed in, and I was shocked how good the radio’s 6 inch speaker sounded. I tuned past WIND and found WMAQ, then WGN, then WBBM. The radio worked!

Later that night I thought I would try the band labeled “Shortwave” as it had a lot of exotic cities listed above the frequency indicator. Once again I started on the extreme left of the band and slowly tuned to the right. I can’t remember for sure what the first station that I heard was, but I believe that it was “Radio RSA, The Voice of South Africa.” Holy cow, it was in English! On that first night I heard many other stations broadcasting in English. The BBC, Radio Moscow, Radio Havana Cuba, The Voice of America, and HCJB from Quito Ecuador. I was listening to radio stations from thousands of miles away. I was connected to the world unfiltered. I felt like I just tapped into the most unbelievable resource.

Over time my hobby expanded and I started to build my own radios. I think the discovery of that radio changed my life, as I was able to get the perspective of dozens of other viewpoints from dozens of other nations.

This was the Cold War era, and I lived in constant fear that the Russians were going to attack the US and destroy our cities with nuclear bombs. One night I was listening to Joe Adamov on Radio Moscow. He said, “Americans are always saying that the Russians are going to nuke them, but the only country to every use a nuclear weapon on another country was the US.” I jolted myself back in my seat with the realization that he was right. There was more than one way to look at a situation. This eye opener impacted me then, and it still impacts me today. Radio educated me to think in broader terms, to question and not to assume. Yes, radio changed my life.


2020

I was driving back from Wyoming with plans to visit some of the National Parks in South Dakota. My cell connection was too poor to stream anything, and I was getting bored listening to music on the FM band. I switch over to AM and did a quick station scan; 10 stations total. I restarted at the beginning of the dial and tuned into each, sampling their content. There was the usual fare, sports, some music, and talk. Six out the the 10 stations were playing the same syndicated show, a popular conservative radio host. I had not listened to this host in decades and decided to explore his content. He talked in a fast, urgent, somewhat high pitched tone. A tone that immediately agitated me. He didn’t have much content, but he kept warning that if the Democrats won the next election they would destroy the country. He used a lot of slurs when talking about them giving each Democrat a derogatory nickname. He was especially concerned about Joe Biden who he condemned at one moment as being weak and senile and at another moment maniacal, and power hungry. I listened for about 30 minutes before I had to turn the radio off. I was feeling as if I was going to have a panic attack. When I returned home I tuned into some of the conservative programs on Chicago radio stations. Although the hosts were different, the presentations were the same. I heard many themes that sounded ridiculous when the president voiced them, and here they were being repeated. The hosts didn’t talk about COVID, they talked about the China virus. They stated emphatically that Biden wanted to defund the police, and destroy the suburbs. Two statements that are outright lies. They suggested that we were in danger of losing our freedom and that the Democrats wanted us all to become socialists. They seemed to draw the conclusion that socialism was the the same thing as Communism. Each time that I listened I found myself become agitated.

I’m neither a Democrats nor a Republican. I think both parties are corrupt. However, I am a person that believes in science, and that all races were created equal. I don’t feel that I have the right to determine what other consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedrooms, and I feel that as an advanced society we should have universal healthcare.

I’m a Christian who believes that the message of the New Testament is one of love, acceptance, forgiveness, kindness, and inclusion. I don’t base my faith on the crude analysis of a single verse.

I’m more comfortable with the commentators of CNN and MSNBC rather than Fox News. However, I think that all of these channels are all equally destructive. Trump gives progressive stations an endless stream of discussion points, so you hear less outright lies. However, you do hear a biased opinion, and one that is intended (in my opinion) to manipulate the audience. The commentators of all of these channels present as newscasters instead of entertainers, but they are not balanced in their presentations and so the term entertainer seems more appropriate. There is an endless stream of “breaking news” stories that don’t seem particularly “breaking.” There are endless rehashes that can have up to 6 “experts” all agreeing with the host. The same sound bite is often repeated over and over again. The next commentator in the lineup does the same thing, but with their slightly different twist. If you are listening to a conservative channel you are told that the Democrats are going to destroy the country, and if you are listening on a progressive channel the Republicans will do the same. There is no balance, just a urgency that keeps you watching as the same stories are repeated over and over. When I view any of these channels I find myself becoming more agitated and upset. I don’t feel more informed, as most of the real information could be easily told in a 5 minute newscast. I feel mad and outraged, and it is hard to disengage.

