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Break Downs-Part 2: Dealing With Maintenance and Repairs on Your Van-Home

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In my last post we talked about how to deal with the fear of a breakdown and the first step in preparing for it. Today we will finish the post with Step 2 and 3.


This is not a place where you want to break down. But if you do, will you be prepared?

No matter how well you take care of your vehicle, it is a certainty that at some point you will have a break down; it’s just the nature of the beast. But, if you make preparation before it happens, it doesn’t have to be a terrible experience. While it will always be unpleasant and an inconvenience, it doesn’t have to be the horror show that plays out in your head whenever you think about it. If nothing else, think of these Steps as essential to relieving your fears and for that alone they are worth the time, money and sacrifice they require.
1) Have an Emergency Fund. Since it is a certainty that your van or RV is going to need repairs someday, it only makes sense to have money set-aside to pay for it. Begin today to set aside as much money as you possibly can each month. Even if it is only $10, do it, and do it every month like your life depended on it.
2) Once you have a good amount in your Emergency Fund, don’t take it out unless you or your van is dying! You will be sorely tempted to use it for the latest thing you want or some good deal that you just can’t pass up. Don’t do it!! That money is only for real emergencies. Ideally you will build it up until you have $3000. That is the cost of your two largest repairs, replacing your engine or transmission. Nothing will give you as much peace-of-mind as knowing you have an emergency fund set-aside to pay for the most expensive repairs.
3) Carry Roadside Assistance like AAA or Allstate Insurance. While it’s true some years you won’t need it, I still think it is money well spent. I look at it like the peace of mind it gives me is worth a lot more than the few dollars it costs me each year. Often you can get it through your Auto Insurance provider for very little money. This is one of those areas where you want to read the fine print. Often there are restrictions on how far they will tow you or on the size of the vehicle they will tow. Will they tow a trailer? Will they tow you if you are out of state? Will they tow your RV? Will they tow you if you are in a National Forest or on a dirt road in the desert? You want to do comparison shopping and make sure you sign up with a company that will actually meet your needs.
4) Be sure you have a spare tire (and the tools to use it) and the know-how to change it. But also carry a can of the Tire Inflator and Sealant. That will often get you home without having to change the tire. I also recommend you carry a small 12 volt tire inflator to air up the tire after using the Tire Sealant. Slime 60090 Large Tire Quick Spair – 20 oz
5) Consider carrying a bike or a scooter, or towing a car or a motorcycle so that if you break down you can get it out and ride to help. Plus, if the van is unusable for a few days while it is being repaired, you can ride it around instead.
7) Consider carrying a tent and a sleeping pad to use as shelter if the van is in the shop for a long time. If I am in the National Forest or in the desert I can tent camp and if I am in the city I can find an RV Park that has tent sites for very cheap. My dog and I will stay in the tent while the van is being worked on and ride the bike around town for transportation.
8) Consider purchasing a SPOT or PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) device. To my mind this is the ultimate device to bring you piece of mind. I am often in areas where there is no cell signal whatsoever. If I break down I might easily have to walk out 10 to 20 miles to get the nearest help. But what if the weather is really bad or I have been injured or I am sick? A SPOT or PLB is a great solution! It is a small device you carry with you that does not use cell signals; it uses a satellite signal and GPS to call for help and tell Search and Rescue your exact location. I think a  PLB is a much better device because it doesn’t have a monthly fee and it has much better hardware. If I knew I was going into a life-and-death situation, I would want a PLB. Click this Link to buy one: ACR PLB-375 ResQ Link Personal Locating Beacon
9) Fix things before they break and carry spare parts. If your belts are getting worn out and the hoses are getting older, change them before they break or even before they start to look bad. On my old F150 I replaced the starter and alternator the year it turned over 200,000 miles. I may have gotten some more miles out of them but those few miles weren’t worth the risk of being stranded in the middle of nowhere.

