Vehicle Living: What Route Is Right For You?

The internet loves #vanlife. #westielife, #RVliving, and so on and so forth are popular too. Maybe you’re starting to contemplate some time on the road yourself but there are so many choices: a Sprinter? A basic delivery van? A camper? Another RV?

Beth Lakin cooking in the Scamp

I’ve done a fair amount of living and and traveling in a vehicle and there are pros and cons to pretty much anything you choose. The most important suggestion I can make is to not get too attached to any particular form of conveyance. Until you figure out your travel style and what is important to you, you won’t really know what the most practical choice is for you. Keeping your investment minimal can allow you to switch vehicle forms as you sort all that out. (But although totally impractical, if anyone wants to buy me a Pendleton Airstream, $120k, I wouldn’t be opposed).

Without any more ado, I present to you…

3Up Adventures Vehicle Living Comparison

| SPRINTER | CARGO VAN | TRUCK CAMPER |

|LARGE TRAILER | SMALL TRAILER |CAR/TRUCK|

Sprinter Van:

I traveled in a Sprinter van with my ex from November 2013 until late January of 2014. We had purchased the Sprinter with an eye to traveling to Alaska the following summer, a trip covering a huge number of miles and making the fuel mileage of the Sprinter a real boon.

Pros: Fuel mileage. Our 2002 Sprinter would regularly get about 26-28 mpg as long as we were driving about 55mph. I’m a firm believer that for the budget conscious adventure traveler driving a bit slower to maximize your fuel dollar is totally worth it.

Head room. Being able to stand up is a really amazing thing in your travel vehicle. Although by no means a requirement, over the long haul putting your clothes on or cooking dinner without being stooped over is a really nice option.

Comfortable driving arrangement. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a more comfortable long haul road trip vehicle. When we purchased the Sprinter, we drove it from Florida to Idaho in just three days with a little time set aside to visit friends and I have no complaints about long hours in the drivers and passenger seats.

Impressive ground clearance. For a 2wd van, the Sprinter has pretty impressive ground clearance. Our Sprinter made a jaunt up Baby Lion’s Back in Moab just to prove that it could. Although too top heavy and lacking 4wd capabilities, with tall skinny tires we found that we weren’t very limited at all.

Durability. Early Sprinter (T1N) motors were known for their durability, many running to 500,000 miles. Transmissions are generally expected to last 250,000 miles.

Cons: Expense. Sprinters are expensive. Although they get pretty solid fuel mileage, you pay for that savings up front. It takes a significant number of miles driven to make up the extra cost of the vehicle. Sprinters do retain much of their value and you might recoup a significant portion of that extra capital cost when you sell the vehicle it can be an uncertain proposition depending on how long you keep the vehicle and what condition it is in. If you’re looking to someone else to do your conversion work for you, you can add to an already significant capital expenditure

Maintenance. This point is largely addressed in my post “Is A Sprinter For You?” but it is worth mentioning that a mechanical breakdown can be an expensive proposition if you aren’t able to handle the repair yourself. Even if you are a competent mechanic, parts for a Sprinter are more expensive than for a delivery van and a hefty repair bill can put a damper on adventures in a hurry. Since Sprinters have become very common I’d imagine that finding a mechanic familiar with them isn’t as hard as it once might have been but still might pose a problem.

Creature comforts. For my ex-partner, the lack of bathroom meant forgoing a luxury they really appreciated. This is a sticking point for some people and not for others. I found that for me this wasn’t ever a really major issue. I didn’t spend much of my van time in areas where this actually was a problem. (#backpacking experience FTW) I did, miss a comfortable place to sit and read or type that wasn’t in bed, an option I experienced in other configurations. We did have swivel seats which helped a bit and I probably could have come up with a good table option to fix this issue. We did purchase a Mr. Buddy Heater for use in the Sprinter but never got a chance to test out how effective it was at heating the space.

Note: A Roadteck or Winnebago type Class B conversion might have a bathroom and feel really fancy but they’re really heavy and gas mileage will take a significant hit. Although their mid-teens fuel mileage certainly beats a full size RV, it comes no where close to a lighter DIY conversion. Additionally, that extra weight puts more strain on the drive train (specifically the transmission) and can lead to earlier failures of parts.

