7 Months In, Our 3 Favorite Buslife Appliances
As with any major life-change, moving into a skoolie brought with it all sorts of unexpected challenges. We did our best over the two years between purchasing the bus and hitting the road to imagine and plan for all the challenges that buslife might throw our way, but you simply can’t know what to expect until you are actually living full-time on the road.
When this posts, in mid-May of 2021, we will have been on the road for seven months, and let me tell you, it is amazing how quickly time passes. While that time has gone by quite quickly, we have also had so many amazing experiences and have learned so much that it sometimes feels as if we have been doing this for ages. We are not yet experts when it comes to long-term buslife traveling, but we are definitely well on our way. And, along those lines, we would like to share three appliances that not everyone puts in their build, and which have made our lives a whole lot better.
The cell booster is a relatively expensive addition, which makes it seem easy to leave out, but it is one that I would strongly encourage you to install. Ours ran us about $500, but it is worth its weight in gold, often making up the difference between no signal and usable internet.
The device works like this: you install a small antenna on top of your rig, which is connected to a little box inside your rig, which, in turn, connects to an interior antenna. When powered, it effectively gives you the signal inside your van that you would have if you were standing on the roof. This may not seem like too much, raising your phone from 6’ to 10’, or whatever it is, but it makes a massive difference. It also removes any interference that your phone suffers from being inside a metal box. Both signal quality and speed are significantly improved when we have the cell booster turned on.
Both of us work on the road, so good internet has been a real priority for us. We use a hotspot device as well as our cell phone hotspots for internet, so we are fully reliant on cellular service to get our work done. Ayana is on video calls every day, and I am always writing and researching, so we really can’t go without it. The cell booster has made this a lot easier on us, and has opened up some camping opportunities for us that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. There is little worse than pulling up to a gorgeous lakeside campsite and then being forced to move on because the signal isn’t good enough for that meeting you have the following morning.
Along those same lines, it has become clear that the cell booster also keeps us a little bit safer every day. We recently had our first breakdown in the middle of nowhere Nevada. For those of you that haven’t been there, middle of nowhere Nevada doesn’t have the most reliable or extensive cell service. We had been camping at a hot spring for the past week at which we had just a teensy bit of service with the booster on, and nothing without it. We were fortunate that our breakdown happened on a state highway only 40 miles to the nearest mechanic, but it drew into a sharp light that if we had broken down in some of the places we had been traveling, particularly without the aid of the cell booster, it might have been a long hike in the desert sun before we could even call a tow truck.
A cell booster is an expensive piece of equipment, and is one that is probably tempting, particularly before you hit the road, to skip. But, if you are planning to live in your vehicle full-time, particularly if you are planning to work on the road or simply want to be able to get a little bit farther out into the backcountry, it is one that I would definitely install. A little extra money up front will improve your quality of life down the road markedly. And deciding to install it after your build is finished will be a lot more difficult.
In no uncertain terms, living on solar power is difficult in the winter. The angle of the sun is lower, which means that your panels produce less electricity per hour than they do during the rest of the year. Additionally, the days are shorter, which both means that your panels will have less time generating each day, and that you will spend more time inside doing things like running lights, watching movies, etc. We stayed in the desert southwest for most of the winter, doing our best to stay under cloudless skies, but we were still really hitting our limits. A cloudy day or, god forbid, two might mean that we only had the power to use our computers for a few hours, or else we wouldn’t be able to run the refrigerator overnight. That is definitely not a resource decision that you want to be making on a regular basis. When the night is long and you don’t have the electricity to run the lights or watch a movie, life starts to feel pretty grim. So, after struggling with power as the days grew shorter and darker, we decided it was time to invest in some power redundancy, and buy a generator.
We were hesitant to buy a generator at the beginning of our trip primarily because we were concerned about transporting gasoline. Gasoline cannot be stored in the interior of a vehicle (despite whatever the yahoos in this country do whenever there’s a shortage), so carrying that additional fuel would mean some sort of exterior housing that we didn’t want to add. But then I stumbled onto propane-powered generators one day, and immediately knew that we had found our solution.
Our cooktop is propane powered, so we already have a 20 pound propane tank in the garage of our bus. Propane can be pretty safely stored inside a vehicle, so long as it is turned off during travel and a propane detector is installed to warn you of any leaks. By purchasing a propane-powered generator, not only would we have a redundant system for power generation, we would now have an excuse to carry a second propane tank, which means redundancy for our cooktop as well. If the cooking propane runs out, we can switch to the generator tank, and refill on our next resupply, so we don’t need to monitor it too closely anymore.