For me, the back-country is better. But it entails some risk. Adequate preparation will minimize it.

I have had numerous breakdowns in the last eleven years of full-time vandwelling and while they were all unpleasant, none of them were that big of a deal. The key is to simply relax, stay calm and roll with the punches. Like any boxer will tell you, if you stiffen up and fight the punch, it will hurt much more than if you simply yield under it. In the same way you often hear stories of drunk drivers who get into terrible auto accidents and are uninjured. The reason is that they are so relaxed because of the alcohol that they yield and roll with the accident. Dealing with breakdowns comes down to the art of yielding and improvising. Here are some examples that have happened to me.
I was once on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and hadn’t seen another car or person in three days when I woke up to a flat tire. The side-wall of my tire was beyond repair so I simply relaxed and spent the day there enjoying the solitude and the view. The next day I changed the tire and carefully drove out 90 miles to the nearest town.
Once I was driving in the middle of nowhere in Nevada when the serpentine belt broke leaving me stranded. I had pulled safely off the side of the road so I decided I would just spend the night right there. After all, my van is my home so I had everything I needed. I took Homer for our evening walk, made myself some dinner, watched a DVD and went to bed. In other words, my night was no different than it would have been if I had made it to my destination. I wasn’t panicked or upset, it was just another night. I knew I had USAA Roadside Service to pay for the tow and the cash with me to pay for the repair. This wasn’t going to be anything but a minor inconvenience. The next morning I hitchhiked into town and got a tow truck to take me to a repair shop where it was fixed.
One time in Utah the ignition switch on my truck froze up and the key would not turn no matter what I did. So I called for Roadside Assistance and got towed to a repair shop. I assumed no one would have an ignition switch and I would have to wait a day for the part, so the first thing I did was tell them that I lived in the camper so if they couldn’t fix it that day, I needed them to leave it outside so I could sleep in it. Fortunately they had the part in the shop and I was back on the road in a few hours.
Another time in Alaska and I was driving my box van and one of the rear duallies came flying off. I got towed in again and this time they didn’t have the parts and because it was the weekend they couldn’t get them till Monday. So I told them I lived in the van and could they leave it out of the shop for me to sleep in it? He said that would be no problem so I slept in the van. There was a little store within a short distance so I walked down and bought dinner and rented a DVD. Instead of being a nightmare the breakdown became another pleasant little weekend adventure.
Later on I threw a rod in that van so it needed a new engine. I found a good deal on one but it meant I couldn’t live in the van for a week. I hate to ask people for help, but as an exercise in growth I asked a friend who lived close to my job if I could stay with him. Being a true friend he was glad to be of service and I stayed with him. It was a win-win, he got a chance to bless a friend and I got a chance to be blessed and grow closer to a friend. Again, no big deal!
The one thing all these stories have in common is that when the unexpected happens and you are broke down, as hopeless as it seems there is a way out. While it is happening it’s not much fun but if you keep your head and deal with everything as it comes up it will turn out just fine. One day you will look back on it and smile and remember it as an adventure you once had. Or at least that is the way it has always been for me and I think it can be same for you!


  1. Christine

    I think numbers 1-3 are important for everyone, not just van dwellers. Funny how living frugally forces you to carefully consider finances, yet we should all be actively doing that anyway.

    • Bob

      That’s a very good point Christine. It may be be more important for us because our vehicle is our home, but everybody would benefit from this basic, common-sense advice.

  2. rick

    Thanks Bob, another great post. I have an ACR personal beacon. I have a history of heart issues and I often hike with my 5yr old grandson. This device is our emergency out if I should go down. Highly recommend one. Perfect item for easing your mind if you worry about getting lost or hurt in the boonies.

    • Bob

      Thanks for the feedback Rick. The problem with PLBs is that you never use them. You assume they would work if you need them, but false alarms are unacceptable so hopefully you never know of the thing really works or not. But having it around sure makes you feel better!! I have only used a spare tire once in the last 20 years, but boy was I glad I had it that one time!!

