One week in the Brecon Beacons

We’re almost 6 months into our conversion, and the van is still looking very van-like. However, we have some basic utilities in, and it seems like a good time to test them out. So we’ve headed to Wales, to the Brecon Beacons, looror a week-long holiday and alpha-test. A quick recap – what’s in:
  • Plywood floor
  • Roughly made  bench base and panels to convert to a double bed
  • Solar panels and charge controller wired up to 12V distribution
  • Window in the sliding door
  • Roof fan
  • Roof light
  • Fridge
  • Ceiling lights
  • Half the USB sockets
  • Half the task lights
  • About 1/3 of the insulation
  • A very roughly made kitchen unit with MDF work surface and sink
  • A water pump and waste pipe to and from the sink, connected to two 5 litre water bottles from the supermarket
In practical terms, what does this mean? On our last trip we slept on the floor and cooked on a barbecue outside, whereas on this trip we have a proper bed, and can prepare food and wash up while standing up. We can read books in the evening with electric light, and charge our phones from the USB sockets. We can keep food cold and we have some control over the ventilation.
In other respects, we’re still living in a metal box:
  • We have no gas hob, so we’re cooking on a trangia meths stove.
  • We’ve bought a gas heater, but we haven’t fitted it yet, so we can’t warm the van in these cool British evenings
  • We have almost no built in storage, so everything is piled up in boxes on the floor and secured in transit with bungee cords
  • Bar one finished section, there is no cladding and little insulation on the walls so it’s chilly and looks a mess, with electrical conduit and bare metal everywhere.
So this is the scope of our experiment, and we have some results

A place for everything and everything in its place

The problem is exacerbated by the lack of furniture in the van, but nonetheless it’s annoying to be always looking for a place to stuff things, and hunting around when you want to find them again. No different to camping, but there’s a lot more packing and unpacking when you’re driving around as well.
There are some particular situations worth noting:
  • When you’re lying in bed and want to charge your phone or check it for a weather forecast, or pick up a book, eye mask or bottle of water
  • When you want to brush your teeth (which for now means going outside) and need access to toothbrush, toothpaste and water by the side door
  • When you’re preparing food or clearing up on the limited counter space and need to move things out of the way so you can work on the task at hand

Shoes-off rule

It makes sense to keep the inside of the van clean, especially when you’re hopping in and out of bed, but it’s tricky to enforce a shoes off rule when you also jumping in and out of the van so frequently. Maybe easier in hot climates when going outside means putting on a pair of flip flops, but not so easy here when you’re wearing thick socks and slippers inside, and walking boots outside.
A door mat is also a big help.
Van slippers

Making the bed

This is the core compromise all van designs take a position on. We’ve opted for a convertible bed that also functions as a bench during the day, with the removable panels doubling up as tables. Currently the removable panels don’t have any fittings to take a table leg, so we just slide them on top of the fixed part of the bed when converting to a bench. But either way, they’re heavy, and awkward to move. We haven’t figured this one out yet. A fixed bed is easier in so many ways but it leaves very few options for sitting at a table and makes half the van unusable for anything else.
The current situation is made no easier by the fact that our bench is a little too high, and very deep. The latter can be solved, I hope, by folding over the mattress to form a double thickness for the seat back, but the height is another issue.

Take a seat

Our current seating options are limited. The bench/bed is designed to be the primary seat, but it’s currently not working as it should.
We can also sit on the step at the side door, which is a good bridge between inside and outside worlds. There’s a similar spot at the back doors, but with the bed down, there’s no direct route between the kitchen area and the back to carry cups of tea or plates of food.

Power and control

Our 12V distribution box is on the floor behind the drivers seat, which is also where the dog bed goes. So every time we want to switch off a circuit, we have to get down on our knees and shift the dog out of the way. Given our current cable runs, we don’t have much flexibility here, but we do need to figure out a more accessible place to put these switches.

