Van life questions answered! Two weeks ago, I asked my Instagram & Facebook friends/family for questions about the Pixie Van, the setup, and life on four wheels in general-- & dang, did y'all deliver! Thank you to all who gave their input, I'll do my best to answer all of them, though I've merged some of the repeat questions. If you still have questions, it's not too late to ask them! Shoot me a message on the "Contact" page of this site and I will be sure to incorporate them in future posts! Also, next week is to be entirely dedicated to the Van Life Kitchen, so if I am a little light on that information for your taste, be sure to check back then!
Day In, Day Out:
What does your daily routine look like?
Our daily routine changes constantly, depending on where we are, who we are with, and why we are there! That being said, there is a reason to the rhyme. Some days we are all about driving, some days are about whatever tournament we are at, some days are about the laundromat, & some days are all about spending every possible second we can outside. We always start the day with coffee & breakfast, and if we are currently traveling we usually do both in the van before we roll out of wherever was home for the night. Since there is no bathroom or toilet in the van, we plan morning needs around when we are hankering for some cheap gas station coffee, or a quick grocery stop, or if we are hitting up the gym. We try and do the dishes immediately after meals, and clean up after every meal, whether it was takeout or home cooking so that we are always ready to get back on the road. With a limited water supply, we have found it uses less water to do them before they have had a chance to sit. Since we live in a van, we can't just leave dirty dishes on the counter and expect them to stay put once we are in motion! This also applies to chargers, wallets, phones, craft projects, snacks, cameras, etc. which means that we do a bit of tidying every day! A small home is quick to get messy, but also quick to clean! (Usually...)
Where do you usually park to sleep? Who welcomes you, and what happens if you’re having a hard time finding a safe harbor?
Lots of places! We try and find a flat spot no matter where we go so that we aren't sleeping on an angle. That would be one nice thing about having a trailer since you can level it even on a moderately uneven surface. State parks with free overnight parking are our preference for sleeping spots, but spending $7-9 on a day pass can add up so we avoid those if we can, unless the campsite is extra beautiful. When traveling cross-country a Wal-Mart parking lot might not be the most glamorous of places to stay the night, but they are usually near highway exits, well-lit, and relatively safe. We always lock our doors at night, regardless. We have also used quiet rest stops (most bathrooms stay open 24 hrs), friends' neighborhoods, family driveways, and other campsites. (We use freecampsites.net to find some in places where we are unfamiliar with the area.) It's rare, but we have sometimes used AirBnBs as well, especially if the weather isn't ideal and we are traveling with friends. This affords us all access to a bathroom, often a kitchen, and a large common space for playing Catan, Puerto Rico, or Clue.
Thus far, we have not had an issue finding places where we feel safe to spend the night! We might have to drive an extra 25 minutes when we'd rather just be done, but we have been lucky (so far) to always find a safe harbor. Stay vigilant!
What are the bathroom facilities like?
As I mentioned above, the van has no toilet or bathroom! It is definitely more of a challenge for myself than James, but we have made it work, and it isn't as much of an issue as I originally thought. And I was glad to be wrong. Mostly we stop at rest stops or gas stations/coffee shops or are at other places with public restrooms. If we are camping, we are a little more rustic and go in nature. In situations where it would be too public to go outdoors but there are no facilities, I've been able to pee in the van.
As far as showering, if we are near friends or family we are able to shower at one of their homes. If we are elsewhere or do not want to intrude, we have a Planet Fitness membership which not only covers stationary bike use, but the use of their showers. (In a pre-COVID-19 world.)
What are you doing for hand washing at the moment?
James and I were at the tournament in Waco, TX when events and states began shutting down because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Shortly thereafter we spent almost 2 months in eastern Tennessee at our friend Weston's place. Besides the weekly grocery run, we were entirely isolated. We were able to use his house for kitchen & bathroom so we washed our hands there. In the van we have been using my stock of a few small hand sanitizers. (When I had moved into the van, I consolidated a lot of my stuff and found I had one small hand sanitizer in practically every bag I owned, and we've been using those since February. We finally got a new refill bottle last week.)
Oral health while traveling!
We have a tiny sink in the van! It doesn't have hot water, but it's potable and perfect for washing a few dishes, rinsing off fruit, & brushing your teeth! I had braces when I was in middle school, and I'm not at all interested in repeating that fiasco so I wear my retainers at least once a week. (The past two weeks have been 3 times a week, which I think is a good place to be.)
Expenses/ general budget?
