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1. How do you practice sustainable living in your day to day vanlife? Do you have any creative or innovative tips to share?

I think we practice sustainability in a variety of ways. By necessity, we conserve power and water, because there’s only a limited amount of each available! Our power comes from the sun, and we’re acutely aware of how much is coming in and how much we’re using every day. We try to use as little disposable plastic as possible, and consume resources responsibly. We eat a primarily plant-based diet, which significantly reduces our carbon footprint. We reduce, reuse, and recycle everything we can. We only buy what we’re actually going to use. In general, I think slowing down, taking the time to think about the best/most sustainable way to do things even if it’s less convenient/more expensive/more time consuming and thinking outside the box are essential to being environmentally friendly, both in more traditional living situations and on the road.

2. Tell us about your water setup. How do you collect, store and conserve water?

For drinking water, we have a 5-gallon glass jug that’s plumbed into our faucet. It’s actually a carboy (like what you use to brew beer in). We don’t like the plastic taste that comes from standard water jugs, so we built our system around the carboy and use a copper pipe for the plumbing. Generally we refill our drinking water from friend’s houses or when we’re traveling we use those water ‘vending machines’ that you find at gas stations and grocery stores. We also have a 3-gallon metal “pressure shower” that we fill with water from whatever tap we can find along our way. This is water that we use for showers, cleaning, dishes, etc. Conserving is really easy when you have a really limited amount on board! You learn quickly to wash a whole sinkful of dishes with one pot of water and not let the faucet run for a single second longer than you need. We let the dishes pile up until we can do a bunch of them at once and only shower every few days (or sometimes longer, hah).

3. How do you shop for and store food in your small space? How do you minimize waste?

We try to buy as much of our food as possible in bulk and buy locally. To avoid using disposable plastic, we have most of our ‘dry’ goods like beans, rice, oats, spices, oil, syrup, peanut butter, etc. in glass jars in our cabinets. We refill the jars at grocery stores with bulk sections – most stores will allow you to weigh jars or other containers before you fill them so you never have to use plastic bags. We also do our best to eat fresh produce in season and shop locally. The best way to do this is by taking advantage of farmers markets, but this can be a challenge to coordinate or find on the road. Oftentimes roadside stands and small locally-owned grocery stores will also carry local produce, so we definitely use that resource. The other bonus is that both markets/small coops and stores are usually very accommodating to us when we use our own bags. In addition to large canvas bags to replace ‘paper or plastic’, we also carry small cotton bags that work great for fruits and veggies, bread, and bulk goods, if we don’t have space in our jars. We try to get bread and baked goods at local bakeries (or make our own in our oven!). We make things like salad dressing, beans, and granola from scratch with bulk ingredients. And when we do buy pre-packaged foods, we try to avoid plastic at all costs and recycle any packaging we do use.

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4. What are some sustainable methods / materials you’ve used in building out or customizing your van?

We took sustainability into account at every step of the way on our van build. We tried to use natural components and minimize toxic substances that would lead to off-gassing. We chose to use wool for insulation and reclaimed wood for our flooring, countertops, and trim. We made sure our lumber was FSC-certified. We used all-natural milk paint and pure tung oil finishes on all the cabinets, flooring, and trim. We also sealed our countertops with a homemade beeswax and walnut oil finish. We avoided harmful adhesives and solvents as much as possible during the construction and focused on natural materials wherever it was feasible. We also selected an all-natural latex mattress for our bed, and organic cotton for our sheets and window covers. Our kitchen is outfitted with natural and durable materials and very little plastic.

5. What are some challenges you’ve faced in your efforts to minimize your environmental impact on the road? How are you overcoming these challenges?  

We live in a materialistic society that is based around convenience, not environmental concerns. I think this is true no matter what sort of living situation you have, but is probably exacerbated by living life on the go, living in a small space, and changing locations frequently. It can be a challenge to find adequate recycling facilities, grocery stores with organic options or bulk sections, and local products sometimes. As far as recycling, we’ll keep a stockpile of it until we can find a proper facility. We try to stock up on bulk food and good produce when we go through more ‘progressive’ towns with better grocery options. We’ve also occasionally been informed at large chain grocery stores (even the ‘organic’ ones) that we can’t refill our bulk containers and must use a bag (we still carry our own cotton bags, so it’s not usually a huge deal).

We don’t eat out a ton, but we always carry our own water bottles, coffee cups, and even to-go containers so we don’t have to use disposable plastics. One thing I would love to figure out on the road is composting. In California it’s easy to find public compost facilities at organic grocery stores, but I’ve found it virtually impossible anywhere else besides our friends’ houses along the way.

On the ‘local food’ subject… last year while we were stationary in Wyoming for the summer, we split a plot in a community garden space with a friend. It was amazing to have fresh veggies and really fun to grow our own food again, I had really missed having a garden! It also saved us a ton of money over a few months by reducing our farmer’s market haul every week.

I also have had to give up on a lot of things that I used to make from scratch when we were living in houses and apartments with ‘real kitchens’ like kombucha, vegetable stock, and condiments (mustard, mayonnaise, etc). I’m working on trying to figure out a way to continue making more of our own food in the van. Not having a blender has been a challenge to my cooking for sure!

6. Feel free to share anything else you feel is important in regards to sustainable living on the road.

I think living in a small space and focusing on experiences over possessions is a great way to live more sustainably. However, we definitely drive a lot more miles than your average American every year, so I would still consider our carbon footprint to be pretty high. Our van is relatively efficient for such a large vehicle, but it’s still a big consideration. Focusing on staying in one area for longer and doing longer trips less frequently is a goal of mine for the coming years. The van itself and some of the major components we installed have a pretty hefty environmental impact as well – we struggled with the decision of buying a new van or fixing up a used one, as I believe one of the best ways to live sustainably is to improve what’s already out there instead of buying something new, but in the end a new Sprinter was the smartest choice for us for full-time van living. I try not to get too wrapped up feeling guilty for decisions like this, and focus on the positive changes I can make in my life.

I think it’s also super important, especially as the popularity of vanlife and using public lands explodes, to remember that we should educate ourselves about Leave No Trace practices. Responsibly disposing of trash and human waste is always a big issue in popular areas. We do our best to clean up trash when we find it at campsites or when we’re recreating, and definitely encourage others to do the same. But we’ve also noticed an increase in the amount of toilet paper and human waste that is appearing on public lands that are frequented by boondockers. This is not only really gross (especially if you travel with a dog–ick!) but potentially difficult for the environment to handle in concentrated areas and could spread disease to wildlife or other humans. Leave No Trace is a great resource for learning how to responsibly camp and recreate outdoors.

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Further Down The Rabbit Hole

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