Some kids want to fly X-Wings or Gunstars. Some want to be crew on the Enterprise or Normandy. I always wanted a space yacht. Something more than a Heechee One but less than the Bebop; a streamlined solitude between the stars. The Consul’s spinship. The Milano or Dora or Razor’s Crest. Just a pleasant way to get from point A to B while enjoying the trillion miles in between.
Now that I’m (notionally) an adult, I find my desire transferred to a more terrestrial sort of yacht. Not a sea-ship or airship; a landship. And I don’t know what’s more surprising: that the desire is attainable, or that it might even be reasonable. Sometimes adulthood really throws you a bone.
A lot of this is 2020’s fault. My work will be entirely online. It will also be entirely boring, and likely to remain so for some time. There’s little to alleviate boredom in a city under siege. I tried the country. Definitely better! But I’d like space-to-breathe to be a baseline. I want stimulation. I want to see new things every day – doubly so when I can’t meet new people at all. No stationary home is going to cut it. I want to wander.
This is also because I’ve become a hiker. A big one. I kinda live for tent and trail and travel. If it wasn’t for COVID I’d be on the CDT. Even if I’m to work all week and only hike on the weekends, I can still cover a lot of ground – sixty or seventy miles wouldn’t surprise. If I’ve got a fixed address, even in the most hikeable of countries, I’ll soon be driving farther and farther to get to new trail. To say nothing of trail that is different. I want excitement. I want adventure.
With No Fixed Address, I can start every weekend in a brand new place. Work a full week. Drive to a trailhead. Hike all weekend. Back to the grind. If I moved but a little after work each day, I could start each weekend hundreds or even a thousand miles away from where I ended the last. It’s kind of a hiker’s dream. Dirtbagging, not for climbing, but for hiking.
This is a hard time to be a digital nomad. You can’t hang out in coffee shops. It’s a bad year for vanlife gatherings. You can hardly make new friends at a campground – or even on trail. But I don’t think it’s any harder than living in a 1BR downtown. You’ll have to be pretty self-contained. That’s a bit easier when your container includes Nature, rather than just a subreddit of nature pics – and when you remember that the gyms are closed, Lord it ain’t even a question.
A vanlifer during COVID will have to be pretty self-sufficient. But that’s part of the fun of being a vanlifer – and definitely of being a hiker. Especially a thruhiker. Thruhiking isn’t exactly 2020’s sport of choice. Not unless you want your trailname to be Typhoid Mary. But living out of a vehicle in 2020 requires much the same energy – has the same challenges, provides the same rewards – as living out of a backpack. 2020 is the thruhiking of vanlife.
But as with a thruhike, you don’t need to be completely self-sufficient. Availing yourself of the infrastructure of the world is fraught but not forbidden. You aren’t on some Five Year Mission, nor has the world quite turned to Fallout. The autarchy of the Enterprise (or the Pequod, or the Beagle) isn’t quite necessary yet. I mean, I suppose you can bushcraft your own gasoline if you want to play on hardcore mode. But I will just put on a mask and gloves when I pull up to the pump.
So you don’t need the land vehicle equivalent of an Enterprise – a Kiravan or Earthcruiser or a most-American 55’ RV. But you probably want more than a simple shuttlecraft, a vehicle designed to get you to and from but not be a destination itself. That would be the equivalent of living out of a Honda Civic. As a person who is currently doing just this, please believe me when I say that it has its limitations. I need more from my spaceship.
This kind of specialization occurred in ships-of-sail. The greatships of the Age of Exploration left infrastructure in their wakes. The next ships could be a little less self-sufficient, a little more something else: speed for trade, luxury for travel, prowess for war. The ships of science fiction imitate life. If it’s good enough for the past and the future, it must be good enough for my present. I want a vehicle that trades a little self-sufficiency for other things. Such as living-space. Storage-space. And the ability to navigate rough roads to distant trails.
Let’s take these one at a time.
First, LIVING SPACE. Right now I’m living in a compact car. The possibilities for improvement are limitless. Remember when Luke went to Dagobah in his little X-Wing? Did you feel bad for him? Well. You should have.
At the very least, I would like the ability to easily and fully stretch out and sleep. This means about six feet of empty space. Right now I can accomplish this by putting the back seats down and laying an air mattress, at a diagonal, from the edge of my trunk to the back of the driver’s seat. It is exactly as comfortable as it sounds. And it means I can only carry so much cargo, even if I am willing to reorganize it about my car ever time I want to make room for my sleeping system. It is possible, but not easy or full – basically the apotheosis of nonideal.
The best solution would be an RV with an actual bed inside. Following this, a pickup with a 6’ bed-length or a van with so much uninterrupted interior space. Lastly would be a ute or jeep with a popup roof tent. But this would keep me from stealthily car-camping in more urban environments, and I’d hate to lose that functionality.
