Thursday, February 16, 2017

Back From South Carolina and Beyond

Nothing takes you higher or farther... than ADVENTURE!

I feel like a hobbit! We're finally back in RI after a journey to PA to SC to OH to PA to NYC to back here. It was our first big journey and we were gone over a month. We were able to stay with beloved family down there for much of it, (thank you!) and also had some nights sleeping at rest areas and Walmart parking lots and the like. While it isn't for everyone, me and Brooke really enjoyed roughing it a bit. We slept comfortably enough, avoided dolling out around $100 a night for hotel rooms, and got to drive, rest, and get up whenever we pleased.

For this post, we'll get into a little info about rest areas and staying at Walmart parking lots for travelers.

What are highway rest areas?

Rest areas are spots along highways where you can get off the road, park your car or truck, and go inside to use the bathroom, buy vending machine snacks, (some of them have coffee machines!) and access local info and maps. They often have separate sections for big trucks and RVs and small passenger vehicles.

Some have a service desk that runs during normal business hours, and the people there are usually kind and helpful for directions or asking about local stuff.

The bathrooms were all amazingly well kept in every state we went through, specifically Pennsylvania, Ohio, and the Virginias and Carolinas.

We even have a funny story now about Brooke leaving her ring at an Ohio rest stop and us miraculously circling back over 40 minutes later and still finding it there, just sitting! Either no one noticed it, or anyone who did was nice enough to leave it. What do you think? Either way, boy was she lucky!

Can you sleep in your car, RV or camper in Walmart parking lots?

You can sleep in a lot of Walmart parking lots, but not all of them.

Traditionally, Walmart's policy is to allow overnight stays from travelers even in larger vehicles like Class A campers. With how common Walmarts are in America, this is a big deal for lower income travelers especially, because it provides a lot more rest areas around the country. Usually the parking lots are well lit, and since many of the stores are open 24/7, you can go in to get cheap supplies day and night... and help wreck our economy a little more each time. Yay!

Some Walmarts do not allow overnight stays, and some will indeed enforce this policy. Anytime you're sleeping anywhere in your car there's a chance you'll wake up to a police officer checking on what you're doing, and sometimes you'll be rudely told to move on, but it all depends on where and how you stay.

Don't look sketchy and there's a way higher chance you won't be bothered. If you're parked in a higher crime area, you're more likely to be targeted by cops and robbers, while if you look normal and sleep out of the way for a night in an area where people aren't always looking over their shoulders, you should be good. Whether you're a prim and proper traveler who only stays where they're officially allowed or whether you're a diehard boondocker who will sleep in someone's cupboard unless there is a no trespassing sign up is up to you.

How was the trip?

It was exhilarating and rejuvenating just to get out on our own and leave our troubles behind us. Driving and eating junk food is always hard on the body, but we took steps to maintain a somewhat healthy diet by staying hydrated, eating greens and avoiding carbs as much as we could, etc. (Which was not very much when you're staying in the south for a month. Has anyone else heard of Cook Out? Human biology isn't meant to stand up against these things...)

We got a lot of time to work on personal things like self-education and creative/art projects. And despite the availability of cheaper, way more delicious southern/midwestern food, (did I mention Cracker Barrel?) we kept pretty consistent with our diets, and we got more into workout routines. Brooke is definitely beating me in both departments, working super hard on online schooling and a rigorous workout routine.

Super Bowl LI: How bout them Patriots?

Holy crap man! We had the best Super Bowl party night with some great friends we just met in NYC. Our buddy had a Chinese restaurant rented out for the night, full of his peeps from Hong Kong. They graciously had as guests.

The place was all theirs for the night, and the food and drinks flowed beyond belief, during the craziest Superbowl I have ever seen. It was the almost glamorous New York City experience you only hear about in books and movies. It was really out of this world.

