First Month on the Road: Lessons Learned, Van Report and Tales from the Road.

First Month on the Road: Lessons Learned, Van Report and Tales from the Road.

Tales-First-Month-Heading

We’re celebrating our first month on the road! It’s time to take a pause and look back.

 

Lessons Learned

While we don’t miss our house and we felt home almost immediately in the van, full-time #vanlife is not a simple as it sounds.

1- Household tasks are performed more frequently in the van. Washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, organizing stuff, etc.; it’s all done multiple times a day or things get messy! Don’t feel like doing the dishes right after dinner? Waking up SUCKS when dirty dishes are on the countertop (the countertop is the only flat surface in the van, we use it for everything…). So don’t say goodbye to your routine just yet…

2- Showering outside at 55F when it’s windy and no sun is NO-FUN. A proper shower is probably what we miss the most. We’re working on an super-basic-lifesaver-interior-shower-for-winter, but we really wonder if that will do it…

3- Don’t even try to be super-efficient in the van; the name of the game is ONE THING AT THE TIME. See, our kitchen is right in the middle of the bedroom and the living room. Here’s is a decision tree I (Antoine) elaborated for when I plan on doing something productive in the van:

Vanlife Decision Tree

 

4- It’s easy to pin a bunch of points on the map, but distances are longer than they appear!  We rather ride our bikes than being on the road, but like it or not driving takes a good part of our day.

5- A few years ago, we were trying to decide if we could afford this trip or not; there were many things to account for (savings, house selling price, van conversion cost, US/CDN dollars rate exchange, etc., etc.), but one of them was the VANLIFE ACTUAL COST. We had to make assumptions and guesstimates to determine our travel budget. But finally, here is our very first actual report (for September 2017): faroutride.com/vanlife-actual-cost/




 

Van Report

The last two years of so were spent overthinking & executing our van build (layout, components, materials, electrical system, heating, cooling, coffee system,  etc, etc, etc). We’re happy to report that the van is performing as planned! We did our homework and now it’s payback time, yes! Here’s a quick report:

The Van

After speaking with some Sprinter folks, we’re relief we went for the Transit as we don’t expect major maintenance costs. Now that we’re fully loaded (see our Weight Report) and that we reached the west side, we’re definitely not getting KOM on the climbs with our 3.7L engine, but it still does the job. It helps a lot to use the SelectShift (manual shifting) because we find that the programming waits too long before downshifting to a lower gear while going up a hill (with cruise control turned on); by the time the Transit “decide” to downshift, we already lost too much speed and it has to downshift 2 gears instead of one. We’re still happy with our 3.7L, but we might hesitate for the Ecoboost option if we had to start over again…

We’re doing 20 MPG when crossing the prairies (no hills AT ALL, going at 62 MPH), then about 16-17 MPG in the mountains (again we never exceed 62 MPH, because we’re not in a hurry…), which is somewhat disappointing. But then, we have nothing in our favor –> High weight, High-Roof, All-Terrain tires, 4.10 transmission ratio.

 

Electrical System

(For a complete understanding of our Electrical System, click here: Electrical System Design.)

No surprises here, it’s going as planned. The battery state-of-charge (SOC) normally doesn’t get below 80% and is getting charged almost exclusively by our solar panels, except when there are a few days of bad weather then we top up the battery via the alternator. As we mentioned a few times, we would install a Sterling Battery-to-Battery charger (Amazon) if we had to do it over (so we don’t have to think of charging the battery from the alternator, it’s all automatic with the Sterling charger). Winter will be the real test for our electrical system, so more to come…

 

Water

(For a complete understanding of our Water System, click here: Pressurized Water System)

We last about 5-6 days before our 25 gallons fresh water tank (Amazon) runs empty (we expect much less when we’ll be mountain biking and showering every day…). Filling our water tank was one of our concerns (because we don’t sleep in serviced RV parks), but it turns out we never had an issue finding a source of water. So far we almost exclusively went to gas station (we ask if we can use the water faucet, then fill up both our gas and water tank!). Sanidumps.com is a good resource to find water: just Google “Sani Dumps Montana”, first search result is normally sanidumps.com, access it, then click the Google Maps icon to see the map of Montana (or any state…).

