In the rat race of 80 hour work weeks, 30-year mortgages and keeping up with the Joneses, one Collingwood couple is going off road.
Madison McNair and Raynor Vickers have compressed their life’s possessions into 80 square feet and four wheels. They’re living the van life.
They have built a home inside a Mercedes Sprinter van and spent the last 45 days on the road putting their new home – and their new marriage – to the test. As it turns out, happiness is a small home.
McNair had a 3,500 square-foot home with her brother in Collingwood. She was working up to 80 hours a week, and carried a high mortgage. She had nice furniture, a big house, a well-paid job and a career with lots of room to grow. But she wasn’t sleeping. She wasn’t eating well. She took daily medication, and she struggled to find balance. She and her brother found it daunting to keep up to the costs of owning a home and business in a prime Collingwood location. She was 27 and priced out of the market. So she made some changes.
She married Vickers on Sept. 2, 2017. She sold her Collingwood home and almost all of her possessions.
The newlyweds bought an empty Sprinter van on Jan. 15, 2018 and on Feb. 26 they were crossing the Canada-USA border on their maiden voyage.
“They say the first year of marriage is the hardest,” said McNair, smiling at her husband. “We decided to do it while living in 80 square feet together.”
Vickers has 15 years experience as an automotive mechanic and a year as a marine mechanic, so he put his skills to work and turned an empty van into a home in 36 days.
The van has 1000 watts of solar panels on the roof. They are mounted on a custom-fabricated frame created by Vickers to allow the panels to tilt 45 degrees for maximum solar exposure. The solar panels generate for a 24-volt system, which allows them to generate more power with less sun. The solar control converts the 24-volt system to a 12 volt and loads three 600-amp hour absorbent glass mat (AGM) batteries. The van’s hard wired appliances run on the 12-volt system, including a chest fridge and a espar diesel heater (common in sail boats and long-haul truck cabs). The electrical system is also equipped to plug into shore power to charge the AGM batteries.
The bed takes up about half the van width and length, but it’s raised up to allow for a “garage.” There’s enough fresh water stored on the van to last about seven days. The water is kept in five-gallon jugs and fed through two household filters (one charcoal and one sediment). Grey water drains into empty five-gallon jugs, which can later be dumped down a toilet to be treated as regular wastewater.
A compost toilet is kept in a cubby under the bed and slides out as needed.
There’s no shower, but McNair has become skilled with the pull-out faucet if she needs to wash her hair in a pinch.
Vickers built a full desk and mounted a custom made, water cooled computer under the desk. The computer is built with extra storage for the stretches of time when they are travelling through zones without Internet access. McNair is still running a tech business called Nanite with her brother, and she works as a consultant in data analysis. For the most part, she can work from the van, in some cases she will fly to an on-location meeting. While in Canada, they use a Bell hub for Internet service and in the USA they use a cell phone data plan for Internet access.
For the last 45 days, McNair and Vickers have been travelling through the USA’s desert states spending time in Arizona, California, Utah and Colorado.
Along the way, they have been welcomed into the Van Life community – meeting people in all stages of their journey living in a tiny home on wheels. Their Sprinter is small even among the Van Life community. Some will renovate old school buses or freight liner trucks.
After their first trip they’ve made some upgrades. A ladder mounted to the outside of the van frees up storage space in the van’s garage so they can keep more fresh water on board. Vickers fabricated a custom mount to hold his motorcycle and they added another light above the cooking counter.
Vickers has also decided to leave his job as a marine mechanic and has instead started booking clients who want him to help them build their own tiny homes on wheels. Vickers still owns a 1,200 square-foot bungalow in Angus, but he’s going to list it soon. If it sells, the couple will rent a storage locker for a few items they won’t need with them on the van year-round.
“It was a big process, and it was interesting,” said McNair about purging her possessions and fitting her belongings into 80 square feet. “Truthfully, it’s really hard. You have to get rid of that mindset of ‘I might need this someday,’ and for van life, you take it to the extreme… but the end result is pretty amazing.”
McNair is sleeping better, eating well and no longer requires medication everyday.
They have made it their mission to help others see the many options available outside of a standard big home and equally large mortgage.
“There’s lots of ways to do alternative living,” said McNair. “It’s about finding what suits you, not trying to keep up with the Joneses.”
“It’s not about trying to conform to a mold,” said Vickers.
Life in the van has forced Vickers and McNair to develop routines, they don’t say it is easier, but it is simpler.
“It’s an endless scene of problems,” said McNair. “But the problems are small enough that you solve them and go to bed feeling good.”
Vickers and McNair love Collingwood and keep coming back to the area, but now they also have plans to spend a few weeks in Flagstaff Canyon learning about how to live in the desert.
“We make very few permanent choices in life,” said McNair. “Van life is appealing because of its flexibility, but it’s also challenging in its flexibility.”