These posts give a glimpse into nomad life in a tiny shelter.
We didn’t finish the bus completely before we left Tampa, FL, but we left it in good enough condition to use it as a shelter. We luckily had the bare minimum needed to survive on our first days as nomads.
Neither sink, toilet, nor shower worked despite their solid installation. We could not wash our dishes nor bathe, but thankfully our campground had a bath house nearby to which we could retreat. Without a fridge running, we used a cooler to prevent the milk and cheese from rotting. Only one light was hardwired and running, but we could have honestly survived without it. We could have grabbed some candles and lit them for light.
In our experience, the bare minimum in any nomadic lifestyle is air conditioning (or heat if you’re in a cold climate). Food can come in different containers: canned, dried or barren with the need for refrigeration. Environmental comfort however needs finesse and most likely some equipment to calibrate what is bearable in heat or cold. If you can hang out in your abode for a day – and an evening – you can couple this with adventure to truly enjoy bus living, skoolie living, van living, or RV living.
We relied on a Soleus Air 8000 Window AC to cool us down in Maryland and Virginia from July to the end of August 2014. If you think you’re not ready to head out on the road following your wanderlust, remember that you just need to be content hanging out in your abode night and day and you can solve the other necessities like food and water by moving closer to grocery stores, hunting for your food, bringing nourishment before you embark, or simply going out to a restaurant to eat. If you must bathe, head to a bath house, a cafe restroom, or a convenience store to splash yourself with water. Otherwise, you can wipe your hairy, smelly parts with deodorant or wet wipes. When one goes camping, the shelter is just a swath of canvas under which you can nibble on your rations. Bus living is not much different. It’s a metal cover under which you can survive a couple nights
With time you’ll find the strength to finish the projects to make your mobile abode complete. 3 months after we first started RV living, we finally got the kitchen sink running. I no longer needed to wash the dishes outside in the cooling October nights. Before snow fell, we connected the toilet to the manifold and no longer had to traipse to the bathhouse to relieve ourselves. The completion of the shower would take a year, but by then we were used to roughing it. Humans are resilient. You can be too.
When traveling on a road trip, you can consider yourself a temporary nomad. Lugging your toiletries and clothes, you stop every night at a place of shelter: a hotel, motel, Holiday Inn, or a friend of family member’s house. Even A stranger’s house or couch is not out of the question! Despite the foreign surrounds, there is comfort that the real place where you lay your head is back where you call home. But what happens when you don’t have a stationary home and you go to sleep in different locations every few months, every week, or every night.
Our Journey towards Nomad-dom
It took us forever to finish up cleaning the house we were renting in Central Florida. Once we were wheels in motion, we only had a few hours to get to St. Augustine, Florida before night fell. We luckily didn’t have to worry about our kids because they were safe and secure in Los Angeles with their grandparents. So despite the long days of driving and short stays in a new town, we were excited to be on the road. Over the next few days, Michael drove the bus and I tagged along in a 22′ rental truck towing our SUV.
When we finally reached Northern Virginia on the morning of July 3rd, 2015, we wasted no time. We spent the afternoon putting our large furniture and work tools in a storage unit. After heavy lifting in temperatures as high as 103ºF, we summoned enough energy to gather a dinner of champions: beer, wine, chips and salsa.
Make It Memorable (Or At Least Remember It)
Sadly it is because we mixed such gluttonous consumption with a full day’s work that we cannot recount our first night as nomads. I can’t remember if we even took advantage of the absence of our kids to christen the bus with some sexy times. Sigh … I hope this won’t be the case for fellow converters waiting to embark on your nomad life. Whether you write it down, record your voice, or video tape your equal parts excitement and fatigue, we urge you to preserve the experience.
Comment below on what your first experience as a nomad was like. Feel free to link to your blog post that sheds light on that night.
When we converted our bus, we worried about the inside of the bus. Only 0.01% of our time was spent thinking about what it would be like to spend time outside it. For people with a tiny home, outdoor living is equally important to that of the indoors. Mother Nature is in yo’ face when you step outside and she bestows a lot on you!
