Vannin’ on a budget… How we’ve made vanlife work without solar power

One of the decisions that we had to make early on in our build was whether or not we wanted to invest in solar power for our van. Before we left, our focus was more geared towards saving up as much gas money as possible, and doing our best to take care of as many credit card payments as we could. At the end of the day, we needed to compromise on certain things such as our power system in order to make sure we could travel where (and as much as) we wanted to.

I’ve compiled a list and a few options if you’re in the same boat (or van!) and want some alternatives to paying for an entire solar power system. Here are a few of the biggest obstacles we’ve had to work around:

1. Keeping food without a fridge

This is probably the most important piece of the puzzle – if your goal is to save money, you have to have food on hand to cook rather than eating out for every meal (check out this post on cooking in a van) – you’ll also be way more healthy! The simple answer here is: use a cooler. There are a ton of options when it comes to which to choose so I’ll break it down by cost.

Our first cooler was a Coleman that we purchased for about $30. You really do get what you pay for, and we ended up needing to purchase ice almost every day. We have since upgraded, and now the cooler we have is a 52-quart Ozark Trail cooler; we spent about $120 purchasing it, and I would say it’s done us well so far. Driving across the country in the blazing sun in 100 degree heat, without AC, our ice melted FAST. Now that we’re in cooler weather though (40’s-50’s at night, 70-80 during the day), we can keep ice for 4-7 days without needing more.

**Helpful hint: we have found that it makes a HUGE difference to place your ice into ziploc bags rather than letting it melt inside the cooler – this makes the cooler so much easier to empty and organize, and greatly reduces soggy food situations. You can also reuse the ziplocs so you don’t waste 🙂

Ozark Pros: relatively cheap, keeps ice for several days, sturdy but easy to maneuver inside the van

Cons: how long ice is kept is easily impacted by the outside temperature, frequent-ish purchase of ice depending on your location

From our research, the best (but more expensive) option is a Yeti cooler. These run from $300-500 depending on what size you get, but will keep ice for more than a week, which is a huge deal if you’re taking long camping trips and won’t have access to somewhere you can purchase more.

Yeti pros: keeps ice longest out of most cooler options, sturdy material

Cons: highest price point as far as coolers go

Finally, our favorite pick is an Acopower battery-powered cooler, which costs between $450 and $600, again depending on size. This is on our wish list big time for a few reasons. First of all, you don’t have to worry about buying ice frequently (or at all), which also means you can avoid emptying water from your cooler, as well as dealing with soggy food if you don’t seal something correctly. The cooler battery can be charged via a wall outlet, a solar panel, or the cigarette lighter in your van. Charging via dashboard outlet takes approximately 4-5 hours, and the battery will last 10-12 hours. This cooler also has a freezer as well, which allows for ice cream, so definitely a win 🙂 The downside, however, is that if you choose to charge the battery with a solar panel, that’s an additional purchase.

Acopower pros: no need to purchase ice, freezer included, rechargeable battery

Cons: higher price point, plus the additional need to purchase a solar panel if you don’t have access to an outlet or are not driving and can’t charge using your car battery

2. Lights at nighttime

If you don’t know too much about electricity (like us), chances are you’re not interested in figuring out how to wire your van for lighting. Thankfully there are several ways around this. In our setup, we have a combination of a few different battery powered options, which have worked great for us so far, and were super easy to install. First, we purchased battery powered puck lights that turn on when you press them and are powered by AAA’s. They come with adhesive pads, so you can stick them anywhere – we have six; one above the sink, one on the ceiling of the cab, two across from one another as you enter the van, one under the bed in our storage space, and one under the shelf above our bed as a reading light. Several of the reviews on Amazon state that the batteries die quickly in these particular lights, but we haven’t found this to be the case – in six months on the road, we’ve changed the batteries once.

Another recent addition for us was these Milwaukee Flood Lights, which I highly recommend! They have a magnet on one end, as well as along the back of the light so you can attach them either parallel or perpendicular to the side of your van. Between our van and the high top inside, we have a portion of exposed metal, so this is absolutely perfect for our set up! These lights are amazing outdoor lights as well because they can attach directly to the side of the van while you’re parked. The only downside of these particular lights is that if you use rechargeable batteries, they don’t last very long, so you’ll likely need to recharge the batteries daily (you can also use regular AA’s and they work fine).

Another simple solution I’ve seen in several builds is string lights, which not only illuminate the space, but also create a fun atmosphere. You can purchase these battery powered as well, and easily attach them to the ceiling of your van.

3. Charging our devices

This was something that was a pretty big consideration for us, specifically thinking about how we would charge our laptop. For our phones, it was pretty simple – we purchased a USB port that could plug into the cigarette lighter in our dashboard, but a laptop requires more power, and a 12v outlet to plug into. We ended up choosing a 400w Ever Start Plus, which is a power inverter that also plugs into the dashboard, and has two 12v outlets and two USB ports. Larger options are available, but you need to wire them directly to the battery for them to operate and we felt that 400w was enough for our needs. Plus, it cost about $30 so it made sense to do it this way with our budget.

