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Travel

Jan 28, 2019

The Dirty Secrets of #VanLife

It’s every 9-5’ers dream. It occupies every weekend warrior’s imagination. It is the purest form of pride within any climber, skier, or kayaker. Van life - in all its glory.

WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

You skim through Instagram and see all the perfectly posed pictures of beautiful women with long flowing hair sitting on a perfectly made bed next to her gorgeously groomed partner. Twinkly lights are strung above a row of equally-spaced cedar cabinets, with a shiny stove built into a spotless counter-top. No kitchen items interrupt the cleanliness of the counter-top aside from one perfectly placed vase filled with white daisies. The hardwood van floor looks as if it has been polished with a toothbrush, and an immaculately clean golden retriever sits on the floor without making a peep.

Wow, no wonder van life has become so popular! It seems so glamorous!

But, is it actually that glamorous?

Are twinkle lights and perfectly clean hardwood floors the reality of van life? Are equally-spaced cedar cabinets and a perfectly made bed what we are all striving for?

If you have $80,000 to spend on a top-end Sprinter van – maybe!

dirt·bag
/ˈdərtbaɡ/Submit
noun: INFORMAL • US
a very unkempt or unpleasant person.

But for the majority of van-dwellers, the Sprinter life is a mere sliver of the imagination. Something to strive for but never actually reaching. Because, in all reality, if you live in a van, you are most likely not the Bill Gates of the outdoor world. Yes, there are exceptions, but the majority of us are full-blown dirtbags. We live paycheck-to-paycheck, working when we need to, and living the funemployed life as much as we can. Many of us are seasonal workers – working and collecting paychecks during the summer, so we can save up a bit of cash to be able to afford to live in our vehicle, traveling from crag to crag, or river to river, for the remainder of the year.

So – yes, it is possible to have the glamorous van life that you always see depicted in Instagram photos. But for the majority of us vehicle-dwellers, I can tell you with full confidence that glamour is far from the word I would use to describe it.

#VanLife mornings in the desert. Photo: Brooke Hess

Here’s how I can explain it…

In every culture around the world, there tends to be an unequal distribution of wealth. In the U.S., we have the top 1% – the wealthiest of the wealthy, who literally have 99% of America’s wealth. Then we have the upper-middle class. Usually well-educated, highly successful professionals. Their families live comfortable lives with luxurious experiences as needed. Then we have the lower-middle class. The working class. These are the people who go to work every day, 9-5, at difficult and demanding jobs, then come home and work hard to keep their families fed. In comparison with many places in the rest of the world, they are wealthy beyond belief, but when compared with what we consider “wealthy” here in the US, they fall back a notch. And then down at the bottom, we have what is considered poverty. This class doesn’t get to experience luxury. They make it work, but sometimes it isn’t all that pretty. Struggling to make ends meet is a daily part of life.

In van life, much like in every other walk of life, we too have a class system.

It goes like this:

Up at the top, you have the RV-dwellers. These are the kings and queens of the van life world. They have sold their homes and invested upwards of $300,000 (sometimes up to $1,000,000) in their mobile lifestyle. Their mobile homes have full kitchens, multiple bedrooms, TV’s, bathrooms, showers, washer/dryer, and sometimes even a garage to store their Mini-Cooper! Whether it be family money, or a high-paying remote software job that keeps them going, these vehicle-dwellers are living the van life of luxury.

photo: goodfreephotos.com

Then, we have the Sprinter vans. These vehicle-dwellers know what’s up. They have it all figured out. These are the photos you see on Instagram with the twinkly lights and picture-perfect dog on a spotless hardwood floor. They often have remote jobs that they can do from the road – whether it be consulting, freelancing, or software engineering. Their vans are fully decked out with kitchens, beds, and cabinets for storing all their gear. These vehicle-dwellers are sometimes high-level athletes, traveling between climbing crags, mountain biking trails, ski resorts, or rivers. They have vehicle life sorted. (If you can’t already tell, I have major Sprinter jealousy. Maybe someday I will join the upper-middle class of van life…).

Just about equal with the Sprinter vans are the vehicle dwellers who rely on the truck-and-trailer system. Stopping at camp, dropping off their home, then taking off in their 4×4 for some off-road excursion seems like the preferred method for many vehicle-dwellers. This appears to be the best option for families who want to stay at one campsite for a week or more at a time, but who don’t want the hassle of driving their home all over the place. It is also a good option for outdoor athletes who require the use of a truck for their sport. Some of these trailers are just as fancy as the massive mobile homes, and therefore will remain in the highest tier of the van life class system. But some of them are a bit cheaper, and will therefore hang out with the Sprinter vans. Fancy, but not too fancy. Still in a category of glamour, though.

Below Sprinter and tow-behind trailers are the truck topper campers. These are the pop-up campers that sit in the bed of your truck and create a pseudo-home with a small space for a bed, table, and sometimes a kitchen. These van-lifers can be compared with the working class. They live a life far from glamour, but not so far that it is obvious as soon as they pull up.

