FSJ To-Do List

Overall, I’m pretty lucky with my Jeep: it mostly runs and drive pretty well. But like all older vehicles there are plenty of little things that need to be fixed. Here’s what’s on the list for Francis:

Fix the heater: The heater is stuck on. This was not a problem when I got the FSJ in January (well, Dave complained a little bit about how hot it was). In fact, given the choice, I was happy it worked versus not working. Now that it’s warmer, it’s terrible. Even worse, it’s dirt road season and with the windows open, lots of dust gets sucked in. This makes fixing the heater a top priority.

Tighten the antenna: I think I must either be missing a bolt holding the antenna on or it’s gotten realllllyyyy loose. It just kind of flops all over the place and really needs to get tightened up before it gets ripped off or falls off.

Rear window: FSJ rear windows are notorious for not working particularly well. I’ve bought all the parts to totally rebuild the window plus a new relay system. I just think it’s going to be quite a process with a steep learning curve so I’m afraid to attempt it until I have a window of a couple of days without rain in the forecast since there’s a good chance the Jeep will be missing a rear window for a couple of days…

Drivers’ wing window: The pin has fallen out of the latch for the driver’s side vent window. I have the latch but I’m not sure how to get another pin for it. This is going to take some research…

Passenger window: The passenger window works but it’s really tight and needs to be “helped” past the midpoint. I’m afraid that if I don’t fix it, it’ll break. This is basically going to require me to disassemble the door and make sure there isn’t anything stuck or broken.

Locks: When I take apart the passenger door to fix the window, I also need to fix the lock. Sometimes it rattles, sometimes it locks itself when I shut the door. The drivers side door almost always locks itself when the door is shut. This isn’t really a problem since the key works in the doors but it’s annoying.

Sunroof leak: When it rains just a drop or two seem to accumulate along the sunroof. I’m not sure if this is just condensation or if it’s actually a leak. Since Colorado is so dry and its such a small leak this isn’t a big priority to me right now.

It’s all small stuff but it can be really time consuming. I’m hoping to start tackling this a little bit at a time but it’s hard when I’d rather be out adventuring!

Edit: I ordered a power steering pump yesterday. At $40 it is NOT worth constantly filling the reservoir and having a mess of ATF under there. Ahem.

A Girl’s Guide To Getting Unstuck

Okay, actually, there’s nothing gendered about this guide—the principles of getting your vehicle unstuck are the same whether you’re male or female. Although we might all try our best to avoid finding our vehicles stuck far from pavement it happens to the best of us at times. Dedicated 4x4ers will often have a winch on their vehicle but the rest of us can usually save ourselves from expensive tow bills with minimal equipment:

Step 1: Take your foot off the accelerator.

Mashing your foot into the accelerator is not going to help matters. In fact, a lot of the time you can go from being “kinda stuck” to “really stuck” in a few seconds by spinning your tires in the snow, mud or sand.

Step 2: Visually inspect your situation

Now is the time to figure out why you’re stuck. The main reason is likely that you don’t have enough traction and your tires are simply spinning in place. However, if you’ve already spun the tires enough, you might find that the frame of your vehicle (or at least the axle) is now resting on the ground. If this has happened, it’s time to start digging. I usually carry a short shovel for this purpose but if you don’t have a shovel, get creative. Since the vehicle is already struggling for traction, you don’t want to have to fight any additional friction as well!

Step 3: Air down

If you still have your tires at full highway air pressure, it’s time to change that. Most cars have pressure of about 35-50 psi in the tires. Airing down can be a little bit of an art: there is no hard and fast amount you should air down to. In general, I air down a little bit at a time dropping first to 18-20 psi, reevaluating, then dropping to 15-10 psi. In some situations it might be okay to go as low as 5 psi—much lower than that and you risk unseating your tire from the bead of the wheel. You’ll want to have a low pressure tire gauge since most gauges don’t read accurately below about 20 psi (it can be helpful to have a regular gauge too for airing back up). Let the air out by pushing in the center of the valve stem which lets air pass out of the tires.

I carry a compressor in the Jeep so I’m not near as afraid to air down as I would be otherwise since I have the ability to air the tires back to a better driving pressure once I’m unstuck. Once you’ve aired down your tires, they will experience excess wear running on asphalt and they’ll also get hot increasing chances of a blowout.

