People always ask us about how Lucy, our Golden Retriever, deals with traveling in the van. After a full year of adventuring, we can confidently say that she is a full-on van dog and is ready to hit the road whenever we are. Lucy was eight months old when we started van life and was very much a city dog prior to us leaving the Northeast. Police sirens and crowded streets were a way of life and she was a huge fan of Saturday-night-sidewalk-pizza, but she had never seen a deer or heard a screaming night fox, both which we experienced on our first night in the van.
Why we Chose to do Van Life with our Dog
Lucy may be an adventure dog now, but she didn’t start out that way. When we adopted her, she was immediately put into puppy daycare for about 10 hours a day while we both worked office jobs. We found a place near Humberto’s work, but his commute was still about an hour and a half each way with the extra stop. By the time they got home every night, we were exhausted and only ended up having about two hours a day with Lucy before we had to go to bed and wake up to do it all again.
We were always thinking that she might have thought that her daycare was her “real” family and we were just her nighttime caretakers. Getting to spend more time with our dog was one of the top perks we were most excited for when choosing van life.
Transitioning our Dog from House Life to Van Life
We were excited to have more time with our dog as we traveled the country, but we also wanted to make sure Lucy had a good experience and a seamless transition from house life to van life. When we got the van, we started out by letting Lucy explore inside on her own before we drove it anywhere, just to get her used to all the new spaces and smells.
We brought treats, toys, and her bed, so she would associate it as “home.” We put her dog bowls in the bathroom, so she had easy access to water. And, since our bathroom is a wet bath, it made any spillage easier to clean up. We took a few rides in the van before moving in full time, hoping that she would like it.
Lucy hugging the floor goodbye on our last day in our condo.
We spent our last night in our empty condo without any furniture except for our mattress. Lucy cried the entire next morning as we prepared to say goodbye to our home, and she let us know her disdain by pooping on the floor multiple times an hour before closing. It didn’t help that I cried at least three times, and I think she could sense my sadness. If we had to do it all again, we would try to limit her exposure to our emptying house, since she seemed increasingly stressed out the emptier our house got, despite the fact that she had tons of more room to run around.
Getting Lucy More Comfortable while Driving
While we had good intentions, the first month in the van was tumultuous with Lucy. She barked at every noise and was frequently startled by the rattling of objects while we drove and the occasional things falling off shelves. Lucy could not get comfortable and would try to jump into the front seat every time she heard the ignition. We were surprised because as a city dog, she was used to being shuttled back and forth to doggy daycare in our SUV, so we thought it would be an easy transition into the van. Our biggest fear was that she would never get used to it and we would have a scared, panicky puppy for the entire cross-country road trip. Or even worse, that she wouldn’t adapt at all and we would have to abandon van life.
We didn’t want to give up on our adventure, so we got to work solving everything that we could think of to help Lucy adapt to the van. We made sure to secure everything that made noise or fell when driving. One of our biggest revelations came when we figured out that Lucy liked to lurch into the front seat because she not only felt more stable, but because she liked to look out the window. Originally her bed was under the table, so we quickly threw out our “No dogs on the couch” rule and got her a travel harness to help her feel more stable on the bench seat. For long trips, we converted the fold-down table to make a big bed for Lucy to spread out. Once we made these adjustments, she was the happiest van dog and now even jumps right into “her spot” on the bench seat.
A Typical Van Life Day with our Dog
Most mornings we head straight to a park for Lucy to run around and stretch her legs, bonus points if it’s a dog park, double bonus points if it’s a dog park with water. We use BringFido to find dog-friendly parks, restaurants, and beaches, and sometimes it’s as easy as just Google Mapping the nearest dog park. After Lucy is nice and tired, we are able to do activities that we can’t take the dog to (do those even exist?), like grocery shopping, libraries, coffee shops, gym/showering, museums, beaches, National Parks.
We of course have to monitor the weather to make sure it won’t be too hot or too cold to leave her in the van, so if there’s ever any doubt we won’t leave her or one of us will stay in the van with her. When we’re in really hot places, we usually make sure to be outside all day with Lucy until it gets cooler and we can do our dog-less tasks.
One of our new favorite activities is to visit the various local dog bars we have found. We would have never known these existed if we hadn’t traveled the country!
Lucy attempting to enjoy a beverage at The Dog Bar in St. Petersburgh, FL. We stayed a week in St. Pete just because the dog bar was so great! (Read more about why this city is so pet friendly here).
At night, we’ll try to walk her in a well-lit safe place before finding our sleeping spot for the night. Since Lucy grew up in a city environment, she is often more comfortable with the Walmart parking lot sounds than the stark quietness of an off-grid boondocking site. We make sure to put up all of our black-out panels, so light does not get through and we often leave our fan on to drown out sounds.
Other Tips for Traveling with a Dog
- Utilize Instagram. Before we arrive somewhere @LucyAdventureGunn asks her followers to tell her great dog-friendly places to visit. Sometimes we even get to meet up with her new dog friends!
- Pick a dog food that is available everywhere – Lucy needs a limited ingredient dog food, so we made sure to choose one that was available at Petcos nationwide. If we ever go to remote areas (West Texas) where there aren’t any Petcos for hours, we make sure to pick up a bag if there’s any risk of running low.
- Be Patient. Transitioning from a completely different living arrangement is difficult for anyone, including your dog. Some dogs are completely cool with it, while others take some time to adjust. Try to get your dog to associate the van as a comfortable, safe place where fun things happen, and she gets lots of treats. We like to think of our van as a giant rolling dog crate that Lucy lets us live in with her.
- Get a waterproof seat cover and a portable vacuum to help keep your rig clean from dog adventures. (Read more van life cleanliness tips here).
What are your tips for traveling with your dog? Any favorite dog-friendly places we should add to our list?