All we can usually do about going through NYC is crying about it, but this time it was worth the soulcrushing $15 Washington Bridge toll and $4 NJ tolls before that. I couldn't do NYC, with all the parking, traffic, tolls, too many people, not enough privacy or space. But some people like the city life. And they're getting free tuition in New York I hear.

In closing

It was a wonderful trip, although we're anxious to get the van finished and try long term living out of it. The cold is frustrating each step of the project by making our adhesives fail. But van or no van, we're going to have plenty of fun outdoors this summer with our tent and sleeping bags, and whatever friends want to come along!

What are you doing this summer?

King's Mountain, NC

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Plan for Walls / Insulation

 [We changed how we were going to do the walls a bit in a newer post ("Cheap-O DIY Camper Van: Reflectix On Walls... What Else?") and affix the Reflectix right to the spray foamed walls. Check it out.]

Last week, we applied a single layer of spray foam ("Is Great Stuff good?") over all the walls and doors (besides up front, which we will insulate without spray foam, or spray later).

Brooke then wrote down our next steps to insulate and finish the walls.

1. Take measurements of the walls/windows, The van, like many vehicles, has a lot of many irregular shapes and sizes, curves and measurements that taper, so getting it right is harder than it seems.

2. Put Reflectix loosely over all the spray foamed walls, generating a dead airspace on either side of most of the Reflectix, which is what it needs to insulate well.

On dead air spaces & too much fiberglass insulation

We may or may not put some pink insulation in that airspace, but I tend to think that the empty airspace will work better with the Reflectix because of its radiant insulation properties, while pink insulation may actually do more harm than good, by having heat pass through it and the Reflectix to the walls. A friend with decades of engineering experience advised that dead air was the best insulator in a conversion van, so we are trying to keep that in mind as we test what works best. If in doubt, we will either return the pink insulation or use it elsewhere, but keep in mind that it's the dead air that makes insulation effective too, so stuffing as much as you can into a tight space will only lower your R values.)

3. Use the Reflectix as a template for the panels. The panels must be larger than the Reflectix cuts because they will be coming out more (more 3d formed) and must closely follow bends. We are using thin, white PVC-faced boards cut 2'x4' for convenience. We could have used larger pieces to keep sections more whole, but we're going to have a lot of work making the joints look good between walls/floors/windows etc anyway, so we're not worried about it. We are much more worried about the walls actually sealing in the air/dust/fiberglass than looking good. Some or a lot of the walls may be covered with material or tapestry to help hold heat anyway, like they did in ancient castles.

4. Glue the Reflectix to the spray foamed walls. We want it only as tight to the wall as it has to be to insure it isn't making noise. The unevenness of the spray foam wall should be perfect, because the Reflectix will adhere the high points while everywhere else will have a gap of dead airspace, which is how Reflectix achieves high insulation values (insulation against radiant energy, not conductive energy so much.) Reflectix without a dead airspace around it only has an R-value of 1 because the only radiation insulation happening is in the thin bubblewrap layer sandwiched between the reflective layers.

5. Put in braces for the walls. Forgot the proper construction term, but we screw 1x4's into the walls through the Reflectix and spray foam so that we can screw the walls into those and give them a little more shape and strength.

6. Screw in the walls.

7. Make joints, prime, sand, finish.

Cheap-O DIY Camper Van: Reflectix On Walls... What Else?

I say! What are you doing in that thing!

Once again bouncing back and forth between ideas for the walls, a friend suggested what I think is the best solution, and then we found another trick that I'm excited we'll be able to use.

Flatter Walls, No Dead Airspace

Heron styling it up in the gas mask
A buddy advised just gluing carpet against the spray foam (since it is an adherable surface, especially if you choose to sand it down to a nice flat surface- which we did not.)

Metal walls with cured spray foam & Reflectix

We decided to go further than just carpet over sprayfoam, but we liked that idea. Our old plan was cutting new paneling out of PVC-faced board, which you can see in the picture to the right, and installing those fairly flexible panels against wood braces, screwed into the metal body of the van that lies behind the sprayfoam.

