[From Us] Patriot
When you want a road trip vacation, especially one where you cover a whole lot of miles, a good deal of planning is essential. The most challenging and most important logistics include how to fit in all the activities you want to do/places you want to visit and where you’re going to sleep every night. Our route brought us from San Francisco, to Santa Cruz, then to Big Sur, then to Point Reyes, then to Mendocino, then to the Redwoods, then to Napa Valley, and finishing back in San Francisco. You can find more details of the route and the planning that went into this trip in the post: [From US] Sunshine and Scenic Drives - Our Road Trip Recap. Each day of this trip required a different place to stay for the night, with different check in times, and miles in between, all fit around activities that we often had to plan in advance. We decided that we really wanted to try this 1,043 mile road trip vacation in a campervan. We’ve always been fans of camping, but a recent fascination with the campervan lifestyle had us itching to test it out and see if it was something we could enjoy. We couldn’t think of a better way to take this trip - like we had our hotel on wheels.
Camping is certainly not new to us, in fact, our obsession started years ago. Nearly every camping adventure we’ve taken has required sleeping in tents, and even though tenting with two 90 lb black labs is blast, we have been looking for something a little more permanent to house our family on these excursions. We want to get a camper of some sort so we can waste less time setting up and breaking down, and we want a warmer and drier shelter so we can extend our camping season into the spring and fall, and enjoy those wet days and nights a little more. Travel campers and motor-homes offer quite a bit of space indoors, but they seem awful big for us since we’re really active and like to maximize our time outside. All we really need is a bed and a food prep space. This brought our attention to the small teardrop campers and from there we were introduced to the campervans. Campervans have been of the most interest to us, lately, since they combine a vehicle with limitless creative layouts including a bed, kitchen space, and so many other unique customized options that you could cram into a tiny space. The vehicle base of a “campervan” could be a large cargo van or a minivan, but it could also be any other type of vehicle as well. We’ve seen converted truck beds, SUVs, Jeeps with roof racks, station wagons - literally anything that would suit your needs. We’ve learned that as long as you can plan your space accordingly, campervans can do be anything and do anything.
The real question was, could we live in a van for even 7 days? There are tons of people who live in them full time. Could we make it a week? We decided to rent one for this trip to test it out. After spending 2 days confined to the city of San Francisco, and relying on public transportation, we were ready to be free and to be in the woods. At this point we had spent the last couple of days white knuckling, holding our breath, and praying for our lives as others drove us around in the California traffic. It was time for us to take control of our fate and drive ourselves. With a 45 minute Uber ride from our hotel in downtown San Francisco to Oakland, we arrived at Escape Campervans’ Bay Area rental terminal. We were instantly greeted by vans with the most elaborate and eclectic paint schemes. This company had come up with a way to make the classic “creeper van” look less like someone is about to offer you free puppies and candy and more like traveling in a work of art. Each one was painted by a different artist, and each one had it’s own theme and name.
At first sight, the line up of available vans ranged from one depicting a sunset scene over the dessert, one with a cartoon golf scene, one with trippy geometric shapes, another with a mountain scene with a lake. But which would be ours? We don’t get to pick, they get assigned at random. One van instantly stuck out in the line up and it screamed ‘MERICA! With the American flag on one side and a mural of the Constitution and the Capitol on the other, we almost expected to see a bald eagle perched on the top of the van at all times. Being the only Americans in our long line of customers waiting to get checked in for our van, it made perfect sense that van named “Patriot” would be ours. A few thoughts passed in and out of our minds, was this too much? In a world so heavily divided right now would we be the subject of an attack or vandalism for driving around in a van that exuded abject nationalism and seemed to just ask “how do feel about the current state of politics?” How sad is it that such a patriotic vehicle would make us a little nervous and take pause? Would we be accepted in liberal California? And were we "American" enough to drive this beast? Damn right we are.