The biggest obstacle with this option is that the engine needs to be running in order for it to work at full capacity. The Ever Start can operate while the van is off, but not indefinitely because it will drain the battery and you might need a jump-start in the middle of the woods (guess how we know?)!

Ever Start pros: inexpensive, can fully charge phones and laptop while driving, phones can be charged while engine is off

Cons: pulls power from car battery when engine is off, larger wattage options need to be wired directly to car battery

If you need power while your engine is off, I recommend thinking about getting a power bank such as a Goal Zero, which can be charged via solar panel or while you drive. This 400w option runs about $400, so the price point is significantly higher. There are larger options available, but if cost is a factor for you it’s best to have a power bank you can charge while you drive rather than purchasing the additional solar panel, and the 400w makes the most sense without a panel in our opinion. The great thing about this brand is that it’s as simple as it gets as far as solar power – if you do choose to upgrade to solar, you can simply plug a solar panel into the power bank to charge it, no electrical knowledge required.

Goal Zero pros: power while your engine is off, can charge via cigarette lighter

Cons: more expensive than an inverter, vehicle must be on to charge unless you want to purchase a solar panel

Deciding whether or not to invest in solar power is an on-going discussion for us, but so far we’ve found that it’s not necessary in order to hit the road, and there are a ton of options aside from attaching solar panels to the roof of the van. By choosing other cost-effective options, we’ve been able to travel a lot more with the money we’ve saved, so for us the compromise has been totally worth it! As always, everything we’ve mentioned here is a product of our own research and experience, and won’t necessarily be the best options for everyone, so please ask questions and explore your options, because there are plenty! Thank you for reading! 🙂

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Van upgrades

Before we hit the road this time we had big plans for making our space a little more live-able and homey, and we thought we would share some of the upgrades we made!

First of all, one of the most simple but most impactful changes for us was adjusting our ceiling. If you read our post, Overcoming our Ceiling Challenge, you already know that we were waking up staring up at blank silver insulation every day, which felt very unfinished, and a little creepy. After much trial and error, we found the miracle that is Peel and stick wallpaper. This was a game-changer, and now our ceiling is finished, and gives us something interesting to look at.

The next thing we did was add an additional cabinet on the side of the van opposite the sliding door. We already had one that we picked up on the road, and we decided to add another and also create some counter space. The cabinet we found in my parent’s basement (thanks mom and dad!), and we purchased a piece of plywood to use as the countertop. I spray painted the new cabinet, and when we took a look at the plywood, it seemed unfinished so we decided to add some final touches.

At first I was planning to use the remaining wallpaper from the ceiling to cover the countertop, but we wanted something waterproof; our cheapest and best option turned out to be vinyl floor tile (the one we got came from Home Depot, but we found this one on Amazon that is very similar if you’re looking for an affordable option). The one we chose gives our countertop a granite-esque feel, and makes a lot of sense for our space. The two cabinets didn’t line up perfectly, so we made a diagonal cut and then cut each individual tile to fit against the edge of the plywood counter.

Underneath the counter, we installed our Banana hammock, aka hanging fruit basket. If you have a van, or even if you don’t, I highly recommend one of these! It keeps our fruit from getting smashed against the side of the van while we drive, and makes it easily accessible all the time. We knew we would place it in between the two cabinets, so when we installed the second one, we measured them so that the hammock would fit against each one. We then put in a small screw on either side through each cabinet so that it would stay put.

Speaking of cabinets, our friend Pat hooked us up with an amazing cabinet/extra storage space above the cab of the van. With a few 2×4’s and some plywood, Pat created a ton of extra storage for us in a few hours, which would have taken us a few days to figure out. He even included a small switch in the middle of the two doors to keep them closed while we drive. We now use the cabinet for extra blankets and cold weather clothes.

We also updated our sink drainage system by eliminating our waste water tank. While on this trip, we’ve tried to make a lot of changes as far as using products that are environmentally friendly, and want to be sure that we leave as small a footprint as possible. By switching to soap and even toothpaste that is biodegradable, we were able to safely eliminate our waste water tank and let our sink drain outside the van. Even so, we try to do dishes in a parking lot rather than while we’re camping.

It was a little tricky to configure this system because we purchased our sink on Craigslist and didn’t have specific parts for the drain, but we found creative solution by using a Rinse-roo hose, which is actually a hose made for washing your dog. The end is flexible, so we could simply wrap it around the drainage piece under the sink and allow the hose to run out the sliding door. Eventually, we’ll drill a hole in the floor where the hose can sit permanently, but for now it drains out the door when the door is open.

It’s not perfect, but now we can carry an extra 7 gallons of water along with us everywhere we go!

