Camper equipment check – The Box

Here is the solution to a year of hard thinking about how to best use the interior of our Honda Element. Inspired by a design I found on the Element Owners Club,  I cut, screwed, routed, and sanded The Box.

Vanlife camp kitchen

Why it’s genius is that it is both a platform bed and also gives clear daytime access to the space below the bed, this is achieved by piano hinged sections which stow neatly on the 42″ X 27″ box.

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In hindsight, I’ve probably spent too much time thinking about the box. But, now it’s here, I’m seriously impressed with how well it’s working. We haven’t spent the night, so in theory, the box is untested, but it looks fairly solid.

Behind the tailgate is our kitchen. Our main concern for the journey is a decent cup of tea, with the stove set up I can make a cup of tea while still in bed. Civilized, no? I’ve gone to such length as sanding the handle of our kettle to make it fit. We’ve also made a draw for pots and pans, room for a esky, a cutlery-and-more draw, and space for the surf gear.

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I took some old Ikea foam mattresses and had a custom mattress made by Paco’s Upholstery , it folds in three and covers the 73″ X 27″ platform. The platform is more stable than I thought it would feel, and it should feel firmer again once we shove all our clothes underneath.

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I slaved away on this thing, routed all the sharp edges, accurately drilled pilot holes, put on three coats of waterproofing polyurethane, in short, I made it with care and attention. It’s design and construction have focused my enthusiasm for the trip, thinking about The Box has meant thinking about the trip. And now it’s here. We leave in two days.  The next time you see The Box it’ll be in it’s natural habitat.

Vanlife equipment check – Bikes.

We leave in one week. It’s getting exciting. In the lead-up to our departure I’m going to give you a little tour of the items we have deemed necessary for our 8-month trip. As this site began as a document of a bicycle journey across America it’s appropriate to begin with our bikes.

Before I make an introduction, I just want to say how much planning to have bikes with us on our vanlife journey has opened up what is possible, it also means we’re taking an important aspect of our “normal” lives. It’s critical to our happiness that we roll around on two wheels whenever possible.

On our last trip we had a folding bicycle, it didn’t work so well on Mexico’s bumpy streets and, of course, it was only one bike when there are two of us. I’m sure you can see the problem. I’ve fixed that with these modern day heroes:

Jo-Roxy’s ’89 Bianchi Tangent

The story goes that Bianchi’s USA product manager, Sky Yeager, had a hard-on for cyclocross bikes and had this model built for a couple of years.

The idea is to have a bike that is suited to as many purposes as possible. The tangent would make an excellent tourer, it should fly in the dirt, and it won’t be sluggish on the streets of Mexico City. We added Origin 8 mustache bars to further enhance the bikes versatility, and they look cool. Jo-Roxy has always loved celeste Bianchi’s, I’m glad she finally has one of her own.

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vanlife with bikes

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Scott’s ’92 Schwinn Paramount PDG90

My first serious bike was a purple Schwinn Dave Mirra BMX. I loved that bike. I think I begged my parents for months to get me that bike. As my years and as my love of bikes grew I became aware of the mythic Paramount, a Schwinn offshoot of premium handmade bicycles using the most cutting edge technology of the time. Unfortunately, for me, they’re collectible and expensive. So you can imagine how excited I was to find this fairly original PDG90 on Craigslist for $40. Someone had changed out the original forks and added suspension, but this bike was made before suspension was a big thing. When built, the PDG90 was a top of the line downhill mountain bike in ’92. Notice how the chain stay is bent because they hadn’t come up with a sensible solution to chain slap. Incredible to think how far bicycle technology has progressed since.

Other than replacing the suspension forks, I also added cruiser tires, and a Carver surfrack. I built this bike with forest trails in mind, it’ll be sluggish on the streets, but I don’t want to miss out on opportunities to ride wherever I want because I didn’t bring a capable bike. FREEDOM BABY!

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vanlife with bikes

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We love talking bikes, so if you have questions about the bikes drop us a comment below.