When we first moved into our RV, a Class B Winnebago Travato van, we had huge hopes of living a more minimalist lifestyle where we would be able to replace “stuff” with experiences. While it is true that we are able to get by with a lot less physical belongings, we were not prepared for the difference in cleanliness that we would have to get used to.
Realistic Expectations for Clean
While we don’t consider ourselves “neat freaks” by any means, in van life our outdoor experiences tend to get dragged in more easily than they would in normal house life. We also have the additional difficulty of trying to keep our space clean while having an adventure dog who likes to track all of the remnants from her adventures inside. Our ultimate goal is to be able to keep everything clean(ish) while having to store as few things as possible. No longer can we have an entire cabinet full of cleaning supplies; everything we bring into the van needs to have a place and fulfill multiple needs.
Our first step towards van cleanliness was to lower our standards several notches from “Clean and Pristine” to “Campy-Chic.” Once we figured this out, we were able to minimize van sweeping from 10 times a day to two times (maybe), which left more time for fun outdoor experiences. We have compiled a bare-minimum list of things that help us to clean the van while taking up minimal space.
Graphic created by Katharine & Humberto Gunn, www.AdventureGunn.com.
Cleaning Supplies for Everyday Use
- Paper Towels – We have less than three rolls in the van at any given time, and it usually takes us over two weeks to go through a single roll, since our space is so small. No bulk-buying of anything for us!
- Contractor Paper Towels – For more heavy-duty messes, like dirt and caked on mud. They cost more than regular paper towels, but can be wrung out and used several times.
- Swiffer Duster – The van gets exceptionally dusty, especially in dry climates. ie: Utah. There have been so many times when we have a coating of red dust on every horizontal surface in the van.
- Lysol Wipes – We use these to clean almost all of our surfaces including “mopping” our floor. Cleaning our wet-bath floor is a two-wipe job, and our main living area floor is a four-wipe job, typically.
- Spray Bottle of Cleaning Solution – We filled an eight-ounce bottle of all purpose cleaner when we started our journey. 25,000 miles later and we have yet to use the entire bottle of solution.
- OXO Palm Brush for Dishes – This is our only kitchen cleaning utensil. It’s great because we can clean every kitchen item with it (eliminating the need for sponges or steel wool) and it holds the soap for us, so we don’t have to keep a bottle on our countertop.
- Old Toothbrushes – When our old toothbrushes wear out, we keep them and reuse them to clean the tiny crevasses of the van. They also help us clean the undersides of our shoes, so we’re not tracking so much dirt into the van.
- Camco Telescoping Broom & Dustpan – This was my #1 favorite purchase at the beginning of our trip. We mounted ours in a very accessible location with Velcro to encourage us to sweep as often as possible.
- Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castille Soap (Lavendar) – This is a great all-purpose soap to have as you can clean just about anything with it, including: skin, hair, dishes, laundry, dogs, etc. Some Travato owners even use it to wash their vans. We like the lavender scent because it’s calming, and a natural mosquito deterrent. And it beats having different soaps for different purposes.
Graphic created by Katharine & Humberto Gunn, www.AdventureGunn.com.
For Pet Fur/Dander
- Fur Vacuum – This purchase was our largest purchase for cleaning, both size-wise and cost-wise. But it is a game changer if you live in a confined space with constant plumes of fur-floof everywhere. I did not want this at any costs, and Humberto actually had to sneak this into the van, but after the first fur cleanse, I was sold. We have the Bissell 1782 Pet Hair Eraser Cordless Hand and Car Vacuum. There are others out there, but this was the first one with good reviews that was under $50 and readily in-stock at Walmart & Target.
- Evercare Magik Brush – This is the BEST lint brush we have ever owned, and it’s reusable, so you never have to buy another lint brush again.
- Evercare Pet Hair Pick-Up Mitt – This came with the Magik brush, so is nice to have, but is not necessary to pick up if you already have the brush.
- Kurgo Loft Bench Seat Cover – The best way to protect our van from our rascal of a wet dog is to keep her seat constantly covered. We love this cover because it is meant for a standard car, but easily adapts to the size of our van’s bench seat.
- Microfiber Towels – After a long day of swimming, we attempt to dry our water dog before she comes back into the van. We use microfiber towels because they dry quicker and take up less space than regular towels. We can also wring them out multiple times before they get waterlogged.
- Baking Soda – When our dog starts to smell a little swampy, we wash everything that touches her body, ie: leashes, collar, harness, towels, with baking soda. Added bonus: you can store it in the fridge to suck up fridge odors.
Our exterior cleaning routine for the van is fairly minimal. We carry zero cleaning supplies for the van’s exterior, other than a few microfiber towels. We clean the bug-splattered exterior windows almost every time we stop at the gas station.
But for major cleaning, we go to do-it-yourself car washes with tall bays. They provide you with water and soap and charge you based on your time needed for each wash-type. If you’re willing to do everything yourself, it’s a good option and we only spent about $15 on our last wash. Just make sure to be quick to maximize efficiency. It helps if it’s a hot day too! There are truck/RV washes such as Blue Beacon that will wash your entire rig for you, but we would rather do it ourselves. (For other DIY RV washing tips, check out this video tutorial by a fellow contributor).
Overall, the products we listed are the only supplies that we keep in our van to keep it in tip-top shape. Other than the vacuum, everything is compact and can easily be tucked away. There are definitely people with a lot more, and a lot less, but we found that this combination of supplies is what works for us with our current rig. What are your best cleaning tips for living in a small space?
When we first started our journey, we thought we would be parking every night in amazingly scenic places, with our back doors open and our golden retriever frolicking through the wide-open spaces. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen as much as we thought it would, and we do spend many, many nights in Walmart parking lots, especially on the East coast where free public land is almost non-existent.
