Our trip to Fruita this past weekend was more than just a get-away. We’re getting closer and closer to our launch date and there are a lot of questions that still need answering about how we’re going to make this work. In other words; how are we going to fit four people in a van and live comfortably. The goal of the trip was to meet up with our friends Bari & Jeff and ride the 18-Road mountain bike trails in Fruita, CO. We’d be dirt-bagging it on the primitive BLM campsites for two days and two nights, so we’d need to pack accordingly. Packing was always easy for me on solo trips… Bike, Food, Tools, Clothes, toiletries. Multiply that by four and add in the fact that the food would need to be prepared on site (no freeze-dried meals, or non-perishables), and the packing list begins to grow exponentially. To top it off the kids need activities other than bikes to keep their attention at the camp site, and during the drive to and from Fruita. After all was said and done our list of ‘stuff’ to bring covered almost two full pages of my notebook not including last minute additions we thought of while cramming things into the van.
The trip was a success. We took it all one step at a time and ended up having a great time (not least because Bari and Jeff had nunchakus and a sword for the kids to play with. Hours of fun for the boys). I kept a running list of what went well, and what needed improvement…
What Went Well?
- The food. We’ve got two growing boys. They eat… and eat… and eat. We ended up bring way more food than we needed in regards to snacks (fruits, nut bars, etc.), but our meal planning (ie: all the fresh food in the coolers) ended up working out perfectly. When we got home we had just enough left to make a quick and easy dinner without having to prep anything. How did we do it? Sarah prepped as much as possible before leaving. For dinners she cut up all the veggies, and put them in baggies. All we had to do was heat up the pan and toss in the ingredients. For breakfast she prepared and froze breakfast burritos for both mornings. By the time we had our first breakfast they had thawed, so all we had to do was heat them up on the grill.
- The kids had a blast. Thanks to the many hills to climb, and martial arts weapons to try the kids were rarely bored. Even in our down time we could enjoy the cool air in the shade of the van and eat a snack, or read a book. In the hottest part of the day I opened up all the doors and windows in the van and just let the kids play in the back. The only complaining we heard out of them was that they were hungry… which is par for the course 😛
- We each got a ride in. Amidst all the hubbub, Sarah and I each got a ride in on Saturday. Even Kevin got on his bike and rode dirt for the first time ever. Sarah and I took turns riding with the group. While Sarah rode I stayed at the van with the boys and we chilled out, ate lunch, and read a book or two. Then the boys took off their shoes and played in the back of the van. When Sarah came back I took off for a ride, and she brought the boys into town to check out the dinosaur museum. Win, win win.
- The ride to and from Fruita was a breeze. Our kids have always been good travelers, but we’re always prepared for if one of them is having an off day. This time around, because we had planned ahead, the boys were both perfectly content for the full 8 hours of driving round trip. The boys get along well when they’re both well fed and awake. Hungry, sleepy boys tend to get on each other’s nerves, so the trick is to switch up the seating arrangement every time you make a pit-stop. Sarah and I would take turns driving, and sitting in the back with one of the boys. The boys would take turns riding up front, and out back. It can get a bit tedious moving the car seats around, but totally worth it.
- Clean-up was a cinch. Usually, after a camping trip, our garage becomes the unwilling home to a huge pile of tangled, disorganized, and jumbled camping gear. Duffle bags of clothes, unpacked tents, boxes of mixed items, etc., all sitting and waiting to be put away… for weeks. Not this time. Because we took so much time to figure out what we needed, we were able to pack everything together in similar bins. It took me about 20 minutes to completely empty the van, and the another 20 to unpack everything back to where each item belonged. NO PILE! WIN!
What could make it better?
- An awning is essential. There is very little shade in Fruita. In fact the entire mid-west is lacking in shade. We spent a significant amount of time tucking in around the van opposite the sun to keep from baking. Like I said, we made the best of it, but we feel it would have been for more comfortable if we could spread out. Sarah and I had been talking about getting an awning, but since the price tag is anywhere from $600+ we’ve been putting it off. No longer. An awning is at the top of the list.