(If I’m going to be on dirt roads for an extended period, I’ll often air down to at least 20 psi just for comfort. This can often help prevent getting stuck but it also removes some of your margin of error if you do.)

Step 4: Attempt to extricate

Attempt this step carefully! At this point, I tend to attempt to drive out of the situation with my head hanging out the window alternately checking my front tire and my back tire for traction. Often, airing down your tires will be enough to allow you to “walk out” of your situation, especially if you didn’t bury the vehicle before admitting that you were stuck.

Gently press on the accelerator. If nothing happens, continue on to the next steps. If you’re out, great! Congratulations!

Step 5: Attempt to find additional traction

Your car is stuck because it doesn’t have enough traction so now your job is to find a way to get it more traction. Tree branches can form additional traction. I’ve used a pack as traction. Vehicle floor mats could work as well. Once, I used found carpet strips to give traction on silty mud (reallllly slippery!)

Step 6:  Get moving

Hopefully, by now, you’re mobilizing. Beyond airing down and giving yourself a little bit of extra traction it’s hard to do much else by yourself without a winch.

Faster isn’t always better but once you’re moving again, the gas pedal can be your friend! I once got the van stuck in soft desert wash sand, aired down, and got moving again only to feel myself getting stuck. I gave the van a little extra gas and found that the extra momentum was enough to get me back onto the hardpack.

Step 7: Carrying the tools for help

If you weren’t able to get yourself out, it’s time to start walking towards help or calling for a tow truck. Fortunately, the above tricks usually get you free!

Just in case you run into a friendly stranger who might want to help but isn’t prepared, carrying your own recovery strap and “D-ring” or shackle can be a real life saver! Knowing where your vehicle has a good tow point is always nice before you have to go crawling around in the mud to find it!

English Paper Piecing Quilt, Part 3

This winter I’ve been working on assembling the top of my hand quilting project. It is not a fast process! The batting for a queen sized quilt measures 90 x 108″ which means that my quilt top needs to be about 86 x 104″ before it can be assembled into a “quilt sandwich.” My quilt currently measures about 47 x 40″ which means in terms of area, I’m about a quarter of the way done!

Here it is, looking bigger than it is because it’s laid out on a full size bed, on Saturday, February 22:

Quilt, February 2015

I’m so glad I stopped to measure it. To look at my box of unassembled quilt pieces is really quite depressing and makes me feel like I have even further to go!

English Paper Piecing Quilt, Part 2

It took me almost a year and a half to finish the first phase of my quilting project and now just a scant three months after finishing that, I’m on to the next part! I’ve almost completed sewing the hexagons into groups of seven and now they’re all laid out on the floor awaiting assembly!

Just like when I was making the individual hexagons, I aimed for about 250 hexagons to a quart size bag; this amounted to 36 pieces made up of 7 hexagons. This meant each gallon zie bag contained 1008 hexagons.

I think I can start to visualize a finished product!

English Paper Piecing Quilt, Part 1

It’s taken me 1 year and 5 months to finish enough of the quilt to justify writing a Part 1 blog post. I wouldn’t expect Part 2 any time soon… since, really, with so many adventures to do, crafting adventures are SO EASY to set aside.

Why English paper piecing?

When we set out on our grand adventure in early winter 2012, I decided that in addition to books and blogging, I needed a small handcraft project in the van. The only question was, “What am I going to make?” It had to be an RV friendly craft project: no sewing machine necessary, no cutting table, and something that doesn’t take up too much space.

Back in 2004, a friend had taught me to knit but I never got beyond making 6″ of a 6″ wide scarf. The unfinished project floated around in my stuff at my mom’s house until I was in graduate school and realized that I’d forgotten how to do the stitches. Same goes for crocheting: my grandma taught me the basics when I was about ten…and I forgot. I suppose I could have retaught myself either of these skills but I just really didn’t want to. Besides, we were in the desert and how many scarves, sweaters, or hats could I really use? My next choice was cross-stitch or some other needlepoint project. I did a fair amount of this when I was growing up but the fact is that I don’t really like cross-stitch as a decor choice which would mean a lot of work for something I won’t use.

