Tag Archives: #vanlife

Am I a Misfit?

Thoughts on Nomadic life as it buffers against societal norms.

As you may know, I am fascinated with Nomadic life. So in 2018, with the help of my friend Tom, I built out a Ram Promaster van and transformed it into Violet the campervan. With Violet, I have gone on many adventures. However, there was one that I delayed for years. That trip was to camp on desert BLM land and to attend the RTR or Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. This is a massive meetup for Nomads. I accomplished that goal this year, and I would like to tell you about some aspects of it.

The RTR attracts a certain subgroup of Nomads. I’ll call these folks RTR Nomads. However, there are other types of Nomadic travelers; I’ll list some of them below.

There are the RVers.  These are often retired couples or individuals and homeschoolers who usually have financial resources. They travel in fancy 5th wheels and modern RVs.  

There are adventure Nomads who may live in just about anything. These folks view their home on wheels as necessary housing as they pursue an outdoor passion such as skiing or rock climbing.  

The Instagram crowd live in decked-out Sprinter vans and restored fancy Volkswagon microbuses. This group attracts young, good-looking couples who travel for fun and fund their touring through social media channels. If you see a thumbnail of an attractive woman taking a shower wearing a scanty bikini, you have found an Instagram Nomad.

The RTR group is different, more gritty, and more natural. Bob Wells didn’t start this movement, but his active participation in it has made him its defacto voice. It is helpful to understand Bob better to get a better feeling for RTR Nomads.

Bob was a typical guy living in Alaska with his wife and kids. He worked at a grocery store and made enough money to support his family. In 1995 he divorced and did not have the resources to keep two residences afloat. He moved into an empty box van. Bob admits that this was a move of desperation and that he was feeling pretty sorry for himself. He was depressed and thought that he was a failure. Alaska can be brutally cold, and Bob had to adapt quickly to his new life. Using previous knowledge and trial and error, he was able to transform his dismal housing into a workable habitat. Bob has lived in many different vehicles since 1995 and has a tremendous knowledge of what works and doesn’t work in van life.

Slowly, he realized that his new lifestyle was a gift that gave him a newfound freedom, made him more centered, and provided him with inner peace. In 2005 he started a website called “Cheap RV Living” to share his ideas. Later, he started a YouTube Channel where he offered practical tips and interviews with Nomads that included tours of their rigs. Some rigs were works of art; others consisted of a mat on the floor of a minivan. However, just like sticks and bricks homeowners, Nomads have pride in their domiciles. Bob always sincerely compliments rig owners, and they universally show their appreciation to him. Other YouTube channels share tips and tricks as part of their feed, but this has been a consistent objective for Cheap RV Living. Bob has helped countless travelers, including myself, with his practical and practiced knowledge.

He started the RTR gathering some years ago, and before the pandemic, over 10,000 people attended. During COVID, the RTR went digital, offering classes and community online. However, there is no substitute for meeting in person. The RTR has practical seminars on everything from traveling to Mexico as a Nomad to dealing with chronic illness on the road. The RTR is free and was solely funded by Bob. Several years ago, Bob and his friend Sue Ann created HOWA (Home On Wheels Alliance), which is a 501C with the sole purpose of helping Nomads. HOWA now organizes and funds the RTR and manages an army of Nomad Volunteers. The RTR is run by people who live in their vehicles and who are often separated from each other by a thousand miles. By the nature of their lives, they have few financial resources. The RTR’s logistics were as good as any expensive conference I attended. If I am being honest, it was run better.  

RTR Volunteers monitored RTR message boards, directed parking, adjusted sound/video equipment, led panel discussions, provided security, and supervised the give-and-take tables where Nomads could leave things for others to take for free. Nomads have little but are willing to share so that others can have more.

Who are the RTR-type Nomads? I talked to many, but not all, so I can only give you my limited impression. It may dispel some preconceived views that you could have of them. Like Bob, many vehicle dwellers started their journey due to circumstances. They had few options. They live in every type of vehicle imaginable. High-top vans, old conversion vans, cargo vans, retrofitted ambulances, old school buses, SUVs, and small sedans. 

