At the end of 2015, I found myself at an inflection point. The Bay Area housing market bounced back, and the owners of my rental decided to sell. I was 27 years old and working long hours at a startup, following a relatively traditional path. I moved all my possessions into a five-by-ten-foot storage unit and headed to Mount Hood in Oregon for a backcountry ski trip. On the drive back, I totaled my hatchback, sold it for cash, tucked my tail between my legs, and flew home to Minnesota. Like any good origin story, you gotta fall before you get back up.
This unlucky series of events felt surprisingly cathartic. Not having an address, car maintenance, or monthly rent was liberating. Over the holiday I started scheming, convincing myself that my late twenties was the ideal time to live nomadically. I worked through a year’s worth of finances, sketched a few camper designs, and made a spreadsheet of the parts I would need. This sounds pragmatic in hindsight, but it didn’t feel that way at the time. I went with it anyway.
I had no interest in vans. I wanted a vehicle that I could get into trouble with, and I was happy sacrificing comfort for it. So I invested in a 2015 Toyota Tacoma Double Cab and added a three-inch lift and all-terrain tires. Tacomas are the pinnacle of reliability, and when they eventually break down, their parts are close to universal. Almost any small-town mechanic can fix one.
Next I took the hardest step toward truck life: giving my stuff away. Pretty much all of it. Many vanlifers keep a storage unit filled with valuable possessions, but this contradicted my dream of simplicity. My closest friends were rewarded for it like kings. I limited myself exclusively to stuff that fit in the truck, from camping gear to books, tools, electronics, and a small kitchen. As I’ve progressively optimized for longer out-of-office e-mail and fewer showers, I’ve gotten more judicious about what comes along.
Turning a truck into a livable space is a work in progress. For me, the components for a sustainable nomadic life are storage, solar energy, water, a bed, a fridge, propane, and a better suspension, loosely in that order. My truck is currently on its sixth iteration, and I’m continually finding new ways to simplify. This is what my current setup looks like.
My roof, so to speak, is a Leer 180 truck cap. It’s a commercial-style camper shell that’s pretty expensive but offers features that make nomadic life much easier and adds a little extra headroom, too. To increase the comfort, I added four interior LED lights, Reflectix insulation, a six-inch fan to help with condensation, a Thule roof rack, and solid-fiberglass side windows that open upward. These windows allow me more access to the bed and create a dark coffin to sleep in, which is great in a city.
The centerpiece of my storage system is a custom-built, six-foot-long, three-foot wide, six-inch-high drawer that runs the length of the bed. I made it out of three-eighth-inch plywood and half-inch screws. The drawer, which moves on heavy-duty sliders, functions as a kitchen, pantry, bookshelf, snack cabinet, and miscellaneous storage bin. In the four corners of the bed, around the wheel wells, I built custom storage cubbies, which are great for less-used tools and outdoor gear.
The rashest move I made was tearing out the back seats of the double cab. I hadn’t seen anyone do this before, so I was making stuff up as I went. But looking back, I haven’t regretted this decision once. On the rear driver side, a couple of plywood cubbies, which hold my clothes, are bolted to the same holes the seats used. I insulated between the wood and metal, to reduce noise and heat loss. Below the wooden structure, I left a spot for my shoes (five pairs). Adjacent to the seat, there’s enough room for dog food, bowls, and toys.
I decided to put my fridge on the rear passenger side. This proved to be quite challenging, mostly because 90-degree angles don’t exist in trucks, but by mounting the fridge on a slider, I can simply open the truck door and pull the fridge out for a snack.
The fridge draws its power from a Goal Zero battery, which runs on three pliable 100-watt solar panels that are attached to the roof. On the left side of the fridge is my propane tank, sitting on its side, which can be turned on and off quickly. I can fill it from this position, too, so it never needs to be fully removed. On the right side of the fridge is the water jug, which is sufficient for about a week or so. This back-seat build took me two long days, with a good bit of help from my dad and friends.
My kitchen is bare bones. A cast-iron pan, a few MSR pots, a coffee press, a handful of metal sporks, and a double-burner stove have worked, without fail, for three years running. Wanting to reduce waste, I connected my stove to a 20-pound propane tank instead of burning dozens of the green canisters. I ratcheted the propane tank down in the truck bed, along with the portable fridge and water jug. It didn’t take long to learn that this would limit my sleeping space dramatically. Seeing as I spend a third of every day sleeping, my bed needed to take precedent, forcing me to find a new place for my utilities.
The crux of living in any vehicle is storage. My solution is a Thule roof box. With 16 cubic feet of space, the box provided enough room for a couple pairs of skis, tents, packs, and climbing and camping gear. It’s easy to open, locks securely, and doesn’t wreck my gas mileage, which I appreciate. It’s also a great way to limit the gear I bring along.
A real bed was actually one of my most recent additions. I bought a foam mattress online and threw a fitted sheet on top of it. Add a couple of pillows, a wool blanket, and a double sleeping bag, and I have a queen bed that works well in all seasons.
I’m sure I’ll continue to modify this system, but the key to all of it is: the less you own, the happier you are.
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