First-term President Bill Clinton is the focus of the Whitewater loan fraud scandal. Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me” tops the Billboard charts. The Dow Jones Industrial Average sits around 5,600, up 183% since the Black Monday crash of October ’87. Rent opens on Broadway. Greg Norman collapses in the final round of the Masters. Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls are dominating the 1995-96 NBA season.
And at a manufacturing plant in Windsor, Ontario, another automobile rolls off the assembly line: a sleek, stunning 1996 Dodge Caravan.
I know what you’re thinking:
“Wow, if only I could go back in time to experience the luxury and glamor of such a phenomenal automobile.”
Regardless, as it turns out, you can still experience the distinctive comforts of the 1996 Dodge Caravan today. As we mentioned in our introduction, one of the many dreams we have for The Resume Gap is to throw a bed in the back of a minivan and drive it across North (and maybe even Central and South) America.
And we’re doing exactly that. Living out every Millennial’s dream of having a two-decades-old minivan, yours truly is now the proud new owner of the 1996 Motor Trend Car of the Year. In just a few months, we’re selling my trusty Subaru (along with most everything else) to travel the continent in one of these:
All jokes aside, I’m remarkably excited about the prospect of owning and living in this ancient monstrosity. We considered many options for our upcoming road trip, including using my current car (with our tent and other camping gear), buying a camper-conversion Honda Element, or going big with a converted Dodge Sprinter or small RV. The Caravan, though, met all our criteria for the type of travel we want to do:
- Sleeping space: The van has just enough room to sleep two people comfortably, with a full size mattress just barely fitting on the floor. This, along with the insulation from inclement weather, ruled out taking the car and tent-camping (though we still plan to bring camping gear).
- Maneuverability: Though it feels gigantic to me after driving a little sedan for years, the van is small enough to get around a major city or park in an urban parking garage with ease. This ruled out anything larger than the Sprinter, though I probably wouldn’t want to be parallel parking one of those in downtown San Francisco.
- Inconspicuousness: We wanted something “normal” enough to park in a neighborhood and stealth camp for a night without attracting the attention of Gladys Kravitz and the Neighborhood Watch. This ruled out the pop-top E-Campers – and the Sprinter, to a lesser extent.
- Affordability: With a price tag of $1,800, fuel economy of 26 highway miles per gallon (~9 liters per 100 kilometers), and a laughably low insurance premium, the minivan is hard to beat. If road-tripping were our only travel plan for the next couple years, this would have been less of a concern. But given that we might use it for a handful of months and then take off for some foreign destination, I didn’t want to sink tens of thousands of dollars into a vehicle. Much better to have that money invested elsewhere generating dividends and growth. And if at some point along the way (whether in Alaska, Arizona, or Argentina) we decide we just can’t do any more van travel, I’d be fine selling it for next to nothing and catching the first flight home.
It certainly helped our confidence knowing that we’re not first to attempt this. Exploring Alternatives’ Mat and Danielle (not our Canadian alter-egos, contrary to popular belief) have been traveling for over a year now in a Ford E-150 conversion van. Tamara and Chris from Nomads with a Van are living the dream in a red Kia Sedona. Glenn of To Simplify spends most of the year in a 1988 Volkswagen Vanagon. And I just recently discovered Amanda and Travis, who are now driving Bruno, their 2000 Toyota 4Runner, from Costa Rica to Nova Scotia.
With the help of my crafty and construction-minded family, we’ve made a few additions to the van to allow for comfortable long-term travel:
- Mattress and storage platform: Once we had the van, this was the only major strategic decision we had to make about the interior: mattress on top of storage, or storage above mattress? We’ve gone against the norm here, putting the mattress on the floor and building a storage platform above it with a piece of 0.75” plywood, some PVC pipes, and a $9 piece of carpet. Having the mattress on the floor leaves plenty of headroom to sit up comfortably in the back of the van.
- Window shades and curtain: While we don’t plan to spend a ton of time “stealth” camping (we’ll mostly stay with friends and family or in hotels and AirBnb units when in cities), we’ve prepared for it with custom-cut blackout window shades (made from reflective windshield sun shades) and a black curtain that hangs just behind the driver’s seat.
- Magnetic mosquito netting: When camping in warmer destinations, we’d like to be able to leave the windows and back hatch open overnight without being eaten alive. We’ve made mosquito netting with small magnets that cling to the exterior of the vehicle.
We had our first trial run with the van earlier this fall. With enough food and camping gear for two nights, we left town on a Friday afternoon and drove to a National Forest campground near Mt. Adams, an area home to over a million acres of forests, mountains, and wilderness. Admittedly, I was nervous. I’ve fantasized about the van life dream for years now. Would it live up to expectations? Would it even be tolerable?
By Saturday morning, I had my answer. I slept for almost eleven hours. It was the best night of sleep I’d had in months. Camping in the van was unbelievably easy (next to nothing to set up), comfortable, and relatively warm, considering that it got down to near-freezing overnight. It’s official: I’m a #vanlife convert.
This spring, we’re planning to take off in the van and head south – likely to Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. We’re considering driving to Alaska come summer, including possibly taking the Inside Passage ferry and then driving back through British Columbia.
Experienced van travelers, any tips and tricks? Helpful gear we should have? We want to hear from you!