Alcan, The Alaska Highway

The liveliness of civilization and the buzz of traffic and people begin to fade into our background as we ventured further and further north towards our most northern destination, Alaska.  If you’re lucky enough to explore the last frontier, I’m sure that your idea of seclusion and remote locations is forever changed. The drive was unlike anything I have ever witnessed.  Since I have lived in Southern California my entire life, Fall was always a season that didn’t give much visual excitement as it transitioned into winter (if you can even say that winter exists in Los Angeles). Being able to see Canada and Alaska in its full Autumn transformation was a gift because it is a wild spectacle of color and there is nothing like witnessing the change happen on such a grand scale stretching in every direction for hundreds of miles.  The golden colors of change swept through the hillsides and valleys contrasted against the bright blue lakes and rivers; there were trails to hike, mountains to climb and rivers to admire in their ebb and flow.

 

Its was the first week of September and after we spent some time exploring Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta, we headed north towards the Yukon Territory and noticed the sudden drop in temperature.  Mind you, our van is not equipped with a heater (except for the car heater that runs when we’re driving) and the nights began dipping into the low 30 degree Fahrenheit (0 degree Celsius) and little Izzy had to be moved from her bed into ours. It was beginning to become difficult to get out of bed in the mornings because of the cold, but we started the days with hot tea and coffee as we watched our breath fogging our windows. The average van temperatures were around 50-60 degrees and that became our new version of normal.

Moon Lake Campground by Tok, Alaska

The small comforts that we took for granted at home began to surface as we made the necessary adjustments in our new living situation.  The cold days/nights really made us appreciate the sunshine when it came around and we were lucky enough to experience the Northern Lights on clear nights, first in Miles Canyon in White Horse and again at Moon Lake Campground in Tok, Alaska. The Aurora Borealis, as they’re called on this side of the equator, are truly magical. What photos do not reveal is that the lights tend to flow in the night sky, showing up in different patterns and intensity, almost as if they are alive.

And even though the sights are incredible, do you know what its like to have not showered for a week because you’re either staying in “non-designated car camping areas” or Walmart parking lots and the best thing you can do is wash your hair with your solar shower that hasn’t heated because its 40 degrees fahrenheit during the day? And have that be the normal for the last 5 weeks?  Yes, adjustments were made.

There are so many things that I miss:

  • Hot showers
  • Heaters
  • Routines (Going to my fav studio or climbing gym, sleeping in, teaching etc basically everything I took for granted)
  • Seeing friends
  • Having a big enough fridge to fit more than 3 days worth of food
  • Having a toilet that you can go to as many times as you want because its not freezing outside and you don’t have to walk 100 meters to get there
  • Laundry in house

And as difficult as it is to not have these things, here is what I have gained:

  • The freedom to travel
  • Seeing things I’ve never even dreamed of seeing
  • Meeting people with different passions and backgrounds
  • Learning Spanish through a podcast
  • More present moments because we are forced to digitally disconnect
  • New habits that help me conserve water and create less waste and stay more organized
  • Encounters with wild life that is bigger than life in their natural habitat (Bison, Moose, Elk, Bears, Marmots)
  • Hikes and bike rides with the most incredible views
  • Finding ways to implement the important things in my life and make it a priority no matter what
  • More time to do things I never made time for, like reading, hiking, biking, yoga, climbing etc
  • Moments that make me appreciate nature even more.

In those small discomforts, I have learned more in the last month of travel then I have all year and I’m grateful for the experience that has helped me realize more about myself than I ever have.

While in the Yukon, we visited a few of the small towns along the Alcan.  Once we left Edmonton, we took 2 days and arrived at Liard River Hot Springs. This place was a real gem and the short hike on the boardwalk to the pools was an experience in itself.  A portion of the hot springs was closed off for the season because of safety concerns, but the lower Alpha pool that is open year round was incredible and still well worth the visit.  The naturally heated water flows into the right end of the pool, which is the hottest and the water streams to the left down a small waterfall into a secondary cooler pool located in the middle of a beautiful boreal spruce forest. The hot spring is also a campground so we visited the pools that evening and again in the morning because every chance one can get into a hot spring like this, one should.