Soon after we became full-time RVers we realized how much we didn’t want to spend all of our money and time at campgrounds. We bought a Class B van specifically because we had a set timeline to see the country as quickly as possible. And we wanted the freedom to dictate our own schedule. We found that being the night owls that we are, campgrounds were restrictive to us.
We rarely accomplish anything before 10 a.m., and we usually do a lot of our driving late into the night. So, having to get to a campground before closing time (often 5 p.m.) really cut into our productivity. However, if we were able to arrange a late check-in we felt that we weren’t “getting our money’s worth.” We didn’t want to pay for a campground, only to arrive so late that we couldn’t use the amenities, ie: pool, showers, laundry, WiFi, etc. We would just be throwing money away to park for the night and leave the next morning.
Also, many campgrounds are often secluded from downtown areas and we wanted an option to be close to the action without having to spend an arm and a leg on urban campgrounds. So, after just three nights in paid campgrounds, we decided to try our hand at ‘Wallydocking’ – boondocking or dry camping (staying overnight in your RV) in a Walmart parking lot without hookups and without setting up camp.
Van life isn’t all nature and wide-open spaces all the time like it was in Shiprock, NM.
Step One: Locate the right Walmart
Our first step was to see which Walmarts were acceptable to stay at. We downloaded the Allstays Camp & RV App to our phones, which pays for itself from the money you will save not staying in campgrounds. The app shows all of the acceptable Walmarts to stay at with a yellow “W”, and the non-acceptable ones with a red “W.” Just make sure to read the reviews for the ones that you are contemplating staying at, since not all Wallydocking-acceptable-Walmarts are created equal.
Some are still marked as “acceptable” but have bad reviews regarding noise, crime, size of the lot, etc. If there is an option for a Walmart that has decent reviews vs. one that has no reviews or questionable reviews but is closer, we’ll usually go out of our way for the sure thing.
We always want to minimize the chance of getting the 2 a.m. knock on our door, which we have gotten a total of once at an All-stays-approved Walmart, even after almost 100 Wallydocking experiences. Even getting kicked out that one time wasn’t so bad, so try not to live in constant fear of it.
Left: Lots of Wallydocking options in Maine; Middle: No Wallydocking options in Saint Petersburg, FL; Right: One lowly Wallydocking option in Fort Stockton, TX.
Finding the best parking spot
Before you arrive at your Wallydocking-Walmart-of-Choice, make sure to check out the satellite view of the parking lot, just so you’re not circling the parking lot aimlessly trying to gauge which is the best spot.
We always park the farthest away from the store while still staying on Walmart property, and we try to park so that our sliding door opens up to a curb facing away from the main entrance of the store. It’s an added bonus if we’re near grass or a mulched area, so it’s easy to take our dog out.
Also make sure to look at the Allstays reviews for any directions about parking. Some Walmarts want you to park in a specific area, like “at the perimeter” or “by the garden center.” It is also best practice to ask a manager or security before you stay, so this is a good time to confirm which area is best.
The reviews on Allstays are all posted by other travelers trying to find good Wallydocking spots, so if you experience anything that might help another RVer out, be sure to share the wealth, especially if you get kicked out.
A visual representation of our personal Wallydocking parking strategy.
Other helpful tips
We always make sure that we are courteous, clean, quiet, and out-of the way, so there isn’t a reason to want to kick us out. This means we are not extending our awning and setting up camp outside our van. (Although our dog once pressed the button to fully extend the awning in the middle of the night. We awoke in a panic thinking we were being towed!)
While Wallydocking, we also don’t use our generator; although in very RV-friendly Walmarts (Fort Stockton, TX and Cortez, CO) we have seen over 20 RVs parked for the night, some with their generators on. In Page, AZ some rigs were fully popped out and camp chairs and grills set up in the parking lot. This is usually not the norm, and is not considered best practice. But seeing other RVs in the parking lot when you arrive, is always reassuring. There’s always a little bit of fear when we roll into a Walmart with no reviews and no other RVs are there.
It’s also a common courtesy to shop at the Walmart you are staying at. We don’t do this every time and no one is policing this, but we often spend more than we would to stay at a campground just filling up on RV essentials, and sometimes unnecessary road trip candy and Redbox DVDs. Whoops!
An ideal Wallydocking spot: opening up to a curb and near a patch of grass for Lucy to roll in.
Wallydocking has been one of our favorite unexpected experiences that we have accomplished during our journey to become Van life pros. Some people hate it, but we love it. It has enabled us to dictate our own schedule, knowing that we can roll in and out whenever we want.
While driving, we know we can always push a little farther on the map if there’s a safe yellow-marked Walmart waiting for us. Most are open 24 hours, well-lit, and have security, so it’s a place of safety for us when we’re in a new place that we’re unsure of as well.
We are grateful for the money and time that we have saved by Wallydocking, as we were able to use that on experiences and/or food instead. We know that no matter where we go we will always have a spot at Chateau Walmart.
Going to Disney World was never on our radar when we started our van life trip. We had originally intended on leaving from New Jersey to head west, hugging all the northern U.S. states until we got to the Pacific Ocean, only to head south to California for the winter. But after a series of unfortunate events and only having gotten as far as Minnesota when the blizzards and subfreezing temperatures started, we abandon our original plan and booked it south as fast as we could. We got chased all the way to Florida, which was still unseasonably cold to the point that lizards were falling out of trees.
Our trip to Disney World started off as a joke to see if there was any way that we could do it cheaply, or if it would be like lighting a pile of cash in a suitcase on fire. It was more of an exercise to see what the cheapest possible way to experience Disney was, while still having a good time, even if we didn’t decide to go in the end. Obviously, I put together a complex spreadsheet with multiple scenarios. I enlisted the help of every Disney super fan I know (because we all have at least one). This turned out to be a HUGE help because I found out that two of my friends were Disney-bound the week we were attempting to go, and it also just happened to be Humberto’s birthday. So, we were in a splurging mood.