We sat under an awning at Escape Campervans, waiting our turn as the two sales-people gave instructions to the other groups picking up their vans. They went into detail on everything including instructions on how to drive them. This was something we couldn't believe was happening. "Put your foot on the brake, and pull the shifter into D for drive." California is an intense place to drive, especially if you have never driven this sized vehicle before, and especially if maybe you haven’t driven in the U.S. before. But this company made sure you were ready to go before sending you on your way, lots of instructions, and they provided 24-hour guidance and road-side assistance. We were just flabbergasted that such inexperienced drivers were being allowed to rent these. After the pre-rental inspection, we noticed it’s been around the block a time or two. It had 288,000 miles on the odometer, the paint was chipping in more than a few spots, and she had some serious character, all signs that we were going to get along pretty well. We were READY to be on the road already, getting into the most exciting parts of our trip. Our van was a 2007 Ford E-150. On the roof was a solar panel used to charge an on-board battery that powered 12v sockets and a small Dometic drawer fridge. When opening the two side doors, the initial setup had a futon bench seat/additional passenger seat, small table and a custom storage bench seat that could quickly be transformed into a queen sized bed. Once we turned it into a bed for the first night, we left it that way for the entire trip, as we didn’t have a need for an indoor sitting area. As we walked to the two back doors, there was the kitchen. The bottom right corner was a pull out fridge that we learned could hold 12 cans of beer, peanut butter, jelly, apples, and salsa with room to spare. Above the fridge was a small round sink with a pump faucet. This was connected to a grey water tank and fresh water tank. The left side of the kitchen held a pull out Coleman stove, stainless steel counter top and storage. The van came fully stocked with pots and pans, dishes, silverware, and propane for the stove. We only really used the kitchen to clean the dishes we used to make on the road PB&J's. We ate simple food like that and some other munchy things, but usually ate one meal a day at a restaurant, brewery, or road-side stand, trying to get the flavor for the areas we traveled to. However, the kitchen set up would be excellent for more advanced meals, especially if you were set up at a campsite for several days. Escape Campervans did a great job outfitting these vans. Their cookie cutter design drop in amenities must make it quick for them to build these vans and get them on the road. While it was just the two of us on this trip, we could have easily fit our 2 big dogs in here with us. Additionally, this could fit 2 couples, or one couple with kids easily. There was enough passenger space, and the additional people could sleep in either a roof-top-mounted pop-up tent perch or in a normal tent, both of which were available to rent from Escape Campervans.
Patriot quickly stole our hearts as we began to travel across northern California together. She slowly became an extension of us, with it's spongy suspension, every bump, dip, and imperfection kept us paying attention. That mixed with the slight play in the steering wheel made 70 mph feel like 500. No matter the issues or the age, the van performed outstanding. We took Patriot on over 1,000 miles of scenic drives, seeking adventurous “bucket list” activities. While many “van lifers” do what is called free-camping (parking somewhere - roadside, parking lots, public lands, etc. - and staying there free of charge), we opted to stay in campgrounds for the week. Having never been to California before, we didn’t really know the lay of the land, we didn’t know exactly how long it would take to drive between sites with the traffic, and just didn’t want to waste a single second thinking or worrying about where we’d park for the night and if it was legal and safe. We had a jam-packed trip and just didn’t have time for that. So part of the logistics for the planning the trip involved mapping out and reserving campsites. We opted to stay at California State Parks, whenever possible, preferring to give them our patronage, and generally just preferring their ambiance as well. We stayed on the cheaper tent campsites, not needing the more expensive camper and RV campsites that often had water and electric hook-ups. No matter where we parked for the night, the van fit perfectly on those tent sites and offered easy set up and tear down since we did not stay in one spot very long. We were lucky to be able to have campfires at nearly every park we stayed at.
The first stop on our road trip was down to Santa Cruz, which we chose in order to take surfing lessons (check out our post [From US] Surf’s Up to read about that experience). Pulling up to the local surf spot, our van fit in with all the other surf wagons. We may have looked like tourists as we squeezed into our wet-suits for the first time, but Patriot looked as if it always belonged. After we covered the floor boards with sand and salt, we parked for our first night in the van. We settled into a campsite at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Tia had bought these perfect battery operated "fairy lights" that we quickly strung throughout the van as the sun set behind the coast.
These lights made for our own starry night sky no matter what the weather outside was like. The van also came with pillows, sheets, down comforters and duvet covers, all of which made the van more comfortable and homey than we expected. Our first night in the van was a success. Comfy, cozy, and the temperature was just right - not too chilly, and not too stuffy with us being closed in. It might have been the 3 hour drive, or exhausting surfing lessons, or maybe even the 12 pack of beer that we had in the fridge, but we slept like the dead. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park was the only location that we stayed for 2 nights, since it was the perfect home-base for us to venture down to Big Sur and back. Henry Cowell was a great little spot, and it turned out that the locals talked about it as a true gem in their area, offering a hideaway in the woods only about 10 miles from the busy downtown area of Santa Cruz. It was kind of a pain to have to drive up into the hills so far since we wanted to spend more time wandering to the multiple breweries that Santa Cruz has to offer. Since we couldn’t walk it, it meant one of us had to behave.
