Vanlife tips for young families with @borntobeadventurous

While I was pregnant with our second daughter, my nesting instinct drove us to buy our ’93 VW Eurovan Van. Now named Dusty we have explored and adventured on and off for almost 2 years with our two kids now aged 2 and 3.  But when we first bought our van we felt uneasy with the way the car seats strapped in.  While we knew that owning an older vehicle meant that it would not have the same safety measures as a newer ones, we also knew that the car seats should not be moving back and forth. We needed a solution and that solution was finding a way to install tethers. The search began and took us about 8 months to resolve to a place that we felt was good for our family.

Adventuring in our Dusty has given me a sense of nostalgia since I grew up camping in an orange '70s VW Van when I was young. I slept on a hammock up front, my brother and sister in the pop top and my parents on the bottom pull out bed. My older brother and sister would read me stories and we would always try to stay up a little later to eat one last s'more. These were memories that I cherished and wanted for my two children. I was not going to give up our dream of the Van Life because the seats were not safe. I had to find a solution.

We started to research for tether options to secure our car seats right after we bought our van. It was extremely hard to find a tether system that would work and then a company that would install them for us. We finally found a tether system for our '93 Eurovan that seemed like it would work but would require some drilling. Since our van at the time was still in Vancouver from our 1000 km move to Calgary we could not try to fix the problem ourselves. We decided to find a garage that would install them and this was not easy. After many phone calls, we finally we found a VW garage that would outfit our Dusty with the tether hardware.

After having the van in the shop for a day they realized that the tethers were meant for the middle seats and not for the back seats. We were once again left with no option for a tether for the car seats. We continued to use the lap seat belts but still felt incredibly uneasy about that option.

Once we returned from our epic West Coast adventure we started to do some more digging and we are so glad that we did! The '93 Eurovan was outfitted with an extremely simple way to attach a tether. It had the option to attach a small piece of hardware, that would become the tether, to the inside of the storage above the back bench seats. The solution was easy enough for us to install it ourselves within minutes and cost us only 7.99!! We were shocked that no one that we had talked too knew that our van had this option.

The car seats are now way more secure. We are so excited to continue exploring in Dusty this summer and hit the road for some epic adventures!

How have you outfitted your van to secure car seats in your VW or Van?! Send an email to BorntobeAdventurous@gmail.com to share your story with the option of filling out a questionnaire and help the Van Life community!!

Follow along with this awesome Vanlife Family!

Vanlife insights & a detailed Van Conversion with Jayme & John

This is the story of Jayme, John, Nymeria, Crow, and Gnomie. Our little family of vagabonds. Together we have gone from the mountains of New Mexico to the woods of North Carolina to the sands of upper Michigan. And there’s plenty more places out there beyond the horizon.

But we weren’t always this way. Not too long ago, we were landlocked in suburban St. Louis, working 9-5 jobs, living for the weekend, and longing for more than two weeks vacation so we could fulfill our love of travel and adventure. We had already seen the eastern half of the US, and gone to Southeast Asia and Ireland. But then we settled down, bought a house, fell into “secure” jobs. And we woke up one morning and realized we were trapped in a life we didn’t want or enjoy.

We dreamed of quitting our jobs and going on an epic backpacking trip through Europe or Asia. But then we got our wonderful puppy, Nymeria, and our lives completely changed. We wanted her to experience the world with us, so we decided to explore our own backyard. Around this time we also took in Crow, Jayme’s childhood dachshund, so we needed an escape where we could bring two dogs with us.

The original plan was to buy a small SUV, rent out our house, put our belongings in storage, and camp/Airbnb/WWOOF our way around North America for a year or so. That is, until a friend told us to checkout #vanlife on Instagram, and we saw what was truly possible. The idea of living the van life - of traveling wherever we want with total freedom, of being able to sleep wherever we happen to be because we brought our house with us, of becoming part of this awesome community of people doing the same thing - seemed incredibly liberating. And we just knew we had to do it.

Finding the Perfect Van

Immediately we dove into looking for a van and researching all the different options. VW vans are iconic and inspiring, but it seemed like we would need to be prepared for frequent mechanical issues unless we did a complete rebuild. Sprinter vans are top notch and have a ton of space, but the ones we found were way out of our price range. Cargo vans are cheap and blend in well for stealth camping, but just didn’t have enough headroom for John’s 6’2” frame. Our goal became finding a high top conversion van, which we thought had the best combination of reliability, affordability, and space.

