Opening Statement

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach
~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Van Conversion Floor Layout and Initial Design (draft) Decisions

Emerson Drafting Table - CC 2.0 by Tri Lox on Flickr
Emerson Drafting Table - CC 2.0 by Tri Lox on Flickr

I'm still trying to source a van, so still just at a design level, and welcome your feedback. I have a floor plan, but it doesn't include everything, so a few comments below will hopefully answer your questions.

The most critical design drivers that aren't common with other camping designs are to be easily driveable (minimize backing up), and to have air conditioning when not on shore power. I know that AC on battery is a very difficult requirement; however, based on my calculations, it's reasonable as long as you can plug in at least once a day (or use a generator) and are obsessive about insulation.

The lettering will be easier to read if you open the image in another window.

I did this drawing in Google Slides at full scale: 1" = 1" and printed it out at the local Fedex office. This has already given me some initial design adjustment ideas. This printout is 36" x 140" on each side and cost $62 to print out -- well worth it from my perspective. The small type size on the drawing is because Google Slides has a maximum type size of 96 points.


Power sources:
Solar: 990 watts of solar, completely covering the roof area. This forms an attic area that should reduce the AC load.
Alternator: 12V x 50 amps (600W) Battery to Battery charger
Shore power: 20 amp circuit with 15 amps typical expected overnight as needed. This is adequate to full-charge the batteries from empty in 6 hours at 1,500 watts.
Generator: Honda EU2200i for when shore power isn't available.

3x SimpliPhi 3.8kwh 24v -- 11,400 Wh nominal, 9,120 Wh useable @80% discharge

Air Conditioner: Midea U-Shaped, 8,000 BTU, inverter soft start, maximum draw 768 watts, 15 EER. Side vented and ventilated (and yes I know this is a major pain to build in)

Ventilation: Continuous 25 CFM, on timer 100 CFM, on temperature switch 200 CFM.

Heater: Propex HS2000 propane heater (the math just doesn't work on electric heat).

Insulation: Blended insulation value equivalent to at least R-5. Probably will use one inch of Polyiso wherever it can go and lots of Great Stuff. Ventilated box with layer of interior hard-surface closures for sliding door, back door, and cab area. Extra effort to insulate against nuisance sounds (maybe Ensolite layer on large panels along with mass loading the sheet metal).

Sleeping: Three configurations at a daily choice option: two 28" x 78" bunks long way // 52" x 73" sideways // 73" x 78" long way (but this takes more time to set up). In the bunk and mega king setups your feet go under the kitchen counter on one side, and under the air conditioner on the other side. 15" clearance above the mattress level.

Garage: Approximately 20 inches tall x 14 inches deep. This holds 2 propane tanks, one small gas can, and a generator. The top of the garage becomes a shelf that serves as an end-table for the beds. When the back doors open up, and my insulation partition is folded back, there is an unobstructed view out the back.

Kitchen: 30 inch dedicated counter with sink. 52 inch auxilary counter that gets put away at night. Expecting only electric appliances except for a propane grill to use outside.

Water: 16 gallons dedicated + 2 x 2.5 gallon jugs for 20 gallons total. The jugs are so the water can be refreshed from a situation where we just have water available, but no hose connection. Some campgrounds are like this. Grey water goes to a jug that is emptied manually (probably 3 gallons). No water heater in this design -- small amounts of water can be heated in the electric kettle for dish washing and sponge-bath bathing.

Shower: I will provide a water outlet out the back so one of those instant propane heaters could be used for an outdoor shower. However, I don't expect that to be a common scenario for us.

Toilet: We think a dry toilet (wag bags) will be adequate for us. We do have the option of using a portable cassette toilet or some other variations. There will be a cabinet underneath the refrigerator to hold it.

That's about all I have worked out so far. There are an amazing number of little decisions to make as well. I'm hoping to buy a new Promaster in February with the factory swivel seats and 220amp alternator, there just aren't any available nearby right now. I look forward to your feedback and will post additional progress.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Planning a Van Conversion

Planning a Van Conversion

My wife and I have been thinking of doing a van conversion for a few years, and 2021 seems like the year to do it.  I'll use this blog to outline the project, some of my choices, and some of the reasoning behind those choices where I have not seen explanations and data commonly posted by others.

If there was a van "off the shelf" that we could just buy that meets our design points, I think we would probably just do that.  But, as usual, we have some unique preferences and it's an interesting project, so we plan to do a DIY conversion.

Some of the topics that I plan to cover over a series of posts:

  • Programming (space and related use planning)
  • Electrical system (production, storage, uses)
  • Water system (storage, uses, heating)
  • Kitchen (refrigeration, storing food, cooking)
  • Hygiene (toilet, shower, laundry) 
  • Ventilation (moisture, oxygen, odors)
  • Insulation (U vs. R and how much is enough)
Many people like to share their progress week by week, so I'll see if that seems like an interesting approach as we progress.

