Livin Large

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Doug named his new home the Enterprise. It doesnʼt seem all that large until you need to turn its 53-foot length around.

(Today we have a guest post from my friend  Doug Begley. In this post he will tell us how he ended up in his really nice 26 foot travel trailer. In future posts we will take closer looks at his solar power system and the Tankmin fresh and black water tanks that greatly extend his remote boondocking stays.)
My own interest in small mobile living started a year and a half ago, while web surfing. The Tiny House movement first caught my eye, and I found the comparative simplicity fascinating from both technical and lifestyle standpoints. What a contrast to conventional, cattle-yard consumer living! Then, when I stumbled over Bob’s VanDwelling websites, it was like “Tiny House on Steroids” because of its much higher emphasis on mobility and economy.
Having already had many skirmishes with my Inner Packrat, such a simple lifestyle was a smack-in-the-face wake up call. I began to look inward, and to slowly try to figure out how close I could come to the tenets of VanDwelling without exceeding what I felt I could realistically adapt to, long-term. This exercise was just for fun, and the answer was: Not real close.
But, decades of typical suburban living under an increasingly bad economy, age discrimination, and jobs moving offshore had left me feeling frustrated. I was now working a minimum-wage job to struggle with the maintenance, mortgage, and taxes of home ownership. I couldn’t help daydreaming about permanent, full-time mobile living, and I researched hard.

Determining personal goals

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The trailer came with a front bedroom, which Doug turned in to his office.

I had to first look inward. One can live in just about anything for awhile, but what would I need to feel at home in on a permanent, continuous basis? Not just a year, not until something better came along, but until I fell off the perch. I still have a very strong drive to “go to work”, and to work on projects that suit my interests and skill set. That drive would not go away anytime soon, paid or not. I felt ill at ease about sitting in one single place to work, and then shifting things around to relax, cook food, eat, and sleep. I needed a change of place – at least a perceived one. Whatever I lived in, I’d have to be comfortable enough to reside in it even when confined by several days of continuous rain, and without having to entirely give up working or goofing off. I wanted to be able to continuously boondock in the undistracted solitude of scenic, remote areas for a minimum of two weeks at a stretch before moving to service water and waste tanks.
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The Enterprise provides an abundance of room and comfort for extended stays in the boondocks, even in bad weather.

Even though I already owned a 3/4-ton 4WD pickup truck, I had to rule out a truck camper as too confining for me in the long run. I knew I’d never make the cut for VanDweller either, as much as I admire that simplicity. I would need that interior change of scenery, and a dedicated place to do my thing. I planned out a converted, high-clearance 18-20’ concession trailer that used existing furniture, solar power, and rudimentary water and waste systems. That was fun. I’d be a TinTubeDweller of sorts.
Much to my surprise, circumstantial push suddenly came to shove, and I had a couple of months to either continue a mini-version of conventional living in a rented room, or to find a way to implement my self-imposed On Walden Pond. As risk-adverse as I am, I opted for the grand experiment. The traditional, safe choice was killing my soul.
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You donʼt need to win the lottery to live on the big estate of your dreams. This one is Rancho Begley, Quartzsite.

At first, a desire to see the country via backroads prompted my daydream. Then, as appealing as living simply is, experiencing the beauty and primacy of Nature, and living more sustainably, I found that my main interest became to stop living a life that had never really worked for me. I was only just recently beginning to find out why. I needed to somehow step out of traffic, start over and find my own way, and knew that it would be a slow process. During that undistracted navel-gazing, I would much appreciate the ability to shower, shave, stay warm, eat…plus explore and exercise my abilities and interests. Call it an extended sabbatical.

Reality steps in

Lack of finances and time quickly killed off the trailer conversion idea. And, I was loath to trade in my trusty, newish pickup truck for some unknown like a clapped-out bread truck or ex-rental box truck. I’d have to find a manufactured travel trailer pronto, modify it, and go before freezing weather set in.

