It's been just over a year now since I last had a fixed address. Anyone working in the outdoors has probably at some point jumped around between short-term leases, staff housing, and/or living out of their car for periods of time in between seasonal jobs in different locations. I on the other hand have never been without either a year-long lease or a mortgage. Until now. And it has been quite a learning experience. Most days come with at least one moment when I think to myself, "I'm too old for this shit." Or, "I'm so over this shit." Usually those feelings fade away, sometimes it takes an hour and sometimes a few days. I find myself constantly asking questions. Why am I doing this? How long can I do this? How could I do this better?
So why? Well, I already had the van. It was already set up for living after using it on a summer-long road trip. As I build my career as a guide, I want the ability to travel and work out of different locations each season. Dealing with short-term rentals, subleasing, etc is probably not that big of a deal. Nonetheless, the idea of it kind of freaks me out. Believe it or not, I'm more of a nester than a nomad. I like having a settled space. I'd rather downsize and simplify enough to take my living space with me wherever I go than have to pack up, un pack, and repack to move every few months. So there is that. And then there is the obvious financial advantage. Guiding and outdoor education ain't the money making dream machine I wish it could be. Is it a sustainable way to earn a living in the long-term? I think it can be. Like any pursuit though it takes some time to pay my dues in time and training before I will have the freedom to make it work the way I envision. In the meantime, not having to pay rent frees up cash each month to live like a boss. Well, not really. But it does allow me to eat out, drink fancy beer, and afford several training and development courses each year. I can even save money while working as a ski patroller. Or buy another new pair of skis. Or take that last minute trip to wherever the climbing or skiing is currently better than where I am right now. When I put it all that way, living out of my van seems like it might be a decent idea after all. Maybe I can go another year. Or several?
On the flipside, the realities of vanlife are far from the romantic ideal that has been popularized all over the internet in recent years. Once in a while, I get to wake up to some beautiful view when I am away on a "weekend" climbing trip or something similar. In the two plus years I have had my van, I have not once experienced the instagramable moment of a sunrise/sunset over a pristine coastline with a half naked companion reading a book and doing yoga, at the same time, in the background. Most of the time, I wake up to a view of a parking lot. Even while working as a mountain guide in the Tetons, the most convenient place to park overnight is in the shopping center parking lot outside of the guiding company's office. The office has a bathroom, shower, and internet. These are all nice things to have access to. I know some spots throughout the national park and surrounding areas that would be much more pleasant. They are a forty minute drive from town and I often need to either be in town to meet clients or get assigned work. Adding nearly an hour commute is something I will desperately try to avoid and generally defeats the purpose of having a mobile home. Believe it or not, even with 'mountain guide' as a job title, I have to work.
There are other problems with living out of a van. Such as the fact that is often either cold, messy, or stinky... or all of the above. In a space this small, even for someone such as myself who tends to be overly obsessive about organization, it takes a great deal of effort to keep the space tidy. It is especially difficult after throwing in all of my guiding toys, er, tools. Skis, bikes, climbing gear, ropes, ice climbing gear, ski boots, ropes, technical clothing for any type of weather, maps, first aid supplies, tents, sleeping bags, stoves, backpacks, guidebooks... and that doesn't include any day to day living items such as clothing, toiletries, etc. Then there's the smell factor. Dirty, wet skiing and climbing gear is hard to keep fresh in a small enclosed space.
Cooking and dealing with dishes is a hassle that, more and more, I tend to just avoid. Opting for the Whole Foods hot bar is tasty, healthy, and they have reliable internet. It's easy enough to justify more eating out when I'm not spending money on rent, but also presents an opportunity to save much more money than I currently I am.
After spending my first winter living out of the van, the question is will I do it again? To be honest, I spent most night sleeping in the warmth of my girlfriend's bed. And when there were some two week stretches of time during the coldest parts of winter when she was out of town, I often took my sleeping bag onto the couch in the ski patrol locker room. Still, there were enough frigid evenings and mornings in the big metal box to learn what works and what doesn't. I think the advantages still tip the scale at this point to continue living lease & mortgage free. But there are some things that need to be improved in order to make it more comfortable. Because comfort equals sustainability.