We also began the long process of selling everything we owned, unloading an entire house-worth of items via Facebook buy/sell/trade groups, Craigslist, and yard sales. We made our first sale in May, and the last item (our awesome couch, one of the first things we bought together) walked out the door just before Christmas. Getting rid of everything was difficult at first but it quickly got easier, and we didn’t even notice that most of it was gone. That’s how you know you have too much stuff.

After a couple months of searching, we finally found the perfect van. It was a gold high-top conversion van with a wheelchair lift, and it had been sitting on Craigslist for a month. After driving three hours to check it out, some back and forth with the seller, and an inspection by a mechanic, we finally took it home near the end of August. Here are the details:

Year, Make, and Model: 1996 Chevy Express 1500

Purchase Price: $1500

Purchased From: Craigslist

Initial Mileage: 101,000

Name: Gnomie (and sometimes Tiara)

After some new tires, mechanical work, taxes and registration fees, our van cost us a total of $3,670. Converting it into our new home - including building materials, appliances, and electrical components - cost about $6,600. So in total we spent $10,270 buying and building our van. We have a detailed breakdown of our costs on our blog.

Turning Our Van into a Home

Once we got the van home, we immediately gutted it and took out the wheelchair lift. We insulated the ceilings, walls, and floor. We installed gorgeous laminate wood flooring, plywood walls, and beautiful cedar paneling on the ceiling so our van looks and smells like a log cabin.

Pro tip: making cardboard templates of oddly-shaped areas (and in a van, everything is oddly-shaped) helps a lot when you’re cutting your materials. And the templates you make for your insulation you can reuse for your walls, floors, etc.

We also began planning out how we wanted to build out the interior, figuring out the functionality of each piece and how everything would fit together. This is one of the most important aspects of any van build. Since space is so limited, almost everything needs to have more than one purpose or be easily storable and convertible into something else.

In our van, our couch converts into a queen-sized bed at night. Our kitchen counter doubles as support for our bed frame. We built a storage box on our side door that has a flip-up table allowing us to work on our computers or just sit around it for meals. We attached fabric shoe racks to the back of the seats to hold random odds and ends, and we turned every nook and cranny into some kind of storage.

One of the best things about conversion vans is all of the storage options. Gutting the van revealed huge open shelves above the cab area and in the rear that are perfect for housing every day items. The storage area in the front we converted to a food pantry, while in the rear we built a closet that holds all of our clothes. The way the high top connects to the van body creates a natural shelf that is perfect for building out into more extensive shelving or cabinets.

Since we work on the road and need power and cell service, we made the decision to go big with our electrical system. We bought a 400-watt solar kit from Renogy, installed three panels on the roof, and rigged up the fourth on a homemade PVC folding solar mount so we can roll it out and connect it as needed.

To anyone out there considering doing their own custom van build, don’t be afraid to get started! We didn’t know how to do most of the things we did before we did them. We had no experience with electrical work. But there are a ton of great resources out there on the internet and on Youtube, and most people will be happy to answer questions if you reach out to them.

We’ve certainly contacted others for advice, and we’ve answered questions from fellow vanlifers as well. Don’t let lack of knowledge stop you from pursuing vanlife!

Life on the Road

We’ve been on the road off and on since April, and we just recently took off for good. There’s so much we’ve learned about our van, what works and what doesn’t, that we just couldn’t foresee before actually living in it for an extended period. We’ve had to modify things and change a few things around, but now our van is a whole lot more functional.

There are definitely challenges living on the road. One thing that other people always focus on is the bathroom situation, but that hasn’t been an issue. Public restrooms are plentiful throughout the US, and we’ve got a small shovel in the van for when we’re camping in undeveloped areas.

The biggest challenge for us so far has been cell service and internet. We’ve had several scenarios where we’ve found a beautiful place to camp in the middle of a canyon or 10,000 feet up on a mountaintop, but there’s just no service anywhere nearby. Since we need internet to work, we’ve had to make the choice between being productive and enjoying the beauty of nature (and let’s face it, nature always wins).

Now, if we’re camping somewhere undeveloped where we don’t expect to have service, we plan ahead and make sure we have plenty of offline work we can do. We also just bought a cell phone signal booster, so we’re hoping that will come in handy. We don’t want to have to leave an awesome location sooner that we’d like to, or not be able to get done what we need to get done, just because we don’t have service.

