When Your Overland Vehicle Becomes Your Home
Words and Photos by Jorge & Jessica Gonzalez
After three years of living on the road, multiple purges of the items that we carry, and a constant refinement of what we currently have, we think it’s safe to say that we kind of have a handle on what it means to travel light in our overland vehicle. We want to share with you our approach, some of the questions we ask ourselves regarding what stays and what goes, and some of the products we use that help us stay sane and organized in a small space.
We went from living in a 2,500sq.ft. townhouse to living in an 80sq.ft. van and we’ve learned a lot about our needs, our wants, and our priorities along the way. Sure, having a 60 inch flat screen TV to watch Monday Night Football or binge watch Game of Thrones is awesome, but living in a small space demands sacrifices.
So, that blender, the nice washer and dryer, the Sleep Number bed, the art hanging on your wall, the love seat, and boxes in the attic filled with memories have to take a back seat if your desire is to live on the road for any extended amount of time. Plus, all those things would probably break on the trail.
What follows is a practical synopsis of how to simplify. This post will be short on commentary about “minimizing one’s footprint”, “small is beautiful” and other en vogue notions that too often shoehorn an ideology into overlanding. Our advice is not to use a rock as a pillow or to brush your teeth with tree bark. If granola is your thing, grab yourself a Cliff Bar ‘cause that’s pretty much the only granola you’ll be encountering here.
Let’s make this as simple as possible: You need food, a way to cook it, water, some shelter and a way to stay warm. One of us is a former Infantryman and we assure you that other than a rifle and a few other combat essential things, our needs as humans are quite spartan. Luckily, we’re packing a vehicle for overlanding and not a rucksack for field exercises so we can carry a considerable amount more. The amount you ultimately carry will vary greatly depending on the vehicle and the length of your journey.
Because we live on the road full time, we will be writing from a perspective that takes into account long term functionality and efficiency. Feel free to subtract or substitute based on your needs and vehicle space.
At this point, it’s a good idea to start making a list. It’s helpful to divide the things you’re bringing along into categories such as Clothing, Cooking, Cleaning, Sleeping, Tools, Leisure, and if you’ll be working from your vehicle, Work. Once you’ve compiled a list or perhaps gathered all these items on the floor in your living room, assign a value to each: Must-Have, Nice-to-Have, and Luxury. Go ahead and set those luxuries aside for later. Now, take your Nice-to-Haves and try to cut them in half.
No really, half ‘em. Now, those Must-Haves, take a hard look at each one and ask yourself the following questions:
Is it cost effective?
Is it light weight?
Does it work or is it some gimmick?
What’s the quality/will it last?
Is there a better option that can do the same thing?
Is there room?
Can I live with out it?
Chances are if it’s not food, water, or shelter, then you can live without it (unless it’s a vehicle specific tool) and if that’s the case, go ahead and move that into the Nice-to-Have pile.
Once you feel like you have a good handle on what you’re taking with you, these are the questions we like to ask regarding efficiency:
Does the item have more than one use?
Can you nest it?
Could it be compressed?
Can it be rolled, strapped, stuffed into something else or stored outside?
Space is at a premium so priority is generally given to items that meet at least one of the criteria mentioned above to make our use of space as efficient as possible.
Another thing to think about is how you will pack your vehicle and what you will put where. Think first about accessibility.
How often throughout each day will you be accessing that particular item?
How important is it that that item be near the top or near the bottom or somewhere in-between?
Is it a daily, weekly, or seasonal item?
Example: We access our camera on a regular basis so it’s kept within arms reach at all times, but our winter coats stay tucked away until it’s time to fish them out of whatever recessed abyss they happen to be stuffed.
Overpacking leads to being overweight. Overweight leads to worn or broken parts on your vehicle. Overpacking also leads to clutter, frustration, and inefficiency. Being able to get to things you use often quickly will make your life on the road substantially less frustrating. Live by the credo: Everything Has a Place. Stick to that like white on rice. Look back through your list and ask:
Is this is the lightest possible item available for this purpose?
