Sunday, December 15, 2019

Creating functional art... building the camper of my dreams - anyone can do it!!!

First and foremost, I love sharing things like this with ya'll - my favorite joy in life is how we all create, invent then inspire each other!  This post is of my experience full-timing in an RV, learning what I thought was needed in a camper, then building my own small house that fits in the back of my truck.

Nelly, my 1989 Toyota 4x4 motorhome, was passed on to new owners in October of 2019.  It was a bittersweet day.  The new owners are fantastic folks, have owned several Toyota motorhomes, and are going to refurbish Nelly... so it was awesome seeing Nelly go to a good home.  Gotta say it was pretty emotional watching that camper drive away from my cabin... 7 years of full-timing in ole' Nelly completely changed my life for the better.  I met most of my best friends and was able to truly grow into myself during that time period, and for that I'm grateful.

Part of the inspiration behind selling Nelly was to free up some cash to help build my main cabin in Girdwood this coming summer (my old man, Erin, a couple of buddies and myself built the rental cabin last summer).  But perhaps the main inspiration in passing Nelly on was to design, build and create my own slide-in truck bed camper.  I knew it would be a ton of work to do it properly and to make it suit every need I desired in a camper... all while keeping the camper small enough to slide into the truck bed of a classic 1996 Ford F350 diesel pickup.

I spent about a month planning and sketching out the design.  I basically took the exact measurements of my truck bed and designed the frame to fit perfectly (within 1/2 an inch) within the bed.  I knew I did not want an overhead cab.  My experience with overhead cab versus non-overhead cab campers has been that:
1) They get horrible gas mileage.
2) The wind blows you around much worse.
3) Frost heaves/dips in the road cause the truck/camper to bounce hard.
4) They weight a lot more.

I figured the only thing I'll miss is just being able to "jump" into bed/not set a bed up.  Other than that, I was sold on the non-cab over for aerodynamics, lighter weight, better gas mileage, more maneuverability and better handling.

Here's a couple of pics of the final project after I finished, SUPER STOKED how it turned out and fits in the truck with 1/4 inch to spare on both sides, perfect:^)  The truck carries the weight easy and handles completely fine, I still have to weight the truck with and without the camper on, but I'm guessing it's around 1,800 to 2,000 pounds.  Even gas mileage is almost the same as before!  You can stand up inside (6'3 in the kitchen where you actually need to stand and 5' at the front of the house (where you're sitting anyways).

Once I figured out the camper dimensions I had to work with I began designing the lay-out of the interior of the camper.  After full-timing quite a while in Nelly, I knew exactly what I was looking for in a truck camper.

I knew I wanted enough room for 5 or 6 people to hang out comfortably in the camper, which means I needed to fit 2 full-size couches in the camper.  One couch would "flip out" into a bed for 2 people, and the other couch would be wide enough to sleep the 3rd person.  This was challenging to fit 2 full-size sofas in an 8 ft truck bed, along with toilet, oven, wood stove, propane furnace, TV, refrigerator and sink, but I knew I could be done.  I also wanted to be able to tow snowmachines/ATV's behind the truck, so I had to make sure the back porch was short enough to not hit the trailer corners when turning sharp.  I created a list of what I wanted in the 8 ft. space, the next pictures show each phase after I completely finished it:

1) 2 full-sized couches for a super comfy place to hang out in for up to 6 people, that fold into a place to sleep 3 people comfortably.

2) A wood stove for the primary source of heat and a propane furnace for quick/backup heat.
3) A toilet (sometimes you gotta go when there's no bathroom around in the middle of the city).

4) An range with an oven for warming up food/baking lazy frozen pre-packaged lasanga style meals after a long day skiing:^)
5) A simple hand-pump and removable water jug setup for "running water", even in the winter.

6) A TV/DVD player to veg out on rainy/down days and USB charging stations/phone holder.

7)  A 12 volt super efficient refrigerator/freezer to store food and cold beer.

