Tuesday, January 28, 2014

How I tend to camp and some final words on the subject of the van

Before I wrap up this whole long-winded thesis packed with information of questionable value, (Again, I did warn you!) a quick word about how I travel in general.

Basically there are three distinct modes.

The first is getting down the road and covering miles. This gets me from point A to a distant point B quickly. I use this most often when going between where I live and where I grew up (And my family still resides.) some 1300 miles away. I get an early start, (Not a chore since I’m a morning person.) take leisurely breaks, and tend to keep going until bed time. If I stopped earlier I’d just be sitting around reading a book or trying to watch bad TV so I might as well just sit in the driver’s seat and knock off a few more miles. On these occasions the far corners of truck-stops and rest areas are my stop of choice and this is where I use my stealth curtain instead of the window covers. If I put the window covers in place it’s pretty obvious that I’m sleeping in there whereas when I hang the curtain just behind the front seats it looks like the divider many vans have between the driving and cargo compartments. This is also where the ear-plugs come in. Rest areas and truck-stops can be noisy places, really noisy!

The second mode of travel is bopping along taking in the sights, stopping at museums, hiking trails, driving scenic routes and stuff like that. My primary stopping place for these kinds of travel days are private campgrounds. They are easy to locate, simple to get in and out of and pretty much always have showers and laundry facilities. However, you do end up paying an average of about $30 a night.

The third mode, and frankly one I am still learning to use after a lifetime of deadlines, appointments, meetings and lists of things that have to be accomplished, is finding a good place with nice scenery, maybe an assortment of nearby trails, and just chilling out for a few days. BLM land, (In the west anyway.) national forests, state forests, state parks, even the occasional lightly used national park, and yes, there are some of those, are all great places for this type of camping. Generally these run from free to $20 a night.

So that’s it. While it may not have all the ‘amenities’ of a McMansion, my van is versatile, provides a comfortable home, and works quite well for me, thank you very much. On top of that it’s a comfortable ride, handles easily and, all things considered, quite economical to operate. Over the 30k+ miles I’ve driven it as of this writing I have averaged right at 20 miles to the gallon which is pretty good for a motor home! (Yes, I have recorded every single mile and gallon since I picked her up at the factory! I can be a little OCD that way.) Other than making sure I have 9’8” of vertical clearance I don’t have to be concerned about taking it on the kind of roads that make your toes tingle and would twist a larger rig into a pretzel, and at 19.5’ long it fits into any standard parking space. (But stay out of parking garages!! Not enough height.) I feel all warm and fuzzy when I climb into her at the beginning of a trip and have still felt that way at the end of a 45 day, 6700 mile journey.

What more could I ask of my rambling van? So let’s go camping!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Systems: what I don't have

For anyone that was paying attention, and stuck with me all this time as I was prattling on, you’re right, no shower, no enclosed bathroom, no hot water tank, no furnace, no generator. Over the years I’ve had rigs with all these amenities and have come to the conclusion that I don’t need or want them in such a small space.

Of course, as I said before, what works for me isn’t going to work for everyone but let me just make a few points.

I have spent my fair share of time trying to wash up in tiny little spaces some designer (A designer who I suspect never camped in his/her creations all that much.) has crammed into a corner of a rig and called a shower, only to get all sweaty again cleaning up the mess I created in doing so.  I find that real showers are readily available in private and even many public campgrounds, and in a pinch, truck stops. In between a small pan of water heated in one of my kettles, a bar of soap used sparingly, and a washcloth works just fine. And for quick touchups between the in-betweens, a couple of those adult sized wet wipes works pretty well.

Doing away with an onboard shower has the added advantage of eliminating much of the need for a hot water tank, and the propane system it requires. I generally wash dishes once a day with water heated in either my electric or stove-top tea kettle. If I don’t have access to a shower and have gotten grubbier than a handful of wet-wipes can handle I just heat up a little extra water.

At about 77 sq. ft. my van is smaller than many American bathrooms, trying to cram a dedicated toilet room into that space just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, especially since I will use it for a grand total of a few minutes a day. Besides, since I’m the only one in my van what would I need an enclosed toilet for? Just slide my little portable out of its cupboard, use it, and slide it back in. Just before going to bed I do tend to slide it into a back corner of the van so that I don’t have to fumble around during one of those middle-of-the-night interruptions to a really great sleep that seem to come more frequently with age.

As for heating, I carry a little electric heater as well as a propane fired (Again the little bottles.) catalytic heater. If I have shore power available the electric heater does a damn fine job all the way down to temperatures I don’t really want to be camping in in the first place. (I did my share of ‘polar bear’ camping as a Scout living in Michigan!) If I don’t have shore power, judicious use of the catalytic heater in the evening really heats up my small space. At the end of the evening I just turn it off and pull out the extra blanket and my Sherpa style knit cap and sleep quite comfortably. If I ever manage to get into an extreme situation I also have that sleeping bag tucked under the gaucho.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Systems: toilet

Over the years I have used every kind of toilet available; Pee behind the bush, crap in a hole in the ground dug with my heel, outhouse, bucket, portable, composting, incinerating, marine and flush. After years of trying all these options out under real world conditions I have come back to the portable toilet. It’s compact enough to fit neatly into a modest cupboard, light enough to pull out and slide into the back of the van for use, it can be dumped into any available flush or vault toilet if no dump station is available, in my opinion is actually easier and neater to dump than the traditional black water tank with its corrugated hoses that always drip and connections that are prone to jump out of place under the sudden rush of – stuff – when the dump valve is opened, and if anything ever goes wrong with my little portable toilet I can walk into any sporting goods or large department store and replace the whole thing, toilet, water reservoir, and waste tank, for less than $200.