If you can, we highly recommend taking your van out for short trips here and there to test it out. That practical experience will give you a much better idea about what you really need and don’t need, and will give you tons of great ideas for improving your van so it works better for you.

How Do We Make All This Work?

When we tell people what we’re doing, the first question they always asks us is, how do we survive on the road financially? First, we worked our butts off to build up savings before we took this leap. We hosted Airbnb and became freelance writers on the side. And we made over $10,000 selling everything we owned. Right now, we cover about half of our expenses with income from our blog and managing other websites we own, and the rest comes from savings.

Our goal is to live like this for the foreseeable future, so we’re working hard to build businesses and increase our income. But, we know we always have freelancing as a fallback (Upwork.com is a great place to get started with this). Vanlife isn’t all travel and relaxation - we definitely put in a full workweek and then some. We just happen to do it while sitting by a mountain stream instead of in an office.

This seems to be the biggest mental hurdle for many to get over, that it’s possible to make a living without being tied down. The fact is, if you really want to live vanlife, you’ll find a way to make it work. There are people doing this who pick up odd jobs wherever they happen to be, or work seasonally in awesome locations and travel the rest of the time, or freelance online as writers, photographers, and web designers. There are options out there whatever your skills, and if you have the motivation and persistence there’s nothing that can hold you back.

All told, it took us nearly a year to sell everything we owned, rent out our house, find a van, and turn it into a mobile log cabin. The build alone took six months. But now, a year later, we’re sitting outside our van in a forest clearing, gazing through the trees at an awe-inspiring lake that stretches farther than we can see. This is our life now. We don’t have anyone telling us what to do, where to be, or when to get there. It took a year and a tremendous amount of work and perseverance to get to this point, but now the rest of our lives is an open road instead of a dead end street. And we couldn’t be more excited.

Follow along the adventures!

Buslife Short & Sweet

We are two travel loving, back country camping, dune hiking Michiganders that have spent the last three months converting our short bus into a rustic house on wheels. Birdie's a 1992 24' International and saw her first Mountains last summer when we took her out to Telluride for some Colorado adventures. Now that she's been converted it's a whole new experience and we are so excited to check out the east coast. We left this afternoon on our maiden voyage in the new digs along side our dear friends @fernthebus and are stopping at Mammoth Caves before heading to Asheville, NC. We left with the mindset to live simply and bring only the essentials. All we really need is a warm fire and friends to share it with, but a comfy bed and home cooked breakfast in the morning is nice too:)

Follow along with Matt and Emily and learn more about what it's like to live in a bus click below:

In Between Vanlife


I remember seeing photos of people living #vanlife on Instagram and assuming they were always traveling. So it's no surprise my shock when I learned that these same people took breaks and sometimes lived in other structures besides their van between adventuring. You often don't see those photos posted, the ones where we're catching up on work or laundry or time with family.

But we all have periods of stop and go, don't we? Take Parker and Jenelle. They went from six months on the road to six months off, and now they're gearing up to head out again. What's it like to be in between vanlife? Parker takes us to living inside a house looking out to his van.

She looks neglected out there,” I said between sips of tea.

The rain pattered down just beyond the window, and with every breath, the sun dropped a little lower, taking with it any semblance of life. A storm moved in and the east coast was about to be coated in snotty, wet, heavy winter, as only the east coast could. Winter here—in New Jersey, specifically— doesn’t mean light, fluffy snow and sunshine. I learned long ago that my dreams of snowmen and sledding would only come once maybe twice a year. Winter here meant grey single-tone, chill-you-to-your-bones, wet, cold. The kind of cold that leaves you perma-chilled in November and doesn't warm back up until May.

So I stood, sipping my tea. Just above the white-columned cast iron heater gazing from our Airbnb window. Attempting to thaw from the inside and out, well aware of what we were in for and grateful for the fact that we were indoors. Our van, a beloved custom 1987 Chevy G20 Tern conversion, affectionately named Scarlet JoVanson, was not so lucky. She sat outside taking the full brunt of this oncoming nor’easter.

“You’re insane,” my fiancé, Jenelle, said from the kitchen in an effort to quell her own concerns.

Scarlet’s solar panels sat caked in ice and her new-(ish) awning and off-road tires sat horrifically unappreciated. We had been off the road for just over a month now and decided to stay back east for the winter. An effort to catch up with ourselves for a period of time. File taxes, organize photos, write and plan—maybe squeeze in a dentist appointment if there was time. When we made the call, it seemed like the right idea. But now, standing here straddling this heater, I was having second thoughts.