8) A solar panel to keep the house battery charged.

9) A roofed front porch with a couple of storage seats" to store firewood, dry out wet kayaking gear, and pick a banjo outside under pouring rain.

10) A strong and stout camper that can hold up to Alaska's rough roads (even the paved roads in AK are worse than anywhere in the states, potholes, frost heaves, pavements breaks vibrate/tear campers apart up here).

Full-timing in the winter taught me a couple extremely important topics to pay attention to in a camper, which I also incorporated into my new camper design:

1) STRENGH! Most campers are made of 1x1 inch sticks of wood, glued and stapled together with industrial staples.  This is great for making the camper light, but start hitting a bunch of potholes and frost heaves/bounces and you watch your camper disintegrate into a wavy pile of toothpicks.

I wanted this camper to be strong, stout and actually last for a long time, potholes or no potholes.  I tried to keep it as light as possible, and went for the best balance of strength and weight.  I used wood because wood does not conduct as much as steel (steel/aluminum frames "sweat" when it's cold outside and warm inside your camper... which means condensation... which means mold inside your camper walls.

I used wood to keep the condensation to a minimum, and because I know how to work with wood.  I used 2x4's on the "lower half" of the camper and on the corners to keep things strong and stout, 2x2s for the wall/window framing, a 2x4 for the roof ridge beam, and 2x3's for the roof rafters.

It took FOREVER, but I decided to use screws instead of nails... screws bite and hold, nails will vibrate while driving and pull out.  To accomplish this, I used a Kreg jig and drilled out pocket holes for almost every single screw I used, took a long time, but made it STRONG.  After that, I used 1 1/4" deep x 1" wide industrial staples and stapled the wood together everywhere.  I think it will hold up very well now over time, even with bad road vibration/potholes/etc.

1) INSULATE INSULATE INSULATE!  I wasn't messing around this time.  It's amazing how drafty campers are when it's super cold outside.  I knew I had to keep this new camper design insulated and airtight as possible, so I decided to spray foam the interior (and just stuck with R-13 insulation for the floor stuffed in between the 2x4 floor joists).

I spent a little extra cash and bought acrylic RV windows, which are double-glazed and insulated.  I wanted to originally use double-pane windows like you see in any house... HOWEVER the vibration of driving down the road shakes the argon gas (which is in between the double pane glass), then the argon gas escapes, then your window will permanently have condensation in between the glass... so I knew I could not get double panes, and I also knew how cold single pane windows are after full-timing in Nelly... so acrylic insulated thermoplastic windows it was!

2) WATERPROOF EVERYTHING!  Water damage and mold is a serious issue.  I knew I had to keep the water out of this new camper from some water damage repairs I did to Nelly in the past.  I decided to Tyvek house wrap the frame of the new camper (1st layer of defense, breathable and waterproof similar to Gore-tex).  I had to staple the Tyvek directly to the frame of the house, adding a layer of plywood sheathing just to mount the Tyvek to would make the camper too heavy.

Then I laid down Grace Ice & Watershield rubberized matting to waterproof the roof, it's awesome stuff!  I DID NOT vent the roof like a standard house, because I want the roof watertight when driving around in the rain ( a roof fan and cracking the windows would be my ventilation solution).

Finally I decided to do a steep metal roof design (6/12 pitch) so the roof instantly sheds water off... this is essential to keep water damage at a minimum, especially since I live in a temperate rain forest.  I spaced the metal roofing screws 6 inches apart (as opposed to the normal 2 feet apart) so that the wind would not rip off the metal roofing driving down the highway with a strong wind gusts.

I sealed all the seams carefully with a high-quality silicone to keep water out.  Windows were double-sealed with butyl tape and silicon adhesive.  I water sealed the outside wood, then varnished with Captains Varnish, awesome stuff that creates a "gel coat shell" (same stuff used o wooden sailboats).   I also used roll-on truckbed liner for the bottom floor plywood and subfloor sides.

