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Changing Plans Redux: RV Life Becomes Van Life...

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

Well, we did it! We took our first RV trip ever! Granted, we did it the super easy way at hook-up sites and only one boondocking night. Still, I’ll call it a win with a 79-year-old grandma, two kids, one aunt, one husband and me all in a 24-foot RV (there is only one model that is smaller than this!).

The top photograph is of the exterior of the RV, a 2007 Coachman Freelander. The bottom picture is of the inside, with a view of the dinette, driver cab, kitchen area, and overhead sleeping area
Our home for one week!

In this post, I wanted to share with you 1) a brief summary of the plan, 2) why it was fantastic, 3) why we are choosing NOT to buy an RV despite the fact that it was fantastic, and 4) what we’re doing instead.

1) The original “travel in the time of COVID” plan

As some might remember, the idea was to test out the smallest RV available that could sleep 5 ½ people (Leila is the ½ for sleeping calculations because she slept with us) to see if semi-nomadic living, with a home base in Los Angeles, would be possible until international borders opened up.

The plan was simple: 1 night of boondocking near Fresno, 3 nights at Millerton Lake, and 3 nights at the Marina Dunes RV Park with a 500m walking path to Marina Dunes Preserve, just north of Monterey, California.

Why only one night of boondocking? Because we simply didn’t know anything and we didn’t want to get stuck with a clogged, stinking toilet with nowhere nearby to dump! Since we had no idea how much we collectively poop or how much the tank could hold, we didn’t want to chance it our first time around – especially when bringing Baba (grandma) along.

The goal was to see if we enjoyed it and could stay semi-quarantined for at least one-week periods at a time, which included questions like – could we stock enough food, how much water we would/could use (dishwashing, cooking, drinking, and showering), how frequently we’d have to dump our #1’s and #2’s (blackwater/poop/however you want to call it) and how much fuel.

2) Why the Trip was Fantastic

Can I just say, “because we survived, with Grandma!” Not in a bad way but in a really, really good way! (I love sharing the whole experience but if you want to just hear about the logistical successes, skip to the bottom of this section)

Baba and I are laughing really hard while Leila sleeps in my arms and Dante is standing with us
Laughter abounded throughout the trip

We all fit into our sleeping areas comfortably. Baba was comfortable on her bed and we kept the dinette folded out for her the whole time so she could rest her back whenever she wanted (she has osteoporosis in her spine and needs to lay down often). Dante and Zia (Aunt Ale) slept in the overhead queen-sized bed.

We boondocked! For a night! We wanted to try it the first night when our water tanks were full and our flush tanks were at their emptiest.

There is a great free app created by a non-profit - FreeRoam (and there are plenty of others), that helped us find where to boondock. The app is great because it shows you all overnight options and reviews of those sites. There were four Walmart near Fresno and the app helped us pick one that looked more frequently used and that had great reviews (other options are national parks and Bureau of Land Management land, none of which were on our way).

I must say, I was hesitant to sleep in a parking lot but it turned out fine. We triple-checked that it was ok to park there and the Walmart staff was very friendly and didn’t seem at all surprised to see an RV arriving at night. We felt quite safe, the noise wasn’t bad at all (morning shoppers were a perfect morning alarm), and that was that!

Millerton Lake was wonderful and HOT! We had to be lakeside everyday – with 100° highs and high-70° lows, my mom would have been stuck inside the RV with the AC blasting otherwise. At the lake, she could dip her feet and drench her clothes in the cool water, with the breeze cooling her off – and us for that matter too!

A collage of the children and Marino by the lake. Clockwise starting from top left: Marino sipping maté in the shade of the umbrella staring out at the water, next Dante taking in the muddy banks of the lake, Next Leila so exhausted from play in and around the lake that she fell asleep right there under the breeze in the shade on her fold-out chair, next Dante running down the sandy hill toward the lake, and last, Leila trying to float in the water at the shore of the lake.
Being lakeside saved us in so many ways. So relaxing!

One of my favorite Baba moments. . . Wait until the end, I promise you, she was in heaven:

Dante and Leila imagined the Arctic Tundra into being, we shared the beach with a flock of Canadian geese, and Leila, who generally has a low tolerance for walking distances, coaxed me along on an early morning exploration of the surrounding hills.