Being on my own, therefore with limited ‘deposits’, I have opted for the model with a small waste tank. Even if I were to fill the waste tank all the way to the top, it’s still light enough to carry without busting a gut – or something else, then pour out without losing control of it. Another advantage of using the small version (~2.5 gallon capacity.) is that In order to get the seat height up to something anyone larger than a munchkin would find comfortable, I built a pedestal for the toilet to sit on with the whole combination just barely short enough to fit under the shelf where it’s stored. Inside this pedestal is a handy place to keep toilet paper, bowl liners and an extra bottle of tank deodorant.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Systems: water

I designed this rig with all the tanks, pipes and the dump/fill connections completely inside the van so I don’t have to worry about something other than my own parts freezing and falling off in cold weather. Sportmobile even went one better for me and designed the grey-water tank vent to come up high under the counter then turn and go straight down through the floor of the van so I didn’t have to have an extra hole cut into the van’s skin.

Tank levels available at a glance
The heart of the system is a pair of 10 gallon tanks sitting side by side under the sink. One is potable water and the other is the grey water tank. (Remember, I use a portable toilet which has its own black water tank.) Also under there is the 12V on-demand pump which supplies pressure to the one and only fixture at the sink. In addition to the normal connect-to-a-hose-outlet method of filling the potable water tank I also have a permanently connected length of tubing coiled up under the sink which I can pull out and pour containers of water through to gravity-fill the tank as well.

I find I go through about a gallon to gallon and a half of water a day, moving most of it from the potable tank to the grey water tank making use of it along the way mostly for washing dishes or brushing teeth.  This means I generally only need to bother with the fill/dump cycle once a week or so.

I know one gallon a day sounds impossible (I know this because that’s what everybody tells me. . .) and you’re probably skeptical too, but remember, I travel alone and also grew up tent camping and hauling my own water so tend to use it sparingly, even when at home with very good well and automatic pump. It helps that I don’t have a shower on board and drink bottled water. (I know from experience that you don’t want to be on the road with an intestinal bug!! So I don’t take chances – though I do brush my teeth with water from the tank – hummm. . . might be some faulty logic there. . .)

As a boy my brother and I had the job of fetching water in one of those big old steel 5 gallon Jerry cans, in those days usually from a hand pumped well on the far side of the campground. Since the can was nearly as big as we were, we would jam a stick through the handles and with one of us on each end of the stick, hump this thing back to the campsite with plenty of grunting and groaning and complaining as well as frequent stops along the way to recover and gather strength for the next few feet. (And argue about who was carrying more than their fair share of the load.) As you can imagine, because of all the effort it took fetching that water we learned to use it very carefully, such as brushing teeth with a single cup of water. (Dip brush, brush teeth, spit, rinse, spit, floss, spit, rinse, spit, then swish the brush in the remaining water to clean it.) Lessons I still practice today.

In addition to keeping all the water inside the heated space, another simple but deliberate design feature is the cutout in the back side of the cabinet housing the tanks. By opening the side door and looking through this opening I can see the water levels in my both of my translucent tanks without having to rely on any of those gauges or level indicators that always seem to be acting up. Since this is the door I use to go in and out of the rig the tank levels get checked often which may have some bearing on the fact that, so far anyway, I have not experienced the nasty surprise of running the tank dry and pumping air.

Hiking stick strap is partially covering the fill valve
Also, when the side door is open, the fill and dump valves for the tanks are readily at hand and the permanently attached dump hose is tucked away right here too; again, all inside the heated space of the van. The disadvantage of this arrangement is that I have to approach dump stations from the wrong direction. RV’s are normally designed to dump/fill from the left or driver’s side while I dump/fill from the right side. This could be an issue if the dump station is crowded, but since I work hard to avoid camping around crowds it hasn’t been a problem so far. It also means the only way I could hook up to water in a campsite for the duration of my stay would be to throw the hose under the van and leave the side door open. But I haven’t hooked up to campground water like that in so many years my system isn’t even designed to be able to do it. If I want water I have to run the pump and the noise reminds me I’m using up a limited resource.
And before we leave this subject, as long as we’re standing here with the side door open I’ll direct your attention to the left side of the opening, to the narrow vertical gap between the back of the cabinet and the steel of the van’s side. Notice that my collapsible hiking stick is jammed securely into this gap. Neatly out of the way yet ready at hand when needed.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Systems: electrical

Like virtually all RV’s there’s both a 110V as well as a 12V electrical system on board.

Inverter and two battery boxes
under the couch
The 110V system is pretty straightforward. A 30A shore-power connection feeds an inverter/charger and a distribution panel which in turn feeds the air conditioner and a few outlets. One of these outlets supplies power to the microwave and refrigerator and there are a few others scattered in strategic locations.

The inverter/charger lives under the couch and has a conveniently accessible remote panel inside one of the overhead cupboards. The whole thing is wired up in such a way that in invert mode it will supply 110V to everything, even if I’m not hooked up to shore power. Under normal conditions I leave the inverter/charger in the charge only mode but there are times I’ll switch it to invert mode. Running the micro for a few minutes is the most common reason I’ll do this but I’ve also been known to do it for heating water in my electric kettle if I don’t feel like dragging the stove out. These activities suck an alarming number of amps out of the batteries but only for a short while so don’t use up all that many amp hours.

