So clearly a major focal point of #vanlife is… our van! More precisely, our trailer. Last year we bought and began renovating a 1978 Skyline Nomad camper trailer. It’s 21 feet long and about seven and a half feet wide. If you did that math, you’ll see that Jeremiah, Chevy, and I have moved into a 157.5 square foot space, about a fifth of the size of our apartment in Denver. And since this little space is as important of a storyline in our new lifestyle as anything else, I want to dedicate the first post to how she came to be. This post is long because it took place over the course of nearly an entire year, but it’ll give you an idea of the origin story of our new home.
I should state here that Jeremiah and I had no prior experience whatsoever in RVing or renovating RVs. We’re both just moderately handy and in all honesty, this project is brought to you by YouTube. No seriously– you can learn to do ANYTHING on YouTube! What a time to be alive! Jeremiah spent countless hours watching videos on electric wiring, plumbing, power sources– you name it. There was a ton of trial and error along the way but our whole goal was to keep renovation costs low by doing as much as we possibly could by ourselves. And we did pretty much all of it. That being said, if we can do it, you can do it. YouTube that shit.
Our hunt for a camper started in the spring of 2016. I had this vague notion of massively downsizing and moving into a mobile home, with the idea that Jeremiah could then be closer to me wherever I was guiding for work. The entirety of our relationship (two and a half years) has been effectively long-distance, as I work about half the year traveling. When I have time off, I fly back to Denver or Jeremiah flies out to where I am. As you can imagine, this is tough financially and tough to work around his work and school schedules. So making the move to a more nomadic lifestyle seemed like a cool fit for us, since Jeremiah would be done with school and at a juncture point in his life after May of 2017. Once Jeremiah was on board with all of this (it didn’t take much convincing), we started looking in earnest for a trailer to work on. We wanted our entire budget– both the starter trailer and the renovating– to remain under $5,000. We also knew we wanted a unit that had a full kitchen, bathroom, and lots of storage space options. But it had to be on the more medium range of the sizes– it’s hard towing a 30 foot trailer rig up through National Forest roads. Once we had our parameters, we just scoured Craigslist for several months. We went to look at half a dozen campers in person, some of which were really enticing (Airstreams are so cool, but those thangs are expensive!!) but nothing really felt exactly right early on in our search. We sort of just sensed that when the right trailer came along, we would know it. So we remained patient. Then on September 1, 2016 we went to visit a trailer about an hour north of Denver. The girl who owned it was a river guide like my sister and had been living in it during her guiding season but she and her boyfriend had just bought a teepee and were going to switch it up. She had it listed for $2,500, which was an incredible deal compared to other campers we had shopped. She said the electricity generally worked, it towed alright and had new tires, and she had never used the water before but the previous owner had. It seemed like as soon as we walked into the trailer, both Jeremiah and I knew that it was the right one; roomy yet compact, in good shape for renovating, and outfitted with all of our essentials. We bought it right then and there and towed it home a day later with a rented pickup truck from U-Haul.
Since our little apartment in the city didn’t have a good space for a big trailer renovating project outside, we parked it at Jeremiah’s mom’s house about fifteen minutes away. We rounded up all our tools, took them over there, and started in on remodeling. The trailer was in generally good shape for a forty-year-old piece of equipment. The girl who owned it before us had it set up with a bed, a small bench, and gray and turquoise paint. She had never used the exterior awning, which we discovered was completely torn and detached from the trailer, or the water system, which would turn out to be our (read: Jeremiah’s) biggest project.
The first thing we did was take out the furniture pieces we would be replacing: the bed, a cupboard installation, window frames, the bench, and the walls of the shower-tub component (yeah we have a tub!!). Tearing out the shower was a big undertaking and one I wasn’t fully certain of at first. The existing tub and shower were pretty grimy and wobbled around a good bit, making a really unlevel floor. Jeremiah had a correct notion that if he cut out the plastic walls and left the tub portion intact, we could make the whole thing a lot nicer by simply installing fresh, clean tile board and placing shims where the tub was wobbly. Since finding a tiny tub to replace that part seemed like a tough task, that’s what we did. Jeremiah glued on some really nice looking tile board and I scrubbed out the old tub, we put some shims under it for stabilization, we caulked the shit out of all the gaps, and voila– new bathroom. At the time we didn’t know that it would be the easiest of our plumbing projects.