After the morning soak we started our drive further north into WhiteHorse.  This town stole my heart away. Even though we spent majority of our nights in a parking lot, the days were filled with hikes, bike rides along the river, yoga at the Breath of Life studio and long walks in the park.  The first night there, though, was the best of all.  I was told a while back about this app called “CouchSurfers” and Szymon reminded me of it and we decided to give it a try.  As soon as I set up my profile I was contacted by a woman named Sofia.  She said she was heading to dinner with a friend and asked if we wanted to join!  We met at a restaurant in town and got to chatting.  We found out that she is a Chilean native who moved to WhiteHorse and her friend Alex was another traveler who was visiting from Uruguay.  We talked about different cultures, the differences in the Spanish language and things to do and see when we head down to their home countries. We had a wonderful time getting to know each other and it made us realize that speaking to strangers and getting their insight on places to visit has changed the dynamic of this trip.  We are flowing along with new things to see and experiences to be had, all because of the information given to us by the locals that we’ve met along the way.

As much as I have trust issues with strangers, this trip is really teaching me that kindness is everywhere.  In every town or city, on any trail or park, people have been kind.  Instead of feeding into my own fears about putting trust in strangers and keeping myself isolated, I have been striving forward to break out of my comfort zone, put out the energy that I wish to receive and trust my instincts. Life is about stepping out of your box and taking hold of each and every experience with gratitude and love, that is what makes life worth living.

Jackson & Grand Teton National Park

The next destination on our trip was Jackson WY. Our friends in Casper, Wyoming told us how beautiful and scenic the area was and we were excited to visit.  The first encounter of wild animals we had on this trip were the bison that hung out by the highway on our way to Jackson. The animals were grazing as people drove by in slow motion trying to get photos of these unpredictable and fascinating creatures.

The drive there kept getting better and we spent some time exploring Jackson Lake along the way. The 191 HWY ran along side the Snake River that eventually emptied into Jackson lake and was controlled by the Jackson Lake Dam.  The Lake was vast and expansive and there were lots of rock stacks along the lakes edge, so we made our own contribution before heading into town.

The first couple of days consisted of working at cafes (because we still need to earn our way through this trip) and exploring the downtown area.  The most amazing breakfast burrito was served to us at D.O.G cafe and they even gave Izzy a treat and topped off our coffee cups. The town was very dog friendly and all the stores allowed pets which made things really easy for us and Izzy.  We also stopped by UPS to send a few packages out and met a Hungarian Gentleman named David who opened up “Gourmet Food Truck” in Jackson 5 years ago.  He said that Food trucks are actually not allowed in the State so he improvised and made his restaurant stand look like a food truck.  He uses organic ingredients to make crepes, soups and he cooks a Goulash that locals love.

Afterwards we headed out to our first camping location in Kelly, WY just a few miles outside of Jackson.  Gros Ventre Campground was a paid site ($28) and it sat in the foothills of The Grand Teton.  We also had our first van cooked meal! We fired up our Outdoor Oven/Stove and made pasta! The thing is, because of the space it felt like there were too many cooks in the kitchen.  The pasta though, turned out great and Szymon and I finished it off before heading to bed for the night.

We decided after paying for a camp site the first night, that we would rather find National Forests to camp in because they are free, but the following day we found a campground called Atherton Creek.  The spot was a lot better than Gros because it was right by a lake and the price was much better for the same accommodations ($15). We filled up our water tanks, set up camp, pulled out our awning for the first time, put up the hammock, did some bike work, did yoga in the woods and ended the night by a campfire.

The next day we started the day with our second meal out of the van.  We stopped by a really cute store called Pearl Street Market in Jackson a couple days before and picked up some groceries.  We fired up the stove again and made croissant breakfast sandwiches and they were freaking delicious.  After breakfast and sometime writing in our personal journals, we wandered out to the lake and jumped in.  We nearly froze, but having the first road shower experience afterwards was worth it.  It was warm out and the NEMO portable shower worked like a charm. We do realize that the weather won’t always be so accommodating for an outdoor shower, so were grateful that the first experience was a good one.

