Nissan NV Stealth Camper: It’s Alive!

12.4 amps of sunlight filling a "full" battery bank.

12.4 amps of sunlight filling a “full” battery bank.

WICKHAM CP, FL—The solar panels are only half the equation of a solar system, and getting the other half done can be quite intimidating. Thank God for Handy Bob, a guy who has done pretty much all of the research for you.

I based my travel trailer’s system on Bob’s recommendations and did the same for the van. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here as I don’t particularly want to be the Go-To-Guy for solar questions (and I’m practically clueless about them anyway).

So if you find the following useful in your own solar installation, drop a nice donation to Handy Bob (use Paypal to send donations to his email address found toward the top of this page).

Getting There

Getting There

List Of Equipment I Used:

  • Batteries – Two (edit: Three) Duracell Deep Cycle 105ah AGMs – AGMs are a lot more expensive than typical non-sealed batteries, but they are maintenance free (you don’t need to equalize them or maintain the water levels).
  • A/C Fuse box – I’m using 30 amp fuses since my trailer’s panels never generated over 22 amps and I expect about the same with the van.
  • TriStar TS-45 Charge Controller – Recommended by Handy Bob. I’ve got the same one on my travel trailer and it does an excellent job of keeping the batteries charged.
  • TriMetric 2025 Battery Monitor – Without a battery monitor, you don’t know what’s going on with your system. This is particularly important when you first set up and are getting to know how your system handles various weather conditions. I cannibalized this from my trailer as that system is already perfectly balanced.
  • 4 Gauge Welding Cable – This is used to connect all the above components and—being very flexible—is much easier to work with than the 4 gauge cable/wire you get from electric supply companies.

It took me about three days to get all the components organized and to wire the whole thing up, but that was mainly because of the chicken-egg syndrome and that every hour or so I’d need to make a run for some tiny part (usually some oddball electrical connector). But the good news with solar is—no, the wonderful news with solar is—once you get it installed, it’s pretty much a no-maintenance, completely free power source.

I still have to wire up the inverter (provides AC power) and the DC distribution box (makes it easier to wire in other DC items), but the big piece, getting energy from the sun, is a done deal. Whew.

Plugging the fuses in and watching the system power up was like watching a sleeping animal wake up. It was like watching the van come alive.

Solar Circuitry Map

Solar Circuitry Map

Nissan NV Stealth Camper: Coming Together

Looking in Cargo Door at the Bed.

Looking in cargo door at the bed.

WICKHAM CP, FL—With the heart of the van installed and beating nicely, the rest of the pieces are starting to fall together.

The solar components—the batteries, controller, inverter, and distribution panel—are all tucked away under the bed and (mostly) behind the forward yellow dresser that acts as a bed support.

Solar stuff behind driver's seat. Bed raised for access.

Solar stuff behind driver’s seat. Bed raised for access.

A squeaking on the roof while driving—which I feared was a solar panel ripping off—turned out to be the back two “spare” supports (not solar) which I had mounted next to each other and were rubbing. That was an easy fix and verifying the panels were still screwed down tight was quite a relief.

The bed is attached to the wall and on hinges to allow easy access to what lies below, and the two dressers I stole from my parents’ old condo are anchored down to the sides and the rear.

Looking toward the rear. Refrigerator will be mounted in the gap to the left rear.

Looking toward the rear. Refrigerator will be mounted in the gap to the right rear.

All the drawers on the dressers (13 of them) are secured shut with latches and catches to keep them from spilling their contents while en-route.

Shelf & Storage & Water Dispenser. Walls and roof are still bare until I decide what to do with them (later).

Shelf & Storage & Water Dispenser. Walls and ceiling are still bare until I decide what to do with them (later).

A wire shelf and square storage boxes hang over the window on the rear passenger side, along with a 2.5 gallon water dispenser. For the Fall run, I’ll make do with gravity to provide water flow, but I expect I’ll want to install a water pump once I’m satisfied with the layout.

For a sink, I’ll just be using a large Tupperware container, mounted on the dresser and under the water dispenser and held in place by magnets (at least that’s the plan). I want a sink/container with a watertight seal so that if I can’t dump the waste water out the door where I’m at, I’ll just seal it up and dump it later. When I do settle on a final floor plan, I’ll install a sink and drain, so the Tupperware will be just a cheap and temporary work-around.

I still haven’t decided on the bed mattress. I know a lot of people use furniture foam, but that isn’t… twinging me (doesn’t feel right), so we’ll see. I’m leaning toward a doubled over gel-foam mattress topper, but I’m open to suggestions.

I’m also waiting on my refrigerator. I returned the one that wasn’t functioning to Home Depot, and ordered a new one from Amazon (since HD was out of stock). If this one doesn’t work, I’ll just go with a 5-day cooler and blocks of ice and save a ton of money.

