Thursday, November 2, 2023

Road Trip 2023 - Van Life & The Cooler Weather Tour - Intro

This is a detailed and multi-part write-up with photos/videos of our two month (July/August 2023) cross country trip in a rented RV van. At bottom of this post are links to all the different trip segments.

Our route included the Great Smoky Mountains/Tennessee -> Indiana -> Northern Michigan -> Michigan UP -> Minnesota North Shore Lake Superior -> North Dakota -> South Dakota -> upper Wyoming -> lower Montana -> Idaho -> upper Colorado...and points in between.

The Cooler Weather Tour from WaterTurtle Media on Vimeo.

Mac: Hey Kris, want to try a long weekend in a sprinter van and see how we like it? 

Kris: Yes!

Mac: Let’s drive to the upstate or into the North Carolina mountains. A long weekend would be the right amount of time to try it out, learn the ins and outs of the van, and see if we like van life or not. 

Kris: Well let’s do it then!


Two months later after much procrastination on my part…


Kris: I found a van on RVShare. It’s local in Charleston.

Mac: Let’s book it for two months.


A couple of months later…the week leading up to the big road trip…


Mac wakes up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and freaking out, “What have we done!?!”

Over 2 months and 9,550 miles later, it all turned out great. Our 2 month cross country "van life experiment" was one for the ages. And yes, I'd do it again. 

The genesis of this trip was we wanted to check out Northern & Upper Peninsula Michigan, the Dakotas, and Idaho...places we'd never visited before and desperately wanted to see. We originally planned to travel for about 2-3 weeks in my Toyota 4Runner with the hitch bike rack and roof rack cargo box. We would do some camping along with staying in hotels, AirBnB, etc. 

But then we got to thinking about traveling in an RV van. Wouldn't have to unpack & pack. Wouldn't have to constantly check in and check out. Wouldn't have to set up and break down a tent. Next thing I know, we had planned a 9 week itinerary and rented a van for it.

Kris & I had a general idea of where we wanted to visit based on the above, with other points in between. In the months leading up to our trip, we created a Google Doc to collaborate on our itinerary. We did quite a bit of reading and research, added to the Google Doc and came up with the areas we wanted to visit and places to see. 

Some of you experienced folks with RVs or vans may be rolling your eyes since you're old hats at this. But you may find our experience helpful or at least somewhat interesting in terms of comparing to your own experience. 

And...we've had a ton of people commenting that they would love to do this kind of trip. And I’ve been asked a lot of questions about our experience. So what was “Van Life” really like? 

First of all, I was pretty anxious & worried about doing our experimental van life trip for 2 whole months instead of a long weekend or 1 week. I kept thinking to myself….what were we thinking?!?

If you’re a first timer like us, it turns out a long weekend experimental trip or even a week in the van doesn’t do the “van life” experience justice. It took us at least a couple weeks to get settled in and comfortable with the total van life experience. 

If you’re high maintenance, forget about it. If you love the outdoors, are flexible & don’t mind unpredictability & uncertainty, go for it. 

There will be tense & frustrating moments with your significant other. Deal with it. Know when to give each other space. There will also be moments together of pure joy. 

Not optional:

  • dealing with bugs, ants, mosquitoes, flies
  • Wearing clothes repeatedly before washing. It’s not a fashion show.
  • Tight spaces (in the van, but you can spread out outdoors)
  • Some days, perhaps several in a row, without a nice shower (unless you stay in a campground each day that has showers, even those aren’t great)
  • Ahhh…the dump station experience, dumping those grey/black water tanks!
  • Efficient packing…can’t bring it all!
  • Long stretches of driving 
  • Be flexible. Stuff happens. Things can fail or break. You might need some extra time for a fix or repair. 
  • Everything takes longer than you think. If you’re like me, you’ll eternally underestimate how long it takes to get somewhere or how long the drive/hike/bike is. 
  • Hand washing dishes
  • Judicious use of fresh water - example: shower = super quick rinse, turn off water, lather up, rinse. Total water usage less than 90 seconds.
  • Get comfortable with each others’…ahem…personal habits. Give space when needed.

Optional (if you’re very disciplined, which we weren’t):

  • With proper planning, you can know where you’re staying each night. Otherwise, enjoy the uncertainty of not knowing where you’re parking/sleeping on any particular night, which was the case for us most of the time.
  • Simple eating, not eating on a regular schedule or not eating your regular meals. Some dinners might just be cheese & crackers. 
  • Your regular workouts are taking a break. You have to get very creative to get your strength/mobility workouts in. No dumbbells to use. Otherwise, the hiking, cycling, paddling, etc are sufficing.

So how about the van anyway?

We rented it through the RV Share app from a nice local couple in Charleston. A big thank you to Lindsay and Kayla! It’s a Thor Sequence 20L model on a Dodge Ram ProMaster 3500 chassis. 21’ long, we were able to park in most car parking spaces. The drivability & maneuverability was very nice & very comfortable. 

