5 Valuable Lessons We’ve Learned Boondocking in a Van

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As we get closer to embarking full-time with our nomadic idea, we recently had an opportunity to “test” it all out in our newly converted Camper Van and do some serious boondocking.  By the way, our Van is also our tow vehicle for our 76 Airstream Argosy. Scott was able to take off an entire month, driving with our two dogs across the country – landing in the warm desert lands of Quartzsite Arizona for the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous event held every January. From there, he would head north to visit  family in Cottonwood, near the beautiful backdrop of Sedona Arizona. Then West onto Las Vegas Nevada to complete the one-way stretch of our journey. The purpose of this road trip was to test the van’s set up, learn from our travel and make adjustments now for a smoother transition  when we’re full-timers. I’d say our test was a success, learning from a few major flaws along the way. While we were on the road for one full month, it only took less than one week to offer more insight into this life that became invaluable.

The learning curve is often abrupt, without forgiveness and adjustments are inevitable and should be expected. As for anything you do, it comes down to understanding your lifestyle and learning what will work for you. We are backpackers, having learned to live with less already. The idea of taking a minimal backpacker’s life – one of which is so often crammed into a 40 liter pack – giving it an upgrade to a spacious van with added comforts and living nomadic lifestyle is great in theory.  Though as with anything new, you have to learn as you go! This boondocking thing is still new to us – this van thing, this nomadic lifestyle. A new world to explore. No two lives are lived in the same manner, what you need to function and the perimeters you are comfortable with plays a large part in these lessons learned.

These are the TOP 5 LESSONS we’ve learned from our own recent adventures in Boondocking.

The road is ALWAYS bumpier than you would anticipate and weather often offers a considerable factor in this. The majority of boondocking locations are off the beaten path – dirt roads, rocky or sanding terrain, even un-maintained forest roads. While easy to navigate, the unevenness of these roads can equate to a very bumpy ride! You learn rather quickly that things are never as locked down or secured as you might have thought. Our van is entirely DIY built without applying professional carpentry skills and as structurally sound as we imagined it would be, although Scott might argue that.  The road will teach you just how top-not your skills truly are – so be prepared for a bit of humility if you’re anything like us! For the most part things held together rather well but frequent build maintenance is something of a reality. We’ve already made minor adjustments on the road and more structural aspects of re-building will be in our near future when we return home.

In addition to your build, everything – and I mean everything – gets locked down, bolted, put away and tucked securely! Otherwise you’ll van will end up looking a bit like a frantic episode of spring cleaning spewed from every cupboard in your home simultaneously. Started but never completed. Trust us on this one.

Why would it? After all, you have the freedom of wheels to assist in guiding you with ease on the uphill! You have the comfort of an interior to protect from the winds.

Understanding elevation and how to prepare for the rapid change in weather and exposed climates is something we’ve learned extensively from being backpackers. Though all our routine knowledge in preparing on a backpacking trip, we were not as prepared this time around. Boondocking is new to us and entirely different than backpacking regardless of the similarities. The apps we were using to locate our campsite for the night do not provide elevation and often found ourselves a bit surprised by the climb up into the mountain ranges! Initially we were so focused on other details in our searches, we forgot to connect this one very important detail.
Boondocking is far more similar to backpacking then we had anticipated – it’s your camp for the night or perhaps even longer and caution in preparing appropriately for changes in weather becomes a very important detail.
There were times it was windy and exposed, bitterly cold and far below freezing temps. While we didn’t mind the adventure of it all, we weren’t mentally prepared going in. Had we had a weather front arrive or any change in pattern, we wouldn’t have made it down as easily. So, yeah, elevation matters! Know before you go – as it will effect your route, experience and preparedness.

GPS coordinates to a boondocking site is based off of one person’s experience alone. The marked area is where they stayed in particular, but the areas are often expansive with many available sites to choose from. The farther into the area you go, often the sites begin offering you better views and a more remote experience. So don’t just take the first turn in – EXPLORE the area, you’ll find better opportunity! Understanding where you are nestled in on a broader perspective helps you understand your perimeters for further exploration. A back roads forest map has been invaluable to us and I highly suggest you collecting them along your travels. This is something we learned from backpacking in remote destinations, and translates exceptionally well to a boondocking lifestyle.
Not only doe it save battery usage on your electronic devices – teaching you valuable skills that I feel everyone should develop, particularly with navigation on back roads.

Reading the topography of the land lends quickly to finding killer views, valuable water sources, and more exclusive remote areas for set up. Allowing you to connect to the land in which you are residing in a deeper level, a more personal way.

If you are staying for a longer duration, it allows a more useful broadening and understanding of your surroundings, lending to endless exploration potential. You never really know what’s around the corner – but with a back roads forest map you’ll will know EXACTLY what’s over the next bend in that road!

As a culture we are so accustom to our routinely spacious lives; opportunity to choose from a variety of options at any given point in the day. What to eat, what to wear, watching the news versus a movie, couch or bed, bath versus a shower. We don’t think about it as being an option in making choices, only existing in our everyday. It is habit – a routine primary to our existence.

Having your spacial surroundings limited to a smaller square footage doesn’t limit the options you still have to make – technically speaking they are still exactly the same choices, the exact same routines. However, the more options you have available to you the more cluttered and smaller your space becomes. This fact alone becomes became blatantly more apparent in our van, housing four bodies. Less truly becomes more. More space, more freedom, MORE of the reason you’re out there to begin with!

The idea of needing OPTIONS is based from the comfort we surround ourselves in daily. A routine we’ve grown accustom to without thought in it being anything more than normal. We’ve spent the last two years drastically pairing down our lives. While it has been a process of letting go, we’ve finally settled on feeling close to minimal. But this test run put into perspective just how little we actually do need, how little is actually used.

We ate what we had, never craving or wanting anything different. We wore the same clothes for a week – not at all interested in changing into that fresh pair of pants. We slept four warm bodies night after night, cramped in the bed despite having the option to set up what we thought was a brilliant idea of having the option to hammock. We didn’t shower for days, finding no use for it in our daily activities. We had what we had and we were plenty content with our ‘limitations’. Finding instead that most of what we brought with us was just clutter – too much stuff. Unnecessary. Over half of what we brought with us was not chosen – to use, to wear, to set up or to need. These options took up valuable space that I would have preferred having instead.

Becoming better prepared at planning your needs for an internet connection is imperative to prioritize. Particularly if remaining connected is the core of your ability to remain mobile. When we backpack, we disconnect from it all. It becomes part of the benefits and joy in going off-grid. Though this was our test to see how connecting off-grid would work. Our Nomadic Idea requires a strong connection.

Well, we thought we had figured it out…though just as the wind can be fickle, so was our connection! Internet is spotty and your carrier may not be as strong as another in that particular area. The apps we used were based on the exact location of one person’s experience and not necessarily spanning the entire scope of the area in which your exploring.

Even worse yet, we discovered our van was acting as a barrier in receiving signal. Locking us down even more. If we walked 12 feet NW of our van, we received enough signal to be able to pull up a post or respond to a comment very quickly before the winds changed course and lost all ability for awhile yet again. It drained our battery usage far more quickly in trying to connect and became entirely ineffective!

It was a guessing game out there and our WiFi extender wasn’t as powerful as we had thought. Leading us to learn WeBoost Antenna is a MUST. At least for a starting point powerful enough to combat the woes of our societies connection addiction!

We are sure there are more lessons that will help us boondocking. But that’s half the fun. Learning as you go with the laughs and memories we’ll have for a lifetime.

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