Sprinter sunset

Chevy Van (or Ford or Dodge):

Pros: Inexpensive. A gas powered Chevy van can be a really affordable option to hit the road. If you’re okay with simplicity, these plentiful vehicles can be converted quickly and you can hit the road with gas money in your pocket.

Fuel mileage. But wait? Didn’t I claim fuel mileage to be a Sprinter advantage? If gas is cheaper than diesel, getting 18-22mpg in a gas powered vehicle might be a better deal than 22-27mpg in a diesel Sprinter.

Parts & maintenance. Due to their ubiquity, parts for Chevy/GMC vans (a GMC Savanah and a Chevy Express are the same thing mechanically), are fairly inexpensive. You may be able to do the maintenance yourself or finding a mechanic should be a cinch.

ConsHeadroom. Being hunched over in your vehicle gets old. While you’re hopefully spending a lot of time outside adventuring, sometimes you’re stuck inside working, sheltering from the weather, or cooking and being stooped is less than fun.

Creature comforts. See Sprinter cons.

Van on Brown Mountain Jeep Road

Truck Camper:

Pros: Comfortable. The camper had a refrigerator, a table, a bathroom, a cooktop (many even have an oven), and a heater. Our bed was always made and was out of the way.

4-wheel drive possiblities. I’d been really insistent that we find a 4wd truck for this project because I felt that we were getting our 2wd vans into situations where it would be really nice to have that extra bit of security. It was nice a few times but mostly the camper was too big for us to get where it was really helpful (see cons).

Not too big. For the relative creature comfort of the camper, we didn’t take on too much of a hit on size (there were some, see cons). There was a lot of storage (and in our flatbed configuration there was a lot).

Fuel mileage. Depending on the size of the camper, they can get really heavy. The Lance 825 that I traveled in was really lightweight and small compared to many other options so it didn’t impact our fuel mileage too terribly but most full size trucks don’t get amazing mileage so this can start to add up.

Cons: It’s pretty tall. The downside of our flatbed configuration was that it put the camper up really high. This made going down some Forest Service roads sort of hard as we tried to avoid damaging the camper.

Fuel mileage. There are pros and cons (see pros).

The dog is underfoot. I’m mostly kidding here but because the amount of floor space in the camper is tiny the dog was even more under foot than usual.

Camper on the Colorado River

Travel Trailer (large):

Pros: I actually don’t have much that is positive to say about the toy hauler. We carried our toys with us which was nice but a small trailer behind the truck and camper was a much nicer option that accomplished about the same thing.

It had an oven, although again, many campers have that as well. Same thing goes for the bathroom (the large storage closet in the bathroom though was kind of cool: we rocked a gear closet in our mobile living space).

Cons: It was too big to heat efficiently and because of all the empty space around the bikes and the quad it just felt empty and kind of sad most of the time. (It was kind of cool to drop the back open on warm days though.)

Fuel mileage was dismal and it was just too damn big. We’d hoped to just move sometimes and mostly use the truck and our toys to explore but the simple fact is that I like wandering around too much for that. It cost us an arm and a leg to move plus we couldn’t get it into the good spots.

Beers on the "porch"

Travel Trailer (Scamp or other fiberglass):

Pros: ADORABLE. I seriously loved the Scamp so much. It wasn’t really meeting our needs at the time but I think SP and I would rock one with the XJ right now really well.

Compact. At only 13′ the Scamp was small and maneuverable yet it still had all the necessities inside. It had the dinette that I really liked in the camper, TONS of light (best in class with this!), the ability to stand up, a refrigerator and a really respectable amount of storage for its size.

Fuel mileage. We didn’t tow it like normal people for any long distances with the TJ so I don’t have a really good estimate on how it affected fuel mileage (we did, however, tow it across Arizona rather unconventionally) but I imagine that it probably wouldn’t be too big of a problem since they are SO LIGHT. Ours only weighed about 1200 pounds because it was so simple; newer ones with AC units and awnings (which I wouldn’t recommend) weigh about 1500. I would love to do a fuel mileage test with Ruth the XJ!

Cons: No bathroom. If this is really a con for you, current Scamp floor plan options have versions with a bathroom. This would reduce the “open” feeling that I loved so much but the loss of under bench storage would probably be made up for by the gain of an extra closet if a bathroom is really a big deal to you.