Next, we headed north up CA Highway-1. The most iconic and beautiful drive you will ever take in this amazing country. The full description of our coastal driving can be found in our blog under [From Her] Sunshine and Scenic Drives - Our Road Trip Recap.
For our second stop, we stayed at Samuel P. Taylor Redwoods State Park. This state park was another gem, a little over an hour from San Francisco, but really in the middle of nowhere. It was located outside of the tiny little town of Point Reyes Station. This was where we first got a chance to see the California Coastal Redwoods in all of their glory. Parking our van on a campsite next to one of those suckers really made us feel insignificant. We stayed here so we would be able to take a night-time bioluminescent kayaking tour through Tomales Bay, just inland from the Point Reyes National Seashore. This was a serious highlight of our entire trip! Check out our post: [From Us] Bioluminescent Kayaking to learn about that adventure.
Heading north on Highway 1, we made our third stop in Mendocino. We were hoping to stay at one of the 3 coastal state parks that offer camping in the area - Van Damme, Russian Gulch, or MacKerricher State Parks. Unfortunately, none of those are open for camping in October. We had originally booked a site at the Manchester Beach / Mendocino Coast KOA about 30 miles south of the small village of Mendocino, which was our main destination of the day. This was a rookie mistake. One thing we didn’t realize before coming to California - it takes WAY more time to travel a short distance than we’re used to in Upstate New York. So, while we stopped and ate lunch in Mendocino, we looked for an alternative camping location, either close to the village, or at least heading north, to avoid the long back-track south. We found some spontaneous availability at the Caspar Beach RV Park and Campground. This campground was quite different from everywhere we had stayed so far - it had a small store, laundry services, and WiFi. It definitely catered more to the RV/mobile home community, but it did offer quiet tenting campsites away from the hub of activity. This campground really had everything we needed - the cleanest bathrooms and showers we had encountered so far, and a quiet and safe space for us to park and sleep undisturbed. An added bonus was that we were right across the street from the Caspar Beach, which tucked into a small, protected cove. We were able to walk down and enjoy the sunset, and we could hear the soft lull of the waves and even some barking harbor seals from our site. It was a really nice spot to camp at that we would have missed if we had decided to keep our original campsite location in Manchester or if we had jumped to the conclusion that an RV park wasn’t what we were after.
After leaving Mendocino, our next stop was in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park. We camped at the Albee campground, one of the half dozen or so campgrounds within the over 53,000 acres of the state park. The Albee campground was absolutely gorgeous. The drive in was breathtaking, as first, you drove along the Avenue of Giants, weaving in and out of enormous redwoods. The five mile long driveway of the Albee campground is equally as stunning, bringing you deeper and deeper into the heart of the forest. The first thing we noticed when we got settled into the campground was that they took black bears very seriously here. Each site had its own bear-proof storage locker where you were supposed to store any food, drinks, coolers, garbage, toiletries - anything with a scent. We knew we were dealing with black bears (although in California, they’re more often brown or blonde in color), as the California Grizzly bear, that appears on the state flag, has been extinct since the 1920s. Regardless of the bear species though, we take the threat of them entering our campsite seriously. We asked the park ranger how concerned we needed to be about the bears, are the bear-proof lockers really necessary. He told us that we should use the lockers even though “our bears haven’t figured out how to open car doors yet.” We laughed at that, but in all seriousness, with enough temptation and repetition, bears DO learn how to open car doors and how to open coolers. We knew that this was a real issue in areas such as near Yellowstone. So we made sure to lock up our food, put our trash in the locked bins and not leave any scented, tempting things laying around the campsite overnight. We were thankful that it was cold enough to keep the van completely closed and locked up overnight. We slept in our Jeep in heavy black bear territory back east once before, and struggled all night between risking a visit by a bear with the windows rolled down or dying from heat exhaustion with the windows rolled up. In fact, this was our first cold night of camping in Patriot. Every other night so far was pretty cool and we were really comfortable with the van closed up and snuggling under our comforter. This night at Albee, however, was down in the low 40s. We dealt with the cold by running the van with the heat on for the 10-15 minutes or so that it took us to clean up and get ready for bed, dressing in long sleeves, full pajama pants, and socks, and using the second comforter the Escape Campervans loaned us because they knew that this time of year it can get pretty chilly at night. Even with all of that, it made for very close snuggling between two people who generally like to stake their claims to opposite sides of the bed. If we had stayed at a campsite with electrical hookups, we could have used the extension cord and space heater that Escape Campervans provides for just these temperatures… but we did not. So we had to make due with what we had. These are all things to consider when planning future campervan trips, though. In hindsight, even though it was chilly and the bears were a little bit concerning, we wouldn’t have done it any other way. Camping in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park was incredible. It put you right in the center of some of the tallest and oldest trees on the planet; the views of the stars, in the clearings, were incredible; and the peace and quiet was the perfect for listening to some of the local owls call out in the night. Check out our post [From Her] Holy S#%*! Look at that tree! to read about our hike through the redwoods of Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