Mod cons

We have wooden battens bolted up on the roof which will eventually form the mounting frame for the roof cladding. But right now, they’re a useful place to hang towels dog leads and other stuff. We need to find a way to replicate this functionality once the cladding is up and the battens no longer available. Maybe shock cord strung between eye hooks …
We have a plastic tub which just about fits in the sink, and we can use as a washing up bowl. It’s remarkably useful! We should definitely find a bowl that we can use like this on a more permanent basis.
We also have a small water pump (8l per minute, which was the smallest pump we could find). But this is way too powerful for the small amount of water we want to use. So I think we might switch to a hand pump.
It’s nice to sit in the van in the evening with the doors open to let a breeze flow through. But it can also be a bit midgey. I’ve seen van conversions where people have sewn midge nets around the rear and side doors, and I think we need to build these in, especially for any trips we may take to Scotland.

Dog logistics

The dog (about 30kg of Belgian Shepherd) is big, and takes up a lot of space. When driving, he likes to look out of a window, and ideally sniff the breeze. So at the moment, he sits on the front passenger bench with us, which works OK for short journeys, but it’s not very comfortable for anyone, and can make it difficult to see the passenger side mirrors when he decides to sit up.
In our plans, there is just about space behind the drivers seat for a raised platform that the dog could lie on while we’re driving. I’m not sure how happy he’d be there, so this is something we need to test out on another journey.
Note the dog on the bed

Plastic water

We have a very temporary water arrangement right now, with two 5 litre plastic water containers under the sink, one for fresh water, one for grey. We’ve noticed a distinct plastic taste in the water, and bitterness in our tea, which we suspect comes from chlorine in the tap water breaking down the plastics in the water containers. These aren’t Jerry cans, they’re just reused mineral water bottles; not intended to have a lifespan beyond their original use, so that could be the root of the problem. However, we’ve also noticed a similar taste in water supplies in other caravans and motorhomes, so it may not be that simple.

Draining the fridge

Our  fridge (a Dometic CRX50) is working fine, but there’s a lot of condensation which we can either wipe up on a regular basis, or drain off. We don’t have the housekeeping skills to keep wiping it up, so that means I need to build in a drain to the kitchen unit where we’ll house the fridge.

In the cab

The cab is one of the nicest places to be in the van. You’ve got a panoramic view through the huge windscreen, comfy seats that you can adjust at will, and plenty of places to store books, glasses of wine and snacks.
However, bizarrely for a van on sale in 2012, long after the death of physical music media, it’s fitted with a radio and CD player. No bluetooth connection beyond phone calls, and no line-in for an arbitrary music device. Apparently a line-in can be hacked, so that’s what we’ll have to do, in order to live in the 21st century.

Slopes

No surprise for experienced caravanists, but it’s amazing how much difference 5 degrees makes. We need to invest in some parking ramps.

Power

Our 350W solar panels and 110Ah battery have served us well with power for lighting, the fridge, and charging devices. It is summer, but we’re also in Wales, where it’s often overcast. So a tentative, “so far, so good” on that front.

Our maiden voyage

We bought the van almost exactly one month ago, and since then we’ve spent almost every spare moment working on it. It’s been enjoyable, but we didn’t spend all that money just so we’d have one more DIY project to work on.

So with some minimum viable furniture fitted, today we set out on a short 4 day trip to spend some time in the van, figuring out how we’d like to use it, and what practical considerations we need to bear in mind when building it out.

This is what I mean by minimal furniture. We just installed a temporary dog bench, so he can see to while we’re driving, a side window, and a storage unit to approximate a kitchen area.

We were both pretty excited to set out, and relieved that Loki seems to be comfortable in the van, both when we’re driving, and when we’re just hanging out. We found a beautiful spot for our first night, had a little barbecue and ate our dinner on the back step with our feet dangling out. So that’s one design lesson learned already: especially with the 270°  doors open, the back of the van can be a great place to sit, and it’s convenient to have a continuous walkway through from the side door to the back. We wouldn’t have that with many of the fixed based layouts we’ve seen, so we’re thinking about other ways to lay out that space.

