I wasn’t thinking about national trends back in February. In the eternal darkness that is Alaska winter (I am exaggerating for effect, but that’s also how it felt), I hit the “Confirm” button on a rental camper van out of the need to have something — anything — to look forward to.
It only vaguely occurred to me that this was an impulse shared by many others who felt cooped up by COVID-19.
Of course, I was far from alone. While my husband and I enjoyed our three-week stint of “#vanlife” in the state of Nevada, we met many others with kitted-out vans of their own. All of them had purchased their rigs during the pandemic, and all had lessons to share.
My husband and I earned some hard-won wisdom of our own.
Quarters are king. Every day in the desert, we used at least a canister of sunscreen on our Alaska-winter-white skin. Our routines were something like: run something fun in the morning; hike in the evening. We concluded each day rocking a satisfactory sheen of sweat and off-brand Coppertone.
This is a great skincare regime for feeling like a badass. It is terrible when settling in to sleep at night.
We had rented a solar shower from our van outfitter, but that only got us so far. Those in the know will sympathize with how cumulative daily layers of sunscreen will mix with dusty trails into a patina that is somewhat difficult to slough off.
(Side note: While this sounds disgusting, I have perverse pride in achieving this state and actually fully enjoy it in the moment. To me, seeing my bronzed shoulder glow back at me with the day’s efforts epitomizes vitality and health.)
After 10 glorious and grimy days of nightly dribble-strength showers under the lukewarm solar shower, it finally came time: we required exfoliation and water pressure. We needed to find a real shower.
Our clothing required the same. We found a building — a stand-alone shack, really — in the corner of an informal RV park offering both under the same roof. If it sounds fancy, I’m not describing it properly. But it was relatively clean. Our bar was low.
Thing was, we needed dollar bills to pay for the shower and quarters for the washer. We were short by six for the latter.
After scrounging the tiny desert town for quarters, we still came up short. Desperate, it occurred to me to call upon the kindness of fellow travelers. I grabbed a fistful of singles and walked up to the nearest RV. A kind woman waved me over to her truck and pulled out a canister of quarters. I thanked her profusely and told her I would pay the favor forward, somehow. She smiled, and said that she always turns a $10 bill into a roll of quarters when given the chance.
That night we went to bed on clean sheets, in clean clothes, with clean skin and hair. Luxury living at its finest.
Another tip: Get water and gas at every opportunity.
Early on in our #vanlife journey, we had to make some decisions about where to spend the night based on how much water we had in the van.
That’s unfortunate. We’d left a campsite with perfectly potable water and assumed there’d be more where that came from. But then there wasn’t, and we ended up paying $5 at an RV park to fill up all our bottles.
This took time to find the RV park, go inside, pay up and wait for a much larger rig to fill up ahead of us. We would have saved more money by simply dispersed camping on BLM land the night before if we’d been full on water to begin with.
Same with gas. Especially in the remote areas we were traveling, we topped off our tank at every opportunity. Three-quarters of a tank left? Didn’t matter. For safety and convenience, we pulled over and filled up.
More effort than we thought was spent on finding a place to sleep. When I booked the trip, I had this half-articulated notion clinking around in my head that sleeping in the van would be easy. All we needed to do was find a place to pull over, right?
Finding that place is a little trickier, or at least more time-consuming than it sounds. First of all, it’s far easier to find a camping spot when it’s light than when it’s dark. This means that finding a place to sleep cuts into precious daytime hours when we could be doing other activities (like running, or scrounging quarters).
Secondly, campsites sell out fast. We had to roll into Valley of Fire State Park in southern Nevada at 7 a.m. to score a site (worth it — best campsite of my life).
And, the nightly cost adds up, slowly negating the savings of paying for a mobile roof over our heads versus staying in motels. Dispersed camping on public lands is a wonderful option but takes some sleuthing, dead-end-road driving, glass-ridden campsite avoidance and leveling out of the van.
We found some incredible gems of campsites and dispersed camping lookouts. It just took a little more time than we’d initially anticipated. We learned to stay in a place at least two nights, just so we could have a full day or two dedicated to exploring versus burning daylight scouting out a place to sleep.
The ultimate lesson learned? Van life is 1000% for me, at least in this phase of my life. I loved waking up at dawn every morning and rolling out of my tiny mobile home environs into the expansive world that awaited me. It just took a few more quarters than I anticipated.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska (and sometimes Nevada).