It’s officially November, and for us that means it’s time for some anniversary celebrations! A year ago we launched this blog, quit our jobs, and jumped full steam into our van build. We’re also well past six months on the road, and we thought it would be helpful to reflect on what we’ve learned about living in a van. So we decided to compile a list of what we’d do differently with our van build (and what we would keep). Enjoy!
We’ve been on the road full time for seven months now. Our van has taken us everywhere from New Mexico, North Carolina, Michigan and Wisconsin, to Washington, Montana, Utah and California. We’ve seen endless amounts of incredible beauty and become part of an inspiring community of incredible people. There’s no turning back after this. We’re dedicating ourselves to sustaining this awesome lifestyle, as well as helping others break free and get on the road as easily as possible.
After living in our van for this long, we’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. We love our van, but there’s so much you just can’t foresee before hitting the road. We have a list of tweaks and upgrades to make when we’re stationary for the holidays, and we’re pumped to knock them out and write about them here.
But for everything we would do differently, there’s something else we would keep (including some unintentional features that ended up being really useful). Here’s our list of 5 things we would change about our van build, and 5 things we would never change.
5 Things We Would Change About Our Van Build
1. Install an Awning Right Away
Adding an awning to our van has been on our list of upgrades for months. Awnings are great for all types of weather. They provide shade in the sun and shelter in the rain. It seems like everyone we’ve met on the road has the awesome ARB awning installed, and it drastically expands the usable living space of any van.
Since we like to DIY everything, we made the decision to wait on an awning until we were stationary long enough to design and build our own. If we had to do it again, we’d install some sort of awning before hitting the road – but for now our makeshift tarp setup shelters us just fine from the Northern California rain.
2. Get a Maxxfan Deluxe (Instead of a Fan-Tastic Vent)
We’ve already written a detailed blog post about our experience with the Fan-Tastic Vent 7350. It’s a fine product, but the lack of a built-in rain cover is a fatal flaw. You need ventilation in all weather when you live in a vehicle, and the lack of a rain cover means the Fan-Tastic Vent is pretty much unusable if there’s any rain. Sure, Fan-Tastic makes an aftermarket vent cover, but it’s a bit pricey and it adds a lot of bulk.
The Maxxfan Deluxe has a low profile built-in rain cover, and it’s cheaper than the equivalent Fan-Tastic vent. Fan-Tastic (and parent company Dometic) makes quality products that we use in our van (we LOVE Dometic’s alcohol stove and we highly recommend their fridge), but until they produce a vent fan with a built-in rain cover it’s a no brainer to go with a Maxxfan Deluxe instead.
3. Install a Roof Rack for Mounting Our Solar Panels
When we hooked up our solar, we mounted the panels directly onto our van’s fiberglass topper. Doing so was a huge pain due to the weird shape of our high top, and we had to come up with some creative solutions. It works fine, but after living with it and seeing other people’s setups, we’d mount the solar panels on a roof rack if we did it again.
Having the solar panels permanently fixed to our roof means it would be a pain in the ass to take them off if we needed to. It means we lose out on roof storage – we can’t exactly slide a surfboard underneath our solar panels like we could a roof rack. It also provides a spot to attach things like awnings and road showers. And a roof rack would give us a flat, easy surface to mount our solar panels instead of the crazy curves of a fiberglass topper.
4. Soundproof the Van During the Insulation Process
We didn’t add any soundproofing to our van during the build process, and we really wish we had. From day one on the road we’ve had issues with road noise, which makes it difficult to carry on a conversation or listen to a podcast while driving down the highway.
If we had to do it again, we’d add a layer of soundproofing material during the insulation process. Ripping out the carpet up front and soundproofing the cab is definitely on our list of upgrades when we have downtime.
5. Better Clothes Storage Solution
The best thing about high top conversion vans is all the overhead storage options. Once we gutted our van, we discovered tons of empty space above the cab and above the rear that’s perfect for storage cabinets. We keep our food above the cab, and our clothes closet is in the rear above our bed platform.
The food storage works great, but our clothes storage has turned out to be less than ideal. When we first hit the road we just stacked our clothes and shoved them in there, but that got messy quickly. The closet is very deep but not very tall, which makes it tough to access the stuff at the back.
We then picked up a couple of clothes organizer bags that work better, but it’s a pain to pull out this huge bag every time we need a pair of socks.
