Posts in Tips

Top 5 FREE Camping Spots in Canada

In no particular order, here are our top 5 favourite FREE camping spots in Canada (so far…)

ARDEN CREEK – Port Alberni, British Columbia

Generic Van Life - Top 5 Best Free Camping Spots in Canada

Secluded waterside camping at its finest. A 40-minute drive from Port Alberni on a well maintained logging road gets you to the Alberni Inlet where you can tent or vehicle camp in a beautifully wooded area with picnic tables and a vault toilet.

Everything you need to know here: http://www.genericvan.life/full-camping-directory/listing/arden-creek/

ALEXANDER BAY – Glovertown, Newfoundland

Generic Van Life - Top 5 Best Free Camping Spots in Canada

With gravel pits aplenty in Newfoundland, finding one with a view is just an added bonus. Just off of the Trans-Canada on a dirt road is the former settlement of Alexander Bay; now a lovely gravel clearing on Boatswain’s (First) Pond.

Everything you need to know here: http://www.genericvan.life/full-camping-directory/listing/alexander-bay/

HARTLEY LAKE – Fernie, British Columbia

Generic Van Life - Top 5 Best Free Camping Spots in Canada

Nestled in the mountains just 30 minutes outside of Fernie, Hartley Lake is a beautiful emerald-coloured lake surrounded by spruce trees. There are a couple gravel clearings for vehicles and many hiking and ATV trails around in an otherwise perfectly remote setting.

Everything you need to know here: http://www.genericvan.life/full-camping-directory/listing/hartley-lake/

CASHEL LAKE – Gilmour, Ontario

Generic Van Life - Top 5 Free Camping Spots in Canada

Grassy crown land on a crystal clear lake. Pick a spot on the grass or in the woods and enjoy the peaceful surroundings of this nicely maintained area perfect for swimming, boating and fishing.

Everything you need to know here: http://www.genericvan.life/full-camping-directory/listing/cashel-lake/

NAHMINT LAKE – Port Alberni, British Columbia

Generic Van Life - Top 5 Free Camping Spots in Canada

It’s a rough road to get in, but totally worth the trek. Camp beneath old growth hemlock trees in BC’s rainforest. You’re also steps away from a rocky beach on a quiet freshwater lake.

Everything you need to know here: http://www.genericvan.life/full-camping-directory/listing/nahmint-lake/

Canada is HUGE and full of gorgeous, unobstructed nature waiting to be uncovered (and respected 🤓). Be sure to let us know if you check out any of these spots and shed some light on your favourite free spots too by leaving a comment below. Happy trails!

Top 5 FREE Camping Spots in America

In no particular order, here are our top 5 favourite FREE camping spots in America (so far…)

BLACK CANYON – New River, Arizona

Generic Van Life - Top 5 free camping spots in America

You’ve gotta love waking up in a movie-like desert with Saguaro cactuses taller than you at your doorstep. Lots of wide open space in this BLM area where you can stay a day or even a week.

Everything you need to know here: http://www.genericvan.life/full-camping-directory/listing/black-canyon/

EL MORRO – Tinaja, New Mexico

Generic Van Life - Top 5 free camping spots in America

The only National Park Campground we’ve ever seen that’s completely free. Amazing views of El Morro National Monument and you’re only a short drive away from exploring the grounds in the morning.

Everything you need to know here: http://www.genericvan.life/full-camping-directory/listing/el-morro/

PADRE ISLAND – Corpus Christi, Texas

Generic Van Life - Top 5 free camping spots in America

Beware of high tides when camping on Padre Island’s sandy beach. As long as you’re parked far enough back from the shore, this makes for an awesome spot to drive right on the beach and set up camp. Only catch here is that you will have to pay the entrance fee to the National Seashore, BUT it is free with an annual parks pass (which is definitely worth it, I might add).

Everything you need to know here: http://www.genericvan.life/full-camping-directory/listing/padre-island/

LAKE CUSHMAN – Hoodsport, Washington

Generic Van Life - Top 5 free camping spots in America

One spot nestled in the woods at the foot of Mt. Washington with an awesome view of Lake Cushman. Part of the Olympic National Forest and not far from Olympic National Park.

Everything you need to know here: http://www.genericvan.life/full-camping-directory/listing/lake-cushman-overlook/

DIXIE NATIONAL FOREST – Leeds, Utah

Generic Van Life - Top 5 free camping spots in America

Winding desert roads take you up to several campsites overlooking creeks and the nearby town of Leeds. Can’t beat rugged desert camping.

Everything you need to know here: http://www.genericvan.life/full-camping-directory/listing/dixie-national-forest/

We only just scratched the surface on the plethora of amazing BLM and National Forest land that America has to offer. Let us know your favourite spots in a comment so we can check ’em out!

RV Fridge Troubleshooting

Bottom line: life sucks when you don’t have a fridge. They’re far from a status symbol but are incredibly valuable and we all know that RV fridges are painfully expensive to replace. Here are some tips and tests to go through before hitting the service centre if your fridge is on the fritz.

Don’t you just love when you buy groceries and then they all spoil because your fridge decided to stop working? It’s my favourite. Not. We recently experienced a long drawn-out fridge repair that was super stressful and held us back from travelling until we got it sorted. After tons of manual-reading and YouTube-watching, we tried about every different test we could find to try and isolate our issue. We have a Dometic fridge (RM 2351) and the manual makes troubleshooting quite simple: if your fridge stops cooling, take it to a service centre immediately. How helpful… With the wealth of information available on the internet these days, it’s worth at least giving it a shot before taking it to a professional. Save yourself some cash and maybe even learn something new.

Full disclosure, we are by no means technicians; we’re just a couple of folks that did a ton of research, spoke to experienced professionals and fixed our $1200 fridge for $7. Also note that this list only applies to absorption fridges. Do yourself a favour and watch a short video to understand how these things work so you can better understand where your issue might lie.   