I had been in perpetual motion for just over three years while Jenelle had been moving in her own right for almost as long. Stagnation, historically, had not done me many favors. It stirred up anxiety and instilled restlessness, but now I wanted to challenge that. After eight months on the road, a brief period of sitting still introduced me to both Jenelle and Scarlet, which then led to another seven months on the move.

I began to think there was something to this whole sitting still thing and its potential to spark new adventures.
If life on the road had taught me anything, it was that our demeanor in the present was really the only thing you could control.

Flat tires? Blown engines? Poor choices in a rum-soaked haze? Those kinds of things we can’t possibly foresee, but we can adjust to make the most of them. It’s a fool’s errand to attempt to navigate the future or the past, and as soon as you try to get a grip on it, the now passes, like loose sand on a windy day.

This “ownership of one's self” mentality took 12 countries and almost 35 states to nail down, and I’m far from mastering it. But as I sat and studied the intricacies of our ice-crusted van, it seemed very important.

Jenelle called across our temporary living room as dinner was gingerly placed on the table.

I poured a glass of wine in seamless domestic fashion while my mind cruised the sands of beaches a thousand miles away.

I sat and met my fiancée’s eyes as we touched our wine glasses together. Her fluid probably needs changing, I thought, as I looked lovingly into Jenelle’s eyes. We haven’t checked Scarlet’s transmission since Florida and we’ve gone well over 30,000 miles since then. As a matter of fact, those solar panels that are caked in ice right now could probably use a resealing, and I have been itching to see if I could finish that reclining bed frame.

Maybe this go-round, stagnation could do us some good. I could finally get a check up. Maybe I’d have time to properly redo my website. Jenelle might have time to rebrand. This might not be so bad after all.

Maybe this will be more of a recharge than a forced stillness.

The road will always be a part of us and what we do, but that doesn’t mean we can’t stop for a few weeks.
Perhaps we have room for stillness and vagabonding.

That’s what makes this adventure of life so beautiful. There’s room for all of it.

Nah, Scarlet won’t be neglected. She’ll be pampered. I cut into the seared tuna steaks Jenelle had served up thinking how it was a nice vacation from the rice and bean concoctions and stews of road life. I sipped my wine as if triumphantly finding my throne in the suburbs.

Jenelle took a sip of wine as well and sat despondent, lost in thought for a moment.

Her eyes met mine as she looked across the table, “I was thinking, we should take off for Canada next week…”

Follow Parker & Jenelle of Together We Roam

Produced by Kathleen Morton of Tiny House, Tiny Footprint.
Edited by Kate MacDougall.
All photos credit to Parker Hilton & Jenelle Kapp.

Q&A with Sticker Art Founder Bryant Aucoin

When did you start getting interested in the outdoors?

I spent my adolescence in Charleston, South Carolina, and my parents' house was surrounded by saltwater marshes, creeks and thick mossy oaks. So I spent a lot of time exploring around that land getting muddy, climbing trees and would often have ticks that my parents would help pull off me.

Do you live in a tiny house?

I would say so, although we certainly have more space than the typical vanlifer. My wife, Emily, and I live in a 1-bed/1-bath 375-square-foot garage apartment and also share a Subaru Outback. We really focus on not collecting unnecessary things that will simply clutter up our life.

Most of our space is devoted to cooking and gear for adventuring.

What started the idea for Sticker Art?

Emily and I were adventuring around California one summer and ended up in Tuolumne Meadows, which is a beautiful part of Yosemite that everyone should visit. A couple friends from back home in South Carolina asked me to pick them up some stickers from the trip.

The ones I came across were overpriced, always seemed to have some name brand on them and the illustrations were lacking soul.

It got me wondering if anyone was producing beautifully designed stickers inspired by the landscape we adventure in, which as it turns out nobody was.

Tell us a bit about your company.

The hope behind the illustrations that make up Sticker Art is to connect with the person viewing it, reminding them of some epic adventure they once had and also to encourage them to get outside even more.

There's no name brands or logos on them; just rad art. In a world dominated by screens and social feeds, they act as a fun tangible item that helps to share their stoke.

Why stickers?