Update: We’ve since bought a set of smaller packing cubes that let us organize our clothes and make them a lot easier to access. It’s been working well so far!
5 Things We’re Keeping No Matter What
1. Manual Foot Pump Water System
We can’t rave enough about our Whale Systems Gusher Galley Foot Pump. It’s easy to install and easy to use. It really helps us pay attention to conserving our water supply, and the foot controls make it simple to wash dishes with both hands. This foot pump is made for marine use, but it’s also perfect for vanlife.
We highly, highly, highly recommend incorporating a foot pump into any van build. It’s much more convenient than a hand pump, and it’s easier to hook up than an electric pump. We love it so much we’re planning on installing one whenever we eventually build a tiny house on a badass piece of property somewhere.
2. Legit Solar Power Setup
We didn’t want to constantly worry about electricity on the road, so we decided to go big with our solar power setup from the very beginning and bought a 400-watt kit from Renogy. With 300-watts of solar on our roof (and another 100-watt panel on a portable PVC frame stashed in the trunk), we have much more capacity than most vandwellers.
And it’s definitely come in handy. Many other vanlifers with less capacity constantly have to worry about keeping their fridge running or looking for a place to plug in, but we rarely do. We’re 100% off grid, and we can keep our fridge running and blast fans all day and night without having to worry too much about our battery voltage.
But even with this much solar, we do have to pay attention to energy consumption when we’re in the forest or in overcast weather for more than five days or so – which is another reason we’re glad we don’t have a smaller system. And, while our solar setup definitely wasn’t cheap, it still cost less than the (easy to use but a bit overpriced) Goal Zero Yeti.
3. Exposed Metal from the Van Frame
This was one of those unintentional features that ended up being awesome. After working on our van for months and delaying our departure date several times, we were ready to leave some things unfinished and just hit the road. So we decided to wait on covering up all of the exposed metal from the van frame, thinking we would slap some plywood on at a later date.
But the metal turned out to be really useful for sticking things to. Now our exposed metal holds up a variety of things like our magnetic bottle opener, Goal Zero lantern, magnetic clips, an AccuRite thermometer, and souvenir magnets we’ve collected on our travels. We’re thinking of covering it with some nicer looking sheet metal eventually, but either way the exposed metal is here to stay.
Update: We actually decided to insulate this area and cover it up with fabric. The ability to magnet things was super convenient, though!
4. A Seat That’s Also a Drum
Our van’s kitchen counter is too low for standing but too high for sitting on the floor, so we knew we needed something to sit on while cooking and washing dishes. We love jamming and playing music, so we figured if we need a seat it might as well be a drum too – which is why we picked up a Meinl cajon box drum to use as our seat.
Our cajon is the perfect height for our van, and it lets us rock out whenever we want. It comes in handy during impromptu drum circles at Descend on Bend and any other time we’re playing music with a group of people. It also serves as a repository for the various stickers we’ve collected on the road. If you’re musically-inclined and need a seat for your van, consider picking up a cajon!
5. Reflective (and Insulating) Curtains
Jayme handmade reversible curtains that have Insul-Shine reflective batting on one side and man, are they the shit! The reflective surface acts as a radiant heat barrier, and depending on the weather we can deflect sunlight away from the van on hot days or trap heat inside when it’s cold.
It makes a noticeable difference, and really helps keep our van comfortable in any season or climate. We are planning on making some improvements to how they attach to the windows, but having reversible reflective curtains is easily one of our van’s favorite features.
Vanlife (and Life in General) is Always a Work in Progress
Perfection, as the saying goes, is the enemy of the good. If we had waited until our van was absolutely perfect in every way, we would have never hit the road. And that’s what vanlife is ultimately about – getting out there and creating your own existence instead of sitting around waiting for permission.
The great thing about a DIY van build is that you can always change, tweak, and upgrade. What works for us might not work for you. That awesome idea you had during the build process may turn out to be a total headache, and that random mistake may turn out to be one of your favorite features.
There’s a lot you won’t know about your van before you live in it – so just get out there, experience the awesomeness of the road, and make the changes you need to when you can!
Thanks for reading! We’ve loved having you all with us on our journey over the past year, and we’re stoked for many more years of nomadic living. For more van build guides, vanlife tips, and awesome travel photos, don’t forget to follow us on Instagram @gnomad_home and on Facebook. Cheers!