S1:E2 – Who Needs a Toilet When You Have a Shovel?

What we decided to name the camper, a tour of what it does and doesn’t have, and a dry run to find out what else we’re missing. Hey, just in case you didn’t get the hint, we’re going to talk about bodily functions in this episode. So, you’ve been warned.

In case you need a refresher on leave no trace principles, see here!

This episode was written, recorded, edited, and produced by Lisa McNamara, with additional editing and recording by Paul Olson. Music by Michael Kobrin from Pixabay.


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Photos from this episode: visit our blog, Driving Inertia


This is Road Tripping in America, Series One: before the truck starts. This is Lisa and this is Paul. Follow along as we get ready to start our next chapter of full-time road life.

This is episode two: who needs a toilet when you have a shovel?

Today, we decide what to name the camper, take you on a tour of what it does and doesn’t have, and go on a dry run to find out what else we’re missing.

Hey, just in case you didn’t get the hint, we’re going to talk about bodily functions in this episode. So, you’ve been warned.

So I think that we should name our camper Bob. Because I was thinking about what we should name it right before we saw that Bobcat (side note: out for a hike one day in Lory State Park west of Fort Collins, we saw a large Bobcat relaxing under a tree, and that kind of informed this whole…conversation), so I feel like we should leave it Bobcat, and then its nickname would be Bob.

That’s not bad. No, Bob’s really good, I don’t have anything better than that. The truck has that kinda like, bouncy Bob thing that it does with all the weight in the back, so maybe it’s Bob and Bob. Two guys from the Office Space movie. Why have one thing named Bob when you could have two?

Bob and Bob. I don’t know, I guess in my mind I’m already calling the truck Rocky though but, I like it. I don’t know. Bob and Bob is pretty good. It’s pretty funny. It’s my favorite movie. Remember? Good morning, Bob, Bob.

I wouldn’t say I’ve been missing it, Bob. Maybe we’re onto something.

I think we are, I think we just are onto something.

Alright, now that we have a name, let’s go on a tour of Bob Bob. Come on in!

You currently hop up and into the camper by way of the handle and the step at the back of the truck bed. We really need to get a collapsible ladder to make the entrance and exit a little more elegant, with fewer sound effects.

Up in the camper, to your left is the furnace and stove, both fueled by a propane tank. Both huge luxuries. In the minivan, we were limited to places that didn’t get too cold at night. We’re still not planning on winter camping, but the furnace takes the edge off cold nights and those times we will end up stuck in a cold snap. Now we don’t need to run away from the cold.

With the stove, we can make coffee inside in the morning and dinner when it’s dark, cold, rainy, or windy outside. It’s going to be such a luxury. In the minivan, Paul got so tired of fighting the old Coleman every day.

Tell me about Mr. Coleman, Paul.

Ahhhh … um … yeah (whispered)

On trip #1 in the minivan we had a Coleman stove and it was the external tank model I guess, Coleman classic. We had a gallon jug of gasoline or whatever fuel stuff – kerosene-ish type. And so that would slosh around and pop every night because as it would cool every evening, we would get that pop! It would pop, it was a little terrifying.

It didn’t have the pressurized tanks that are a little bit more modern and so every day you have to pressurize it yourself, which means you have to hold your thumb over this little hole and pump this little awkward thing, this plunger, into the tank, while you hold your thumb over the hole in the end of the plunger, and it always takes a lot of plunges.

By the end of the trip my thumb is just so sore from pumping it twice a day for coffee in the morning and for dinner at night and then throughout dinner because you’d have to keep the pressure up. It was a lot of plunging.

With the camper it’s very exciting to have propane and to just have to get that filled up. Because we’re not using the disposable canisters, we’re just using a big reusable tank, so we don’t have to worry about the waste, because those are a pain to get rid of. You have to recycle them in special spots, and make sure they’re fully empty and all that.

And now we don’t have to do anything, well you just have to light a match and twist the thing. It works great and it’s very convenient.