I’ll also use the inverter when on the road for running my 1.5 quart slow cooker which results in a really good dinner with little effort. (Unless I managed to screw up the recipe. . .) There is at least one 12V slow cooker out there and, by all accounts, as long as you make sure the plug stays firmly in the 12V outlet, works quite well, but I already had the 110V cooker so that’s what I use. It doesn’t use much power, but, of course, this thing runs for hours and hours at a time which is why I stick to using it when plugged into shore-power or when traveling. When the van’s engine is running the house batteries are being charged anyway so the extra drain from the cooker is more than made up for. When parked with shore power hooked up the cooker just sits on the counter, but, not being too keen on having that thing toss it's contents at the back of my head if I have to stop suddenly, when on the road I put it in the sink and tie the lid down with a couple of those long plastic-wire ties used on new garden hoses. One of these days I'll come across an old inner-tube of just the right cross-section and cut a 'rubber-band out of it but for now the ties work fine and I have a stash of them. The sink cover gets tucked under the pillow on the couch were it will stay put. When cooking on the road like that I turn off the 110V breaker supplying the refrigerator/microwave. This way the refrigerator runs directly off of 12 volts which is slightly more efficient than converting 12 volts to 110 then back to 12 again.

The 12V system is slightly more complicated.

It starts with two 100ah deep-cycle batteries mounted under the gaucho in sealed boxes that vent through the side of the van. This gives me about 100ah worth of power before hitting the 50% discharge point that I try to limit myself to in order to improve battery longevity. The batteries can be charged back up by one of three different systems. The van engine’s charging system is robust enough to quickly pump a lot of amp-hours into both chassis and house batteries. When plugged into shore-power the inverter/charger also pumps out a lot of charging amps and will also keep  both the house and chassis battery topped up.

But the key to keeping my little world luxuriously comfortable while camping off-grid, when the batteries are being asked to keep the fridge running, the lights burning, the cell phone and laptop charged and sometimes even the TV on, is the 180 watt solar panel mounted to the roof and the matching solar charge controller mounted in one of the overhead cupboards.

That panel is a little heavy up there on the roof but, other than hosing off collected grime once in a while, it's maintenance free, and even on the hottest of summer days, when the fridge is working its hardest, is enough to keep the batteries charged right up as long as I'm parked in the sun.

Of course the key to avoiding nasty surprises is regular monitoring of the batteries and for this I have an E-meter installed right beside the charge controller and remote inverter panel. With this handy little tool, which I’ve had in my last four rigs, I can see how much charge I have in the batteries, how many amps are going in or out of them and, when using more power from the batteries than I’m putting in, an estimated number of hours left until I hit the 50% discharged level.

I had a generator in one of my earlier rigs and that might sound like a good idea, but in 5 years I put more hours on it running it every couple of weeks to make sure it would work if and when I needed it than I ever put on it for real. From what I hear this is the norm for many RV mounted generators.

Even though it was a good quality unit and quiet as far as generators go, it still made quite a bit of racket so I was reluctant to use it in a campground anyway. Also, the Sprinter uses diesel fuel and diesel generators are really expensive and heavy.

For those rare occasions when I need to break down and shove a little extra charge into the batteries out in the boonies somewhere, the Sprinter’s engine is more than up to the job, giving me 35 to 40 amps of charge current even at idle, and is quieter than most generators. The trick here is to not try and charge the batteries all the way up since they will take less and less charge current as they fill. Think of it like a funnel with an opening that gets smaller as the bottle fills. At first it fills pretty fast, but that slows to a smaller and smaller trickle as you go and filling up that last little bit takes forever. If you fire the engine up when the batteries are at about 50% discharge and only charge them up to about 70%, or about 40 amp-hours of charge, it's not what I would call fast, but doesn't take an excessive amount of time and, depending on the weather, (Remember that the fridge is the largest single user of battery power and the hotter it is the more it runs.) will get me through anywhere from 1 to 3 days even if there's no sun for the solar system.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Heading for the high ground

Now that we’re done with the interior we’ll briefly jump up to the roof, but before that I’ll point out the shore power and cable TV connections just forward of the driver’s side rear wheel and the battery box vent forward of those. With the exception of a few openings in the roof which we’ll get to next, these are the only modifications made to the outside of the van, making the air conditioner sitting on top the most obvious indicator that this is anything more than just a working van.

OK, now to the roof. Starting at the front there’s a short, magnetic mount CB antenna. A longer one would be more effective at pulling in signals but the short one only sticks up as high as the top of the air conditioner, the highest point on the van. Not only does it keep my vertical clearance requirements at a minimum, it also comes in handy as a feeler gauge for unmarked overhead obstructions such as low hanging branches. I creep forward and if a branch is too low it tilts the antenna and I can hear the heavy magnetic base rocking around up there so I know to stop before something bad happens. If it doesn’t rock I know the obstruction will clear the AC unit as well.

Just behind that antenna is an RV style roof vent. This one is pretty fancy, and pricy, but I would certainly install one again. It has a little motor to open and close the lid, which seems a little decadent, but the vent also has a rain sensor that will automatically use that motor to close the lid when it starts getting wet. Then when the rain has stopped it opens the lid back up again. Very handy and no worries about leaving it open and walking away. The vent also has a three speed fan mounted in it which can be set to pull air in or blow air out, and it has a thermostat on the fan so you can have it come on and turn off based on the temperature inside the van. It also turns off automatically if the lid closes. By opening the awning windows over the gaucho along with the roof vent, you can set up a pleasant breeze and keep the place well vented, very important in a small space where the cloying scent of cooked cabbage, or even a small fart, has nowhere else to go. If you need more breeze, (Maybe that fart wasn't as small as you thought?) just turn the fan on. If necessary the lid motor can be bypassed and the lid cracked open manually just a little bit, useful for ensuring a little ventilation during cold evenings when using the propane heater.
Looks like I need to rinse the solar panel off!
Beside the vent and just ahead of the 180 watt solar panel is that dinky little, not very effective bat-wing style TV antenna I mentioned before.  The good points are that it is low profile, doesn’t cast a shadow on the solar panel, has no moving parts and you don’t have to remember to lower it before driving off. The bad point is, it doesn’t really work all that well, in fact it pretty much sucks.