Trailer. It is a trailer and that does sort of reduce mobility. We also discovered that the frames are pretty lightweight for frequent off road use, however, the Jeep + Scamp size combination is only beat out by a van for off road maneuverability. They are much shorter than a full size travel trailer or the camper plus their lightweight nature makes them really easy to hookup and unhook leaving you with a Jeep (or a Subaru or a Toyota or whatever else floats your boat).

Scamp after axle with motorcycle

Straight up vehicle living (Cherokee, pickup, 4-Runner, Land Cruiser, etc.):

Pros: You’re in your vehicle, no encumbrances, no extra fluff. If you’re 4wd equipped you can just go (and often find yourself waking up to amazing views).

Fuel mileage: Okay fine, this pro is relative but I’ll happily take the fuel mileage of my XJ (18-25mpg) especially when I consider that I have full 4wd capabilities at my disposal all of the time.

It might already be sitting in your driveway. For all the glamour of being able to use the hashtag #vanlife on your custom build, I see way too many vans be built but then the builder either doesn’t use them or has spent way more on the conversion than they planned and can’t travel. You probably already know the maintenance concerns of your vehicle and they can be cheaper to fix (although not always) than a truck or van you purchase for a specific use. The lack of specific investment can also make it an excellent choice for seasonal or temporary mobile living.

Cons: Space. It’s a lot more like organized long term camping. You don’t have a nice table to sit at or a refrigerator or a bed you can sit up in and so on. This can kind of suck on a rainy day, although you have the flexibility to just drive to a coffee shop.

Bathroom/kitchen. Similarly to the space issue you’re going to have to do all of this outside your vehicle but if you’re only out for a couple of weeks at a time or maybe one big special trip, it might be cost effective to use the vehicle you already have.

 Sunrise

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XJ Cherokee: Sleeping Platform

Last summer while we were traveling around in Francis I never bothered to make a sleeping platform. The FSJ has a really ample cargo area once the seat is removed so it never really became a high priority for me (also, my living situation last year never really was conducive to building one). When I brought Ruth home, I knew that I would need to build a platform in order to have well organized road trips. The platform didn’t get built before my Thanksgiving trip to Arizona but that mostly just proved that a platform would be key to being happy—packages of bagels rolling around on the passenger floorboards and weird lumpy unlevel futons are cool for a couple of days but SP and I sleep in the Jeep often enough to justify something better.

Sunrise XJ mountaintop

The first iteration of XJ platform I used was on my first big US road trip in 2010. F and I made it out of 3/4″ sanded plywood. We didn’t want it to sag or be unstable but we later realized that we’d way over built it. F passed along to me some measurements for a more streamlined platform out of 5/8″ OSB. His new version had made some cool improvements that increased access underneath the forward part of the platform and I decided to mostly copy his plan.

Lowes I picked up a sheet of 1/2″ OSB and had it cut to length in the store (Lowes and Home Depot will both do this for you) as well as twelve 1 1/2″ L-brackets (they came in packages of 4). Back at home, I cut the remainder into supports: three lengthwise supports and a cross-brace for the front. I rough fit everything together inside the jeep to confirm placement before screwing things together. I decided to trim the back corners to 45-degrees for ease of reaching things that might fall to the sides of the platform and to nestle the platform as far back against the tailgate as possible. (I’ve got long legs and drive with the seat just one click forward from all the way back.)

Test fitting
Fitting the main piece
Redneck sawhorses
Cutting the remainder for supports

I decided to leave the plastic trim at the bottom of the tailgate opening on, although in the original and F’s recent version, it was removed for ease of removing plastic storage containers. (I can always decide to remove mine later if I decide.) My outer supports rest right against the base of the wheel wells and the middle support is aligned with the tailgate latch. The front cross member is centered and rests on the narrow lip that the front of the back seat bottom rests on.

Supports

Everything was assembled with the L-brackets and put back into the Jeep to check for fit. Once I confirmed everything was in the right spot, I took the platform out one more time and used my angle grinder to remove the points of the screws that were protruding. Coats and sleeping bags don’t play very well with sharp pointy things so it’s time well spent.

Sprocket ready to load up to the platform

The platform only took me a couple of hours to build and really affordable:

◊ 1 sheet 1/2″ OSB: ~$10

◊ 4 packages of 4ct. 2 1/2″ L-brackets (the Stanley ones I got included screws): $13.27

Platform total: <$25!