Packing a travel pillow is an essential indulgence

The key to any successful trip is packing. You don’t want to carry a heavy bag, but you also don’t want to live the spartan life of a monk. Creature comforts are what make us… comfortable.

I usually attack my packing by laying everything I’m taking out on the floor so I can get a clear view of what I’ve deemed necessary, usually too many items of clothing, from there I cut about half the items, and from there cut in half again.

packing a travel pillow

You needn’t get your gear down too light if you’re on a road trip, as you can comfortably fill a car with crap, but if you’re travelling by plane, bicycle or foot, the smaller your pack, the more enjoyable your trip is going to be.

Why packing a travel pillow is smart

My one constant indulgence is packing a travel pillow, something I know is comfortable. I haven’t even gone as far as trying out the inflatable pillows or other sensible easily packed variations, I’m talking about taking a normal pillow.

Usually, it’s a smaller version of the pillow I’d use at home. For my cycle journey across America I cut a third from a memory-foam pillow I had been using for years, sewed a new pillowcase and slept comfortably for three months including stealth camping in a clump of trees near to a Walmart and a field filled with vermin.

You hopefully get to spend 8 hours a night with your head resting comfortably, compare the use of a good pillow to any other piece of equipment you could take as a luxury and I think you’ll get the most use out of a pillow.

Best travel pillows

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Hopefully it’s clear I’m joking, these are contraptions not pillows. I’d not recommend packing a travel pillow if it looks like either of the above.

I advocate for people taking a pillow they are familiar and comfortable with, especially during a hotel stay. If you’re backpacking or need to travel light, here are some options.

Therm-a-Rest Stuff Sack

packing a travel pillow

If weight and space is your packing enemy, it’s hard to go past a stuff sack. I’ve used a Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad for years, it has never let me down. The idea behind the stuff sack is by day you can safely pack all your spare clothes into the dry sack, protecting your gear from any unforeseen spills or if you fall in a river. The inside of the bag is lined with soft microfleece. Simply turn the bag inside out, stuff it full of clothes and you have yourself a decent pillow. Only problem occurs when you’re cold camping and need to wear all your clothes.

Check it out at REI 

Nemo Fillo backpacking pillow

packing a travel pillow

As far as pillows to go out and spend money on, I like the Nemo Fillo. A combination of memory foam and an inflatable air bladder. It packs small but is firm under head. Comfortable and effective.

Nemo Fillo backpacking pillow

Take whatever you have at home

Do you really need to go spend $50 on a camping pillow? With regards to survival, no. But with all things camping if you want it to work really well and be designed for the purpose of camping, then yes. However, I use whatever I find lying around. Our sleeping positions are so unique it’s impossible for me to say what pillow you will find comfortable. Take a cushion, alter an existing pillow, knowing you’re packing a travel pillow you’ve found comfortable in the past will increase your comfort in whatever situation you find yourself.

packing a travel pillow

Wine tasting at La Cooperativa, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja Mexico.

I’ve come to La Cooperativa, in a high valley on the Baja peninsula because I’ve heard that things are happening in Valle De Guadalupe. I arrive with a filthy car, dust settled on all flat surfaces, having been lead down unsealed roads through olive groves and vineyards by my GPS.

Valle de Guadalupe (Guadalupe Valley) is a flat plain circled by rocky mountains high above the coastal city of Ensenada, about an hour and a half from the border at San Diego. The drive into the mountains is rustic rather than breathtaking, a gentle steady climb along a curving highway flanked by an abundance of roadside market stalls selling the produce the area is fast becoming renowned for: honey, olive oil, cheese, and wine.

I brush at the dust on my car, but realize that marking the car with my fingers and palm only makes it look more filthy. I’m really only concerned with my car’s appearance because I’m standing in front of a building that is hip, more hip than I had expected, staffed by interesting looking college aged locals and I’m an interloping gringo, so of course I want to make a good impression.

