Back when my brand new Ford Transit Connect had a mere 500 miles on it and I was preparing for my epic cross-country journey, I was full of blind optimism. Today the van has racked up over 3,000 miles and a patina of road grime, and the day-to-day reality of life on the road is settling in. Just in case any of you crazy cats are thinking about living out of a van anytime soon, here are eight daily necessities green-minded travelers will want to consider before setting off. It's not easy to be environmentally responsible on the road, but it's not impossible either. Read on!
This is an obvious one, but conscientious and green-minded consumers won’t want to settle for any old food on the road. Unless you plan ahead, you’ll end up eating at Starbucks and Chipotle all the time, since fresh, local, healthy and organic food is not always easy to come by. We have a cooler for refrigerating leftovers, but mostly we have a lot of healthy-as-possible canned and packaged food from Trader Joes, such as rice-stuffed grape leaves, beans, artichokes, packaged Indian food, nuts, and dried fruit. We also have a way to make soups and smoothies, and I have staples like rice, lentils, and potatoes, which keep a while. I wouldn’t normally recommend cans and packaged foods (fresh is always best), but in this case, Trader Joes is the next best thing that is also affordable.
You really don’t know how much you rely on water until you don’t have it. Since my van is not a self-contained recreational vehicle, I don’t have a water tank. I purchased a thin 6-gallon jug, one that is relatively durable and fits between my bed and the door, but sourcing water on the road can be challenging. Yesterday my assistant Kim and I filled up our water jugs with a Walmart water fountain! We don’t necessarily recommend that you do the same, but because it was Labor Day, a lot of other places were closed. Here are some smarter ways to source water: visitor centers on the side of the highway usually have a way to fill up. And campgrounds and parks – depending on whether they are regional, state, private, or national, or whether or not they are primitive – are a good place to fill up, though my goal is to pay for camping as seldom as possible since I’m on a very tight budget. Today we were eating lunch outside of James Bronson’s apartment and he invited us to come in and fill up our jugs and solar shower. James happens to work at Thunder Bunny Tattoos, which is just across the street from where we’re doing laundry today in Athens, Ohio! Seems like it will be necessary to fill up our jug every two days to allow for cooking, washing dishes and clothes when the weather permits, and we have to fill up a 10-gallon solar shower every four days as well. We’ll also pay strict attention to quality. Since we’ll be going through communities that are fracked, and where municipal water is chlorinated to the gills, planning ahead will be key. Either way, we won’t be buying anymore disposable plastic bottles!
For now, I have an adaptor that allows me to use the van’s one 12-volt charger to juice up my laptop and smartphone when I’m on the go. It’s not great to run the car to charge these while stopped, nor is it good to run the battery down, so for right now when I need to work I need access to an electrical outlet. Either I can acquire this at the homes of friends and family along the way, or coffee shops, or certain campgrounds, but typically such a luxury comes with a hefty fee and I am trying to be as frugal as possible. Voltaic Systems is donating a couple of 17 watt solar kits for my van, which I’ll be picking up in Colorado in a couple of weeks (so excited!) These panels will be attached (and easily detached) with magnets, so no high speed driving, and the battery will be stored inside the van. Stay tuned for more on this soon.
4. Internet access
Road warriors who don’t need to work while traveling wouldn’t necessarily need to have electricity or internet access, but for me it’s essential. All of my work is online. No work, no gas, no food, no nada. So, as much as I would prefer to hang around Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and other remote parts of this vast country, I have no choice but to stay within range of cell phone towers so that my Verizon hotspot will work. I’m sure that one day there will be better ways to get online remotely, ways that will be fast enough to allow me to fulfill my duties as news editor for Inhabitat, but for now this is a major limitation. (If anyone has better ideas, please let me know!)
Everything is really great in my van, and I feel completely footloose and fancy free, until I need to pee. Then, very suddenly, I am reminded that despite all my idealism and free-spirited ways, I am a human being who has to dispel certain wastes from my body every once in a while. And that’s not easy to do unless I carry a mini portable potty, camp in a campground with a toilet, stay with friends, or park at a truck stop or visitor center with toilets and sinks. It’s ok to wee in the woods every once in a while, but mostly it’s essential to leave the smallest footprint possible, and that means packing everything out. We can shower off the back of the van fairly easily with our nifty solar shower, but going to the loo is much more challenging. Let’s just say I’m looking forward to the next stage of my van journey when I will be as self-sufficient as someone who lives in a giant RV. More on stage two of the green road adventures soon!
6. A Place to Park
If it’s just me, it’s no big deal if I have to pull into a truck stop for the night. My van is set up so I can put up makeshift curtains so that no one can see inside, and my bed is super cozy. But it’s not fair to ask my intern / research assistant to stay in crappy places all the time. So, finding an affordable, preferably free place to stay that also meets all of our other daily needs amounts to a huge and time-consuming challenge. I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve, but they’re less effective in Ohio, for example, than out west. For $80 I bought a National Parks pass, which not only gets me into national parks for free (it costs extra for camping), but any federal, public land as well. This includes any land owned by the Bureau of Land Management, the National Forest Service, or the Fish and Wildlife Service, among others. Once a week we’ll go into a real campground so we can have a decent shower, charge up our gadgets, fill up our water, and wash and hang up our clothes. I’m also an active Couchsurfer, so from time to time I hope to find people who will be willing to let me park outside their homes in exchange for a delicious van-cooked vegetarian meal.
This is a separate challenge because in addition to needing the water to wash clothes (and shower, etc.), we also need the time and space to be able to hang up our clothes so that they will dry. There are some ways to make this process easier — for example, it’s essential to only carry clothes that dry quickly. And I never, ever travel with a towel. In lieu of a towel, I keep my kikoy, a cotton wrap that some Swahili men wear in Kenya’s coastal cities. It packs down small and dries really quickly without that moldy wet towel smell.
For green road warriors, recycling is tricky! It is possible to find some facilities at parks, grocery stores or municipal recycling centers, but it takes planning when on the move. So far I’ve recycled at my friends’ houses, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and at the Wayne National Forest headquarters in Ohio, but I definitely won’t be able to recycle as extensively as I would at a house with a dedicated collection service. Challenging, but not impossible, and definitely worth it!
All in all, these challenges make me more aware of and grateful for everything that stationary life offers. I’m so much more careful about how I use water since I know what a pain it will be to get more. I work more efficiently to save energy (less time messing around on Facebook) and I take more time out to listen to the birds and enjoy our mornings and evenings in lush, green spaces. Stay tuned for more adventures and to learn about the many green heroes we’ll be meeting along the way.