In 1949 the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) introduced the Fairness Doctrine which required broadcasters to present controversial issues to the public in an honest, equitable, and balanced way. This required media outlets to present both sides of an issue. In 1985 FCC Chairman Mark Fowler, who was an attorney who served on Ronald Reagan’s campaign staff, released a report that stated that the Fairness Doctrine violated free speech, and in 1987 the FCC abolished the doctrine by a 4 to 0 vote. The removal of the Fairness Doctrine allowed stations to present their own viewpoints without having to present balanced news. The establishment of cable channels solely devoted to news also encouraged biased news reporting, as well as the endless parade of editorial comments masquerading as news. These networks were profit centers, and made their money with ad revenue. The longer someone watched a station the bigger their profits. Such a scenario is a recipe for drama, and an overdriven, “If it bleeds it leads” focus.

The secret to gaining a larger audience is getting them to emotionally invest in both the host and story. To do this most stories have to be padded with dramatic “opinions” from the commentator and “experts” who build on the anxiety of the viewer. The viewer is placed in a position where they are afraid to turn to a different channel, as they may miss some “breaking news.” As they become ever more agitated they become evermore outraged. The viewer “shares the tragedy” with the host which leads to trust in the host. This level of engagement can lead to a habitual pattern of watching; perfect for the network. The viewer is both disempowered and empowered at the same time. Their anger can be intoxicating in its own right. The exploitation of the news in such a way constitutes outrage porn, and the traumatic repetition of biased stores can lead to a pattern of behavior where the viewer is anxious, angry, and afraid much of the time. These same tactics can be seen in other media areas, such as YouTube channels. Since YouTube selects content based on previous views it is easy to exclusively see opinions that echo and amplify a particular biased belief.

I can think of no real benefit from watching a steady stream of cable news channels or biased YouTube channels. At the best, such viewing is upsetting to the individual. However, I believe that it also has an impact on the overall partisanship of our country. If all you see are conservative (or conversely, progressive) commentators your view of anyone who has an opposing opinion will suffer. Many of the commentators are “passionate” in their feelings which further impacts how people react to differing opinions. We no longer disagree, we attack, just like the attacks that we see on the “news.” The end result is a fractured population that can be easily manipulated by others, including politicians. When this happens democracy itself is at risk.

Are you watching/listening to news/talk channels for hours every day? Do you find yourself becoming overly emotionally invested in news events? Do you become angry if someone has a different political opinion than yours? Does your news outlet always favor one political party over the other? Do you find that you are afraid, angry, or upset after watching the news? If you answer “yes” to several of these questions you may be suffering of Outrage Porn Addiction (my term). So, how do you free yourself from this addiction?

Since we no longer have checks and balances due to the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine you need to protect yourself by adding your own checks and balances. I would limit cable news consumption to no more than one hour a day, preferably split into two segments. Personally, I go one step further and use my smart speaker to keep me abreast of what is happening. I program it to play NPR news (progressive), USA Today news, and Fox News (conservative) in the morning when I get up. These actual newscasts are only a few minutes long and tend to be more balanced. I also read selected news stories from various outlets while I’m having my breakfast. That constitutes my daily dose of news. The best way to avoid Outrage Porn Addiction is to remove the offending agent. If the above doesn’t work you can try neutral news sources like the BBC or Radio Canada. Both are available by internet streams. They always have some US news included.

Outrage Porn Addiction is like any other addiction. It initially feels good, and then it makes you progressively sicker. Don’t let yourself be manipulated by others. Get a balanced perspective, and get on with your life.

Radio stations used to present a more balanced picture of controversial events.

Is Dr. Mike A Simple Or Complex Guy?

For whatever reason, people like to label me. They take one of my characteristics, and they build an entire opinion of who I am and what motivates me. Perhaps this is because we live in a world of sound bites, where everything can be explained in two sentences or less.

Just like everyone, I am a complex individual and not a one-dimensional cartoon caricature. Two of my traits that seem to confuse many are my desire for both complexity and simplicity. On the surface, such characteristics are diametrically opposed, but they are entirely compatible and ego-syntonic to me. 

I have many things in common with my siblings. Still, one characteristic above all others is that we are obsessive people. Our obsessiveness exhibits itself differently, and I’m not about to take my siblings’ personal inventories. However, my obsessive personality has its roots in my genetic makeup.