As for the grey water, the 4 gallons aquatainer we’re using now has to be emptied every day to ensure it doesn’t spill, and that’s a bit irritating in the long run. We’re thinking about installing a valve to give us the ability to get rid of the water from the sink either into a container to be emptied (like we’re doing now) OR directly outside through the floor.

And finally, a “normal” shower is what we missed the most, as showering outside is a lot more logistics and not as satisfying! But at least, we are clean!

 

Composting Toilet

Here is our installation writeup: Composting Toilet Installation.

This is a major relief (sorry), especially for Isabelle because, you know, it’s a bit more complicated for women… We use gas station or we just go outside (far from civilization) the more we can, but sometimes it’s just not possible; that’s when we love our Nature’s Head (Amazon) the most. We would definitely install it again if we had to do it over. You might get away without it for weekend trips, but for full-time living it’s just so-much-better. We empty the liquid tank every 3 or 4 days if using the composting toilet exclusively, or every week if using other toilets. We finally emptied the solid on September 28; so that’s almost 1 month capacity, yes!

 

Insulation

Thinsulate Installation

Winter is not full-on yet, but it’s quite cold here in Montana. At 40F, we don’t need to use the Webasto heater during the night (if the van is warm when going to bed, either by cooking with our oven/stove or by using the van’s heater before arriving at our spot); we use the Webasto heater only in the morning to make ourselves comfortable. At around 32F we program the Webasto to start at around 6 a.m. to keep us comfortable. In other words, we’re satisfied with the Thinsulate insulation, but we think insulated window covers are much needed too.

 

Webasto Air Heater

Webasto Air Heater Installation

This is the big FAIL of the conversion. When working, this heater is the best thing EVER: it pushes a lot of heat and it’s a dry heat, so there is no moisture in the van. Plus, it uses the gasoline (or diesel) from the van’s tank, so you don’t have to monitor the combustible level. It’s SO good. However, we had issues last year with our unit getting clogged with soot after only 200 hours running. We had our unit cleaned, but then the symptoms are coming back again (after approximately 150 hours). So we won’t have heat for long, we have to act! We will attempt to replace the combustion chamber ourselves, then adjust it for a high-altitude setting (lean mix: more oxygen/less fuel) since a rich mix of fuel/air is prone to soot (carbon) deposit in the combustion chamber. If it doesn’t work, we’re not sure what to do…

 

Slide-Out Bike Rack

Installation Post: faroutride.com/slide-out-bike-rack/

During the “design” phase of the van, we emphasis on simplifying the repetitive tasks. Loading/Unloading our bikes repetitively is such a NICE problem and we’re glad we went with the Slide-Out Bike Rack system! It allowed us to pack our garage full of gear while keeping access to our bikes! There is no frame at the back, so it’s easy to sweep the dust out of the rack.

Slide-Out Bike Rack Van

 

Coffee

Our coffee system is JUST THE BEST THING EVER! We love it!

 

Overnight Spots

Not exactly a “van report”, but it’s very related. We won’t lie, we’ve been using Walmart from time to time; it’s the easy (and kind of depressing) option in urban areas. But, we’re not urban so we look for National Forest and BLM (Bureau of Land Management); these are public lands and sometimes disperse campgrounds are FREE in these areas. If you like being surrounded by other RV’ers to feel safe, the disperse campgrounds are not an option, you better stick to Walmart…

Our favorite way to find free campsites is freecampsites.net and ioverlander.com. Our third option is Google Map (in satellite view), then we make sure we’re in a National Forest or BLM we use the app “US Public Lands“. Here is what we mean by “dispersed campground”:

St Mary, Montana

 

Helena, Montana

 

Homestake Pass, Montana

 

Lake Inez, Lolo National Forest, Montana:




 

Tales from the Road

Plans Are Made to be Changed

Plans-are-made-to-be-changed

 

Plan A: Home, Virginia, Louisianna, Texas, etc = CANCELLED!

Plan A involved riding our bikes & follow the nice weather.

1- Just a few days prior our departure, Antoine strained his thumbs in a insignificant bike crash (isn’t always the case that injuries happens in stupid crashes??). At Antoine’s surprise, a thumbs is actually much more useful than liking meaningless stuff on Facebook. So there goes riding our bikes.

Thumbs Down
Thumb’s Down.