This will be my fourth time creating a camping van, starting with a Dodge Tradesman conversion that I did in my 20's and lived in for some months, a Dodge Caravan camping retrofit, and a Ford Transit Connect conversion with solar and a refrigerator.  So while I have much to learn in the process, this will also be a design based on a fair amount of experience.


Programming is another way of asking the question:  what will you use the van for, and what will be important for you to be happy.  At a high level here are some use cases that I want to accommodate.

  • Guest bedroom or office (parked at our house).
  • Mobile office for day use away from home, returning in the evening.
  • Bug-out van, with provision for a week or more for 5 people (think wildfires).
  • Picnic day at the beach with family.
  • 5-7 day boondocking or campground without services.
  • 2-5 week trip for sightseeing.
  • Driving across the country with two people.
  • Living in the van "full-time" for 2 people.
An ideal design would meet the maximum demand of each scenario.  So with that in mind, here are some design points:

Driving/Parking:  Easy to drive and park, with "reasonable" gas mileage.

Seating:  comfortable seating for two, and additional seating for 4 with seat belts.

Sleeping:  sleep two comfortably, and have emergency storage option for 3-4 additional people at a minimum (tents and sleeping bags).

Refrigerator:  Keep drinks cold and some fresh produce.  Size is not too critical, maybe 65L or more is adequate.

Cooking:  Electric kettle, microwave, toaster oven, and a hot plate.  Portable grill to use outside.

Heating:  Heat for temperatures down to 20 deg F without being plugged in.

Cooling:  Air Con for temperatures up to 100 deg F without being plugged in.

Toilet:  Yes, with privacy from other interior areas.  Supplies for 50 uses.

Sponge Bath or Shower:  Yes, but showers might be outside and require setup.

Water:  40 gallons total, with at least 20 gallons "built-in."

Ventilation:  Continuous and automatic modes.  Extra for toilet and cooking.

In future posts I'll outline how I plan to address these points and others.

I have a "working design" developed and will provide that soon.  Please share your feedback and suggestions.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

The Flip from Kennedy Meadows to Dunsmuir

In a high snow year, the biggest schedule danger for many NOBO thru-hikers is waiting for the snow in the Sierras to melt.  As of May 16, 2019 the "Sierra Entry Indicator" suggests June 15th as the first safe entry day for the Sierras.  This timing will just barely work for hikers that were comfortable banging out 22.5 miles on an average day by the time they reached KM.  For slower hikers, June 15th is already too late.  See this post for more details:  When you should leave Kennedy Meadows

One option is to go into the Sierras early enough to get through before the melt takes hold.  This is tough for all but the more aggressive hikers, so if you hiked 18 to 22 miles on a typical day as you finished up the desert section, making it through the Sierras starting on May 20th or so is a risky plan.  You have a high likelihood of getting into conditions that you aren't comfortable with, especially high stream crossings.

Another good option for hikers that feel comfortable doing 18 to 22 miles a day is to flip up to Dunsmuir around mile 1500 and start hiking south.  This looked doable starting around May 20th and will be easier as the weather warms and snow melts off.  June 1st would be a very reasonable start for this section, much earlier than going up into the Sierras.  The 300 miles from Dunsmuir to Sierra City include some short snowy sections, but these are relatively easy to traverse -- more like Mt. Baden Powell than like Fuller Ridge.  You will still want your microspikes, but won't use them often.  Once you reach Sierra City, you will already be well into June and the Sierras will start to look friendlier.  Most of the really tough stream crossings are south of Sonora Pass, which is around mile 1000, so you will be hitting them later still.  If you want to see the snow conditions as of right now, please take a look at this page:  Postholer.Com PCT Snow Conditions Page

If you do this flip, you have to travel from Kennedy Meadows to Dunsmuir twice.  First, get a ride out of Kennedy Meadows and hitch or get a bus to Mojave or Bakersfield.  From there you can use Greyhound and Amtrak to get up to Dunsmuir.  For each trip, there is a total elapsed time of about 2 days, and cost about $100, although it can be done in just over a day if you get a perfect hitch out of KM.

I did this exact flip in 2018, and did a skip from Kennedy Meadows to Quincy and then hiked north in 2017 due to the snow conditions.  While not everyone likes the idea of a flip, if you aren't pounding out 25 mile days routinely, this is a good way to "bank" miles during late May and early June that you will need to complete the trail in 2019.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

PCT Closures - Know How to Download Detour Maps

Fire closures on the PCT combined with heavy snow accumulation earned 2017 the nickname "The Year of Fire and Ice," and in 2018 with lighter snow, we had at least as much trouble with fire closures, including closures in the symbolic section between Hart's Pass and the Northern Monument.  Many times hikers had to detour off of the official PCT route, usually following signs, but occasionally getting off course.  Guthooks, the most popular map application on the trail in 2017 and 2018, often did not cover the detour routes.

What can you do?  In addition to talking with other hikers, check the PCT trail closures every time you get into town to see if something has been announced, and if warnings have been posted, usually when a closure seems imminent.  Next, study the closure and alternates, possibly downloading the closure details to your phone.