The bulk of the individuals that I met were in their 50s and 60s. However, I did talk to some in their 30s and others in their 70s. The vast majority would blend in with any crowd. Think about the people you would see at a big box store, Walmart or Home Depot. Most would be wearing functional but not stylish clothing. That is how the vast majority of Nomads dress.  

Many Nomad men sport bushy beards or have a few days of stubble. Many Nomad women don’t wear makeup. Both of these positions are likely due to the practical nature of van dwelling. Everyone I met looked clean, and no one smelled bad. I mention these facts as some may be wondering. And yes, folks brushed their teeth.

Speaking of teeth, that was heartbreaking. It wasn’t uncommon to run into older Nomads who had prominent missing teeth or no teeth. I have worked with low-resource individuals for much of my life, and I can assure you that poor dentition is almost always because of a lack of funds. I recently had a simple filling replace-it cost me $300. Later this month, I’ll have my teeth cleaned- which will cost at least $150, likely more if anything extra is added. When you are living on a limited income, you can’t afford dental care, and the older you get, the more significant the impact this lack of regular maintenance has on your teeth. The ability to chew is paramount to good health. However, only some insurance policies cover this type of healthcare. I think that is criminal. 

Naturally, there were some outliers in the group. I saw several people living in vans that were wheelchair-bound. What incredible courage to live an independent Nomadic life without the use of your legs. These folks were traveling in regular vans; no chair lifts or other accommodations. One, by the name of Kat, was volunteering at an information table.  

Some individuals were tremendously overweight. A few others were on the eccentric side. Some wore mismatched clothing, others sported unusual hats, and one donned a homemade fez and a bathrobe made of that felt-like material that people made blankets out of a few years back. The eccentric were in the minority and likely represented a percentage no different than the general population. 

I talked to one man who was able to live in an apartment by sharing costs with his wife. She became ill and died and he became homeless. A tiny older woman (under 5 feet) had been an overland truck driver. She lives on less than $700/month of social security. She has been boondocking in Quartzite since November, and despite her financial woes, she volunteers at a local church’s free meal program providing food for those who can’t afford it. Other individuals suffered from debilitating chronic illnesses (physical and mental). They found that leaving the rat race gave them the peace they needed to start the healing process. Still, others rejected the expectations of society that demanded that they work a meaningless job until they died. Some individuals worked seasonal jobs or made a living with small online businesses. One man, living in a Prius, bought local gemstones to resell. 

Every single person that I talked to was kind. Most seemed intelligent and chatty. All seemed willing to help. I liked my interactions with them. Were these misfits of society? That question leads me to Bob Well’s talk on his philosophy of being a Nomad.

Bob’s talk covered many different areas, and I will only focus on a few. Mainly the needs of the individual vs. the needs of society.  

Bob believes that early humans lived the way wolves and elephants live today. They liked to socialize and work together, but they retained their individuality. They accepted nature and adapted to survive in it. They only used those resources necessary to live. They lived within the confines of what nature offered them. They did not try to alter nature for their own will. They were generous with each other, and in doing so, they built connections that would help all. He believes that this is the way that we were meant to live.

Society has different expectations of the individual. Society wants us to live more like ants or bees. In essence, there are no individuals. Instead, we are all cogs in a bigger machine. Society wants us to produce for the betterment of society. Most of us are expendable. The more we produce, the more we are expected to produce. Jobs can be meaningless to the individual as long as it benefits the greater progress of the group. The focus is on productivity rather than relationships and personal growth. Most individuals are stuck in the class that they were born into. If you are a worker, you will most likely remain a worker. As productivity is king, the individual’s well-being is unimportant. Endless unfulfilling work leads to stress-related illness and addiction. Purchasing things is necessary to fuel the economy and becomes an artificial and unsatisfying reward for the worker. Social relationships are difficult to maintain due to the intrinsic stress of long work hours spent in unsatisfying jobs. Power and money need to be kept by those in control and are not shared with others. Generosity is discouraged. Consumption and wealth are glorified. If you have something, you want more of it. 