 

2- As it turns out, it’s pretty darn hot in Louisiana and Texas at this time of the year. Plus, wind can be somewhat of an issue (if you’re reading this a few years later, here’s a hint: Harvey) so there goes follow the nice weather.

 

Plan B: North to South to follow the 60F ish weather = CANCELLED!

Plan B involved driving recklessly from home to North of Montana, then slooooowly drive south as autumn comes to follow the nice weather (55-60F) until we reach the USA/Mexican border in December.

 

1. We did reach the North of Montana and according to our plans we would arrive just before autumn, nice! We were welcomed with this:Pow-Alert-Montana
Welcome to Montana Summer

Alright. A POW alert normally gets us excited, but it’s a bit too soon as we’re minded to ride our bikes and our Webasto heater is acting weird (again).

2. POW alert or not, being from the East-Coast, we neglected the effect of the elevation in our planning: it’s already cold everywhere at higher elevations and snow is imminent.

 

Plan C: Enjoy Montana for the next 2 weeks while we still can, then drive recklessly south to the desert where October and November are prime mountain biking season.

Yeah obviously. We should have tough of that before.

This is the actual first-month-on-the-road map:

 

Getting from the East Coast to the West Coast

Crossing the prairies is an endurance test. Miles and miles and MILES of nothing except a straight horizon line and plenty of truckstops.

 

Still, there were a few things worth the detour along the road:

Taughannock Falls
Taughannock Falls, NY

 

Watkins Glen Gorge, NY
Watkins Glen Gorge, NY

 

 

The Badlands, South Dakota

Where is this? See it on Google Maps

After many days of straight-line-cruise-control-driving, our eyes stumbles upon the Badlands in South Dakota. We then knew we made it on the other side.

 

Up In Smoke

2017 was the third-worst year on record for Montana. Second-worst year for B-C. It’s bad. But wildfires are a natural thing, it’s part of the renewal process; so it be. If you ever crossed the prairies to get to the west coast, you know that reaching the mountains is a grandiose spectacle and so we expected something magical. Too bad, because smoke is pretty much everywhere and sometimes we can’t really tell the difference between the horizon line / mountains / clouds.

Black Hills National Forest
Up in smoke in Black Hills National Forest, South Dakota

 

Black Hills National Forest, South Dakota

Where is this? See it on Google Maps

This forest is home of the iconic Mount Rushmore and we were going to a free campsite just behind it. So we snapped a picture from the road (10$ entrance fee waived), then camped for free (20-30$ saved); it’s like 40$ in our pocket right-there!

Mount-Rushmore-Free-Picture
Free picture. YES!!

 

Mount-Rushmore-Free-Campsite
Free Campsite. YES!!

 

Devil Towers, Wyoming

Where is this? See it on Google Maps

Isabelle being a climber, it was a real challenge not to go climb this thing. The initial plan was to bring our climbing gear in the van, but after fitting the mountain biking/snowboarding/splitboarding gear, we had to make a choice. The van is big, but not that big…

Devil Towers, WY
Devil Towers, WY

 

Isabelle Devil Towers Wyoming

 

Big Horn National Forest, Wyoming

Where is this? See it on Google Maps

On our way to Montana, the temperatures got up to 86F (30°C) and our canadian cooling system was overheating. We decided to climb the road heading up to Big Horn National Forest; that would take us from 5000′ to 9000′ elevation and we were welcome with a pleasant 60F (15°C). Mission accomplished!

We took the opportunity to hike and spend the night (for free. did we mention we love national forest?).

Coney Lake, Bighorn National Forest
Coney Lake, Bighorn National Forest

On our way down, while we did not expect anything, the view was not bad at all:

Bighorn (on the way to Ten Sleep)
Bighorn (on the way to Ten Sleep)

 

Duck Lake, Montana

Where is this? See it on Google Maps

While you are wasting your time on this very website, WE are getting valuable benefit from it: virtual friends. We got invited to a van meetup some virtual friends organized at Duck Lake and it was a great occasion to meet really nice people, share van ideas and get some intel about Montana.

Duck Lake Van Meetup
Duck Lake, Montana

 

Glacier National Park, Montana

Where is this? blabla Google Maps

Grinnell Glacier Trail is well worth the hike if you are in the area, the view is spectacular! It’s a 10 miles hike, 2300ft elevation gain and it’s not that difficult!

