Getting Going: On August 26, 2022, my wife Donna and I left Buffalo, NY in our 2019, 159’ Ram Promaster for our first big van life expedition. Some things were planned and some were not. The planned things included: people we were going to visit, sites we were going to see and a family wedding in Montrose, Colorado. Also planned was our daughter Caroline, who lives in Los Angeles, meeting us in Colorado and Donna flying home because of work after the wedding while I drove Caroline back to L.A.
The big unplanned thing was when I would be returning to Buffalo after getting Caroline back to L.A. Also unplanned, and this started as soon we hit the road, was where we were going to sleep every night. We had a vague idea of ending our days at free dispersed camp sites, maybe an occasional Walmart parking lot which they graciously offer to RV community and regular pay campsites along the way.
Before departing we looked at many camping locator apps, but hadn’t settled on one that would be our go to. Often the campsites on the apps were identified with trailer or tent icons all crammed together as tiny dots on a cell phone screen which I couldn't read. Donna could untangle the information pretty well, but I needed to open my laptop and view the sites on a big screen. This, of course, wasn't always practical when the vehicle was moving and we were chasing daylight.
We eventually settled on the Campendium app. It had simple sorting devices that included: distance and ratings; the type of land: if it was public or overnight parking, an RV Park or just a dump station. It also included the cost, along with reviews, cell phone availability, and the GPS location that you could send to your phone and more. Best of all it was accurate.
Pro tip: Though new to this van life stuff I can tell you that when traveling with someone, like your spouse, it’s best to have app symmetry, not only for choosing campsites, but for the highways and byways you're traveling. We bought a Garmin prior to our maiden voyage with the idea of not tying up our phones mapping our various routes. After some trial and error, however, we found we liked the directions from Google maps better than the Garmin—thus we would be using our phones. Still, as the main person doing the driving I liked the large bright Garmin attached in center of the windshield and the speed indicator in the lower left corner of the screen—the Promaster has a dial speed indicator buried in the dash as if it were the 1960’s. So, while I was using the bright, shiny Garmin thing, Donna had Google maps in her hand. Occasionally there would be a discrepancy as we were making our way through rural bumfuck Wyoming and she would caution me that the Garmin was sending us in a less efficient way. My response often was, how bad could it be and I would more or less, brush her off. All of the sudden she’s reminding me of that time in 2011, when she tried to tell me the location of the church where her work-friend Renee was getting married but I wouldn’t listen . . . See where I’m going with this? App symmetry—essential.
By The Numbers:
When we started to think about doing the van life thing and were watching all the gorgeous, man bunned YouTube Vloggers, we/I wanted to know, in addition to the cost of the van (ours was $59K fully built), how the day to day travel would hit our bottom line. So, on this trip I took it upon myself to notate every penny we spent along the way.
Gas is self explanatory. Food included groceries, restaurants and convenient store egg salad sandwiches when we were gassing up—so good. Miscellaneous was everything else: National Park Season Pass, an oil change, trinkets, binoculars and our most frequent entry—booze.
Total distance traveled 8,293 miles over forty-nine days or seven weeks.
Total cost $5,094.
* Gas - $2,032
* Food - $1,360
* Misc. - $1,702
The most I paid for gas was in Twenty-Nine Palms, California (Joshua Tree) at $5.02 per gallon and the least I paid was $3.99 per gallon in Abilene, Texas. So, $4.50 per gallon was a good middle price. That means, and I did the math twice, the Promaster got 18.3 gallons per mile, which is pretty incredible.
Break down—dollars spent on gas $2032 divided by cost per gallon $4.50 = 452 gallons; divide distance traveled 8,293 by gallons of gas 452 = 18.3 per gallon.
Please note the food entry is a little skewed. Donna was only with me for three of seven-weeks and our daughter Caroline was with us for ten days and we picked up the tab for her. Plus when I was at my brother’s in Arlington he paid for everything as did my buddy El Goodo in Memphis. Therefore to get a more accurate number on food cost I took the average of what Donna and I spent when we were by ourselves those first two weeks, which turned out to be $39 per day. So $39 x 49 days = $1,911. That’s an additional $551. When you add that to our total cost it comes out to $5,645 or $115 per day. Not bad for a seven week cross country trip. For a little perspective—we’re headed to Ireland this spring for ten-days and we’re struggling to keep that to $5K.