(I also bought four plastic totes from Home Depot to organize my storage for another $20)

Depending on your desires you could purchase thicker OSB or even plywood if you desire a smoother surface. I’m going to test this out for the summer and see how it goes, the rough surface might wind up collecting more Sprocket dirt than I want but if I change my mind, I can disassemble this and reuse my brackets so it’ll be a good experiment.

XJ Sleeping Platform

Sprocket says "Thank you, Mom."
Sprocket says “Thank you, Mom.”

Mogollon Rim

After leaving Haigler Creek, we headed up onto the Mogollon Rim headed east towards Heber-Overgaard and Show Low. Just after leaving Heber-Overgaard, we headed south towards the rim to camp out for the night.

While we were looking for a place to camp we noticed there was quite a bit of mud around. As we pulled off the road to make camp, F commented “This stuff is soft.” Before I could think how reminiscent that was of our adventure at the Salton Sea, we’d pulled a bit further off the road and were stuck.

Both F and I took turns at digging the tires out but we’d managed to bury the truck up to the axle plus the mud was more liquid baby-poo like stuff than dirt. Despite airing down the tires the truck wasn’t going anywhere. We unloaded the quad and headed back to the main road to wait for someone to come past and help us out. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait long and with the help of a kind stranger and his 4-wheel drive truck, we were free. As you can see, it was quite a mess:

Low PSI

Tire Ruts

After extricating ourselves from the mud, we headed out on a quad ride to do some more exploring. It was sort of hard to tempt Sprocket away from the elk leg he’d found but the sound of the quad was too much for him to resist:

Sprocket with bone

During our ride, Sprocket enjoyed splashing around in the many stock ponds:

Sprocket and stock pond

Plus we got some views off the edge of the rim:

View from the Mogollon Rim

View from the Mogollon Rim

 

Devil’s Canyon

After a few nights at our property, we finally hit the road. Our first night was spent just south of Monticello near Devil’s Canyon. We’re still getting used to the long train of adventure and had to look around for quite awhile to find a place to turn our trailer around! When we finally found a spot, we headed out for a bit of a walk.

Tree near Devil's Canyon

Sprocket heads to safer ground while F contemplates how strong his perch is:

Devils Canyon

South Mountain

After the boys headed back to camp, I wandered out to the Canyon itself. I was sort of disappointed that it was rather late in the day, I would have loved to crawl down there and explore.

Devil's Canyon

Beth at Devil's Canyon

Devil's Canyon

Devil's Canyon

San Rafael Swell: Behind The Reef

After a quick lunch in Hanksville, we headed for the San Rafael Swell. We’ve heard a lot about the area but have never made it over that way. As we started looking at maps, we realized that there really is a whole lot of exploring we need to do so away we went.

Behind the Reef Road

Behind The Reef Road

We immediately headed for the Behind The Reef road to hike some of the canyons. The weather was cold with snow and rain in the forecast and we figured there might be some shelter from the wind there. After waiting out a snow squall in the van (with a nice pot of coffee), we parked near a trailhead and did some exploring of an old mine.

It wasn’t immediately apparent what they were mining here as it was pretty shallow and there seemed to be a ton of petrified wood pried from the walls…maybe that is what the prospectors were after?

Mine, Behind The Reef Road

Mine, Behind The Reef Road

Mine, Behind The Reef Road

After our explorations, the snow picked up and we returned to the van. And it just didn’t stop. It was fun for a bit and then we started to worry about being downhill from the main road in conditions that were getting wetter and wetter (oh to have a 4-wheel drive van!). We hightailed it back out to pavement and decided to save the Swell for another time. We’ll definitely be back though!

Forrest and Sprocket, mine, Behind The Reef Road

Scamp Shakedown, Part 1

Last week, we took the Scamp out for it’s first camping adventure. We’d slept in it in town a couple of nights but with the new axle set up in place, it was time to take it out in the desert for a bit of a test run. Sylvia and her dog Blue joined us for the adventure and toasting to good times in the Scamp.

