Here at Dirty Dish Club, we love the outdoors. A lot of our best food has been inspired by our adventures. Like many of you, big adventures got put on pause due to the pandemic. With the ability for our adults to get vaccinated though, the possibilities began to open up again and we began to plan a big trip to California. During the last year and a half, we’ve often joked (and sometimes more literally tossed around the idea) of selling our home (hello, crazy house prices!) and living in a van. Because we are not impulsive, we figured we should try it out before jumping into the deep end of nomad life. Our trip to California seemed like the perfect time. We posted a few pictures on Instagram stories and many of you wanted to know more about the experience, so here it is. A post on recipes will follow.
We rented a van from Escape Campervans.* We went with this company because they are more economical than a lot of other van rentals out there, because the unique hand painted designs seemed fun, and because we got a Travelzoo deal. We went with the Maverick model with a rooftop sleeper because it was the smallest vehicle we could get that was also big enough for our family of four.
One of the fun things about Escape Campervans is the paint jobs. They have so many bright, fun looking vans. When they handed the keys to us for the UFO van, I have to admit that we were a little disappointed. Our van seemed to be older (possibly one of their originals). It had some dents and was definitely worn. Who knows whether that was a result of being a family with the Travelzoo deal or just luck of the draw. On the plus side, this did help us to relax a little bit and not worry as much about damage our kids might potentially inflict. (We have some friends that rented a very fancy, much more expensive van for their family and they said they spent a lot of time worrying/scolding their kids about damaging the van.) We did develop a fondness for the quirky UFO van though. You’re pretty conspicuous in something like that which made it seem like a more authentic #vanlife experience.
*Full disclosure, all links to Escape Campervans are referral links. If you use the link to pick-up a van within the next 6 months, it gets you 10% off your rental and we get a $50 gift card. This isn’t a sponsored post by the way, they give referral links to everyone.
Noel did 100% of the driving on this trip. I was listed as a driver and could have driven, but chose not to because it honestly intimidated me. Our regular vehicle is a Subaru Outback, so the van felt slightly cumbersome on roads. I honestly don’t know how people drive gigantic RVs around. Because it wasn’t a ginormous RV though, we could take it almost anywhere. We took it on some pretty windy and narrow roads in the redwoods and it handled that alright. We also drove it through San Francisco and it was much more nimble than an RV. When it came to backing up or fitting into tight spots, I would often jump out and help guide Noel into spots. Some of the vans from this company have back-up cameras, but our model did not.
As for the fuel economy, that’s where you’re going to have some sticker shock. The van gets about 19mpg depending on the circumstances. Gas is expensive right now and was even more expensive in California, so every time we filled up it was pricey. Many gas stations had a $75 credit card limit on gas purchases, which we often ran into. We were able to get around that by filling our entire tank in two separate purchases, but it was a hassle. The rental cost gave us 100 miles a day and anything over that was extra. We had some big drives between our main locations, so even with low mileage days bringing the average down in between, we incurred a sizeable extra mileage charge. Noel works in the renewable energy industry and we generally try to be fairly eco-friendly, so it wasn’t lost on us that flying to California and driving a gas-guzzling van around wasn’t the most environmentally responsible vacation choice. The good news for those of us aspiring to van life is that electric options are already starting to become available. Ford has an E-Transit and Volkswagen is working on a microbus both of which are really intriguing to us.
We typically don’t purchase insurance on rental vehicles as our credit card provides insurance for rental cars, but the policy excludes campervans. We checked with our auto insurance and learned we would be covered with liability insurance, but not collision insurance. The advice we’d give is to call and check rather than assume your credit card or car insurance will cover a campervan, because sometimes they don’t in the same way they would a normal rental car.
Escape campervans are like transformers. The main cab functions as seats while driving, a dining area, and a sleeping area just by moving a few parts around. It took us a bit to figure it out the first time we transformed it into a bedroom, but once we figured it all out it was a pretty quick process – only a few minutes.
The back area is where the kitchen is located. It features a two burner propane stove (The propane is not included. You can buy some from the company, or buy it cheaper from somewhere else like we did.), small refrigerator that can be powered by the car battery or a solar battery (As long as you drive the car a bit each day it keeps things cold), a pump sink, and a couple of storage shelves.
The rooftop sleeper was also really easy to set-up, especially if you’re tall like Noel who is 6’2.” You just pop it open and hook up the ladder.
We had the van for 8 days. We picked it up in San Francisco. The first test of the van’s agility was going through an In-n-out drive through. One of the nice things about the van, is that it can convert into a dining area. We’ve been pretty cautious during this pandemic and aren’t quite comfortable yet eating indoors, especially with our kids who aren’t yet eligible for vaccination. It was so easy to go through the drive through, pull into a parking spot, and have a place to eat like (almost) civilized people.