THE BASICS

Before getting into the more technical stuff, check the basics. Absorption fridges rely on gravity to function properly so make sure your fridge is always level. Unscrew the back panel on your fridge’s vent outside of your van/RV, remove the control board cover and check your fuses (side note: apparently it’s quite common for wasps and other insects to build nests in these vents, especially if you’re stationary, so be careful when removing the vent). Ours has two glass fuses, a 3A and a 5A, so be sure to inspect both. Next, check to make sure that your 120v outlet works: when plugged into shore power, plug something else into it (i.e. a string of lights, a cell phone charger, etc.) or get your multimeter and check for a current. Lastly, make sure you have propane and that it is in fact, on. If you’ve solved your problem by this point then rejoice, because your RV fridge troubleshooting days are behind you and you can move on to cool, refrigerated happiness. Also, remember that these things take a while to cool – 6 hours is the recommended time by Dometic to test the temperature. As the technician told us, every time you open the door to the fridge, you lose 1-2 hours of cooling.

Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Fridge Diagram copy
Here’s the back view of our fridge so you can familiarize yourself with where the main elements you’ll be testing are

CULPRIT: LP GAS

First, bypass the LP system by putting your fridge on auto while hooked up to shore/AC power and see if it works.

Test the propane by removing the fridge’s vent cover while the fridge is off. Remove the metal cover under the flue tube. Make sure that your fridge is on gas mode, not auto, and have someone turn it on while you listen for the sound of the propane igniting. Once it lights, observe the flame – it should be a nice clean blue flame. If it’s not, there could be an air bubble in your line so bleed the line (turn propane off and light stove until the flame goes out and there’s no more propane in the line before turning the propane back on) and try it again. Next, clean your flue and flue baffle. These are very funny names for very important elements. The flue is essentially the chimney of your fridge and the flue baffle is a twisted metal piece that sits inside the flue tube. These should be cleaned periodically; buildup and dust can affect the performance of your fridge. Also, please don’t be daft and test for propane with an open flame – you’re just asking for it.

Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Flame Cover
This metal box on the right covers the burner jet. Remove the screw and take off the cover to observe the flame.
Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Flue Cover Close
Remove the flue’s cap and pull out the flue baffle. Clean both the baffle and the flue tube with a wire brush and/or compressed air.
Here’s a crappy picture of a flue baffle because we didn’t take a picture of ours…oops!

CULPRIT: ELECTRIC ELEMENT

First, bypass the 120v system by putting your fridge on gas while disconnected from shore power so it will only use propane and 12v DC power and see if it works.

With the fridge off, switch back to auto and make sure that you’re connected to shore/AC power. Turn it back on and check if the boiler gets warm. If it doesn’t, you may need to replace your electric element or always run on gas mode.

Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Boiler
Carefully check that the boiler is warm/hot to the touch

CULPRIT: CONTROL BOARD

Turn your fridge and propane off and disconnect from 12v and 120v power. To test if your control board is shot, which is very common and super easy to replace, you’re going to need to bypass it. Find an appliance you have lying around that no longer works (or get something from the dollar store) because you’re going to need to steal the plug from it. Cut the wire on your dud appliance (leave a foot or two in length) and locate the wires that power the electric heating element, which run from the boiler into the control board. Unplug them from the control board and you’re going to need to hardwire them to the loaner plug that you cut off from your spare appliance. Polarity does not matter so you don’t need to worry about which wires are positive or negative. With your fridge now having a direct plug that doesn’t require the control board or fuses, plug it into your 120v outlet while connected to shore power. Alternatively, you can plug it directly into the shore power source. If it gets cold after a few hours then you’ll need to replace your control board. In theory, if your control board is broken then your fridge should be frozen if you leave it overnight. These run about $100 but are as simple to replace as unplugging your current wires and reconnecting them to the new board. Here’s a link to a video to watch it being done.

Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Control Board
Our control board
Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Electric Element Wires
Trace your wires from the electric element to the control board, unplug them and hardwire them to your spare plug.

CULPRIT: COOLING UNIT

First, check to see if there’s any crusty yellow liquid inside or anywhere on the back of your fridge. It’s possible that ammonia is leaking and therefore, the cooling unit can’t operate properly and needs to be replaced.

Here’s an example of what ammonia leakage looks like (not our fridge)

Next, since you’ve been such a good reader and attentively watched the video on how absorption fridges work, you know that the cooling unit is powered by a series of chemical state changes and the only way these state changes can occur is if the tubes are clear for the ammonia to flow through. It’s possible that there is a blockage, which is either past the point of no return or can be “burped” by turning the fridge upside down. Sounds odd but this is an old school trick that can work shockingly well and costs no money – AKA the perfect solution. You’ll need to make sure your propane and AC/DC power is off and then disconnect your fridge completely. Take a photo of the back of the fridge first so you can see where all your connections go and then label and take photos of each piece as you unhook them so you can easily hook them back up in reverse order. Remove the fridge from its housing inside of your RV and carefully turn it on its side and then on its head and listen for the sounds of liquids flowing. I’ve read a lot of mixed information about how long you should leave it upside down and there doesn’t seem to be a definite answer so we rotated it 2-3 times consecutively and then left it upside down (and level) for about 3 hours. We could hear the liquids moving through the tubes as we turned it so we knew that was a good sign. After 3 hours, turn it right side up and leave it to sit overnight before turning it on. It’s important to leave it turned off and sitting upright for longer than 3 hours to let everything settle again. Carefully hook everything back up, turn on your power and propane and turn the fridge on. Test the temperature in 6 hours. Cooling units can be replaced at home but are a little messier than upgrading other elements. If you can find a replacement at a decent price then go for it but be aware that these are usually $500+.

Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Propane Gauge
Turn off your propane
Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Bleed Propane Lines
Bleed your propane line with your stove
Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Disconnect AC Power
Disconnect your control board
Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Disconnect Gas Line
Disconnect your gas line and cap it (electrical tape is fine)
Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Cut Zip Ties
Snip any zip ties that may be holding things in place
Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Unscrew Fridge
Unscrew the frame of the fridge (ours has 4 screws)
Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Remove Eyebrow Panel
Unscrew and disconnect eyebrow control board
Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Remove Door
Remove door
Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Remove Fridge
Carefully slide ‘er out
Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Flip Fridge
After placing it on the floor, turn it on its side…
Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Upside Down Fridge
And flip it while listening for the sounds of liquid trickling. Repeat this multiple times and leave it upside down on a level surface. After a few hours, turn it right side up and leave it overnight before attempting to turn it back on again.

CULPRIT: THERMISTOR

Most RV fridges are equipped with a clip on the back fins that allows you to control the temperature slightly. The sensor inside that thermostat is called a thermistor. In a nutshell, as the temperature drops, the thermistor increases resistance and sends more ohms through to the control board. Once it reaches a certain temperature (usually about 1°C/34°F), it’ll reach an ohm rating (usually between 7-10k Ω for Dometic fridges) that sends a signal for the fridge to turn off. It won’t come back on until the temperature rises to a point where the ohm rating is below the shut-off level and requires cooling again. Anyway, if the thermistor is broken then either A) your fridge will cool slightly then stop because it thinks it’s cold, or B) your fridge will always be frozen because it thinks it’s warm. To test your thermistor, unhook it from the control board (follow the wire coming out of the back of your fridge beside the drainage tube) and turn your fridge on. Within 6 hours, it should be cold and if left overnight, it should technically be frozen, depending on what your ambient temperature is. You can replace the thermistor by buying the kit from Dometic, buying a temperature control dial with a built-in thermistor or buying a generic thermistor from an electronics store and connecting the wires to those of your broken thermistor in order to reuse the plug specific to your control board. This ended up being our culprit, so we bought an epoxy coated thermistor that came with a tiny resistor and wired that into our existing plug. You must make sure that it is an NTC thermistor (negative temperature coefficient) so that the resistance increases as the temperature drops. The ohm rating is key here, ours is 10k Ω, which is a pretty standard one.

Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Thermistor Plug
The bottom clip on the left hand side with a brown and blue wire running to it is our thermistor plug
Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Thermistor Back
Feed the new thermistor through the hole in the back of the fridge near the drainage tube
Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-New Thermistor
Feed it through to the inside of the fridge
Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Thermistor Clip
Slide the new thermistor into your old clip
Generic Van Life-RV Fridge Troubleshooting-Thermistor
Clip it back on to the cooling fin that it was attached to before. The higher on the fin, the colder it’ll tell your fridge to be.

All in all, RV fridges can be pretty intimidating but are really not as scary as you may think. It’s worth taking some time to troubleshoot on your own before taking it in for repair or replacing it altogether. Just make sure to be careful when dealing with all electric and gas connections and to give your fridge enough time to cool down. They are said to take 12 hours to fully reach temperature but factors like the outside temperature and humidity can slow this down and leave your fridge working overtime. The ambient temperature in an RV parked in the desert is going to have a huge effect on the performance of the fridge in comparison to a fridge sitting in a 10°C/50°F room. Be patient, be careful and keep that fridge level!

Missing something? If you have any additional tips/tricks, feel free to let us know and we’ll add them in.

 

Big City, Low Budget: Being Stealthy in Vancouver

We clocked in some major city miles in Vancouver before heading away from the coast and toward Hope, British Columbia. Check out some of our stealth camping tips so you and your van can live that big city dream!

Sailing into Horseshoe Bay on a warm May evening made for a pretty spectacular welcome back onto mainland BC. All of the smaller islands surrounding Vancouver Island and the luxurious shacks that sit atop them sparkled in the setting sun as our ferry docked about 15 minutes north of West Van. We didn’t want to deal with driving through the city after a long day cruising across the island so we headed north toward Squamish to hunker down for the night. Highway 99, or the Sea-to-Sky Highway, is kind of like a continuation of America’s Pacific Coast Highway that skims the rugged coastline all the way to Squamish before surrounding you in mountains as you head into Whistler. BC is full of scenic drives but this route in particular is pretty special.

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Squamish
Stunning views just south of Squamish

We found a spot just off the highway with a glorious view of the islands (think Canada, not Galapagos) and the seemingly calm waters that separated us. Being so close to Vancouver, this was a fairly popular spot to camp with a small “village” of vanners forming as more people set up shop for the night. We’re not big fans of waking up early so luckily most of the folks had already set out for the day by the time we rolled out of bed and we had the views all to ourselves.

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Squamish Hwy 99
Hard to believe we were only metres away from a busy highway

Over the next week, we got our fair dose of city life as we caught up with lots of friends and family in Vancouver. In fact, we experienced the ultimate Vancouver dream: living on a swanky street in Kitsilano lined with multi-million dollar houses while being steps from the beach and tons of bars and restaurants – oh and, for $0 in rent. City camping is not for everyone and definitely gets old pretty quick but it made for a great way to keep our expenses down while spending our days wandering around a big city. It can seem a little daunting at first to pick a spot where you’ll actually be able to sleep the night and not be woken up by relentless street noise or the fear of police knocking on your window in the middle of the night, so here are a few tips we’ve learned for successful stealth camping:

  • Arrive after the sun goes down and already be ready for bed. This way, you don’t need to exit the van to go to the bathroom or have lights on to see your toothbrush. We like to stay in a public parking lot, like a grocery store or city park, and do all of our bedtime duties there so we can keep pretty low-key once we arrive at our spot. With this method, we’ll head out in the AM so folks might not have even noticed we were there at all.
  • Otherwise, park the van in the day, put all the curtains down and leave. Leave for the whole day. People seem to be much less sketched out by a van in the daytime that seems to just be “forgotten” by nightfall. Nothing says CIA like a cargo van with a fake florist company’s logo rolling up at 7PM and not moving. In Key West, we parked near a hotel and left for the day to be tourists and didn’t return until after midnight – this made the van seem more like any other commuter vehicle than our house.
  • Don’t let anyone see you enter/exit the vehicle. In line with previous points, you either leave for the day and don’t return until people go to bed or you arrive when people are already in bed. Don’t make it seem like your van is your home base and that you’re quite obviously living out of your vehicle.
  • If possible, opt for a spot that’s not directly in front of a single-family home. We like to park in front of apartment buildings or be across the street from churches or businesses so it seems like it could be anyone’s vehicle. Are the folks in unit 2A having visitors? Who knows? Also, who cares? By the time anyone actually pursues it, you’ll be gone.
  • Finally the obvious ones: Don’t make excessive noise. Use minimal lights. Make sure people can’t see your stuff when you’re gone for the day but make sure that what people can see is clean and tidy. Essentially, fly under the radar the best you can. No need to draw any extra attention to your rig or become the eyesore of a neighbourhood with take-out containers and receipts filling the dash. Also, decreasing the likelihood of getting broken into is always the name of the game so don’t have anything worthwhile visible – we even make it a point to not leave spare change on the front console.

We spent the week working while eating good food, hanging out at the beach and catching up with old friends. We even dabbled in “vegan chicken wings, AKA cauliflower wings, that were way tastier than we would have ever imagined – and that says a lot coming from two devoted carnivores. Being such an expensive city to live in, we were pretty lucky to bring our accommodations with us and have nice enough weather to walk EVERYWHERE. That is one thing that I love about cities, an hour walk to meet up with your friend turns into an adventure in itself with all the interesting things to see and colourful folks to people watch (in the least creepy way possible). Of course the main downside about being in the city is that you can’t help but spend money – how can you turn down a fresh bowl of delicious ramen when all you have in the van is Mr. Noodles?! That being said, we’ll just focus on the money we saved in accommodation and transportation and not the money we spent on food…

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Sunset Burrard Bridge
How purdy! The Vancouver sun (the actual one, not the newspaper) setting over the mountains from Burrard Bridge

The time finally came where we were sick of the city and desperately wanted to be back in the woods. We left the sky-high Vancouver gas prices behind and drove past Chilliwack to Hope, BC where we found ourselves a spot on the Skagit River. Given the season, the rivers were quite high as the snow from the mountains was in prime melting time but this had to be the fastest moving river I’ve ever seen. It looked like someone put this river on fast-forward and just left it. Anyway, it felt good to be back in nature until we took a look around the campsite and it was covered in trash. California was bad for litterbugs but this was downright disgusting – the previous campers had attempted to burn all their unneeded camping gear so the fire pit had an ashy camping chair in it while wrappers and beer boxes were scattered throughout. The kicker though, was that they left two chicken cutlets on a cooking grill on the fire pit. You don’t need to be all that “bear aware” to know that that’s not a good idea – ever. So we cleaned it all up and finished their botched burning job to leave the spot as a campsite instead of a pigsty.

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Skagit River Trash
This campsite was once a gnarly site
Generic Van Life - Vancouver Skagit River
Then became a great riverside spot!

Coastal BC has been amazing so we’re stoked to head into the mountains and start exploring the interior. Summer is upon us and Canada is full of what we call Crown Land (similar to BLM lands in the States) so we’re gearing up for a few months of amazing free camping. Follow along on our new Camping Directory where we’ll continuously share all the hidden gems we uncover. Shoot us a message or leave a comment with any must-see spots anywhere from BC to Newfoundland – we’re doing it all!

Complete Van Life Solar System for Under $1000

So you wanna go off-grid but reading about installing a solar system seems like gibberish? Check out our easy to understand guide for a concise video and detailed explanation with helpful tips and product links. We’ve also included a cost breakdown so you can start saving now!

If you’re working while living on the road, you know that electricity is essential to keep your computer and other devices charged. Even if you’re just enjoying a quiet weekend in the woods, it’s nice to be able to have access to power without having to run a noisy generator. The answer? Solar power. Putting a solar system into play can seem intimidating and costly but at the end of the day, it’s a one-time worthy investment.

Take, for example, our routine when we first started out. Working full days Tuesday-Thursday meant that we had to pay for a campsite or RV Park in order to plug in. Sure, you can camp out at coffee shops and other places with wifi and plugs, but that only really works when you’re around a city. This meant we were paying over $100/week as our “power bill” essentially. This got old real quick and defeated the purpose of us moving out of our apartment to get away from the bills in the first place. So we spent a while researching which components would work best for us and got the wheels turning on our solar system.

FULL DISCLOSURE: We are not electricians by any stretch but had enough research and experience in our holsters to put a system into place that works great and cuts our costs down immensely.    

Generic Van Life - Solar System
Download a larger version of this diagram here

For our system, we are using a 150 watt monocrystalline solar panel from Renogy. In a nutshell, polycrystalline is cheaper but monocrystalline is more efficient. We opted for this one mainly because it’s square so it fits nicely within our roof rack. We’re fairly light power users so 150 watts is sufficient for us, but take some time to pay attention to how much power you actually consume in a day. Take note of the wattage rating on your appliances too – you’d be surprised how much power some small appliances take. Use resources like Renogy’s calculator to help figure this kind of stuff out.  

Generic Van Life - Solar Panel Setup - Solar Panel
Our square solar panel fits nicely on the back of the van

The panel is hooked up using two MC4 connectors (wtf are those?! read this) to join the positive and the negative 10 AWG wires that come already attached to the panel to the positive and negative 10 AWG wires that feed inside. Home Depot has a handy guide for understanding wire thickness, or read more in-depth about it here. As mentioned, we already had a roof rack so we just ran two sturdy metal beams across and used z-brackets to secure it on. Depending on what your roof’s shaped like, you can easily mount the z-brackets directly onto the roof as well. We drilled two holes in the corner of the roof and sealed on a little cable hub to feed the wires through while keeping it water-tight. On the positive wire, we’ve used a 15 amp breaker but you can also use a standard fuse. The breakers are a little more expensive upfront but never need to be replaced. 