(lighting up the stove audio)

Continuing back on the left, behind the stove and furnace is a wide open area where the built-in cabinets and appliances usually go, but we didn’t want any of that – too expensive, heavy, and inflexible. This open area has two steps, one about 8” above the floor and the second about 8” above the first. We are planning to add a shelf on top of the second step to maximize the width of this space, which will also make a row of cubbies underneath to stow shoes and cleaning supplies. On top of the shelf will be our main storage area for bins, backpacks, and the cooler, all secured somehow to prevent them from toppling onto the floor whenever I corner hard. This is where we will store the stuff that we access on a daily basis like food, clothes, bedding, toiletries. I’ve already sanded and painted the rough plywood that’s usually covered up by the built-in cabinets, but we still need to build the shelf.

Now to your right, back by the entrance is a little gap that is the perfect size for a trash bin. Above that is the fire extinguisher that Marty had to give us by law. Further back on the right, most of the area is filled by the side dinette, which has two seats with storage compartments underneath and a table in the middle. The table can be collapsed, making the dining area into a tiny bed or a larger couch. I’m not sure if we’ll ever use this as a tiny bed or couch, but Paul really did miss having a couch last time around. One of the storage compartments is going to be dedicated to the battery, tools, and recovery gear. The other will probably hold the cooking stuff.

We will spend the majority of time outside, but it is really nice to have a place to hang out on cold, windy, rainy nights or when we just need a break from the sun or bugs. This is our living and dining room, where we can eat, play cards, read, listen to podcasts, and work too. There’s space to add a little built-in in the corner and along or above the window if we decide we need it later.

There’s a large window above the dinette and four more windows in the collapsible portion of the roof and a there’s a screen door too, so you can get a good amount of air flowing through the place. We also opted for the insulation layer in the collapsible portion of the roof, which should help keep it cooler when it’s warm and absolutely keeps it warmer when it’s cold.

Up on the roof is a small solar panel.

Back in the day when we had, we took the battery out of the sailboat put it in the van, drove around for like six months and never hooked it up to anything, but all the time we were thinking we were going to connect to an electric fridge so we’d never have to buy ice, but then we never did that so we always bought ice, and we finally just gave away that battery to Jeff in Idaho, who put it in his sailboat, back where it belonged I guess. It made its way home to the sea of Idaho.

This setup’s much better. The camper has a 100 watt solar panel which plugs into our lithium battery, the battery is a standalone unit, it’s not like hardwired in. It also can charge off the alternator so there’s two inputs, one from the solar and one from the car. That basically kept us at 100% the entire time of our last shakedown. So that feels good. During the day when it’s sunny, it fully powers the fridge, which is the biggest draw. And overnight the battery can easily make it. So we think we’ll be good for infinite power, I guess! The battery also powers the lights (which we didn’t know we were going to get) the heater/blower motor, which is fairly powerful, there’s a little outlet that you can charge stuff off of. So it’s pretty slick, and nice to have power.

We’re not planning on doing too much work from the camper – we got really used to using public library wifi, power, and air conditioning when we needed to work. So we don’t need to worry about charging laptops and other equipment in the camper.

Reducing demand – step one.

I’m reading a retirement book that I’ve read before, but the premise is the same premise of – what’s the most effective thing and it’s cut your spending down, right. So, pull your needs down to the lowest that you can and then everything else is easier to reach. And I think the same thing with the power – our needs are like, the fridge and charge our phones, basically?

Right, emergency charging. We have to keep our headlamps charged. But we’re mostly not using our furnace, we don’t really draw a lot from that. We have lights but there’s like, two of them, they’re LEDs, it’s not like an operating room. And we don’t have an induction cooktop. We don’t have a water heater either. That would be nice, but we don’t have water either. So what do we need heated water for?

Back to our tour of the camper – straight ahead of the back door, there’s a window where you can see through to the truck cab and above that is the expandable bed. When not extended, it’s smaller than a full sized bed, but when extended, it’s larger than a queen. Seriously, this bed is huge. We’re still trying to figure out the best way to outfit and sleep on this beast. Underneath the part of the mattress that extends over the cab of the truck and which is less insulated, we put in an air circulation pad to prevent condensation and mildew from forming in that area.

