The Pre-Van Life

Our search for the perfect adventure vehicle started in the Summer of 2018. At the time, our daily beach driver was a 1981 VW Rabbit. Arturo had welded up a roof rack for the veedub with surfing in mind but taking boards in and out of bags and on and off the rack always made the whole process of getting into the water feel a bit more arduous than necessary.

 

After one trip down to Baja, we started crunching the numbers, weighing the price of staying in Airbnbs against the difference in fuel costs and thinking hard about logistics and ultimately, what we wanted life to look like. We knew it was time for a change but we didn’t have the details dialed in. Here is a list of the options we entertained and why we ultimately landed our van: 

September 27, 2019

One of the very first options we explored was the overlander category. The idea of taking some type of SUV (like an old Suburban, a Disco II or a Jeep) and converting it into a tiny home on wheels was an appetizing option. The main appeal of an overlander was having out-of-the-box four-wheel drive so we could bomb around Baja on surf trips (the runner up reason was honestly just the cool factor). This sounded sexy considering that most other options would limit us to two-wheel drive unless we committed to extensive fabrication. We checked out a couple of old Suburbans in the San Diego area but were less than impressed by what we found. Our first observation was how small the potential living space seemed when compared to the inside of a van. Everything we saw also had a ton of rust on it...and not just innocent little surface rust; deep, nasty, cancerous rust that would have needed to be cut out and replaced with fresh metal. With that in mind, nothing we found made sense for the price, which averaged $2,500.00. Discos are sweet looking rigs, are cheap and have nice leather interiors but damn are they unreliable. The last thing you want is to be stranded in the desert somewhere in Baja (we did consider a 4BT swap but it's too costly). The other obvious choice was a Jeep but, in order for that to work, we would end up needing a rooftop tent. The major downsides were livability and convinience. While those rooftop tents are super cool, a setup like this means that, while on the road, all of our gear (including surfbaords) would need to be packed inside the Jeep. This would make otherwise simple tasks a major pain in the ass. Plus, popping a rooftop tent in Downtown San Diego is about as inconspicuous as farting in church. Needless to say, we decided to look elsewhere for our adventure vehicle needs.

Another challenge that we faced while narrowing down our options was that we weren’t sure exactly what role the vehicle would play in our lives. We entertained the idea of ditching our cute little apartment, staying in San Diego for a while and habitating our new ride full-time (particularly during the brief window when the San Diego vehicle habitation ban was deemed unconstitutional and overturned). A schoolie was particularly appealing as part of this conversation because it was the most spacious option. In this scenario, we’d hold onto our Honda Civic for more fuel-efficient jaunts around town and keep the bus mostly stationary. The extra space would have allowed for a more efficient heating system during winter and a more comfy hang out space which we deemed essential for the kind of lifestyle where we were still working conventional(ish) jobs. This would also mean that our surfboards could have their own bedroom. The biggest pitfalls of urban, stationary(ish) schoolie life would presumably be parking and vehicle maneuverability. San Diego ordinance prohibits parking of oversized vehicles on most public streets which, even while living in a vehicle was technically legal, would have made finding a spot to do so tricky. We also knew that, when we inevitably hit the road to do some traveling, maneuvering a schoolie in tight camping spaces and on rough terrain could be seriously dodgy. Any dreams of four-wheel drive went out the window. Fuel inefficiency also played a role in our decision. A bigger vehicle would have meant more time on a build and more space needed to do it. We did most of our van work at our parents’ houses which would have been difficult to impossible with a larger vehicle.

The RV is the quintessential home away from home. Let's face it, when it comes to live-aboard vehicles, nothing says "lap of luxury" like an actual flushing toilet. The biggest argument for an RV was that it comes stock with everything you need to live in it, saving the time and money that a conversion would take. RV's in decent condition can be found for as low as $1,000.00. This ready-made option was so tempting that, if we had found the right RV while we were looking, we likely would have jumped on it (especially while vehicle habitation was legal in San Diego). In retrospect, we're glad we didn't pull the trigger on this one. This option wins in terms of time spent up front but, with that, you also lose the customizability that you get when you design your own build. RV's were definitely designed with glamping in mind. In an RV's attempt to mimic a two-bedroom house with a full kitchen and bathroom, it becomes so bloated, so heavy that it totally loses it's sense of adventure. Not only do the top three aforementioned cons of #schoolielife (parking, maneuverability and fuel inefficiency) apply to an RV but most RV's are also considerably lower to the ground limiting them to nicely grated gravel roads or better. After our last trip to Baja, we know firsthand that this thing couldn't survive the peninsula.

When you own a sick-ass OBS with four-wheel drive, TTB's and four doors, the only logical thing to do is strap a turtle shell on the back and make yourself at home. The beauty of the six pac is in its 2-in-1 functionality: a sweet ride and a place to hang your hat. The option to leave the camper somewhere and take the truck out solo was definitely enticing. Let’s be real here, cruising in an OBS is infinitely cooler than driving around an old creeper van. I know, it sounds like a clear winner (and boy was Arturo pulling hard for that OBS). Sadly, this option had its share of downsides. The first was financial. The cost of entry would have been much higher due to the popularity of these trucks. Much like it's RV cousin, the ready-made nature of a six pac would have robbed us of the ability to create a bespoke space to meet our specific needs. It might sound strange but one major factor was not being able to move freely from the driving area to the living area of the vehicle. The inconvenience of having to pull over, get out and get into the camper when you need to run to the back for a snack, a jacket, and especially a pee (in Alicia's case, once every 30 minutes) detracted from the sex appeal of the OBS. That said, Arturo still has dreams of trading in the van for this beast... one day. 

That brings us to our ultimate decision: our 1990 Ford Econoline. We ended up getting a pretty sweet deal on an old UCLA maintenance vehicle turned Mom and Pop HVAC company work van and taking her home for $750.00 out the door. For an additional $71.00, we bought the top off of an old ice-cream truck from a junkyard which adds several feet of headspace to our rolling home. Like her Suburban comrades, this thing had some cancer but, for the price, we were open to doing some welding. Fuel efficiency ranges from 13 mph around town to 18 mph on longer trips which isn’t great but is still better than some of the other choices. She’s small enough to dodge the “oversized vehicle” classification so parking in urban areas is much less complicated than it would have been with an RV or a schoolie. We’ve definitely taken her in plenty of tight spaces and on many bumpy roads that have made us thankful for the decision to stick with a smaller vehicle. Our last Baja trip pushed the boundaries of what two-wheel drive can do. Ford's Twin I-Beams gave us plenty of suspension travel to get through rough terrain (check out the YouTube video below). Though she fared well, there were many times we were crossing our fingers and hoping this old girl would make it to the other side (i.e. soft, sandy roads). Not having four-wheel drive limited the roads and surf spots we could access but we have hopes of one day doing a four-wheel drive conversion which will increase the van's cool factor by a thousand percent. All things said, we love our girl and we’re happy we chose #e150 life over the other options we considered.

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Suggested Reading

The Sexy Overlander

Get Schoolied

Like a Rolling Home

Hold my Beer, SIx Pack

Van Life

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The Road (Slightly) Less Traveled

January 20, 2020

 

As our 90-day visa allowance dwindled down to its final days, we brainstormed the best approach to meeting our obligatory travel requirement...“But what if…”, we thought, “we took advantage of the opportunity to get to know a little more of Vietnam and did the journey by motorbike instead?” Read More...