James hasn't kept a running total of exact cost of the build, but besides the cost of the van itself, he estimates he has spent about $5,000. There are definitely ways to shrink that number for yourself, though! We have a lot of luxuries like the kitchen counter/sink/cabinet, headliner shelf, solar panels, and higher quality materials- you could absolutely cut a few price tags, or just go bare bones electrical/insulation/bed for about $1,500-$2,000, depending on what materials you could get for free, access to tools, etc. James didn't hire any outside contractors to do work on the build, and did it all himself with a little help from his friends & the internet.
Our expenses on the road are our phones, groceries, credit card bills, vehicle insurance, and gas.
How are you doing mail? What about communications, like WiFi and stuff? Mail is a tricky puzzle. Even though I've only been in the van for a few months, it's been interesting to try and mail myself things. I've sent items to places we are going to be, or to friends we are planning on seeing, however it has been especially difficult since the outbreak of COVID-19 upturned our already chaotic schedule, and plans have changed multiple times since. At Weston's house we were able to have my Mom send me a few things, as well as order the headliner shelf template & brackets. While here in Minnesota, we are able to have things mailed to my stepdad's address.
As for WiFi, we don't have any special electronics for that as of now, we mainly use our mobile hotspots if we aren't at a coffee shop or a friend's with WiFi. I have an unlimited data mobile plan, and use that for social media, news, entertainment, and music. I have also been borrowing James' computer to build this website, set up the blog, and even to type out this very post!
Power! Solar? RV hookups? If you travel with pets, is there another battery or such that can run AC on its own/for how long?
We have harnessed the power of the sun to electrify our chariot. There are 3 solar panels mounted to the roof of the van which run to a charge controller, which in turn runs into a battery that powers the fuse box and inverter.
The fuse box powers all of our lights, the fridge, & the two in-ceiling vents/fans- we have lights running under the long brown cabinet, and around the whole bed, sufficient for reading, cooking, working, etc.
The lights themselves are strip LED lights, which use practically no electricity, and emit no heat. The inverter has a USB charge port, and 2 standard household 3 prong outlets.
On the topic of pets- I do have a cat, but she is currently staying with my stepdad Tim, in Minnesota. I believe there are pets out there who would thrive in this lifestyle, but she is not one of them. I couldn't guarantee her safety, and being in such proximity to roads as a van is, one mistake is too many.
The inverter powers a USB port & two standard household 3-prong outlets. We run an extension cord to the kitchen counter for easy access to an outlet for charging phones, or running the toaster oven or hot water kettle.
We do not currently have AC besides in the cab if we are driving! If it gets too hot I suppose we could turn that on and cool down the van but it would take an enormous amount of time & gas. Having two vent/fans has worked out well so far, only a few extra sticky nights. We are able to get a cool airflow going by having one fan on pull and the other on push. I also turn the fan on to vent if I am cooking, & try to open the door if possible since we use a propane camping stove.
We charge portable batteries for hikes or day trips, to run our phones or the portable speakers. We run an extension cord to the cabinet for easy use in charging electronics, running the kettle or toaster oven.
We also try and limit our use of electricity to daylight hours if we can help it, so as not to drain our battery completely. As of yet, we haven't hooked up the alternator so the electric is completely separate from the van's engine.
How your water supply works, how often you have to fill?
We have a marine foot pump operated sink with 6 gallon intake/gray water tanks that are stored on the right side of the kitchen counter/cabinet. We use biodegradable soap and don't put anything other than food down the drain so it is safe to dump practically anywhere. We have a backup 6 gallon tank in the back of the van, and if we are careful about dishes etc. can last 4-5 days "off-grid" without needing to fill up. The foot pump has pros & cons as we have no hot water, but the flow is regulated so it uses less water than a standard setup (environmentally friendly!) and even if the electrical isn't working, we can still use our sink.
How do you do your laundry?
Friends and family have been kind enough to allow us the use of their appliances these past few months, but if we are away from them on the road it is easy to find a laundromat with good reviews to post up at for a few hours. Gives us an opportunity to clean the van a little deeper each week than we would daily, and stay on top of our dirt!
Where do you put smelly shoes?
My shoes, smelly or not, live in one of two plastic drawers under the bed, with the propane canister for the kitchen. (The backup propane canisters live in the back of the van in storage.) I keep a pair of waterproof hiking boots, running shoes, canvas flats, & a pair of wedges in the drawer and on top of the small "dresser" my Chacos, and a pair of red Vans. James and I both have a pair of slip-ons that float in the cabin since we are in and out so much. (Though, if possible, we're probably barefoot.)
Just show me all your cute organizational methods!