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A road like this is no problem for a 4×4 pickup or a van, but too difficult for a 26 foot Travel Trailer.

The pluses of this approach are several. 1) A manufactured travel trailer is, except for boondocking mods, ready to go. 2) A big problem with the tow vehicle’s drivetrain has little effect on the living quarters. You get a different, used tow vehicle and go on about your business. The negatives are several, too. 1) The living space in an RV is pre-defined for you, like it or not. Dividers, storage spaces, appliances and furniture are pretty much there for good. 2) Mobility is highly restricted, because there are limits on where they can go in remote areas. The bigger the unit, the bigger the issue. Rough trails and lack of space to turn around in can pose a real problem.
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The kitchen area as viewed from the couch. All lighting except the range hood is now LED. The bunk-beds are behind the wall.

I quickly determined that I’d need to find a TT equipped with a separate bedroom that could be converted into a working office, and equipped with bunkbeds so I could sleep in one and use the other for storage bins. Not so tough to find, although that dictated longer trailers than I preferred. The challenge was that mine would have to be excessively cheap, yet in very good condition.
I found that in a 24’ 1994 Gulf Stream Innsbruck, and towed it home. Solar panels, batteries, and a Tankmin truck-mounted fresh and wastewater system were already ordered and onroute because of time constraints. The good news about the trailer was that everything in it still worked and was presentable, the one-piece aluminum roof didn’t leak, and the tires and brakes still looked good. Once I got it home, I found that despite the title, it was actually a 26-footer, and that the roof was so badly dented, poorly supported, and full of vents and A/C that mounting solar panels up there would be impossible. Bummer.

The transformation begins

The thrashing started in earnest at that point. I had to modify a weekend camper into a boondocker’s special in just a few weeks, and go. My son “helped me” (actually did all the work) to rip out the queen bed and install a work surface and bookshelves in the new office. He installed batteries securely in the needed areas. When the solar panels showed up, I determined that hanging them off the side of the trailer was the only real option, and that they’d have to be stored inside the trailer during transport. There was no practical way to lock them down in place without a big risk of damage or loss. We weren’t even sure that the trailer’s wood header was sound enough to hold their weight.

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The panel hinge system and telescoping painterʼs poles allow each panel to be positioned well over horizontal, if needed. Here, Iʼm aimed straight west in April, and the panels are “set & forget”. I will post an article on the solar power system sometime soon.

At 45 pounds each, hoisting panels overhead to mount and dismount them would be a challenge, and I devised a hanger system that didn’t require much finesse. But the cut & try tuning to get the prototype to work proved far too time-consuming, and my son scouted for hardware at a local Ace to fashion a cheap and easy hanger system that would hold. It requires aligning hooks with loops blindly, but it does work, given enough tries and cursing. Practice improves both.
Because of the unusually large panels, this type of mounting system is suited only for longer stays – which suits me fine at this point. Depending on where the trailer is located, it’s either impractical or impossible to deploy the panels during hit-and-run touring, or at rest stops, truck stops, or parking lots. Obviously, there’s no recharging anything but the OEM house batteries during transport. This hasn’t presented problems so far, because there’s little time for or point in using the office during long distance runs. An old iPad fills in for everything needed on the road. There are three independent solar systems rather than one big one – and for good reason – but this post is already way too long to blather on about specifics.

The downsides

This TT rig has its drawbacks, like fuel mileage, sheer length and weight, mounting and stowing the panels, and giving me an innate fear of trails in National Forests. Vintage trailers like this just don’t have any ground clearance – I’ve grounded out on gas station aprons! It’s had its mechanical challenges, too. It has issues with weight distribution that will need future mods, since the optimum battery and solar panel storage layout has boosted tongue weight past what a 1/2-ton pickup could carry. In the long run, that limits my future tow vehicle options to more expensive choices. A more flexible person with more time could easily outfit a smaller trailer for boondocking more conservatively, saving considerable money on the total rig, and boosting campsite choices to boot.