Length is the most important dimension. It’s not the only one. Depth will determine whether I’ll be able to stand up, or sit up, or have to slide in and out like Bowman on the Discovery. I don’t think I need to stand. I would very much like to sit, necessitating about three feet of clearance. However, I’ll have two or even four seats in the front, only one of which has a steering-wheel in front of it. So I can always do my sitting there if need be.
It is also fairly easy to establish comfortable work-spaces outside of a vehicle. Just sit on the ground with your back to a wheel, or stretch out on the roof, and you’re a king on the battlements of his castle. Want a little something more? Pack out a camp-chair. There are plenty that pack down to almost nothing. For sun protection, get a tarp – the ARB Awning, in an aluminum rollup case, looks to me like the apotheosis of this technology. You could even add four walls of mesh to make a bug-proof cube, and go EV in all the comfort of home.
These dimensions also determine CARGO CAPACITY. My gut reaction is that “more is better.” But that isn’t always so. A bit of minimalism is healthy. Doubly so when it’s a necessity. I have lived in small apartments and the result is emergent gameplay – less Marie Kondo than straight up Minecraft. It’s more than just good for the spirit – it’s bloody fun.
I don’t need much stuff at all just to work and live. A laptop and a change of clothing – and one of those is optional. I’d add peripherals – headphones, a big portable battery. I’d carry safety equipment in the glove box, my Leatherman multitool and shears, my ThruNite TR15 flashlight, my CRKT knife and Gerber tactical pen. For the truck I’d have breakdown equipment – jumpstarter, air compressor, maybe a winch and recovery kit, jerry cans of water and gasoline. I’d carry plenty of food, not the least so that I can take it hiking, and I’d probably add a cooler for food and drink. Beyond that I have my hiking stove and cook setup. It isn’t much, but it’s more than enough.
No, the big reason I’ll need cargo-space is for all my hiking gear. I have plenty. Summer gear. Winter gear. Light day packs. Heavy packs for carrying weeks worth of supplies at a time. And I have a fair amount of redundant gear, because having redundant gear on hand is the greatest luxury in the hiking world.
For this I could simply live amongst a pile of boxes in the back of a van or truck. Or I could install a system of slide-outs, like the Mandalorian’s gun-cabinet or Doctor Strange’s wristwatch drawer but filled with hiking gear. Obviously this notion tickles the shit out of me. It would decrease my storage capacity – my headroom! – but to ends both convenient and cool-as-hell. Alternatively, or additionally, I could mount roof storage. A large cargo box, or two – matching, or of different size; or a cargo-bed with tiedowns like I’m on damn safari. I could also pull a trailer. Despite the surly bonds of earth, the sky’s the limit.
But I’m not too worried about carrying capacity. I’ve been living out of my Civic for a month and these are all things that I’ve had with me. All of them fit in my little trunk. I even divided them amongst a dozen small boxes made of clear plastic, for purposes of organization and resultant sanity-keeping. It’s worked wonderfully. For another month or a dozen, not much more will I need.
This is very useful when it comes to OFFROAD ABILITY. Which I absolutely need. Imagine if shuttlecraft could only dock at space stations but couldn’t land on strange planets. It’d limit the crew’s adventures. Hardly a redshirt would be lost! That’s how I feel when I’m in my Civic and the road to the trailhead suddenly turns to dirt. I’ve had to turn around from a hike one too many times. I hate it. Never again.
Spaciousness and offroad ability are at loggerheads. The smaller your vehicle, the better it can do offroad – greater approach and departure angles, lower center of gravity to minimize the risk of turning turtle. A Wrangler will always be a better crawler than a Gladiator. Only a snub-fighter is good to run a trench.
There are ways to improve a bigger vehicle’s offroading abilities: high ground clearance (to cruise over impediments), differential adjustments (when cruiseover isn’t possible), and traction control (for going between Arrakis and Mustafar). There are luxxy RVs and spacious vans that are built specifically for offroading. The only problem is, they’re incredibly expensive.
For example: a brand new Jeep Wrangler, legend of the offroad, costs about 25 grand. A new Ford Transit van costs about the same. Total fifty grand. An offroad-capable van will cost you over one hundred grand – easy. (Thus fulfilling The Halftrack Rule: when you need one thing to replace two things, it will cost twice as much as both those things together).
Yet I cannot sacrifice one for the other. A Jeep is too small to sleep in; a van can’t go offroad. I need some compromise in ability. Or else I need to sell my kidneys. And yours, too!
There are three options. One is an RV (recreational vehicle) towing an OHV (off-highway vehicle). One is a trail-capable vehicle towing a camper trailer. And the third is an offroad pickup with a cap.
I’ve never driven an RV. I’ve only been inside one once, when one gave my friends Christie and Vera and I a hitch on Te Araroa. Same with a Jeep – except it was a hitch from Nightcaps to Invercargill when I hurt my feet in Southland tussock. And I’ve never driven a pickup truck, but between hitches on the AT and the PCT I’ve been in the beds of dozens. So I have absolutely no firsthand experience to comment on the merits of any.