The 180 watt solar panel adds about 30 lbs up high where I least want it, but it is a very important part of what makes the whole rig work which I'll come back to later.

Taking up most of the remaining space on the roof is the air conditioner. I can’t say I’m a fan of this thing, it’s big, it’s heavy and it’s noisy, but it’s also a necessary evil when you’re based in the deep south and was especially important when I was living in the parking lot at the office.

Because of space restrictions the air conditioner is mounted quite far aft in the ceiling, whereas I spend most of my time at the forward end of the van. This is where the small tower fan that lives in the cupboard below the refrigerator comes in handy. When the air conditioner is running I plug this fan in and set it on the floor under the air conditioner where it helps move the chilled air forward to where I actually am. It runs on 110 volts but that’s no problem since I have to be plugged into shore power to use the AC anyway.

The last little thing up there on the roof is the camera for the remote rear view monitor. It's mounted just above center brake-light over the doors. Unlike the Ford van, there’s just enough curvature to the rear of the Sprinter that I can’t see the hitch ball, not unlike a fat man trying to see his own – well, you know – so I had to get used to estimating those last few inches when hooking up a trailer, but other than that it is pretty handy for keeping me from running over that very helpful, if not extremely competent, passer-by that insists on guiding me into my campsite, and the lens is wide-angle enough that if I'm forced to pull nose-first into one of those horrible angled parking spots I can actually see oncoming traffic and know when I can safely back out.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

To the important business of eating

Opposite the gaucho, on the passenger side of the van, is the solid surface kitchen counter and under-mount sink with a pull-out style faucet. By opening the sliding side door I can pull this faucet out and use it outside the van without having any additional holes punched through the van’s skin to worry about. A drop-in cover made from a piece of the solid surface material fits over the sink and flush with the countertop. It keeps me from losing my mouse in the sink when standing at the counter messing with the laptop. I also hide my dirty dishes under this cover until I do my once-a-day dish washing. The sink cover also makes a handy little tray. I often set it beside me on the couch to hold my drink and snack while taking a break from driving.

At the forward end of the counter is a swing-up extension, made from the same solid surface material. It blocks the side door when up but adds nearly two feet of additional counter space and serves as a table when the passenger seat is swiveled around to face it.

Of course, below the counter is storage. At the forward end there’s a silverware drawer with cupboard below. When the side door is slid open I can also access this cupboard from outside through a second door. Even allowing space for the drawer this cupboard is plenty tall enough to divide with a shelf and this shelf is where I keep my single burner propane stove and several of the disposable propane bottles it uses.

I opted for a portable stove rather than built in for several reasons; even if I had a permanent stove I’d also carry the portable so why have both in the first place?; the portable stove does not require a built in propane system; when not cooking I don’t have a stove taking up part of the countertop; I like that the stove is a multi-tasker that I can use inside or out depending on weather and my mood; and if something goes wrong with the stove in the middle of a trip or I suddenly get a wild hair and decide I can't live without two burners for cooking my gourmet  meals, (OK, you can stop laughing now Mom.) I can pick up a replacement easily and without breaking the bank.

I have installed elastic loops and padding on this shelf to make sure the propane bottles stay put and don’t rattle and chafe against each other. These little propane bottles aren’t the most economical or green solution but I don’t seem to go through them very fast and have space for up to 4 of them so never have never been caught short when one runs out, (Unlike a chassis mounted tank or single large bottle I used to have on other rigs.) and it’s easy to replace the empties. I’ve even seen them sold in some grocery stores.

In the bottom of this cupboard I keep a well-stocked tool bag, a potable water hose and a tire repair kit so I can deal with simple punctures myself.

Moving towards the back of the van, under the sink is another shelf where I keep a small plastic-shopping-bag sized trash can with a tight fitting lid for those stinky days between garbage dumps out there in the back country, spare plastic shopping bags/trash can liners, a cutting board, dish soap and an electric tea pot. I also keep a small bottle of bleach under here for freshening up the grey water tank. I’ve fashioned a couple compact towel bars from #4 AWG copper ground wire which are attached to the backs of the two doors that access this space. This is where I hang my dish cloth and dish towel. Remember, the doors have the lattice inserts for good air circulation so the towels dry pretty well even though they are out of sight.

Below this shelf are the potable and grey water tanks and the 12 volt water pump. I’ll have more to say about the water system shortly.

There’s one more cabinet space there under the aft end of the counter. Like the rest of them this one also has a shelf in it. On that shelf is where I keep a couple empty, nearly weightless, one gallon water jugs to use in case I ever have to carry water from a source I can’t get to with my normal fill hose. I also keep one or two gallons of bottled water there as well as my 1 ½ quart slow cooker. I can start this cooker up in the morning, running it off of shore power or, on travel days, the inverter, and come up with some pretty nice meals by dinner time with very little work.

Below this shelf there’s just enough space for my portable toilet.

More on that later, but for now – above the kitchen counter is another overhead cupboard. Because of the side door opening this one is smaller than the one over the gaucho and only has a single door but is still large enough to hold: a deep, straight-sided 8” frying pan with lid which doubles as a sauce pan and even a makeshift stove-top oven, a small mixing bowl, 4 8” plates stacked with circles of padded shelf liner between them so they don’t rattle and a stacking set of various sized stacking plastic storage containers with lids. I use these as bowls for cereal and salad, microwave containers, and storage containers for leftovers. Also living up here is a stove-top kettle for when I don’t have shore power for the electric kettle, a heavy ceramic coffee mug (tea mug in my case) from one of the US Navy destroyers I helped build back in the late ‘70’s, salt and pepper grinders (Grinders don’t spill), and, finally, a small pump bottle I fill with vinegar for disinfecting/deodorizing the countertop area and the microwave.