Most people think sunny weather is the greatest. I do prefer it, but constant sun can dehydrate you and make you as miserable as a never-ending winter. The intensity of the sun can burn your feet in a matter of minutes! Ask me how I know and I’ll recount the time Michael needed me to hold a pole in 103ºF High Noon temperatures without shade while he fastened our tarp.
Anything that falls from the sky can put a damper on the furniture or equipment you leave outside. Waterproof furniture can arguably be the answer and be left outside despite the weather, but maybe you couldn’t afford such pieces nor have the room for them. You could transfer every item inside every time it rains, snows, or hails. Or you could prepare a cover that protects you as you sip your coffee on a rainy morning and protects your bikes that don’t fit inside the bus during a snowstorm.
Do It Yourself Awning Prototypes
A trip to an RV store in Northern California deterred us from buying a commercially made awning. The cost was more than what we were willing to pay for something we had a feeling we could make and install by ourselves. We didn’t really take the awning seriously until we took our first weekend trip in our half-completed bus. On the eve of our departure, Michael headed to Home Depot at 30 minutes before closing and returned with a hodgepodge of 1-1/4″ PVC pipe, fittings, bolts, nuts, and fat washers.
What he concocted was a canopy that held up for the weekend and for our first few months full-timing. Three poles, inserted into grommets on the tarp and tied down to 2 stakes each, held the awning to the ground. Parachute cord secured the tarp to brackets welded to the roof. This prototype didn’t last long because all the resistance to wind relied on those three pole connections and the several roof brackets.
The second version involved adding a beam connecting the poles to laterally distribute the uplift force. The roof brackets were still the points of connection topside. Despite this reinforcement, windy days still created worry in us. When gusts came our way, the entire tarp acted as a sail pulling the poles and stakes into the sky. Setup and Tear Down was a bear of a chore that if a new campsite was in the same campground, the kids and I would “walk” the awning. By holding the poles and walking the pace of the bus (as if we were pallbearers and the bus were a coffin), we didn’t have to detach the poles nor the tarp from the roof brackets. After much battle against the wind, the PVC beam started to bow.
DIY Awning 3.0
We dealt with the bowed beam for about one year. As our second Winter approached, Michael wanted to improved the design before the snow arrived. Our main issues were:
- prevent the beam from bowing
- allow wind to escape
- collapse easily when traveling on the road
Michael solved all this with the latest version by making a truss beam for the bottom of the tarp and adding another beam on the roof. The truss system stiffen the bottom beam. The top beam and our cord attachment system (seen below) allowed the tarp to release passing wind. With these two beams in place, we now just detach the poles, roll up the whole works and secure it to the roof with … yes, you guessed correctly … parachute cord.
Roof brackets: (To be done very early in the bus conversion, before applying bus roof paint) Remove rivets. Manufacture a bracket attached to a plate that is slightly larger than the area without rivets. Bolt plate to roof frame through old rivet locations.
The Roof Beam: Construct a PVC pole a little longer that the length of the tarp. Attach pole to brackets with a parachute cord winding through bracket hole and an eye bolt attached to pole. Use more cord to loop through tarp grommets and around the PVC pipe. The cord should not be snug – the distance between the tarp and pipe allows the wind to escape.
Tarp to Truss Attachment: Screw eye bolts through truss’s top chord and attach tarp to these bolts with parachute cord. Also shown is an intermediate post. We should have had a total of 3 (instead of our current 2) intermediaries across the 10-‘0″ span between major posts to prevent the slight bowing that has occurred. It’s not terrible, but the perfectionist in Michael is frowning.
Beam to Large Post : Note that the post attaches at a “Tee” on the top cord of the truss. The flex from wind forces can twist on the elbow to tee fittings without disturbing the large end posts too much. The large middle post, however, does attach to the truss bottom chord.
Frame to Stake: End posts of truss and at the middle of the truss beam have large eye bolts screwed through it at the top. With our trusty parachute cord, we secure the frame to the stakes.
Large Post End Detail: The large posts spanning from the truss to the ground terminate with a long bolt secured to it with a nut and wide washer. Pierce this pointy end into the ground to prevent the large post from sliding. If your site is not level, you can use a piece of wood with a notch drilled in to elevate the posts lacking in height.