Many Glacier National Park, Montana

 

Whitefish, Montana

Say what? Google Maps

Whitefish in Latin means “Back to the shred”. Indeed, this is where Antoine got back on his mountain bike and it felt GOOD.

Mountain Bike Jesus
Thank God! Whitefish Mountain Resort on Trailforks

 

Isabelle Spencers
Isabelle is getting some too. Spencers Mountain on Trailforks.

 

But yeah, we got here a bit late in the season…

Whitefish Resort MTB Snow

 

… everything above 6000′ is covered in white POW:

 

But there was still some brown POW left at Whitefish Resort

Brown POW

 

… and some beer left at Bonsai Brewing Project!

Bonsai!

 

Rides:

Check out Whitefish Trail on Trailforks.

And here’s our Strava ride:

Check out Spencer Mountain on Trailforks.

Our Strava ride:

Check out Whitefish Resort on Trailforks.

Strava:

 

Beardance, Montana

Check out Beardance on Trailforks.

We made a quick stop south of Big Fork to ride a trail called “Beardance”. It’s an out-and-back trail; it’s a little steep and technical to climb, but we were rewarded at the descent!

Here is a short raw clip from the bottom section:

 

Helena, Montana

Google Maps

Helena was good to us. Good beer, good ice cream, good food, summer weather, free shuttles… FREE SHUTTLES?!

Helena Free Trail Rider Shuttle
Studies show that cities with free shuttles WIN.

 

Helena with a view
Isabelle enjoying the view before charging down

 

Helena Ridge MTB
It’s nice and quiet up Helena Ridge

 

Rides:

Check out Helena’s South Hills on Trailforks

Entertainement & Rent Money

Helena Ridge & Show me the Horse

Emmett’s & Upper Decker

 

Homestake Pass, Montana

This trail got it all: long climb, long descent, nice view points… AND the trailhead is accessible from the dispersed campground spot, nice!

Campground/Trailhead
Pipestone Summit
We made it to the top!

 

Check out CTD Pipestone-Homestake on Trailforks.

Our Strava ride:

 

That’s a wrap!

We’ve pedaled 110 miles (180 km) and climbed over 20 000 feet (6200 meters) over the last week and a half, plus today is the last day of our first month; to celebrate (and relax) we went from mountain-bikers to super-soakers:

Renova Hot Springs

 




 

What’s Next?

Winter is making a comeback in the next few days, but we have a plan! Hopefully we got better at planning…

Winter-Riding-Plan
It’s time to head south

 

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

 


All Tales From The Road since the beginning of times:


 

 

 

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About-Us-Narrow

Hello! We’re Isabelle and Antoine 🙂 In 2017, we sold our house (and everything in it), quit our engineering careers, and moved into our self-built campervan. We’ve been on the road since then, and every day is an opportunity for a new adventure; we’re chasing our dreams, and hopefully it inspires others to do the same!

33 thoughts on “First Month on the Road: Lessons Learned, Van Report and Tales from the Road.”

Heads up! As of Fall 2021, we are currently visiting our families back home and we might not be able to answer all comments due to time constrain. Thanks for understanding and see you on the road! -Isabelle and Antoine

  1. Being from Ontario, I understand how you guys overlooked how elevation affects the weather. We are planning to hit the road March 1 and I’m having a hard time determining when the higher elevation mountain bike trails will be good shape. Based on you experience do you have an “ideal” time for So Cal, No Cal, Colorado, Oregon, Washington?

    We’re hoping to be in BC by July, which should hopefully be peak conditions.

    Reply
    • Cali: pretty much year round i’d say, except maybe the trails at higher elevations (I have mount Shasta in mind). Also you won’t be able to hike the Sierras during winter (13,000ft); we loved hiking there!
      Colorado: summer only since it’s high elevation (june to september approx).
      Oregon, washington: pretty much year round for trail near the coast, then spring/summer/autumn for interior and higher elevations.
      BC: July is prime time for the interior, but Squamish-Whistler-Pemberton might be super dry (and dusty) by that time. We like late March, April & June for the sea-to-sky.

      Hope that helps, enjoy!

      Reply

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