  3. Naomi

    Wonderful information. I especially like the ideas of having a PLB and an alternative means of transportation, such as a bike. As a woman, I’d hate to have to hitch hike, but I think the risk of doing so out in a non-urban area would be much less. Thanks again for the great info!

    • Bob

      Naomi, I have a friend who is a young, attractive girl and she hitchhiked around the country for 3 years straight and never had a problem. It’s hard to believe isn’t it!! Her mother finally talked her out of it and she bought a van and is now traveling in the van. I have come to believe that the risk we actually face in day-to-day living is quite low. But, you are right, it is much less in the backcountry. It is an unwritten rule back there that you help anyone in need because you know next time it might be you needing the help.
      I firmly believe there is nowhere in the country as safe as the remote areas!

  4. Susan

    I sure like the idea of the GPS personal locater. Great for boondocking. I recently had a bad fall outside my house and fractured 5 ribs, deflated a lung. You know the thought ran thru me as to if What if I was in some more remote location ? or out boondocking in an rv?? It may be expensive but I sure like that gadget.
    Thanks once again Bob, for all the great info !!

    • Bob

      To me it is worth it for the peace of mind! It’s little things like a PLB that calm our fears, and nothing will lead to happiness faster than calming the fears that paralyze us.

      • Jenny Johns

        Great info Bob!
        Have you or anyone on here used the Walmart 5Star alert system they advertise. The one you show is too pricey but it’s only $85 to get set up with this one and $15 a month.

        • Bob

          Hi Jenny, I’m glad you are following the blog!! Thanks for your kind words! I took a look at that product you mention and it looks like it uses cell phone towers to call for help. Here is the quote from the site that makes me think that:

          Reliable Nationwide Coverage: 5Star works nationwide and provides you with immediate access to help anytime, anywhere wireless coverage is available – it’s one of the nation’s largest and most reliable networks.

          The problem with that is I am often outside cell coverage and the ad sounds to me like they use ATT which is really terrible in the backcountry. They don’t even cover most freeways. The products I listed use satellite signals. They don’t talk to cell towers, they talk directly to the satellite. Satellite technology is much more expensive than cell phones so that’s why they cost more. Again, if your life depends on it, nothing else will do. When you push the emergency button, you are calling nationwide Search and Rescue, not a cell phone company and not even 911. As soon as they get that signal helicopters take off and horses and ATVs are loaded onto trailers and help is on the way.It is a truly impressive system and the great majority of it is volunteers. I have a good friend who does Search and Rescue in the Sierras. He is a volunteer, but whenever there is a lost hiker (which is often in the Sierras) he gets a call and he heads out to find them. My hat goes off to each and every one of them!!

  5. Linda Sand

    I’ve slept in my RV inside a shop. Once you pull the curtains, everything looks the same.

    • Bob

      Linda, you aren’t alone in that. I think most mechanic shops want to be as helpful as they can and are willing to work with you. Thanks for sharing that!

    • Cyrus Palmer

      Lol, I’ve thought that too. Though I still am picky about my spots. Noise and stealth are still concerns.

      • Bob

        Cryus, the bigger the city you are in the more you have to think about noise and stealth. I have lots of stories about the different weird things that woke me up in the middle of the night when I lived in a city. Maybe one of these days I will do a post on that.
        Would you be willing to write a post about where and how you stealth park in the Seattle area?

        • Cyrus Palmer

          Sure thing Bob! I’m starting a new blog and I’ll do a post on that. I’ll send it to you when it’s done.

          • Bob

            Cyrus, I checked it out and I loved the first paragraph of About You. You summarized vandwelling so well!! I’m really looking forward to seeing how it progresses.

  6. David Thoreau

    “The difference between an ordeal and an adventure is attitude.” I’m not sure who gets credit for that quotation but I think it sums up your approach to breakdowns on the road. Thanks for another informative blog post.