Festive head gear is a must!
Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground
But where to stay? With an RV and a dog, I looked into all the campground options in the area surrounding The Magic Kingdom and ultimately settled on Disney’s Fort Wilderness. At $76/day + tax, it was a steal, considering we could leave the van at the site and use the free campground shuttle buses and/or boats to avoid the $20 parking fee at the parks.
We were also excited that they had a kennel right down the street from the campground. But since it was December, it was booked; so we had to look for other options. After calling about six places near the campground, we finally found Woof & Whisker’s Resort, which had space for Lucy. It was about 35 minutes from the Magic Kingdom, but it was the closest option we had, and they only charged $136 for three nights and one full day of daycare. Plus, they upload photos of the dog playpen every day to their private Facebook group for helicopter pet parents such as ourselves.
Leaving Lucy behind is always heart wrenching for us (it’s one of our main reasons we decided to RV). Especially when we dropped her off and heard her crying in her pen as we backed away slowly. (Don’t worry she was fine.) Fort Wilderness does allow dogs as long as you have a climate-controlled vehicle and there is a nice large dog park for them. But we knew we would be at the parks for 12-14 hours a day, and it would not be fair to Lucy to have her sitting in the van all day. So, she got four days of dog playtime, and we got a 4-day, 3-park marathon-of-fun at Disney. Off to Fort Wilderness we went!
Waggin Trails Dog Park at Fort Wilderness.
I have never been to Disney, so I was really worried about coordinating everything, having the right tickets, and making sure I left enough time to get to places and see all the things we wanted to see. I was immediately put at ease by the woman who checked us in at the campground. The check-in area resembles a multiple lane toll-booth that looks long, but moves quickly since everyone in line is in an RV.
Luckily, it only took us about 10 minutes of waiting to get to the front, and the check-in woman spent at least 10 minutes to answer all my questions (and I had many). Plus, she prepared our Magic Bands and First-Time-Visitor/Birthday pins. All with a smile on her face, and a growing line of campers behind us.
I had no idea that the Magic Bands were already preloaded with our information, ie: pre-purchased park tickets and credit card information. Convenient, but dangerous since you can just scan it to purchase anything in the park or campground. Only people staying at Disney properties get Magic Bands, or you can purchase them in the park. It’s not a necessity, but they were really nice to have to help you forget about how much money you’re blowing on a giant turkey leg.
The campground is huge, but is broken into pods of campsites, each with their own Comfort Station, which include restrooms, showers, and laundry. We paid for a “tent” site, which came with a level pad, charcoal grill, picnic table, and water and electric hookups, but no dump station.
Our site, the power & water hookups are built into a faux-stump (not shown).
On our last day at the campground, we were able to call the front desk and have them direct us to an empty full-hookup campsite for dumping. If you do the same, make sure you call the actual front desk of the campground, and not the main Disney helpline, who does not work on site and hence has no idea what a dump station is.
The campground has its own shuttle system with multiple routes, which can get you to the off-site park shuttles or the various camp activities within 5-10 minutes from your site. Shuttle boats to the Magic Kingdom operate every 20 minutes from the campground marina and run for at least an hour after the park closes. The ride is smooth and only about 10 minutes long, but if you don’t want to take the boat you can always take the shuttle buses to the parks.
Taking the boat shuttle to the Magic Kingdom on the first night of our Disney trip was one of the campground highlights. We had tickets for Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, which is a night event, and saves you a little on park admission, since its only from 4pm-midnight. Since tickets are capped at a certain amount, there are a lot less people in the park than normal, especially after the day crowd leaves.
We were able to ride Space Mountain at 11:30 p.m. three times in a row before the park closed! Plus, there are TONS of free Christmas treats (to save on food costs), a Christmas parade, and the always magical Disney fireworks show that come with your ticket. After the park closed, we had the Fort Wilderness shuttle boat and campground shuttle bus almost all to ourselves. The bus driver even changed his route to take us directly to our campsite. Now that is good service!
Disney World: The most magical (and crowded) place on earth!
Other Fort Wilderness perks
We didn’t spend a ton of time at the campground because we were at the parks the whole day, but if I were to go back to Disney, we would 100% stay at Fort Wilderness again. If the close proximity to the parks, the Magic Bands, and the whimsical Electrical Water Pageant you can watch from the campground marina are not enough reasons, the cost savings of not having to book a Disney hotel, but still enjoy all the Disney benefits are really worth it.
Fort Wilderness all decked out for Christmas, even the shuttle stops!
There are also tons of activities for people who don’t use the parks, including: archery, swimming, boating, horseback riding, biking, movie nights, dinnertime shows, fishing, and tennis, and there is also a shuttle to Disney Springs, the Disney-themed entertainment and shopping complex. One night we had some down-time and took the shuttle boat to the Contemporary Hotel just across the lake and had drinks at the California Grill which overlooks the Magic Kingdom. It’s a great spot to see the nightly fireworks from a different perspective.
Overall, Fort Wilderness was one of the cleanest, most festive campgrounds we have ever been to. Even the bus stops were decorated, and some campers went all-out to spread the holiday cheer at their individual sites. The customer service from everyone we encountered at the campground, from the 1 a.m. shuttle drivers to the maintenance crew went above and beyond to make everyone’s experience enjoyable and it was a worthwhile splurge. Disney will definitely be on our radar next time we even come close to Orlando.