At the forward end of this overhead cabinet is a smaller extension which houses the electrical panel with breakers for 110 volt circuits as well as fuses for 12 volt circuits and the switch for the water pump. Also sharing space up here is the CO2 detector and both a 110 and a 12V power outlet. On the end of this extension, facing the ‘man chair’ is the thermostat for controlling the air conditioner, the switch for the recessed overhead cabin lights (LED) and an indoor/outdoor thermometer.

Aft of the kitchen counter, is a full-height pull-out pantry. It’s only about 9 inches wide and just barely six feet high, but the six shelves hold an amazing amount of stuff.

The bottom shelf, which is narrower than the others because of the wheel well at the back of the pantry, is my library where I keep a stash of up to a dozen books.

The next shelf up is filled with military style MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat). I can fit nearly a week’s worth of decent, three-meals-a-day eating here in case I get a wild hair and decide at the last minute to take an overnight hike, or else pull some sort of bone-headed stunt that finds me stuck somewhere remote without having stopped to stock up before I got there.

Above that is a shelf where I keep miscellaneous odds and ends like spare sunglasses, extra bug repellant, and a battery powered hair trimmer and shaver in case I want to look halfway decent, which I can get a little lax about sometimes because – well – hey, who am I trying to impress anyway??.

The next shelf up is filled with cd/DVD jewel boxes, most of which are the university lecture courses I listen to when driving. . . I know, I know, such a geek. . .

The second from the top shelf has a paper towel holder mounted in it with room below even a full roll for a pack of those adult sized baby wipes, very hand when on the road, as well as a spare soap dish/bar of soap and packages of individually wrapped foam ear plugs. (Since I can tell you want to ask, I’ll get to those later too.)

And finally the top shelf is my medicine cabinet with all the usual stuff necessary to keep me pretty, smelling good and make repairs to my body. I also keep a pump bottle of hand disinfectant up here. Not something you want to be using all the time but it sure is nice to have after visiting some of the public bathrooms lurking around out there.

Back over on the other side of the van, aft of the couch, is the refrigerator cabinet. Unlike many RV fridges, this one is a compressor unit that runs on either 12V or 120V, no gas. The advantages of this are: no propane system is required, it doesn’t care whether it’s level or not, and it will cool the leftovers down slightly (But only slightly) quicker than an absorption fridge. The disadvantages are: unless hooked up to shore power it uses juice from the battery, at its worst about 50 amp hours a day at 85 degree outside air temperature, and the compressor vibrates when it’s running which can be a bit noisy in such a confined space, especially if those glass jars of pickles and olives are rattling together!

Along with the usual stuff you find in a fridge, which is most of the food I have with me whether it needs refrigeration or not since a full fridge is more efficient, I keep six 500 ml water bottles in the freezer section which pretty much fills it up. They do a great job of helping the fridge stay cool and reducing the amount of cycling the compressor has to do. If I need to put something else in the freezer, like maybe something I can eat, a few of the bottles are pulled out and thrown into the sink where the condensation drains safely away. When I’m not traveling and the fridge is off I keep these as well as the four 700 ml water bottles I keep in the door of the fridge for actually drinking out of, in the home freezer. I find that by throwing these into the RV fridge when I turn it on, it will get down to operating temperature in less than an hour. If it has to re-freeze/re-chill all these bottles from scratch it can take as long as 24 hours to stabilize and I don’t always plan that far ahead.

The refrigerator is small enough that it leaves room for storage compartments both below and above along with space for a small microwave.

The space below the fridge is where I keep both an electric as well as a propane heater and a small tower fan which does a good job of moving air around without taking up a lot of floor space.

Next to the microwave (By turning the inverter on I can quickly zap things without being plugged into shore power.) which sits just above the fridge but is not as wide as the fridge, there’s room for a narrow cubby-hole where I keep tea bags, hot chocolate mix, and a few can goods.

In the top cupboard I keep spare rolls of toilet paper and paper towels, spare dish towels and rags, a box of sandwich bags and a few Swiffer refills that I use by hand for dusting, I also keep some goodies like cookies and pretzels up here, far away from my chair so I have to work to get at them.

The TV is mounted on an arm attached to the gaucho side of the refrigerator cabinet and I have a couple of permanently mounted hook-and-loop straps to strap it down and keep it from banging around when on the road.

Behind the pantry and fridge cabinets the final two and a half feet or so of the van is open space. Though this area has little to do with eating I’m throwing it in here because there’s not a whole lot to say about it.

There is a small overhead cabinet on each side of this space. I keep socks, underwear and shorts in the one on the driver’s side and in the one on the passenger side, a gym bag/shower tote, gym/shower shorts and shower shoes (Proper shoes, not flip-flops which are guaranteed to flop slop up the back of my nice clean legs on my way back to the van.) Each of these overhead cabinets has a bar mounted to the bottom of it giving me about 5 feet of hanging space for clothes, though I usually only use about half of that

My laundry bag, with a zip-lock filled with those little single-serving detergent packs thrown into the bottom of it, hangs from a hook mounted to the back side of the refrigerator cabinet. On the back side of the pantry I have a proper towel bar where my bath towel lives. Just inside rear doors, against the driver’s side wall, I have mounted a hook at just the right height above the floor to hold my always loaded backpack in place until I’m ready to go hiking.

Alright, we’re almost done with the inside now! I promise. (I did warn you I was going to be long winded. . .)