A collage of photos at and around Millerton lake, climbing trees, running around, picking up pine cones, watching the geese, and just digging around in the dirt.
Did I say "so needed"? Kids are meant to be outdoors and free - actually, we all are!

After that heat, we welcomed the Marina Dunes with 75° highs and low-60° lows, where we could actually bear hanging out by the campfire.

A collage of photos RV-side. Dante watching the veggies on the grill, Baba sweeping up before we lay the outdoor rug down, Dante decorating his scooter with leaves, Dante and Leila drinking hot cocoa fireside, and Baba and I laughing ourselves to tears over something.
Just being together - so much joy!

The Preserve was breathtaking. The first day, we walked down to the beach along the Preserve. Baba and Marino stayed at the RV site that day.

Collage of photos at the Marina Preserve - photos at different angles, and of the children walking down the path, as well as running up to the Dunes from the beach
A breathtaking wonderland of colors that filled the kids' minds with wonder

The second day, to get my mom to the beach required heading to the Marina State Beach. She wasn’t going to be able to make the 500m walk in the soft sand. So, the oh-so-friendly lifeguards drove her down the dune in a dune buggy (a first for Baba) and back up when it was time to go as well.

A collage of photos from Marina State Beach - Baba being driven down in the Dune Buggy, Leila and Dante on the way back to the walking trail, Leila, Dante and I drawing in the sand, Dante building a dam, Leila prowling like a cheetah
Baba being Miss VIP in the lifeguard's dune buggy, and us just doin' what you do at the beach!

All in all, it was a fantastic vacation, very much needed after being cooped up for so long at home in quarantine. We all had a blast, including my mom, who seemed so relaxed, at peace and content to just be with us outdoors. This has been the first vacation she has had in the past three years (she – well both of them - had to stop traveling because of my father’s health). The look on her face was enough to confirm that semi-nomadic/nomadic living has to be a priority for us in the immediate future.

As for all the logistics:

- 2 weeks’ worth of food: We were able to bring 2 weeks’ worth of food (there was plenty left over)! This is fantastic for staying away from crowded grocery stores, giving that my mom is considered highly vulnerable to the coronavirus.

- Refill fresh water 2 times per week: We had to fill the fresh water tank twice. We could definitely use less water if we figure out a more efficient system for washing dishes. We didn’t all take showers, so that might cancel out any gains in dishwashing efficiency.

- Empty grey and blackwater tanks 2 times per week: 6 people produce a lot of waste! Again, grey water waste produced by more efficient dishwashing would be balanced out by more showers. And blackwater, well, not much we could do about that except try to flush less water down when flushing!

- Fuel consumption varies: We drove 723 miles in that week and filled the tank twice. Had we not had to return the tank full, we probably could have gone one more day before refilling. Still, we took the scenic route through Big Sur and probably burned more fuel than if we had driven more freeway miles. So, this really depends on the kind of miles you’re putting in, and how slowly you’re traveling and exploring your surroundings.

Ultimately, we could manage going two weeks between grocery runs (and probably more if we relied more on frozen, dry and canned/Tetrapak foods and plan our fresh foods so that we have a balance of longer lasting foods. We should plan on water and dumping stations twice a week. Since this only requires minimal contact with others, it is less of a concern. Food stocking is the only high contact concern and I’m content with how long we can last between food runs.

3) Why an RV is NOT an Option for Us – Safety, Safety, Safety

So, everything was WONDERFUL! But . . . safety while driving was a huge thing that came up for us.

When the RV arrived (the owner was so nice and delivered it the day before so that we had time to stock it up), I looked into installing the booster and 5-point harness.

That’s when we began seeing all of the online debates about children in the dinette area while driving. There are plenty of people who have no problem with children riding in the back, so long as they are forward-facing. There was a small vocal camp, however, that believed it was unsafe to have children in the back. Certainly, you CANNOT install a traditional car seat in the back, especially rear-facing. However, the jury was out on five-point harnesses and boosters.

So, when it came to putting those seats in, we tried to play with it. It was too scary for me to have either of the children’s seats installed in the right-most dinette seat. The thought even of the whiplash was too much for me to handle. So, we tried the 5-point harness forward facing and the booster rear-facing on the driver’s side of the dinette.

Instead, I was worried about the booster seat child, Dante, slamming his head into the furniture behind him, rather than the whiplash. Plus, I was sitting in the right-most forward-facing seat and just took deep breaths to ignore images of whiplash to my own neck in the case of an accident.