Quilting seemed like a bit of an impossibility since we weren’t hauling a sewing machine around in the van with us until I remembered reading about English paper piecing ages ago. By January 2013, I’d decided to give it a try. Since I only like useful crafts and try not to do things in half-measures, I decided on making a queen size quilt. I also chose to make hexagons that were only 0.85″ to a side… I attended exactly one meeting of Ajo’s Peacemaker Quilt Club where they encouraged me to make a potholder or small pillow to start since quilters often end up with UFOs: unfinished objects.

Early on, I realized that this quilt could not be a UFO. If I let it lapse, I’d have bags full of the most time consuming confetti ever made…

Van Crafting

The project started by cutting out two sheets worth of paper hexagons (I used a PDF from CiasPalette.com with 28 hexagons per sheet). Then I started covering them with some blue and yellow fabric scraps I found at a friends house (later, I added green to the loose color scheme). I did some more research and realized that I was going to need over four thousand of these little things for a quilt and that I was going to need a better system than making piles of hexagons willy-nilly.

I knew that for this project to be successful that it would have to take up a minimum amount of pace. As I realized exactly how much space the pieces my quilt was going to take, I revised “minimum amount of space” to “the working part of the quilt has to take up a minimum amount of space.” I developed a system where I would keep the paper hexagons in one sandwich size baggie, fabric squares in another, and finished pieces in yet another sandwich bag. All three bags went into a gallon size ziploc with scissors, thread, and some spare needles.

Armed with a sweet travel package, I launched into making hexagons. Eventually, I filled my very first sandwich baggie to the brim. Of course, I couldn’t help but wonder just how many pieces I had made so I dumped them out on the bed and counted. Two hundred and sixty pieces. I’d worked for at least two weeks and all I had was 260 pieces. Since I was going to need to know how many pieces I’d made so I didn’t quit too soon (or worse, keep making pieces forever and never generate a finished product) I took ten of the pieces out and moved them to a new bag. From that point on, I worked in groups of 250.

With the 250 plan in place, I set aside actually sewing hexagons to cut the thousands of paper hexagons I would need. Interestingly, I have since learned that you can buy the paper pieces pre-cut. They’re not cheap but I will totally do this if I ever make another one of these things. (I have to confess, I’ve already started dreaming about another one where I actually plan the colors and the patterns and how they’re going to fit together.) I made fifteen more sandwich baggies with 250 paper hexagons each and placed the whole lot inside of a gallon size bag. I didn’t count out fabric pieces and instead just cut squares relatively free-hand. A rotary cutter, mat, and ruler would be really helpful here (and something that could fit in a van or RV) but I didn’t have one on hand and improvised with a school ruler, a sharpie, and scissors.

Each time I finished covering a set of 250, I came back to this bag and grabbed another set of hexagons and stashed the bag of finished pieces. Eventually, I got tired of recounting how many bags I’d made and started keeping four sandwich bags in a gallon size bag as a convenient batch of 1,000 pieces:

So many hexagons…

Just before I left for Jordan, I realized that I was almost done. I took along my travel bag with me and made some pieces on the bus while we were in the country and made a whole set of 250 on the thirteen hour return flight. (I replace the TSA unfriendly scissors with fingernail clippers for flight.)

Last week, I finally wrapped up the hexagon making (with an almost complete seventeenth bag to use up the last of the fabric I bought). Suddenly, it was time for all the old pieces to come out of hiding. I went to the store and bought a couple of plastic bins to see which one would hold all my pieces. I had a misguided hope that a 10 quart box would hold them and quickly realized that I was going to have to use the 20 quart version…

It was really cool to see all the patterns laid out together. For awhile I’ve been nervous that the colors would all look awful together and I was going to find out that I’ve completely wasted my time.

Then came the fun part: dumping all seventeen bags into the box. (The not so fun part of this? Realizing just how many hexagons 4,100 is and how long it’s going to take to stitch them together…)


I made my first group of seven hexagons yesterday. I’m cautiously optimistic that this project will be finished someday…

The Pond Aflame

On the property we have a dry “pond” dug by a previous owner. The pond had a ton of old lumber and debris in it. Last week, those piles went up in flames:

Burning The Dugout

Next to the very unlivable house on our property, was a small dugout shelter. The dugout had collapsed sometime within the last couple of years and wasn’t worth salvaging so we decided it needed to be among the first things we cleaned up on the property.