We would have then filled the joints (somehow) and created a semi-even surface over the white PVC board wall, and either painted that or even put carpet over it.

While that plan might have worked, I liked what my friend suggested after I had mentioned putting carpet on the walls to him. He said how a can of spray glue could get a tight bond to the new sprayfoam surface- no need for bracing or worrying about smashing through a part of the wall with no "stud" behind it while living in it later.

I mourned the lost of the dead air space, because it is good insulation itself, and it is what makes the Reflectix work its insulating magic (we went through some of this in a post from December, ("Is Great Stuff good? DIY Polyurethane Sprayfoam Pros/Cons") but I was convinced we would end up with enough insulation even following this route... and a sturdier wall with a slimmer profile.

After all, all that the van came with was the normal grey plastic paneling with nothing but air in between it and the metal body, and it did a pretty good job insulating.

I admit, some of the plastic panels did had a meager one inch of pink insulation glued on them, but its doubtful they did very much, especially versus what we are doing. More on those plastic panels we saved in a moment.

Maybe A Little Dead Airspace: Floor Underlayment!

And its not that there would be no dead airspace. A little bit of very thin underlayment between the Reflectix and the carpet will provide another small pocket of air, increasing insulation. The underlayment only cost $20 for enough for the walls. I believe it is normally used for carpeted floors. Because it is a plastic or foam type material, it should act as a moisture barrier if tightly installed too.

Getting To It

Reflectix looks snug in most spots. But will it hold??!
The main thing with the Reflectix was getting a really tight fit. Because we chose not to grind the sprayfoam down (because I wanted to chance leaving the naturally uneven sprayfoam pattern surface than to deal with all the toxic dust particles going everywhere) and because it's cold as heck here in Rhode Island, (we just had our first blizzard today even,) the spray glue did not stick well at all, and required repeated applications over small areas while being held tightly to the sprayfoam.

But after heating the van up more and going at it a few more times, we had a pretty snug fit all around.

Glue as snug as possible, lest it come off later!
And cut holes for your locks and stuff!
We will have to see whether this holds up over time though. If it doesn't, the Reflectix will peel from the sprayfoamed walls, (and take the underlayment and carpet with it,) and creature ugly bubbles or sags in the wall. Hopefully this won't be the case, but I had serious concerns about dealing with the containment and cleanup of grinding down the whole van interior worth of sprayfoam.

Once again, that delicious sandwich is:

  1. Body of the van (metal)
  2. 2" or so of spray foam laid as evenly as possible, all allowed to cure of course
  3. Reflectix, spray glued on
  4. Thin carpet floor underlayment, spray glued on (to be done)
  5. Carpet! probably spray glued on (to be done)
And that should be everything that makes up the walls of our camper van. Sounds good, right? But stick around and read on to see how it works out. Our potential disasters are your amusement!

We left a hole open for the heater to blow out. We will have to vent this later.
Holes left for the door handles, locks, & speakers too. Missed a speaker slot here though. Oops!

Now, about that secret trick we get to use

What secret trick? Did I say that? Well, we kept the plastic panels around to see if we could use them before we tossed them out. It seemed unlikely with any design that involved sprayfoam that we'd be able to get them back on, though, especially all of them. Some of them interlocked trickily too, and an extra puzzle was not what we were looking for with this project.

Turns out the plastic panels should solve an extremely important issue that we hadn't even gotten into yet, which is making the walls reach the windows well. How we were going to frame the windows was always a daunting question, and ideas like a new wooden window sill were tossed around, but would take some work to implement.

Fortunately, we tried fit the plastic panels back to where they went, and they still mostly fit despite the sprayfoam. We also left uncovered most of the metal brackets the inserts clip into, so they will go in as snug as a bug in a rug, and tuck the carpet walls in around the windows nicely. Who knew that the easiest design approach was to use what you already have???