DIY Awning Complete!
Share your thoughts on this project in the comments below. What have you done to construct your own awning? We look forward to hearing from you!
Many people who convert a bus, van or trailer, have young kids – or at least kids whom you do not want to be handling a power tool unsupervised. When we started our bus conversion, Simone was only 5 years old and Max 2-1/2. I didn’t have to worry about feeding them breast milk, but I did have to fret about entertaining them during the long days of construction. We preferred that they be occupied for long stretches of time, but their attention span was as short as they were.
In the first month of the conversion, we parked the bus at the 8-acre farm of Michael’s Uncle Frankie. This was ideal for the gutting of the bus because we had space to dump all the parts eventually going to the dump and the parts we were reusing. Was it ideal for the kids? We thought it had its perks!
As former city-dwellers, our only contact with chickens and goats was in books or at a local petting zoo. At Uncle Frankie’s, the kids took on the chore of feeding the chickens every morning. The goats didn’t need to be fed, but they did need to be moved to different pastures around the homestead. Simone and Max sometimes rode on the tractor bed while Uncle Frankie traveled from one goat to the other, tying them to different posts with tall grass. If we didn’t have family around to help us with entertaining the kids, we might have had a harder time.
Other exciting things that happened at the farm were the birth of a new litter of kittens, climbing the barn’s loft, collecting eggs, washing said eggs, discovering swallowtail nests, and learning about the pecking order of roosters. The last experience actually elicited a sad emotion in us. The kids and I did not know that one rooster in a flock will be singled out as the “weakest” and will thus be the punching bag for the rest. The one at the farm bore so many scars & bleeding wounds. He had lost so many feathers that he looked as if he were on the verge of death.
Bus Conversion and potty training can be tricky. If your child is self sufficient, you needn’t worry. If they’re still in diapers or pull-ups, it’s not ideal but you know you have an amount of time free to work before you have to pause and change a diaper. If you are potty training a toddler, the process might disrupt the construction a bit. At a moment’s notice, your toddler will scream, “Peeeee, I need to pee!” If you’re in the middle of cutting a board of plywood lengthwise, do you kill the table saw switch or do you let your kid pee in his pants for the second time that day?
This doesn’t mean that one should forgo the training nor the conversion – it’s just another task you’ll have to deal with on top of all the others. But isn’t that how life goes? It doesn’t hand you completed goals on a silver platter. So knowing that it might be difficult to potty train and do construction, you can prepare yourself mentally and with some tricks.
Place a potty chair outside
When kids have a bowel movement, many times they don’t tell you until the shizz is about to go down! Instead of having to scramble inside the house or apartment to get to the throne, bring the toilet outside. We found our older daughter preferred this method instead of using the bathroom inside.
Have multiple bags of wet-wipes
Many parents may already sprinkle their house with wet wipes in every room. This becomes very important not only with potty training but with dirt in general. By placing a wet wipe holder near the outdoor potty, we gained a little bit of time not having to help with hygiene.
Time Your Intensive Tasks
Right before you and your partner engage in putting up the new 5mm ply ceiling, make sure your child has just visited the toilet.
Entertaining Your Kids in 10 Easy Ways
You need not buy a lot of toys to occupy children’s time. Bring them outside to join in the construction fun!
- I let the kids mimic us by buying them little construction tool toys that made sounds and moved parts.
- Get a scrap piece of wood and place different screws with different heads around the board. Give them screwdrivers with the corresponding bits and you’ve bought yourself about 30 minutes.
- If you’re more confident of their usage with power tools, give them a scrap piece of wood and a power drill.
- The short ends of 2x4s or 1x3s that cannot be used become new building blocks. Make sure you sand the edges so the kids don’t get splinters. You can also let the kids paint them, decorate them with permanent markers or just color them with chalk, which is what we did.
- Bigger scraps of wood can become the fulcrum of a see-saw.
- If you have a small incline in your yard, scrap 1/4″ ply becomes a ramp for scooters, skateboards or roller skates!