Since we have to pull all the bedding off whenever the top is put down, there’s a lot of shifting things around on a daily basis. You can’t just flop down on the bed or couch. There’s a lot of rearranging, which could get old. We need to get a good system in place so it doesn’t feel like an annoying chore to do this twice a day, every day.

Alright, that’s it for the camper. Now let’s check out the truck cab.

We decided to get a crew cab to have a little more space for storage. We took out the second row of seats and the area left behind is massive. We should be able to stack a few large bins in here for things that we don’t use on a daily basis like backpacking equipment, cold weather gear, and extra food and water. This will also be where we’ll store outdoors gear like our table, screen tent, bike helmets, and things like that.

And that’s it! But wait, you say – aren’t you missing a few things? Like…what about the toilet?

You’re not missing it – there is no toilet. No sink, laundry, or shower either. Why we decided to skip these things that most people consider essential…after the break.

Welcome back. First, the toilet. I don’t want to clean a cassette toilet. Paul doesn’t want to clean a cassette toilet. Neither of us wants to poo in a tiny space that we closely share with one another. A toilet takes up a bunch of room for a very specific and dedicated purpose. So what are we going to do? Obviously we need to poo.

We didn’t have a toilet in the minivan and never had an issue finding a place to go, even when it was…urgent. In a developed campground, you always have a toilet, you use it. In a dispersed camping area, you have a shovel. Dig a hole for your byproducts (be sure to familiarize yourself with leave no trace principles on where and how big this hole should be) but stash any paper/wipes in a bag and throw those away with your trash. Don’t leave those behind and bury them. Yeah it’s awkward and kinda gross but worse than scrubbing poo out of a plastic holding tank? Worse than making Paul stand outside while I do my business in our one room home? I don’t think so.

In sensitive areas like desert canyons or dunes, you use a go bag. It’s like a diaper inside a bag. We have a stash of these and will carry them on long desert hikes along with ziplocs, tp, and wipes – and in this situation, everything is packed out and tossed with your trash. It’s going to be interesting to see how these work…in terms of aim.

Back in civilization, there are libraries, gas stations, public parks, McDonald’s, Starbucks, grocery stores. When you look at it like this, the whole world is your toilet. And you never, ever have to clean it.

Next up: the sink. Many smaller campers like Bob use a built in water tank for the sink’s water supply and have a drain to the exterior of the camper for the outlet vs. using a built-in gray water tank. You are supposed to attach a hose to this drain and collect your water in an external gray water tank or bucket, then dispose of it properly. Many people just let the drain dribble down the side of the camper. We don’t find the benefit to be worth the cost in terms of the space a sink and holding tank take up.

For dishes, we typically use a wash basin with biodegradable soap and dump the water in a fire pit, pit toilet, or dishwashing sink, if it’s a really fancy campground. In bear country, we just wipe down dishes with paper towels and then give everything a good warm wash once we’re out of the wilderness. We either spit our toothpaste into the fire pit or the trash bag if it’s bear country. Again, a little gross, but better than having a trail of toothpaste spit down the side of Bob or finding a place to empty, wash, and store an external gray water tank.

What about laundry? Laundromats. They’re generally a very entertaining way to spend a couple hours and great for replenishing your quarter supply.

Lastly, the shower. Same with the sink, a shower requires space, a water supply, and a place to drain and hold the gray water. Bob didn’t even come with an interior shower option. Many people opt for an outdoor shower and shower tent. You can use a five gallon bucket with a pump or a gravity-fed bag and handheld shower head, using a dark solar bag or propane to heat the water. Biodegradable soap, shampoo, and so on are an absolute must in this situation because you’re not collecting the gray water in any way, it’s just running onto the ground. Maybe we’ll end up doing this down the road. But for now, we’re going to rely on campground showers and one or two nights a week in a hotel, along with a bevy of various wipes.

And that reminds me…I got really good at the three minute campground shower last time. This is probably a good time to re-familiarize myself with it…

The majority of campground showers are coin-operated, time-limited contraptions. They generally run for three to five minutes for a few bucks a go. That time goes fast — especially when the water starts out ice-cold. Through a lot trial and error, we figured out how to optimize the shortest showers. Here’s how to shower in three minutes, flat.