The upsides

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The Tankmin system looks like a toolbox and stores 70 gallons of fresh water above a working 60-gallon waste tank. Instant boondocking. I will have a post on it sometime soon.

But this rig also has its virtues apart from spaciousness. Despite a mere 20-gallon camper fresh water tank, its practical water/waste system capacity is now 60 gallons. I can pull into a campsite and stay planted for 3 weeks without having to sacrifice any further than using paper plates instead of china. Then the Tankmin system allows me to service the camper’s tanks without having to break camp and haul the trailer back out. The entire combination can technically supply 90 gallons of fresh water on the first charge, but this presents issues I’ll deal with in another article. Regardless, being able to stay for months without breaking camp has proven handy in BLM Long Term Visitor Areas. The nights can get cold, and the Innsbruck is a “temperate weather only” TT, so a Mr. Heater Portable Buddy handles its 200 sq ft down to 30 degrees.

Now, this is livin’!

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The view out of my office window in Quartzsite, Arizona. Such views can affect your work pace either way.

This modified TT works for me. I can do what I like, when I like. Trapped in bad weather? I’m comfortable and happy. I don’t delude myself that I’m either living simply, or camping. But I don’t miss any of what I’ve given away or discarded in order to pack myself into this thing, either. Living in this travel trailer has worked out much better than I’d dared hope. It has every trait that I feel I need as a permanent home on wheels. I’m comfortable and relaxed, and I now look forward to all that each day offers. I nearly always have the nicest yard and prettiest views that anyone could hope for – both at home and at work – and I have now have the time and freedom from distraction to get out and explore, to think, to create, and to reflect. For a bucks-down pre-newbie in a panic for something workable, I’m very thankful!
Before you ask, I do hope to tour the country one day, which was originally the main drive for beginning this daydream in the first place. For now though, putting a new and livable lifestyle together (that works for me) within very finite financial limits is the priority, and will take a few years to sort out. Then, I’ll go tourista!
Check out Doug’s blog: Strolling Amok

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36 Comments

  1. rick

    Nice post. I look forward to more info on the solar system you have installed.

    • greenminimalism

      Wow, this is an absolutely beautiful guest post. You’ve completely taken your life to the place where you wanted it to be. It is a very long trailer though, as you admit I hope you get the opportunity to tour one day.
      Cheers
      Eric

    • Bob

      Thanks Rick, Dougs solar power system is one of the very best I have seen! I’ll get you details on it soon.
      Bob

    • DougB

      Sorry I couldn’t reply earlier – my Verizon hotspot ran hot for a couple of days and then died a couple days ago (the day this was posted), so I’m mooching WiFi from a commercial RV park and taking advantage of their dump station, laundry, etc. This is the last time I expect to be on the Internet until I get to the other end of my 2K-mile commute.
      Rick and Greenminimalism, thank you so much. The solar system turned out to be a fairly powerful OOPS, but it’s still interesting. If I could have found a 20-footer with bunkbeds and a place to install an office, I’d have been much better off, but time waits for no man. I chose the features over the length, and accepted the downsides – sort of.
      Bob, I love ya, but I suspect we have different definitions of the words “one of the best”!!

  2. Barb

    nice post. Your set up is more what I am dealing with albeit I haven’t had the time/$$ to equip it with solar as I don’t feel I will ever be able to boondock. (require 24/7 oxygen). I have an old 22 foot TT but no separate bedroom, which would be great for me too. I don’t like to convert the couch or dinette for sleeping so I am using the bottom bunk (30″ wide) to sleep in with 2-3 dogs! Very cozy and when warm, hot as the devil. I will follow you along with Bob, I love this blog but it is a little out of my realm of possibilities! Thanks for sharing to both you & Bob!