The two back doors of the van have pouches mounted on them. On the passenger side door, which is the door you have to open first, the bottom pouch is where I keep my rolled up 30amp shore power cord and a 15amp adaptor. The upper pouch is where I keep a coil of coax cable I can use if I happen to be in a campground that has cable TV available, which is not all that often, especially since, even when I’m in a fancy campground, I tend to opt for the more economical water/electric site and you usually have to pay for a full hookup site in order to earn the cable connection.
The top pouch on the driver’s side door is where I keep the binder with all the owner’s manuals and paperwork for the various systems on board the van. I don’t use the bottom pouch on this door because I have mounted a couple brackets to the inside bottom of it that my folding camp chair sits in with a couple of hooks and a bungee cord to keep it in place. Folded up inside that chair is a little teak table I built that hooks to either side if the chair for holding a drink and snack as I read a good book in the shade of a cottonwood beside a running creek with the sound of the wind and the birds in the trees. (Man! I really need to go camping soon!)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The library, dining room, bedroom & office

When parked for the night the passenger seat swivels around to face the rear and becomes my ‘man chair’. This is where I spend much of my time eating, reading, messing around on my laptop or watching TV (Yes, horror of horrors, I have a TV, though the puny little roof mounted antenna doesn’t work all that well. Ahh for the days of analog where you might not have anything but snow on the screen but could at least still hear what was going on.) That well placed LED reading lamp mentioned before, and a swing up counter extension make this a very handy and comfortable little library, dining room and office.

My current book is within easy reach, my computer bag tucks back out of the way but handy against the seat pedestal under my legs, my snack and drink are at hand on the counter extension and the step for the side door adjacent to the seat becomes my boot storage so I can prop my feet up on the end of the nearby couch without messing it up too bad. Very nice.

Behind the driver’s seat is a couch; in the RV world officially called a gaucho but I don’t know why since I've never seen it wearing chaps and riding a horse; whose primary purpose in life is to be my bed. Disguised as a couch during the day, at night I remove the back cushion and prop it on end out of the way against the rear doors, revealing the bedding which was  rolled up and hiding behind it. 15 seconds to pull the bedding into place and I’m down for the night. In the morning just shove the bedding back against the wall and drop the back cushion into place to hide it. A multi-tasking piece of furniture that is quick and simple to use.

If I ever need more bed space the bottom cushion pulls away from the wall on slides and the back cushion drops neatly into place forming a double. (I should point out that my wife is not a camper, or even much of a traveler, and I’m pretty sure she would frown on me sharing my bed with someone else, so I’ve never actually used this feature - Honest, cross my heart and hope to die!)

There are seatbelts tucked away under the couch and I have used them the few times I’ve driven somewhere with more than one passenger on board.

 Under the couch is storage accessed by lifting the bottom cushion. Under here are housed the two house batteries, the inverter/charger, a box of three reflective emergency triangles, spare windshield wiper blades (Too long to fit under the passenger seat with the spare light bulbs and fuses), 12 volt air compressor, sleeping bag, ground pad and an inexpensive pop-up beach shelter I use to signal that my camp site is actually occupied when I drive off in the van for a day trip. I also keep a large lidded plastic container under there. This could be used for a lot of things, like an impromptu punch bowl, a picnic-table top sink, or maybe an emergency foot-soaker, but I most often use it as a big bowl for mixing ingredients of my own homemade trail mix which I then bag in serving sized zip locks; much more affordable than store bought mixes and I get to put in what I want, not the cheap leftovers some factory is trying to use up.

Above and spanning the full length of the couch is another overhead storage compartment long enough to have three swing-up doors.

Behind the forward door is where I keep a straw hat for sunny days, a Tilly hat for when it’s wet outside, a couple of different knit caps and cold weather gloves for when its, as you’ve probably figured out, cold outside. This space is also where I keep my liner socks, which, when worn under regular socks, are great for keeping my feet dry and reducing hot spots and blisters when I’m hiking.

Behind the middle door I keep a yoga mat (Yes, I do use it for yoga but it also comes in very handy for those times I might need to climb under the van or otherwise get down on the ground but don’t want to get yucky.) some sheet music, a couple wood flutes and my electronic saxophone which plugs into that wonderful multi-tasker, my laptop.

Open the final door at the aft end and you can see the readouts for the solar charge controller, the E-meter (Which lets you monitor several things about the house batteries) and the control panel for the inverter. There’s also a 110 outlet inside here and I keep one of those outlet testers plugged in it so I can see at a glance that I have a good shore-power connection. (Did I mention that all my compartment doors have inset lattice panels that let the compartments breath, and as an added bonus, allow me to see indicator lamps without actually opening the door?) I also keep my cloth shopping bags here along with a small plastic tray that is my ‘dresser-top’ where I throw the stuff from my pockets like wallet, phone, keys and junk like that. While I’m traveling, receipts, which I’ll shred when I get home, and brochures and other paperwork I acquire along the way are tucked under this tray.
Between the gaucho and the overhead cabinet is a large, tinted window with two screened sections at the bottom. These are awning windows which hinge at the top and open out from the bottom so they can be left open in the rain. In addition to the day/night shade, I have customized a couple of insulated panels which fit between the shade and the window. When not in use, which is most the time, this extra insulation is folded up and stored above the driver’s compartment with the other window covers.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The cockpit

Being a (former) scientist and engineer I like it best when things are neatly classified and ordered, so let’s start up front and work towards the back.

The Mercedes Sprinter comes with so many lights on the dash I have to keep the owner’s manual handy to figure out what’s going on,  (Not too long ago a headlight burned out and I had to pull over and check the book to figure out what the idiot light on the dash was trying to tell the idiot behind the steering wheel!. . .) but there just aren’t enough gauges for my taste, for instance; I know a light will come on if the engine overheats, but wouldn’t it be nice to know that the coolant temperature was creeping upward before that actually happened?; so I added a DashDAC that plugs into the diagnostic port you find on all modern vehicles.  It lets me customize the display to monitor all sorts of things as well as read, and sometimes clear, fault codes. A bit expensive, but very handy.