Tips for getting the most out of your Disney tickets
I find that the more expensive an outing is, the more we have to plan it out beforehand to get our money’s-worth. Luckily, our friends already had a game plan to get the most out of the expensive Disney Park tickets. I also enlisted the help of undercovertourist.com to figure out what events were going on each day in each park, and which days would be the least crowded – therefore, most optimal to visit. They have itineraries based on how much time you have in each park, with color-coded maps on which rides to hit up first! We also downloaded the “My Disney Experience” app to our phones so we could see real-time park maps and ride times and obtain fast passes for certain rides.
It’s raining, it’s freezing, you’re always driving, you miss your family and friends, you’re overwhelmed, you’re dirty, you’re struggling to meet your everyday living needs, and your rig needs attention. You start to feel the dark cloud looming. Based on all the glossy adventure photos you’ve scoured through on the internet; this feeling was never supposed to happen. Setting yourself free from your old life and moving into an RV wasn’t supposed to feel this way, but you’re on your way into a van life (or RV life) stupor.
I would be lying if I said van life was awesome all the time. People think we’re living the life, getting to travel wherever we want, whenever we want, ALL.THE.TIME. While it is true that we have a lot more freedom to do what we want with our time, there are still a lot of stressors and responsibilities that we never had to deal with while living in a stationary house with a continuous paycheck.
There are some days when we spend half the day trying to find a dump station, only to arrive at the one we went out of our way for and have it be out of order. Or when we realize we’re out of propane at 4:45pm on a Sunday night in winter and the U-Haul we thought could fill our tank doesn’t have a long enough hose to reach our rig and every other place is closed. Van life, while fun, demands a constant assessment and re-adjustment of plans. So much so, that we are now commitment-phobes to ever making advanced plans. An advantage is that we are now awesome at spontaneity!
That being said, there are a few things that we have experienced that cause our downward spirals. And a few things that we have learned that help pull us out of them.
Tips for overcoming a van life stupor:
Nothing starts the downward spiral like constantly feeling trapped by our stuff, especially living in a Class B van (one of the smallest types of RVs.) When we started van life, we played the daily game of “Throw Everything on the Bed” during the day, and then “Move Everything Off” at night. Just seeing that huge pile of stuff took a toll on us and made us angry that we were always having to move stuff.
Morning van cleanup, before & after.
When we start to feel consumed by the clutter, we take the time to pull out every storage box in the van and reorganize it. We also assess things in the van that we don’t need any more and can donate or send back to our parents to store for us.
Try to find a permanent home for everything. For example, our dust buster has always been floating around the van, always stashed in any crevasse that we can find. During our last de-clutter session, we were able to move half of the contents from our first aid box to a less accessible spot in the van, hence giving the vacuum a permanent home. No more reshuffling for that sucker.
Another storage solution we improved was building risers in our pantry and bathroom cabinets, utilizing the vertical height and doubling our storage capacity. Since we don’t have access to a woodshop to make something and the spaces are difficult to fit pre-made stock organizers in them, we made them out of a duct tape and a cardboard box that we got at a grocery store for free. (I’m really putting my model-making experience to use. Thank you, architectural degree!) It is the cheapest mod we have made, but those risers are my favorite things in the van.
Pantry & bathroom storage risers double our storage space.
Reduce, reduce, reduce
For the first six months of van life, we had way too much stuff. We had no idea what we would use and what we would not, so we just tried to guess. Humberto originally had all of his equipment to make pour-over coffee, but it was in the first package home after he saw how much room his contraptions took up. We now buy pre-made cold brew that we keep in the fridge. It saves us time and doesn’t require electricity.
We also had about five bath towels in the van. We soon realized that the bath towels would outlast the amount of clothes we had, meaning we would be at the laundromat before we ran out of towels, eliminating the need for so many towels.
Don’t let FOMO (fear of missing out) consume you
Another source of our stress was trying to see too many things at once, often jam-packing our schedule to exhaustion, and the worst of all, committing to be in a place, weeks in advance. (Have I mentioned that nomads are commitment-phobes?) At the beginning, we tried to see every notable thing and we tried to stop in every city.
An hour too late to see Four Corners.
We were stressed out that we would miss something if we didn’t go to every place, or visit every person we had ever met. Throw that out the window, because you’ll drive yourself crazy and it’s not worth it. For every place that you miss out on, there will be something equally spontaneous and fun that you will randomly be in the right place for.
For example, I wanted to go to Thorncrown Chapel in Arkansas, only to find out that it was closed for two months during the time that we would be there. I was crushed, but we later ended up being in New Orleans for the start of Mardi Gras and a Balloon Festival in New Mexico. We would have missed out if our timing had been different.
Belen, NM, Balloon Festival.
Take care of your everyday living necessities
Having an RV is kind of like having a hamster. It’s often self-sufficient, but needs its cage cleaned, food & water refilled, and a little bit of love every so often. Dump (and clean) your tanks, fill your fresh water, fill your propane, charge your electronics.
I’m convinced that every time you see your water/black and grey tanks/propane/battery levels at optimal operating capacity, your body releases endorphins. (Not scientifically proven, but I always feel great when I know I won’t have to worry about them for a few days).
Nothing like a clean black/gray tank.
If we’re in a location where we need everything and know we would have to drive long distances to fulfill them all, we will just suck it up and book a campground. Plus, the long, hot shower at the campground is an added bonus!
Take a shower
It’s no secret, RVers don’t shower as often as people with unlimited hot water. Even the Class A owners I’ve spoken to are stingy with their water like we are. But when you’re in the stupor, sometimes that is all you need. So fire up that hot water heater and scrub away! Or if you’re like us, head to your closest Planet Fitness, buy a $20/month Black Card membership, and enjoy all the hot water you could possibly want. Just don’t forget your shower shoes.
Visit or call family and/or friends
You might be homesick and seeing or hearing a familiar voice might make you feel better. Plus, if they’re good friends, they’ll let you use their electricity, water, Wi-Fi, laundry, etc!