At first, I was just trying to see if this whole Sticker Art business idea would even work, and stickers were an affordable way to try out the concept. I don't like magnets or patches because they are limited to a certain medium of metal or textiles. Also, stickers aren't expensive so I knew that most people could afford them. I really like the idea of creating something small and monetarily cheap that might make a big impact on someone who connects with it.

Tell us about the vanlife sticker.

Every summer Emily and I live out of our Subaru for a few weeks to a month. While on the road, we befriended another couple who were living out of their van full time with their two dogs filming mountain biking trails all around the west. They were making a living out of their van by traveling to different trailheads, filming and uploading videos at cafes and libraries. It got me inspired to start looking into the lifestyle more and I found that people all around the world were living beautifully out of their tiny rolling homes. I used the most iconic road in our area as the backdrop, U.S. Route 163 in Utah outside of Monument Valley, to represent this lifestyle.

Is there an evolution from the idea of a sticker design to it being made?

I can't draw at all, but I'm pretty good at conveying a concept, so I contract out my sticker concepts to artists. For the most part, I work with Kayla Edgar because we really flow together well. She's pretty much an illustrating ninja, and I'm so grateful for her being part of this. I have worked with five artists so far including her.

The idea for a sticker design usually comes to me during a walk or some sort of meditative motion. Often I write down a few notes in my notepad app when the idea strikes. I let the concept churn in my mind for a few weeks before deciding to actually pull the trigger on it

I found that procrastination can be really helpful to work on ideas and ensure I’m serious about it.

I'll collect pictures of the scene, usually between 5 and 10 that are similar to the image in my mind. Then, I will write 5-10 correlating paragraphs to create a mood board. Sometimes, I include some really crude stick figure drawing, and thankfully the illustrators are able to pull from this the overall idea.

We go back and forth for usually between 4 and 5 rounds of rough drafts before coming up with the final product.

This whole collaboration process with the artists usually takes a month, and during that time I'm also writing the story that's printed on the removable backing of every sticker. This story is important as it lets people know the feeling and sets the tone for the illustration on the front.

Have you seen your stickers in the wild?

Yup, and it's such a cool feeling. Sometimes I'll even get text pictures from friends who see my stickers in some far flung place hundreds of miles away. My favorite thing is hearing people say something to the effect of "Oh, I have the backpacking sticker on my water bottle! It reminded me of my camping trip last summer in the San Juan Mountains. Solid work on that."

Our stickers are really connecting with people and having an impact.

To see such a small inexpensive item light up someone’s face is just awesome.

Do you have a favorite one?

For sure, it's the Tent View Alpine sticker. It's inspired by the Ice Lakes near Silverton, Colorado. It's the most beautiful hike I've ever been on and it's right in our area.

Where can people find you in the outdoors?

During this time of year, we go to Indian Creek, Utah, almost every other weekend to rock climb and sleep under the stars since it's only two hours away. Once it starts to warm up, we will go wherever we can based on how much time we have and how much money we want to spend on gas.

Most of the time that’s somewhere in the Four Corners area.

Any future outdoor adventures plans?

Emily and I are planning on spending two weeks traveling the northwest, climbing in Tuolumne Meadows, visiting the redwood forest for the first time and climbing our little hearts out.

Follow Bryant of Sticker Art

Black Pepper Abroad: Canadian Vanlifers exploring Australia

Brad and Agnes are two travel fanatic Canadians exploring the land down under with their French-Canadian four-legged companion, Sargent Pepper. They grew up just outside Toronto, Ontario and spent many years exploring provincial parks across Ontario. They love reconnecting with nature, exploring natural wonders and camping with their dog.

As a distant land on the other side of the planet, Australia had always been a beacon of mystery that seemed full of adventure. The allure of exotic wildlife, an ancient landscape, rich aboriginal culture and a somewhat dark penal colonial past, inspired wonder. So in 2012 Brad accepted an internal employment transfer and they relocated to Sydney, NSW.

Over the past 4 years Brad and Agnes have explored many state forests and national parks across NSW. They have had the opportunity to explore Uluru, The Great Barrier Reef, Port Arthur and even The Great Ocean Road. It quickly became clear that there was much more to Australia than the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge.

AWESOME YOUTUBE CLIP!!! 