As I was driving around today—with everything secured and functioning properly—I noticed I was feeling really good. For no particular reason, I was really happy.

Though I have no clue exactly where I’ll be going first, I’m getting excited about going there.

Nissan NV Stealth Camper: Puzzle Pieces

Center Console & Front Seat Removed

Center Console & Front Seat Removed

WICKHAM CP, FL—Today I got a lot of things started, if not exactly done:

  • I removed the center console to make it easier to move from the driver’s seat to the back of the van.
  • I removed the passenger seat with the hope of turning it around and making it a recliner. At first I didn’t think it could be done and was going to install an easy chair, but after looking at it again, it turns out it can be reversed (you have to unscrew eight, somewhat hidden nuts to disconnect/reverse the seat from the main frame). So I’ll use it that way for the Fall Version to determine if I really need an easy chair or not.
  • I’m testing the new Whynter refrigerator that I received yesterday. So far it looks like this one is working properly. Tomorrow morning, if the temperatures are maintaining properly, I’ll wire it in.
  • I installed a low, $20 Walmart table that will function as the stand for the refrigerator and provide access to the latches and added circulation for the compressor vents. The table “miraculously” fits as perfectly as a jigsaw piece in the space provided.

    Cheap Table. Perfect Fit... Ignore the gouges in the insulation to the right. It was a perfect fit, not an easy one.

    Cheap Table. Perfect Fit… Ignore the gouges in the insulation to the right. It was a perfect fit, not an easy one.

  • I secured the propane and water jugs into the cabinets from the back side of the van. Turns out they fit perfectly too.
  • I tried to get my Coleman stove to work with a large propane tank, but it isn’t. To debug the problem, I’ll try a standard one lb tank (what they are designed for) and possibly a shorter hose.

I had originally thought to use an induction cook top like Glen Morissette of ToSimplify.net, but my existing 1500 watt inverter (in my trailer) wouldn’t run it since the inverter cook tops require a pure-sine wave inverter (which are much more expensive). I figured it wasn’t worth the extra cost since I would still need propane to run a heater (therefore no space savings), so a cheap camp stove seemed the way to go. Of course that’s all dependent on the camp stove actually working. 🙂

Back of Van. Everything fitting in perfectly.

Back of Van. Everything fitting in perfectly.

I’ll admit as launch day approaches I often find myself doubting the sanity of this venture. There’s a lot to gain, but a lot that’ll have to be given up.

Still, “letting go” is pretty much the credo of the true Mystic, which is, of course: The less there is of me, the more there is of Her.

Nissan NV Stealth Camper: Refrigerator Woes and Blackout Conditions

Pouch Magnet

Pouch Magnet

WICKHAM CP, FL—I’ve been talking to a few fellow nomads about my Whynter refrigerator problems, and the consensus is there is definitely something wrong with mine. A few brief emails to Whynter support haven’t fixed the problem, but I will call them when they open in a few hours to see if we can find a solution.

The blackout curtains are up. These are mainly used in urban areas and are designed to keep the light in while leaving the appearance of a darkened, empty vehicle. This helps with both privacy and the law (even though I only plan to sleep in places that do not have “No Overnight Parking” signs, sleeping in a vehicle is generally frowned upon).

Though I tried several options, I ended up using the following for the curtains:

I cut the pouches in half, then seal a magnet in a each half. Now I have two, plastic encased magnets. I hold the curtain in place with the magnets, then, when I have them placed correctly, I staple the pouch magnets to the curtain. (Edit 12/07/2013: Instead of laminate, I now seal the magnets in a pouch of duct tape folded over a few times—does the same thing but holds up much better).

While driving, the curtains can easily be removed or simply “raised” by detaching the magnetized bottom of the curtain and attaching it above the window.

I mounted a curtain rod just behind the front seats and have two longer curtains hanging there (parting in the middle). I did the same for the doors/windows at the rear of the van. For the front, I used velcro to hold everything together (I hadn’t thought of the pouches yet). Stapling the velcro to the curtains helped hold the velcro to the fabric. For the rear, I simply slide the curtains closed, then seal them against the closed doors with the pouch magnets.

For the windows, the curtains are doubled over, showing the fabric to both the outside world and the inside. This also has the effect of doubling the heat blocking factor of the curtains. Because the windows are already deeply tinted, the effect from the outside—even standing right next to the van—is a solid black window.

There is still some debugging to be done on some minor light leaks and stowage issues. Also the rear curtains expose their white/plain side to the interior and—because the other (fabric) side is red—they appear pink. Still, I’m secure enough with my masculinity to be sorta OK with these pink curtains.

Sorta.

Nissan NV Stealth Camper: Countdown

Diligent Testing

Diligent Testing

WICKHAM CP, FL—Though the new (third) Whynter refrigerator arrived with a serious dent it in (as had, to a lesser degree, the other two), this one at least is functioning properly.