It’s outfitted with the following:

Solar battery charging, dual cabin & chassis batteries that work off each other, internal generator, internal propane tank, full kitchen features, power/USB outlets, wet bathroom in the rear, a full array of campground hookups, Thule dual bike rack for both our bikes, hitch rack (carried the inflatable SUP, dog bike trailer, camp chairs, & bike stuff/tools), plus a lot more.

If I had my own van, I’d go with at least AWD & some more clearance underneath so I could explore further into more rugged remote spots, plus a more powerful engine for the steep winding mountain road climbing.

We used several apps. The best apps used on our trip were:

iOverlander - free app that helped us find all the good spots for dispersed camping, campgrounds, dump stations & fresh water. We also used The Dyrt app but there’s overlap & we ended up using iOverlander so much more. I also liked the interface better.

MTB Project - I’ve used this free app for years to find the best mountain bike trails wherever I travel. The GPS feature, even when I don’t have a cell signal, keeps me from getting lost on the trail. 

AllTrails - I pay for this app. It’s worth it as it helps us find the best area hiking trails, with full descriptions & reviews, can download maps for offline usage & keeps us from getting lost.

Harvest Host - I paid for a subscription but we only stayed in 6 Harvest Host overnight locations mostly due to the fact you have to reserve most of the spots in advance. It’s a great service & app. It's so nice to stay overnight at breweries, wineries, farm, someone’s driveway, etc. We would have used it more had we been better planners on knowing where we would be any given night in advance.

Trip Advisor - free app where we can get reviews & rankings of local restaurants, breweries, etc. I use this wherever I travel somewhere new. - to reserve Nat’l Park, Nat’l Forest, BLM & State Park campground spots 

BringFido - to help find dog friendly establishments. 

And of course, GasBuddy, Waze & Google Maps were also used quite a bit.

These links were very helpful in our planning & research:

Essential Van Life Apps

A Good Comprehensive Van Life Guide here

Thor Sequence 20L web page with how to videos

30 Easy Meals To Make in the RV

I was thinking of names or a theme for our trip. I couldn’t come up with anything clever. “Vanlife” and “Roadtrippin” have been taken a long time ago. Kris didn’t like “Mac and Kris’s Excellent Adventure”. So I figured it would come to me later.


It came pretty soon. Day two as we were driving north from Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Madison, Indiana. Tennessee, Kentucky, and Indiana all had a lot of potholes. And later confirmed driving through Ohio and Michigan the next day. Every state has major issues with their highways. Some of them had construction projects underway to fix these issues. Orange barrels everywhere. 


But the area just south and just north of Ann Arbor, Michigan took the cake. The Ram Promaster 3500 is a very drivable van. Pretty comfortable on normal roads and easy to drive. But those potholes and cracks along Highway 23 in the Ann Arbor area were the absolute worst. So bad, it was causing traffic jams because everyone was driving slowly through the muck and the mire.

I got to thinking about how we should divert about 5 Billion dollars (or a lot more!) from the war in Ukraine towards fixing all the potholes across America. This is an issue I think everyone could agree on. Presidential candidates should make this a key issue at the top of their platforms. Anyway, this led me to call our trip “The Potholes Tour”. We could see where all the potholes are in each state we drive through and document it. 

However, Kris didn't really like the name, so we changed it to "The Cooler Weather Tour", since we were in fact escaping the heat and humidity of a Charleston summer.

In case you're wondering, we noticed as we entered North Dakota that the roads were in much better shape. It turns out that most of the roads west of the Mississippi didn't have nearly as many potholes and cracked concrete issues.

The Cooler Weather Tour - By the Numbers:

9550 miles driven 
60 days
59 nights
8 nights with friends in their homes
7 nights with family at an AirBnB rental
41 nights in a row in the van (44 nights total)
21 states driven through 
13 states we stayed & played in
7 National Parks
8 National Forests
2 National Lakeshores
1 National Monument
5 State Parks
6 Scenic Byways 
338 biking miles
1 oil change 
2 new rear tires
>1 local craft beer consumed in each state 
1 errant hail & thunderstorm while hiking
21 books read (via audio) by Kris
2 books read by Mac
Lost count of lakes/rivers Moose swam in
Lost count of new friends for Moose

Continue on here to read about each segment of our road trip, complete with photos...

Great Smoky Mtns through Northern Michigan

Michigan UP through Minnesota North Shore Lake Superior

North & South Dakota

Upper Wyoming & lower Montana (including Yellowstone NP & Grand Tetons NP)

Teton Valley - lower Montana - Coeur d'Alene, Idaho

Central Idaho - Salmon River, Stanley, Sawtooth Mtns, Ketchum/Sun Valley

Park City, Utah - upper Colorado - Back Home

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