I am an obsessive problem solver. I think of various scenarios, plan solutions, and then test out those solutions for potential flaws. Believe it or not, that is an enjoyable activity. My family may make fun of me for having several first aid kits or a box of spare batteries. Still, they come to me when they cut their fingers or when their battery-operated watches stop. 

This problem-solving style leads to another trait, I am a comparer. I get pleasure in understanding how similar tasks are accomplished in different ways. When I was active in psychiatry, I was fascinated by how very different psychotherapies could help patients. However, this comparing habit existed long before I had the initials M.D. behind my name.

When I was 5 years old, I collected old pencils and compared them based on their characteristics. Which one had the smoothest lead? Did the color of the eraser impact its utility? Did more costly pencils work better? (BTW, the answers to these questions are: Dixon Ticonderoga, No, and Yes). I had a pencil collection for years, and as it expanded, so did my knowledge of this obscure topic. 

In grade school, I started to collect radios, which led to listening to short-wave radios, branched off to building radios, and eventually prompted me to get an Advanced Amateur Radio license.

I have made in-depth comparisons on items ranging from bread makers to guitars. My current collection is cameras. I am fascinated by how various manufacturers approach the same fundamental issues in very different ways. I love the creative process of taking a good picture. Still, I equally enjoy learning more about camera controls, flashes, and lenses. You may read all of the above and think, “That Dr. Mike is a pretty weird guy.” I would say that you are probably right…and so what!

Being a comparer means that I have a lot of stuff, and I like having many things… but I also crave simplicity. It is a joy for me to travel in Violet, my little campervan, and live well with only those things that fit in her tiny space. But, I’m a problem solver. “What if I don’t have the right electrical adapter?” “What if my car battery goes dead in the middle of nowhere?” “How can I boost my cell phone reception?” Solutions often mean more stuff, and more stuff makes van life difficult due to space constraints. Yet, on every trip, it does seem like I use an unlikely item or two that I had previously packed away, “just in case.”  

Before most trips, I will go through Violet’s boxes and bins and remove things that appear to have little use. On my last trip, I took out 4 microwavable cereal bowls, an extra towel, and a little-used cooking pot. I left other potential candidates, like a potato peeler and an extra flashlight. Still, they could go on the chopping block on my next purge.

Before the same trip, I added some items that I thought could be useful. Why? Why not! Oh, and there is often a trip’s bonus item. A bonus item is something that I carry, although it is doubtful that I will need it. However, it turns out that I do need it, and I’m glad that I brought it. On my trip to Glacier last summer, the bonus item was a little tool kit that I kept in the camper. I dropped something behind Violet’s kitchen and had to unbolt the unit to retrieve it. This year my bonus item was my Garmin GPS.

Like many of you, I use Google and Apple Maps for direction advice. I used to be good at reading paper maps, but my smartphone has sucked that ability. I love these programs because they are updated continuously. However, they have one fatal flaw, they require an internet connection to do their thing. Both programs will retain necessary turn-by-turn information once you set your route. Still, they can’t create a new route or modify a route if you are away from a cell tower. Unfortunately, I often camp in places where I don’t have a connection to the outside world. When I was initially stocking Violet, I purchased a Garmin GPS, “just in case,” and this was the first year that I needed it to route the legs of my trip. It worked great, and I was glad to have it.  

So, what new items I brought on this trip?

Crocks

When I camp, I only bring two pairs of shoes, hikers and shower shoes. The later are those very cheap ones that have a painful peg that goes between your toes. My mother put the fear of God in me when she told me about the dangers of getting athlete’s foot in public showers. Despite knowing that the actual risk is low, I feel obligated to bring a pair along. However, this year I also brought along a pair of Crocks, and they were a fantastic addition. It was a pleasure to drive long distances wearing them, and if I had to leave the camper in the middle of the night, I didn’t have to lace-up my hikers. I will definitely bring them on my next camping trip.

My old Sony AM/FM portable radio

During the first two years of owning Violet, I packed a sizable multi-band radio. It was big and bulky and had a habit of flying off its perch when I made an aggressive turn. I have been pelted more than once by D batteries as they flew out of the radio’s innards to become instant missiles. Eventually, I got sick being beaten up by batteries, and I purged the Grundig from my camper. This trip, I packed an old analog AM/FM portable radio. Its manual mechanics are very energy efficient, and it runs forever on a few batteries. It stays in place when I drive. 