Society does not promote harmony with nature; it demands the opposite. An example is modern farming. To successfully farm a field, the intrinsic life in the area must be killed. Insects, animals, plants. These things become pests and weeds. Society does not live within the confines of nature; it tries to rule nature-often with terrible consequences. 

For many, modern life promotes mental and physical illness secondary to endless and meaningless work stress, the breakdown of social connections, and the disregard for the greater ecology (nature). People who question society are labeled negatively as misfits-they don’t fit in. The need for compliance is so great that misfits must be shunned and their lifestyle ridiculed.  

Many of you who are reading this may object to this observation. You may believe that society is necessary, and you may now list all of the great things that society has created. It is also true that Nomads depend on society to survive. Nomads are not hunters and gatherers. They drive vehicles that need gas. They shop at grocery stores. They wear clothing woven in factories.

The idea here is balance and the idea that one type of lifestyle does not fit all. In many ways, Nomads are less misfitted than those who comply with societal rules, as they live in better harmony with themselves and the world around them. They consume less, pollute less, and spend less. They live more in nature and accept what nature offers. They are more generous with each other. They help each other. Roles and positions of prestige are dramatically reduced. At the RTR, everyone was treated equally. No one was judged based on possessions, physical appearance, age, or health. People were accepted for who they were, and everyone was allowed to be heard.

All of this made me reflect on my life and whether I was a misfit or fit. There are many ways that I am a misfit. I’m dyslexic, I have other processing problems, I’m blind in one eye, I have terrible coordination, I have a fear of heights, I’m a shy introvert, I think differently than most people, and I’m an obsessive problem solver. Although I am different, I have always wanted to fit in, so I have adopted behaviors to make that happen. I know how to talk, interact, and dress to blend in. Many times, I hold back my opinions as I don’t want to appear “too smart.” Intelligent people are often viewed with suspicion. Overall, I have been successful in this charade.  

One area where I have been less successful has been in my weight. I have always been overweight and have spent (literally) tens of thousands of dollars to control my weight. As a result, I have lost hundreds of pounds through the years, only to regain them. Our society hates fat people. This is odd to me as most individuals in the US are now considered overweight. I have always been self-conscious of my weight and work hard to have people see me as a person, not a fat person. However, it has not been easy.

Among the Nomads, I had no such concerns. If I would accept them, they would accept me. Acceptance is one of the most important gifts we can give another person. However, many are better at passing out judgment.  

Yes, I’m a “misfit” who has successfully faked being a “fit.” But that experience has made me acutely aware of others who are in marginalized groups. Our society places the highest value on healthy white Christian males. Other groups are now included, but they still hold lesser positions. Women come to mind, and there is some marginal inclusion of racial groups such as blacks and Hispanics. However, that inclusion is very conditional. If you act like a white Christian male, you may be given a seat at the table.

The less power a group has, the more it is rejected. Asians have contributed immensely to our country but were easily villainized during the COVID pandemic. Religious groups, like Muslims and Jews, may be openly mocked. It is acceptable for individuals with any imperfection or disability to be ridiculed or even attacked without provocation.

However, the most minor and most vulnerable groups are always targeted for the most hate. There are many examples, but one of the most obvious is the heterogeneous compilation that we identify as LGBTQ+. Overall, this is a small group in society. Most LGBTQ+ individuals are just trying to live their lives, and only a few are bad actors. However, the amount of propaganda against this faction of the population is astounding. It is even more shocking when legislators are allowed to subject a group of citizens to laws denying them the freedoms everyone else accepts as the norm.