We then headed back into Jackson for the last time.  The day consisted of running more errands and having our first laundry day (while working because Jackson Laundry, which is brand new, had WIFI) and instead of heading out to another remote area, we stayed parked in that lot so we can enjoy a box of Pizza and the season finale of Game of Thrones. Sometimes, sleeping in parking lots are great. To be Continued…

Sound Dampening & Thermal Insulation on Sprinter Van

When we took on this project, we didn’t realize the amount of time an energy it was going to take in order to meet our deadline. During our research phase, we asked many questions on forums and read articles plus build out journals of other van lifers. The hours that were spent on wall installation and other aspects seemed a bit over stretched. In one of the posts, the estimated time for the wall insulation install was 16 hours. Did our build take 16 hours? Yes, possibly more.  Were we slightly over ambitious? Yes, but we took our time and opted for a viable solution that we felt would work long term:

Materials used:
Noico sound insulator (150 square feet $200)
Uxcell Sound Deadener Wheel Roller ($7)
Thinsulate 3M SM600L (40 linear feet $400)
Low-E 60″ wide (40 linear feet $130)
3M Hi-strength 90 adhesive spray (2 cans $14 each)
REALLY GOOD pair of scissors ($20-40)

Our dear friend Angela came over to hang out and help us install some of the Noico – the sound deadening material. First we cleaned all the surface areas with a cloth to remove any dust and debris from the walls.  We cut out the Noico (which was also installed on the floors) and placed it all over the van walls and ceiling (we might have gone a bit over board).  The 50mil sound insulation came with the adhesive pre-applied, it just required to be cut to size and applied to the surface. We used a wheel roller to apply pressure on the Noico and get it to form to the surface without bubbles or gaps. In some tight areas where the roller wouldn’t fit, we had to use our hands.In most cases a small square of Noico over each ribbed section or wall would have been enough, but we really wanted to keep noise inside the van down as much as possible and applied a good amount of the material on the floor, walls and ceiling. After a few hours of working while jamming out to 90’s tunes, we were done. The finished product? A Noico sponsored silver spaceship where sound didn’t travel very far.

Then it was time for the Thinsulate, an insulation material that will help the van stay warm in cooler temperatures.  There are many insulation materials available with choices between denim, wool, traditional home fiberglass, or spray foam applications out there. We opted with the more expensive 3m Thinsulate due to its very good R value (thermal rating), moist wicking, lightweight properties, and sound deadening properties. We didn’t realize how effective the material was until we accidentally had one of the pieces fall over our portable speaker and it almost completely muted the sound. As for the installation, we cut out the pieces using really sharp, heavy duty scissors and it was still a challenge to cut through without snags.  If you don’t have a good pair, save yourself the trouble and invest in a pair of solid metal shears.  It made all the difference cutting through the thick fluffy material.  We were was so glad we opted for Thinsulate rather than the traditional insulation that has fiber glass, as the material wasn’t abrasive to the skin and didn’t fall apart easily. Once the pieces were cut to size,we stuffed them into the cutout spaces in the walls and ceiling.  We used the 3M adhesive to hold them in place (remember to wear gloves!) and filled as many gaps as we could, including the overhead compartment, front, side & rear door panels and and the remainding material went over the wheel wells. We probably could have went with another 5-10 linear feet for a double layer in some of the bigger sections, but as we were planning on sticking to warmer weather during our travels, we felt one layer of Thinsulate was enough in most places.

After the Thinsulate was put in, it was time to install Low-E, a reflective material very similar to the more popular Reflectix which deflects heat. We picked Low-E  because it has a cell foam mid-layer rather than bubble wrap, and passes standard auto safety tests due to its nonflammable properties. We cut the pieces to size, and used foil tape to fix it into place between the wall and ceiling ribs. We tried to leave an air gap between the Thinsulate and Low-e where possible (this was easier to do on the ceiling than in some places on the wall) and used the aluminum foil tape to trace the entire pieces so that it the air is trapped and reflected back.

All in all it took well over 16 hours to complete all three steps. Time will tell whether the extra effort to install Noico over the entire floor, most of the walls and ceiling was worth the effort. We felt one solid layer of Thinsulate was sufficient for the climate we’ll be in, and focused on making sure the Low-E material does its job reflecting heat back. We are happy with the result, and as you can see from the last photos, have already begun working on the next phase: wall installation & painting.

Sprinter Van Floor Installation: Part 2

Sprinter Van Floor Installation

After completing the first step of floor installation, we outlined the 3 separate plywood panels (harvested from sustainable sources with no added formaldehyde adhesive) using the same paper templates we traced on the minicell foam, and used a jigsaw to cut the pieces to fit the floor like puzzle pieces. It took us a few tries to get it as close to the walls and wheel wells as possible. We did offset the plywood panels a bit so that the breaks would be in a different position than the minicell foam, and also to align it better with the factory bolt locations.