Here are some items we have found to make life easier on the road, maybe these can inspire you to find some of your own. This list is by no means exhaustive because we’re simply not going to bore you with every little gadget and doo-dad in our vehicle but we think it might help you start thinking creatively about how and what to pack.
Look at yourself in the mirror. Is Kim Kardashian staring back at you? I didn’t think so. Now that you know that, prepare to cut way back on your wardrobe. When overlanding, wearing the same clothes for a week or..dare I say…two, happens. You ain’t out to impress anybody with your fancy clothes combo so cut way back on all those precious garments. Dirtbag is the New Black.
We used to have a walk-in closet full of clothes, now our clothes fit into a carry on bag. Versatility and functionality are the key. Carry clothes that layer or work as a system so when combined can function in cold weather or be used alone in warmer weather.
We pack all of our clothes into packing cubes. Why? Because packing cubes compress bulky clothes into cubes that are easy to organize and fit into tight spaces. Think of them like legos only with clothes inside them and less devastating were you step on them barefooted.
Something we’ve learned in our time on the road is to find clothes that are multi-purpose, look fly, and can pack well. Jorge uses these pants from NorthFace exclusively. They are great for hiking, walking around a city, wearing to work when we have to go into an office to perform our duties, and they can become shorts which means hot days are less hot because pant-leg-air-conditioning. Oh, and you can also use them as swim trunks. Boom. These are pretty much the unicorns of the trouser world.
We pack t-shirts as well. Probably 3 or 4 a piece. Roll these puppies and save space. No really, rolling instead of folding saves huge amounts of space in the packing cubes. Do it.
As far as shoes we both carry four or five pairs of them. Jorge has one pair of flip flops for summer gallivanting and showers in unspeakably gross places, one pair of high top Chucks that are pretty much the definition of sex appeal, a set of water shoes for walking in the ocean and creeks and rivers oh my, and one pair of hiking shoes in the event we’re feeling froggy enough to take a walk in the wild.
Jessica also carries flip flops which means her toes are always perfectly pedicured, she has a pair of boots made for walking, a pair of trail running shoes that double as hiking shoes, water shoes for rivers, creeks, the ocean etc and then one pair of Chucks ‘cause she’s a straight baller. We kind of have a lot of shoes. You could probably get away with flip flops and a sturdy pair of hiking/running shoes. We just like footwear though so…yeah, we go a little overboard on it.
Being that we’re on the road full time we also carry a little bit of winter clothes. When your house is on four wheels you can mostly avoid the cold but from time to time we like to check in with Father Winter and see what’s crackin’ (usually our lips), in which case we both have a heavy winter coat and some Long-Juans™ (the hispanic version of long-johns). We manage to pack those into a pretty small space as well. We like the NorthFace jackets because they compress down into small ball of cute space savings.
Nesting pots, a spatula, some tongs, a knife, and a stove of some sort. Our fine friends at Overland Bound sell the skottle but other options abound. We’ve had good luck with stoves from Coleman. Currently our rig has a built in stove which makes our rig pretty much cooler than Vanilla Ice in 1990.
The nesting pots have been a godsend meaning they take up very little space and have been up to the task for 3 whole years of overlanding. These pots are teflon coated and some of our compadres on the road don’t dig on teflon because cancer but we’re immune to all forms of weakness so we use these pots to show off our super natural resilience. Also, we can store bowls inside the nesting pots thus saving even more real estate.
Real talk though, teflon is fine (so we say. no we are not going to argue about it) but if you want to use a cast iron skillet because you like the baked in flavors of left over food and grease then get the smallest one you think will work.
Oh, and get one cutting board. We like wooden ones because they look like we have class and they are lightweight, but you can find uber thin plastic cutting boards that take up less space, weigh less and have less class.