After we were fed, we drove through San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge. Noel did a great job of navigating a slightly bigger vehicle through traffic and tourists. Then we drove to Northern California to spend a couple of days in the Redwoods. We were meeting up with family for this portion of the trip, so even though we slept in the van, we didn’t cook in the van until day four. We were able to save a lot of miles by bumming rides from family during this portion of the trip. Still, the van ventured to the beach and down a windy, narrow dirt road for one of our hikes. The van was able to go the speed limit even on windy and hilly coastal highways.
After our fun in the Redwoods, we began real van life. We spent a night on the coast. We were behind schedule due to road construction and starting to get hangry when we were still a few hours away from our campsite for the night. At some point we realize, duh, we can make dinner anywhere and pulled over to make some sustenance. Everyone was much happier after we’d eaten.
We are planners here at Dirty Dish Club, so we had reservations for every night of our trip. We saw plenty of people “making camp” at various pull-outs and parking lots. We briefly thought about doing that instead of driving all the way to our reserved spot, but decided to just push through and pulled into our campsite at Gerstle Cove. If we were to do this more often, I think we would do more dispersed or unplanned camping, but for this trip it was nice to have very specific plans. Local Passport Family recommends the Campendium app for finding last minute places to camp and we have use Outly to find dispersed camping for our adventures closer to home in Colorado.
Our next big stop was Yosemite. We stayed inside the park purely for proximity. Booking our campsite here was slightly stressful. Noel and I are very familiar with the planning required to snag popular campsites and permits. We always set calendar reminders so we can make reservations the minute they become available. We’ve been very successful with this method and never had it fail, until Yosemite. Noel and I both had our computers open and on the reservation page on the day reservations opened up. The second they opened up, reservations began to disappear before our eyes and we couldn’t get one into our cart quick enough. Before we knew it, everything was gone. Fortunately, I’d read Local Passport Family’s tips on camping in Yosemite and knew that if people didn’t check out and pay for their reservations within 15 minutes, those sites would become available. So, we waited 15 minutes and sure enough, a few sites began to show up and we snagged one of them.
A lot of people have asked whether Yosemite was busy. The campgrounds were all full and felt very busy when we were there. Otherwise, we mostly avoided crowds by getting on trails before 9am. We also found that once you hiked a mile into any trail you could feel like you had places to yourself. Our first day, we hiked the mist trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls, then came back by way of the John Muir trail. This trail was fairly quiet when we started hiking at 8:30am, but VERY busy by the time we finished around 11am. At that point, it was already starting to get hot, so we drove the van up to Tenaya Lake. We swam and lounged away the afternoon. We had dinner at an overlook with a nice view of Half Dome. At this point, we were already heavily embracing our hobo side. Our curtain “rods” had turned into clotheslines. As things cooled off, we headed back to the valley to catch some beautiful sunset views and go to sleep at our campsite.
Our final day in Yosemite, I convinced everyone to hike to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls. It’s a tough hike and climbs over 3,000 feet. The views at the top were spectacular and when we were done rewarded ourselves with chilled Watermelon Cucumber Cooler from Trader Joe’s.
After we finished our hike and ate some lunch, we headed back to the Bay Area. We spent our final night at a Regional Park that had showers. At first glance, I was a little squeamish about the showers. But, after getting into one my feelings changed completely. This was our last night in the van and it was a little bittersweet.
Are we #vanlife candidates?
There were some things we really liked about our van life experience. The kids loved the rooftop tent and even though Noel and I don’t complain much about sleeping on the ground when we camp, it was pretty nice to have a bed. Knowing you have both food and shelter immediately available is also really comforting. It was almost scary how easily we slipped into the vagrant lifestyle. We weren’t bothered by showering in public showers, cooking dinner on the side of the road, or stringing up clotheslines places.
Over the last year and a half, Noel and I have brought up selling our home and buying a van on multiple occasions. We figured it was something we should try before we jumped ship from regular life though. If it weren’t for jobs and knowing we’re all better off with the kids in real school, I think we could totally pull it off. We keep warning the kids though that when they graduate from high school we’re totally going to sell our house and travel the country in a van. (And maybe we’ll be able to afford an electric one by then.) In the meantime, we’re biding our time until our next Escape Campervan adventure or until all the pandemic camper van buyers realize they don’t use theirs and sell them for cheap.
Stay tuned for our next post that will feature the meals we made in the van.