Our FIDO experts, Melissa and Dr. Sip, interviewed Jordan Winkler, proud owner of Pete the Vanagon, and Madison, an Australian Shepherd, with almost 200K miles and 8 years on the clock, respectively, and friend of Melissa. Jordan spends weeks at a time living in a van with his girlfriend Kate. They asked Jordan to tell us about the pros and cons of Van Life, what they pack to keep van, humans and dog happy and running smoothly on their trips, and more about their adventures. Read it all, below.
Melissa: Hey Jordan! Tell me about Pete: Age, breed, make, model?
Jordan: Pete is a 1987 Volkswagen Vanagon GL Camper with 194,000 miles, 2.1 L water boxer engine. We’ve had Pete for about a year. He gets 22 to 24 mpg (though the odometer did just break). In a few years we’ll put in a Subaru engine which should more than double his power and torque, and will hopefully allow us to go more than 30 mph up hills.
Melissa: You talk a lot about "Van Life” on social media. Can you define it for me? What do you consider Van Life?
Jordan: Well, Kate, Madison and I hop into the van and drive to no destination in particular. We sleep there for a while, hike, enjoy nature, then we come back to the real world.
Dr. Sip: How often do you go out like this?
Jordan: We try to go as much as possible. Currently weekends, so three or four trips a month. Our goal is to stay in the van longer. Our last trip was our longest recorded trip, and that was 15 days. In the future, we’d love to own a home in Boulder, airbnb it, and extend our trips to several months. It’s a long-term goal.
Melissa: I’m sure people have a lot of things to say when they find out you spend your weekends Breaking Bad Season 1 Style, without the meth.
Note: Jordan, Kate and Madison do not appear in this clip.
Jordan: Most people I talk with think it’s cool. They seem attracted to the concept of freedom. People want an escape from a connection to things -- a minimalist lifestyle appeals to them, but the interesting thing is that it’s hard to express the desire to be free without the attachment to the van itself. Ironically, people get attached to the concept of the consumer part -- the van, instead of the freedom it affords us.
Melissa: You talk a lot about freedom and enjoying the space around you. Where do you go?
Jordan: Kate and I don't like campgrounds. They are too overcrowded and we lose the solitude we are looking for. Ninety percent of our camping is on Forest Service Land. Most National Forests have dispersed camping along forest roads. In addition, we also depend on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, and have to know the laws in each state we travel to. In some states, we can camp 300 feet off road on BLM land, and camp for free up to 15 or 16 days. What we gain in solitude we lose in convenience, so no water pump, bathroom, showers, ranger, etc. For us, it’s really worth the tradeoff.
Dr. Sip: So, speaking of showers, and other things...
Jordan: This always comes up. “Where do you shower? Where do you do your business?”
Melissa: Wait -- where DO you shower? And at risk of walking a very fine line in our friendship by posting about your poo on the Internet…
Jordan: We use recreational centers and local YMCAs. We pay around $7 and can take a shower. There are also ways to make a “road shower” with PVC pipe, an air compressor and solar-heated pressure.
In Utah, you can’t dig a hole for your business and cover it. So one would have to bring a receptacle to pack in and pack out. It makes sense -- it’s the desert. It's barren but a more delicate ecosystem. We have to know the laws in each state.
Melissa: Is Pete just a means to set up a campsite or do you actually camp in the van?
Jordan: The top of the camper pops up, the double bed folds down (we call it upstairs) and the seats "downstairs" fold down. There is a working fridge in the van and lots of storage. "Biggest small van than you can get!" We camp in the Vanagon!
Dr. Sip: What is the hardest thing about Van Life?
Jordan: I confess, Kate and I are coffee snobs! We have a Japanese hand grinder so we buy local beans and perc coffee in the van. But it’s harder to get good coffee “just right” in the van.
Dr. Sip: What are the best parts about Van Life?
Jordan: For me, it's the ability to live without a plan, and just have everything I need in the van. Freedom to not being tied to one place. We never have a destination set in stone when we leave home. We pick a general place and make decisions while we go. On our last trip, scheduled for 15 days, Kate made an itinerary -- and we ditched it on the first day! Our original plan was to camp in California but it was too hot, so we went to Oregon instead.
Melissa: And how is Madison? What skills does she need to enjoy Van Life to the fullest? What things do you pack for her?
Jordan: Madison loves hitting the road! To make sure these trips are successful for her and for us requires some training and some planning. Madison knows stay, come, go to couch, get in van, get out of van, and has an impeccable recall. As for what to pack for her, we make sure she has enough water -- we usually leave with no fewer than seven gallons of water (and a purification system). I bring enough food for the planned time to be gone, plus an additional four days (in case of a situation). We bring MuttLuks (boots) for protection and I have an LED flashing light on her collar so I can keep track of her. We watch for any signs of overheating. Of course we bring her first-aid kit -- she has more first-aid stuff than we do.
Dr. Sip: Madson seems well-trained, but how about you-- do you do repairs on the van yourself? And does the Pete have a special packlist as well?
Jordan: I try to do most of my work on the van but it's a learning process. I bought the van with the intention of learning more of this stuff since I've never really done it before. If I need something fast or don't have the space for the repair I'm fortunate to live near a few great shops that specialize in Vanagon repair and I'll take the van there.
I carry a metric toolkit, fuel hoses, clamps, coolant, oil, full-sized spare tire, fuel pump and belts, and of course gorilla tape. All Vanagon owners consider the Bentley Repair Manual an essential purchase (this is the technical service manual meant for pro mechanics) and that goes everywhere with me. I also have a Premium AAA membership in case I need a long tow.
Melissa: Was Madison an influence on this new activity?
Jordan: Being outside is an opportunity to spend time with Madison that gives back to her. It’s an opportunity to tell her that for this period of time, she doesn't have to fit into the human world. I'm not going to leave her alone. We're doing this together. I hate every day that I have to leave her at home. This is a wasted gift every time I walk out the door without my dog. I want her to have this. Van Life was all designed with her in mind. We're going to go to a spot where she can be her. Kate and I would hike anyway, but we go further for Madison. If we decide to eat out somewhere, we look for places where there is a patio and we bring treats for her. She’s along every step of the way.
Dr. Sip: What's the weirdest thing someone has said to you?
Jordan: People haven’t said anything that weird to me. I find that more people are just skeptical with how we can be comfortable in 80 sq. feet. I challenge them to think about how they use their space in their home. They stand up to cook dinner and clean up. They sit to eat, watch TV and read a book. The inevitable question (aside from “where do you poop”) is "How do you stay that close to someone else?" Well -- we have plenty of space to go if we need space. We have the whole outside, and that's infinite!
Melissa: Jordan, thank you so much for talking with us and sharing this with the Car Talk readers!
Dr. Sip: I might not go full Vanagon, but I certainly see the appeal of the freedom it affords! Plus, you have a wicked cool dog who is incredibly lucky to have you!
Jordan: Anytime, ladies! And I think I’m lucky to have both my girls with me wherever I go, seeking bliss in nature.
If you have a question or story idea for Dr. Sip and Melissa, write them at Car Talk Plaza. The weirder the better! More about Melissa (who is a Boston area dog trainer) and Dr. Sip (who is a practicing veterinarian in Berkeley, CA) can be found here.