Here are a few of my favorites-
James is not at all picky about what he wears, but I enjoy my clothes a bit more, yet there is only a finite amount of space in a van. I have a system of clothing storage but small items such as underwear, swimwear, and socks were tricky. With packing cubes, I essentially have movable drawers.
The crocheted fruit bags save tons of counter space by holding our fresh food in a way that doesn't damage it during the drives.
We also use the hook as a key holder so we aren't stumbling around in the dark of night searching for them so we can use the restroom.
I've been crocheting for about 7 years now and can crank one of these out in less than three hours.
There are two drawers like this in the left cabinet under the butcher block. I use a lime green camping tie to help keep some items in back upright.
I have lined the basket with a cloth napkin so things do not slip through the cracks quite so easily.
Besides the use of an empty tomato can, I have crocheted a few small gray 'baskets' (in the bottom left) to keep sugar packets and spices organized.
It might look like a big jumble even with the organizational details, and I always told myself that if I ever lived in a van, everything would be beautifully organized, neat & tidy--
Turns out, this is what that looks like!
This knit (by my wonderful grandma Karen) bag is where we keep our charger cords for phones, laptop, etc. Chargers take up more space than you think, and simply throwing them into a drawer gets very messy, very fast.
Storing them in a bag keeps them together in one place, easy to find, and less likely to get damaged. I think a small storage box would work just as well, but I enjoy being able to hang the bag on the coat rack.
Our spice rack is one of my favorite things about the van. I love cooking, but a downside is the amount of space taken up by spices in a drawer. Having a magnetic spice rack allows us to keep the drawer space and makes it that much easier for me to use them.
We originally bought 6 magnetic spice containers, but 2 of them wouldn't ever open so with the help of some magnets from amazon & E6000 adhesive, almost all of our spices are now magnetic.
(This also reminds me of my old apartment, as I had an enormous collection of eclectic spices displayed in one of those wooden 70's geometric knick-knack wall decor pieces I had found at a Goodwill.)
I made these two storage crate seats from scrap wood while we were in Arkansas this spring.
I use them for books and art supplies. Embroidery hoops, thread, yarn, backing, crystals, wire, tools, poly-fill stuffing, drawing supplies, etc.
They're handy as movable seating, while keeping my stash of handy crafting supplies near.
I had originally intended to make the tops out of fabric but when we went to the store to pick some out, James challenged me to use the ridiculously soft yarn we found instead. I'd say it worked out!
**I plan on making a DIY post about these so you can make some of your own!
Two People in a Tiny Space:
Does living in a van still feel like home? What helped in making the van feel more 'homey'?
Absolutely! As odd as it might seem, it feels like home. I feel like there are two factors in that; one, physical space, and two, details. Physically we can stand fully upright, cook, watch movies, and hang out, all within our own space. I feel like the kitchenette especially aids in the 'homey' feeling, since that is usually the heart of any home. Details like a vibrant rug, a few art pieces (& trophies of course), and colorful accents, as well as unique handmade items like the storage crate seats and the spice rack help make it feel like a loved & lived-in space. It was a treat to build the sink/counter & bench seat, as James custom made it exactly how we wanted it. I feel like as humans, manipulating (to an extent) our environment is how we make a home our own.
How is it with the personal space? So early into your relationship?
James and I realize we haven't known each other for long, and jumping in to a live-in relationship right away is absolutely insane. We know. We agree. Yet, so far, so good! We began with complete honesty & transparency, to start out with these as habits in our relationship- to be better equipped to dealing with issues we might have down the line. Mostly due to van life but intensified by COVID-19, James and I have not been apart for longer than a week in about 7 months. We are consciously making sure to respect each other's boundaries and personal space when we need it, and thus far have not had any issues with that system! I feel like we are both good at doing our own thing- just, together. I'm cautiously optimistic.
Were some things about living in the van easier than anticipated?
Peeing outside! As I mentioned above, the no-bathroom issue has not been as much of an inconvenience as I had originally thought it would be. It has also been easier to downsize and purge some of my things than I had imagined. I am rather sentimental by nature, but I find I get more joy out of the few things I truly love, rather than a whole bunch of stuff I feel obligated to lug around with me for the rest of my life. It is also easier to cook than you'd probably think! Check back next week for glimpses of my indoor vs. outdoor setup and a full run-down of the kitchen.
Were there any surprises that came from the adjustment?
How much stuff I have/had! I feel like I knew I had a decent amount of stuff, some boxes of things from high school, some old things from my childhood, and an entire apartment's worth of furniture, decor, & a full kitchen. Yet somehow, being confronted with a mountain of your possessions can still be shocking. I've downsized quite a bit, but still have a ways to go. I am actually rather proud of that, since I am sentimental, and I would like to be better at keeping the memories instead of the things. Experiences over possessions.
