The Sustainable Van Question

Hippie Van in Ballard, SeattleAbout a week ago, I passed the fifteen-month anniversary of being in Madagascar, meaning I have less than a year before moving on. So, in lieu with all this “what next” talk, I wanted to throw out an idea I have been toying with, initially as a joke, but that got a few positive head-nods from travelers I ran it past while vacationing in Thailand:

Build a sustainable van, travel North America, and blog about it.

What do I mean by sustainable van?

The most significant characteristic of this van would be its engine, which I would convert to run on vegetable oil. I have to give credit to an old friend, Nate Dominy (and member of Gifts of Enola, who toured the U.S in a converted school bus), for the inspiration but also to making me aware of all the kinks and issues that come with maintaining such a vehicle. I realize that my non-auto savvy self would have to put a deal of time into learning auto maintenance before hitting the road, but I’m OK with that.

Secondly, the van would have solar panels for charging electronic devices. My exposure to solar panels here in Madagascar made me think, why wouldn’t I include this? I’m not sure of pricing in the United States, but the companies selling panels here are quite affordable. While not practical for charging larger devices, such as a laptop, a couple of smaller panels would be perfect for keeping cell phones and iPods running. I’d also throw my solar shower in the van for good measure, I don’t a fancy shower, I won’t be using the best LED shower head any time soon.

I would put basil plants in the pot holders.

The interior would be constructed almost completely with recycled materials or items I already own.

Where would I go?

I feel as though, for the purpose of a blog or article series, I would need to have a consistent theme to my destinations, such as rock climbing spots (what I initially wanted to build the van for), adventure travel destinations, or eco-friendly cities. Eco-friendly cities makes the most sense, but my interests lie more in adventure sports and outdoors travel, which I believe can be easily connected to sustainability. Many people who partake in multi-day treks, rock climbing, white-water rafting, etc. are looking for some sort of escapism. Living in a sustainable van would only further disconnect me from “living on the grid” and could be used more as a symbol of independence than environmentalism (although, environmentalism is definitely an intentional plus).

And the blogging?

This too, is something I would need to develop, since currently is not a lucrative enough platform. Preferably, my writing would be a combination of personal blog posts and sponsored articles. My biggest concern is, what do I do first? Send out the proposals, or build the van? It’s an incredible time and financial commitment (not to mention, it grounds me in North America/Central America) but when else but in my 20s will I be able to do something as rash as this?

So, friends, tell me, what do you think of this idea, and are there any suggestions you have to add to what  I already have?

By Jessie Beck

SEO and content strategist with a passion for travel, bikes, and food.

4 replies on “The Sustainable Van Question”

I feel the need to be a little bit of a party-pooper. I really like your idea, as it can help make people aware of sustainability issues and so on. But I would really like to hear your arguments for using vegetable oil as fuel. To me, who also lived in Madagascar earlier and have seen what people there eat, using vegetables on a car doesn’t sound very sustainable. Imagine how much people struggle already to get food on the table while we stuff our faces with it. When countries already prioritise planting roses etc on the precious soil they should have used for food, what would happen if vegetable oil became popular? Of course I don’t know much about it, so if it’s made from excess vegetables like peels and stuff, it’s totally fine. But couldn’t it lead to people growing vegetables they can’t eat because it’s better for the state to sell it as fuel?
Again, it’s just a question that came to mind as I read this, so if you’ve already thought it through, then all the better.

Good luck anyway, as I said, I liked the idea!


Hey mariagasy, solid observations; I totally see where you’re coming from. People here do work extremely hard to get food and it’s a precious resource. But to make things clearer, when cars run on vegetable oil, people typically use the excess from fast-food joints or restaurants with a deep fryer. These places usually pay to dispose of it already, so not only do such cars help them, but they make use of something that would otherwise be waste, not someone’s dinner.

Thanks for the wishes!


Jessie, You might consider getting some Green Sponsors for your venture–to support the effort, perhaps help with technology, and afford lucrative (subsistance level) writing outlets. Think about how your blogs would form chapters for a book, maybe even a documentary. The “Endless Summer” about a bunch of guys surfing around the world in the 60s is a model for how a wacky adventure can become a classic.

If it’s worth doing, it’s worthy planning out a concept, or a business plan even. You may be a nomad, but you can also be a pioneer with a vison, a plan, and strategy to what you are doing. That will make a lot of difference to what you accomplish, and what you stand for in the final analysis.

BTW, Base-X tents (part of HDT) has small scale solar and wind devices that you might not be aware of. They build for expeditionary activities (mostly military), but they might be a sponsor for something innovative. When you are ready, and if you are interested, I can put you in touch with some people there. You can probably think of others on your own.

Remember, an idea is a dream. Reality is a plan of action. Love, Dad

Dr. William (Chip) Beck DynCorp International CIVPOL Deputy Program Manager for Haiti INL Haiti Stabilization Initiative

Belvil 1, Petion-ville, Haiti

(Business) (Private) (571) 335-2062 (BB) U.S. cell

011-509-3118-7929 (Haiti cell)



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