The radio turned out to be a great addition, as I didn’t have a reliable cellular connection during most of my trip. Through it, I was able to get the weather and news, plus entertainment. You may be asking, “Why not just use the van’s radio?” This could be done in a pinch, but I don’t like doing things that can potentially drain the vehicle’s battery. Besides, I could take the Sony out of the van and listen in my folding camp chair’s comfort. The radio is a keeper.

Solar Generator/folding solar panels 

I have an elaborate onboard solar set-up in Violet, making it unnecessary to bring along any additional battery banks. However, I wanted to play around with a little one that I had at home. The unit has 300 watts of power and various connections, allowing it to power 12 volt, USB, and AC devices. I also brought along a folding solar panel to see if it would be feasible to charge the little guy in the field.

I did enjoy having the battery pack, and I used it every day to charge my phone and watch. I also used it to power my Wilson (WeBoost) cell phone booster to send out text messages to my family. Best of all, I was able to quickly recharge it using the folding solar panel. This set up could be a reasonably priced solution for at-home preparedness. With it, you could recharge your phones, computers, and even power a TV. I had a lot of fun playing around with it on my camping adventure; it is not a must-pack for me.

iPad and Kindle

I brought both. I used the Kindle but never got around to using the iPad. However, I’ll likely bring them on my next trip as they take up little space. I have a keyboard for my iPad, allowing me to write if I am so moved. iPads are more energy-efficient than laptops making them good travel companions.

Induction cooktop

I’m in the process of having Violet reclassified as an RV. This will mean lower insurance and tag costs. Illinois has many requirements to change a commercial vehicle to an RV. One of them is that the vehicle has to have an onboard cooking system.  

My friend, Emma Cabusao (Dr. Emma) gave me an induction burner as a present several years ago. My other friend, Tom, used his building skills to mount it to Violet’s kitchen counter, and I connected it to my solar power system.

I’m pleased with the butane stove that I have used for several years. So I didn’t think that I would need the induction burner for cooking; I just needed to show the state’s inspector that I had an onboard cooking system. However, on my recent camping adventure, I tried it out and loved it. An induction burner uses a magnetic field to cook, and the device stays cool to the touch. Also, there is no open flame to worry about. My Goal Zero solar generator efficiently handled the hot plate’s energy requirements. Since I generate all of the van’s electricity from solar, using the burner meant that I was cooking for free! I won’t get rid of my butane stove, as I like to cook greasy, splattery stuff outside of the van. However, for everything else, I’m all in on this gadget. 

Some stuff goes out of the van, some stuff goes in. There are things that I will probably never use (like the potato peeler) and things that I wind up using even when I think I won’t (like the Garmin GPS).  


In today’s story, I’m trying to make a couple of different points. The first one is to not judge or categorize someone else based on a single observation or characteristic. We are all complex creatures. I would urge you to be tolerant of people who may not think exactly as you do. You could find that you have more in common with them than on first blush. As for me, my planning and preparing style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it doesn’t hurt anyone, so don’t pass judgment.

The second point is that in many cases, the only way to determine if something is right for you is to try it out. Now, I’m not saying that you should go around doing dangerous or illegal stuff. However, most people regret what they didn’t do in their life more than what they did do.

Lastly, Violet, the campervan, shows me how little I need to be happy. When I’m at home, there always seems to be some item that catches my eye. Sometimes it is a “super deal” on WOOT or a “recommendation” from Amazon. I also get the urge to buy something after watching influencers on YouTube. I do enjoy these things, but in the majority of cases, I don’t need them. My tiny campervan has everything that I need to thrive. I can cook meals, listen to the news, read a book, take a bath, go to bed, and do all of those things that I would do in daily life. But I’m not doing them in a 4 bedroom, 3 bathroom house… I’m doing it in a tiny cargo van. Less can sometimes be more. Life is complicated (or is it simple?).


Update: After many months of modifying Violet to comply with Illinois’ rules to reclassify her as an RV (as opposed to being a commercial van), I had her inspected by the Illinois Secretary of State police. A friendly officer came out and asked questions, toured the van, and took a ton of photos. I’m thrilled to report that Violet passed her test and will be reclassified as an RV once I get her new paperwork. Whew!

Using an induction burner turned out to be a great idea!
My old Sony portable radio kept me in touch with the world.
I had a lot of fun using this little 300-watt solar generator. I always enjoy playing around with a new gadget.
My Garmin GPS really helped me when I couldn’t use Google Maps.