3) CONDENSATION!  Especially in cold climates, condensation is a major issue.  I designed this new camper to keep condensation at a minimum by:

1) Installing a wood stove to "bake out" condensation... a propane furnace won't do that at all (in fact it adds to the problem).

2) Install a MaxxAir powered ceiling vent fan... at night, the vent can be
barely opened to allow condensation from breathing to escape and not soak the roof/walls.  Also, you can turn the fan on when cooking with the oven/range to pull condensation out of the camper.  I stacked butyl tape to seal the "valleys" of the metal roof where the Maxair fan sits on top of the ridges.

3) The last line of defense was coating all my cedar wood interior with a high-quality polyurethane, so that any condensation present will just "bead up" on the surface of the wood, instead of passing through the wood and getting trapped behind the wall.


Overall, it was an incredibly fun project (and learning experience) building my first truck camper.  I'm super stoked with how it turned out and it's a great feeling getting to design, build and create something with a little bit of thinking and a little bit of sweat.  I hope that this is shared amongst all you awesome people and you find some sort of inspiration to do whatever you have ever wanted to do!  Happy travels everyone and see you on the road!

Timmy J.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Life on the road: Battle of the Dream

Nelly somewhere at the foothills of the Chugach Mtns (home base), Anchorage, Alaska
I’m sure van-life / camper-life people blog for all kinds of reasons.  Personally, I like to share my experiences because it may spark inspiration in those around me to get up and do what is meaningful to them in their life, and it makes me happy to see people living true to themselves.

The reality of living in a 105 sq ft space... storage.
Living in your car or living in your house… what difference does it make?  Happiness.  That’s what it all comes down to.  What makes you happy?
Freedom? Security? Mystery? Comfort?
Chances are, if you feel like I do, you want it all… in fact, I’m pretty sure you do want it all… after all, the one guarantee in life is not death and taxes, it is “need.”

The night you & a buddy were incidentally wearing the same thing...
Now, you can attempt your best at following the ways of Buddha, making your highest purpose the lack of “need.”  Or… you can just live your own truth, do what makes you feel good in your life and immerse yourself in the passions that drive you and feed your soul.  IF you grow old, you won’t regret your path if you have listened to your heart and filled your life with meaningful experiences that matter to you and those around you.  A man once said “the greatest currency we have is the effect we have on others.”

What makes me happy is sharing meaningful experiences, adventures and passions with others. I have found living full-time on the road has lead to more opportunities to fulfill my happiness, and in turn, that happiness has passed on to those around me.  To those that are considering life on the road, whether living full-time in a van, car or camper, I encourage you to ask yourself… will this help you live your dream?  If so, then go for it!

High in the Talkeetna Mtns, sled-skiing a new zone.

You all have seen the "tiny home/living in a van/life on the road" blogs all over the internet, especially the last few years, that are saturated with posts glorifying life on the road… it’s not all glory, it’s not always clean or easy, there’s no guarantees and it's not for everyone.  You might even feel a bit discouraged when the police knock on your door and ask you to move on (which has only happened to me 4 times the last 5 years of full-timing)… but it’s not all that bad and the benefits far outweigh any moments of uncertainty.  And yes, you do wind up in amazing locations with awesome people.

Once a week all summer... a spin jam on the downtown Anchorage park strip, great place meet and practice.
As much as I want property and want to build a small cabin, I want the open road and the freedom of debt.  The cabin would represent security and comfort, but also comes with a hefty price… a debt that could prevent you from following your dreams.  On the other hand, life on the road allows you the freedom from debt to follow your dreams, but won’t provide the same level of security and comfort as owning your own property.  The question is… How can you live on the road and also have security and comfort?  My answer to that question… No one knows, it’s all about the mystery of happiness!

Monday, November 7, 2016

The 5th Alaskan winter full-timing off-grid and on the road … a few tips for successfully pulling it of.

