Lessons Learned

You know what we still haven’t gotten around to?

That’s right – a “what we would have done differently (or not)” post. That seems almost criminal after over five months on the road, making mistakes and getting messy and learning from so much trial-and-error. I would have loved to read an article like that before our trip.

To add some incentive, about two months ago (right as our trip ended), we got a comment from the burrow files asking us for a post on lessons learned. So this is for you buddy.

[For those of you just joining us, here’s a quickie context: we have just completed a five+ month cross-country rock-climbing road trip while living in a minivan. We started in the Southeast (Rocktown & Stonefort/Little Rock City), then Arkansas (Horseshoe Canyon Ranch & Cowell), Joe’s Valley, and finally Lake Tahoe. We spent about a month in each place with small stops in between locations.]

Our route (more-or-less)
Our route (more-or-less)

So without further ado, LESSONS LEARNED:

#1 – Choose your vehicle (and interior design) wisely.
We picked a minivan for this trip, hoping to find a nice compromise between spaciousness and gas mileage ($$$). Along the way, we saw other minivans, but we were jealous of the gigantic Sprinters. If we were going to live out of a vehicle for the long-long-term, a Sprinter for two people is the way to go. It’s like a studio apartment on wheels. But yeah, they are ridiculously expensive.

We saw people make do in their Subaru Outbacks, which is cramped but certainly livable for one person. This girl [KP] just started her trip, and she got a pop-up tent on top of her car. One couple we met pulled a T@B camper behind their truck. There are lots of possibilities, and I could never provide the full-spectrum of options that you could get by a simple google search. It’s up to you to decide what kind of set-up will fit your budget and specific travel needs.

If you are going to go with a minivan, it’s definitely not a bad choice. It just takes a little bit of remodeling.

WHAT WE DID: We had a Toyota Sienna. We removed all the rear seats and built a futon-style bed frame with three panels. The back panel lifted up to store two crashpads and our cooking equipment. The middle panel lifted up to become the “back” of the futon while the front panel could move forward and back to transform from “couch mode” to “bed mode.” Underneath the frame we could fit five large plastic bins with all of our belongings. This was definitely livable, but poor 6’2″ Drexel was too tall to sit up comfortably on the couch, and our stuff was difficult-to-impossible to retrieve from underneath the frame while in “bed mode.” It was easy for things to become messy. We had built our design around the concept that we needed space for maximum storage, instead of for comfort and ease of use. That was a mistake.

In "futon mode"
In “couch mode.”
Rear
Rear view, while in “couch mode.” This back panel could pull out half-way to provide a table of sorts for cooking, but it wasn’t built sturdy enough and broke half-way through the trip.

 

WHAT WE SHOULD HAVE DONE:  We should have built side panels for storage that would nestle in the rear windows, like so:

Minivan Conversion
Photo credit: The Grove Guy

One design that could have been a better use of the space is this pull-out slat bed. It would have been very nice to have that empty space during the day just for stretching and breathing, since the inside of the van always felt very cramped no matter what “mode” it was in.

These slats pull straight out to form a bed.
These slats pull straight out to form a bed, but when not in use, take up much less space and are also useful for storage.

 

With a sofa bed design like this one, we could have invited friends inside on cold rainy nights instead of feeling claustrophobic cramming people on our bed and bumping heads against the ceiling. During the day, we could have had a place to stretch or sit more comfortably. We could have had room for stackable plastic drawers, to increase the amount of easily-accessed items (e.g. clothes and food). We saw a guy who bungee-corded one of these behind the drivers seat and that seemed pretty smart to us.

plastic storage tower
So much good space in a plastic storage tower!

That’s all I’ll say about vehicle design. There are plenty of sites with blueprints for building different features into your van or car. It wouldn’t be too difficult to live comfortably and affordably. Just remember that space and comfort are going to be more important than you might initially assume, so plan wisely. Your space should feel like a home, because that’s what it is going to be.

#2 – Bring less stuff. A lot less.
We had five full bins of stuff stored under our bed: one bin each for cloths or personal items, two bins total for food, and a “fun box” with books, art supplies, etc. With proper planning, we could have managed with NO BOXES. We could have used a 4-bin plastic storage tower for clothing and daily food, the side window storage (see photo above) for books, climbing gear, etc, and then the storage inside the bench-bed for food storage and miscellaneous supplies like chalk (since we liked to stock up).

