Living in a Step-Van

The author’s step van.

By Rodger L.  –  November, 2010

Hello, my name is Rodger. I will be sixty this February and I have been a full-timer for about  8 years, boondocking about 95% of my time.  Originally, I worked construction as  a carpenter, working out of and traveling in a Class A motor home with my wife of 10 years. Our home was in California but we both enjoyed traveling. In 1995, her MS had advanced to the point I could not work full time, so we decided to sell our home and go full time, working when I could. We had a few dollars from the sale of our home to help, but we still had to be very frugal. We didn’t want to reduce our quality of life so we started cooking from scratch, eating foods in season and following the sun. It’s hard to be unhappy when the sun is always shining and there is no lawn to be mowed!

In 2000 my wife could no longer travel, so we settled in eastern Oregon. I worked as an assistant manager for a mobile /rv park. When she passed away in 2003 she had taught me one of life’s most important lessons: live your life today, tomorrow may not come. Trying to live that way, I sold everything (which paid most of the medical bills) and filed bankruptcy. I met this older gentleman that had a 1966 International Metro step van for sale. It had a 152 cubic inch 4 cylinder, 92 horse power with 3 speed transmission.  It is about 14 feet from bumper to bumper–picture a postal truck.  I checked it out, paid $800.00 for it, and hit the road again. My little home gets about 18 MPG and I only put about  6,000 miles a year on it.

Van Modifications:
In order to make it more livable, I made these modifications:

  • I built  a cabinet with drawers that is also a couch and  opens to a single bed.
  • I bought a really good ice chest for food.
  • I put a 3 x 5 window on the passenger side. It is a typical 3 x 5vinyl slider. I just cut a hole in the side of the van to fit the window, and installed it with self-tapping metal screws with rubber washers and caulking. The window extends outside the van 3/4 of an inch. I wanted to maintain my stealth so I had a thin piece of metal cut to cover the window. It is the size of the window plus 1 1/2  inches all the way around plus another 3/4 inch to be bent at right angles. I soldered in its corners so that when I was done it looked like giant cookie sheet. I put a piano type hinge on top so it could not be seen from outside when closed. The 1 1/2inch added all around  is needed so after the hinge is on, it will not bind when opening. Also, the added 1 1/2 on each is to hide the diagonal braces needed for when the awning is up. I then painted it to match the rest of the van. When it is down (it locks from inside), it looks very natural and most people don’t even notice it.  It looks like I could sell hot dogs when it’s up! The cover helps to maintain my stealth parking ability, so that when I stop for th night it looks like a normal  delivery van. I also keep the van clean with no stickers  or writing on it, which also helps it be stealthy.
  • When I stop, I don’t want to put anything on the ground, so I built a 5×5 patio that drops down when the back doors are open. The van has two  doors in back, each 2’6″ wide, which open out. I had apiece of aluminum cut to 5′ wide by 4′ deep, and hinged on the 5’side. I attached it to the floor inside the van so that it drops down when the back doors are opened. Two hooks on the bottom of each door hold the deck up. To add shade, I mounted a typical RV window awning (works like old- fashioned window shade) above the patio. It has a metal cover (painted white) that it disappears into, maintaining my stealth. I covered it with a green canvas awning to make it nice for napping or grilling.
  • I also replaced the uncomfortable driver’s seat with a very nice office chair. Because it is on wheels I can leave it inside or roll it to the patio.
  • I built more cabinets on the passenger side under the window with a fold out desk and a one-burner propane stove top for my morning coffee.
  • Installed two solar panels and two batteries.

It’s taken awhile, and is always a work in progress, but the van has become a very nice little home. I was able to get almost everything either free or at a good price used, except the two new solar panels for the two batteries and small fold down flat screen TV.  I don’t have a cell phone or computer, I might get a computer but do not want to have any monthly bills.

Making Money:
I found I don’t like to work for someone else so my hobbies are incorporated into my income. I have three main ways of making money:

  • Crafts: I make many different crafts out of found materials (meaning logs I find in the woods or stuff I get cheap at fleamarkets/garage sales). I like making a variety of things becaus eif they were all the  same it would be a job, plus, it lets my imagination go wild.  It is definitely not a get rich proposition but it does pay for my gas. I only use hand tools, so no electricity is involved. I buy used tools and have found that the older tools are much better quality. Here is an example of something I might make: I will look around in the woods until I find a log on the ground that is about 6 to 8 inches around and say 18 inches long. I take a sharp hand ax and chop one end to a point as if a beaver had chewed a tree. Next, I chisel a hole in the log as if a woodpecker had built a home in it, then I  add porches and windows to the woodpecker’s house using a Victorian style.  My goal is that the porch look will look like it is worthy of being on a very expensive Victorian doll house. I  attach it as if it was built by the Keebler Elves. Finally, leaving everything that is natural alone, I paint the add-on with bright Victorian colors. You’re done when people enjoy just looking at it.
  • Buying and Selling: I enjoy garage sale-ing and I always keep my eye out for things I can resale at a profit. Mainly I collect small stuff of  interest to men. I keep it all in a plastic tote. When it gets full, I hold a mobile garage sale. I can do this almost anywhere, and it’s free. It’s very simple. First, I open the awning over the side window. I carry two pieces of plywood (about 2 foot by 7 foot) that I keep under my mattress. I attach them under the awning and window to display my goods. I open the back doors and sit on my patio to work on my crafts and meet new friends. I have never had any problem doing this. If you keep yourself clean, courteous of other people’s property, and always clean up when you’re done, nobody will object. Generally, the people who have problems look and act like they are cast member from the Grapes of Wrath.
  • Fishing: This year was one of my best ever, I fished the Columbia River in Washington State for pike minnow. The cooperative that runs the Bonneville dams on the Columbia river want to eradicate them because they eat baby salmon, so they put a bounty on them. I sold them for about $5.00 per fish  and you can fish all night.You don’t even have to hold the pole! I used a pole holder with a bell on it to tell me when I had a fish on. I averaged about 6 a day. only did I make money from fishing, I also collected free food. I caught all the Salmon and steelhead I could eat and smoke. Nearby I found wild blackberries which made great blackberry wine and delicious pies (in my dutch oven).  The many new friends I met supplied me with vegetables, and I enjoyed working in their gardens to help out.

My advice to you is that life is a work in progress, just enjoy it. My writing skills are pretty slim but I hope you get the gist of what I am saying.  Thank you for your time.