Once fitted, we lifted up the panels one at a time and placed a permanent marker tip in the factory bolt holes facing up so that we could accurately mark the proper spot for holes. This was done by slowly lowering the panels down onto the marker and repeating that step for the rest of the bolt holes.  We drilled holes into the panels, using a 3/8″ drill bit which was just slightly bigger than the M8 1.25 pitch 70mm bolts that we were using to bolt the panels down. After making sure the holes lined up, we used a 3/4 Countersink drill bit to create flush dips for the bolts to sit in.

After the plywood panels were bolted down, we filled the corner gaps with Great Stuff insulating foam. It took an entire can to fill the floor spaces.  The stuff can get really messy and the nozzles often break or malfunction, so don’t get frustrated, take your time and wear gloves because this stuff doesn’t come off.  After the foam dried and hardened,we trimmed the excess foam so that it would sit flush to the floor. We sanded the plywood to make sure it was clean, and then dusted and vacuumed it in preparation for the adhesive layer.

We opted to use the Roberts 2310 adhesive, because of its pressure sensitive and resealable properties, in case we ever had to replace the floor. We began laying down the adhesive using a trowel with 1/16″ notches to spread an even layer across the first panel. Once spread evenly across the floor we waited around 40-50 min for a resealable application(less time for a more permanent seal) and began rolling out the vinyl flooring.

Initially we wanted to install bamboo flooring, but the cost was too high for us, so we opted to use a standard vinyl floor that was low cost, waterproof and fairly damage resistant. We purchased a 12ft by 6ft roll of vinyl and it covered the entire floor with enough excess to wrap around the edges. We used a rolling pin to get rid of any bubbles underneath the vinyl and once the adhesive dried, we used a knife to trim around the walls and wheel wells leaving excess at the edges near the doors for a fold over. We then laid down caulk around all of the edges to create a waterproof seal.

Ta da! The floor is finally finished.  It really was a process and a challenging learning curve and a lot of pre-planning since it was our first time installing insulated floors, but we are happy with the end result. Of course Kyuri had to test it out with a few yoga moves before we start filling the space with furniture!

Maxxair 6200K Fan Installation on Sprinter Van

Maxxair 6200k Fan Sprinter Van Roof

One of the first projects that we completed in the van was installing a fan for adequate ventilation. What better way to kick off a relationship with your newly acquired vehicle than to cut a big hole in its roof?  The installation was a bit unnerving at first, but as soon as we knew we had the right size cutout it was a breeze. Here is how we approached it:

Materials Used:

  1. Maxxair 6200K Fan
  2. Dicor Butyl Seal Tape
  3. Dicor 501LSG Lap Sealant
  4. 3/4″ Plywood or piece of wood
  5. 1″ aluminum bar
  6. Nuts, bolts & washers
  7. POR 15 Rust proof paint

The Maxxair 6200k was picked over a similar model Fantastic Vent fan because it is designed with the option to be open during driving and when it rains, and the latter was definitely a key point for us. After doing research on sprinter-source.com and various blogs, we knew we wanted to install the fan using a sandwich method. What it entails is having a solid base to screw the fan into, instead of only the roof’s sheet metal. The sandwich that you end up creating consists of lap sealant, aluminum bars, fan flange, butyl tape, van roof, and 3/4″ plywood in order from top to bottom. All of that is held together using bolts and securing with nuts from the bottom.

If you are installing a Maxxair 6200k fan on your vehicle, the first step you’ll want to complete is cut out your wood (3/4″ is a solid base to use) to a 16.5″ by 16.5″ square. Then you’ll want to cut the dimension of the fan flange to fit into that piece of plywood, which is 14″ by 14″. Once you jigsaw that piece from the 16.5″ plywood piece, not only will you have the bottom most layer of your sandwich, but also a square template to make sure that the vent cutout is centered and avoids the ribs on Sprinter roofs. As our Sprinter is a 2007, we were lucky enough not to have a circular rib in the back of the van as most of the newer model years do, and had the option of installing our fan on the anywhere that best fit our layout. Due to our planned roof setup of solar panels and Thule carrier box, we decided to install the vent in the back of the van towards the driver side.

