February 11, 2014

My Toyota Camper

A year ago, I started fantasizing about campers other than my VW Syncro.  It felt adulterous. I had been living in it for a year and half at this point and the cost of maintenance was catching up to me.   Syncro’s are pretty amazing vans.  Mine had an Audi engine, front and rear locking differentials and could go any where I wanted it.  The problem was reliability.   Only 300o were ever imported to the US, and very few people know how to work on them.  Many times a minor break down such as a fuel pump or a starter turned into a week long search for a mechanic that was willing to work on it let a lone had access to the right parts.  My van was made in 1987 and had 292 miles on it when I bought it.  With the right maintenance,  It will keep working forever,  but my regiment of 40k miles per year were wearing on the car.  From afar, VW van’s are very romantic.  Living in one is a totally different story.

Unfortunately, there aren’t that many good alternatives to a Syncro in terms of capability, size and efficiently.  Sportsmobile’s weigh twice as much and cost between $50-100k.  Depending on the, year there are problems with the Diesel engines and the MPG are hard to swallow.  Eurovans are plagued with electronic issues and never come in 4wd.  A full size truck and camper is way to big. I wanted something, I could parallel park in a city and make my way around narrow forest service roads. Eventually, I settled on a Toyota Tacoma and a poptop camper.

Go to a remote area for an activity like surfing, snowboarding or climbing and you’ll likely see a Toyota truck with a pop top camper.  Unlike a rare German 4×4, the parts are ubiquitous and any garage in the world can work on them.   Sure they aren’t as “c00l” as a VW, but one break down in the Mojave desert cured me with my fixation of how cool my Syncro was.

After doing a bunch of research on forums like Wander the West and The Expedition Portal, I focused my attention on a Four Wheel PopTop camper.  All though not the fanciest,  they have been making campers for 40 years and have a cult following of people that use theirs in harsh situations.  To maximize usable space,  I decided to remove the stock bed and put an aluminum flatbed on the truck.  This would allow for the side entry I loved about my van, as well as a lower center of gravity and increased storage around the wheel wells.   On a tip from a friend,  I got in touch with AT Overland in Prescott, Arizona and they helped design, source parts and work with Four Wheel to build the camper.  The whole process from conception of the idea to delivery of the finished product in Prescott took eight months.

The ruberized canvas walls have an insulative layer that helps with condensation and keeps the camper warm in cold temperatures.

The camper is based off of a 2013 Toyota Tacoma Access Cab.  The truck has a V6, six speed manual and the off road package.  I upgraded the truck with a 2-inch lift from Old Man Emu, an ARB Bumper, Warn Winch,  Airflow Snorkel, Firestone airbags in the back and a custom rear leaf set up from Deaver in Orange County.

Parked in Baja on the campers maiden voyage last summer.

When popped, the bed slides out to roughly the size of a Kingsize.

Extra fuel storage and some badges of honor from the road. Between the fuel cans are two Max Trax for putting under the tires in sticky situations.

AT Overland fabricated 4 Lockable aluminum boxes under the flatbed for extra storage room.

A 20,000 BTU furnace keeps me the camper warm during cold nights.  This opened up a ton of possibilities for me.

Compared, to my Syncro, the Four Wheel Camper feels like a Four Seasons.  It has an electric fridge (powered by two marine batteries and 160w panel) a two burner stove (two 10 pound cylinders) a furnace (runs off the propane and 20 gallons of freshwater and an outdoor shower.

This month marks the two and half year mark for living out of my vehicle.  It’s flown by.  My initial plan to spend a year on the road has morphed into a way of life.  I love living out of a small space.  It forces me to limit my possessions and conscious of the mess I make.  Instead of buying something when I’m bored,  I travel to a new place.  My new camper gives me piece of mind to continue my travels .  I’m hoping to have it for twenty years.

Here are some more links,

Gone Tomorrow (Ian Durkin),

AT Overland,

Four Wheel Campers.

March 19, 2013

Vanlife Updated

Cooped up in my apartment in New York, just over two years ago, I started obsessing over buying one of my own and living out of it.  Since then, I’ve left New York and moved into a van.  This transition has fueled my interest in and appreciation for such vehicles.  Shortly after moving into my van,  I started tagging vans and other campers with #vanlife tag on instagram and then put together the submission-based Tumblr to go a long with it. Recently, I worked with my friend Maddie Joyce on coming up with a new design for the site.  I’m really happy with how it turned out.  Here are some of my favorite shots I’ve taken doing the last two years and shared through the site.

A Nissan pick up in Central Baja, Mexico, Winter 2013.

A Westfalia parked along the PCH north of Ventura, Winter 2013.

My Syncro parked in the Los Padres National Forest, Summer 2012.

A Toyota parked on the beach in Southern Baja,  Winter 2012.

A surplus Russian Transport parked on the Beach in Kamchatka Russia,  Summer 2012.

The idea isn’t a fetishizing of the vehicles themselves,  but a celebration of the idea of traveling by cheep in a vehicle.  The site has received thousands of submissions since launching and its been great to see all the inspiring photos come in. Head over to van-life.net and share your photos of ships of the open road.

Here are some more links,

Vanlife (Tumblr),

Vanlife (#tag on instagram),

Home Is Where Your Park It! (Facbook).

February 19, 2013

That Wicked Country

“When are you going to that wicked country?  Your father tells me you are heading down soon.  How do you pronounce it? Ba JA?”  my 86 year old grandmother inquired from my cousin’s couch in San Diego.