Do I need to say this?  Never Hike a Closure.  It's hard for me imagine a more disrespectful violation of trail etiquette.  The PCTA, volunteers, and land managers are working hard to keep the trail safe and open, and you are abusing the trail and these people when you hike a closure.  Regardless of your own judgement, hiking a trail that has been damaged almost always causes additional erosion and increases the effort to bring the trail back up to standard.

Next, consider locating a paper map, or download digital maps that cover the closure route.  Digital maps show you the trails mentioned in the alternate route, elevation changes, major water sources and campgrounds, and can be especially valuable in the first few days of a closure announcement when signage may not be up yet.  Viewed through a smartphone application, these maps will also pinpoint your location using the phone's GPS.  Avenza is an easy-to-use map display app favored by the Forest Service that you can download free.  Some maps are free on Avenza, but a fee of up to about $15 is more typical.

Two digital map resources cover almost the entire trail in detail: the National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps, which cover most of the PCT, and the Forest Service Visitor Maps for California, which fill in most of the gaps in the Trails Illustrated maps.

In 2018 in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, I was happy to have a digital map of a nine mile detour.  The map showed me exactly where I was on the detour, and helped me pick a great campsite.  The next morning, two Forest Service rangers told me about another PCT hiker taking a wrong turn and ending up in their fire line just the day before.

Also in 2018 I had downloaded the Trails Illustrated Map covering the Northern Cascades National Park and was able to see the entire Ross Lake detour.  Camped in a smoky haze north of Stehekin, I opted to come back later, hoping that the trail from Rainy Pass to Manning Park would reopen, which it did, with a remaining detour.  Some of my fellow hikers on tighter schedules, painstakingly transcribed information off of my map, even taking photos of my phone screen.  That group did make it to the Canadian border via Ross Lake, but at least one of them was going to quit the trail before they were able to study the detailed map.  Later, when I hiked passed Hart's Pass, I was happy to have a detailed map of the remaining detour, which again helped in picking a campsite, and helped sort out one trail junction where the PCT signage was missing.

Hiking the PCT will be adventure enough without getting lost on a detour.  Good luck and enjoy your hike.

Friday, February 22, 2019

If you hike 22.5 miles per day, leave Kennedy Meadows by June 17

In 2017 many people told me on trail that they wouldn't finish because they spent too much time trying to get through the Sierras, or waiting out the snow between Kennedy Meadows and Bishop.  After hiking 2,000 miles in 2017 and thru-hiking the PCT in 2018, I've talked to a lot of people that missed a thru-hike by 150 to 500 miles, or 660 miles for me in 2017.  For many people, their miss was predictable and avoidable.

2019 looks like another high snow year, so if a thru-hike is important to you, the schedule math below should be important to you as well.  Everything is keyed to your average hiking pace.  For a NOBO hiker that's often what you find comfortable when you hike the Walker Pass to Kennedy Meadows section, or just a little above that pace. I've added a zero/resupply day every 8th day and set September 27th as your finish date in Manning Park, because weather usually gets dicey around then. 

There are speed adjustments for each section since the Sierras are a lot slower than Oregon.  More details on how I calculated trail days for each section, as well as a discussion of each trail section and flipping, are in this post: Calendar Math

Average Pace in miles per day by Kennedy Meadows
17.5 20.0 22.5 25.0 27.5
Campo (start)
22-Mar 15-Apr 3-May 18-May 30-May
Kennedy Meadows
18-May 4-Jun 17-Jun 27-Jun 5-Jul
Sierra City
28-Jun 9-Jul 18-Jul 25-Jul 31-Jul
31-Jul 7-Aug 13-Aug 17-Aug 21-Aug
Cascade Locks
24-Aug 28-Aug 31-Aug 3-Sep 5-Sep
Manning Park (finish)
27-Sep 27-Sep 27-Sep 27-Sep 27-Sep

Here's a simple way to read this chart:

  • Hiking pace of 20 miles per day or below:  In a high snow year, you have to increase your pace, or plan on a flip to finish.  It's unlikely that you will be able to go up into the Sierras safely and make good miles by early June.  In 2018, which was a low to moderate snow year, many people did successfully go up into the Sierras by early June.  Read this post for options:  Calendar Math  
  • Hiking pace of 22.5 miles per day:  if you can get up into the Sierras by mid-June, a straight-thru hike should be in the cards.  But ... if you find the snow too slow or get tempted to "wait it out" you risk running out of time for a finish at the Northern Terminus.  Key point:  get back on trail rather than cool your heels for an extra week or two, even if it means a skip or flip.
  • Hiking pace of 25 miles per day or longer:  you probably don't need this post to make the miles.  It might just be interesting context for you as you chat with slower hikers.

Putting all this math aside, just stay on trail and don't underestimate how long 2,661 miles takes to hike.  In 2018 I did not set out to do a thru-hike, but I did stay on trail and a thru-hike just sort of happened.  You can read about my 2018 hike here:  My Accidental Thru-Hike

Good luck, and enjoy your hike.  I'll be on the PCT in the Sierras in 2019.