Starting with minute zero: do a snake/rodent/spider/other gross bug check. You don’t want any surprises once you’re naked. Check to make sure the shower isn’t visibly broken before you get undressed too. Now that your basic checks are done, set up your toiletries and towels and get undressed. Only once you are completely ready should you put the quarters or tokens into the machine.

OK: ready, set…go. Start counting down the time as soon as the water turns on.

(one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand)

Minute one: while the water warms up, put just the top of your head under the spray and start wetting your hair. Try not to scream – the water will most likely be very cold. Just remind yourself that pain makes you stronger. Shampoo and rinse.

Minute two: as the water warms up, ease the rest of your body into it. Then, condition and rinse right away – there’s not enough time to leave conditioner in your hair for a full minute. It’s too risky.

Minutes two and a half to three: soap up, starting with the dirtiest bits. Get the less dirty bits if you still have time. Rinse fast before the water runs out! To save time, wash your face at the sink, not in the shower.

And…you’re done. Satisfying, right?

A couple other things I learned along the way: Always, always bring enough quarters to restart the shower. There’s nothing worse than having the water run out when you’re covered with soap and out of quarters.

When you need to shave, use a full three minutes to do just that. It’s pure luxury.

Always wear shower sandals. You’re not just worried about athlete’s foot – the floor is usually freezing cold cement, even in the summer.

Use a waterproof shower bag. Sometimes there aren’t any shelves or hooks in the shower room and the only place to put your stuff is on the floor. This way you can stuff your clothes and towels inside the bag to keep them dry until you need them.

And when you find a shower that isn’t time-limited, you enjoy that…

Now back to today. Going on a dry run or two is really essential for us because we always forget something.

The first thing I relearned on our first dry run is this: when you see a free shower, you take it. We were in Hite, UT on day four of our return drive from Reno to Fort Collins after picking up Bob. We had just spent a great night in the desert and were checking out the amenities at the Hite Marina for future desert-home base use. Paul had found a cool sounding hike and didn’t want to take the time to shower and I also wanted to get out on the trail, so I didn’t push it. But I would have been a lot happier if I had bathed.

On this first dry run, we didn’t have propane or power, so we got cold in the Nevada and Utah April nights. We remembered what a pain it is to keep your cooler stocked with ice. We found out how hard it is to keep even a tiny area clean without any cleaning products. We spun around on the bed, trying to figure out the best way to sleep on it. It rained and snowed. I got real grumpy about being unshowered. We went home a day early.

(wind event audio)

On our second dry run, we were armed with a full propane tank, a fully charged battery and connected power system, our battery powered cooler, a plethora of wipes, slippers, and my new best friend, the cordless handheld vacuum. The thing about the heater, though, is that you have to turn it on for it to do anything, and we spent another freezing night in the mountains, trying to will spring to start, already. It rained and hailed. We went home a day early. But Bob was already starting to feel like a cozy home.

Obviously, once we’re on the road full time, we won’t be able to run home a day early because it’s cold or raining or we want to take a shower. We’ll have more options then. We’ll either make our way to somewhere warmer, or, if we don’t want to leave the area yet, we’ll post up in a hotel or VRBO and catch up on our shows. Just like the toilet thing…when you look at it this way, you’ll start to find that the whole world becomes your home.

The thing that we acknowledge this time around too, is that everything’s not going to be perfect when we start and we know that, it’s impossible to anticipate everything, and you just have to get out there and start seeing what setup you need and being flexible enough to iterate into it. Because the things you think are going to be important aren’t necessarily going to be important and the things that you haven’t thought of are going to come up after the fact.

We’re a little bit more relaxed about it this time with our planning. Going back to that other story, like thinking that, oh well we definitely need a battery to charge this cooler to connect all this stuff, and then never using that for six months and just hauling it around, that was an example of anticipating the wrong problem. We just needed blocks of ice. And now we worked our way around that problem with the new electrical setup, but there will be something else and we don’t have to know what it is, we just have to know that we’ll be able to get past it and figure it out.

Next time, we’ll deal with all our stuff and plan out our route for our first few months of full time road life.

Until next time, check out our website, roadtrippinginamerica.com, for more. Thanks for listening!