A compact camper from Austria spotted on Lesbos island in Greece. Photo: Henryk Kotowski

Next comes poverty.

This is where I sit. With my job titles being “freelance writer” and “professional freestyle whitewater kayaker”, it is no surprise that I am not living the van life of luxury and glamour. There is no vase of white daisies in my home-on-wheels. Instead, my van life consists of a 2003 Toyota Tacoma Prerunner (a fancy way of saying I drive a 2-wheel drive car that looks like a truck) with a topper over the truck bed. Now, I am not trying to gain pity, but it turns out that buying a $100 topper over Craigslist at night when you can’t really see it, isn’t the smartest idea! 24 fiberglass patches, 3 tubes of caulking gel, 2 bottles of epoxy, and four days of work later, and the topper is ALMOST waterproof! I have built a bed in the truck bed out of plywood and 2x4s, where I sleep on two Thermarest pads, with two zero degree sleeping bags (the topper has the insulation quality of a plastic bag).

Brooke’s “home”. Photo: Sierra McMurry

No glamour down here. Grunge, filth, and grease, are some more accurate adjectives that could be used to describe this lifestyle. Rather than having the long, flowing, groomed hair of the woman in the Instagram photo I saw, my hair tends to either be in a messy up-do, or underneath the coverage of a hat. Not because it is cold, but because I haven’t showered in eight days and need to cover up the grease that has accumulated on my scalp. Rather than the beautiful twinkly lights strung above cedar cabinets, I wear a headlamp purchased at REI and stuff my clothes into plastic tubs that pull out from underneath my plywood bed. Rather than a shiny stove and spotless counter-top, I have a two-burner Coleman camp stove that I place atop my truck tailgate, and a plastic jug of water for a makeshift sink. And rather than having a perfectly clean dog, I have no dog. Instead, sometimes I adopt my dirtbag friends into my truck for a week or two of partnered shenanigans. (Author’s note: I wish I had a dog. I am simply not enough of a functioning adult yet to be able to take care of another creature. I struggle enough taking care of myself!)

Brooke snoozing in her “mansion”. Photo: Seth Ashworth

I spend more days “showering” with baby wipes and attempting to (unsuccessfully) braid my hair in a way that masks the grease, than I do actually showering. I spend more nights wearing Carhartt’s and a down jacket at my camp stove, than I do getting dressed up and going out to bars like most of the other 25-year-old’s I know. And instead of getting picture-perfect vanlife photos that are ready for Instagram, I am usually dirty, covered in climbing chalk, and looking slightly confused in the photo (maybe this is why my Instagram influencer career hasn’t taken off yet…?).

But, for every day I go with dirty hair. For every morning I wake up and have to get dressed in the snow. For every time I am sick of keeping my food in a stinky cooler rather than a refrigerator… there comes a moment of beauty.

Brooke waking up in her “home”. Photo: Sierra McMurry

Crawling into bed with the back window of my truck open so I can view the stars as I drift off to sleep. Waking up to cold desert wind on my face, but feeling cozy and warm inside my sleeping bag as I lay in bed and watch the sun rise. Getting to cook a breakfast of bacon and eggs on my tailgate as I listen to the sound of the river rushing next to me. Sitting on a dock over the water on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, looking for whales as I type up an article about one of the most badass female mountaineers in history, while my laptop charges via solar power from my Jackery portable power station. Listening to my friend, Mack, play banjo around a campfire after a long day of climbing. Sitting on my tailgate for a beer with my ski partner after a big day touring in the mountains. Having the freedom to go wherever I want, whenever I want. To me, this is what luxury is all about.

And most days, I feel like a queen.

The perks of living the dirtbag #VanLife. Photo: Gillian Ellison

Read next: Imagine; A Cleaner World with Rivian, & the End of Alex Honnold’s #VanLife

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How-To

Jun 24, 2019

Dealing With Dietary Restrictions In The Backcountry.

Gluten intolerance, vegan, Halal, nut allergy, dairy-free, Kosher… whatever your dietary restrictions may be, you don’t have to let it hinder your ability to get out and enjoy the backcountry!

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WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

We spoke with expedition whitewater kayaker, Ben Stookesbury, about his experience of maintaining a vegan diet on long kayaking expeditions. As a guy that needs to hike to remote rivers, nutrition, to maintain endurance is key. As Ben’s puts it “I began going after rivers that had not yet been explored, and quickly realized the endurance component of carrying a heavy kayak – sometimes days into a wild river or around unrunnable stretches of river – was the key to the mission”.

Read Next: Adventuring On A Plant-Based Diet With Ben Stookesbury

We took Ben’s advice and put together some tips for dealing with your dietary restrictions in the backcountry.

Photo: Brooke Hess

Preparation is Key

It’s easy to head to REI and buy the pre-made freeze-dried backpacker meals. They are easy to prepare, lightweight, and a quick cleanup. The cons? They are expensive, kinda gross, and most likely don’t comply with your food intolerances or restrictions! So, instead of doing that, just prepare your own meals!