Highlighted here is the act of marriage. Why is same-sex marriage such a big deal? Marriage is a legal (and sometimes religious) covenant between two people. It affords certain rights and benefits, and it signifies a willingness of both parties to commit to each other. There have always been laws that prevented people from marrying someone based on someone else’s bias. Laws outlawing marriage between blacks and whites come to mind.

We hold the act of marriage in high regard. However, traditional marriage can be far from that. Individuals break their vows to each other—individuals divorce. Physical violence, addiction, psychological torture, obsessive control, and many other abominations occur in traditional marriage, yet we accept these unions as somehow driven by God. We use our personal religious beliefs to restrict the rights of others who may not hold those same beliefs. We interpret (with emphasis on interpreting) our holy writings to fit our needs-even if those interpretations are against the basic concepts of Christianity. Christianity is about love, acceptance, forgiveness, and inclusion. Why are so many Christians focused on hate, rejection, exclusion, and damnation? Why do we have to be so “special” that only we can have rights that we deny others?

I saw the opposite among the Nomads. Everyone was accepted on their merits. Women traveling together as couples, toothless men, morbidly overweight Nomads, it didn’t matter. People were not prejudged based on some synthetic construct. Instead, they were accepted or rejected for who they were.

I think I’m not the only misfit out there who is good at pretending to be a “fit.”  Wouldn’t it be great if we could be who were are and be accepted for that? The world might be much more creative and balanced. Diversity always leads to new ideas and growth. A lesson understood by a random pack of Nomads but still rejected by a society that should know better.

Driving to Arizona, I was awestruck by the twilight sky.
I parked in the desert, not knowing what to expect.
The desert landscape was peaceful and calming.
Many Nomads had dogs and cats as co-travelers. However, one person was traveling with a friendly pig named Mimi.
Bob Wells talking about his philosophy of being a Nomad
The meeting was well attended.
It is OK to be different. This man set up his chair well before the meeting started and was far from anyone. He wanted his own space.
Here you can see just some of the types of vehicles that people lived in. A sedan, an old Suburban, a high-top van, an old conversion van, and an ambulance, to name a few.
The parking crew did a great job maximizing parking.
Message boards were set up. You could ask for services or offer services.
People make a living in many ways. This person offered portraits of your favorite 4 legged travel companion.
I saw a number of Nomads who were wheelchair-bound.
Tables were set up so you could donate items others could take for free.

Van Dweller Baking-The Omnia Oven

This post is for my van dwelling and car camping brethren. 

In 2018 I bought my Promaster cargo van and converted it into a camping van. During that first year, I had Wayfarer Vans do a basic conversion; I also bought a lot of stuff to turn the van into my home away from home. One of the items that I purchased was an Omnia stovetop oven. My initial impression was that it was expensive to buy and felt cheap in hand. So I put it on a shelf and forgot about it.

Now, over three years later, I want to expand my culinary repertoire, and what could be more fantastic than having a way to bake on the road? So it was time to pull the Omnia off of my garage shelf and do a little experimenting. I researched YouTube and found most people liked the Omnia, but it seemed like many burnt the bottom of whatever they were baking. 

There is nothing like freshly baked food when you are camping in the wild.

I re-examined the oven. Yes, it seems cheaply made, and all of its accessories are expensive. But, after much experimenting, did I hate it or love it? I can tell you I love it! It is a clever gadget and in my opinion worth the money. 

It is made of thin materials that cool very quickly. You don’t have to wait an hour for it to cool enough to pack it away. Its thin-wall construction also allows you to regulate the oven’s temperature. It is exceptionally compact, and everything from its silicon inserts to its wire baking rack can be stored inside the Omnia. Most importantly, it bakes well if you understand how it works and carefully follow the provided instructions.

The Omnia oven is an all-in-one tabletop oven and it is very versatile.

I decided to do a lot of sticks-and-bricks testing, as it is easier for me to learn about a new cooking product when I have ample running water, counter space, and baking tools. However, everything I did in the kitchen could be done when dry camping. However, you would need to adapt your preparation methods to accommodate a more challenging environment.  

