In 2018 I decided that immediately following my 55th birthday, I’d retire and explore the USA. After spending over a year examining the best way to accomplish that, I found Vandoit’s website.
Within a few days of my initial consultation with Van Guru Josh, my deposit was in. My Vandoit LIV model (with Quigley 4×4 conversion) pickup date was scheduled for February of 2020. That delivery date gave me about 9 months, while still working, to do some test trips. These trips allowed me to better judge what I did or didn’t need for full time exploration. In November of 2020, I retired from corporate America, closed on the sale of my house, and began exploring.
The knowledge I gained on my short test trips was certainly helpful. Nothing really allows you to refine the van’s systems outside of using those systems long-term. I’ve now been full-time exploring for nearly 2 years and I continually find opportunities to further refine what I carry, how I store my stuff, and how I decide where I want to explore next.
Configuration of the van
When configuring my Vandoit adventure van, I needed to address the basic functions of life. I would need to have methods to keep perishable food items, a water system, prepare food, and maintain personal hygiene. Further, I needed room for my dog Gunner (whom I lost in late 2021) and to carry the toys I would most enjoy while out exploring. This included a bicycle (and associated gear), an inflatable stand-up paddleboard, and hiking and running gear. The great part about the Vandoit adventure van is the great flexibility in setup, which allowed me to carry all of that and more.
For the perishable food items, my van build sheet included the Dometic chest style refrigerator. I designed and built a small shelf on which to mount it. This shelf is placed above the Espar heater and attached to the track system. Later I ordered a small Alpicoo l fridge, which I use in freezer mode. Both of these items are mounted using the t-track that is part of the Vandoit LIV model’s design. A bonus of the freezer and fridge locations: they become steps to access the bed, with space under the Dometic to store shoes.
For the water system, the build sheet included the Vandoit kitchen pod and water pump/heater module. The pump/heater module fits inside the kitchen pod alongside the grey water tank. The freshwater supply is strapped to the side of the pod. This makes my water system completely contained – providing the advantage of all water lines staying contained within that pod. That also means I can put the water system wherever I can make it fit within the van. I chose to install it on the slider door side, secured to the LIV model’s passenger side cabinet.
I needed an option for outdoor cooking for my propane stove. I ordered the compact kitchen from Trail Kitchens. When set up, it provides space for the stove and gives plenty of counter space for food prep. If weather or another reason prevents me from setting up my outdoor kitchen, my hot food fallback is a backpacking meal that requires only boiling water. The only cooking I do in the van is using my backpacking stove to boil water. Of course, the fridge allows me to carry other cold meal options.
The only part of the water system that is outside the kitchen pod is the shower. I hung a shower curtain across the back doors and have a hose, supplied with the water pump/heater system, that stretches to the back of the van. I hang the shower head (a garden nozzle) on a bungee cord and place a mat on the ground. This gives me a semi-private shower space. There are plenty of times that a shower in this fashion is not practical so I’ve become quite adept at the “bird bath” inside the van.
Gunner was a big dog and he needed the entire space behind the driver and passenger seats. He, his bed and bowls fit in that space. Without the modularity of the Vandoit van, the placement of my water system and fridge/freezer would not have allowed this space for him. His food and other supplies were stored with the rest of our gear in the garage’s gear slide.
There is a lot of stuff stored on the gear slide. Since it is made of t-track, there are lots of options for making sure it stays secure. My job was to fit it all in there without having to completely unload it every time I wanted to get something out. This occasionally becomes a challenge. The work to pare down this load is continuous.
The Smallest Road Possible
I’ve never really seen anything when traveling over the interstate system. When I launched, I set my travel philosophy as “The Smallest Road Possible.” I rather enjoy this philosophy. Sometimes that does mean use of the interstate, more often paved back-country highways, but most often I’m traveling on dirt or gravel roads. I download maps for offline use to my iPad or iPhone, mounted on the dash or A-Pillar.
I mostly do short term planning in detail and long-term planning broadly. My goal for the summer of 2022 was to visit western South Dakota – one that I did accomplish. I spent September exploring the Black Hills and the Badlands. I was in western Nebraska in early June and I only decided to enter Wyoming when faced with the choice of heading north into the Black Hills or west into Wyoming. How long I stayed in Wyoming would be based on what I could find to explore. I found three months’ worth of exploration!