For our final road trip destination in Patriot, we headed south into the Napa Valley. We couldn’t take a trip to northern California and not stop in Wine Country. Finding a campground in the Napa Valley is tricky business, as lodging tends towards scenic (and expensive) B&Bs, inns, hotels, and spa/resorts. Additionally, we were really hoping to stay close to the center of town, so we could enjoy the local beers and wines and not have to worry about driving the van back into the woods on the edge of town for the night. We hit the jackpot when we stumbled across the Calistoga RV Park during our trip planning. It was cheap, it had bathrooms with showers, and it was a short walk into the center of Calistoga, the first town at the top of the Napa Valley. The Calistoga RV Park is a pretty no frills sort of place. I think they operate under the assumption that you’re not coming to the Napa Valley to sit around at the campground. I think they also cater to patrons interested in the adjacent golf course that they own. Campfires are outlawed there - most likely throughout the whole valley, as wildfires have devastated the area in recent years, and there really isn’t space on the sites for anything like that. Campers are packed in like a parking lot, with minimal space between each one. This was certainly the least private of the campgrounds we visited, but it served it’s purpose. It provided us with a safe, and mostly quiet location to park and sleep for the night. And it was REALLY nice to be within walking distance of town. As it turned out, we spent minimal time staying there anyway, as we were enjoying wineries and restaurants until the late evening, and then we were up early to head south to Yountville for a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the Napa Valley (check out our blog post detailing the hot air balloon ride: [From him] Grapes and balloons). This last night in Patriot was our most challenging of the trip. It was pretty hot and even muggy in Calistoga, even at night time. The van was really warm to begin with, and then we were sweating out our red wine drunk overnight. That transition from wine drunk to hungover is extra unpleasant when you’re sleeping in a stuffy van overnight. Suddenly our comfy, cozy campervan felt more like cramped. We popped out the little side windows that allowed for some airflow in the little 2 inch gap, but we didn’t feel comfortable rolling down the front windows in such a public area. Our campsite was pretty close to a street that had foot traffic all night long. A way to improve on this if we were to repeat it…and let’s just be honest, we’re not going to be avoiding the wine drunk next time either… I think we’d pick up a cheap fan at a Walmart or Home Depot, just to help circulate the air a bit. And maybe use the same technique we used for heating the van, but with the AC - run it for 10-15 minutes to chill the van down first, before going to bed.
Overall, in our minds, the van was a perfect fit for this vacation. It allowed us the freedom to travel as many spots as we could, while saving money along the way. We also were able to have multiple meals at the van instead of purchasing meals at all times of the day. Generally, we usually had some power bars and local coffee (we even tried some of those cans of cold brew too) for breakfast as we started our drives or before our activities, then a big lunch at a brewery, winery, or cool local restaurant. Then, we were settled into our campsite for the night, we’d chill out around the campfire with some local beers and simple snacks like cheese and crackers.
So let's talk about cost, in case any of you want to try this yourselves. Nightly campsites cost about $40 per night for tent sites, just note that these cheaper sites often come without water or electrical hook ups. We liked having known spots to land each night rather than trying to find somewhere to park off the side of the road and free-camp. This also let us have small campfires every night, which we really enjoy, by purchasing firewood at the campgrounds for around $10 a bundle. The van itself cost just under $1,200 for 7 nights. This included the 1) standard nightly rate, which can vary based on high and low seasons and specials they’re offering, with all of the basics included (bedding, propane, dishes, pots and pans, folding chairs, etc); 2) booking an extra night, so we could return the van late the last day and accommodate our hot air balloon ride; 3) running over the allotted 100 miles per day by about 400 miles at a cost of $0.25 per extra mile and 4) the folding picnic table and portable EZ-up style sunshade awning we rented at costs of $25 and $60 for the week. For us, it wasn’t worth renting the table and awning, as each campground had a picnic table already and it was heavily forested and shady nearly everywhere we stayed, but we didn’t know what to expect and wanted to be safe rather than sorry we didn’t have that stuff. We wish we had done a little more research on the campground specifics and didn’t bother to rent them, not because of the wasted expense necessarily, but because of the wasted space in the van. The awning itself took up some desirable foot space at the bottom of the bed. These are things we’ll know better for the next trip! All in all, after adding up the cost of a hotel every night and a rental car for a week, the campervan was, by far, the best option for us - it was much less expensive, it was a new adventure for us to try out, and it gave us mobility and freedom and allowed us to see and do so many different things across an expansive part of California.