- We need a second bed. As of now the van has a queen-sized mattress in the back which we sleep sideways on. Sleeping on the bed ‘normally’ we’re shoulder to shoulder. Sideways we’re each afforded about 6 inches of space. This allows us all to get a decent night sleep, but the boys are only getting bigger and they don’t always have much control over themselves while they sleep. I want to be want to be woken up by the rising sun… not by a smack across the face by my son. We decided it’d be best to spring for the 24″ Bubbletop by Fiberine, and add a bunk for the boys. This will give Sarah and I, and the boys some private space and make sure we all get a good night’s sleep.
- We need to re-think food prep setup. We brought so much stuff. We had a small cooler, large cooler, and a bin full of food that didn’t need refrigerating. For cooking we had a grill, single pan burner, and a bin full of pans, plates, bowls, utensils, and fuel. All of this made up at least 50% of our cargo. Way too much stuff. Also, we brought one small table (2.5′ x 4′) which was not enough space to hold the grill, and leave space for prep. Luckily Sarah had pre-prepped as I’d mentioned before. Unlike the awning and the bed, I don’t have a solution for this one. I’ve got some ideas for a bumper box/storage system which would hold the cooking gear, and we plan on getting a refrigerator, but I expect this one is going to come down to getting additional trial runs in to weed out the excess.
- The bike rack needs to be re-done. “Hey, you guys want to pack the bikes in the car and ride the trails down the road?”… No. No I don’t. Why? Because my bike rack is a P.I.T.A.. Perhaps not so much when it’s just Sarah and I, but when I need to get Kev’s bike on their too it becomes a serious pain. The bikes hang vertically from their forks, and there’s room for only two. Kev’s bike needs to hang between the two other bikes tied down from several angles to keep from flapping around. Racking up the bikes takes 20 minutes or more. That by itself is cause for change, but I also need to fit MORE!! ALWAYS MORE BIKES!! The van will need to hold two mountain bikes, two road bikes, and two kids bikes. That’s going to take some engineering.
- The kids need new seats. This has been on my radar for some time. Aside from having to disassemble the bed every time we want to use it, the bench seat I made is neither comfortable, nor terribly safe. Yeah, it has seat belts. It meets the standards it needs to meet, but the kids can wriggle and twist, and the belt may not be where it needs to be when we hit something. Our neighbor, Whitney, is building a camper van out of a Nissan NV. She had three rows of seats that she didn’t need, and so, gave me a set. Now that the camping season is over those seats are going in.
- Noise. Another one that’s been on the radar for a while, but the point is driven home fresh after each trip. The van is loud up in the front seats. I insulated everything behind the front seats, so the kids aren’t getting blasted, but Sarah and I simply can’t hear each other speak unless we yell. The seats need to come out, the doghouse needs to be removed, and everything needs a layer of sound deadening. My goal is to get the interior down to 70db on the highway.
- Storage. Our current configuration allows for several large bins to be pushed under the bed from the back door. This means lots of random stuff in each bin, two of those bins at least pushed in so you have to remove the one in front to get to it, and then if you want to get to any of them you need to open the back doors. Only the space under the kid’s seat is available for interior accessible storage and that’s usually where all the duffle bags full of clothes go. The entire design of the interior needs to be based on fitting as many things as possible into individual, accessible storage areas. I’ve thought doing something like lining the walls along the bed with fabric pockets, or cutting into the bed and making trap doors to get into the under-bed storage. The solution for this, too is in the works.
I’ve begun researching how I’m going to get the bubble top installed. The folks at Fiberine have been super helpful. I’ve also taken measurements of the Nissan NV seats, and have begun the design process. The seats are first, so keep an eye out for a build blog. Like I said, camping season is over… TIME TO BUILD!!