So how can I do it better? I decided to invest a not small amount of cash into rebuilding and adding the items I always wished I had but didn't think were worth paying for initially. The fact is, if this is going to be my home for the time being, then it's worth putting the money into. It started with a list of improvements that need to happen:
1) Better storage & organization. Over time I had added little nooks and made improvements such as oversized slide out drawers in the back for gear. The inside living space get cluttered and disorganized despite my best efforts. Some of this I speculated could be improved through better thought out storage. Part of the issue was simply having too much stuff. So, along with this point, was downsizing.
2) Install a furnace. The portable propane heater I had been using just doesn't cut it. It's also bulky. I've found that anything that needs to be taken out and put away everytime its used, a) gets used less often and b) doesn't always get put away, further contributing to the overcluttering and disorganization. Heat is important for a few reasons. Ideally, I can run it just enough to keep the inside temp hovering above freezing to prevent water from freezing. On a more personal level, I am terrible enough at getting out of bed in the morning. When it's cold, I'll do anything to stay in my warm bed until the last minute, often resulting in running out to buy coffee and a breakfast burrito rather than making my own due to lack of time and enough comfort to do it in the cold van.
3) Install a permanent stove top. Not unlike the point above, having to dig out and put away my two-burner camp stove each time I want to use it becomes a significant burden over time. It's not that hard to do, but the minor annoyance of having to do it each time becomes cumulative. Additionally, using the camp stove with a small propane canister attached takes up most of the available counter space, which is limited to begin with. So aside from ease of use, I need a stove that is space efficient, easy to keep clean, and nice to look at.
4) Additional window for venting and light. My initial design layout was to have the kitchen area overhang into the side door opening. The thought was it would be nice to look out at the views and get fresh air while cooking. The realities are the views often not inspiring, not private, and full of bugs. My solution is to move the kitchen to the other side and install a window with vents behind it. That way I can still get fresh air and ventilation while cooking and have the option of draping the window for privacy or keeping it open when the view is pleasant. Getting to this realization means a rebuild of the entire layout would be required, and that got me thinking more about the first point about storage and organization, leading to...
5) Isolate the gear storage area from the living space. The current layout is the classic fixed bed across the back with gear storage underneath. When I first built the conversion this was the simplest, and seemingly most effective form of storage. I also planned it for two adults and two dogs so space was definitely at a premium. Now that it's just one adult most of the time, I had what seemed like a radical idea... push the bed forward a few feet and wall off the space behind it as dedicated gear storage. I then found a few people that had used similar concepts which seemed to work quite well. Since I wouldn't need the fixed storage space beneath the bed any longer, I could now use a configuration where the bed could be converted to a dining/seating area.
6) Install a pump for running water. I initially installed a hand pump system that never ended up working too well and was never really used. I had defaulted to a 2 gallon water container with a tap for gravity fed water into the sink, which simply drained into a bucket below that had to be emptied out the door after use. The water container on the counter took up space and, on several occasions, slid off and broke dumping water all over the van when I forgot to secure it before driving. Adding an electric pump would be a relatively easy addition and would also allow for the installation of an on-demand water heater as I would already be installing a propane system to run the furnace.
7) Exterior awning. This is the one I have debated over the most. I have wanted one since I bought the van. But they are really expensive. It seems like one of those luxuries that is great to have when its actually used, but just not used all that often. In the end, this time around, I decided to splurge on one. If it's raining or snowing, it would go a long way in allowing me to organize wet, muddy gear rather than hastily jumping in to the van and shutting the door. With even a slight rain now, leaving the side door cracked allows too much water to get in and exposes the edge of my subfloor which is very susceptible to damage from moisture.
With these priorities in mind, I started shopping around online. Before I knew it, I had filled a friend's garage with boxes from Amazon. I also had exactly twelve days to get all the work done, and no clue where to start...