The newly finished Cave of Perpetual Darkness

Welp, we'll leave it at that, and have an update on the trip we just got back from too.

See you on the road!

Sunday, January 1, 2017


Happy New Year from Brooke and Heron at the USA / America Dream Journey blog!

It's easy to get annoyed with or caught up in the overexcited commeralistic vibe associated with a new year in America, (watched the ball drop in NYC this year... never seems to be the right or wrong choice for me,) or to be apathetic about a new year or changes at all, but I hope that you all will take time to really orient to what you want to do and what you want to be.

Problems be damned, every chance for a fresh start is a valuable opportunity. As long as we're still breathing we have the opportunity to transform ourselves and the world we share, and make things just a little better. It's all about little steps and staying committed to a task.

So whoever you are and wherever you are, I hope you take as many opportunities as you can to lead the life you really want to live. Don't let time and habits sweep your life out from under you... start somewhere, start today!!!

We're headed back to South Carolina!

First Journey for a New Year

We're heading off on a month-long trip from here in Rhode Island to family in South Carolina, maybe stopping by another family member's house on the way. The van is still not ready for traveling (more posts on that soon!) so we are taking the little sedan and putting it on hold. I prefer driving around in something big for our safety, but hey, at least we'll save on gas?

We'll update with posts of our adventuring and hopefully some comments on what it's like traveling in a car, what different routes are like this time of year... some fun stuff and some useful stuff.

The trip there and back this past summer was awesome and this time we'll have a week to mess around before we get there, and probably some time on the way back too. Stay tuned!

Monday, December 12, 2016

Is Great Stuff good? DIY Polyurethane Sprayfoam Pros/Cons

We went through most of the typical options for insulation found on the web. We read from both homebuilding sites like and conversion van forums and travel blogs, and watched dozens of DIY camper renovation videos. (I particularly liked The Ultimate RV Camper Build series from Billy D @ UsaRcJets on Youtube.)

We decided on polyurethane spray foam (SPF) although I'll say why I would consider other options next time. (This is, after all, our first vehicle. so we're going to take some chances. "We got a van") We also did not use spray foam exclusively, and opted to include some fiberglass insulation (Hey, we never said we were doing it green!) and some Reflectix, which I'll talk about more in another post. The foam was the first layer of insulation, directly on the interior metal of the van.

The Basics

A can of normal Great Stuff gap and crack filling spray foam is about $4, but we got ours for half price. If you are doing something with heat like a kitchen or heater, they have Fire Block spray foam in a black can, and if you need less/no expansion, they have Door & Window spray foam in a blue can for $6. I got a can of that but didn't end up using it- I felt it was easy to not put too much foam into tight areas. You can also get the Pro stuff for twice the price of a normal can, but we didn't see any need.

You shake the can for at least a minute (I recommend longer, but your arms start getting really tired after the first few cans,) then you screw the applicator straw on and unlock the anti-leak front nozzle. Even on full blast where you get the widest application, it's usually only about an inch-round bead, but when you get the hang of applying it in rows or square spirals, you should be able to cover up a large flat-ish area like a wall or door rather quickly, as well as tighter areas...

Not that I give the product marks for being easy to apply. It's made for sealing cracks and gaps, so applying an even layer all over a wall takes a bit of finesse. Still, I don't know why people go with the big applicator kits from companies like Foam It Green... using the individual cans was fine for us, rather cheap, and we didn't have to worry about ordering, mixing the A & B chemicals in right proportions (which is super important for performance and safety,) we just shook the cans.

Once you start using a can, you can only stop for 20-30 seconds before it closes up for good and the can is junk. (I think you can open it back up with solvents but I guarantee you're not gonna want to do take the time to do that, like, ever.) It takes about eight hours to cure and starts expanding quickly, but it doesn't seem to be particularly easy to work with at any point during the cure, (if you wanted to shape while it's still soft that is.)

