The van on the road to Big Sandy Trailhead, Wind River Range, WY.
Brent Barghahn graduated college in the spring of 2014 with the possibility of pursuing a career in engineering swirling in his head along with the pressures of student loan debt and his dreams of climbing and skiing daily. The dirtbag life, and van living, sounded like the romantic answer–take whatever savings you may have and head west. 'The road will lead you home.’ But he wondered how long he could sustain that, and he needed a long-term solution.
Brent set out and began work as a design engineer with Polaris Industries. He spent his first months living out of a house in Chisago City trying to become grounded in the ‘real’ world, but it didn’t take long for him to purchase a 2008 Mercedes Sprinter Van and begin renovations.
Erica/TGR: What made you decide to take on van life?
The van as it looked at purchase.
Brent: The van plan was born while brainstorming during a bouldering session at the local climbing gym. I would buy and convert a Sprinter van to use as my home and daily driver. Van life can allow for consistent weekend travel while working full time until the time is right. Living in the van for a couple of years while beginning my engineering career would allow for extreme savings, the key for sustainable travel in the near future.
After 3 to 5 years building my equally important resume and savings, I would hit the road for an indefinite amount of time to climb, ski, and mountain bike across North America. I would then either continue the van life on savings and odd jobs, or use my engineering work experience to jump back into a career in a a more preferable location–whichever comes naturally.
Van life has become a trend of the western culture. What makes van life in the Midwest different?
Brent on the North Face of Mitchell Peak during a van trip to the Cirque of the Towers in Wyoming's Wind River Range.
Midwestern van life isn’t really a thing, and for good reason. If you have a career, you likely don’t live in a van. If you don’t have a career, but have a van, you’re likely already on the road headed west. I do see it as a valuable way to position yourself for future travel. The main difference I see from western van life is the lack of BLM land and trailheads. This forces a lot of urban overnight camping. With a bit of creativity, this can be a non-issue.
You don’t live in your van, you live out of your van.
Minneapolis has been good to me with plenty of public parking for daily activities, but quiet areas to tuck away just out of the city at night. Midwestern van life is less of joining a scene, and more just an endeavor of private fulfillment. My mantra for van life is: “You don’t live in your van, you live out of your van”. Just like this lifestyle anywhere, it is a tool to spend more time outside pursuing your passions!
How did you convert the van into a livable space without blowing your entire life savings?
Waking up at Devils Tower in Wyoming.
Some premium design choices were made, but the whole van plus conversion still cost less than a new modern economy car. The first step was to buy used. I got one heck of a deal on my van after haggling with a local dealer. Then, DIY is the overriding theme for an affordable conversion. The structure and cabinets were all built with raw lumber.
My high cost points were the electrical and kitchen items, though these could be scaled down while maintaining livability. Efficient use of space is really the main factor to a livable van. I learned that extensive planning is the best way to maximize the conversion. Also, committing to the van as a daily driver and a home makes the monetary investment pay off quickly while working full time.
Walk through the Van conversion. How many hours would you say you put into it?
Brent's van is going for the "cedar homey cabin" feel.
The whole conversion was done over the course of four months with approximately 250 hours during late weeknights and weekends. The van was purchased as a used cargo van shell. Intimidated, but excited, I began by cutting holes for my side window and roof vent. I then moved to the less committing interior items. My overall build sequence was to begin with insulation, then flooring, electrical wiring, bed, kitchen counter, cupboards, and finally cedar paneling to give a homey cabin feel.
What'd you do for power and water?
A view of the kitchen.
My rooftop 6 by 8-foot solar array has been key for livability. I decided to go big with the panels because of the constant returns of the size investment. The output of my system allows me to run a 12 volt refrigerator at all times. I also have plenty of capacity for laptops and household electronics.
For the water source, I decided to use two five-gallon tanks under my sink. I decided on a hand pump to minimize water consumption. The whole system tends to last a week or two of dishes and brushing teeth. The tanks unstrap and come out easy for refilling during my grocery store visits.
How do you plan to heat the van through the Minnesota winter?
View of the rooftop solar panels. Brent went with a rather large 6 x 8-foot solar panel array to keep his fridge, laptops, and batteries charged all day long.
I will be living in the van through the Minnesota winter with the help of a diesel-fueled cab heater. The heater pulls from the main fuel tank, heating the cab safely and efficiently. The walls all have R13 denim insulation behind the paneling, so it will not take long to heat the small space. Of course, I have my emergency sleeping bag in case things get chilly during those -20º Minnesota nights. I spent a few nights in the van with below zero temps pre-heater. Quality insulation, body heat, and a sleeping bag keep it comfortable.
What are the social factors to consider when maintaining a career out of a van?
While I am definitely not dirtbagging it in a Sprinter van, it has been an interesting dynamic to live in a van while working a corporate job. I am fortunate to have a shower to use at my office, so cleanliness has been maintained. It does come off odd to coworkers at first, but showing them the space and telling stories of my trips helps them understand.
Van life seems to be a multiplier; if you are a strange personality, it comes off as very strange, but with a positive first impression it can be complementary. I avoid explaining my living situation during first interactions, but it hasn’t affected my career or social life once people know me beyond the van.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced living the van life?
The ideal setup: gear drawers, ski rack, and space to comfortably fit two bikes.
The biggest challenge I have had is physically fitting my life into the van. I had my requisite items: climbing gear, bikes, skis, and camping gear. But, I also had to decide on my day to day goods. I purged the majority of household items and belongings to keep things simple in the van. It has been challenging, but in a positive way. Van life forces me to learn what possessions are needed, even in an urban, corporate life.
What have been the most rewarding parts of life in the van?
One of my design constraints was space for four people. Rock climbing is my main passion, and trips for climbing are obviously best done in pairs. Road tripping with four would greatly reduce fuel costs and increase the good times! With this in mind, I put in a small custom backseat with two seatbelts. The 70-by-70 inch bed also sleeps four (good) friends. This has been the most rewarding aspect of the endeavor. It is hard to beat road tripping with three best friends in the utility and flexibility of a van. Homemade cookies while going 70 mph across the country have proven to be priceless.
Where has the van traveled so far?
Four deep getting cozy on a climbing trip.
So far, the van has gone on a few ski trips around the Midwest, and then plenty of climbing trips: Devils Tower, the Wind River Range, Thunder Bay, Canada, Black Hills, South Dakota, and Devils Lake, Wisconsin. It has been well used in the four months post conversion, with many more trips planned.
Keep up with Brent's adventures and upgrades via his Instagram, @brentbarghahn.
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