Russ Haines Interview: Tips for Living in a Van



I wrote a post recently about sleeping in the car. This is something I do on occasions when I have just driven up to the highlands and can't be bothered to put the tent up. My friend Russ Haines has taken the plunge and decided to live in a van. He works offshore with a 5-week-on-5-week-off shift pattern and decided that paying rent for a room (that he's hardly ever in) wasn't worth it. I asked Russ a few questions about his new dirtbag lifestyle.

I know your very keen on mountain biking and kayaking. Did this play a part in your decision to live in a van?
A massive part! I love being out on my bike or in my boat & if I haven't done one of those in a day then I can't help feeling that's a day wasted. On top of that though I'm pretty lazy & easily distracted, the van seemed like the ideal way to remove the distractions of a comfortable home & focus on getting out & riding all the places that I've wanted to for so long.

What kind of van is it? Have you modified it, or do you intend to?
This first trip I decided to use a rental van, just to see how I got on with it & to get a feel for dirtbag living. I hired a Short Wheel Base Vauxhall Vivaro, bunged a mattress in it & stacked all my stuff where ever there was space. This worked pretty well except Wales decided to dump rain on me for the whole of the first week, making keeping my bed dry a bit of a challenge. The only real modification was the complex lattice of string washing lines & fixing points that appeared over the course of the trip. Never underestimate the importance of a ball of string! I'm looking at getting my own van next time I'm home though & this first experience has definitely given me some ideas for how I want to do it. There'll be a wooden platform on one side for the mattress to go on so that there's storage underneath for my gear meaning plenty of drying space. Also mesh pockets on the sides for stowing clothes, book, torch etc. & hooks on opposing corners for my hammock.

What's the best thing about living in a van?

First off being able to wake up at the trail head or some place with a great view in the morning really inspires you to get out & make the most of the day. Being inside the van is pretty boring. It's only really good for sleeping or eating so your only option is to get out of the thing come rain or shine which is the biggest benefit! Get out & ride! The mobility is also a big factor. Finish a day's riding & just look at the map & choose somewhere to be for the next day. The simplicity of it. Wake up, stove on, tea & porridge, RRRRRRRIIIIIIIDDDDDDEEEEEEE, drive to the next place, dinner, book, bed. It's cheap!

Have their been any problems? How did you get round them?

Only real problem was keeping stuff dry. This meant a bit of rearranging before each ride, bed up against the wall & tying everything to one side, to give me as much space as possible to get changed after a ride & to store the bike & hang up all my wet gear. Lots of newspaper on the floor & it'd generally stopped dripping by the time I'd driven to the next spot.

Have you invited girls back to the van? What is the reaction of your friends?
Can honestly say nope. No girls back. Yet! Reaction of friends has been largely jovial but a few know how much I'm on the road anyway & that it's an ideal set up for me & a good money saver. There's been the odd one or two who's eyes light up at the idea which makes me realise how lucky I am to be in a position to be able to do it. A lot of people's reaction is to ask how on earth I keep clean. In this, the Swine flu age, people are far too hung up on personal hygiene!

So, has your personal hygiene suffered?

I don't think it's suffered but maybe diminished slightly! Have to say there's been a few times when finishing a ride & realise that your legs are covered in sheep shit & you feel a bit guilty but a quick rub with a towel to get the worst off & your soon distracted by the prospect of tea & malt loaf. I've had some funny looks around Supermarkets or whatever & later realised it's because my face is spattered with mud or my hair is a mile high! Like anything else though, a shower is far better when you haven't had one in a while. There are opportunities though. Some of the trail centres with showers, most towns have a swimming pool, campsites, service stations, mates or a good old fashioned jump in a river.
Home sweet home. . .

Where was your most beautiful parking spot so far? Is it easy to find a good spot?
Probably Nant Yr Arian just inland from Aberystwyth. The parking spot is right on top of the Cambrian hills & just as I arrived the weather chose to cheer up for the first time in 5 days revealing a stunning landscape under the thick Welsh fog I'd become accustomed to. Think the break in cloud lasted about two hours before it closed back up again in preparation for a monsoon of apocalyptic proportions! Finding spots is extremely easy, particularly along most A roads. There is often lay-bys for truckers which are great as a lot of them are set back separate from the road so you shouldn't be struck by a rallying yobo at 3am plus there are bushes for the morning wizz. I spent a couple of nights just parked on residential streets which were always fun in the morning; opening the back door to wish my new neighbours a pleasant journey to work as I breakfasted in my sleeping bag. To begin with I was a bit paranoid about people interfering with the van whilst I was asleep in it. Something that seemed less likely on a street full of cars, more probable in a remote lay by but had no trouble there either.

What about when you want home comforts?
As fun & random as it is on the road, in bad weather it's difficult to beat the Glyncorrwg Mountain Bike Trail Centre at Afan in south Wales. A spot you can camp with fantastic facilities, an ace bike shop & a cafe that does huge plates of Lasagne & spicy spuds with cold beers & mountain bike movies late into the night. Not to mention when you get up in the morning you've got three great trails on your door step.

What are your van plans, man?
The plan for the next break is southern Scotland's 7 staines trail centres; Dumfries, Kirroughtree, Glentress , Mabie & Ae definitely. If there's time I'd like to push up to Fort William & ultimately Skye although I've probably missed any chance of good weather. We've only got a short 3 week break from work & there's some family stuff on down south so time will be pressed. There are a few maybes that include heading down to Cornwall for some surf & trying out the Quantock hills as well as the new Downhill runs at Gawton in Tavistock on the way. I'm gutted I didn't get to do more of North Wales last time. I managed to get a full descent of Cadair Idris (3 hours up, 10 mins down!) but I didn't get as far as Snowdon which remains on my to do list. Thinking maybe one to do around Christmas.

What tips would you give someone considering doing the same?
1. Gloves & pads dry pretty well on the air vents.
2. Get an inverter for charging camera batteries while you drive!
3. Separated milk does not make a good cup of tea.
4. Racing sheep is funny!
5. They may attempt to leap over gates.
6. Sheep can't jump gates.
7. Tie everything down.
8. Less stuff means more space.
9. Do it, It's easy!

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  1. Wow cous what a cool concept - you sound a crazy as Carl when he moved to Sydney and lived in a cave until he found a job and a place to live! He was right beside the rock climbing so he was as happy as a sandboy too during that time! Awesome!!! Leah NZ


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