Using the previously cut out 14″ template, we used Gorilla tape to temporarily mount it to the roof once we had our ideal location determined. We drilled a center hole into the roof using a 1/8″ drill bit and mounted the template with a nut and bolt to align it properly and to outline the edges of it with a sharpie. With the template unmounted, we drilled each corner of the marked square using a 3/4 Countersink drill bit. Some folks opt to leave the template in to have a good base to cut around, but we had a few jigsaw blades designed for cutting metal and weren’t concerned about it slipping away. We cut the square hole following the black sharpie lines from corner to corner, and soon enough had a 14″ hole in the roof of our van.

The jigsaw blade for metal worked well, but we had to file some of the jagged edges. Once that was done, we mounted the fan flange into the hole to determine where to drill holes in the roof for securing the entire sandwich. We drilled holes in the roof as well as the plywood template, and then used some of the leftover POR-15 rust proofing paint on the hole edges to prevent it from rusting. Once that coat tried, original paint was applied over it. It took another 30 minutes to dry and by that time we were ready to apply butyl tape on top of the roof. The Dicor tape is just about the right width for the fan flange and after putting two layers of it on top of the roof, we pressed the fan flange against it. While the paint was drying the aluminum bars were also cut to size and pre-drilled, so they were ready to be mounted above the fan flange.

Once the plywood, flange and aluminum bars were all secured with bolts, the next step was to apply lap sealant over the flange to prevent leaks. The stuff is very messy, so we took our time here. It takes a bit to dry, but does spread evenly. Once the lap sealant dried, we were done!

 

Sprinter Van Floor Installation: Part 1

After applying two coats of POR-15 Rust Preventative Coating to the cargo floor and letting it cure, the next step was to install a wooden floor with sound and thermal insulation underneath it. Having done a bit of research before hand, and picking up tips on Sprinter-Forum.com and from a few other van conversion blogs, we felt ready to tackle this install. Heat and sound insulation were of upmost importance to us. We ended up picking the following materials for the floor, listed from top to bottom layer:

  • HPVA Oak Plywood harvested from sustainable sources, no added formaldehyde adhesive
  • L200 MiniCell Foam
  • Noico 50mil Sound Deadener

The sound deadener from Noico has great reviews on Amazon, some comparing it as a close competitor to the much more expensive Dynamat. It does not have a strong odor such as Fatmat, or other tar based sound deadeners. Noico offers both a 50mil and 80mil versions of its product, and we opted to use the thinner deadener for the floor, as a few more layers of other material were going on top it. Beginning at the seats and working our way back, the entire cargo floor and the wheel wells were covered with the deadener. Roughly 65 square feet of the product was required for a 144″ wheelbase van. It was easier to apply the product side to side instead of front to back of the van, due to the direction of the floor ridges. A roller tool helped with removing any air bubbles, and we would definitely recommend using gloves to help avoid hand cuts from the thin sheet metal layer found on Noico.

Noico Installed on floor
Noico sound deadening material installed on floor

After that step was completed, we began cutting the minicell foam into thin strips to fit into the ridges of the floor. Some of these were 1″ wide, others closers to 2″. It took a while to cut all the required pieces, and after we were done cutting and arranging them out in the ridges, we numbered the pieces from 1 to about 60. The reason for this was to know which piece goes exactly where, as we did not want to glue the strips before putting down another layer of foam. The next step was to trace a paper template for the large pieces of foam and plywood, and the small foam pieces were taken out of the van.

We had some studio photography background paper left over, and used it for the paper template. Next we traced and cut the three separate templates precisely, and paper made this process easier as its inherently more flexible than material such as cardboard. With the paper templates ready and traced, the next step of cutting the minicell foam was easy, and both the ridge strips and the full foam layers were ready to be installed. 3M 77 Spray adhesive was used to glue the 60 strips to the cargo floor ridges, and then the process was repeated for the entire three sheets of minicell foam which were glued on top of the strips layer.

After applying both the Noico and L200 MiniCell foam, the plywood was ready to go in. We taped the same paper template used for the foam to the plywood, and marked the outline. Using a jigsaw, the contour was cut out, and then a drill was used to get to the bolt holes. After a few corrections to get everything right, the three plywood pieces finally fit in like a jigsaw puzzle and were left in the van overnight to let the underlying foam adhesive to cure.

The next steps of bolting down the plywood, applying adhesive, and gluing a vinyl floor on top are covered in Floor Installation Part 2.