La Cooperativa Valle de Guadalupe

La Cooperativa is a central repository and sales point for the region’s produce and perfectly exemplifies what I will learn is the aesthetic of the Valle de Guadalupe, this isn’t a wine region that aspires to any old world glory, this is new, futuristic even. A fitting tribute to pioneers of a new life for this long obscure destination.

La Cooperativa in Valle de Guadalupe
Photo: The Fad Spread
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Photo: The Fad Spread
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Photo: The Fad Spread
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Photo: The Fad Spread

Each of the buildings at La Cooperative, designed and constructed by famed architect Alejandro D’Acosta, are built from recycled materials, the black wooden slatted bar and kitchen building rises high contrasting vividly with a colorful mural and a utilitarian agricultural shed.   But this isn’t only a place where the regions fine offerings are sold, two large sheds, both insulated from baking afternoon temperatures by thick rammed earth walls inserted with empty wine bottles, rusted sheet metal, and pieces of wine barrels, one providing a place for the region’s producers to store and age their product, the other, used as a school room, where local producers are trained in the latest viticulture. A parked RV is the cellar door, stepping through the narrow threshold the blast of AC is welcomed, and serves to keep the wine at appropriate temperatures.

I’m taken through the variety of wines offered by the chef of the small kitchen. Though my Spanish is improving and I’m fairly conversational with the aid of hand gestures and asking for clarification of unknown words, I’m pretty sure that my conversation with the chef, translated into English, would read something like this.

Chef says, “Blah, blah, blah, red wine, blah, blah, $10.”

I say, “I like red wine.”

Chef, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, unknown words.”

Me, “Si, si, $10 is a good price.”

But, of course, you need to taste the product before taking it home. We begin with a sample of local olive oil poured from a nameless glass bottle and warmed bread. Moving on, we sample one white wine, not a speciality of the region but drinkable, and two strong hearty reds. The red wine of the region is the real star: dark, strong, masculine. It is common to find blends made from a dizzying number of varieties, experimentation, it seems, is a trait that marks all creative processes of the valley.

The really brilliant thing about the Guadalupe experience is that it isn’t catering to foreign tourists, while menus are often offered in English many waiters will speak basic English at best, that’s because the valley isn’t dependant on foreign tourism. This is Mexico, and it feels like it. But it’s the professionalization that marks La Valley as something different to other wine regions, but especially those in California. This is a region screaming creativity, producers here are doing whatever works, whatever is appropriate, whatever looks good, tastes good, and is good. This ethos extends to the architecture, the restaurants, the people. The energy of the region is noticeable even on the streets, old folks sitting on corners behind stalls of local honey and bee pollen and the constant stream of SUVs filled to bursting with families, the industry is giving the area identity and vitality.

Other highlights of the area can be seen in a post here, it’s worth a click.

Where I’ve been sleeping

The places, vehicles and buildings I have been sleeping in. My invitation for you to enter my slumbering world.

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Bonny Doon, CA – May 29, 2015
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Bonny Doon, CA – May 30, 2015
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Pacific Ave, Mar Vista, CA – June 2, 2015
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Lake Nacimiento Campground, CA – June 4, 2015
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Nacimiento Campground, Los Padres National Forrest, CA – June 5, 2015
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San Simeon State Park, CA – June 6, 2015
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Leo Carrillo State Park, CA – June 7, 2015
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Plaza Del Mar, Baja California, Mexico – June 29, 2015
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Plaza Del Mar, Baja California, Mexico – June 30, 2015
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Plaza Del Mar, Baja California, Mexico – July 1, 2015
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Quail Creek Campground, UT – July 9, 2015
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Flat Rock, La Verkin Creek Trail, Zion NP, UT – July 10, 2015

Golden Nugget, Las Vegas, NV - July 12, 2015
Golden Nugget, Las Vegas, NV – July 12, 2015

Not on the trip of a lifetime, on a lifetime trip. Writer, traveler, gentleman surfer.