Check it out, we use store bought real cleaners you get from Walmart and not the Trader Joes or Whole Foods crap that is pretty much scented water in a bottle made from mud and polar bear dreams. Specifically our main go-to cleaner is the Windex MultiSurface cleaner. It cleans windows, dog poo, grease after cooking two pounds of bacon, and it wipes away sadness caused by seeing too many forest road gates closed. One bottle to rule them all. Take that Sauron.
Other cleaners we use are bio-degradable dish washing soap from Mrs Meyers that’s safe enough to feed to a baby seal* and brake cleaner when things go terribly wrong with the vehicle. We’ve heard brake cleaner is the safest product known to man. We aren’t sure that’s entirely true because after each use we seem to die a little bit on the inside. Use sparingly.
*Don’t feed soap to baby seals. They don’t like it. Fact.
Minimal is better, but many folks including ourselves like to splurge on space a bit in the sleeping department. We use full size pillows, blankets, and foam mattress toppers because we can spare the space. But others choose to use sleeping bags and inflatable pillows. Go with whatever option works in your space and affords you the good night’s sleep you need on a regular basis. Our good friends over @Bound.For.Nowhere were genius’ and just cut their fancy memory foam pillows in half to save space AND keep it comfortable. Sleeping is awesome, make it comfortable. Feel free to use that line if you’re in advertising.
Because we overland full time, we carry an ungodly amount of tools, each of which has thus far come in handy, mind you. In our opinion, carry tools that can change a CV, a belt, and a hose. Beyond that we think it depends on your vehicle and where you’re going. If you’re in a VW Vanagon, consider having a mechanic on retainer to live with you. If you have a Toyota, you probably have no idea what the engine compartment looks like because you’ve never had to open the bonnet.
Here’s another pro-tip: Use a tool roll. It’s tempting to get a tool bag but we have found after 3 years of tool bags that a tool roll or two saves an inordinate amount of space. Something else we do is we have a little bag that contains often-used tools like screwdrivers, allan wrenches, an adjustable wrench and a cutting tool. That bag lives in a different more easily accessible place than our “oh shit” tool rolls. Also, consider having a multimeter. Buy a good one. Don’t skimp on that.
Do you have a hobby like photography, drawing, knitting, or fishing that you’d like to pursue while on the road? You’ll need to plan for space for these items. Ask yourself all the same questions you did before with your essential items. Is there space? Is there something smaller or lighter that would work just as well? How often will I need to access these items?
We like to read and we used to carry a stupid number of books with us. Now we have switched to using the kindle app on our Apple device and have nearly unlimited space for things we want to read. Yes, we still carry some books but it’s vastly fewer than before. Bound books are like the missionary position of consuming content these days but there’s just something about holding a real book in your hand, ya know?
We also like to photograph and shoot video meaning we carry an assortments of cameras, mounts, and stands. We have managed to whittle our camera gear down substantially and to find ingenious places around the van to attach accessories using a combination of Quick Fists and velcro straps. Get creative with how you attach things, get even more creative with cutting down on what you take in the first place.
This category will obviously vary widely depending on the type of work you choose to pursue while on the road. That being said, use the same sort of thinking here and ask yourself what is the minimum amount of gear you can get away with and still get the job done. Keep in mind that security is key for valuable items like computers or other valuable gear and you should think about secure storage when building out your rig.
Living on the road doesn’t have to suck but it does require sacrifices. Going from a huge house to a typical overland vehicle like a Syncro or Land Cruiser or Defender is going to entail cutting way back on the stuff you have. That’s totally ok. You decided to hit the road because you’ve reached a crossroads where enjoying vehicle dependent travel is now more important than enjoying a life of flat screen TVs and a Sleep Number Bed. No, there isn’t anything wrong with having things and enjoying them, but if you’re like us, what you happen to be in love with at the moment simply doesn’t include the things one typically fills a house with. If that’s you, welcome to Overlanding. We’ll see you out there.