To understand the Omnia, it is essential to contrast it with a traditional home oven. A home oven is an insulated box with a heat source at the bottom of the box. The heat source is regulated by a thermostat which turns the source on and off. This allows for consistent heating. For example, if you set the thermostat to 350F, the oven temperature will vary a bit above and below that number throughout a bake, but the average temperature will be 350F. 

The Omnia is different as there is no thermostat. The bottom plate heats the baking vessel, which quickly loses its heat to the environment as it is not insulated. The constant flame of the heat source replaces that energy loss. The trick is to match the energy (heat) that you add to the energy (heat) that you lose. How much you adjust the flame depends on how fast you lose heat. If you are inside your van and it is 80 degrees, it will take a lower flame than if you are outside and it is 50 degrees and windy. In general, I start with a very low flame for inside cooking. Your results will be better if your environment is relatively stable. Baking inside the van will be more reliable than baking outside.

If you cook at too high of a temperature, you will burn the outside of your dish before the inside is cooked. Therefore, it is better to go lower than higher. In many cases, this will mean that you will bake at 300-325F instead of the standard 350F. Casseroles may take a bit longer to cook when baking at lower temperatures, and they may brown a bit less. In addition, cakes that rely on heat for lift may be denser and somewhat coarser-grained. However, in both cases, you will still have a delicious result.  

The Omnia will work with any heat source except an induction cooktop. Use a source that allows you to finely adjust the flame. Generally, butane stoves adjust their flames better than propane camp-style stoves. You also want a stove that has a reasonably broad flame pattern, so hiking-type stoves could prove to be challenging.

Although I normally use an induction cooktop it is not compatible with the Omnia. This photo was taken during a winter camping adventure. Due to low sun levels, I decided to heat my tea water with butane instead of my induction cooktop.

It is essential to follow the directions provided by Omnia. Cake batter should only be filled ½ way, and all other dishes should be filled no more than 1 inch from the top. Exceeding these limits will result in a burnt bottom and an undercooked interior to your dish. In many cases, you should preheat the base on high for a few minutes before topping it with the baking vessel.  

Omnia sells a thermometer that can give you a more accurate measure of how high you should adjust your flame, but some have adapted an inexpensive BBQ grill thermometer to fill that role. YouTube offers several DIY videos on this topic. I baked with and without the thermometer and found it possible to bake without one, but having one adds a bit more precision to the process. 

Many recipes have you preheat the base on high for several minutes. However, once I add the baking vessel I turn the flame way down.

The Omnia baking times are similar to your regular oven when set correctly. In addition, the baking vessel has a capacity of around 8 cups, which is equivalent to an 8 x 8-inch pan.

My goal was to bake various types of foods, from banana bread to pizza. I baked foods using scratch recipes and from box mixes. I wanted to ensure that the Omnia was a versatile device and not just a one-trick pony.

Many baking mixes are almost complete. This muffin mix only requires milk.

I found that the Omnia works great for a wide variety of baking needs with a bit of practice. You can bake almost anything in it. However, you may not want to spend $70 for it (often over $100 when you add the accessories). Here are some alternatives along with their pros and cons:

-Coleman-type fold-up stove. The Coleman fold-up stove has been around forever and can be had for about $45 or less if you find one at a thrift shop. I have used one, and they work well. However, they also have the burnt bottom problem. Using a small pizza stone to even out the heat will reduce this issue. The downside to the Coleman is that the stove is considerable even when folded, and any accessories (like baking and muffin pans) take up additional storage space.

-Heavy Pot with a cover and trivet. An age-old standard. Using a heatproof trivet, you isolate your baking pan from the pot’s bottom. There are variations on this theme as some recipes use water in the pot, allowing you to steam a cake. Other recipes use a dry method that may use an empty pan or one with some sort of heat evener, for instance, placing rocks in the bottom of the pan. When baking, caution is advised when using rocks, sand, or non-food grade items. 