    • Bob

      Your welcome Barb! It sounds like you have a setup that works well for you. That’s all that counts!
      Bob

    • DougB

      Barb, since it’s just me in the trailer, failing a “master bedroom”, I was prepared to say goodbye to the dinette or something like that in order to add a good-sized desk. I too sleep in the lower bunk, and the non-louvered “escape hatch” window does stop any ventilation. I aim a 12V fan in there sometimes. I can’t imagine packing a couple of dogs in there, except in the winter. Ever wake up with a dead leg?
      With those oxygen generators slurping 300-600W at 120VAC, I see your point about solar. Wow. But stick with Bob’s blog. Not so much for what you can’t do, but to enjoy the sharing of what’s out there.

  3. Martin Hamilton

    Solar is the way to go….Those trailers are a but much for me. I still love the simple van that is stealthy. I have everything except a shower and toilet (portable I have but not with the holding tank). My gym membership takes care of showering as well as the Coleman camping shower available at WalMart. Thanks for the post!

    • Frank

      That is sooo true man, a gym membership is the best way to go. No shower stall to purchase, clean, repair, no dam water to haul, it’s fast, simple, and easy.
      You can also still be out in the boonies and even get a yearly day pass only for state parks. This allows the use of thier campground public showers.
      All activities in the van can be done sitting down or laying down. So why pay the price of a huge monster size RV just to stand up for a few minutes. They are hard to clean, expensive to repair, drive, park and full of junk that always breaks down.
      RVs are a con game just like houses and RV parks rob you blind.

      • DougB

        Frank, I typically don’t start the engine for 2-3 weeks at the kinds of places I stay, and don’t tour, so state parks and commercial ones to get showers isn’t my bag. I have a “zero miles” policy once camped. My dream conversion used a high, sun-warmed tank/bag, but this TT has a shower, so… Besides, I hate it when the women laugh and point at me. ; )
        Your specific complains about most pre-built RVs are entirely accurate, in my view. My only boasting point is that I got each of those liabilities for very little money, because its so old.

    • DougB

      Good point, Martin. That’s why I don’t advocate humongous vintage TT’s as some kind of clever breakthrough, because it all boils down to what each person wants to be able to do, and how. It’s all about tradeoffs, and this is one area where the vast width of available choices is fabulous.

  4. stan watkins

    Thanks for the post. I would like to hear more about the tanks for extended stays. I guess it could be done with the totable tanks also. Now I have another blog to read also.

  5. Kim

    Fascinating! Thanks for sharing, Doug. Particularly impressive is that you seem to have great insight into who you are. And you used that knowledge as a starting point for moving into a new life. That’s some gold medal naval-gazing!

    • DougB

      Kim,
      Well, ummm, I don’t, actually, but thank you. As for the move to a life on the road, I always played it as safe as I could when providing for my family, but in time realized that A) there is no true “safe” path, and B) retaining that guideline well after the kids were married and have careers, and the wife is gone, and I can see the home stretch coming up… makes not so much sense anymore. When the shoes of life no longer fit, it may be time to look over sandals.
      But I do know what I like vs what I can do without, so that made the rundown of technical choices easier. My goal is to get some “must do” stuff out of the way, and then do a lot of undistracted catching up on things that most folks did in their teens or twenties. Late bloomer. I hope.

  6. Calvin R

    Doug, the first thing that stands out about your setup is that self-examination pays off. You have achieved a clear understanding of both your needs and your desires. Your rig and your life are designed for your specific life. Congratulations! “If a man happens to find himself, he has a mansion he can inhabit with dignity for all his days.” (James Michener)
    The 26-foot TT seems to meet your needs well. If my situation were a bit different, I’d be in something only a few feet shorter. I like quiet places but I have reason to be in a town two or three times a week, and I want to travel a good bit. Knowing that and myself, I’ll be going pretty small and simple, and I hope my rig meets my needs as well as yours does for you.
    I’m another one who is looking forward to more information on the water/gray water system.