It was great weather while we were out, (so not a good test of the typical British/northern-European climate), which had a few other implications:

  • We did almost all our cooking outside the van on the barbecue, or the portable Trangia meths stove, so we couldn’t really test the idea of cooking in the kitchen area of the van.
  • We were bitten by lots of midges, which reinforced the need for some sort of mesh screens around the doors, which I’ve sen on some other conversions.
  • We needed a way to wash, because we were hot and sweaty (we used a stream – still not keen on having a shower in the van) but we weren’t able to get a sense of how we’d cope with loads of wet, muddy hiking gear.
The Serpent Trail. Look at this and imagine the hot, dry, pine smell…

Normally, when we’re out in an environment like this, we’re wild camping; so properly out in the elements. It was strange to have a van to come back to, to use as a base, and to be responsible for. It was useful, but also a liability. We found ourselves drinking cups of tea sitting by the van and wondering if we were falling into the same trap as the carpark picnick-ers, drinking from flasks of coffee in the comfort of their front seats.

And we talked about the worry of leaving the van – and our possessions – while out, and whether an alarm or other security would help us feel freer to leave it behind.

We both feel very strongly that a van is a tool to help us get out into the world, not retreat from it, so we’re hyper-conscious of this issue. We need to be intentional and reflective about our behaviour, and consider this issue in all our conversion design decisions – are we building an expedition vehicle or a fortress?

xkcd: Survivorship Bias

Coincidentally, also via Hacker News, this apt comic from xkcd: Survivorship Bias.

I assume the poster’s intent (on Hacker News) was to make a comment about inspirational startup speeches. But the same could apply to the ‘drop everything and follow your dreams’ vanlife brigade.

Vanlife in the New Yorker

Appearing the in the New Yorker is a notable event in itself. This is some kind of media attention milestone, like a mention on The Late Show. Also notable that I discovered it on Hacker News, the unofficial developer / startup community message board.

The piece somewhat begs the question – it defines vanlife as having a certain demographic, and then slams those living it for conforming to that definition:

There is an undeniable aesthetic and demographic conformity in the vanlife world. Nearly all of the most popular accounts belong to young, attractive, white, heterosexual couples. “There’s the pretty van girl and the woodsy van guy,” Smith said. “That’s what people want to see.” At times, the vanlife community seems full of millennials living out a leftover baby-boomer fantasy: the Volkswagens, the neo-hippie fashions, the retro gender dynamics.

If you look for that, you’ll find it. But it’s just lazy to say that this is the vanlife aesthetic and demographic.

Photography by Jeff Minton for The New Yorker
Scrolling through King and Smith’s Instagram feed in chronological order, you can see the couple become better at tailoring the images to what their followers want. “They want to see Emily in a bikini, they want to see a sunflare, they want to see the van,” Smith said.

But the connection with social media – the uneasy blurring of life and lifestyle – is more interesting:

They decided to use their extra day in Ventura to take a photograph for one of their newest sponsors, “Outsiders,” … Smith had a particular image in mind: King sprawled in the back of the van, reading a book about Ayurveda with Penny nestled next to her, and an “Outsiders” decal featured prominently on her laptop. As Smith shot from the front seat, King tried a few different positions—knees bent; legs propped up against the window—and pretended to read the book. “Sometimes it’s more spontaneous,” she said apologetically.

“It’s about storytelling, and when you’re telling a story it’s not always spontaneous,” Smith said. “Lift your head up a little bit more, look like you’re reading.”

King positioned Penny at her feet, but the dog kept moving, distracted by grebes bobbing on the waves. Smith grew frustrated by the strong contrast between the dim van interior and the bright ocean beyond. King attempted to placate him. “Corey, this is O.K., this is O.K., this is fun,” she said.

After more than half an hour, Smith got a shot he was satisfied with. The next day, as he drove in the rain to Los Padres National Forest, King sat in the back and fixed the overexposed ocean in Photoshop. The post, when it went up, looked cozy and relaxed. King added a long caption, about how living in the van had made her reconsider what “work” actually means. “I no longer define work by money, instead seeing it as our focused action collectively creating our world,” she wrote. “Currently my work is storytelling and aligning with companies supporting our lifestyle and Earth.”

“Such a beautiful lifestyle,” one commenter wrote. “This looks like heaven,” another said.

 

Read the article here: #Vanlife, The Bohemian Social-Media Movement

Read the hand-wringing arguments about authenticity and self-commodification on Hacker News.