Make a new friend
RVing and Vanlifing are increasing across the country, and many of us are living with the same issues you are. If your friends and family can’t relate to what you’re going through, there’s a good chance one of us will. Since nomads are always traveling, a lot of our meaningful human interaction happens online. So find us, be our friend, comment on some photos, offer some encouragement when needed … and boom: instant friendship is formed. We are partial to Instagram, but also belong to a Facebook group for Travato owners.
Bourbon Street is always more fun with friends! We saw that our van life Instagram friends were in New Orleans at the same time as us, so we messaged them and became real-life friends!
We also recently (and randomly) stumbled upon a whole group of Xscapers living on an old abandoned air field in Moab, UT. We were just looking for a sweet boondocking spot, but within minutes of us parking we were having a dance party and playing Rock Band in a new friend’s Class A RV, while also oogling at how much room he had to host such a party.
What was supposed to be a three day stay in Moab turned into 12 days because we loved having people to hang out with who totally “got us” and felt like a community. It was awesome knowing every one of our neighbors while we were there. And we planned things like hikes, movie nights, trash runs, and BBQs together.
We were all different ages, backgrounds, employment levels, and had different rigs and varying levels of adventure experience. But we were all instant friends who came together by our love of RVing and experiencing new things. Membership is only $40 a year and with over 7,000 active members on their Facebook group, you’re bound to bump into someone eventually. You’ll meet even more people if you attend one of their nationwide convergences.
Splurge on something: Food, experience, accommodations, etc.
We told ourselves at the beginning of our journey that if we ever wanted to spend a night or two in a hotel that we would do it. As of the publishing of this article, we have not needed to, except for the Air BnB we splurged on for Thanksgiving because I wanted an oven to cook a turkey. But there have been many times when we have arrived back at the van after a long day of adventuring, and we both don’t want to cook, but we want something hot and delicious to just appear. Or we don’t want to use water/propane, etc., so we splurge on take-out, or even simply go through the Wendy’s drive through. (Still trying to ween myself off my nugget, fries, and frosty orders.)
Our biggest splurge and combined Christmas/birthday present to ourselves was a trip to Disney World. It was worth it! We just didn’t look at our credit card right after.
Also, since we planned our trip more to see as many things as possible and not spend our time trying to make money, we need to be careful where we spend the money that we set aside for this trip, ie: we can’t just go to every museum, or do every excursion, or eat at every restaurant in town. So, we try our best to find free activities, usually outdoor and dog friendly. And we pick one or two in every region we’re in to splurge on. Then we add the things we couldn’t do to our travel map for our future adventures.
We have made a game out of how many nights we can boondock for free before we book a campground, and then put that “savings” towards a splurge.
It’s totally okay to watch 10 straight hours of downloaded Netflix. Or stay at your campsite all day. Just because you are an adventurer, doesn’t mean you need to adventure every minute of every day, or even every day. People who work regular office jobs still get weekends to relax. In van life, every day is both “work” and the weekend, and it’s a constant ebb and flow. It is okay to spend some time doing absolutely nothing.
There have been a few times when one of us has been sick, or just run-down from the constant traveling, and it reminds us to slow down a little. We both used to work in NYC where the mentality was always to push through sickness or injury, and there was a certain “guilt” associated with taking a day to be “sick.” Sometimes we need to be reminded to listen and do what’s best for our bodies and our sanity, and just veg out.
When you just want to spend your day looking at a really big rock.
Overall, these are just a few triggers and strategies that we have identified through our eight months of full-time traveling. When we are having a bad day, sometimes we just want to gun it straight back to sticks-and-bricks life, and I think its normal and okay to feel that way.
A lot of people don’t talk about it, but it does happen from time to time. We are usually able to pull ourselves out of the stupors after a day or two, whether it is by splurging on an awesome activity, meeting other like-minded people, getting our rig in tip-top shape, or something as simple as watching a movie or taking a shower.
Our last vacation of 2015 was a trip to visit friends in Hawaii for Christmas. During this trip, we had a lot of fun, but were also disgruntled with the amount that we had to pack into our trip due to the limited amount of vacation days we both had working standard office jobs. We came back from the trip feeling exhausted and depressed that our next vacation would not be for another six months.
During that trip, we found out that our friends were debating a move to Seattle, WA, a place that we have always wanted to live. We also wanted to make a change in our lifestyle, so we decided we would pull the trigger and finally do it. The wheels were turning, and we decided to sell our condo. So we began making all the repairs and updates to our two-bedroom condo that we never made for ourselves during the four years that we lived there. It was not until our condo sold that we decided that we would take a cross-country trip through the U.S. to see all 48 states before resettling again in the Pacific Northwest.
Humberto has always said he wanted to live in a van. I, on the other hand was less enthused. I liked my comfortable lifestyle in my stationary home with a yard and unlimited electricity, water, and Wi-Fi. Humberto however, said he would live in practically anything that moves. I had a long list of demands for our travel vehicle if we were ever going to “live in a van.”
The Van Demands
- Bathroom with shower and a real toilet (ie: not cassette or composting).
- Full kitchen with at least a fridge, stove, and sink.
- Living area that was separate from the bed, so you wouldn’t have to fold the bed up to use the living space.
- Work space enough for two laptops and all our gadgets.
- Adequate power – enough for heavy use of all our electronics.
- Good climate control.
- Good mobility, so we could zip around cities and parallel park easily.
- Ability to live off grid.
- Safe for Lucy, our Golden Retriever, to live in as well as be left alone in for a short time.
- Storage for all our camera, drawing, painting, and sporting gear.