Generic Van Life - Solar Panel Setup - Mounting Brackets
These steel beams helped us mount the panel since it’s a little narrower than our roof rack
Generic Van Life - Solar Power Setup - Entry Gland
So the sealant doesn’t exactly dry white but it does a great job keeping the entry gland water-tight

The positive wire then attaches to our CTEK box, the D250S Dual. This box is an MPPT charge controller that allows the battery to be charged by the solar panel and by the alternator while we’re driving – great on overcast days. CTEK is a Swedish company that makes some badass battery chargers for all kinds of different uses. The negative wire is also attached to the negative terminal on the box. You can definitely opt for a much simpler and cheaper charge controller if you don’t plan to incorporate your alternator. 

Side note: When we bought the van, we already had a 12V lead acid marine battery in the back that had a wire running directly from the alternator that would charge while we were driving. We didn’t want to cut this power source off so that’s when we discovered the CTEK box.  

Next, a thicker 4 AWG positive wire runs from the CTEK box to the positive terminal of the house battery. We’ve added a 20 A breaker in between. A 4 AWG negative wire runs from the negative terminal of the CTEK box to the negative terminal of the house battery. We’re using the single 12V lead acid marine battery we already had but will eventually upgrade to two 12V batteries. When using multiple batteries, understand series and parallel wiring. Your battery will probably be the most expensive component so picking the right battery is essential. The CTEK box is also equipped with a temperature sensor that sits on top of the battery to maintain an optimal charge.

Generic Van Life - Solar Panel Setup - CTEK Box
The CTEK box is the hub of our wiring system. Plus – check out what our floor used to look like…

The house battery feeds a couple different things: first, a separate positive and negative 4 AWG wire runs from the battery to the 1000w pure sine wave inverter, also from Renogy. This is probably the most important area to study before you buy; understanding the amount of power your household items use when they first start up versus when they’ve been on for a few minutes is key. Take some time to understand surge power and sine waves to figure out how hefty of an inverter you’ll need. With a 150A breaker on the positive wire, the inverter converts the DC power coming off the battery into the AC power required for household appliances. You can plug stuff in directly to the inverter or run an extension cord, like we did. When shopping for inverters, read lots of customer reviews because the fan in many cheaper inverters can be incredibly noisy. It’s not an area you want to cheap out on.

Generic Van Life - Solar Panel Setup - Inverter
The inverter mounts nicely under the bed

Next, a 10 AWG positive wire with a 30 A breaker runs to our fuse box, where the fuses for all of our DC-powered appliances live. For us, that’s the fridge, lights and furnace. Again, this was part of our existing rudimentary system when the alternator was hooked up directly to the house battery so that’s why the fuses are the old school glass ones.

Also, there’s a negative 10 AWG wire running from the negative terminal of the house battery to an earthing point to ground the circuit.

On the final mount of the CTEK box, a positive 10 AWG wire runs all the way to the alternator and starting battery in the front. Here, we’ve put a killswitch in between if we ever want to cut the power from the alternator and rely solely on the solar panel. And of course, there is the existing negative 10 AWG wire grounding the starting battery as well.

Finally, the battery also has thin 22 AWG positive and negative wires running to a battery monitor that allow us to see the charge percentage and how many volts it’s getting.

Generic Van Life - Solar Panel Setup - Voltage Meter
The sun doin’ its thang

SO HOW MUCH DID IT ALL COST ANYWAY?

Renogy 150W Monocrystalline Solar Panel – $200
Renogy 1000W Pure Sine Wave Inverter – $180 BUT we bought ours refurbished directly from Renogy. A new one will set you back $270
CTEK D250S Dual (charge controller) – $283
Battery – “free” because we already had one but expect to pay $300-500. This is the one we’re lusting over.
Wiring – $70 (we bought the linked product from Amazon and got the rest bulk at Home Depot)
Breakers – 4 @ $13 each = $52. Using regular fuses would definitely cost less but always have a few extra on hand.
Killswitch – $14
Metal beams for mounting + hardware – $32 (you’ll have to go to the hardware store for these)
Mounting Z-Brackets – $10
Rooftop Double Cable Entry Gland with Sealant – $20
Battery Monitor – $15
Cable Organization (wall mounts to keep the wiring tidy) – $7

Grand total: $883
*Note that this pricing is all in US dollars because we purchased everything in the US of A. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

We broke even in 6 weeks not having to pay for RV Parks. We now have so much more freedom to work from wherever we want to and not have to worry about reservations and fees. Taking the time to thoroughly research which components fit your needs and budget is well worth it. Hopefully this helps anyone looking to add a solar system to your van or RV…it’s not as scary as it may seem!

Download our visual guide here.

Feel free to shoot us a message or leave a comment below if you have any further questions or need clarification on anything. This post is jam-packed with helpful links so click away!!

Like the graphics in this video and post? Keep the Internet Busy can help you build cool stuff for your website too! http://www.keeptheinternetbusy.com/

Keys and Glades

Highway 1 took us from Fort Lauderdale to the southernmost point in the United States. We had a blast in Key West before boating through gator land in the Florida Everglades.

After the rocket launch madness, we were stoked to head toward a BLM-style camping spot like those in the west, which are hard to come by in Florida. Over here, there are Water Management Areas where camping is permitted in designated areas by making a free reservation. That being said, they can get booked up quick – especially with February being the peak of high season in Florida. We arrived at DuPuis WMA after nightfall expecting a quiet forested area but soon realized it was basically an RV Park without hookups. I’m sure it’s not always like that but it was comical how jampacked it was. Granted it was a Friday and this place boasts amenities like bathrooms, hot showers and garbage disposal (a euphemism for dumpsters), which are all rare to find on free public land. This particular area is considered an equestrian campground but accommodates non-equestrian campers with RVs as well. As someone from the city, it was pretty cool to wake up to horses walking by the van despite them having to trot through a maze of RVs. When navigating which WMA you can camp at based on your camping equipment, the lady I spoke with on the phone clarified that a small camper like ours can fit at any of the sites, except backcountry. Larger RVs are generally best suited for the equestrian grounds and tents are good to go anywhere. Depending on the time of year, I’d suggest preemptively making some reservations along the way and cancelling them ahead of time (be nice) if need be – easier than scrambling last minute and toying with the idea of pitching a tent in a Walmart parking lot (don’t do this).