Brad and Agnes longed to spend more time on the road, living a simpler life while further exploring Australia. The Vanlife seemed to be just the ticket. Over the past 8 months they decided to buy and renovate a vintage 13’ 1975 Viscount caravan to call home for the unforeseeable future. As they make slow travel across Australia a priority they will also be on the hunt for pet friendly destinations. With so many regulations surrounding camping with pets, Brad and Agnes hope to highlight as many pet friendly hiking trails, vineyards, campgrounds, beaches etc. as possible. Some people may see travelling with pets as a burden, but Brad and Agnes have been able to find many hidden gems that others may have overlooked.

Brad and Agnes have said goodbye to the corporate 9 to 5 and are now fully embracing the Vanlife. They will be sharing their adventures and Australian pet friendly travel tips on their website www.blackpepperabroad.com and various online social media accounts below.

       

How to Maximize Your Solar Power Setup

Laura & Shane spent two years converting their Ford Transit 250 into an adventuremobile. They learned about insulating their walls, installing a sink and floors and decorating their tiny space. Now they've just wrapped up their latest project, setting up two solar panels on their van's roof. I read Laura's piece on her blog and asked her to share it here as I knew some of you might have questions about choosing solar and how to maximize your power source on the road.

Solar is one of the things we have been thinking about since the early days with our van, but we did not know exactly how we would go about it, mostly because we did not know what our unique blend of vanlife would look like. After learning, testing and iterating on various setups, we have something that we really like and expect to fit our current needs, so we figured this was a good time to share. I’m not going to get too heavy into the technical aspects of the solar setup, but since we gleaned a lot of lessons from this process, I’ll cover some general advice on DIY solar setups, as well as some show-and-tell on the hardware Shane used to install Vanna White’s rooftop setup.

Note: If you’re reading this at the early stages of a build-out because you feel like you need to get your solar setup figured out right away, I would encourage you to perhaps wait until the later stages of the conversion so that you know how much power you’ll actually need to generate (more on that below).

Biggest Takeaways

Here are some of the major learnings we (and when I say “we," I mean Shane, who is now our van power expert) picked up from our time spent building out Vanna’s solar system:

Reflect on what you’ll be using energy for, and be honest.

If you’ve lived in your camper long enough, you can probably do the calculations fairly easily based on what you use that needs wattage to run. If you want a quick lesson on how to calculate wattage, try here.

For Shane and me, we had to start by guessing what we would use in the van. In fact, it was our continued wattage calculations that led us to installing solar panels. After hooking up our house battery to run off the extra charge created by the van’s alternator, we thought that we might not need a solar power setup. But after getting a refrigerator, which pulls a charge from the house battery regularly, it got us thinking about our consumption. Even though our power needs are generally small, we realized that the more we camp, the less we will drive, and the less the alternator’s charge will be effective.

The good news: You probably need less power than you think you do.

Unless you’re running a blender or a hair dryer in your van (and maybe even then), you probably don’t need as much power stocked up as you think, especially if you’re going solar. So before you go purchasing half a dozen house batteries, do the calculations and decide for yourself.

It’s all about the angles.

How much energy you can get from a solar panel depends greatly on the angle of the sun, and this varies by your latitude and the season. Before installing our permanent setup, we had a large, portable solar panel and really enjoyed being able to position it in just the right spot for maximum energy by propping it up against a plastic bin or a rock. Wanting to keep the same benefit with our new system, Shane got creative and came up with a pretty unique set up. Needless to say, the new install had to be a lot more sophisticated than just propping it up against the closest thing.

Long story short, if you want to get maximum energy, consider the angles. Here’s a simple calculator that will show what angles are best to use by season and location. Have fun with it!

A good charge controller is worth it. Get one with MPPT.

What is MPPT? It stands for maximum power point tracking. Why is it good? It converts the voltage from the sun into the optimal voltage for your battery. More easily digestible information about MPPT can be found here.

Get a good system monitor, because you’ll use it.

The cost of batteries, solar panels, and so on can really add up, so it might seem like overkill to spend some extra cash on a monitoring system. But believe me when I say that we use this thing. All. The. Time. It’s how we know when the battery is taking a good charge, and whether our refrigerator and other devices are draining it. We know when the battery is running to the red. We use the Blue Solar Victron Energy MPPT Control and keep it in a pretty accessible spot right on the outside of our electrical box.

The Solar Panel Install

Here’s a quick rundown on how we installed our solar panels. In building out this project, we wanted to make sure that we could accommodate two solar panels, allow them to adjust to any angle needed based on location, be able to lock them down safely for freeway driving and maintain enough rack space for rooftop yoga and naps in the sun. Shane did an excellent job coming up with a solution that we’re both really excited about.