“Dan and I are leaving tomorrow morning.”

“But it’s Christmas.  You’re not going to stay?  You just got here?”

“I know, Oma, but the highways in Baja will be empty.”

“Isn’t it dangerous?  I hear all these stories of people being found with their heads off.”

“It sure can be.  The border areas around Texas and incredibly dangerous,  but the place where I go is empty.  It’s just fishermen and a handful of surfers,” I explained.

“What do you do for food and water?  Isn’t it incredible arid?”

“Well we bring food and water in jugs, and we spear fish.  Depending on our luck, we buy fish from fisherman”

“So there aren’t restaurants or towns?”

“Think of it like Nevada with waves.  You drive 10 hours on a beat up, two lane road and then turn off and drive a few hours on dirt roads and then you park on the beach.”

“…And then you surf all day?  Sounds wonderful.”

“It sure is Oma.  Especially if you’re into surfing.”

My cousin Becca sat down on the other side of my grandmother, and the conversation shifted away from my upcoming trip.  It was already 9:30, and my jet-lagged relatives from the east coast were starting to wind down.  The fireplace popped away on wood trucked in from the Sierras and the smell of a Christmas tree overpowered the scraps of dinner still lying on the dinning room table.  I was full, too full, and I laid my head back against the wall.  I could fall asleep right now, I thought to myself.   Across the room, Dan talked with my aunt.  Over the chatter, it sounded like he was having a similar conversation with my aunt about the tenets and risks of driving to Baja.

Sunset at low tide in Central Baja.

Para Gringos!

A Taco stand in Guerrero Negro.

Two 10 footers.

Naranjas for sale on the side of the 1 in Northern Baja.

There is a bad moon on the rise.

Home is where you park it!

Dan after a four hour session.

The refrigerator at a road side Taqueria.

Off my wave cook.

Be prepared.

Foot warmers.

Red, white and blue #vanlife.

A gringo dog watching over a camp in Central Baja.

At 5:32,  the standard IOS allarm went off, waking me from my slumber on the couch.  Rolling over, I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and looked out the window.  It was still pitch black.  The street lamps lit the palm trees and a sixty degree Southern California breeze blew in from the open window.  Nothing felt like Christmas morning.  My cousin Nikko’s snore crept under the bedroom door into the living room.  Sunrise wasn’t for another two hours, but we still had to park Dan’s van at the airport and get gas.  Those two hours would go by fast.  Kicking off the blankets,  I reached for my jeans and pulled them on.  Feeling around in the dark, I grabbed my backpack and made sure my iPhone charger was in it.   Being as quiet as possible,  I locked the door behind me and headed out to my van.

Dan was already waiting right behind my van.

“Merrrry Christmas.”

“Happy Kwanzaa to you too.”

“You ready to go?”


Here are some more links,

Out of Reception (Tumblr).

December 12, 2012

A Fellow Van Dweller

The sun sagged in the west as I rounded a bend near Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park. Up ahead, a handful of rented RV’s and cars filled to the brim with backpacks and climbing gear dotted a large parking lot.  At 9,000 feet,  the Syncro’s engine labored at 5,000 RPM’s in second gear.  Fifteen miles of this climb up from the Valley had warmed the oil up.  Shifting into neutral,  I coasted into the lot and pulled into a parking space.   A lone Vanagon with a hand-painted mural stood a few hundred feet away.

Grabbing a down jacket,  I locked up the Syncro and checked out the Vanagon.  It was an early 80′s aircooled hard top that, based on the bike, curtains and artwork, was most likely someone’s home. Scanning the parking lot, I saw no likely candidates.

I turned on some Pink Floyd on my iPhone and shoved it into my breast pocket,  as I often do when alone. Marching to the tunes of Wish You Were Here, I followed the setting sun’s rays up the hill.  Following no defined path,  I saw a group of Teva wearing, DSLR brandishing hikers heading down the hill.

“Certainly not van dwellers…RV’ers for sure..” I mumbled to myself and continued up the hill.  My sea legs, and lungs, were burning by the time I finally made it to the top.  Scanning around the 360 degree view, the last rays of light bounced off the granite.  Picking a ledge, I sat down and turned up the volume on my phone.

The sun lowered over the sheer granite faces.  Zoning out,  the Pink Floyd songs meshed together.  Slowly, I realized that I wasn’t the only one on top of the mountain listening to my playlist.  Sometimes you can sense it.  Turning around, I saw a man in his late forties sitting a hundred feet behind me watching the sunset.  He sat calmly and without  the anxiousness of a most tourists on a weekend trip.  He had been traveling for a while and was very familiar with spending time by himself.   He didn’t fidget or fire away blindly with a digital camera.  Instead, he sat with watching the sunset over Yosemite Valley as if he does this every evening.

“He must be the van dweller…” I thought to myself.

For a moment, I felt like breaching the silence and starting a conversation.  For a song or two, I debated in my head.  A certain type of person is drawn to traveling by themselves and that type of person, although often lonely, values solitude.

I kept to myself.

Back in the parking lot, I fired up the Syncro and blasted on the heat.  The late October evening was chilly, and according to a Park Ranger,  Tioga Pass would soon be closed for the season. Backing out of the space,  I rolled down the parking lot towards the exit.   The lone man from the  hill was just getting back to his yellow Vanagon.  Rolling past, I waved in approval and respect.

He nodded in return with a smile.

Here are some more links,

Vanlife (Tumblr).