Generic Van Life - Key West DuPuis
This is the DuPuis WMA after some people had cleared out in the morning. Still lots of folks but plenty of green space to go around

Fort Lauderdale awaited us with friends, an air conditioned apartment and even colder beer. We spent the weekend catching up with an old friend of Justin’s and enjoying the luxury of having a flushing toilet at our disposal. With our streak of abnormally low temperatures hitting every town on our path, Fort Lauderdale shook things up and hit some seasonal highs. After months of acquiring extra blankets and making sure our propane is topped up to run the furnace, we had to go out and buy a fan. Boohoo, I know, but keep in mind we have a Canadian van aka great furnace but no a/c. Needless to say, we received no sympathy from people back home as they scrape ice off their cars and moustaches. Anyway, we set up for the work week at a county park called Easterlin Park in the Oakland Park neighbourhood (how many times can I say park in one sentence?). This was a really cool spot that even our Florida native friends didn’t know existed. It’s a lovely green space in the middle of an urban area that felt secluded and lush – well, until the blaring train went by. It’s part of a group of 5 parks scattered across Broward County that all offer different types of camping (and wifi!) with nice facilities. We just so happened to be there when the Parkland shooting happened and received alerts on our phones when the shooter was still at large. We were about 25 minutes away, so that was a little scary. Not gonna get into it, but here’s to sincerely hoping that no such emergency alert has to be issued again.

Generic Van Life - Key West Easterlin Park
Easterlin Park made for some jungle-like camping minutes from Fort Lauderdale

With the drive down the Keys on our agenda the next morning, we took the 1 all the way through Miami to Homestead. Of course this wasn’t until after making an important stop at Le Tub in Hollywood Beach to eat burgers bigger than our heads. I’ve heard Miami traffic is crazy and we can now attest that that is certainly true. At least there were trippy lightshows of dancing people on the sides of buildings to keep the drive interesting. We eventually parked up in Homestead and stayed the night in a Home Depot parking lot about 40 min north of Key Largo.

Generic Van Life - Key West Le Tub Welcome
Bathtub shop? Nope, burger joint. And we’re talking 16 oz patties

The much-anticipated drive down the Keys was well worth the excitement. Gorgeous views from every angle made it hard to not daydream about spending the day boating to a far out sand dune to have lunch like many of these boaters seemed to be doing. Even with the beautiful turquoise waters glistening in the sun, it was evident that hurricane Irma made a lasting impression on several of the Keys, especially Islamorada and Marathon. Piles of debris lined the highway and left behind not-so-distant memories of beautiful beach homes and pristine beaches. In fact, we drove past to see that even the KOA was closed for reconstruction. It’s clear that, similar to Texas, some areas have more money than others to clean up and rebuild, leaving virtually no trace of disaster. That being said, we drove out of the Keys on a Saturday and saw groups of people scattered around working together to clean up. As unfortunate as these things may be, the community coming together to help each other is always a good aspect of the outcome.

Generic Van Life - Key West Drive
Even our broken mirror looked gorgeous in the Keys!

Reaching Key West, we were on a mission to find a private parking lot that we could pay to park in for the night, as per advice from other vanners. Camping in Key West is known to be next to impossible unless you’re cool spending over $100+ a night and booking a campsite months in advance. After passing by several parking lots with blatantly posted signs stating “No RVs, trailers or campers” or simply, “overnight parking prohibited”, we went to a hotel to ask to park in their parking lot. The guy at the front desk said they don’t allow that but there’s no need anyway because in Old Town, you can freely park on the street. In his words, as long as you’re not in front of someone’s house, on the yellow lines or parked “backwards” (backed in) then you’ll be fine. He assured me that there’d be no trouble and that he had my back if the police had anything to say about it. Of course I left out the minor detail that we’d be sleeping in the van, but at least I made a new friend. We parked not far from the hotel in an area with a bunch of other cars, away from any main streets. We closed all the curtains, put our sun shade in the windshield and walked into all the tourist action to load ourselves with beverages.

Generic Van Life - Key West Roosters
Street parking meant we had some rowdy neighbours. They were roosters.

A must-see on our short trip was the Hemingway Home; a gorgeously preserved home filled with polydactyl cats, what’s more to love? Go on the tour and hear the facts and stories for yourself but I’ll just tell ya that this house is lovely and complete with every creative’s dream, a private studio. Walking around the property was surreal, especially for me as my 17 year old self got a quote from The Old Man and the Sea as my first tattoo (yes, I thought I was cool). After spending some quality time with the kitties, we had some delicious food at Santiago’s Bodega before eventually ending up at the tastefully divey Whistle Bar on Duval. A second-floor bar with a wrap around patio was a perfect choice for observing a night in Key West in full swing. Bonus, the third floor of this place is a clothing optional bar called Garden of Eden if that strikes your fancy ;). We stumbled back to the van and discreetly climbed in for the night. Stealth camping is always a gamble so be cautious to not let residents see you and of course, be as quiet and unobtrusive as you can be. From what I’ve read, sleeping in your vehicle is harshly punishable there and the police like to throw out the jail card. With looming paranoia and incredibly vocal roosters going all night long, it wasn’t the most peaceful sleep but a free stay in Key West nonetheless!

