It’s been a long road to #Vanlife -or- How the search for a comfortable camping cot led us into the wonderful world of RV ownership

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We blame this whole crazy RVing journey on camping cots.

Yes, our search to find comfortable sleeping cots for our camping tent ended up unknowingly throwing us into the crazy, whirlwind rabbit hole of recreational vehicle ownership. And if you share this same story, you know once you step foot into an RV, resistance is futile.

Here’s our journey.

When we bought our very first RV, a 19-foot Salem Lite travel trailer, on April 22, 2014, nearly eight years to the day of this blog post, it was as a result of not finding a decent and cheap camping cot.

Eight years ago, we were starting to feel the pains of getting older. Sleeping on the ground in a sleeping bag was “too hard to get up off the ground!” We tried different types of air mattresses only to awake on the ground on top of a deflated air mattress.

Next step was a cot, of course. That would get us off the cold bumpy ground, right?  

Whoever designs camping cots has never slept on one, apparently. Design wise, the cots are capable of being strong enough to hold the weight of an adult yet fold away into a small manageable bundle.

Whoever designs camping cots has never slept on one, apparently.

But, to achieve that design goal, cross-members, elbow joints and framework must be added. It seems these sharp cornered, cold metal cross-members to always span beneath the stretched canvas at spots that inflict torturous pain and suffering on the prone sleep-deprived human body.

Besides that, I remember stating “I will not pay that much money ($125.00) for a cot!” Little did I know at the time purchasing a $125.00 camping cot would have saved us thousands and thousands of dollars in the long run!

RV Number 1.

The friendly sales gal who helped us buy our tiny trailer tried to warn us.

Her – “Congratulation on your first camper!”

Us – “Thank you! It so wonderful. We will have this camper and use it for the rest of our lives.”

Her – “Ahh, yah. (snicker) You’ll be back for a bigger and better one within a year or two.”

Us – “Oh no….this brand-new camper and the $600 dollars’ worth of accessories and camping gear we just purchased from your parts department is going to be all we’ll even need. Our one and only, we’re certain.”

As we struggled to back our tiny home on two wheels into a campsite, we longed for something that you didn’t have to tow and was easier to park. Of course, this realization came AFTER we bought a Ford F150 pickup truck with hopes it would tow the camper easier than our under-powered Nissan Xterra.

“Maybe something a little bigger, like a Class C motorhome. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?” We wouldn’t have the stress of towing it and struggle backing it into a camp spot. Plus, there would be more room inside and out to haul stuff, a “bigger” bed, and places for the dogs to hang out.

RV Number 2.

A well-maintained dealership rental Four Winds 29-foot Class C camper on a big Ford chassis popped up on an internet search. That’s the one!

We lucked out and sold the trailer to a young couple who didn’t mind the tropical color painted cabinets and island vibe we transformed the interior to be. That helped with the down payment money.

Oh, what a beauty this new rig was and how wonderful it was going to be traveling and camping all around the Midwest and beyond.

But as all RVers eventually find out, “No rig is perfect.” As much as we tried to ignore the Four Winds short comings, such as a badly designed bathroom, a far from being a “walk around” slide out bedroom with the uncomfortable two-piece, split-level mattress, or the “Dream Dinette” that was more of a pain than dream, eventually we conceded. This one wasn’t “The One.”

Winter months in the Midwest mean, if you are lucky enough you are fully retired and become a “Snowbird” traveling to warmer climates. In our case, it means winterizing the RV and putting it away in winter storage for five long cold months.

Those four or five winter months without the camper in the driveway are dangerous.

When you can’t be camping, you end up watching the snowbirds and others camping on YouTube.

“Oh, what’s THAT rig?”

“That’s a really nice floorplan.”

“Here’s a dealer walk through video of that Class A motorhome we like.”

And before long, all we were doing at night was searching the internet for dealership inventory and watching YouTube videos to find our next rig!

RV Number 3.

We had convinced ourselves that a larger, roomier yet Class A motor home was the ticket for eternal camping nirvana. We did our due diligence and toured a number of used dealership motorhomes. We quickly discovered that those suckers are huge! A frightening test drive of a “smaller” class A motorhome made us realize big isn’t always better.

One hybrid small Class A motorhome, which the manufacturer touted “drives just like a large SUV,” was our Elvis the Vegas. Well, his name wasn’t Elvis then, but was a Thor Motorcoach Vegas 24.1 RUV, (Recreation Utility Vehicle) as the company billed it.

It has rear twin beds, midship bathroom with ample leg room, a single slide out for the small couch and good ceiling height. The Vegas is big, but not as big and intimidating as a full-size Class A coach. We got a decent trade-in for our Class C from the same dealership we purchased it from, and the Vegas was becoming a parking lot princess and they wanted it gone.

We named our new rig “Elvis” because where else can you see Elvis, get married by Elvis, and be Elvis but in Las Vegas, baby?

Elvis served us well with two epic road trips: One out West driving across 11 different states to California and back. And this past Fall, a trek to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It is a great camper with lots of room and storage but can be a bear to drive even after adding tons of aftermarket steering and suspension parts to try and help.

