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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.