We Bought a Van

April 1996:

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.

Actual, not-a-joke TV commercial footage

Actual, not-a-joke TV commercial footage

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.”

No?  Oh.

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:

Dodge Caravan

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.
Also on our list: sufficient storage for at least 25 Big Gulps

Also on our criteria list: sufficient storage for at least 25 Big Gulps

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!

24 Comments

  1. That sounds awesome. I would not have thought it could fit a full size mattress! And look at all those cup holders! If you head up to Alaska, do let me know. I would love to meet up or at least give you some tips. 🙂

  2. My mom had a 1990ish Dodge Caravan when I was growing up. I hated it and thought it was hideous haha. Now that I’m part of this great FI/RE community, I think it’s awesome! Can’t wait to read posts about your adventures.

    • That’s too funny. I wouldn’t have been caught dead in this thing a few years ago, but my priorities have definitely changed! And it might even give us a little hipster cred here in the Northwest.

  3. Congrats on the van! Oooh, I wonder if you’ll name it…! Travis & I are happy to be part of your inspiration! After you try your hand around the U.S., we highly recommend Central America. The website http://ioverlander.com/ should give you an idea of all the potential camp sites awaiting you around the world (as well as all the crazy people willing to overland to them!) 🙂 Spring 2016 will be here before you know it.

    • The van absolutely needs a name! Perhaps it will earn one over time.

      I definitely would like to make it to Central America. We wouldn’t have dreamed of driving that far south even a year ago, but so many bloggers we’ve found (including you, most recently!) have given us a lot of confidence and made us eager to explore that part of the world. iOverlander looks like a great resource; thanks for the tip!

  4. This post really makes me want to completely change our post-FIRE strategy, buy a can, and roam the country! Congratulations on the purchase. It’s so nice to hear van life s everything you dreamed it would be. It’s so awesome you have decided to share your story.. This is going to be fun!

    Mrs. Mad Money Monster

    • Haha, we’ll see if we’re as enthusiastic a few months into traveling in an 80 sqft. box! Thanks to the price point of the van, it’s not mutually exclusive with our other FIRE plans 🙂

  5. Congrats! It’s nice to get that ball rolling, isn’t it? The whole #vanlife community is expanding rapidly, and I’m sure you’ll make a whole slew of lifelong friends along the way. A van would be a little tight for my wife and I (and our two dogs), but we might see you out there from our RV in the coming years! 🙂

  6. Congrats on the purchase! I am so excited to be following you along your journey. 🙂

    • Thank you, Claudia! It’s not very often that we celebrate a purchase (particularly among the personal finance community… it’s almost taboo!), but we’re making an exception for this one.

  7. Thank GOD your 25 Big Gulps will have a home! 😉 So awesome that you did this! I think we need pics of your setup. And please keep us posted along the way — we thought we wanted a Sprinter, then decided we wanted a small, lightweight trailer so that we wouldn’t need another internal combustion engine, but I’d love to hear if maybe what we want, after all, is a minivan. We’re still a few years away from deciding, though, so we’ll take all input!

    • We’ll definitely share some more about the setup in the coming months. It will require some minimalist packing habits, and it doesn’t have all the luxuries of a modified Sprinter (like a bathroom or shower), but I think it will work out fine. If not, you can learn from our mistakes!

  8. My parents had the exact same van when I was growing up. I think they drove it for 10+ years before changing for something else. I’ve slept in the back of the Dodge Caravan many times. Awesome purchase.

  9. This is amazing. I’m with Tawcan above, my family had this exact Dodge Caravan mini van (in candy apple red just like the commercial) for my entire youth. We had an incredible amount of road trips in that van (one included being wedged in the backseat between my older brother & cousin driving from Oregon to Canada). What a great purchase & the upgrades you made sound amazing. I think #vanlife will be great in the Caravan!

  10. How exciting!! I will most definitely be following you on your #vanlife adventures. Be blessed.

  11. Congrats on that beauty of a van! And on finding such incredible footage of those Caravan commercials. Looking forward to following your adventures and thanks for linking to our site. Hope you’re finding it useful! – Tamara

  12. Alaska is great in the summer…you will definately need you bug netting up here!

    • I’m not sure if we’ll end up making it to Alaska this summer, but we definitely want to get there one of these years. Noted on the bug netting!

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