The packaging is right when it says that cold decreases performance. Specifically, it will not come out as well or spread out as much, (much like cold caulk/glue in a caulking gun,) it will not adhere to surfaces well, and it will take longer to cure. We were doing ours in New England between autumn and winter and got it done, though, so it doesn't need to be that warm to apply. Just turn the heat on... but don't shut the doors and concentrate those explosive gases!

It feels, looks and sounds a lot like packing peanuts after it is cured, but luckily not so squeaky, soft or fragile. It definitely does a really good job insulating for the amount of material, and we think in combination with the Reflectix, it'll do a really good job.


-Affordable (Only took around 20-25 cans, normally $4 each, but we paid half price, so what would have cost us only $100 cost half that!)

-Available (Great Stuff and other polyurethane spray foams are available everywhere as far as I know, considering how useful the stuff is and how many builders swear by it.)

-Vapor blocking (Which means we didn't feel we needed to prime the walls, which would have added extra hours of work)


-Toxic, you need a respirator and PPE (personal protective equipment). There is good info available about safety with polyurethane spray foam, but I'll say from personal experience that you minimally want: gloves, eye protection (unless you want the chance of an eyesplash sending you to the hospital), great ventilation in the work area, and a quality and well-fitted respirator with a filter made for aerosols, We will also make sure the walls are sealed up well so that dust from the foam and fiberglass insulation won't harm us.

-Fragile longterm (Haven't seen this personally, but definitely could see this stuff wearing down longterm, so we're making sure not to put any weight on it or put it under anything. I'm mostly concerned about the all the banging around and rocking motion it will experience and whether pieces of foam insulation will start dropping out the bottom openings that are made to drain water. And on that note...

-Vapor blocking (Huh? Yup. There are a lot of different opinions on vapor barriers, especially when you're trying to be able to live in both temperature extremes like we are. Although vapor barriers keep moisture from coming in, they make it harder for it to get out, too, so you have to think about how moisture is coming and going, and know that you're editing/removing those routes as you sprayfoam, which could concentrate moisture problems in one spot, just for one thing. Short of engineering training, I don't know how to get around the possibility of doing something weird to your moisture profile (or whatever it is called), so I recommend to do as much research you can into the moisture issue (including both physics and experiences from other DIY/van conversion/tiny home people online.)

-Difficult to apply - Many forum users opt for the big applicator kits (for hundreds of dollars) or having spray foam applied professionally (for potentially thousands.) After applying my own spray foam successfully for the first time and so far being happy with it, I still understand why they may go that route. Why? Ease of application clearly varies a lot between people, and because the cans aren't necessarily made for insulating large areas, some people may find it difficult or awkward to apply properly. I could imagine just as many people slamming down their last can in frustration cursing the technique, as I could applying it with little or no problems and swearing by it afterwards.  If you're ambitious and dexterous, I say go for it. If you're unsure if you or a helper can make a good application without gunking the whole job site up, you may want to try a different insulation method, like pink fiberglass, which we also used.


So, we applied a single layer of spray foam over all the walls and doors (besides up front, which we will insulate without spray foam, or spray later). Read the next blog post about insulation...

Thursday, December 8, 2016

We Got A Van!

Late 90's Ford E350 shuttle-style van with a tall white hi-top, 140k miles

After weeks of watching and searching Craigslist, (Brooke more so than me,) and weighing different vehicle / mobile living setups, (and deciding toward an urban stealth / boondocking van instead of a tow trailer,) we got a big, late 90's Ford E350 shuttle-style van with a tall white hi-top, 140k miles.

Buying a cheap van from Craigslist... never sketchy, right?

We went to a junk car lot outside Providence after speaking on the phone with a soft-talking older gentleman we met on Craigslist. He was stout and hunched over, without too much to say about the thing. and the big grassy field car lot didn't exactly inspire confidence. It lot had a bunch of junk lying around and the van was filled to the top with tires when we first looked at it. That was over forty tires me, Brooke, and him had to take out one by one, many with rims still on, but we didn't mind helping, especially since the other folks there didn't offer their buddy a hand.