    • DougB

      Thank you, Calvin. I think the best thing anyone can do is to take a long while to think through what features or abilities take priority over others. I knew those going in, so when push came to shove and I had to rush through some pretty stark choices in choosing a rig, it worked out better than I figured it would. As mentioned, the Innsbruck was quite a ways from my first choice, but it still covered what was important to me. Twisting this behemoth through downtown Columbus in the height of rush hour was a sweaty nightmare, but that was a width issue as much as length. Small and simple pays off in so many ways, as you already know, both in towns and on NF trails. The main issue with “vintage” TTs is absurdly bad ground clearance compared to many current units. Anyway, I can tell that your own choice will meet your own needs well – may you have plenty of time to implement your own priorities!

  7. CAE

    I am astounded at the number of used trailers that are in great shape and going for very low prices. I’ve been looking at some 20 footers and they’re perfect for me and under $10K.
    Who needs a tiny house when you cam get the trailer all done and ready to go?!?

    • Bob

      CAE, I have to agree. The economy left a lot people really strapped for cash and now some of them are selling their little used trailers for next to nothing. if you are patient you should be able to get a really good deal. If it were me, I would look for a toy hauler. It will be ligter, more open and have a more flexible floor plan. Drop the back door and it will stay much cooler. But they are a little more and there are fewer of them.
      Bob

      • CAE

        Thanks Bob. I’ll check them out. But I have seem some near perfect used trailers for not too much money. I’m thinking of getting some land in the boonies and just taking the trailer out to it for extended stays. But the NF look like a deal that’s pretty hard to beat!! That lake looks like it would be good fishing and kayaking too.

        • Bob

          CAE, living on public land is a hard deal to pass up. I have a strong urge to buy a piece of land of my own, but then I think to myself, “What will it give me that I don’t have right now except a smaller savings account and tax bills every year?” And I can’t come up with an answer! But the urge is still there and I suspect that eventually i will buy some land.
          This is something Steve and I talk about all the time and we both are inclined to buy a junker school bus and have it hauled to the property. They are built 10,000 times better than any RV and they are huge. Being an empty space is an advantage to me since i want to build my own. since I will probably buy in the high desert of Arizona, we decided we would dig out a long trench and drive the bus into and back fill around it. Then we would block up the axles and pop the tires so all the weight was sitting on the blocks. Probably use railroad ties for blocks. We would leave one side above ground so we had full side of windows exposed and leave the front and back open for two entrances. Everything else would be backfilled and the roof covered over becoming a partial underground house. I think I would then build some kind of cover to be a roof and rain catchement. Arizona has a monsoon season and you can catch a LOT of water! It would overhang the front of the bus and shade the windows from the summer sun, but leave them exposed to the winter sun. Being partially underground, it should stay reasonably cool in the summer and warm in the winter. I already have enough solar to keep me quite happy. In the summer I would travel in the van anyway.
          You could do all of this equally well with a used container!! You can’t do it with an RV. They are built so poorly they would rot away to trash within a few years.
          Shaver Lake is stocked with fish and it has FABULOUS fishing and kayaking!! It is much larger than those pictures can show you. That is one of dozens of coves on it.
          Bob

    • DougB

      CAE, my own finances limited me for the base unit, because of the add-on costs of heavy solar and bigger water/waste capacity. It that regard, a really old unit like my 1994 really sparkled. It came in at $4,000 as a starting point, but I can tell you, the all-in cost to actually hit the road and be able to boondock non-stop 24/365 “in the manner to which I am accustomed” was sobering. That’s what it’s now built for, so it should hopefully be serious overkill for a lot of folks.