The two solar panels are fixed together with some custom framing, making it effectively one giant solar panel. Thanks to our roof rack we could do the two panels lengthwise along the van, which optimized our space.

The U bracket in the middle has a vinyl-coated wire attached. This prevents the solar panels from moving past a 90-degree angle.

Shane also made sure our wires would say tucked neatly underneath the panels. Zip ties are your friends!

This cable box is what allows our wiring to go from the house battery up to the roof.

This is the large, custom hinge that Shane created with U-bolts and some steel tubing. The frame for the solar panels came in handy for this part as well.

In order to prop up the solar panels to the optimum angle, Shane used dinghy standoff bars, which are both sturdy and adjustable. Like tent stakes, these standoff bars can be clipped onto the solar panel frame when the panels are collapsed flat and only need to be adjusted when there is a change in location or season.

The white clip in this photo is the locking mechanism for the system. When the black toggle is screwed out, the lock opens and can be clamped over the cross beams on the roof rack.

This is the base for one of the standoff bars attached to the roof rack.

This photo shows the clip-in mechanism Shane installed.

Whew! That’s a lot of solar power talk for one post.

How do you solar? We’d love to know what your setup looks like. Leave us a message in the comments or use the hashtag #campermakersunite on Instagram. Until next time!

Follow Laura & Shane and their rig Vanna White

Produced by Kathleen Morton of Tiny House, Tiny Footprint.
Edited by Kate MacDougall.
All photos courtesy of Laura Hughes.

Scandinavia in a Campervan

What's it like to travel Scandinavia in a campervan? Max and Ana spent 14 months on the road, but eight of them were spent in Scandinavia. They fell in love with Finland, Norway and Sweden and their landscapes. Here's their story and their favorite places to see in these intriguing countries.

How did you find your van? Can you describe your interior setup?

We found our van on leboncoin, a community website for buying and selling items, similar to Craigslist in the states. We searched thoroughly for two months before we found what we were looking for. We ended up buying a 2006 Ford Transit van that was built out by a small company. Despite it being a small on the inside, we have everything we need (e.g. shower, stove, refrigerator and bed). The best part of the van is that we can live in it, which gives us so much freedom.

However, two disadvantages of our van are its size and age. The Ford Transit is a small van. Inside, it’s still a small space, and in bad weather conditions, we feel really squeezed in. Our van is old and requires maintenance often, which can be expensive when you have a particular budget. However, it was a great purchase despite its inconveniences. We met several travelers on the road and all of them told us our van was special because of its great features.

What led you to hit the road? Which one of you had the idea?

The idea to leave everything for a life on the road filled with adventures came from a two-week stay in Sweden for the holidays back in August 2014. When we returned to France, it was a difficult adjustment. The trip questioned our professional and personal choices, as well as, our priorities. After we graduated, we quickly found jobs. We lived in a nice apartment in the South of France—a life most people would dream about. But we were in search of real change. Forget the beautiful couch, big TV, cozy bed and big bathroom. We wanted to leave our comfortable world behind to discover another. We wanted to explore Europe in a van.

From the beginning, we knew that vanlife wasn’t going to be easy—leaving a nice apartment for a built-out van. And knowing it was going to be a 14-month journey, we knew the adventure was most likely going to be crazy. Our new, simpler life without unnecessary things might change us completely. But we wanted to wake up spiritually. So in June 2015, we left our apartment and our jobs to buy "Van Drogo,” our van’s nickname.

Which countries have you visited?

We traveled to Spain, Portugal, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Germany, Sweden, Finland and Norway. It may not seem like much for a 14-month road trip, but our idea of a road trip is to take our time visiting one country at a time. We like being immersed in a country with its culture and landscape, and that requires time. Some countries are much more adaptable and comfortable for people living vanlife. In Portugal, Sweden, Finland and Norway, you can find free water in most gas stations and open wilderness camping locations. We never paid for camping in those four countries, except when we had to wash our clothes. We learned near the end of our trip to use river water to wash our clothes by hand.

But not all countries are as easy for a life on the road. We had trouble finding wild camping spots in Italy. Vanlife is not always convenient in cities and near tourist attractions. We like escaping those areas. We tried to choose places with wild lands and where we could find camping spots easily. Because of this, exploring Europe in our van was a good compromise. In Europe, almost everything is accessible by car, and you don’t have to drive for days at a time. There is a diversity of landscape and culture. We could drive from the polar cold of Norwegian forest to the intense heat of Andalusia within one week. To drive in Europe is a real pleasure.