We made it to the Walmart parking lot and it was decided that the kids would go all the rest of the way in the sedan we also drove with us. I stayed in that back area and did not feel protected at all. I distracted myself with some blog-post writing and page translations into Spanish (coming soon!). Still, I wouldn’t do it again.

Maybe it was all the rattling (in a custom build, we would organize the storage different to address that concern) but, I did not feel like those walls would do anything in the case of a crash. . .

And, the research I did confirmed my concerns. It turns out that the only seats in an RV that comply with Dept. of Transportation safety standards are the driver and passenger seats. In the back, the furniture and seatbelts are secured to the floorboards, which means they aren’t securely anchored at all.

Now, we could fix that with the Coachmen Freelander 19FB layout, which has a 2nd row, rather than a dinette. We could custom install a true 3-seater in place of the dining booth-style row, anchor it to the metal frame and resolve that problem.

However, the walls of the RV still concerned me. They’re fiberglass, which means they’re paper thin and tear apart the moment of impact. Not a pretty picture to imagine the kids or myself in (Marino and Baba would be up front).

Another solution could be to always drive a smaller car so that everyone is in seating that is DoT safety approved. But. . .

That’s double the gas, double the insurance, and we don’t get to all be together for the driving, which is half the journey. Plus, we wouldn’t need the car because we’d customize the inside to minimize what we have to do to pack up and unpack every time we stop for the night.

4) What we’re doing instead. . . Van Conversion

As I said, nomadic living is the plan – that is NOT changing. I want to see that look of joy on my mom’s face every day. Having a home on wheels is the most ideal scenario for her to minimize exposing her to coronavirus and because of her dementia – moving from hotel/Airbnb/home-sitting location to location will just disorient her more, whereas always having the same physical space to call home, no matter where we are, will create more of that regularity that persons with dementia need in their home environment. We've already discussed this with the doctors!

So, when the RV doesn’t work? Enter the camper van.

When looking for RV layouts, I came across a few camper vans. I loved the idea but didn’t see any layouts that could accommodate five (eventually six) sleepers, one being a 79-year old grandma and with Marino’s qualification that he didn’t want someone sleeping over his head. There are some pop-tops that create almost a tent-like area for Dante and Leila but they let in too much heat/cold escape/enter the van and we’d want to use this van years into the future into colder and hotter climates where more temperature control is necessary.

However, there is so much appeal to the camper van:

- The frame is a real, heavy duty, vehicle frame

- It is smaller than your average RV and so, gives you access to more places, potentially has a smaller carbon footprint, and I might feel more comfortable driving it

- It doesn’t necessary look like a home on wheels for those stealth camping nights, which provides an element of security

Pretty much, the only concern is that there is no ready-made layout that works for us and our needs.

As a quick side note, another safer option that many families with children choose is the travel trailer hitched onto a regular vehicle. This option doesn’t work for us because it is just too long, when you add the length of the trailer and the length of the car; it would be inconvenient when we are travelling in other countries and narrower, curvier streets (I can only imagine the nightmare it would be to tow it when visiting family in Tucumán, Argentina and heading up to Tafí del Valle); parking in city locations or near city locations would be a nightmare and I don’t know how I feel about leaving our “home” on the outskirts of cities/places we don’t know; stealth boondocking isn’t an option; and I’m sure I can think of a few more reasons.

So, what does this all mean for us?

WE ARE CUSTOM-BUILDING OUR OWN CAMPER VAN!!!!! (rough layout coming soon in the next post on this topic!)

It is daunting, overwhelming and exhilarating all at the same time and you can only imagine how much there is to research, design, and plan:

- Getting ourselves ready, including my mom’s doctors’ “ok” for permanent van living, decluttering/minimizing EVERYTHING, figuring our health insurance, schooling options for the kids, how to finance our life

- Planning the van layout, the possessions we will need/want to take along, deciding whether to build it ourselves or have someone else build it (mostly an expense vs. time balancing)

- Planning the route, visas, ferries/shipping the van (once borders open up), etc.

So, please stay tuned for future posts in our pursuit of nomadic living as we tackle each and every one of these steps!

Also, please leave your comments and wonderings below or in the Facebook or Pinterest Posts so we can keep the conversation going, inspire similar adventures, tackle questions you may bring to the table, etc!


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