The van is packed and stocked and ready to roll. Tomorrow (Monday), I plan on putting the travel trailer in storage, spending the night in my parents’ old condo, and hitting the road early Tuesday morning.

I’ve been back in Florida for over four months, seen my sister pass away, packed up two condos, helped my parents move, and bought and outfitted a van for nomadic living. These last few months have been frantic, painful, tiring, and filled with obligations.

But, as with all aspects of Life, it was just a temporary phase and this chapter has now come to a close.

Nothing is permanent. Nothing need be held nor clung to. Every day starts anew.

The Road beckons. Let the next phase begin.

The Maiden Voyage of Serenity

Out My Window

Out My Window

ST SIMONS ISLAND, GA—It seems kind of hokey, but I’ve decided to name the van Serenity. The name fits with the lifestyle I seek—the message I’m trying to share.

I crossed into Georgia a little before noon and with that crossing, I relaxed the Wayne-of-the-Dutiful-Son shell and made a conscious effort not to take on any new personas for awhile—to just open and allow and relax into Her.

I headed toward Jekyll Island, but was dissuaded when I saw the entire town had a six dollar daily entrance fee, what they call a “parking fee.” I turned around and followed US 17 north and soon found myself in Brunswick, GA.

Having had enough of urban environments over the last few months, I sought quieter refuge. As I write this, I am parked next to an old oak tree on Manhead Sound in a tiny county park on St. Simons Island. The spanish moss is draped and swaying from the branches and there is a soothing clanging as a line gently strikes the mast of a sailboat anchored just offshore.

Though the island is quite upscale and touristy, there are some parts like this that are both secluded and serene.

I don’t know where I’ll sleep tonight, I’ve seen a couple possible locations (a marina, a medical center) and a few noisier, yet more certain locations (Walmart, Lowes, Home Depot, …), but I’ve yet to decide.

Sadhu Van Dwelling

A Lazy Afternoon

A Lazy Afternoon

AUGUSTA, GA

Wayne: I’m loving the van series—feel like I’m right there with you.

I’m keenly interested to know if you feel the sense of freedom that you anticipated by having greater stealth. I’ve read that the holy men of India who wander aimlessly about experiencing “her” hardly give a thought to where they will spend the night. Instead–they just look at where they are at nightfall—select a reasonable spot and lie down. An Americanized version of this could be achieved with a van and I assume that is approximately your vision.

I share that vision and am looking for a van myself—don’t have the guts to risk 25k, however.

Hope you will share mpg figures with us.

I particularly want to know if the switch from trailer to van seems worth the effort.

My trailer is very comfortable but I sometimes look longingly at the vast landscapes I have denied myself.

Randy

The vast landscapes I have denied myself. That really sums up why I’ve chosen this van dwelling lifestyle: The ability to go and stay anywhere without planning or forethought.

That’s the goal at least. So far I’ve been failing at the “without forethought” clause miserably. It’s only Day Two though, so I’ve been forgiving myself.

Like Randy infers, I want to be able to wander wherever She tells me to go, without thinking about it, but right now, my mind keeps raising its voice/fears: Where will we stay tonight? Where are we going? How are we going to get any work done if you keep moving around like this? …

I know I’ll find a zone, a pattern of work and relaxation and meandering and exploring. I know I’ll grow more comfortable with sleeping in the rig without feeling that I am doing something wrong or will be “caught,” but right now, it’s all a mess. Pretty much every van dweller says it takes a couple months to get used to this lifestyle, so I’m not worried.

But back to Randy’s questions: Is it worth the effort? Frankly, the build was no big deal, since I basically used pre-built items (four small dressers and an end table) to outfit the van. The hardest part was the roof rack and solar panels, something I doubt I could have done by myself. So yes, to give yourself the opportunity to experience this freedom, it is definitely worth the effort. Anyone can buy a $2000 van and do the same thing as a cheap test and if you like living that way, move your stuff (dressers, solar) into a newer, more reliable van.

Serenity is only getting about 14 mpg (so far this trip), but that is better than I was getting while towing my trailer with the old Ford and twice what I used to get with my class C. Her high roof and all around windows are wonderful in terms of comfort and visibility (both driving and lounging) and are well worth the extra cost in MPG (high roof) and heat loss/retention (windows).

Another key point is that if you already have a travel trailer (as both I and Randy do), then you can live in the trailer while outfitting the van (just use your van as your tow vehicle), and even keep the trailer as a “winter base” while traveling seasonally and exploring in the van during the rest of the year.

But Randy really nailed it when it comes to me personally. Though I discourage taking on roles or personas (just more ego-baggage to lose), the American Sadhu (wandering holy man) is really quite appropriate for what I am—and the van dwelling lifestyle is probably the only realistic and feasible option for living as a “Sadhu” in such a Mystic-unfriendly country (as compared to Sadhu-friendly India).