Next we started working on a new bed. The contraption that was there before was pretty simple: two pieces of thick mattress foam (in their original plaid/wool casing from 1978) that stacked to be a couch or slid out to be a bed. The mechanism was very simple: as a couch, the pads sat stacked on top of a 2-foot-by-7-foot bench. To become a bed, the bench slid about three feet forward and exposed a set of wooden supports, allowing each mattress pad to fit one next to the other. It was all staples and ply wood; not actually the worst functional design, but not super sturdy. So we ripped all that out and started from scratch. There were a few parameters to consider in creating a new bed: we wanted it to double as a couch, it needed to fit two of us comfortably, and it had to work around and allow easy access to the water tank and pump, which it sits on top of.
As it turns out, when you’re really looking for something you need, it shows up! After a few days of design ideas and trying to figure out how to make this bed, someone who lives on our block threw out a fully functioning, hardly-used queen size Ikea bed frame. Wut!? As I am the queen of alleyway trash treasure hunting, I snatched it up immediately and got to designing around that. I had to cut it in half length-wise to make two separate, moveable pieces and shave off about seven inches of width for the frame to fit in the space. This entailed taking the thirty separate wooden slats that comprised the frame and shaving them down individually. I had never used an electric saw before and was pretty positive I would manage to chop off my fingers tout de suite, but luckily that didn’t happen and I was left with thirty pieces of wood that were about 18 inches long. Ish. Most of them. Then I put door hinges between the two individually cut halves of the frame so it could fold.
It took me three tries to put the hinges on correctly to allow folding in the right direction. Mind you, hinges only work in two directions, so I had done it right, thought I was wrong, undid it, redid it wrong, and had to redo it right again. This was a recurring pattern in many of my personal trailer projects. One thing I learned about myself vs. Jeremiah through all this: he is a planner, I am a do-er. His projects were often done right in one shot after much research and thoughtful analysis. I usually just threw some shit together and saw if it worked out or not. I’ve made it this far, I will probably never change.
After finally reassembling the frame, it magically fit perfectly in the space. Since I didn’t have any futon hardware, I had to figure out how to make it slide up and down easily enough. I made a latching mechanism out of deadbolts so it would stay upright, which was fairly easy. Then I bought some hardware for sliding kitchen drawers that I manipulated to allow the bed to slide forward into a couch. That one took a few trips to Home Depot, but the end result is a pretty well-functioning and sturdy futon. The design still isn’t flawless, but it gets the job done. And I think it cost like twelve dollars.
Meanwhile, Jeremiah re-built the sitting area. The previous owner didn’t have a ton of extra storage space and hadn’t had a kitchen table. So we designed a seating area that incorporated bench seats which doubled as storage and a table which lowers down to double as a second bed. This all had to fit on top of a wheel well, our electrical box, and about seven feet of water pipes. Since all of our furnishings had to be so custom to each individual purpose and available space, we just designed it all ourselves to fit our needs. The storage benches were pretty straighforward: Jeremiah protected the water pipes with a casing made of 2x4s which forms a foot rest along the bottom, then enclosed the other sensitive equipment and built hollow benches on top of that, which have hinged lids that open and close to store a really good deal of our stuff. Then we added a table that we designed to lower down to the level of the benches in order to form a guest bed platform. Figuring out how to lower the table was a fun brainstorming project, and after a bunch of bad ideas we went to IKEA to see if we could find some inspiration. We wound up buying three height-adjustable tiny desks just so we could take off and use the legs as legs for our table to move up and down. It worked beautifully, and we now have a custom dining area that converts into another sleeping space.