I try to get far enough into the forest with the van to leave a web of available routes to explore. I set basecamp long enough to explore the surrounding area by alternating riding and hiking on the available Jeep and hiking trails. The bike allows me to ride the ATV trails and other Jeep roads around an area. I have scouted routes for the van by bike numerous times–sometimes I drive the scouted road, and sometimes I don’t. It depends on the purpose. I scouted a 7 mile Utah section of the Rimrocker trail by bike one day, then drove that route the following day. Another time I rode up to Hurrah Pass after turning the van around lower on the road. The risks to the van became clear as I ascended to the pass. I was glad to have turned the van around when I did, and it made for a great bicycle ride!
In June of 2021 my brother flew across the country to meet me in Oregon for the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder. For a week Jeff took care of the van and Gunner – at and between basecamps. I suffered in many ways but not because I was worried about Gunner or my van. Or my brother – the van was able to carry the additional equipment for him and he easily picked up on the few steps needed to go between “camp mode” and “drive mode” with the van and Gunner. After he left, I found an amazing campsite on a small lake in the Oregon Cascades. I paddled on that small lake every day for a week!
Not all Roads are Smooth
As much as I love taking my van deep into the woods, I have found some drawbacks. I’ve crossed sections of the Northern Rocky Mountains in Idaho and Colorado. I have driven across the state of Nevada almost exclusively on dirt and gravel roads. Gunner and I explored the La Sal Mountains on a forest service road that connected to Onion Creek Road and then down to the Colorado river. The other vehicles I encountered on that road were 4x4s, side-by-sides, and motorcycles. At an uphill, off-camber switchback, the driver front tire came off the ground. The potential for rolling the van was there – I always have to consider the risks of taking my van deep in the forest (or desert), especially because I’m almost always traveling solo.
While attempting to follow the Snake River, I spent almost 5 minutes trying to present – to myself – a convincing argument to continuing on my current path. The maps showed the road diverting up a side canyon, then crossing the Wallowa Whitman National Forest / Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. I continued up this rather narrow canyon on a rocky road for about 3 miles. Those 3 miles took 30 minutes – that’s roughly running pace! My maps indicated 10 more miles of this road before it connected to an improved Forest Service Road on the other side of the forest. I had less than 2 hours of daylight and I was looking at up to 10 more miles of the current road conditions. On the drive in, about a mile before the canyon narrowed, I had spotted a suitable spot for an overnight. Evaluating the risk of not finding a campsite and having to drive through the night lost to backtracking to get a good night’s sleep. The next morning, with a fresh head, I selected an alternate route.
I was exploring the area to the west of the Green River in Utah. I saw a side path off the main road and started following it. I engaged 4wd shortly after turning. The map showed the road heading to a bend in the Green River. I got within sight of the river. At the turn of a switchback at the very upper end of the descent to the river plain when I decided to scout on foot. I parked off the main trail and walked down the switchback. About 100 yards down the trail was an off-camber, downhill, rutted and bumpy curve. It happened that a group of side by sides came up the trail. As I watched them through that section, I realized that my 10’ tall van was not a good candidate for that section of trail. No problem–Gunner and I hiked the rest of the way.
All of this risk analysis is aimed at keeping my Vandoit healthy. I wish to continue traveling this country until I am tired of it. Keeping the van healthy is the biggest challenge and one that could cut short my ability to explore. I have to consider the potential for real damage to the van and compare that to the ability to explore an area with alternate means.
Scheduled maintenance comes up frequently with lots of miles traveled. I do my own basic maintenance, and finding a place to do those tasks becomes challenging. Any work that I can’t do has to be scheduled carefully. After all, I am a full time explorer and the van becomes home. If a repair can’t be made quickly, I have to have an alternate solution in what is likely a relatively unknown town. I’m sure I’m not the only full time traveler who has these concerns.
The Journey is the Adventure
My Vandoit adventure van allows me to really explore my country. With the Quigley conversion I have confidence to get off the beaten path. Staying off-grid isn’t an issue, as my power system is well maintained by the solar panels and all of my basic needs are covered. The Vandoit systems leave me relatively stress-free to work on the day-to-day details of exploration.
I minimize my stay at any one campsite. With few exceptions – when visiting family or friends – the longest I’ve camped is 7 nights. Once I’ve explored what I can from that basecamp, I can easily move to the next whether it’s dispersed camping in the National Forest or an established campground in a National Park. I spent 2 months exploring Southeastern Utah. I also spent over 2 weeks to crossing Nevada, more than a month exploring the Olympic Peninsula, and a another month just exploring Wyoming’s Snowy Range. My Vandoit adventure van allows me to explore this great country, basecamp to basecamp.