I have a CB up front too. Many people ask why I bothered installing this as it’s so old school, but I can’t tell you how many traffic jams I’ve been able to avoid because I had the CB chatter on in the background. Recently I was in Arizona and because of the CB my 80 year old mother and I were able to park comfortably at a rest area and have a leisurely lunch and even get in a little reading while we waited for the wreck out in front of us to be cleared and the road opened again rather than being trapped out there on the road in a long line of stuck traffic. I also use the weather radio function of the CB regularly, especially when traveling the Midwest during storm season and I see those big, scary, dark clouds piling up out there on the horizon.

And up there on the windshield, blocking the rearview mirror (Great for keeping an eye on my kitchen counter while I’m driving but otherwise useless in a van with no windows in the rear doors!) is the monitor for my remote rearview camera.

In the generous space between the front seats I have installed a mobile laptop mount adjusted so my laptop sits within easy view but I can still get up and slip past it to the rear of the van. Using mapping software from Delorme, my laptop is also my GPS. I like the nice large screen that I can split and simultaneously have both a wide angle as well as close-up turn-by-turn view of where I am and where I want to go and can’t imagine trying to navigate with the tiny little screen you get with a more compact GPS. I have a small puck-shaped USB GPS receiver that I plug into the laptop and throw up on the dash right over one of the many available vents so it stays nice and cool even on the sunniest days. (After about two years of abuse I fried my first GPS receiver up there on the dash before I figured out the whole vent thing. . .)

I plan trips on the same software. When I have WIFI (Hint, park as close as you can get to the dining area of many McDonalds and you can surf without having to go inside, though if you try this when the place is busy you might find the link overloaded.) I can research places to go and things to stop at and pin little markers and notes and routes right on my map.

When not acting as my GPS the laptop comes off the mount and onto the counter, or the picnic table, or my lap and the mount – well – demounts – with one lever and the whole thing gets thrown onto the driver’s seat until I need it for the next day’s traveling.

As long as we’re in the driver’s seat, notice that I have a pair of carabineers chained together, (OK, you will have to use your imagination because they didn't make it into the photo above.) one is bright pink and large enough to snap over the steering wheel and the other, a little less neon, but small enough to clip to my shore power cord and stay put without slipping over either end. Whenever I hook up to shore power I move the carabineers from the power cord to the steering wheel, reversing this when I unhook. That way if I ever manage to forget I’m tethered to the power post, there’s no way I can miss the big, hot pink carabineer dangling there from the steering wheel. (If you’re guessing that at some point in my past I maybe once drove off and tore the power inlet right out of one of my rigs, you might be right. . .)

And before we leave the driver’s seat notice the label with the vertical clearance of the rig in big black font stuck on the dash right there in front of my face. As soon as I took delivery of the van I parked on a level spot, got out my longest level, a tape measure and a ladder and figured out just how low an obstruction I could drive under then added a couple inches for safety. (My ex father-in-law once drove his truck under the same 13’6” bridge he had been ducking twice a week for years only to tear the roof off one of the brand new, factory fresh cars he was hauling because there was just enough snow and ice on the road to raise him up that critical inch!) Having that vertical clearance plastered on the dash helps make sure I don’t forget how tall the van is so I don’t ruin my day trying to drive somewhere I don’t fit. (So far this is one stunt I have managed to avoid doing, ever!)

There are a few other things worth mentioning up here in the driving compartment, at least I think they’re worth mentioning. Mounted to each door, within easy reach of both driver and passenger, are a couple of those florescent, glow-in-the-dark emergency tools for cutting jammed seatbelts loose and busting out windows. There’s also little molded shelves mounted above the windshield on both the passenger and driver’s sides. The passenger side carries a good pair of binoculars, a spare compass, my current paperback and the owner’s manual for the van. The driver’s side shelf carries registration and insurance papers, CD’s, a small container of sunblock, (Where it’s handy when the weather’s nice and I roll the window down and hang out it like an ecstatic dog.) and one of those LED lamps you can strap to your head. There are other little cubbies scattered around where I keep miscellaneous things including charging cords. 

Overhead, spanning the entire cockpit, is a storage cabinet where I keep lightweight things like a spare blanket, the insulated windshield and side window covers, all rolled up and tucked away when I’m driving and need to – well – see, as well as the folded up stealth curtain, which I’ll get to later (Much later as it turns out. Boy! I sure am long winded!). Though I had the van built for me I did make all the cupboard doors in my own shop and the inset panels are painted to match the rugs that cover the marine-grade vinyl flooring which is very durable but has a texture that is kind of hard on bare feet.

The fuse block for the van; and there are a ton of fuses for this thing!; and the base unit for the CB pretty much fill up the pedestal for the driver’s seat but inside the pedestal for the passenger seat there’s plenty of room for me to keep spare light bulbs and fuses, a folding shovel and several towels for washing /drying the van. In a little cubby behind the driver’s seat I keep a rechargeable dust buster, a small collapsible tripod and my camera bag. In the cubby behind the passenger seat is a fire extinguisher. Mounted above each of these seats are LED reading lights mounted on flexible arms.
In the middle of the dash is molded a large, flat tray designed to hold the clipboard delivery drivers tend to keep their paperwork in. Since I don’t need it for this I keep my Dad’s last pair of work gloves up there. He was also an avid camper and traveler and he worked with his hands all his life so after we buried him one of the things I brought back with me was the gloves sitting on his workbench. Now he’s riding on the dash, still camping and traveling and seeing the sights.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The long winded stuff begins

The next few posts that follow are a much longer, more complete and slightly – OK, maybe more than slightly – narcissistic description of the van I travel in, how it came to be, what I take with me on the journey, and a little bit of how I travel.