Some other tips and things we would like to warn you about if you are going to attempt similar travels in California:
1. Deer are everywhere, they may be smaller than the ones we see in NY, but they are abundant in the mountains and forests.
2. Everyone drives with their bumper precisely 2 feet from the one in front of them. Any safety space left between vehicles just means more room for the other cars to weave in and out of the direction of travel.
3. Speed limits are just suggestions, the turns on the road are not conducive to the suggested speed limits. Be prepared for your tires to squeal around turns, and for your body to be completely sore from going gas to brake to gas to brake 1 million times over the course of an hour.
4. Just for good measure, the roads go from 65 mph to 10 mph with little to no warning. This paired with a campervan means everything you neatly put away for travel will soon be up in the front of the van within 10 minutes of driving.
5. Toll roads can be prepaid on the internet (and with apps like The Toll Roads) by simply logging your license plate, your travel dates, and a credit or debit card. If you accidentally enter a toll road without prepaying, you can also back-pay the tolls afterwards. One piece of advice I can give you, do not incorrectly the licence plate number to your wife. It may take a few days to figure out that you are paying for other peoples’ tolls🤦🏻♂️.
6. Motorcycles are allowed to split lanes. This means that they are legally allowed to drive between cars at high rates of speed, weaving in and out as they fly by. This adds one more thing for you to look for as you change lanes. Luckily most of them have ear splitting exhaust to warn you they are right next to your door.
7. Staying in a campervan means you must be comfortable with camping. Most campervan rental places only rent vans that don’t have bathrooms included in their layout (but some might exist out there!). That means you need to consider bathrooms and showers in your planning. Those logistics are extra tricky with free-camping. We chose campgrounds that offered bathrooms and showers (note that not all campgrounds do). Some of the public bathrooms we used were super clean and tidy, some were gross, but most were moderate. Showers usually require payment with quarters, and campground showers in California are a little pricier ($1.25 for a 5 minute shower) than places we’re used to back east as water resources are so scarce. Make sure you pack a pair of shower flip flops to use. We also bought some really handy, large, quick-drying microfiber towels to use, as normal towels would pack too bulky and take too long to dry in the van (plus they would stink!). The ones we bought were from Amazon (see picture below).
8. Keep in mind that there’s only so much storage space in the van, and that you’ll be living out of your suitcase. Try to find the right balance between having what is necessary for camping and your activities, but also not over-packing because space is limited and you don’t want it to be too cramped. We had to make hard decisions when it came to what shoes to bring. We each thought we needed flip flops, shower flip flops, sneakers, hiking boots, dressy shoes, and water shoes for some of the activities we had planned. After much debate and whining, we decided to scale down and cut out any hiking boots and dress shoes, hoping that sneakers would be findefor the hikes we had planned, and a basic neutral pair of flip flops each would cover all of our bases. Also, in order to keep luggage limited as much as possible, we really couldn’t bring much dressy stuff at all. We left dress clothes, shoes, accessories, makeup and hair products at home, opting to go real casual. It turned out to be a nice vacation from all of that and gave us more time for activities. We tried to pack in a way that made living out of a suitcase easier. For example, we each had our own, individual toiletry bag so there was less hassle digging around for things or arguing over who had the toothpaste last.
9. As mentioned above, keep the forecasted weather and temperatures during your trip in mind when you select your campsites. If it’s going to be uncomfortably hot or cold at night, it might be worth paying a little more for a site with electrical hook ups so you can power a space heater or fan. You can also make better decisions about what types of bedding you may want.
Camping is a major pastime for us, so staying in a campervan was no issue. It actually stopped the constant fight of setting up a tent, was always dry when it rained, charged all our necessary items over night (phones, cameras, rechargeable lanterns, bluetooth speakers, charger packs, a battery powered fuel-less lighter and FitBits), and got us everywhere we wanted to be. The van was perfect and we couldn't have expected it to go any better. One final note, make sure you are aware of your insurance policy, our personal insurance policy would cover anything that happened to the rented van, but it is good to know before pulling off the lot and entering the demolition derby know as the California State highways. Escape Campervans offer a variety of coverage policies for a little extra precaution that can go a long ways.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you so much for reading. We hope everyone will learn from our experience and try #somethingonce!