- Enlist the kids to paint huge fields of material. If a project doesn’t need accuracy nor masking tape, kids enthusiastically brush paint wood. Teach older kids to properly spray self-etching primer on metal fabrications.
- Make a swing! Again with the scrap piece of wood and thick rope, you can put together a swing hanging from a tree.
- Boxes delivered to your house contain equipment or tools for your bus. Save these boxes before you send them to recycling. Kids use them to make houses, forts, push carts, hats, and/or armor out of them. They also serve as a sturdy surface onto which you can paint scrap pieces of wood.
- Give them a camera. Let your kids snap photos of you building their future tiny home. You don’t always have the time to chronicle your journey, but they might. Their perspective also gives you a window into how they see the experience.
When all else fails, Netflix can babysit. I’ll admit that we would plop the kids in front of the TV and let them watch episode after episode of “My Big, Big Friend.” Sometimes fatigue overcomes you or the weather is too hot & humid to let any child outside to play.
Honestly, we fed the kids a lot of fast food during our bus conversion. It’s hard to make home-cooked meals while your husband works a full-time job and you’re left during the day to sand, paint, and spec equipment. It’s even harder when both parents work and the conversion is subjected to nights and weekends. When you can, throw in any kind of nutritious fruit or veggies that the kids can munch on.
My kids are such connoisseurs of chicken nuggets that they can tell you their preference for the best chain. But we tried to get some nutrition in by giving them strawberries, blueberries and apples. Edamame and peanuts gave them protein. Carrots, peas and corn provided more vitamins and minerals. Frozen peas have actually become a hit with the kids. Out of hunger one afternoon, they hunted for something to eat and found the little green orbs. They found it delightful to pop the frozen spheres in their mouth. I’m not saying all kids will like it, but the unusual can become a godsend.
The Kids Are Alright … I Think
I can’t say for sure that converting a bus and living in it full-time has benefited our family. Who knows if it affects our children negatively and they need a therapist in their young adulthood to sort through their childhood experiences?
The austerity we provide and think gives them the ability to exercise imagination may leave them with low self-esteem. The nomadic lifestyle may be give them more longing for stable friendships than the joy of adventure. The time we spent building a home for the family may have stolen time for playing with the kids. If we were wrong in choosing this endeavor then I can honestly say I’ll be surprised. It has brought our family closer and the kids are more adventurous than Michael and I were as kids in the 70s. My gut says we did the right thing in converting the bus and living a tiny life with our tiny humans.
When we converted the bus in June of 2012, the United States happened to be experiencing record high temperatures. Looking at the forecast, we saw that triple digit highs lay in our future. While insulation would help us beat the heat, it would take longer to install than would an air conditioner or two.
The Air Conditioners
In our design stages, we had planned on having an air conditioner in the front, above the driver seat, and one in the back. We weren’t sure if the number of units nor if the power chosen for each would be enough. Here is where we warn you to improve on what we did.
During an East Coast Summer, it has not been sufficient to have a 12,000 BTU mini-split in the front and an 8,000 BTU window unit in the back because there is a hot spot in the middle of the bus that stays warm. We could have gone with a 10,000 BTU rear and 14,000 BTU front. Another option would have been to find a rear unit that threw the air farther. The downfall with this solution is that a more powerful fan means more noise. When we put our window unit’s fan on high, it is so loud that we can’t hear our TV very well. The forward mini-split however remains quiet in the front but it does not throw its cool air far out enough. We could have used one with a more powerful fan on that unit.
Air Conditioner Install
During our first month of bus conversion, we didn’t have time to research and buy a mini split adequate for our needs. We were desperate enough, however, to buy the less complicated window unit. Off to Fleet Farm we went and purchased an 8,000 BTU window unit for a whopping $89 at sale price, originally a couple hundred dollars.
Most window units project from a room’s fenestration to grab fresh air and to spit out the hot air made from making cool air. Just as we didn’t want to have anything popping out the roof, we didn’t like the idea of an air conditioner sticking out the back of our bus like a caught-and-forgotten toilet paper trailing down someone’s underwear. Faced with the criteria of keeping the air conditioner within the bus’s envelope and still needing to vent the unit, we placed it in the nook above the engine compartment.
