[This post is one of three related writings created for use on another blog as a “guest post”. These articles simply explain different aspects of The Enterprise as an improvised dwelling choice. Written for a different overall audience, they veer away from the tedious “I did laundry today” reporting I usually do. Enjoy the temporary break.]
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 Well’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 try to assist with the maintenance, mortgage, and taxes of home ownership. It wasn’t much of a help, and the mismatch of duties and skills was wearing. As a mental escape, I couldn’t help daydreaming about permanent, full-time mobile living. It seemed intriguingly different, and the mindset and values of the people actually doing it was a 180-degree spin from everything I was used to. How were they making it work? I researched hard.
Determining personal goals
To explore this academic exercise, 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 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.
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, but these also present a host of practical problems that I wasn’t prepared to address. 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. The problem-solving for that was fun.
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.
At first, a desire to see the country via backroads had 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 simply 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 to sort things out. 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.
The pluses of this approach are several. A manufactured travel trailer is, except for boondocking mods, ready to go. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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’!
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, piecing a new and livable lifestyle together, one 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!
Good to find your blog and great insight. Making a travel trailer your own is such a great feeling, as time goes by I’m more at home in our little trailer than in our “sticks and bricks”. I love the fishing rods on the bathroom door, great idea, made me smile. thanks for the tip about hanging the pics, will be looking for that museum putty soon. Good luck, hope we cross paths out there someday. Kris
Thanks very much, Kris. With a trailer this old, I don’t have to sweat much about ruining the resale value! I have to admit that the fishing rod placement wasn’t really inspiration. I wanted them all to be over the entry door, but there wasn’t even close to enough room. Except for the bathroom door or possibly the lower bunkbed ceiling (?), there was no other space. You might be able to find Quake-Hold in a Home Depot out west, otherwise order online. That’s what I did.
Wow, very timely post for me, Doug! Closing on the sale of my last sticks & bricks house in 18 days and out. Really enjoyed your description of the “I need something different” bug which has bitten me also. Great post!
John, what you’re going to huddle in really does need to feel right for you. I knew I had to guess right the first time, as finances don’t allow trading up or down. I hope your dwelling works out as well for you!