Toasting welcome to the Scamp

Hidden Valley

We headed out to a secret desert location. I rode in the Scamp to watch how our packing job held up to a rocky road while Forrest, Sylvia, and the dogs rode in the jeep. At our perfect little camp, we took the opportunity to just relax after a hectic week of buying & moving into the Scamp, selling the van, and taking care of projects.

I decided to attempt making skillet pizza for dinner. The pizzas turned out yummy but the recipe needs a bit of refining before I share it here. It was nice to discover that at least three people can quite comfortably eat in the Scamp. Here’s hoping it’s the first of many Scamp “dinner parties.”

Cooking in the Scamp

Scamp dinner party

Dinner party in the Scamp

Beth cooking in the Scamp

Beth cooking in the Scamp

4th Of July: Circumnavigating the Cabinet Mountains, Part 1

A day off in the middle of the week is sort of odd. It felt like it should be a weekend and yet we only had that one day! We decided to seize that day off and make an adventure out of it anyway. When I got off work on Tuesday, I came home, packed up our camping stuff and we all jumped into the jeep. The skies were looking a little stormy but I pretty much refused to believe it was going to rain on us.

As we set out towards Cooper Pass it seemed like we were leaving the weather mostly behind us. We cruised right to the top of the pass (Pass #1 for the trip at 5,791′) where there was still a decent foot or so of snow that we made it over fairly easily but we certainly hoped that there wouldn’t be any more on the other side! The drive down to Thompson Falls went quickly as we wound our way off the mountaintop.

We didn’t hesitate long in Thompson Falls, just stopping long enough to fill up the gas tank before heading up Graves Creek Road into the mountains. Hardly 3 miles into the woods, I saw a small bear run up into the woods. It was (we think!) a yearling grizzly! It’s big round light brown butt reminded me of Winnie-the-Pooh—less cuddly of course. After the bear headed off into the woods, it was back to the campsite finding mission. We were hoping to find a place to camp where we would be sort of sheltered from the wind and the high elevation chill that would be setting in soon. There was a severe lack of spur roads where we could camp so we just kept driving higher and higher. Next thing we knew we were at Vermillion Pass (6,026′, pass #2 for the trip).

It was cold up there.

As pretty as it was there in the shadow of Vermillion Peak, we knew we had to lose elevation fast if we were to have a hope of spending a decently comfortable night. (I’m still functioning with a 45 degree sleeping bag I bought in high school!) As we headed down into the Vermillion River valley, we came around a corner saw a nice big black bear in the road. We decided to spend the night where Happy Creek emptied into the Vermillion River.

Forrest started up a fire while I took Sprocket for a short walk. We cooked hot dogs for dinner (and were only a wee bit nervous about having seen a couple of bears…) before piling into the tent. I wasn’t too thrilled with leaving Sprocket in the jeep alone and I was also more than a little afraid of being cold into the tent he came. That makes one 6′ man, a 5’10” woman, and an 85-pound labrador…in a two man tent. He was a great cuddler and kept me nice and warm!!

Rock Climbing: Vantage, Washington

Last weekend, I went climbing in Vantage, Washington with Women Climbers Northwest. I haven’t been climbing since I graduated from Oregon State (that was two years ago! I can’t believe it!) so I definitely am not in “climbing shape”: weak fingers, feet not used to being shoved into climbing shoes. It was really fun to get outside on a gloriously beautiful weekend and enjoy the sunshine.

I drove over after work on Friday, driving out of the rain into the sun, stopping in Spokane to buy necessities for the weekend: lunches, breakfast, and a bottle of wine (Firesteed pinot noir!). By the time I got to Moses Lake I was quite hungry—I wasn’t really sure what I was in the mood for but the options were somewhat limited. Just as I considered heading back into the city center for some Subway (which I’ve had plenty of on EMT class nights) I found Woody’s. I was a bit turned off by the idea of $6-8 burgers at a hole in the wall but I was hungry and a shake sounded good. The burger, a bleu cheese burger, was worth every penny of its $6.75. The shake? Softserve based and not so amazing…

After eating my burger and shake over looking the odd pothole that is Moses Lake, I drove the last thirty miles or so to the climbing area. I’d actually driven right past the access road last year when I tasted wine at Cave B cellars on my way home from R2R. It was one of those awesome drives where you immediately drop down out of plain old desert into something fantastic. Continue reading “Rock Climbing: Vantage, Washington”