It was just silly how many clothes we brought and never touched since we ended up wearing the same three outfits in rotation (Drexel basically wore the same zion prana pants for the entire five months). When your clothes get too stinky to feel okay about it, there are laundromats everywhere.

We also didn’t need as much back-up food like cans and boxes of easy-mac (some which came on the full trip with us and are still alive to this day!). At no point were we more than an hour or two from a grocery store, and there was absolutely no risk of starving. We had planned for a more extreme form of survival than necessary. If you need anything at all, you can probably find it on the road, so don’t bother packing for all those “just in case” moments. I won’t say more about packing because we wrote an entire blog on “The Must Haves and the Must Have-Nots (Of Packing).”

The bottom line is – pack less stuff than you might originally think you’ll need. You’ll thank yourself for the extra space later.

#3 – Have a fast, convenient way to boil water.
Like a tiny tea kettle. Or those JetBoil things. Or anything else that does the trick of boiling water without lugging out all your cooking equipment. All we brought on our trip was a pot (for making pasta or quinoa) and a cast iron skillet for sauteing veggies. With only one big pot to use for everything, all of our oatmeal, tea and coffee had tiny flecks from last night’s dinner floating around. A small tea kettle would be faster and ensure that all we poured would be water. And that all we poured would go into the intended container, instead of splashing everywhere (our pot didn’t have a special lip for pouring ease). Do everything you can to make the morning process easier and calmer. If you can boil water for coffee and oatmeal without having to get out of the van, or even out of bed, you’re probably doing something right.

#4 – Depending on where you want to go on your trip, having AWD could be essential.
We survived on muddy and icy roads, but only sometimes from sheer luck. If we did this trip again, we’d either avoid sketchy roads, or choose a different vehicle. As it was, we slipped into an icy ditch on the way to Rocktown and got stuck in the mud in Arkansas. If you’re road-tripping in the winter and don’t have an AWD, be prepared to change your plans when the weather is feeling mischievous.

#5 – Budget wisely.
Life doesn’t have to be expensive. Research ahead of time to find out how much it costs to climb at different places and plan accordingly (e.g. HCR is $5/day while the nearby Cowell is free). Find the cheapest (aka free) camping whenever possible. We made this easier for you with our Low-Down on Climbing and Camping, but you might need more extensive searching depending on where/when you’re going. When saving up money for your trip, just remember that food-wise you will probably spend $200-300/month (if you buy cheap groceries and also eat out a small handful of times). The only other expenditures should be gas (use this easy gas budget tool), climbing gear (e.g. chalk, replacement shoes) and then maybe bills from back home (e.g. cell phone). You might want to allocate a small budget for “fun” stuff, like riding carousels (don’t worry, most are 25¢ or 50¢) or expensive must-sees like the Tennessee Aquarium. Our trip ended when we ran out of money. It was also getting too hot to climb, so it worked out fine, but don’t let money be the sole dictator of your life.

#6 – Be prepared for the season.
We mentioned this in “The Must Haves and the Must Have-Nots (Of Packing)” but know what weather you’re going to be experiencing and make sure you have a warm enough sleeping bag. There were many a night that I did not sleep because I was too busy shivering and whimpering softly. A few months later, we were sweating and getting bitten by mosquitos because we had to crack a window to not suffocate on the humid heat. These problems could have easily been solved by a better sleeping bag and screens over the windows, neither which wouldn’t cost much, but might take a bit of pre-planning. (Worth it.)

#7 – If you’re a girl, you NEED a FUD.
FUD stands for “female urination device.” I recommend the pStyle. Stand and pee. No fuss. ‘Nuff said.

#8 – If you’re driving long distances, get a book on tape.
We didn’t have one when we drove from Chattanooga, TN to Arkansas, and that was a looong car ride, I’ll tell you what.

#9 – Driving, climbing, or hiking, stay very very hydrated.
It’s easy to not drink water when you’re driving, but if you’re intending to climb the next day, you need to drink. We had one of those 5 gallon plastic jugs and were able to refill it everywhere we went (there are spigots everywhere – on the road leading to Rocktown and even out front of the grocery store in Joe’s Valley). Downside was that our water tasted like dirt or plastic sometimes. But no matter what, drink water. Drexel got dehydrated one day and it wasn’t pretty. Andrew drinks ten Nalgenes daily! Don’t be a Drexel, be an Andrew.

#10 – Ten is a nice number to end on. Is there anything else we would have done differently? Sure. But so much of the journey is a process. Try to enjoy it.

frizzle

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