Kim did drive Elvis the Vegas a few times but didn’t feel all that confident behind the wheel so I would do all of the driving. Long stretches on the road would be extremely tiring.

I watched in envy as the smaller camper vans would zip past on the highway or have the ability to park and camp just about anywhere. The #vanlife movement was beginning to build up steam and the lure of the advertised lifestyle was becoming too hard to resist.

Van life slowly crept into our consciousness even before YouTube was inundated with van life videos.

Little did we realize that roughly eight years and three RVs later and we would be making the plunge into our fourth camper.

Introducing RV Number 4.

It was bound to happen to us eventually…. We are now officially #Vanlifers!

Kim has a need for speed as we test drive our new Transit van.

No, we won’t be selling our house and moving into the van full-time like many have done, but we are excited to begin a new chapter in our camping and RVing lifestyle.

The process of seriously deciding to go for it happened the exact same time that everyone and their brother decided to buy a van. Finding a used cargo van with less than 200,00 miles (parcel delivery company cast-offs) was a like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Spotting any low-mileage van within 500 miles of us was impossible.

We revisited the idea of buying a commercially produced Class B campervan, like the Winnebago Travato with the twin beds and rear bath but it wasn’t comfortable for tall people (like JK) to drive. The cost of used ones (if you could find any) had sky-rocketed way out of our budget as these units became increasingly scarce. Not to mention RV dealership showrooms and lots were empty of any Class B campervans, new or used.

Order a new one from the factory? Our local Ford dealership said expect up to a year wait! Ouch!

Lord knows how many wasted hours both of us spent scrolling and scrolling and scrolling through Class B Vans for Sale on social media sites looking and looking. More than once we would find a van online that crossed off all the bucket list points, only to find out it was already sold.

Finally, a couple used Ford Transit cargo vans appeared on the lot at a dealership in Albert Lea, MN. We both rearranged our schedules and made the trek east to see them.

We had only been inside one Ford van before and that was a Coachman Class B conversion van that had okay ceiling height for my 6’-3” frame but tiny and cramped beds and living areas. So, this would be a chance to see if the van dream could actually work for us physically.

By the time we drove to the dealership, my heart was racing. This was the make-or-break moment for #vanlife. The two white cargo vans were parked on the lot and were filthy. They were the shorter height medium roof models that had just been traded in from a construction company. The dealership hadn’t had time to wash them yet.

The interior height wasn’t ideal, but it would do for me by leaning on the wall of scrunching down slightly. There was nothing inside the van but painted metal framework and some vinyl flooring. And the price was way more than we thought it was worth for a beat-up empty van with a lot of miles on it. It did come with an empty pizza box, though. Not kidding.

We wanted to at least test drive one while we’re there. We both expected the front cab space in the van to be adequate for our bigger bodies which it was. It drove fine but had a lot of rattles and noise of loose sliding door parts or something. We turned onto a gravel road and parked to talk things over. I even laid down on the dusty dirty floor to test how I might fit on a bed in the back.

“Thanks, but you’re not going to get this van clean in an hour!”

We agreed this particular van wasn’t the one, although the saleswoman tried to tempt us with a free lunch at the restaurant of our choice while they “cleaned and detailed” the van. We said, “Thanks but you’re not going to get this van clean in an hour!”

Even though we walked away from one of the very few used vans on the market within 300 miles, we were okay with it. We had some important questions answered with the experience. Plus, we came away with the feeling #vanlife for us seemed doable.

The search continued.

Searching the internet for a van was an everyday thing. It got to the point just left of despair when I drove past our local Ford dealership and spotted two new vans tucked away in the back. I texted Kim and within minutes we had both circled the wagons. Before we could tell the salesman “We’ll buy it,” he told us the two vans had been ordered months ago for a couple local businesses and were not for sale to us or anybody else.

We continued to weigh the pros and cons of a much smaller camper compared to our large and spacious Vegas 24.1.

Then Kim came across a for sale listing that seemed promising. The van was a 2019 high roof Ford Transit T-250 long wheelbase with low mileage and seemed like it was in perfect condition.

The van was located an afternoon-long road trip into southeastern Iowa away, but after some texts, email conversations and negotiating, we had decided to take the drive and see it in person. Whether we bought it or not would be decided once there. It wasn’t the best time to buy a van with inflated prices and scarce availabilities, but if we were going to pull the van life trigger, it had to be sooner than later.

Talk about a long three-hour drive. I was like a kid on Christmas Eve waiting for Santa! We continued to discuss the possible transaction, the pros and cons and the fact we didn’t have to come back home with the van even though we had a certified bank check in our hands.

The van was parked inside a huge climate controlled, clean, and brightly lit outbuilding. Obviously, the owner like his toys. Our future camper van was parked alongside his massive Class A diesel pusher motorhome, a massive ski boat and the jacked-up monster pickup truck to pull it to the lake.

Seeing the van in that environment reassured us that it had been well maintained and cared for. It looked so good. The interior was used to haul the owner’s two motocross bikes and was outfitted with an Adventure Wagon modular bed system.

The inside was finished but not exactly our style. We agreed we would have to do some modifications to make it our own.