With a load of fear and a dash of determination, Michael cut two holes at the bus’s sloping rear facade. These would accommodate the two vents we bought for a mere $14 each. Armed with a rivet fan spacer and a rivet gun, he covered the holes with vents initially intended to vent attic spaces. The next step was to create a box around the AC that also covered the air space leading to and from the vents.
With this sub-project complete we were now finally able to focus our efforts on insulating the bus walls and ceiling.
We decided to use a spray foam insulation because it was going to be easier to apply and more insulating than rigid or batt versions. Michael found a brand online and had it delivered to the farm early in our visit. We didn’t use it though until much, much later because of the tasks to be completed before installation. We had to finish all the welding, electrical and prepwork, like masking surfaces we didn’t want to spray and spot-foaming hard to reach places with a canister of cheaper foam insulation. This video illustrates the steps in applying Foam-It-Green insulation.
One tank ran out more quickly than the other, but that didn’t deter Michael for continuing to use the leftovers. Unfortunately, both chemicals are needed to make the insulation and we ended up with a blue liquid splattered here and there. In addition to that mess, the foam had blown up past where we needed it and a giant trim job lay before us.
I function like a work horse while Michael will spend extra time thinking of shortcuts. Before Michael had thought to use the Sawzall, I was using an exacto and slowly hacking away the excess insulation. It was actually quite meditative – a welcome change to the incessant labor! There was something satisfying about seeing a sharp blade cleanly slice off unwanted pieces. But I agree that it took too much time that we did not have to spare.
Exasperated with how much work we still had left to do, Michael grabbed his Sawzall and artfully & quickly trimmed the entire bus’s insulation in one hour.
Death Averted, Air Cool-Converted.
We luckily finished both the air conditioner and spray foam installation before Mother Nature blessed the Midwest with 3 days of temperatures above 100°F. Combining the roof’s heat-reflecting paint, the insulation and the conditioned air made a world of difference in providing us comfort. If we had to do it over again, the only change would have been to get a more powerful window AC.
What have you used or plan to use in your bus conversion? Technology has changed in the 4 years since we did ours – maybe you can provide insight on the better options.
Your spouse just dropped the bomb on you that he¹ would like to live in a bus. He may have also eluded to doing the manual labor of converting an old school or transit bus into your abode. You counteracted both suggestions with ridicule and horror. I know because I reacted the same way when my husband proposed bus life.
Let me proclaim that living in a tiny moving home is a wonderful experience! Converting a bus by yourselves is grueling work and another beast to tackle so this post will not address that. But if your husband wants to buy one already decked out with domestic luxuries or if he pledges to convert a bus by himself, I urge you to consider it a blessing rather than a temporary leave of his sanity.
When My Spouse Suggested a Bus Conversion
Michael and I started dating in 2000 and, after moving twice in 3 years, he proposed that we buy an RV and live in it on the streets of West Los Angeles. I was working full-time in an architecture firm and Michael was starting law school. In other words, I thought we were living a typically happy life and wanted to continue on the trajectory of normalcy. I didn’t want to be associated with weirdos, the dregs of society, nor hippies, so I shot down his suggestion. This only made him want to push the issue and instead suggest living on a boat! I compromised with living in a studio 1 block away from Venice Beach, California.
10 years later, married with two young children, Michael again brought up the idea of an RV, but he assuaged the scenario. “We can travel cheaply around the country for a year!” Maybe the seed he planted in my mind a decade prior had finally sprouted into a bud of acceptance. Perhaps I was too tired from taking care of a 4- and 2-year old to resist his enthusiasm. I possibly just caught his infectious glee as he scoured the internet for buses. Whatever the reason, I didn’t outright refuse the idea this time.
The process of building the bus to an acceptable camping shelter took two years. When we moved to Washington, D.C., to start Michael’s new job, we planned on living in the bus for the Summer while we looked for a house to call our new home. With rental prices in the nation’s capitol so absurdly expensive, a lease for a new abode never urfaced. We decided to live in the bus full-time and have been happily doing so for the past 2 years.