The final major project was our plumbing system. In reality, Jeremiah had continually worked on the plumbing during all of our other construction since so much of the piping had to be under other built-in furnishings. I was still guiding, so I wasn’t home for the majority of that work. But Jeremiah took it on like a champ and would update me regularly on his progress. Our water pump worked, but water leaked in three or four different places throughout the camper. Digging out and replacing or patching those leaky pipes took a lot of time and a lot of trips to Home Depot. The existing piping was made of copper in places and actually designed for carrying gas, not water, so it was really difficult to work with or maneuver. In other places, it was the original steel lines that were really tough to cut through and patch because the sizing and layout was so custom to the trailer. It was always hard to find the exact right part because nothing in the trailer seemed to be standard issue parts you could find at a hardware store. But after weeks and weeks of patching and replacing pipes, Jeremiah finally called in early October with the news that the plumbing worked! We had running water in our two sinks, toilet and shower and no more leaks.
With things in a really good place and winter in Denver on the way, we decided to winterize and close up shop until the spring. This meant covering the trailer in a tarp, sealing it up as much as possible, and of course flushing all the water out of the pipes so they wouldn’t freeze and burst. We asked a neighbor who was a veteran RVer how to do it and he loaned us his air compressor to flush everything out. We ran all the water out of the pipes and blew air for several minutes so we could be sure the plumbing system was empty and would still work in the spring.
Fast forward to early April 2017: Denver had had a pretty mild winter and spring came rather early, so when I was done guiding in Costa Rica we decided to get back to work and finish our home. There was still a good deal of painting and interior work to do and with me having a few weeks off , we planned to get it done fast. We plugged the RV back in, filled up the water tank, and started to get everything running again. And that’s when we realized we hadn’t flushed the pipes correctly. Despite the weeks of work and money we had invested into fixing the plumbing, the pipes had still had just enough water left in them over winter to freeze and destroy several huge chunks of our water system. It is absolutely insane what ice can do to pipes. We were looking at inch-long gashes in copper piping, completely cracked steel joints, and previously replaced parts that were now absolutely useless. It was devastating. All that prior work had been for nothing.
But what choice did we have except to fix it and keep moving? So we got back to work. Accessing the burst pipes meant tearing out a good deal of our custom installation furniture, removing the entire heating unit, and digging out a huge area of our electrical box to access pipes below it. In addition to being really hard work, Denver weather threw curve balls along the entire way. “Spring” in Denver just means more sun among a good deal of freezing and snow. To avoid bursting our pipes all over again while we were in the process of fixing them, we ran space heaters in the RV overnight. We scoured Home Depot for replacement parts that were incredibly hard to come by. Jeremiah sawed off broken bits of pipe and joints that had rusted into place over 40 years. It was so frustrating and difficult, but eventually we got it done. After another month of work, our plumbing was back up, leak-free and stronger than ever.
In addition to the big projects, we had renovated the interior completely. We built new window frames and screens, repaired ceiling damage from a hail storm, installed new drawer pulls and closures, made all magnetic everything for stable storage, hand-sewed the torn awning, reupholstered the bed mattresses, adjusted the interior lighting, completely redid the decor, and painted the entire interior. Painting 150 square feet might not sound like a big deal, but that project took longer than any of the others. There were just so many nooks and crannies. Our paint cans froze over winter as well, and then the new color didn’t quite match the old one, so new layers had to be done…. it was its own shitshow. But again, we got it done.
When all was said and done, it took us a little less than a year (including the gap over winter) and almost exactly our $5,000 budget to buy and refurbish our little tiny house. We also got a generator for off-grid electricity, a wifi hotspot for internet access, and all kinds of dishes and storage tools to make our house feel like a functioning home. We wanted the trailer to feel like a normal living space as much as possible, and it does. I can tell you today that after a solid week of living on the road (that update is to come soon on the blog!), we are comfortable and happy. We are learning how much water, electricity, and propane we use. We are learning what roads we can and can’t drive up. We are learning that this house is an ongoing project and the to-do lists keep coming. But we love it so far. We don’t have any itinerary and that is perfect. Just learning to live on a little less and live a little more simply is already its own worthwhile adventure. I plan to update the blog as often as possible (I thought I might get bored living in a trailer and have lots of time to write, but it hasn’t happened that way yet!), so check back for updates. In the meantime, me and J will be exploring Colorado and thinking about where to go next.