What’s it like to travel across Scandinavia in a van?

Our most memorable experience was being in Scandinavia. Out of the 14 months we spent on the road, we spent eight in Scandinavia. We began by traveling through Sweden, Finland and Norway. The most beautiful thing about those countries is their unlimited landscapes. Those big, open spaces make it easy for vanlife. Scandinavians like campervans. We didn’t have any issues finding places to camp for the night. Everything was setup for campers (e.g. free water and places to empty our tanks). Sometimes, we were able to use free electricity.

Europe has immense forests, thousands of lakes, magnificent fjords and islands almost everywhere. Nature is wonderful. There were always small pieces of forest, banks or even beaches waiting for us. We rarely slept in a campsite. We found campsites a bit expensive, and because we were following a strict budget, we avoided them. Life can be expensive over there, but we managed to find ways around it. We fished for our food and bought local products.

How did you manage to live on a tiny budget?

We had a budget of €30 a day and often this extended for two days at a time. It was a very tight budget. In the beginning, we went over our budget all the time. But when we were driving on the road day after day, we began to become more rigorous. In the Eastern countries—like Poland, Slovakia, or even in Portugal—a small budget can be manageable. But it was harder in Scandinavia, and especially in Norway. By fishing and eating local, we were able to save money. Nonetheless, our budget was a constraint. Every time we did something extra, such as visiting a museum, we went over our budget. But when you explore countries with greater access to outdoor spaces, there is less of a temptation to spend money. We walked often and chose outdoor activities. It was our daily happiness. We wanted to get lost in luxurious landscapes. At night, we didn’t pay for campsites. We wanted to be in amazing and wild places every day.

One of our favorite memories was getting lost in a big forest more than of 50 km away from any villages or cities. It was a peaceful retreat. A wooden road sign said "KampNatur," and nearby was a small wooden shelter with a barbecue cooking setup prepared with logs. There was also a dry toilet available. This camping area was less than 10 meters from a huge lake without any buildings nearby. We have several stories similar to this one from our travels.

Which country did you enjoy the most?

Norway by far! It is considered one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and now we understand why. We stayed for three and a half months, driving more than 7,000 km between the north and south. Its landscapes are unique. In the middle of summer, we could go hiking, fishing or running under a beautiful sun at 4 o’clock in the morning! We could even surf in certain areas. Imagine surfing above the arctic on June 15 at midnight when the sun is still shining. It’s a dream! For some, it might appear to be heaven for vanlife.

What surprised you the most about this trip?

Our goal was not to meet closed-minded people or discover cities. We wanted to get lost in the middle of nowhere—an experience we had never done before. The shock was overwhelming, but it was also amazing. Quickly, we were captured by the wildlife. We could not be anywhere but in nature; it was like a drug! Every time we approached a city, our anxiety took over. So, for this reason, we stayed in Northern Norwegian for longer than we would have anticipated.

What are the must-see places in Scandinavia?

We liked everything in Norway, Sweden and Finland, but if we have to give you our top, must-see places, it would be the ones below.

Norway

The North Cape: “Eldorado” for van travelers. Expect lunar landscapes and reindeer everywhere. It’s disorienting, but so amazing at the same time!

Lofoten, Vesteralen and Senja Islands. These three islands characterize the Norwegian landscapes, and it’s one of the most beautiful landscapes we have ever seen. Fjords, turquoise water, paradise beaches, swells to surf, fisherman villages and steep hiking trails. There are so many things to see there. Be on the Utakleiv Beach or visit the villages in Hamnøy or Nusfjord villages or hike in the Reinbriggen. Let’s start up the engine and go!

Road 17 from Lofoten islands up to the centre of Norway. This road will lead you to North Cape, and it was impressive part of our vanlife adventure. On this road, you will find spots to sleep everywhere. It’s classified as a national tourist road, which means you should add it to your next road trip.

Finland

See the lakes over there. Our favorites were Lake Pielinen and Lake Inarjarvi.

Sweden

Visit the Swedish Lapland, the northernmost spot in Sweden. While you’re there, check out Moddus National Park and Sarek National Park.

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Produced by Go Van.
Edited by Kathleen Morton of Tiny House, Tiny Footprint.
Photos courtesy of Max & Anna.