What kind of living adjustments did you have to make? What were your priorities, was there anything that had to be sacrificed that was tough?
I haven't been able to see my immediate family quite as much (not just because of the virus), however as a military family, we are used to making sure geography has nothing to do with our relationships. I have been privileged to travel around for most of my life, so I feel I've had a relatively natural transition into van life. Though, there have been challenges. I find the best way to cope has been art/creating, meditation/yoga, and to directly remind myself that the challenges I am facing with this lifestyle are the challenges I wanted for myself. Right now, this is how I feel I will grow, learn, and work towards my best self. It is moderately terrifying, as all important & exciting things are.
As far as physical space is concerned- I had to downsize my wardrobe, my hiking/camping gear, and my extra yarn. As most crocheters (or knitters) can attest, you develop a horde of yarn for various projects started & abandoned, or not yet begun, some yarn from friends, some gifts, some expensive, some cheap. Spoiler alert- It ends up being too much. I've been able to turn most of the yarn into projects for friends to get it out of the house, the van, loved, & in use! The rest I'm using for projects to sell, to (hopefully) fund my lifestyle.
Craft consolidation was my biggest hurdle & has been a victory thus far. I have too many hobbies! I crochet, sketch, paint, wire wrap, and do embroidery & photography! There are skeins of yarn, rolls of wire, sketch books, art boxes, reference & poetry books, needles, and cameras to account for! Organizing & consolidating these into pieces that fit together enough to not take up too much space in the van was an enormous challenge for me, but it has worked. Not perfectly, mind you, but it is better this week than it was the first week. "We don't do perfect" as my grandmother says, but we can be growing, learning, and improving.
For employment, I have wanted to explore mobile living and making money on the road for a few years, and with my seasonal job at the greenhouse coming to an end last winter, it worked out to take the leap of faith! I'm still working on that part, truth be told, but I'm optimistic, and excited to be challenging myself in this type of way.
Favorite things/perks that come with the lifestyle? Top coolest things about the van, is there anything in the van that is super convenient?
Freedom. We can go almost anywhere we want, almost whenever we want. It's indescribable. Sometimes it is a little scary if we don't have an exact plan, but then you realize that you are home everywhere. No matter what direction you go, you'll fall sleep in your own bed that night. We can see an LA sunrise one day, hike out our front door in the desert a few days later, and be lost in the woods the next week.
Everything is slower. Having to take an extra 2 minutes to dig out the right piece of clothing, item for cooking, or something in storage, happens every day! And more than once! Which started out as annoying, but in the end you find odd satisfaction and small bits of joy in making coffee, preparing a meal, or finishing a project. One of the challenges I'm currently working on is being more mindful about my daily activities. Taking the time to do things well, consciously, to learn and grow. Slowing down & dedicating time to learn more about my camera, practicing art & yoga, connecting with myself & being present in the moment. As the song goes... "She don't spend every second smiling, but she's learning something exciting every day."
Another perk James mentioned when he and I first met is the ability to be a local in every town. Enjoy wherever we are, we have the opportunity to soak up the best local food, secret or not so secret hiking spots, and enjoy as much of the culture as we can. It's so easy to only go to the cool places in your area when your out of town friends and relatives come to visit. Even if I'm not living on the road, I like to try & absorb as much of my environment as I can!
Lastly but certainly not least, the people. I have had the incredible honor of meeting some of the most wonderfully insane people I've ever met, through this lifestyle. I have made lifetime friends in the niche communities of travelers, disc golf people, and live music lovers.
Does the van have a gender - and perhaps a formal name or royal title?
I mentioned it in last week's introduction post, but in case you missed it, it's main nickname is the "Pixie Van", alternately "Old Yeller". I believe him to be male. Thus far, no royal title.
How do you answer the skeptics' questions? How do you relate it to those who might not understand?
Both James and I are always respectful of other lifestyles, beliefs, backgrounds, cultures, and individual styles! Diversity is one of the things that makes this life beautiful. Not everyone is going to understand why we want to live in a van (down by the river), and some are even going to think it is terrible/bad/wrong. That's okay. Most people have mental lists dictating what a person needs, or how they should live their life. It's okay to not check other people's boxes. Everyone defines safety, security, and reliability differently. We don't have a permanent address right now, or "standard" employment, or reliable health care. These are valid concerns. I'm currently working on achieving my definition of security, with steady income, and reliable health care. As I do that, I'm traveling around the country, experiencing new places and cultures, soaking up art and nature, and enjoying every damn minute of it.