Speaking of redundancy, this setup does rely on a redundancy that we had already installed. We added a 12-volt charger to our batteries during the build with a standard 110-volt exterior plug. At the time of install, we thought this would just be used to top off the batteries when we were visiting friends, but with the addition of the generator, it turned into a means to top off our batteries any time we wanted. It only charges the batteries at 10 amps, which isn’t much, but the generator can provide a lot more power, so we use an additional extension cord and power strip from the generator to charge all our electronics at the same time.
We purchased a dual-fuel 2000/1400 watt gasoline/propane generator. In addition to using it to charge our electronics and house batteries, I have also used it to run power tools in the backcountry. Its generating capacity is well above what we need to charge our batteries, but the throttle automatically responds to the level of current being drawn from it, so at times when we are using a fraction of its capacity, it also sips at its fuel, and lasts quite a long time. During the darkest days of this winter, we would run the generator for around one hour per day, just after sunset, to top off the batteries and charge up everything we might want for the night or the next morning. Based on this usage, I estimated our fuel cost at around $.50 per hour, and it was plenty for us to get by. The generator itself we were able to pick up discounted and only ran us $300. And that is a small price to pay for energy security and redundancy.
A generator is certainly not the only option out there for energy redundancy. Some folks connect their house batteries to their starter batteries, which can be a great way to charge things if you are driving a lot. Frequenting places with shore power is another option, but these places tend to cost a fair amount of money. For us, with a desire to be in the backcountry the majority of the time and only move once a week or so, the generator fit the bill perfectly.
Nature’s Head Composting Toilet:
These days it is a little bit hard to believe, but there was a time when we were not certain that we wanted to install a toilet in the bus. This was back before the pandemic, and at the time we were pretty sure that we would almost always be camped either in cities, where we could rely on public restrooms, or in nature, where we would be able to do our business outside. What swayed us, in the end, was a memory of mine from the brief stint I spent living in my Prius while working wildland fire in Tucson. There was one night where, relatively late in the evening, I really needed to find a restroom. I drove around from business to business, but many were closed. I was immensely relieved to finally find an open grocery store and made a bee-line for the bathroom. When I stepped in, I was shocked to find that the entire floor of the men’s room was covered in vomit. I don’t know what happened before I got there, nor do I want to, but it was disgusting. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any other choice. I had to tiptoe through the puke and do my business as quickly as possible. That experience convinced us that we should put a toilet in, and hopefully if you were on the fence it just convinced you too.
For the first couple months that we lived in the bus, we were still primarily heading out into the woods to dig a hole when we needed to poop. One major factor in this behavior is that our toilet pulls out into the center of the living room, so it is not the most convenient place, and for one of us to have privacy, the other needs to leave the bus for a little while. On top of that, we were both a little bit nervous about how well a composting toilet would actually work. Everyone had told us that they never smelled a thing and that emptying it was not gross at all, but we had our doubts (as I’m sure you do as well). The first uses happened when there was not another choice. If you are planning to camp in the desert, you will definitely run into situations where there is zero privacy to walk off and dig a hole. Gradually, as we used it and realized how easy and not smelly it is (I swear), we shifted to using it nearly all the time.
And that’s just for pooping! What about peeing?! As a dude, I can pee discreetly in many places or get by with a pee jug, but that is not so easy for Ayana. When we are camped in nature I mostly pee outside, but Ayana almost always uses the Nature’s Head.
After seven months on the road, I can say that we could have gotten by without our cell booster or our propane-powered generator, but we absolutely could not have gotten by without the composting toilet. Living without the cell booster and the generator would have been painful, but living without the toilet would have been nearly impossible. It is not cheap, running about $1000, but it is absolutely integral to our comfort on the road.
And, as a final note, I just want to promise again that it really doesn’t smell that bad. There have been a couple times when it got a little stinky and we had to add some more coconut fiber, but it really isn’t bad. We’ve emptied it three times now since we’ve been traveling, and it is so much easier than you think it will be. Be not afraid of the composting toilet, it’s a life-saver.
There you have it: three appliances that we were on the fence about that have been absolutely central to our happiness over the past seven months. If you aren’t planning to have these three things in your rig when you hit the road, I’d suggest you think hard about how they might benefit you before finalizing your build. We’d be pretty upset if we were missing any of them. And the longer you wait in your build to install them, the harder they will be.
Disclosure: I’ve linked some products here via amazon. They are the products we bought, or the closest alternative now available. I’m sharing them so that you can see exactly what I’m writing about, but if you do click through one of those links to amazon, we do get a small kickback from any purchases that you make during that session. It isn’t much, but it does help pay the bills to keep our websites up and running.