Generic Van Life - Key West Hemingway Pool
Hemingway’s backyard with the first (and most expensive) pool in Key West

The drive out was somehow even more beautiful and we made sure to stop on a couple other keys to take it all in. The only thing that would have made our stay better would have been seeing a key deer but we can’t have it all can we. We had our mid-day breakfast on Coco Plum Beach, near Marathon Key, before heading to the Everglades for an airboat tour that we scored a wicked deal on (thanks Groupon). We went to Coopertown, a town with a posted population of a whopping 8 people, for the “original” airboat tour. If you do click this link to go to their website, please enjoy as much as I did that their official video is a clip from Bridget’s Sexiest Beaches, a travel show by Playboy Playmates. Unfortunately there weren’t any Playmates present when we went but we did see 3 gators! This was so satisfying since our eyes were peeled whenever we were by a swamp in Louisiana, to no avail. Riding the gator high after the tour, I spotted at least 10 more gators hanging out along the banks and swimming in the swamps on our drive west out of the Glades along Big Cypress Preserve. Wildlife was the name of the game with several signs warning of panther crossings but like the key deer, they remained a mystery.

Generic Van Life - Key West Gator
Gator patrol

Click away for some more photos from lovely southeastern Florida:

Been to the Everglades? Done some stealthy boondocking in the Keys? We wanna hear about it!

Driving Where Your Momma Don’t Want You to Go: Mexico

Venturing across another border in Guaymas and Puerto Peñasco, Sonora

When a lot of people think about going to Mexico, they think of an all-inclusive vacation in Cancún or Cabo San Lucas. AKA Americanized tourist meccas geared to give you just enough sandy beaches and cheap booze to make you feel like you’re in a tropical place, while still feeling comfortable enough to not have to understand a lick of Spanish. To that point, we’re fed by the media to be afraid of this beautiful country and “never leave the resort” – it’s definitely not as popular an opinion in Canada as it is in The United States, but a familiar warning nonetheless.

Generic Van Life - Puerto Penasco Lunch
Hard to believe by my eyes that this was my first beer of the day

With our travel advisory apprehensions in check, we made our way out of Yuma to the border in San Luis Río Colorado. As two young people in a Scooby Doo van, we got searched entering Mexico. I must say, the guards were so polite and friendly and oddly unintimidating despite their fellow officers with machine guns on either side of them. We carried on without trouble and made our way toward Puerto Peñasco, or Rocky Point in English, a total gringo vacation town where prices are even presented in USD. Don’t get me wrong, the town and the view of the Sea of Cortez is lovely, but it definitely fits in the margins of the category I made fun of earlier. People trying to sell you mass-produced “authentic” goods and discount pharmaceuticals (they seemed to have more Viagra than a Pfizer factory) made walking down the street a game of Frogger.

Generic Van Life - Puerto Penasco Sign
Tourist-ing it up

Our ultimate destination was Teacapán, Sinaloa – a small fishing village about 2 hours south of Mazatlán where Justin’s aunt has a house. From the border, it was to be about a 3 day trek down. After lunch at a waterfront restaurant in Puerto Peñasco, we started making our way toward Puerto Libertad, where we had planned to stay for the night. Upon arriving to the tiny beach town, we realized that there definitely was no RV Park to be found and that a misunderstanding on a website had led us astray. We rolled up to the Pemex and asked if it was safe to stay the night there. The immediate “no” that came out of the attendant’s mouth made it quite clear that we were to hop back on the highway and keep driving. To be fair, I don’t think that this town was necessarily dangerous, it just wasn’t the Flying J that semis and other travellers would pull into and park for the night. We were a van and a C Class motorhome that didn’t really scream “locals”.

Had some precious cargo on board. This is Justin’s mom’s cat, Sir Walter. He has more followers on Instagram than you or I ever will (@sirwaltermsmelody)

So what now? The nearest RV Park was over 2 hours away and sunset wasn’t far off. We didn’t feel like we had much of a choice so we got back on the road. I want to make it clear that despite our critical view on fearing Mexico, driving at night was something we wanted to avoid. And go figure, on our first night, we found ourselves cruising through the dark (it was only early in the evening so not totally disturbing, but still really, really dark). Nighttime driving aside, the biggest mistake we made was taking the state highway instead of the federal highway. We can’t blame our past selves because we didn’t know the road would be that bad but yikes, we’ve never experienced deeper car-swallowing potholes in our lives. At first it was like a video game, swerving to avoid the odd crater and then it just became downright scary. We had to slow down to a MAXIMUM of 40 km/h (25 mph) in order to not pop a tire or completely wreck the undercarriage of the van. I say completely wreck because it definitely took a beating, even when we were trying our damnedest to be cautious. Luckily traffic was very light (wonder why…) because moving into the oncoming traffic lane was as inevitable as the potholes. Suddenly the 2.5 hour drive started to feel like it was going to be a lot longer. We did pass a number of state and federal police checks that all seemed friendly enough to just make fun of our poor Spanish before waving us along. One shady occurrence was a group of 5-6 cars (some with California plates, others with Sonora plates and the rest with none) that travelled in a close group that would pull over then speed up periodically. Normally this would probably mean bad news but fortunately, they didn’t bother us.

Generic Van Life - Puerto Penasco Drive
At least driving in the dark had some nice views

Peeling our clammy hands and white knuckles off the wheel, we arrived in Bahía Kino and set up at Islandia RV Park and Marina. The owner was lovely and it was such a relief to have a safe spot to sleep for the night in such a beautiful location. Sunrise gave us our first real opportunity to admire the beachfront and chat with other travellers passing through. Our next order of business was getting our temporary vehicle permits necessary to exit the “hassle-free zone” that is the Baja Peninsula and the western side of Sonora. In the simplest terms, you need a permit to operate a foreign vehicle in the rest of Mexico. We already had Mexican auto insurance so you pay a fee, get a sticker and get your money back upon leaving the country. Easy enough so before heading to Guaymas to get it, I decided to give the office a call to see what documents we needed to get the permit. That’s when we realized we did not get our tourist cards (FMMs). Oops! This was quite a silly oversight on our parts as we were supposed to get it in San Luis right after entering. We can blame the border guards all we want for not directing us there (they were apparently supposed to) but at the end of the day, we should have prepared better and sought it out immediately. We were told that even though we had auto insurance, they wouldn’t honour it without a tourist card. This mistake meant driving back to the nearest border, Nogales. If you’re familiar with Mexican geography then you know that that’s a 5 hour haul from where we were, essentially erasing all the ground we covered the previous day.