What We Learned: Van
As mentioned, we learned that it’s a necessity when traveling with someone to have app symmetry—strangely enough after Donna returned to Buffalo and I was on my own I didn't get lost once and I found awesome places to stay for free using Campendium. The one exception was the two nights in L.A. where I stayed at an urban RV park at a cost of $84 per night. I didn’t want to deal with L.A. traffic getting out to the woods and there was an In-N-Out within walking distance of the RV park.
If you’re going to do this van life thing you have to expect the way you eliminate your waste products is going to be radically altered. We don’t have a permanent solution built into our van yet and for now are using a bucket with a toilet seat screwed on top. But even when we do have a permanent solution, it’s not going to be much different. There are plenty of options—some fancy and expensive and some rudimentary, like our bucket. While I had zero issues with either the campsite dump or burying it, I think Donna would like something that’s a little more classy. Also, as you might imagine, in a van with thirty square feet of living space privacy will be an issue when using the facilities and changing clothes, which leads to our third observation.
Learn to be dirty. Just like toilet habits need to be adjusted, you're going to have to get used to not taking a shower every day or every three days or whatever. Being stuck at home during the pandemic we were pretty loose with the shower schedule, so we were primed for the daily on the road baby wipe shuffle. Same for your clothes. Despite it being pretty hot and sweaty I’d wear a t-shirt and shorts for a couple of days at a time. We did this even though we had a full shower with hot water in the van.
For us, the shower in the van is mostly a waste of prime van real estate. We bought our rig from an itinerant nurse completely finished. At the time we thought a full shower (36x24) was a must. But as it turned out, we hardly used it at all. Since we’re not doing the van life full time and will be in warmer climates when we do, an outdoor and collapsible shower would be more practical for us. The outdoor type would run off our existing plumbing at the back of the vand and inside were going fully collapsible with a curtain attached to hooks on the ceiling and a basin that collects water over the existing drain—see pic below..
So since we learned we don’t really need that big permanent shower we plan on building a multi-purpose bench that will house a cooler style refrigerator, our more permanent toilet, and a drain for our collapsible shower. It will also fold out for a third person to sleep in the van.
Swivel seats—passenger or driver, kind of suck. Don’t get me wrong, they're great for driving, but to sit and read a book or write exquisite blog posts such as you're reading and enjoying now—not that great. We’re hoping the bench set up, which will include seat and back cushions, will be more amenable to both tasks which are important to us. We also invested in heavy duty lawn chairs that were excellent for both these activities.
Our stove came with an oven, which we used for storage we used it as storage. Strangely enough hanging out on Forest Road 525 outside of Sedona I had zero cravings for a broccoli casserole. The stove top with four burners was plenty good enough for the burritos, eggs, spaghetti, burgers ect. Maybe if we were full time the oven would be more of an asset.
Otherwise, the build and our Promaster are great. The van is easy to handle with good power and a decent Bluetooth factory radio—we used a Bose Bluetooth speaker when we were hanging out. We have 600 amp hours of power fed by two 350 watt solar panels and an isolator hookup to the van’s alternator. There are puck lights and plenty of outlets and USB ports. We have a thirty-five gallon water tank (filled twice in seven weeks), an ac unit (used once), a diesel heater (not used at all) and propane to cook with and heat the water.
What we Learned: Traveling
When we needed a transition stop for a night we liked the rest stop as opposed to the parking lot of a Walmart or Cracker Barrel. Our driving was usually done for the day by five or six in the evening and to pull into one of those places while they were still doing business was unsettling. Plus, you had to leave your route and drive through some suburb to find them. The rest stop was on your way and it had restrooms and travelers like you. The best rest stops we found anywhere were the sandy little cut outs on the upper peninsula of Michigan. Our one transition night in Michigan we stayed on the wrong side of Mackinac Island, unaware of these little beachy stops that butted up to the lake—but next time.
