Sunday, December 12, 2010


When I lived in the arctic, I heard a story about a white man and an Eskimo. The white man, overcome with curiosity, asked the Eskimo, "What's the secret? How do you deal with the cold?" The Eskimo thought a moment and said, "I don't."

Tonight, here in Durham, the temperature will drop to 16˚F (-8˚C). Tomorrow, it'll get as low as 13˚F (-10.5˚C).

There are many aspects of the "hard" life that aren't hard for me anymore. Discomforts are no longer discomforting. Adversities, no longer adverse. The cold, however, is always a pain in the ass.

Taking off my clothes to get into my sleepwear will always be something I dread. In such weather, my knees clang against each other, my muscles tense up, my breathing becomes erratic, and my penis turtles into my body. With teeth chattering and fingers as hard and stiff as icicles, I'll—with great difficulty—struggle to get a grip on my sleeping bag zipper.

But within moments of sealing myself in my sleeping bag—now burritoed in my own body heat—a consoling warmth blankets my arms and legs and torso, as if my bag were stuffed with sun rays. The cold on my face and the warmth of my sleeping bag make for prime soporific conditions—a natural tranquilizer that'll, within moments, turn my eyes heavy, as I begin to drift away into dreamland.

But then, in the morning, I'll have to get out again. I'll have to strip off my pajamas, and shiver back into my school clothes. I won't lie: this takes quite a bit of will power—and I've even been late to work a couple times because I've come to dread getting dressed in what feels like a glacier crevasse.

My water jug will be half-frozen. Bananas, if I have them, will have turned a frost-bitten black. My windshield—from the inside—will be coated with ice.

The cold's a pain. But that's all it is: a pain, and nothing more. The minimalist life is not all deprivation and sacrifice. It's not all hardship and austerity. Minimalism, rather, is removing the unnecessaries from your life, not the necessaries. If you've voluntarily reduced your things to the point where your health is adversely affected, you're no longer a minimalist—you're a foolhardy masochist.

This is my third winter in the van. And I can say, quite confidently, that the van has not weakened my health one bit. And dealing with the cold is, and never has been, an issue.

In all my time here in N.C., the temperature has never dropped below 10˚F (-12˚C). I've handled such cold without difficultly, and I will be so bold to state that I could live in my van comfortably—without any other source of warmth—in temperatures as low as negative 30˚F (-34˚C). This I can say because I once lived in Coldfoot, Alaska—60 miles north of the Arctic Circle—with a guy who lived in his Chevy Suburban for 6 years, winters included. He was able to deal with arctic chills by installing a wood stove in his Chevy, but I have more than enough warm clothes and sleeping bags to compensate.

There's not much to keeping warm in a van, but if you're curious, here's how I do it.

First, I put on a set of thermals. I have one "light" pair, and another that is "expedition-rated." My mother sent me these in the mail when I lived in the arctic years ago. I'm guessing they cost a good $50. They work ridiculously well.

Step 2: Put on my jammies (not that I call them that or anything).

Step 3: Another pair of wool socks.

Step 4: Hat and gloves.

Step 5: Selk sleeping bag.

Step 6: Zip up my mummy bag. Supposedly, it's rated to -20˚F (-29˚C), but I don't think it could withstand colds beyond 0˚F (-18˚C).

All warm! By this point, like the Eskimo, I'm no longer "dealing" with the cold; that's because I'm no longer cold.

I've never had to follow all these steps. In fact, I've probably only worn my thermals on maybe a dozen occasions. (My red sleeping bag is quite effective--consistently keeping me warm between the months of Dec. through Feb. when the average low is between 30-33˚F (0˚ C.))

In the morning, if it's really cold, I'll cook up some hot oatmeal with peanut butter, freeze-dried milk, and hot chocolate mixed in.

Believe me, I'd love to walk into a home that's been heated by a wood stove. And when I wake up, I'd love to be in a room warm enough to keep me from seeing my own breath. But there's no sense in living in a constant state of want—hoping for heat in winter, cold in summer—the way so many do. I'm always amused when people shriek about some "horrible" five-day weather forecast. They'll exclaim about the coming weather as if an invading army were positioned on the outskirts of town.

So few in our cubicled culture have to actually deal with the weather—except, of course, for a few menial tasks like shoveling the driveway, scraping the ice off a windshield, or bundling up to get the mail.

Never before in our species' history have we been so cut off from the weather as we are today. Yet it seems like we're in a state of denial—still expressing excitement and exasperation over harsh weather that, at the very most, will force us to get up and turn a dial on our thermostats.

When we bewail "harsh" weather, we do great disrespect to true "harshness." If we peeled off the soft layers of civilization then we might—through exposure to real harshness—see that what bothered us before was merely balmy. Ah, the pampered panoply we privileged don—when wearing it, what's easy becomes difficult, what's cool becomes freezing, what's mild becomes sweltering; sniffles are now diseases, going without is going insane, and luxuries, our dearest longings.