Humberto interpreted the list-o-demands to be impossible to fulfill without building it ourselves. So, he began scouring YouTube and Instagram for all the bus and van build-outs he could find. Originally, we dabbled with the idea of building out a bus, but decided it would be too long in length to take into cities. For this reason, we also opted against Class A and towable RVs which are cumbersome and impossible to bring into a city unless you bring a car with them. Our small SUV wasn’t a good candidate to tow or be towed, and we didn’t want to have to purchase a new RV AND a new car.
We later opted against building out a van because being the designers and perfectionists that we are, we knew that the amount of researching, design, construction and trial-and-erroring would take us longer than we wanted before we could get on the road, and we were about to become homeless with the pending sale of our home. So, it was between a Class B and C. We wanted to make sure we were the shortest in length and we wanted to be as stealthy as possible, with no slide-outs, so it was a Class B van for us. Before we even knew the difference between the three classes, we found the Travato.
As soon as we saw the 59G model online we knew it was “The One,” so we made our first trip down to our closest dealer, Colonial RV in Lakewood, NJ, just to make sure. We looked at some other Class Bs, but the Travato had the floor plan that fulfilled my demands as closely as possible. It was also the most cost effective of the models we looked at, being a Dodge ProMaster instead of a Mercedes chassis. So, we did it! We bought the Travato!
Our two houses together! I cried about 4 times on move-out day.
How the Travato Measures Up
Besides the tank tablet we have to add after each tank dumping, and having to use Septic-Safe toilet paper, the toilet is as close to a residential toilet as I could ask for. After six months of travel we have used the shower only a handful of times, but its nice to know it’s there when we’re in a bind. The hot water even lasts for about five minutes, so I have perfected my quick hair washing technique.
The kitchen works extremely well for its size. The fridge is bigger than I need, but I am still happy to have it when I go too crazy at the grocery store. There is a two-burner propane stove and a sink. Both components have flip-down glass covers so you can maximize counter space when you need it. I didn’t ask for it on my list of demands, but I even got a microwave which is helpful when we’re plugged in and want to be lazy, or when I need extra sweater storage.
Meal prep in the Travato kitchen. We added a magnetic sheet behind the sink for our spice rack.
3. Separate Living Area from Bed
With the front swivel captain seats the living area in the 59g can comfortably seat five people, or three people and a dog-bench-seat-hog in our case, all while someone can be napping in bed in the separate “bedroom” area in the back. (Added bonus: The dining table folds down to create a big bed that we use for Lucy on long drives.)
Living Room in Travel Mode. Lucy has the best seat in the house!
4. Work Space
The living area has a long table that can be extended from 35 to 48 inches, which is one of the longer tables I have seen in most van floor plans.
Living Room in Stationary Mode. I LOVE our workspace! In major cities, the TV antenna picks up tons of channels so I can get my Bachelor fix.
It threw us for a loop when we found out that our outlets weren’t charged by the solar panel and we would not be able to charge our electronics unless our van was either plugged in to at least a 20amp power source or running the generator. We invested in an auxiliary lithium ion battery which can charge our laptops, phones, camera batteries, drone equipment, etc. multiple times in order to circumvent this problem. Other than that, our 100-watt solar panel keeps the lights, fan, tv, and stereo running and we have yet to run down the battery.
6. Climate Control
The van has a heater that can either be run off propane or electricity, or a mix of both. When it is hot, there is a pop-top fan vent and an A/C that can be run by the generator or off 30amp power when plugged in. All side windows are operable with screens for cross ventilation. The sliding door and rear doors have screens, so when we’re parked we can keep air coming in while keeping bugs out.
At 21’ in length, the Travato is able to be parked in a standard parking spot (with some overhang), and a back-up camera aids with parallel parking. There are very few cities where we have not been able to park, provided we are okay with a little walking.
City compactness in Savannah, GA.
While not in a location that is extremely hot or cold, it is very easy to live off grid for a few days. Our personal record for off-grid living has been 10 days, provided we use our toilet and grey water tanks sparingly, fill our water and propane as required, and use our auxiliary battery to charge our electronics.
9. Dog Friendliness
The fan and/or air conditioner, in combination with opening the windows and/or blocking the windows to decrease solar gain, usually provides adequate ventilation to keep our pup cool. If there is ever any question if it will get too hot in the van, we won’t leave her, or we’ll take her with us. We are constantly checking in with weather apps to help us plan our days to make sure Lucy won’t overheat in the van. The leather upholstery makes fur and dirty paw cleanup easy, and happens almost every day, having a water dog. Another clutch feature in the Travato 59g is the outdoor hose accessed from the back. There are days when Lucy gets a better shower than we do!
Lucy gets her own outdoor shower.
One great thing about the lofted bed in the 59g model is that you can fit a ton of storage under it. We keep our rv supplies, outdoor gear, seasonal clothes, shoe bin, books, and rarely used items under there. It may take some clever gymnastics to lift the bed and get to the thing that you of course packed in the farthest possible spot. But it is nice to know we have the space for all of the tchotchkes I’ve picked up on our travels. We’ve also added a bunch of hooks, baskets, and organizers throughout the van to maximize storage capacity.
I didn’t have this on my list of demands, (mostly because I was more concerned with the bathroom situation), but it has been reassuring that every new Winnebago purchase comes with one year of 24-hour customer assistance and roadside service throughout the U.S. and Canada. Our dealer also provides a helpline during business hours. I have only had to use this once, while in a panic about winterizing when the outdoor temperatures suddenly dropped, but most issues that we have ran into thus far are from lack of experience and can easily be Googled. Our Dodge chassis can easily be serviced at most Dodge or Chrysler dealers, which is extremely helpful when your vehicle is also your house. But my most important discovery has been a fabulous and extremely active Travato Owners (and Wannabees) group on Facebook that is a great resource for specific questions and has great ideas for modifications.
