I first heard about vandwelling a few years ago when I was home from school on winter break. My initial reaction was that of amazement, followed by major interest and curiosity about whether or not I would enjoy doing it. The people I read about seemed to enjoy the mobility it provided and even though the lifestyle presented some unique challenges, most of them were leading pretty normal lives.
Vandwelling stayed in the back of my mind. My first similar experience wasn’t so much vandwelling as much as it was an extended car camping trip. Soon after I graduated I built a bed platform in the back of my 1999 Ford Explorer, packed my necessities in bins and duffels that fit nicely in the back, put the rest in a storage unit, and took off for Southern California to visit friends and family for a while. My first night on the road was the first time I’d ever slept in a Wal-Mart parking lot.
I drove the Explorer to a lot of places that summer. Having everything with me meant I could go wherever I wanted and stay for however long I wanted. I really liked that. When the ol’ Explorer started having transmission issues and it was time to start thinking about a new vehicle, the ability to pack everything up and sleep in the back was one of the biggest things that informed my decision on a vehicle. In addition, I was looking for something that would be reliable for years to come, had good gas mileage and off-road capability, and offered me a good overall value.
After much research and the realization that a van probably wasn’t going to be the best option at this point in my life (disappointing, but that was the reality of it), I settled on something that met my criteria and felt very correct: the Subaru Outback.
A couple months of searching later, I found the one that I wanted to call mine. There was something about it that pulled me in and after a self-enforced pre-purchase cooling-off period of two or three days, I called up the dealership to schedule a time to pick it up. I drove it off the lot on March 31st.
The cargo area in the Outback has more space to sleep than even my Explorer had. I can easily lay down in the back with the seats folded down. Subarus are known for their reliability; peruse Craigslist for a few minutes and you will find no shortage of high mileage Subarus still alive and kicking. The 2012 advertises about 22 MPG city and 29 MPG highway. It isn’t the best MPG out there, but certainly better than most other vehicles I was looking at. It is an all-wheel drive car so it’s capable of driving on snow and off-road. The Outback also has similar ground clearance stock to what my Explorer had with a 2″ lift. Lastly, it will hold its value over time. I was, and still am, very happy with the purchase.
Fast-forward a few months to the end of July. It was beautiful in Western Washington. The days were consistently sunny and warm and they hadn’t started to get noticeably shorter yet. By that point in the summer, it became difficult to drive over an hour back to the house after work to be inside all night. I wanted to change things up a bit. It was time to break the routine and try something new. Given the awesome weather and my desire to shorten my commute, I thought it might be the perfect opportunity to try out vandwelling. It would be more like wagondwelling and it probably wouldn’t be completely full-time, but I started to research where I could stay while I slept in my car and to plan a setup similar to the Explorer for the Outback.
It didn’t take long to find three state park campgrounds close to my work. Two of them were less than 30 minutes away and one was about 45. Any one of them would be a good option for cutting my commute time down. I looked at the campground maps and decided to try out Dash Point State Park. At $30 per night, it is expensive camping, but certainly less expensive than rent on any apartment if I only camped there four nights a week (I’m on a 4/10 work schedule). With a destination in mind, I started building out the Outback.
Most of the items I left in the storage unit last summer, things I didn’t deem as necessities (furniture and excess clothing and such), have been purged from my life. Not all of it, but a lot. The bins and duffels I had packed for the Explorer are now my main pieces of furniture and most of my stuff remains “packed” in them. It was really easy to transfer bins to the car. In just a few hours I had a mobile apartment with everything I could possibly need.
I realized as I was setting up the Outback that a bed platform was not feasible if I wanted any level of comfort while I slept; I would be way too close to the roof. I also realized that I didn’t need a platform. I don’t know if I took an excessive amount of stuff to California or what, but I didn’t seem to need that extra space for my stuff like I did in the Explorer. Although a few weeks after this first iteration of the setup I did buy a roof box for some of the items I didn’t want in cargo area so that certainly helped. At any rate, I got everything packed up and ready for my first night of vandwelling.
On August 3rd, a Wednesday, I drove to Dash Point State Park after work. I found the campground host and gave her my $30 to purchase a campsite for the night and drove my car to Site #64. Home sweet home.
I didn’t return to Dash Point until the following Wednesday, and after that the following Monday. But for the three weeks after that I slept in my car at Dash Point on nearly every work night. On the weekends, I drove to the mountains and car camped. During that time I remember being content in a way that I had never been. There is always something I want to change or improve or do. In those three or four weeks, though, I was totally relaxed. I wasn’t planning for anything or trying to accomplish any big goals (though I was accomplishing a big goal of trying to live out of my car). I was just in the moment every day. I should note that I don’t know if what I was doing was actually considered vandwelling, but I continued to go to work and live my normal life while not returning to a house, so I’m going to call it that. Call it another extended car camping trip if you’d like.
Since then I haven’t spent any time at Dash Point. I was excited for September 15 to roll around because shoulder season rates kicked in, but I wasn’t anticipating that shoulder season also meant they would shut down 75 percent of the campground. One of the other local campgrounds is shut down completely. It’s also started to rain again on a consistent basis, which makes car camping every night a little less appealing.
I’ve tried to spend the last couple years exploring different possibilities and trying to feel out what I want from life. The answer to that seems to change on a regular basis, but the vandwelling spell in the month of August certainly gave me some insight as to what “home” might look like for me in the future. I don’t think I will convince myself that I need to pay rent for an overpriced apartment anytime soon. On the other hand, I don’t think I will be living out of a vehicle full-time anytime soon. My lifestyle seems to be moving more in the direction of having a home base, but being prepared for a spontaneous adventure the moment I want it. With that in mind, it seems that a tiny house might be the correct approach for the next couple years. As long as the tiny house has a tiny rent/mortgage payment, I won’t have to feel bad about leaving it empty for half the month. I don’t know much about them, but my interest has been piqued. I’ve started researching and I’ve signed up for a one night class called “Building a Tiny House the RIGHT Way” at a local college. I’m very interested to see what they have to say.
Meanwhile, I will continue my build of the Outback because I plan to continue camping out of it and because I enjoy making and creating and it makes for some good projects. If you’re curious, I’m working on another post to go over all the modifications to date. Look for it soon. It’s starting to become a little home on wheels. It’s pretty great.