-Direct baking. Some recipes bake directly on a pan’s surface. This method is most commonly used to bake flatbread. However, direct baking can also be used to make homemade pizza. In this case, the crust is flipped over to ensure that it is fully cooked. After the turn, toppings are added.

-Rice cooker baking. You can find small rice cookers that use only 300 watts of power, compatible with many van’s electrical systems. The internet is a source for recipes that range from cakes to yeast bread.

-Lunchbox cooker. The Roadpro (and look-alike cookers) reach around 300F, sufficient to bake foods such as Jiffy brand cake and cornbread mixes. People also make Stouffer’s frozen pizza in them. Unfortunately, you can’t bake using the popular Hot Logic oven as it only heats to 160F-180F.

-The electric pressure cooker. This gadget is a wonderful addition to your cooking arsenal if you have enough battery power. Using the steam method, you can make many baked items, from regular cakes to cheesecake.

-The classic Dutch oven/campfire combo. This method uses a dutch oven, campfire, hot coals, and some practice. My cousin makes a killer pineapple upside-down cake using this method, but it is beyond my skill level.

The bottom line

The Omnia is one of various methods to bake when you don’t have a traditional oven. It is compact, relatively simple to use, and can deliver excellent results if you follow the directions. It makes sense to practice at home before trying to impress your camping buddies, as it is different from using a regular oven.  

The Omnia can be used with a variety of heat sources. However, I think a standard butane stove works best as it allows for a fine flame adjustment. I almost always bake near the lowest flame level possible. The butane stove that I used has an output of 7000 BTU. Some more expensive butane stoves may have an output of 10,000 BTU or higher, so some experimenting may be necessary to find the sweet spot for your baking adventure. 

You don’t want to lift the lid during the early stages of baking, as this will significantly dysregulate the oven’s temperature at a critical baking phase. However, I use standard methods (like the toothpick test) at the latter stages to determine doneness.

Remember that the environment has a significant impact on baking in the Omnia. You will likely have more consistent results when baking inside your van than outdoors on a windy day. However, with practice, even this is possible. Very cold or very hot days will also impact the oven.  

Below are various things that I successfully baked in the Omnia in my home kitchen laboratory. I believe that you can bake just about anything that bakes in a moderate (350F) oven. In addition, I have had success baking items like pizza and muffins (which often use a higher oven temperature) in the Omnia. However, the final product may be slightly different than what you are used to. For instance, the pizza crust may be softer, and a muffin’s rise may be somewhat less.  

Below are a gaggle of photos that will hopefully inspire you to expand your van cooking’s culinary horizons. Bon appetite!

I made recipes from scratch to see how practical the Omnia was. Here are the ingredients for homemade mac and cheese.
A small “bag” mix made 6 muffins.
They baked perfectly but were a bit denser than if I had used a traditional oven at 400F.
However, they were still delicious!
Making homemade pizza was simple because I used an inexpensive pizza crust mix.
The crust is prebaked before adding toppings.
Toppings added, now it is time to return the pizza to the Omnia.
Looks great, but how about the crust?
Done to perfection!
The shape is a bit unusual, but the taste is completely traditional!
Cornbread made from a mix is delicious.
It baked nicely in the Omnia.
I also made homemade mac and cheese. Here it is ready to be baked.
Out of the oven, it was creamy and delicious.
A complete carb-filled dinner. Cornbread with mac and cheese-all done in the Omnia.
Plated out.
Pie anyone? I’m using a premade pie crust.
Mixing the ingredients for pumpkin pie ala Omnia.
The pie turned out well.
You “gotta” have some whipped cream on your pie!
Time to use up some over-ripe bananas, My favorite banana bread recipe is from the “Betty Crocker Cookbook.” I think our edition is from the 1970s.
Banana bread is ready to go into the oven.
Baked to perfection in the Omnia.
My family quickly devoured the banana bread.