Generic Van Life - Puerto Penasco Bahia Kino
The beautiful beach in Bahía Kino (Kino Bay)

Justin and I decided that it just wasn’t worth the hours and wear and tear on our vehicle to make the rest of the drive down after having to start over, so we parted ways with our convoy crew after successfully getting our tourist cards in Nogales. It was Friday by this point and New Year’s weekend so we figured we’d stay the weekend in Puerto Peñasco and cross back into the States in time for the work week. No doubt it was a bit of a drag but we just couldn’t justify spending 8 full days of our allotted two weeks driving.

Generic Van Life - Puerto Penasco Bahia Kino Morning
Can’t be too stressed when you’re waking up to this sunrise

Anyway, we made a stop that evening in Santa Ana to spare us from another nighttime drive after an already stressful day. I couldn’t write this blog post without mentioning our dear friend, Edgar Osuna. Originally planning to camp out at a gas station for the night, we zoomed past a homemade sign that said “RV PARK OPEN” right off the 15. We turned around and checked it out and were very glad we did. The RV Park itself was nothing to write home about, with electrical and limited water hookups but no bathrooms or showers. All that mattered to us was that it was a safe place to rest our heads and it was only 200 pesos, after all (about $13 CAD or $10 USD). We got to talking with the owner, Edgar, and discovered that he loved Canadians and his late wife was actually American. At 74 years old, Edgar is paralyzed on his left side but still full of life. He greeted us the next morning and told us stories of how he toured in a band called The Thunderbirds (the Mexican version, he added) in the 60s and used to love driving through Mexico and America. He was the sweetest man to talk to and a local celebrity in the town. I highly encourage anyone to visit him at Punta Vista RV Park if you’re ever passing through Santa Ana.

Generic Van Life - Puerto Penasco Edgar
♥ Edgar ♥ The sweetest Mexican rockstar you’ll ever meet!

The RV Park we scouted out to stay for the weekend was on the west side of Puerto Peñasco, where all of the hotels and resorts are – about a 10 min drive away from the town. Despite not being in a “beachfront” spot, we were just a stone’s throw away from the sandy shores of the Gulf of California. As Justin says, this place was like Arizona Lite. There were many seasonal spots with permanent decks and patios where Arizonans came down for 6-7 months of the year to escape winter (wait, Arizona’s not cold?! It is the sunshine destination for tons of Albertan snowbirds). Essentially, everyone was a sunbaked gringo on vacation. Fine by us, as we were the same – just pale. We enjoyed some beers on the beach and spent the evening on our neighbours’ patio drinking tequila and Tecates. They were indeed Arizonans but were originally from Alaska and New York; they’ve done their fair share of cold winters so I completely understand why retiring in Mexico would be a dream come true. As fate would have it, our neighbours on the other side were travellers from Kelowna, BC! We celebrated in true Canadian fashion by being civilized, polite and friendly, ha.

Generic Van Life - Puerto Penasco Playa Bonita RV Park
Clemmie has broken into van, RV and fifth wheel communities alike

Unfortunately, when New Year’s Eve rolled around, Justin was dead sick. While he rested in the van, I went to a bonfire party with our newly acquainted Arizonan friends and watched some fireworks over the beach. It was a rough beginning to the year with Justin’s flu and my hangover but we couldn’t overlook how awesome it was that we were starting it off in Mexico, in our van, doing exactly what we want to do. Not gonna turn this into some sappy reflection post but we definitely feel super happy to be doing what we’re doing and are so stoked about all the amazing people we’ve met along the way and all the ones we’re yet to meet in interesting places in the near future.

Generic Van Life - Puerto Penasco Playa Bonita
RV Park on the beach > Walmart parking lot

We decided that we’d stay the work week instead of leaving after the weekend because…why not? There was passable wifi, it was cheaper than most American parks, our tourist cards were good for 7 days, oh and being by the beach didn’t hurt. Go figure it was one of the busiest work weeks (we even had to pass up going to tequila shot bingo, sigh) but we certainly couldn’t complain about sitting on a beach after clocking out. We had an awesome time and made lots of new friends but were ready to go back to the US for cheap gas and nicely paved roads. We said our goodbyes and made the short drive to the border crossing into Lukeville, AZ and geared up for an intense search. We’d also been warned that there were often cops camped out in a couple of the small towns you drive through, waiting to give you a “speeding ticket” (get their palms greased) but we were lucky enough not to run into any trouble. The border crossing was a breeze – it was actually easier for us to get into the States from Mexico than it was from Canada. Seems odd but we had nothing on us anyhow.

Generic Van Life - Puerto Penasco Bye
A subtle reminder to brush up on your spanish. And to have a nice trip

All in all, we loved Mexico but will definitely prepare better next time we go. A word to the wise: gas is expensive (about on par with Canadian prices but significantly more expensive than American) and RV Parks aren’t too common so plan accordingly because it’s not worth taking the same risks you might be comfortable with in America by parking on a deserted beach or in the desert. This website as a whole is pretty handy and constantly referenced by travelling Americans, but on this page you can see all the RV Parks on the northern west coast – you’ll see what I mean about them being few and far between.

 

Here are some more useful links to prepare for your awesome Mexican road trip:

All about tourist cards (FMM) here. All about vehicle permits here. You can even do this in advance here and pick it up upon arriving in Mexico. That woulda been smart to do, huh!

This Mexico Mike dude does a good job summin’ it all up. He also was the only avenue we found to find info on the vehicle registration centre in Empalme (just south of Guaymas).

 

Vanned your way through Mexico? Tell us about it! We’d love to share stories.