Finally, another one of the most crucial updates we made was a new stereo system (if you know us, this is a big deal)! When we purchased our van, the speakers were blown and we were using a Bose speaker as our sound system, but Dan found a cheap-but-nice Bluetooth system on Amazon, which has completely changed our music situation. The unit comes with a backup camera, which is huge for us in such a large vehicle. This was a great option for us, because it was affordable and not a name brand, and it does everything we need. We also got some new Speakers, which were easy to install and replaced the blown ones we had.

There will be more coming in the future, but for now, these updates have made our home on wheels so much more comfortable! If you want to start a conversation about vanlife, or have any questions about anything we’ve done, please reach out! Also please note that we’re newbies not experts, so everything we share with you is what has worked for us, not necessarily what is the best for everyone 🙂 Thanks for reading!

*This post includes affiliate links – as an Amazon Affiliate site we earn on qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you.

How Does Our Sink Work?

We’ve tried pretty hard to have as many homey comforts in our van as possible to make life easier. One of these that is essential is running water, which we have made happen through a water system that we constructed. Our water system consists of two seven gallon tanks, a foot pump, tubing, a faucet, and a stainless steel sink. At first, our plan was to build all of our cabinets, etc. ourselves, but as we ran out of time and recognized the limits of our handiness, we decided the best move was to purchase something that was already put together.

Before we could move forward with a cabinet to house the system, we had to build the system itself. The most important part is the foot pump – we purchased a Diaphragm Foot Galley Pump from Amazon, which moves water from the fresh water tank through the tubing, to the faucet. It was important to me that we get a foot-operated pump rather than a hand pump so that we have both hands free while using the sink, and it has been worth it so far!

The pump pulls water through the tubing, out of our fresh water tank, through the pump, and up to the faucet. The used water comes through the drain and into a gray water holding tank which we empty periodically as needed.

As far as the cabinet goes, we purchased a bathroom sink cabinet from Home Depot that was already put together. We removed the porcelain sink from the top of the cabinet, and installed our own stainless steel sink along with a plywood counter top which we cut to fit the outline of the sink. I then stained the plywood to prevent water damage, and to make it look nicer 🙂 .

We needed to cut out a place for the foot pump to come through the bottom, and installed the pump underneath the cabinet so that the lever is accessible, but not in the way. The pump itself is screwed directly to the floor, and the cabinet is attached to the floor and to our bed frame on the side.

The double-cabinet doors open up to house both 7-gallon water tanks (we also have a spare fresh water tank that we store under the bed so we can bring more water with us when camping). It’s a little bit of a tight squeeze, but they ended up fitting perfectly!

Overall, this system has worked really well for us so far. Looking ahead, I’d love to add in some additional counter space – this means we may need to move the sink cabinet and water system to the opposite side of the van away from the sliding door, so we’ll see! We’re learning that this project will continue to be a work in progress as we go. I’ll add more pictures soon – thanks for reading! 🙂

*This post includes affiliate links – as an Amazon Affiliate site we earn on qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you.

Why did we choose vanlife?

When we first started telling people that we were planning to take off in a van, the most common reactions were, “you’re doing what?”, “what do you mean you’ll be living in a van?”, and “how is that going to work?”. We’re still working a lot of that last piece out, but I can definitely pick out a few experiences that led to our decision.

The idea for a road trip first came up as we were planning our wedding last year. We briefly threw around the idea of having a small wedding and using what was left of the budget to take a trip, but that was quickly shot down by everyone we know who loves a good party and wanted to be part of our day.

Since then, we had put the idea of hitting the road on the back burner. Both of us had great jobs, we had a new house, and life was good.

For my birthday in December, Dan got me a trip to Vermont in March, which we decided to turn into a mini road trip. We went snowboarding for two days, then drove up to Canada through Montreal, over to Niagara Falls, and down into Buffalo for our flight home. At this point, we had recently found out that our lease was ending, so we had some choices to make and some things to talk about. I was loving the trip, and Vanlife had been a whisper in the back of my mind since we drove out of Baltimore. As we sat at a bar in Buffalo waiting to head to the airport to go home, I said, “do you think we can do this for real?”. We loved the road trip and had an amazing time, why not figure out a way to make this permanent? While we sat there, we promised each other that even through the tough questions and difficult conversations we knew we would face, we would stick to the plan and get ready to hit the road.

Personally, I have always wanted this freedom. And for the two of us, it seemed like everything was falling into place to make this happen. Since our lease was ending, we needed a new place to live; I absolutely loved my job, but have different career goals, and we don’t have kids yet (despite Dan’s intense baby fever). If there was any time that made sense, it was now.

As we begin this journey, I truly am grateful for this privilege and freedom, and for me, this is what it’s all about. We don’t have a set destination, and I think that’s really beautiful. We can create our own destination as we go. I think that this experience will open our eyes to how other people live within our own country, and will allow us to tap into a community of people who have decided that grabbing opportunity is worth more than watching life pass by. There is so much more out there than we know, and much more outside of our comfort zone that we can access if we reach for it. We are creating our own home on the road with each other (and with our pup), and this is only the beginning! Cheers to a brand new life and a brand new journey. Thanks for checking us out!