 This past fall, I had full intentions of building a small log cabin up on Flattop, right at the edge of Chugach State Park.  The property was a total steal and the view was worth a million bucks, but after surveying the land, shooting grades and elevations with my old man, and meeting up several times with the excavator, I realized the land was just too steep to be accessible by vehicles in the winter, which is a no go for me. 

So… here’s to a 5th winter living full-time in the little Toyota motorhome in Alaska!

     I have been lucky over the years to have an exorbitant amount of friends offer couches to sleep on or driveways to park in.  However, I think one of the most rewarding parts to full-timing without a dedicated parking space is the creativity and technique involved with finding places to spend the night without using friend’s resources.  It’s a cool feeling to survive without depending on the use of anyone’s offered space… doing so truly makes me feel like I have a “home everywhere” despite others’ perception that perhaps I’m lost on wheels with no place to stay.  However, I’d like to thank everyone (you know who you are) in the past that have offered/shared their space with me.  In 5 years I have not paid for parking or “camping” a single night.  I feel like I will do nearly anything to not pay a dime to sleep on this earth.  It astonishes me how many people pay 40+ dollars to park their motorhome somewhere for a night.  There are so many places to not spend a cent if you just do some research.

Here are some of my personal tips to successfully full-timing without a dedicated parking space:

1)    NEVER sleep in the same spot 2 nights in a row.  I always move on early the next morning.

2)    DON’T ARRIVE at your “spot” until late in the evening/night.  If you get there at 4:00pm in the afternoon and sit around all day, everyone will see your camper sitting there all day and you have a much higher chance of getting “called-in.”  Go watch some live music, have some coffee/tea in a coffee shop, read in the book store, dinner with friends, just don't park too early in your "spot."

3)    When you move in the morning… STAY in your camper when you leave.  Don’t open the door and walk around to your driver’s side door to drive away… this increases the odds that you will run into conflict since there are no longer walls between you and the outside world.

4)    Sit down, pull out a map of your city, and make a LIST of the places you can stay and ROTATE these places.  When I open my closet door, I have a list of 70+ places I can stay written down on a paper taped up to the inside of the door.  This means I don’t have to think about where to stay.  I simply check out my list and find the closest “spot” to where I’m currently located and there you have it, good to go! Also, make sure to adhere to rule #1 and never stay in the same spot 2 nights in a row… in fact, I never stay in the same spot within a 2 week period as a rule of thumb, it’s worked really well.

5)    Get a porta-potty! You can go to Cabelas, Sportsman’s Warehouse, and several other places and buy yourself a sweet, flushing, mini-portapotty for $80.  Then you literally have a bathroom in the winter that doesn’t need plumbing and there are free places to legally and sanitarily “dump” all around town.  There’s nothing that will get overnight camping spots shut down quicker than someone using the parking lot or camping spot as a bathroom and leaving it there.

6)    Keep your camper looking good!  If you have black garbage bags and foil all over your windows, NEWS-FLASH… you probably look sketchy to most people, so clean that stuff up and make your camper look respectable, you won’t have half the issues.

7)    Go do things OUT-OF-TOWN on the weekends.  If you’re moving around to other towns on the weekends or recreating in the woods, that’s a few days a week where no one in the city is seeing your RV.

8)    DON’T use a generator.  If you have a generator running, EVERYONE knows you are home. 

     Speaking of generators, one bit of advice for other full-timers out there… trade in your generator for some solar panels and a wood stove.  Generators are annoying and they aren’t necessary.  I have one, single deep cycle battery that powers all of my lights, TV, fridge, and can charge appliances.  This single deep cycle battery is charged by only 60 watts of solar panels (two 30 watt panels) and the engine’s alternator since I drive around every day.  The primary battery draining feature in any RV is the propane furnace, so if you can eliminate using the propane furnace, you can eliminate your overall need for on-grid electricity.

That's about it folks, see you on the road!