Essential and desirable

We’ve been on the road now for nearly six weeks, parked in Willow in various locations including the driveways of family and friends, four different campsites, one different host, stayed in our tent and resided in a holiday cottage. We’ve had electric hook up in some locations which is a luxury and something we’ve only ever done once while camping before.

Disconnecting ourselves from the electricity supply is a challenge though. We have gas bottles which can power our heater, fridge and oven although eco-wise I think there is very little between the twin evils of gas or electric really. We did a little bit of research on alternative energy options for the van before we left but ignorant as we are both of the level of usage we require and quite how they all work we decided to head off, see what we most missed or needed and then find out from the people we meet and stay with along the way what the best options are. We are booked to stay with various off-grid hosts along the way who use solar, wind, water energy and learning from those who actually do it seems by far the best way.

Breaking down what we use energy for and whether it is essential or just desirable is an interesting exercise. In my parents lifetime ‘white goods’ have become a home ‘essentials’ with fridge, freezer, cooker, hob, dishwasher, washing machine and tumble drier all being viewed as basic kitchen appliances, but when Dad was a boy things were kept cold in a pantry, food was preserved by pickling or bottling or simply eaten when it was in season – the concept of a ‘weekly shop’ simply didn’t exist. Washing was done by hand and dried outside when fine, infront of the fire when not, cooking was done over the fire, the same place toast was toasted and water was boiled. No kettle, no toaster, no microwave, no George Foreman lean, mean, fat fighting grilling machine!

Since Dragon and Star were born life has moved on even further and consequently our van has about 12 chargers for various things in it’s cupboards. We all have a mobile phone and a camera, the kids have handheld games consoles, we have two laptops with us and a Mifi which all have chargers, we have a kindle and we have a radio running on batteries which will either need replacement batteries every month or so or a set of rechargable ones and a battery charger. In theory none of these are essential of course and when camping we bring far fewer gadgets, ration our usage of them and have to find ways of accessing power to charge them up.

This year is about learning and challenging but never about endurance and punishment and while I do forsee those games consoles lying dusty and unused at times I know that being able to escape into beeping pixelated worlds of loved games is helping Dragon and Star adjust to not having bedrooms or TV or all the toys that are back at home boxed up. I am sure I will cope just fine on the days when I can’t charge my laptop or get a signal on my phone but both Ady and I are finding talking to friends either online or by phone is comforting and enjoyable and although the days I can’t blog will probably find me hunched over a notebook with a wind up torch frantically scribbling away in one of the various paper journals, still spilling my words out somewhere it’s nice to be able to share them online with friends and followers.

I’ve heard tales of campervans with wood burners on board, to heat water, cook food and provide warmth, vans with solar panels and little wind turbines on top to harness energy to run phone and laptop chargers, vans that run on recycled cooking oil. There must be ways of using the energy created by turning the wheels to drive along to charge up a battery you can then use to power things. But we had no budget for an eco-van, our budget stretched to Willow, 30 years old and a child of the 80s – she doesn’t have shoulder pads but she is very much of the era of over-consumption and having it all. We’ll still be living ever such a lot lighter than we would at home though and hopefully learning lots of new ways to put into practise in the future.

So far our essentials are sources of light and heat – we have a selection of wind up torches, battery powered lights and the electric-hook up powered lights in Willow for light, an electric fan heater and a gas powered fire aswell as hot water bottles and a good supply of socks, hats and jumpers to keep us warm. Some way of storing and cooking our food – for now we’re using electric fridge and gas powered oven, I’d like to try some alternative cold storage options at some point (not really necessary in this weather!) and I’ve read about using terracotta pots (two different sizes, one inside the other, the space inbetween packed with wet sand that you keep topped up with water and a terracotta saucer as a lid), chalk fridges and various other storage options if keeping things cold is essential. For cooking (and actually light and heat much of the time as well as heating hot water) I don’t think you can beat man’s greatest discovery of fire and the smell of woodsmoke is one of my favourite perfumes too. Food and water are essentials of course; we’re looking forward to learning about foraging, we have fishing rods and an air rifle to do a bit of fishing and hunting, but so far the local co-op and produce from farms attached to the campsite we’re staying on and WWOOF hosts have provided. A way of keeping ourselves and our clothes clean which can just be a source of water but heated is obviously preferable.

Our desireables? Well that’s a list that gets a bit longer. I think some sort of connectivity to the rest of the world – phone line, internet connection is there on the list, along with some entertainment facilities – books, dvds, creative pursuits such as art materials and writing implements, consoles, radio or other music.

For our connectivity while online we are currently using a MiFi from three and it’s proving excellent. We have yet to stay anywhere that it fails to pick up a signal and it provides fast wireless broadband for up to five seperate devices, which means I am able to have my laptop connected, Ady can use it for his phone and we have plenty of scope for the kids to hook up to it on their DS / PSPs too. I can’t recommend it highly enough, I can’t call it essential but it’s very, very desireable 🙂

Next on my list is the kindle we were given as a leaving present from friends. It’s loaded up with fiction for my bedtime reading, stories for the kids and various non fiction stuff. It’s allowing us a mobile, pretty much unlimited library and it’s smaller and lighter than one tiny paperback. We love it 🙂

Other things we are valuing lots include hot water bottles, Ady’s individual cafetiere mug for his real coffee hit, four of those tiny folding stools which have enabled us to bring the campervan table outside (it also has four screw on legs so can be used as a table outside the van) and eat around it and our solar power lights which we put out to charge up all day and then put on as soon as it gets dark and they are still lit come morning. 

Brought to you by three

It feels a bit Sesame Street to say this post is brought to you by three (the letters M, I, F and I and the number 3), but as our BT landline and broadband internet were switched off on Monday in the countdown to going off grid although I am still using mains electric for now to power the laptop the magical internet powers that bring my words from my laptop to the rest of the world are now truly wireless.

My friend Jax over at Live Otherwise brought along a Mifi to a group holiday we were at before Christmas and I was most impressed with it. It allows you to set up your own wireless hotspot wherever you are and hook up up to five seperate devices to it. This means I can be blogging, Ady can be checking his emails on his phone, Dragon can be hooked up to the internet on his PSP and Star can be checking animal facts online all at once. It sounded perfect so I got in touch with Jo at Three and she sent us a Mifi so we can test it out for ourselves.

So far I am really impressed with it. It is tiny, smaller and thinner than the tiniest mobile phone, able to be charged off mains or a USB port on the laptop, dead simple to connect to the internet and is providing high speed, reliable internet access for us to check emails, blog, google and more. Staying online is really important for us this year – to keep in contact with family and friends via email and skype, to keep the blog updated and be able to upload photos, to check in with hosts to confirm bookings and access the WWOOF website, to look at online weather forecasts, maps and keep checking in with our planned route.

There are a host of gadgets and gizmos we could fall in love with and consider ‘essential’ along the way but living in such confined space every single thing we bring has to justify it’s place. On first impressions the Mifi is worth at least ten times it’s tiny size.