Plan your meals ahead of time, so you know exactly what ingredients to shop for before you go on your trip. Crack a bunch of eggs into a nalgene for scrambled egg dinners. Portion out oatmeal, nuts, dried fruits, and chocolate chips into a ziplock for breakfasts. Make your own granola bars, jerkey, and bread for sandwiches. Know exactly what food you will eat for each meal while you are in the backcountry, and prep it accordingly.

For Stookesbury, planning and preparing his meals before a long trip “takes some focus and forethought… but it feels quite empowering to be so much more cognizant of what I am putting in my body, and obviously there is simply no longer the need to eat much of anything that has all those nasty preservatives.”

Go With Good People

Unfortunately, some people are not as accommodating of food restrictions of others. I can’t say why, but some people think of food restrictions as “picky eating” and “high maintenance”, rather than a serious medical need or a spiritual belief. The fact that you may get seriously sick from eating gluten, or go into anaphylactic shock from your food being near peanut butter might not quite register on their radar. It doesn’t mean they are a bad people, but it might mean you avoid going on long backcountry trips with them in the future.

Alternatively, there are many people out there who are WONDERFUL to plan trips with. They will go out of their way to make sure you have the food you need, and will often sacrifice their own meal plan in order to include you in the group cooking. These people are the best, and you should keep them in your contacts for future backcountry trips. Sharing food and coordinating meals with the group will save both time and weight while carrying food into the backcountry, so going with good people who don’t mind accommodating your dietary needs is key!

Photo: Brooke Hess

Make Time For Three Full Meals A Day

No NOLS-style meal plans here. Stookesbury says one of the most important parts of expeditioning is “planning the time to eat three tasty meals a day.”

Give yourself enough time in the morning to cook up a hot breakfast. Plan a one hour stop mid-day to prepare a sandwich or wrap for lunch. Give yourself enough time in the evening at camp to cook a meal of veggies, protein, and carbs. Without the ease of the freeze-dried backpacker meals, you will have to put more time into your meal prep. But don’t worry, you’ll be happy you did when you are eating a freshly-prepared meal of roasted veggies and quinoa!

SNACKS SNACKS SNACKS!

Find a bar that works for you. And if you can’t – make your own!

I have spent the past year searching for the best gluten free and dairy free bars. I want the maximum amount of calories and protein, in the smallest possible package. As soon as I found one I liked, I ordered it in bulk on Amazon. I now have a stash of 50+ energy bars in my truck ready to be packed into a drybag, backpack, or ski jacket as soon as the need arises.

If you can’t find one that works with your diet, or can’t find one that you like – make your own! Any combination of dried fruits, nuts, oats, honey, and dark chocolate can make a damn good energy bar. You can find recipes online for homemade bars, then substitute various ingredients to make it work with your diet.

Stookesbury prefers the trail mix method to energy bars. “Nuts, dried fruit, and vegan chocolate is my personal substitute for an energy bar, and I call it a homemade energy bag! Keeping that ‘Power Bag’ of nuts, dried fruit, and some quality chocolate is a good way to keep your energy up and make snacking easy.”

Other popular snacking favorites include jerky, chocolate-covered almonds, cheese sticks (if you can eat dairy), and nut butters.

Photo: Brooke Hess

Be Prepared To Carry More Weight If Needed

I recently met a woman who has developed a severe allergy to all red meat, due to a bite from a Lone Star Tick. If she eats beef, pork, lamb, or any other red meat, she goes into anaphylactic shock. Even if her food is cooked in the same cast iron pan that has recently been in contact with red meat, she could go into anaphylactic shock. For these reasons, whenever she embarks on a backcountry expedition, she brings all her own cookware (and an EpiPen, just in case). She has learned to be adamant about her dietary needs on trips, and often prepares her food separate from the group. She is well aware that her food restrictions might force her to carry more weight than other members in her group, but that hasn’t stopped her from continuing her pursuit of overnight expeditions!

Photo: Brooke Hess

Examples of Day-Long Meal Plans for Various Diets:

Stookesbury’s Favorite Backcountry Vegan Meal Plan

Breakfast -150g oats, chia, flax, pumpkin seeds, hemphearts, raisins and walnuts (add a little salt).

Snack – Powerbag (nuts, dried fruit, vegan chocolate)

Lunch – Hummus, veg (arugula, beet, carrot, avo) sandwich

Dinner – 150g Rice, lentils, broccoli, onion, garlic, with or without nuts, salt, and olive oil.

 

TOJ’s Favorite Backcountry Gluten-Free and Dairy-Free Meal Plan

Breakfast – Pre-cut kale scrambled with eggs, avocado, and vegan “cheese”

Snack – Bobo’s gluten free oat bars, apple, and dairy-free dark chocolate peanut butter cups

Lunch – Gluten free tortillas with peanut butter and jelly

Dinner – Roasted root veggies (sweet potato, beets, carrots, potato), kale, and quinoa, topped with avocado and vegan “cheese” if preferred.

Photo: Brooke Hess

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