(As I re-read the above paragraph it struck me that many (most?) Mystics throughout history were wanderers. (And “no,” I don’t think it was just about spreading their message (but that’s another post))).

Bathing in Nature

The Van and the Lake

The Van and the Lake

MODOC, SC—At a Corps of Engineers boat ramp, two trucks were parked next to each other, but no one was around. An empty roof rack suggested the pair were canoeing or kayaking on the lake.

I found a secluded spot with a smooth shoreline and ample sun and stripped down and bathed and washed my hair.

Such a simple act, yet it felt almost holy bathing in a lake in the wilderness.

Standing on the shore, the sun warming and drying my skin, I felt happy.

I felt free.

The (Stealth) Sleeping Situation

A Morning Mist Outside My Camp

A Morning Mist Outside My Camp

ANDERSON, SC—I’m trying Ringo, I’m trying real hard, but I’m not happy with the sleeping situation. I know it takes getting used to—especially for a light sleeper—but stealth sleeping sucks.

You know how it is, some mysterious noise wakes you up in the middle of the night, your mind all befuddled? Well, when you know you are doing something semi-illegal, it’s worse: “What was THAT? Is it a cop? Is it robbers?”

The mind is a terrible thing to have.

Since I’ve re-hit the road, I’ve slept in a hotel parking lot, a rest stop, and (now) two Corp of Engineers boat ramp parking lots.

I originally wrote this post last night, at a boat ramp outside a federally closed COE campground, but there was no Verizon signal so I had to wait until I moved on earlier today to upload it.

While I was writing this post last night—a post on how difficult it is to sleep stealthily with a mind that keeps telling you that something is going to go horribly wrong—I finally said to this freaking brain of mine, “Enough! I’m not going to listen to your damn, dark and dreadful fantasies unless someone physically knocks on my window.”

Kind of a mental red-line. Don’t worry about noises “out there” unless someone (or something) comes a-knockin’.

Though I didn’t sleep “the sleep of kings” last night, I slept better than I have been.

I’m not perfect, but I’m trying Ringo, I’m trying real hard to get this damn mind to shut up and let me get some Z’s.

The Forest Finally

Forest Stream

Forest Stream

THE PISGAH FOREST, NC—Wake, Work, Drive, Work, Chill, Sleep. Repeat.

I obviously haven’t gotten the hang of this lifestyle yet, but a couple key stressors to this new-found freedom are easing—the answers to the questions “Where will I sleep?” and “Where will I go next?”

The sleep I’ve already talked about (the mental “Red Line” has really helped) but the question, “Where will I go next?” is a surprisingly persistent one.

“What’s the plan?” the mind shouts—which is a perfect example of just how much the brain wants to control things. It wants to control things even when there’s no need for it.

A lot of people believe that when you wake up, when you step through the gateless gate, your brain is completely rewired and you get a new mental operating system. This isn’t the case. You simply realize (Realization) that “you” along with most of your world, is made up almost completely of thoughts.

The thoughts continue, but they become softer and more distant (they are your mind’s thoughts, not your thoughts) and you don’t take them so seriously. But Conditioning is a persistent bastard and the mind is still going to follow its old habits and try to control everything.

As I finished up work for the day—writing code in a little bookstore cafe in Waynesville, NC—I asked myself, “Where will I go next?” and my mind started in with the should I stay here another day, should I head to Asheville, or maybe explore the Blue Ridge Parkway some more or make a dash for Boone or maybe even Vermont and on and on and on, and while my damn mind was asking all these questions my eyes fell on the map of the Waynesville area and I saw a lake—Lake Logan—that appeared to be in the national forest, so I said screw it and went there.

Like a lot of land on the eastern seaboard, while the maps make it look like there’s a lot of virgin forest out here, the reality is that it’s infested with people. While Lake Logan looked (according to Google Maps and Rand McNally) like it was in the middle of the Pisgah National Forest, it was surrounded with “No Trespassing” signs put up by, of all things, a church organization. “Go away, we’re the good and loving and kind people of God and we don’t want your type around here (and don’t even think about parking next to our lake).”

Miserable.

Luckily though, a little past the lake I spied a “National Forest” sign and a little past that I found a forest road and a little down that a pleasant (even unoccupied!) camping spot right next to a mountain stream.

I pulled in and set up my chair and sat for a few hours doing absolutely nothing.

As I write this, though people drive by about every thirty minutes, I still don’t have any neighbors—I’ve got the place all to myself with just falling leaves and a babbling brook to keep me company.

Sadly, there’s no Internet signal here either, so—because my current work load is high—I’ll probably be here for just the night. Still, it’s a nice change. It’s been almost five months since I’ve had any solitude like this.

And that’s about four too many.