I have to admit, I’m enamored with van life as much as the next person. The idea of being able to pick up and go in a tiny house on wheels, no worries about clutter or cleaning, sounds absolutely fabulous. But our family is stationary during the week these days, and our goal is to save 50% of our incomes this year. So while vanlife – especially not the glamorous #vanlife you see all over Instagram – isn’t in our near future, #trucklife most certainly is.
Truck Bed Camping
We just got back from another long weekend of truck camping out on the Olympic Peninsula as an extension of our son’s birthday celebrations. Instead of lots of stuff, we go on lots of mini adventures instead.
Since we set the truck up with the canopy and air mattress back in September, we’ve been out camping quite often. Even if we go for just one night, it’s a lot of fun to pack up the truck and just go. It’s especially easy this time of year because it’s off season so there are no real ferry lines and there’s always campground availability. Other than the fact that the low temperatures hovered around 34 degrees, there really is no downside to traveling in the winter.
We got to the campsite Thursday evening after work and then parked the truck to have a full weekend free of driving. Jefferson County actually has a pretty good transit system, so we hopped the bus from the campground at Fort Worden to downtown Port Townsend, where we spent some time walking around the beach and then headed up to check out the library.
In the afternoon, we headed back to the campground and hiked the trails around the old fort before cooking up our one pot fancy ramen for dinner while sitting around the campfire. We prep camp dinners ahead of time before we leave so we have really good meals that take no time (and only one pot) to cook, since washing a ton of dishes isn’t a fun way to spend a vacation.
High class #vanlife
Saturday night, a family with two young children rolled in to the campground with their brand new Winnebago Travato camper van. If you aren’t familiar with this van, it’s base retail price starts at $102,348, which means you know most people walk away from the dealership spending quite a bit more than that.
This van is so pretty. From the dealership website:
“At 21 feet long, and only 9 feet tall, the Travato is unbelievably agile, while still offering a full feature RV experience that is perfect for the adventurous explorer.
With swivel cab seats, LED lighting, GPS touch screen navigation with SiriusXM satellite radio, a split dinette, and an abundance of features, the Travato delivers a whole lot of fun for less. It has all features for a full RV experience, including a 2,800 watt CumminsOnan gasoline generator, Coleman Mach 10 quieter 13.5 BTU high efficiency AC, Truma Combi hot water and heating system, refrigerator and freezer, and microwave and convection oven that will allow you to bake, brown and roast just like a traditional oven!”
This van is basically the high class #vanlife dream. However, it also comes with that hefty price tag. I found one for sale online for $107,062. Using the 4% rule, that same $107k could buy you almost $4300/year in perpetuity (and that’s if you bought the van outright instead of financing it).
Beyond just the initial price tag, there’s the cost of maintenance, insurance, fuel, license plate tabs, and any other incidentals (like taking the ferry – the cost TRIPLES once you pass the 22’ length threshold).
I’d argue that if you’re planning to sell your home and are going to live in the van full time, then this purchase might make sense. But if it’s just a weekend and occasional road trip adventure vehicle (which this one was, I asked), then perhaps there’s a way to get the same value from something that costs a whole lot less.
The craziest part is, there was a second one of these vans just two campsites down on the other side of us. I have to wonder how much the glamorous Instagram #vanlife stories have suckered people in to spending huge amounts of money to get that experience. One that is just as accessible if you spend just a fraction of that number.
For our family, the key to happy camping in the wintertime is a warm, comfy place to sleep. Beyond that, we visit places to explore, be it at breweries downtown or on trails through the woods. Very little of our time is spent inside. So what does the cost of that setup look like?
My husband works in construction and regularly hauls quite a few tools and supplies to the job site in his truck. We also use it to take home loads of firewood, piles of garden soil, and other home maintenance supplies (hello backyard fencing) from time to time.
I’d argue that the truck itself isn’t a direct additional expense to our truck camping costs because we have it anyway, but there is extra maintenance, fuel, and wear and tear due to driving it on our adventures.
Like the truck, the canopy was something that was purchased for work, but we also had camping in mind before we got it. My husband found a great used one for $1,100, taxes and install included. While we could have found a cheaper one if it was just for hauling tools, but since we expected to camp in it as well, we got one with extra head height and some basic carpet insulation.
3. LED disk lights $22.32
We picked up some LED disk lights with a remote originally for another purpose, but they ended up inside the truck canopy. We have them spread out around the perimeter and they work great to have light to read by before bed (and the remote to turn them all on at once is just convenient). Since we are camping without any sort of generator or vehicle power for use when not in motion, having these lights is seriously key to having a cozy bed set up. This is especially important on short winter days when the sun sets before 5PM.
4. Air mattress $173.57
When we initially tested out the truck bed camping option, we just put some inflatable pads we already had in the bed in between the wheel wells. This would work well enough if it was just one or two of us sleeping in the space, but it was pretty snug with all three of us wedges between the wheel wells.
We ended up cruising around on Amazon and found this awesome air mattress that’s made to go over the wheel well and makes it so we have the full width of the bed to sleep on. Plus it’s an air mattress, so considerably more comfortable than our thin camping pads.
5. Electric blanket $75.91
Our most recent splurge was this king size microplush electric blanket. After camping in 34 degree temperatures for three nights this past weekend, I can say without hesitation that my husband was absolutely right to encourage this purchase. Of course, for now this only works if there is site power, but it seriously made cold nights not a big deal.
Fighting against hedonistic adaptation
After previously camping without the air mattress or the electric blanket, our current setup feels totally luxurious. If you haven’t read this Mr. Money Mustache post on hedonistic adaptation, go read it, and you’ll see where I’m going with this one. We’ve previously considered renting a trailer for the weekend to see if we’d like one some day, but there’s a slippery slope to continually updating to nicer and nicer accommodations to the point it’s no longer really camping.
Camping in the truck also forces us outside – hiking, bonfires, breakfasts down at the beach – because we don’t have an interior space beyond just a bed. We go camping in part to save money but also to connect with nature and enjoy the outdoors. The more comfortable of a space there is inside, the more likely that’s where you’ll be. With the truck, where we want to be is outside except to sleep.
Off road dispersed camping
The really big upside to truck camping – beyond just the price tag – is the mobility that comes with not having a trailer or a large van to haul around. We took a trip back in September up six miles of rough forest roads to a dispersed camping area that was absolutely gorgeous and deserted. Plus, dispersed camping is absolutely free.
Really, the beauty of it is to more or less get the experience of backpacking locations without having to haul a toddler (and his stroller and diapers) up a mountain. We’ll get back to backpacking soon, as there are places that can only be accessed that way, but dispersed camp areas that are 4WD accessible can be pretty awesome as well.
Frugality doesn’t mean deprivation
Back to this most recent trip, and the inspiration for this post. Ultimately, there was nothing we couldn’t have done this past weekend if we had overnighted another way. We cooked, spent time in nature, and hung out at breweries. We spent only our sleeping hours in the truck, which makes for a really great weekend.
I’d argue we actually had a better trip because the more minimalist sleeping arrangements pushed us outside first thing in the morning until it was time for bed at night. Like our Hawai’i trip, this mini vacation couldn’t have been any better with more money spent.
If you’re considering buying a van, do you think a truck bed setup could work for you? A simple minivan conversion could work much the same way. I’d have you think long and hard before spending large amounts of money on the more glamorous option.
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