The bottom of the van was covered with an even layer of rust and the outer edges were rusted jaggedly in many places all around. It was dusty and in need of some real love. But underneath the rusty outside, and the dozens of tires, the welding array and two boat engines crammed inside, there was an interior and exterior in good shape for our purposes.

Typical rust for its year (late 90's) Will need some work.
Needs some holes patched up before inspection, but nothing major/structural.

Good floor condition, no wood rot, no ceiling leaks, no structural rust damage, clean, serviced, runs... a good start?

The black (typical rubber-or-lino bus floor) was all intact and the floors and ceiling showed no signs of rot. The height with fiberglass hi-top was almost enough for me to stand in (I'm over 6') and could have originally cost more than what we paid for the van ($1200). It had a smooth finish inside, (which costs extra versus an ugly unfinished hi-top interior) and was really quite clean inside and out, an excellent space to start building a mobile living van.

Reliable enough to invest some time and money into, but cheap enough that we can consider it a 'first test.' After all, it only cost about one month of rent up here. (An efficiency studio apartment costs $800-900 in southern Rhode Island, let alone a two bedroom apartment or house which can cost around $1200 a month. Compare that to the $1200 we paid for our van, and now we own it.)

Two of the wheels were in ok shape, two in good shape, all drivable, and a maintenance sticker told me an oil change may not be urgent but was in order. That along with the registration sticker also told me it hadn't it hadn't been out of commission for long. The lights worked, it started up just right, and the brakes turned out to be in great shape, (besides some maintenance needed to one brake line,) and it was actually really fun to drive right out of the lot, even if it badly needed an alignment.

It was much higher up than my little sedan. There was a different feeling while driving it- I imagined myself driving through the U.S. high up in this ugly duckling, and I was fairly aglow. Everything felt cool and pretty as I bumped along the highway in our new gamble, doors all rattling and smelling like it hadn't been started up much in the past year.

Are you sure about this?...

Brooke had more reservations than me, but she couldn't find a reason to say no to the thing, especially for the price. Reluctantly, she agreed, but she was nervous about even making it home down the highway.

We both understood it would need repairs to pass inspection, (which is every year for commercial or camper-type vehicles in RI, which ours falls under,) but it was inspected up to 2015, which was another sign to me that it belonged on the road and not in the dump.

On the outside it was the normal amount of rust you would expect for a '96. More of an annoying but simple job than an expensive disaster. We went out and bought a low-amp, corded grinder and some primer in anticipation of starting to take out all the rust underneath and protective-coat it.

Where we're at...

The mechanics have it at the garage now getting it roadworthy, assuming the engine or transmission isn't going to blow up. I made fun of Fords my whole life but now I'm putting a lot of faith in one!

The awesome local mechanics will have it repaired in a few short days and we'll have it parked at my family's house, where we'll be grinding and spraypainting the bottom and using Bondo to repair the car body, making it look spiffy and rust-free.

Right now I can't wait to just get under it and start taking the rust out. For my part, I want to prove that all that rust can go away for good with a little bit of work, because it's the only immediate, obvious problem when looking at the van.

I also want doubly to prove that this van I pressed for will come out as good as any other van we would have used. It's an important point that our vehicle cost the bottom dollar for running vans of its type in our area, because we're emphasizing the most affordable living that we can (within our own standard of living.)

Brooke is adjusting her plans to the new exact measurements, though we're not sure whether the plastic walls of the van are going to stay or not, or whether the floors truly need no repair. From the looks of things, the floors are good but the walls will go and be replaced by our own. If I find that the walls are doing a job by holding a lot already, maybe they'll stay so the original condition will be achievable again- after all, we may want to resell it, and we expect it to be running for a good long time,