From my research, the merits of Winnebago-towing-Jeep versus Jeep-towing-Winnebago seem purely a matter of personal preference. One’s the Enterprise and an away-team shuttle; the other’s the Serenity and Inara’s shuttle; in both cases one stays in orbit and one goes down to the surface. In both cases I would have to ditch the Winnebago every time I wanted to drive to a trailhead… where I would then ditch the Jeep to go hiking. Leaving one car unattended is bad enough; leaving two in different places seems a recipe for ulceration.
Whereas the pickup truck rigged for sleeping is a compromise that, if done right, can accomplish most of what I need both of mobility and liveability. An offroad pickup might not be as much the mountain goat as a 4Runner or Land Rover; nor will it be nearly so commodious as an Airstream or Trillium. But it will accomplish everything I need, without the stress of being two different vehicles. And, also, the expense of being two different vehicles. It’ll get me anywhere. It’ll let me live and work along the way. It may not look like much, but it’s got it where it counts, kid. I need my Millennium Falcon, and that is a Toyota Tacoma.
There are a number of offroad-specific pickup trucks: the Ford Raptor, the Jeep Gladiator, as well as offroad trims of the trucks made by the likes of Nissan and Chevy and GMC. I chose the Tacoma because of its powerful offroad-specific technologies, its legendary reputation for durability, and its lack of the bells and whistles (and concomitant price tag) that have come to define the “luxury pickups” of the American market. But most of all: the Raptor and Gladiator, as well as most of the offroad trims of other trucks, are only available in short-bed models. That’s only 5 feet long – too short for me to sleep in. This is simply not an option.
There’s also the Toyota Tundra. The difference between the Tacoma and the Tundra seems small to the point of satire. I think this is just because the Tacoma has gotten bigger while the Tundra hasn’t – kind of like how my 2016 Civic is the exact same size as my old 2000 Accord, whereas the new Accord has not grown much bigger for fear of becoming a limousine. There seem to be plenty of Tacoma enthusiasts who wish the Taco had stayed smaller, even two-seater. If that were available it would be a whole nother head-scratcher for Yours Truly. Likewise if Jeep was releasing the short-cab extended-bed Gladiator that they teased last year. But they are not. And I need my Falcon now. The 6’ Tacoma is the obvious option – and the only one.
It’s pretty easy to turn a Tacoma into a miniature van, capable of supporting a humble dirtbag life. Just put a cap on it. A Leer 180 will give baby a certain amount of back – less than the 122, but retaining the ability to mount rooftop cargo boxes. I believe that will provide enough height for me to mount two pull-out bed drawers, throw a mattress on top, and still be able to sit up inside. I would also have the passenger’s seat to sit in. I could even take out the cab’s two rear seats, giving me enough room to open up a lounge-chair from left to right for maximum comfort or laziness. This in addition to just… packing out a chair.
It would not be nearly so roomy as a van or RV. I could not stand inside; cook inside; have much shelving or closetry inside. It will be a bit like living out of a backpack and sleeping in a tent. Except with insulated walls. And an outlet. And a heater. And the ability to store a few hundred cubic liters of gear. Speaking as a thruhiker: yea I think I can make it work.
The final choice is between the Tacoma Offroad and the the Offroad Pro. The Pro has bigger shocks, which I don’t think I’ll really need – and a slew of cosmetic and ass-warming add-ons that I simply don’t want. If I ever decide to play with its suspension, well, that’s what the aftermarket is for. The Tacoma Offroad is the trim for me.
The sticker for this vehicle is $34,000. For better and worse, the Tacoma holds its value better than, I believe, any other vehicle. It’s preposterous. As a buyer I am sad; as a future owner I am thrilled. I could pick up a gently used few-year-old model for about 25 grand, and I expect this is what I shall do. The BlueBook on my Civic would eat up almost all of this, thank the Maker. I’ll miss you, Civvy. But not when I’m on a dirt road… or trying to sleep.
There will be plenty of opportunity to play with it. Maybe I’ll carry rooftop cargo boxes – twin Yakima Skybox 12s, or a fat Rocketbox 12 next to a sleek Skybox Lo. I could add a Grizzly cooler or an ARB Zero fridge. We won’t even talk about snorkels, bumpers, skid plates, lights, winches, jerry cans, or side steps, or whatever Gundam-ass nonsense people have dreamed up to sell to truckbois. Those are things I can add as I go. As I need or want. As I understand. As I drive.
And the color? Quicksand. Our Hero is done with Hoth, and is very much looking forward to a winter spent on Tattooine.
A landship isn’t a spaceship. In some ways it’s more challenging – as anyone who remembers the vehicle sections from Mass Effect can attest. But while the simplicity of the frictionless vacuum might escape me, at this time there’s plenty enough to interest me on land. I will get a pickup truck. Modify it. Make it my own. Live in it. Travel with it. Use it to get work done – and use it to get me to all the trail I can find.