The Final Verdict
Overall, after six months of ownership, we still feel like we made a good choice with our decision to purchase the Travato 59g. There were obviously some things that we had to get used to after we went from living in a 700 square-foot condo to a 129 square-foot moving vehicle, but I feel that the 59g was the closest model we found that addressed everything that was important to us. We love that we can take our home almost anywhere a car can go. Winnebago did a great job cramming as may amenities as possible into a tiny, moving, living space; which we definitely appreciate as we’re whipping up a three-course meal in our sometimes-beachfront or sometimes-truck-stop home on wheels.
The only thing we knew about Key West prior to visiting was that it was the Southernmost point in Florida. We also knew it had been ravaged by Hurricane Irma just three months prior to our visit, but had no idea what to expect. Luckily, we were pleasantly surprised that we were still able to enjoy all of the go-to Key West activities.
Booking a Campsite in Key West
After learning that it was almost a three-hour drive on a single road, Route 1, to get to the actual city of Key West without a single Walmart or Cracker Barrel to boondock at, we decided to bite the bullet and book an actual campsite. We usually limit our campground stays to when we need to dump our black/grey tanks, fill our potable water, and charge a lot of electronics. Or if we simply just want to spread out and relax for a day.
Boyds Key West Campground.
On average we only stay at campgrounds once a week, but this time it was Christmas, so we decided to splurge. Many of the state parks and privately-owned campgrounds were decimated during the hurricane and some project they won’t even be ready to reopen until 2019. So, with limited supply, we jumped on the last available site at Boyds Key West Campground, the second closest campground to Key West, located on Stock Island, a short 10-minute drive from all the action.
Typical roadside on the way to Key West.
We were a little concerned after seeing the miles of debris that was piled along the sides of Route 1 that we may not be going to the paradise we were expecting, but that feeling quickly changed as we pulled into Boyds. Although the sites are very tightly packed, the place runs like a well-oiled machine with 24-hour security, clean bathrooms, game room, pool, and fully stocked camp/gift shop.
Our setup at Boyds. Lucy is waiting for Santa!
Everyone was in the Christmas spirit and we spent every nightly dog walk admiring the festive RV lights. The day we arrived, the campground ran a trolley for campers to see the various Christmas lights around town, but we were unfortunately too late for it. We did, however, get to see campground Santa and Mrs. Clause on Christmas Eve.
Exploring Key West
We ventured into town on Christmas Eve, with the first stop of course being the dog beach on Vernon Ave. Once we got Lucy, our golden retriever, as tired out as possible, we walked a few blocks down to the Southernmost Point (in the Continental U.S.) Marker.
Dog Beach at sunset.
A popular tourist attraction, we didn’t want to wait in line for a photo, so we just photobombed someone else’s shot. We took a brief drive around town just to familiarize ourselves with the area, expecting it to be a dead-zone, but it was a hot bed of activity both on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Southernmost Point Marker.
Classic Key West Evening
During our stay, we also explored Mallory Square and ate some conch fritters and empanadas on the dock at sunset. This is the perfect place to be for all sunsets in Key West, as it is full of street performers, artisans, and delicious pineapple drinks.
This golden retriever collects tips and drops them in the bucket!
We wandered Duval Street and ended the night as we did any other night in the Keys, with a slice of Key Lime Pie from Kermit’s, my favorite of the four places I tried … and yes, I tried both Kermit’s locations just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke.
My favorite drink in Key West!
Visiting the famed Ernest Hemingway House
The day after Christmas, I took a tour of the Ernest Hemingway House on Whitehead Street. I am not a cat person by any means, but part of the draw to take the tour is to see the 54 cats that inhabit the property. About half of the cats have 6 toes and a lot of them are descendants of Hemingway’s original cat Snow White. They have names like: Mark Twain, Pablo Picasso, and Elizabeth Taylor: the vixen of the house since she is the only cat who escaped the house’s one-litter-only rule to have a second litter.
Ernest Hemingway House.
Ten staffers stayed in the house during Irma with the cats and they all survived. The house, which is the highest point in Key West at 15-ft above sea level, sustained minimal damage compared to the towns north of Key West, in which many residents are still displaced. Clearly, I was focused on finding as many cats as possible during the 30-minute tour. Although, the guide was fantastic and even if you know nothing about Ernest Hemingway, the tour was very entertaining.
6-Toed cats are the stars of the tour.
Getting on the Water
On our last day in Key West we found Lazy Dog Adventures, a dog-friendly stand-up paddle (SUP) board and kayak rental company along the Cow Key Channel separating Key West from Stock Island and only a few minutes’ drive from the campground. After a quick SUP lesson we were off, Humberto and Lucy in the kayak and I on the SUP.
It was a shaky experience at first, but she finally got the hang of it!
Although by the end, Lucy abandoned the kayak for the SUP. She loved pulling seaweed out of the water as I paddled her around. They had a dog (and people) wash station so that we didn’t have to waste any water washing Lucy from our van.
Leaving the Island
One more sunset, seafood dinner, and Key Lime pie in town and we set off for our long drive off the island. About an hour into our journey, we realized we really wanted to do the drive during daylight, so we tested our luck by boondocking at a random boat launch. We’ve heard that Key West is not very good for boondocking, but thankfully we made it through the night without the dreaded 2.a.m knock.
Our last stop, before heading back to Miami the next morning, was the Old Bahia Honda Bridge which was great for photos and we even got to witness a shark rescue!
Overall, we had a great trip and did not feel that the recent storm prevented us from enjoying any of the Key West activities we were looking forward to. Our main suggestion would be to make sure you secure a campground before your trip, since they can book up very quickly and there are not many boondocking options. It may take a while for Key West to completely recover, but don’t let that stop you from making the trip!
For more from the Gunn family, check out their blog: AdventureGunn.com.