Burning the dugout created a nice deep hole that is perfect for burning brush and old lumber we find around the place so there really isn’t an “after” picture yet. I did, rather, have lots of fun taking picture of fire.

Sprocket was helpful as always:

Dugout on fire



Burning the dugout



Cleanup Begins…

Buying a new property always involves a some work to make it what you need it to be. If you’re picking up properties on the cheap (as we always do) there’s always an element of imagining what things will be like once we’re done cleaning up. We’ve been hard at work and I should have some “before and after” posts coming for you soon! For now, here’s some shots of what we’re up against:

Scrap metal:

Old tires:

Piles of wood:

Random cross-property fencing:

Old outbuildings:

Building A Van For $200

After putting together our awesome Sprinter and working hard on the Scamp, we were anxious to get on the road and didn’t want to spend tons of time working on the Chevy. After traveling off and on for the last few months we have a pretty good idea of what is really necessary in a van to be comfortable and live on the road. We were also attracted by the challenge of building out this van as affordably as possible (see yesterday’s post) as an exercise in what it really takes to hit the road.

We purchased 3/8″ sheeting for the floor and installed it directly on top of the sheet metal. The bed is 3/4″ A/C plywood (11 layers!) cut to fit the sides of the van (our van tapered about 1″ from front to rear); conveniently, the left over plywood was the right height to support the bed below our torsos (placement was determined by the width of our storage totes).

There are a few key items that you probably need inside your van. The items we chose to include in our budget breakdown are things that we’ve judged to be necessary to “make the jump” to living in your van comfortable. There are always ways pare down and make the entry costs cheaper and never ending ways to make things more complicated or expensive—these just represent our thoughts on the matter.

Budget Van Build:

  • 2 sheets 3/8″ sheeting for floor: $36 (Home Depot)
  • Box of self tapping screws for floor: $6 (Home Depot)
  • 1 sheet 3/4 A-C plywood for bed: $34 (Home Depot)
  • Two burner propane stove: $25 used (garage sales, Craigslist) or $40 new.

A single burner can also work but for minimal extra cost two burners can be quite nice. 1 pound propane cylinders will work just fine and you can upgrade to a 5 pound container when you can. We’re actually just cooking with my backpacking stove outside the van right now, so whatever you’ve got will get you on the road!

  • Cabinet: $15 (garage sales)
  • Futon mattress: $40 (thrift store, Craigslist)

Non-spring mattresses can be trimmed with a razor blade to fit around ribs in the van body. A full-size futon will hang over a plywood bed (48″ wide) but at 54″ this size works fine. Or just cut it down and resew the cover.

This is one of the vandwelling necessities we already had. Any clean container will work but having a good supply of water on hand is key! We keep 4 1L Nalgene containers full for drinking water and cooking and refill them from our large container.

Here’s something that you probably don’t need to get started but being able to charge a computer while going down the road is really important to us—and probably to lots of potential van dwellers

  • LED dome replacement lights: $6 (eBay)

Since you’ll be going in and out of your vehicle a fair amount, switching the dome lights to LEDs (or simply removing the fuse for them) will probably save you from killing your van battery repeatedly.

Total van build: $208

So You Want To Live In A Van…

The open road is calling your name but how do you even begin? There’s more than one way to live in a van.

There’s the $120K Roadtrek way:

There’s the DIY Sprinter conversion way ($15-25K):

And then, there’s the budget way ($1-4K):

We recently purchased a 2001 Chevy Express contractor van with 118,000 miles for $2500. For this build, we decided to do a budget build to figure out what’s really necessary to live in a van.

Budget vans come in all varieties, most common being the cargo van although conversion models are also available. Among cargo vans, budget options vary from $1000 older or high mileage vehicles to $4000 low mileage late models.

Although there are cheaper options out there, we decided to go with the newer van because of several factors. The newer van has a few more creature comforts: it is quieter and rides more smoothly. Our 2001 with the 5.0L V8 gets 20MPG which is as good as it gets for a gas powered van. Some mechanical improvements also make the newer models desirable; for example, the transmission is much stronger and modern fuel injection. Parts are widely available in junk yards and are more likely to be in stock at auto parts stores. This van has a high stealth factor for exploring towns and cities. A 1991 “Free candy” van sticks out a lot more.

Tomorrow, we’ll continue with a look at how to build a Budget Van.. for less than $200!