Something's been lost upon severing ourselves from the seasons—a bond, a connection, an intimacy, a "something"—what it is exactly, I don't know. Perhaps it's perspective. Yes, we lose perspective of things—a perspective of what are our true wants and needs; of what are our true physical and mental limits—these questions cannot be answered when hidden under houses, cloaked in polypropylene, and protected from the cold, hard, can't-be-questioned reality of nature.

With all that said, I certainly wouldn't mind a thermostat and warmer quarters. But I do get something out of sleeping in the cold. It's a sacrifice, of course, and a sacrifice that pays off.

Lucian (120 - 180 A.D.), a Greek who championed the simple life, said:

The old cloak, the shaggy hair, the whole get-up that you ridicule, has this effect; it enables me to live a quiet life, doing as I will and keeping the company I want.

If you were to wander into my van at any hour, you'd probably find me reading. Or I'll be laying on my bed, staring at the ceiling, lost in a moment of idle musing—unworried about feeling "industrious" or "useful." Oddly, it is these times—these times when I'm doing nothing—when I'm most productive. I'm able to piece together thoughts, develop new ones, and think of everything from the Milky Way to the fallen crumb on my floor.

The van is my monastery—an abode perfect for reading, thinking, reflection, and contemplation, or just laying there with my eyes shut—basking in my solitude for sometimes hours at a time.

And outside my van is that great big world, and all the turning, burning, buzzing, bustling, shuffling, selling, tree-chopping, mountain-topping, plastic bag Babylonian nightmare of which I have no desire to be a part.

If having a warm home means I need to pay for it with my time and money, there's no question about it: I'll take my shivers and solitude any day of the week.


Anonymous said...

I know you are trying to live frugally, however, you could turn the van on, and warm it up before you change.

Samantha said...

I loved the part about not having to worry about being productive. Getting out of bed on winter mornings are the worst. Luckily I'm down in Arizona where it's 80 by mid-afternoon. Hah.

Nick said...

Sounds heavenly. I love how freeing, relaxing, and peaceful your van is. A sanctuary indeed.

Personally I can't forsee me adopting a van lifestyle within the next few years (although I'd like to, so who knows?), but I can certainly appreciate the wonderful aspects that you pointed out.

In particular, the idleness bit really hit home. I just the love the freedom you speak of. Freedom to do what you want (read, think, run, whatever) without restraints (job, money, bad weather and so on).

That freedom is worth pursuing. Thanks for the inspiration.

Nick G said...

Oh, one more thing.

This is my favorite blog, ever.

I was also wondering about your book plans. How's it coming? I think you mentioned that it's a big maybe? Why's that? You can always self-publish, right? I'd buy it!

Anonymous said...

On our boat we've been putting old towels/blankets on the floor for insulation and plan to scavenge some bubble wrap for windows and other areas. Already this has made a big difference in keeping us warm. Of course we're looking at prolonged stretches in the 20s and heat our boat so your mileage may vary.

Ken said...

Anon--A nice idea, but I don't think it would be worth it. It would be a good 15 minutes before I got warm air blowing, and another 10 to sufficiently heat up the van. Getting changed and into my sleeping bag really only takes me about me 3 minutes. Plus, these days, I can't even start the van because the battery's dead.

Samantha--ah, lucky! However the only thing worse that waking up in a 20 degree van is waking up in a 100 degree van. I know many won't agree with me: but I'll take the cold!

Nick--Too kind! You know you're a vandweller in spirit if you still find the lifestyle alluring after reading a tale of sleeping in an icebox. Idleness is a funny thing. Many in our utility-obsessed culture disparage it as "waste." Here's an eye-opener about idleness that I particularly enjoyed:

Also, the book-writing has officially begun; in fact I've already finished chapter 1. I could self-publish but for the amount of time that I've already put into this thing and the amount of time I will over the next 6 months at least, I'd like a guaranteed check. But if I can't sell it, self-publishing it is. (I'll be sure to do more posts about this in the future.)

Anon--Living in your boat, eh? Sounds like it would be an interesting blog--are you writing one? I thought about other heat-making contrivances, but because I never intended on living in the van forever, I never gave much thought to making major renovations and improvements.

Mike Troy said...

Ok, it's official ... I'm a wimp.

debbieo said...

I am wondering about those toilet paper/alcohol heaters that are suppose to be safe in a car. It would cost a bottle of alcohol each day. You can see what I am talking about here:

Matt W. said...

A candle lantern produces minimal CO, but a surprising amount of heat. Tea light candles are available at dollar stores, usually 16-25 for a buck.
If you don't have a candle lantern, a clean glass jar makes a workable substitute. An inch of sand in the bottom will prevent wobbling of the candle if your jar isn't perfectly flat, and also allow you to use non-tea light candles, if you so desire.

Love the blog, btw. I link it in my FB status on a fairly regular basis.