If you’re not finding anything here particularly helpful in this little dissertation please listen up to at least this next point. We/I, as mentioned, traveled 8,293 miles around the country in seven weeks. Being our maiden voyage this was sort of an exploratory mission. And right away we realized it was a big mistake to pack so many things in our first two weeks before the wedding in Montrose. In all, we made five stops during that time—Duluth, Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, Custer State Park and the Grand Tetons.
-I would have liked another day or two in the Badlands or at least at the Sage Creek BLM site where we camped. Next to our spot there was a field of prairie dogs and in a little area just outside of camp a Buffalo would stop and chew on the sinewy grass in the early evening. Plus, there were little hiking trails fingering through the surrounding hills that we barely got to explore.
-Outside of Casper, Wyoming at the Chalks Bluff Campground on the N.Platte River we spent a glorious twenty-four hours in the hot sun sipping cocktails watching the river lazily roll by. Black-billed Magpies flitted in and out of shrubs and trees surrounding our camp and on the opposite bank of the river deer sidled down the hilly paths for a refreshing dip in the water. Never was anything more peaceful. I could have stayed in that spot for the rest of my life.
-Finally the Grand Tetons where we spent two great days but could have easily spent a week or more exploring nature trails and lakes. Also, our second night we had a breathtaking view of the Tetons from another BLM site just outside the park on Shadow Mountain—which had great cell reception to boot. Donna made a fire, I cooked some burgers and we listened to the Drive-By-Truckers, Kathleen Edwards and Linda Ronstadt on Outlaw Country. It was a lovely evening that I would have liked to repeat over and over again. But we had to go.
-The thing we learned is to give yourself time to enjoy these breathtaking places. Our next big trip we’re going to narrow the focus and leave it open ended. We’re in the preliminary stages of putting together a three-weeker along the coast of Maine and up into Prince Edward Island in Canada this summer. Round trip it would be about a two-thousand miles. It's not as open ended as we would like, but Donna is still under the yoke of her corporate overlords for another year. Not perfect, but better.
-Point is: sip the cocktails, eat the burritos, gaze at the lazy river and don’t rush.
Another thing we learned, and I sort of mentioned this earlier too, was to shorten your driving day and enjoy your overnight camping spots. After we had gone to bed at Shadow Mountain in the Tetons I heard several vehicles still making their way up the mountain. Three twenty somethings and a dog from Montana split between a minivan and a short school bus build pulled in across from me at a spot on Forest Road 525 outside of Sedona just as I was packing up for the night. In the morning they were up and ready to leave before I had a second cup of coffee. They would have left if the minivan hadn’t run out of gas—which extended their stay another ninety minutes. They were nice kids but I didn’t get the point of driving five miles down a bumpy dirt road only to sleep. If you weren't going to stay and take in the incredible vistas or go for a walk why not just go to a Walmart or Cracker Barrel?
We learned the hard way that cell reception out west is pretty terrible. We rarely lost the signal from the Google or Garmin mapping satellites, but the reception to our phones to listen to music, a podcast or Sirius radio was pretty bad. I was aware of this prior to leaving and had upgraded to a phone with a lot of memory, but failed to download big parts of my music library or favorite podcasts before we left Buffalo. As a result we were without entertainment at some campsites and while driving. Not the worst thing, but totally avoidable.
In a very basic way I learned that road life was quite agreeable with me. I won’t speak for Donna because her time on the road was cut short, but I think she would concur. Except for some minor pitfalls, I would consider this maiden voyage a huge success. Though I expect that we would always visit friends, family and Caroline in L.A. going forward I see us sticking more to the backroads and the BLM sites. I might even continue to write about what we see as we travel the country in this unique and awesome way.
That’s basically it. In summation—to get the most out of this van life experience you have to be willing to be dirty, alter your bathroom habits and the big one—just slow down. This is a big adjustment since for most of our lives we’ve had an adversarial relationship with time—now time is your friend. Treat your friend right.
How we got here...
An Ode to Fire and Donna
Chronological Posts From The Road
Going Mobile: What We Learned
Our Rig: A Pictorial Essay