What it is not is a set of recommendations about what anyone else should travel in, take with them or how they should do it. Since each of us is different, and our wants and circumstances vary, what works for me will not necessarily work for anyone else.  So you’ve been forewarned; if you copy me and the results are unsatisfying, it’s on your head not mine. (And some would say; if you’re copying me you need that head examined anyway. . .)

And no part of this blog is to be taken as an expert’s advice because – well – my experience with ‘experts’ has been varied, to put it politely, and frankly I would find it worrisome to be thought of as one myself, not to mention slightly insulted.  I like to think that I have learned enough from my years of exposure to so-called (Or is that self-called) experts to know that the best I can honestly hope for is to know just a little something about any given subject, which is a long ways from being an expert at any subject.

What you will find here is a discussion of what I have assembled for myself after a lifetime of camping and traveling and hiking and etc. And along the way I’m sure I’ll throw in some commentary as to why I’ve made the choices I have because – well – sometimes you just have to try and justify what you’ve done, no matter how stupid it might be.

As mentioned somewhere before, I’ve been camping all my life, starting out in tents, moving on up through pop-ups to travel trailers, back to tents (When I moved away from home and was forced to rely on my own means, which weren’t very abundant for many years thereafter!) and then through a succession of home built, intermingled with commercial built, pickup campers and motor-homes.

Isuzu Version 1

Isuzu version 2 & Ford van
A couple of the motorhomes (More like Van conversions, not the big motor homes you see at the dealers.) became pretty important during the last 10 years of my ‘working’ life. (I put quotes around working because though I have officially retired myself and left my professional career field far behind, there sure does seem to be a lot of work that I still need to do.) Anyway – back to those last ten years – Since I lived too far from the office to commute every day I camped out in the parking lot during the week. At first this was in a rig I built primarily for the type of relatively short camping trips holding down a career forces on you, which made some aspects of it less than optimal for more extended living. So during my weekends at home I built another rig a little more suitable for the part-time full-timing of living in a parking lot in the city.

Both of these rigs were sitting on the same little Isuzu N-series truck chassis. That Isuzu was a great little truck, tough and reliable, but in the end it just wasn’t well suited for long distance travel.  But having been there done that several times already and still working a full time job while trying to build a workshop and home on some remote property during my weekends, this time I did the design work for a new rig but had it built for me on a Ford van chassis by Sportsmobile out of Austin, TX. (Sportsmobile.com) As hoped, this rig worked out well, it was practical, comfortable and reasonably drivable. (Those familiar with the suspension design on the Ford E350 vans know that in a cross-wind it actually handles like a pig!)

Between living at the office and the occasional trip, I spent over 250 nights a year for many years comfortably living in this van, but I also put some 93,000 miles on it and wanted to go into retirement with a fresher vehicle, one that could potentially last me the rest of my traveling days.  So once again I had Sportsmobile build one for me, this time on the Sprinter chassis.

During my professional career I designed and built many data centers, (Which is just a fancy way of saying computer rooms.) but no two of them are the same. This is because of a combination of advancing technology along with lessons learned along the way. The same holds true with my various rigs over the years. With each one I would get better, but never seemed to get it completely right. But as a testament to the design of the Ford based van, even if I am tooting my own horn just a bit, the Sprinter layout is virtually identical to that of the Ford, only some of the details are different.

Since, other than for purposes of my own nostalgia, which you aren’t interested in anyway, the Sprinter is the only one of my rigs that counts at the moment and that’s the one I’ll describe in excruciating detail over the next few posts.

The Van

(Or the Chariot that is My Transport and Home)
The supporting character in the saga of my travels is, of course, the van. It is transportation, shelter, kitchen, dining room, lounge, bedroom and more.
This is the short description of my personal chariot:

Chassis: 2010 Mercedes Sprinter 2500, short wheel base, tall roof
19.5’ bumper to bumper
9’6” to highest point
Conversion by Sportsmobile of Austin
Gaucho/couch/bed behind driver’s seat w/storage under
Window above gaucho w/overhead storage above
Countertop with sink opposite gaucho w/storage under & overhead storage above
Refrigerator, microwave & storage aft of gaucho
Pull-out pantry aft of countertop
Open hanging space aft of refrigerator & pantry w/overhead storage above.
10 gal freshwater tank
10 gal grey water tank
Portable toilet
200 amp-hours of battery
180 watt solar panel
Portable single burner stove
Traveling weight ~7000 lbs
Overall average MPG ~20


Like I said, that’s the short version. If that’s enough then stop reading now and skip to one of the trips. (If there aren't any yet they are coming soon.) If you want more about the van – well – read on at your own risk because apparently I’m pretty long winded on the subject and it’s going to take more than a few entries before I run out of steam.

Friday, January 17, 2014


The family story is that I went on my first camping trip when I was all of a few months old and I’ve been at it ever since. I’m retired now and have more time to pursue the blue lines, as William Least Heat Moon called them, wander museums and monuments, get in some hiking and just plain chill. So, though it smells suspiciously like Delusions of Grandeur, that grand old dame of scents only the wearer enjoys, I thought I’d try this blog thing out. (Besides, it might come in handy some day for reliving the glory days if my future holds a failing memory.)

The fact is I’ve been retired for nearly two years now and already have several trips written up and ready to post. So fair warning to anyone who might feel the tug of temptation at the thought of my home base being vacant while I’m irresponsibly rambling around the countryside elsewhere; I won’t be posting trip reports while I’m actually on the road, I’ll be saving them up and posting them with gusto from the comfort of my dining table. If that sounds like just a little bit of paranoia – well – maybe, but I prefer to think of myself as careful instead, it saves on the cost of therapy.