  8. MichaelinOK

    Bob,
    Like your own posts, this guest post not only had interesting content but was very well written.
    Informative, and enjoyable to read. Thanks to both of you.
    Michael

    • Bob

      Thanks Michael!
      Bob

    • DougB

      You’re very welcome, and thanks for the flattery! Unlike the usual confusing trash on my own blog, I had to trash and rewrite this darned thing three times from scratch – just because it’s Bob’s site and he writes at a higher level (and much, much faster, too!) You guys deserve something that actually stays fairly close to topic and at least appears to make a point of some kind. If you regularly read my blog, you wouldn’t have those expectations. Life is easy over there, and all three readers (relatives) check in at least once a month. ; )

  9. Walt

    Although we aren’t likely to “graduate” to vandweller status, my wife and I hope to one day full-time in an RV and live off the grid as much as possible. We’ve talked about getting a Class A (we currently have a fifth-wheel) because we want the comforts of home, as it were, but I wonder how much we’ll be able to go off the beaten path. We’re looking to live somewhat comfortably yet simply and cheaply. (I can’t convince my wife to consider a Class C because of the lost living space in the cab.) We also have an autistic son who may be traveling with us. Something else to consider. However, I don’t want to be stuck with or restricted to RV parks and the like.

    • Bob

      Walt, everything is a trade-off and you can get comfort in an RV or you can get off-road, but you can rarely get both. If you have lots and lots of money you can get close. I have a friend with a 30 foot class A Rexhall that does pretty well getting back to where I go. But whether that will be enough comfort for you wife, you two will have to work out.
      But don’t think that you will be restricted to RV parks just because you have an RV, even a 5th wheel. There are lots and lots of roads in the National Forests and BLM land you will do fine on. Many more you can go on than you can’t. For example, Doug with his 26 foot TT couldn’t get all the way back to where I am but he got within a mile and into a really nice campsite. It looks to me like the big problem is the departure angle, which means the rear bumper grinds and high-centers going over a bump or dip.
      My suggestion would be the shortest Class A you can live with and then tow a 4×4 of some kind as a toad. Go back as far as you can with the RV, then camp and finish exploring with the 4×4. The early Suzukis and Geos are very popular because they were so light, got great mpg and could go a log way off-road. Pulling a toad is much easier than you would think.
      Bob

  10. Lauren Smith

    I could live in that red truck! That probably isn’t the truck we could afford. Nicely done! One resource to getting debt free is the book, “Practical Steps to Financial Freedom and Independence: Your Road Map to Exiting the Rat Race and Living Your Dreams” by author Usiere Uko. We are using the tools and techniques to change our habits and make some real financial changes. The book blends is on personal growth and development ( without which you cannot take the steps) and practical steps. http://www.financialfreedominspiration.com/

    • Bob

      I have to agree Lauren. I had a friend who lived in a crew cab 4×4 Dakota year around. Thanks for the book recommendation, I’ll have to check it out!
      Bob

    • DougB

      Yep, the 4×4 F-250 popped in at $44K in 2007, so I hate to think of what they cost now. It explains why I’m determined to shift trailer weight around to decrease tongue weight, since if the F-250 folds, I can’t now replace it with another, particularly the diesel version. The F-150 is a whole lot more affordable.
      By the way, the extended cab rear seat is too narrow to make a bed, so a crew cab would be needed. However, you’d have a full bath available in any case – just line the bed with a plastic drop cloth and add water! Might take a good long time to heat up… ; )

      • Bob

        Doug, if I had gotten a pickup instead of this van I would have got a crew cab and taken the back seat out and built a platform for a bed and used the bottom for storage. I think i would have done something else for a bath though!
        Bob

  11. Lauren Smith

    Your welcome Bob! You will enjoy it!

  12. Kasey

    Nice to see others attempting full time living in an RV. Our original idea was to get land but when that didn’t work out we are living in the RV.
    Everyday is a new adventure and I don’t miss the 30-year-slavery house note!!! The freedom is great…….
    Can’t wait to hear more!!!

    • Bob

      Kasey, why don’t you write the next post! Seriously, I’ve never owned an RV so i can’t write it so why don’t you write something and send it in?
      Bob

    • DougB

      I second that, Kasey. Not that many folks full-time in a sizable RV, and many who say they do are really seasonal part-timers. Seasoned experience is hard to come by, so anything you’d care to write would be helpful.

  13. https://stuffswatch.com

    Your post is so informative. I knew many interesting things from your trailer. Thank you & keep it up!

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