“Don’t shit where you eat.” It’s a heed of caution, an expression of warning. It’s also dead wrong if you’re a van-lifer. Since moving into a van, shitting where I eat is now a luxury. Compared to my years of car and tent camping, van life is glamorous; from the comforts of a home or an apartment, it’s an adjustment to say the least.
I’ve been shitting where I eat for nearly a month now and at the time of this writing, it’s been nearly four weeks without a traditional shower. Yet, I couldn’t be happier. In a world where pictures depict perfection and in a time where a post often conceals more than it shares, I, and many others, crave the balance between authenticity and judgment, between reality and perception. #vanlife seems to come with a certain romance, an intrigue into the tiny life of freedom. But the questions we get more than “What’s your Instagram?” or “Are you Youtubers?” are: “Where do you go to the bathroom?” and “How do you shower?”
Our tiny home holds a full sized bed, gas stove/oven, sink with running water, refrigerator, two bench seats, all of our belongings, a retractable table and a portable toilet. This toilet pulls out right below our dinner table… I know because I just used it. Afterall, it’s 10am and I just had a nice cup of tea. The dinner table is also the desk, and in the same spot I went number two, I’ll write this blog. A blog about all the juicy realities of living in a nomadic home with a living space about 6’ wide by 12’ long, with a couple inches to spare above my 6’ tall frame when I stand up. Because let’s face it, #vanlife isn’t, and shouldn’t be, for everyone.
Vans come in many different makes, sizes and layouts. And van-lifers also come in many different classifications with different needs, wants and levels of luxury. We’re what you’d call full-timers. Meaning this is our home; we live in it full time as opposed to weekenders or part-timers. Everything we need is right here in our 48 square foot house. I’d been downsizing my belongings for a while and now that everything I need is tucked in a van I share with my partner I must say – I still own too many things. My wardrobe pre-van life could be classified as “repetitive yet functional”. And now, after getting tired of unused clothes falling out of my one designated cabinet, I can declare, I still own too much clothing and I look forward to the time I can ditch the stuff I don’t use. And in a culture where more seems to be better, I know after years of experimenting, it’s not true for me. The less excess stuff I have, the happier I seem to be. I also know it wouldn’t be feasible if the two of us weren’t committed to staying organized and keeping the space clean. Our space is too limited to have clutter, let dirty dishes pile up or stack used clothes on top of the bed.
We’re also what you’d call off-grid’ers. Meaning we don’t use campgrounds, we almost never stay in cities, and we never hookup our van to an electrical source or a water line. We can easily carry enough water and food for a full week. Our 30 gallons of clean water are refilled in five separate six-gallon jugs. A different jug holds our dirty sink (gray) water, which we empty manually each time we replace our fresh water. Under our bed is a storage area we refer to as “the garage”. Down there you’ll find our outdoor gear, tools, extra belongings, water storage and the electrical bank. Three solar panels are secured on top of our van, they are the sole charging source for the batteries that power a host of 12volt appliances such as our refrigerator, roof fan, water pump, dimmable LED lights, and outlets for charging our phones, laptops and kindle. We chase good weather by spending our summers in the cool mountains and coastlines and plan to head south when the seasons shift. I’ll report back on how the solar does in the winter, but for now, it’s been providing way more power than we can consume. It was one of the harder aspects to learn and build but our self-sustaining lifestyle has been incredibly rewarding and gives us the freedom to live in a van… down by the river!
THE SEARCH CONTINUES
So, where do you sleep? Well the goal each day is to be somewhere surrounded by nature, away from people. Fresh water or a vista is always an added hope in our daily search for the night’s parking spot. It doesn’t need to be beautiful but it better be free. How do we pull this off? Thanks to our incredible public lands we scour maps (physical and digital) for National Forest Land, where off dirt roads you can sleep in any pull out for free (always be sure to check for restrictions and honor the land by keeping it clean and free from wildfires). Searching for a spot is a skill I’ve worked at for the last nine years. And while its benefits of seclusion, beauty and saving money (one month of campground fees can cost anywhere from $300-$1500) it certainly isn’t for those that need the structure, security or mental stability of planning out your trips and not worrying about where you’re going to sleep at night. I’d say this is the second most challenging aspect of van life for me and worthy of its own blog where I can share some entertaining stories of this process.
I SWEAR I DON’T SMELL
A few nights back, after a long hike, Sarah and I plunged into the clear waters of the South Santiam River. The water was probably in the 40s (F) and the tall trees on either bank shaded every splotch of land insight. “We haven’t had a shower in so long!” I let out a crazed laugh as the frigid water washed away the eco-friendly soap.
In fact, it’s been 27 days and counting without a shower. I’ve been submerged in 15 lakes, 3 rivers, 2 creeks, and when those aren’t around… it’s our little friend Sebastian, a one-gallon weed sprayer from Home Depot, that gets the job done. Never would I have bet I could go that long without any hot water, a shower or a bath. Mainly because I love being clean, especially before bed. So, I assure you, I don’t smell. The waters are often crystal clear and the icy temperatures soothe my sore hiking muscles. It’s the plunges in the lakes and rivers that make me feel the most alive, and one of my favorite freedoms of van life!
I also recognize I don’t have a menstrual cycle or legs to shave, but check out Sarah’s perspective here.
I SWEAR OUR VAN DOESN’T SMELL
“I think that’d be a good spot,” Sarah and I scouted out a public restroom in Mount Shasta, California; it was my turn to empty Prince Eric, our portable cassette toilet that’s made for RVs and boats. I detached the cassette, the lower section of our toilet, threw on my mask and went in. I turned the valve and leaned it at the right angle over the flush toilet as a brown liquid rushed into the porcelain. I quickly lifted the cassette but it was too late, the momentum sent a splash of the foul liquid out of the bowl and onto my flip-flop. And this, this is definitely the worst part of van life.
If you’re still with me, kudos. I’ll say the liquid actually doesn’t smell. Nor does it ever smell in the van. A chemical breaks it down, however, it still looks (and sounds) disgusting. While there are other options on where to go number two, and the types of toilets you can put in a van, I’d still go this route. This is a luxury in my world as it gives us the freedom to not have to squat in the woods or be near a privy. A luxury I didn’t have car and tent camping.
And there you have it: we don’t shower, rarely know where we’ll be sleeping, and we shit where we eat. My insights for success so far have been: the right van, the right layout, an amazing partner who’s into this way of life, and a great attitude. And while I’ve never felt more aligned with and grateful for my lifestyle, it definitely ain’t for everyone.