Ken Householder said...

Your latest post was almost an exact description of a time long ago when my Marine unit was doing some winter training in Snowshoe, PA.
The worst part was getting out of our warm cocoons and putting our cold boots on. Those of us who didn't keep their canteens inside their sleeping bags next to their bodies found them frozen solid.
We sure look forward to your book.
Have you thought of any titles?

Kevin M said...

"Never before in our species' history have we been so cut off from the weather as we are today. Yet it seems like we're in a state of denial—still expressing excitement and exasperation over harsh weather that, at the very most, will force us to get up and turn a dial on our thermostats. "

I've never thought of it before, but it is true - we are cut off from the weather. I wonder why people spend so much time watching the news to catch the weather report and spend hours bitching when the forecast is wrong. What a calamity! I find doing some light exercise - push ups, jumping jacks, etc. - helps get my blood moving and warms me up enough to get past momentary discomfort.

Don't forget harsh weather also affects our commute in to work where we earn money to pay for the heat when enjoy when we get home!

Anonymous said...

Nice blog !
It reminds me few hard nights, wandering alone in nature !
Living this as a everyday life must be really enriching !

Cheers from France !

Ken said...

Mike—Wimp, I doubt it. Maybe it's just that you're more resourceful than me.

Debbieo—Very interesting… While it appears to be safe, I don’t like to risk anything. I can be a huge worrywart, and irrational worries have kept me up at night longer than they should have. I’m guessing something like the can idea would do the same.

Matt W—same thing goes for what I said above. I’m a tireless worrywart. If I was in a room, I think I’d be at ease. But slight movements make the van shake back and forth. When I cook, I tend to sit very still, and never turn my eyes from the stove. At night, I’d be worried that a change of position in the van would knock the candle over and light my blinds or something else on fire.

Ken—Even worse was on patrol in the arctic when I had to take off my dry sleep clothes and put on cold, wet socks and cold wet pants--we had to do everything we could to keep one set of clothes dry. Titles? Ha.. I thought about “Vandweller.” My agent wants “Van Man” but that one seems, while catchy, too self-promotional, which is a tone I obviously want to avoid.

Kevin—Your comment reminded me of a Thoreau quote about chopping wood: “[it] warmed me twice, once while I was splitting them, and again when they were on the fire, so that no fuel could give out more heat.”

Anon—Ha—I think the enriching part wore off long ago. ;) Thanks for the warm words!

Trailshome said...

Your description of sleeping in the cold reminded me of those days as a Boy Scout Leader. As a woman in her late 40's at that time, I wasn't your usual Assistant Scoutmaster, but loved the camping aspect, so we tent-camped once a month all year long. That first getting up in the morning was the worst, but as you say, such a brief time, but tough. Once up though, there was the whole beautiful morning woodsy world to take delight in. Often covered with snow and sparkling in the light. Poking up a fire and getting the morning coffee on while alone in the woods while everyone else slept was always a special joy. What a time that was!
John Muir, amazing man, said in one of his books, that he never worried about being cold at night while he was int he wilderness. He knew he could always find a level spot and "dance until dawn". A much tougher explorer than I.

Dracones said...

This was a really awesome post. I live on a sail boat, fortunately in Florida so it's not so cold, but you do develop a connection to the weather and the world around you.

It's funny, but the things we often think we need we really don't and we even don't miss them all that much when they're gone. But we can waste so much life chasing after pointless inane comforts and gadgets.

Ken said...

Trails--feel free to quote Muir in my comment section any day you wish!

Mark--indeed. It really is eye-opening when you no longer even desire the things you could not imaging going without.

Anonymous said...

Why don't you put your next day's set of clothes in your bag during the night and put them on warm in the morning?

Ken said...

Anon--That's a resourceful thought, but I suppose I care enough about my appearance to not want to go to work or to campus wearing really wrinkled clothes.

Dolly Iris said...

I just spent ten months living in an 85 Toyota Landcruiser in Australia. Then two weeks living in van in New Zealand.
People dont understand it but I wouldn't trade the experience for anything in the world. For all its hardships there are many more rewards.
Its changed my life.

Ken said...

Dolly--indeed. I'd love to head down in those parts for a visit, though without the burden of a vehicle.

Ed Buley said...

Coldness can be overcome. I was a hitchhiker for 11 years. More than a back pack will slow you down. Vans are cold because they are made of metal. Your own body is a furnace and you're not made of metal so it's better to sleep outside. However, the key is to stay dry. Ditch the van, man. The road is a BLACK RIVER of asphalt but it's hard to go below the surface of it with a car.
I wish you well
signed,Ed aka DJ ROC HOLIDAY

Ken said...

Ed--ha, enjoyed the spirit of your post, though I should point out that the van actually feels a good 5-10 degrees warmer than it does outside. Also, I don't think I'd be clean enough and smell well enough to maintain a job if I slept outside--but thanks for the advice anyways.