As we pulled out of the driveway with me driving our new camper van and Kim leading the way in her pickup, it started to snow and rain, and the winds picked up something fierce. This would be a good test on how our van would handle driving in those conditions compared to our Vegas 24.1. The van handled great, but it was still a long, dark ride home.

Back to camping basics.

We have had our van now for several weeks. So far, so good. We haven’t done any camping yet as we’re still working on the interior modifications. Plus, the weather in the Midwest has been anything but Spring-like lately and not enticing us to get out and about.

Not only is the new van going to be our latest camping vehicle, but my daily driver. This is going to be an added bonus that we will not have to pay for or be without the van because of being locked away for winter storage.

Kim and I have spent time just standing and sitting inside the van to wrap our heads around how we will make the transition for motorhome to campervan. There are going to be adjustments, for sure.

With this van we made the conscious choice to get back to the “why” of camping.

With this van we made the conscious choice to get back to the “why” of camping. That is to get outside and enjoy nature. We had found ourselves pulling into a campground, hooking up water, electric and sewer, then hunkering down and staying inside all weekend. Other than a different view out the windows, we might as well of stayed at home.

I think the whole #vanlife concept is helping a lot of people make that same paradigm shift of getting back to the basics of camping. When we start started dating, we jumped into my jacked-up Chevy K-5 Blazer, filled the Coleman ice chest with food, tossed a tent and sleeping bags in the back and headed to the mountains.

We cooked outside, we ate outside, we slept outside and yes, we went to the bathroom outside. We were camping “off-grid” before it was a thing. We didn’t need 5000-amp-hours of solar-powered lithium batteries, or a cooktop with built-in oven, a microwave or air conditioning to enjoy camping.

It’s about the freedom.

I know we are older now and we certainly enjoy our “creature comforts” as much as the next guy. But in the process, we have missed out on the pure joy of going camping.

Granted our new van has lithium batteries and gives a way to plug in a chest freezer/refrigerator and keep food cold without the bags of melting ice. We can plug in a space heater (or a blender to make margaritas!) if we to do so.

We don’t have running hot water or a built-in bathroom shower. We have purchased a Porta-Potty to help with middle of the night “emergencies” but other than that, we’ll use the facilities as we find them. We only used the built-in shower of our Vegas 24.1 a couple times. Too small and cumbersome. On longer camping trips we normally use the campground showers to get freshened up.

We now have the choice of cooking outdoors like we used to with a portable cooktop or we can cook over the campfire. If the weather’s bad, we have a single burner stove to make coffee, warm soup or cook some instant oatmeal.

Although it sounds like we will be carrying a lot of gear, compared to the amount of cargo we crammed into all the storage bays of the Vegas 24.1, we will be running light! And there’s freedom in that.

Van camping is about loosening the burden of stuff.

You just don’t have the luxury of massive storage in a van. Instead of a different outfit for each day of camping, you have a couple tee shirts, a pair of cargo shorts and some fresh underwear.

Unencumbered by the typical RVing “life support.”

It’s the freedom of boondocking. Camping unencumbered without the typical RVing “life support” systems of sewer hoses, electrical cables, and water hoses at organized paved campgrounds. Being small, stealth, and untethered is freeing. Need to run into the nearest town or find another place to camp, close the door, start the motor, and drive away.

Instead of a gourmet cooking extravaganza with pots, pans, and ingredients, you choose to savor the simplicity of a grilled hotdog cooked on a skewer or a one-pot supper in a small cast iron Dutch oven over the campfire.

It’s the attitude that spending time with loved ones in nature beats any venue or computer screen for entertainment value. It’s playing Scramble or Yahtzee on a picnic table by the warm light of a camping lantern. It’s being lulled to sleep by listening to a remote wild running stream next to your camper that carves indelible memories into hearts and souls.

In the end, a van is just another vehicle. But for us it’s a vehicle to get us back to the simpler times, the basics of a campfire and a million stars overhead. It’s getting away from the overcrowded campground and having the agility to take a forest service road and camp all alone. It’s the ability to fit the van into a small tree-enclosed national or state park campsite that a larger size rig wouldn’t be allowed.

We have prepared ourselves to say goodbye to Elvis the Vegas and finish that chapter of our RVing story.

Joining in with this worldwide #Vanlife phenomena is kind of exciting and invigorating. If you are observant, you’ll see our JK and Kim in the Camper logo has changed slightly to reflect our new rig. More tweaks and changes may be coming to that logo in the future.

You will also notice a new direction and attitude in our YouTube channel and in this blog and other social media postings. Naturally, the focus of our conversations with you will be more van-based as we travel around the Midwest and our postings will be spread a little farther apart.

We will share the process of modifying our van into what we envision for our likes and needs. We share tips and tricks we discover along the way. We will share our off-grid camping trips, recipes, and hacks for smaller kitchens and over the camp stove or campfire cooking. Plus, we will continue to enjoy our experiences as #weekendwarriorvanlifers.

We are totally, as van lifers say, “stoked,” to hit the road and we hope you will come along with us as we experience and share with you this crazy thing called #vanlife.

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