The initial setting I painted may echo your own journey. Or possibly your husband just blurted out the beauty of nomadic life. Another scenario could be that he saw a passing RV and uttered what a great idea it would be to live in one with you and your domesticated animals. You also could have reached this post after years of his nagging that a bus conversion would make the family closer and fulfill your desire to travel across the country.
You are not alone in your shock and awe that your spouse would dare suggest downsizing to less than 300sf. I sympathize with you, but I also urge you to consider that the lunacy bestowed on your husband may actually be a stroke of genius. After having lived in our 35′ bus with our kids, now age 9 and 6, I wish we had started this lifestyle sooner.
The Benefits of Living in a Tiny Home on Wheels
Let’s entertain your spouse’s idea and see what the advantages are to bus life.
- Cheaper Living: Many campgrounds offer affordable daily rates that would hearken back to rental prices 20 years ago. Sure, your home is smaller than what you could get in a 1 bedroom / 1 bath apartment, but you will also have …
- An Enormous Backyard: Whether you are camping at a resort RV park or boondocking in remote meadows, your space to explore is vast and only limited by how far you want to walk.
- Less Clutter: With less space to hold your wardrobe and knick knacks, you will downsize to unbelievably bearable amounts. That outfit you haven’t worn for 5 years will have no room in your bus. You need not collect the litter of toys strewn about. Gone are the end tables that need dusting every week. Cleaning the home takes only 20 minutes.
- Spectacular Settings: Enviable vistas are no longer limited to those rich enough to buy the house atop a hill. When you travel or stay at a campground, you can be washing dishes while watching the sun set over the treeline 50 feet away. You could wake up to the sound of sparrows, push aside your curtains and watch the osprey diving into the lake for their breakfast of fish.
- Flexible School Options: If you have school-aged children, all is not lost in keeping them academically current. Many homeschooling and virtual schooling options are at your disposal.
Just as there are wonderful things about bus living, there are hardships that we should prepare you to encounter.
- Mother Nature Relentlessly Visits. You will look at the weather forecast at least a couple of times a day. Predicted lows indicate if you need to turn on an extra heater near your freshwater tank. Wind speeds govern whether or not you need to pull in your awning. You’ll need to draw your curtains in to prevent afternoon heat gain and stress on your air conditioner. Cold nights require you do the same action to keep the heat inside.
- Gaining Weight Affects Everyone. Extra pounds deter not just your health, but it also encroaches on your family’s well-being. I have to exercise extra mindfulness lest I whack my kids in the face with my hips as I bend down to pick up a stray lego. For our growing kids, their increase in height needs extra acclimatization lest they whack their head on overhead cabinets and bunk ceilings.
- Easy to Clutter: Cleaning the bus takes 20 minutes, but young children easily clutter the space in less time than you can utter, “It’s so neat here!”
- Passing By Is A Dance. Two bodies cannot pass through the hallway or enter/exit the bathroom at the same time without executing a dance. When my husband leaves the bedroom and I must enter it, we skirt each other like two kids with cooties. The kids have resorted to climbing the bunks and closets so they can pass by as I put away their clothes under their beds.
- Homeschooling Takes Energy. If you are not already accustomed to homeschooling, roadschooling might overwhelm you. Virtual school relies heavily on internet connection – something hard to come by at times.
Red Light? Green Light?
Despite the awkward space issues and the required sensitivity to weather, we still love living in the bus. The disadvantages pale in comparison to the joy we feel in living simply and mindfully.
You now have a couple of questions to ruminate. Will you join your spouse in the bus life, and will you enjoy it? I hope this article has given you a glimpse into what it could be like for you and your family. It could be horrific, but it could also be the most positive transformation you’ve ever undergone. Our advice is to take the plunge, live outside the norm and embrace the adventure.
¹ I refer to the spouse as a man because most of those struck with the idea are male. But I have met several women with wanderlust that have a reluctant husband, wife, boyfriend or girlfriend. To make this article easier to write, I refer to male partners as the instigator of bus life, but be aware that women prompt the idea, too