    • Bob

      David, you are so right, attitude is everything in life! An old saying I love is “if you are having a bad day, it’s time to put on a new pair of glasses!” Everything in life is colored by how you look at it.

  7. Al Christensen

    And, of course, have a repair manual for your particular vehicle. If you can’t find one at an auto parts store, you can get them from Amazon.
    When you’re broken down and you’ve decided to camp, relax and tackle the job the next day, you can spend part of the evening reading the manual.
    It might be a good idea to take photos of your engine and engine compartment pre-breakdown, highlighting things like the routing of the serpentine belt. A photo might also reveal that something has fallen off. (Hey, wait, there used to be a nut there.) And when you disassemble things, take photos as you go. Label things with a marker, like Bolt A and Hole A. Put your fasteners and small parts in baggies.

    • Bob

      Wow, those are really good ideas Al! I keep forgetting just how amazingly useful my digital camera is. It seems like an especially good idea with the serpentine belt! Of course the biggest problem with a van is seeing ANYTHING in there! My 2001 van engine compartment is packed full of stuff! To give you an idea, you have to be a contortionist to reach the oil dipstick! When I first bought it I simply could not find it! I had to ask a mechanic to show me. I think there is no way I would ever try to change the belt on it.

  8. larry

    bob when I change my belts and hosea I keep the old ones and anything that is small and I can carry in my engine comparement along with my jumpper cables and toe strap .there is usuley room in the comperment for a few extra parts and they are out of the way untill they are needed.If you canot install them maby someone come along and be willing to help

    • Al Christensen

      Yes, worn parts as spares are better than none.

      • Bob

        Not only that Al, they are free! Since they only have to last a little bit to help you limp into the next town, they should easily be able to do that. In my case I was only 20 miles from the nearest town.

    • Bob

      Larry, that is a really good idea! i hadn’t thought of carrying them in the engine compartment. Do you mount a box to hold them? What keeps them from falling out? Since they might be in there for a long time, do you ever worry about the heat damaging them?
      Thanks for the great ideas!

  9. CAE

    You are the mobile living Guru!!

    • Bob

      Thanks so much CAE! But you know what Guru really means don’t you? Dumb enough to make lots of mistakes and just barely smart enough to finally figure it out. It seems like my main talent in life is making lots of mistakes!

  10. Hunter

    Hi Bob
    This is the best article I have ever read about breakdowns, attitude,preparation, and response. Much of it is applicable to all of life in USA or overseas where I am. If I may be so bold, one (the only one) glaring error is that you did not mention PRAYER. The attitude you describe is only available to those who recognize that someone other than them (they?) controls the universe.

    • Bob

      Hunter, I am very inclined to agree (with some modifications) with that. The only way I have been able to come to peace with life is through a proper understanding of my relationship with a Higher Power. And I think at its core many people have done that; they just don’t use religious or even spiritual terms to describe it. I am a big fan of Eastern thought and I think it has had a very subtle affect on the average person. The idea of Karma or Zen (living in the moment/Now) or even mind-fullness have had a very subtle but powerful affect in the West.
      But I suspect we have a very different definition of prayer. To me prayer means surrender and gratitude and nothing else. The spiritual path I follow encourages me to “We sought through prayer and meditation to improve out conscious contact with god-as we understood god. Praying only for knowledge of his will for us, and the power to carry it out.” That’s all I pray for.

      • ILDan

        I always liked the Yin/Yang of “God grant me the serenity to accept that which I cannot change and the strength to change what I can.” This post also reminds me of an applicable book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainence.”

        • Bob

          ILDan, the Serenity Prayer is one of my main signposts in life. Whenever I am confused or upset, it is my primary tool. it was very wise of you to see it’s influence on me. In a breakdown, the Serenity Prayer would be first in my tool-bag of tricks to get me through it.

  11. Royz

    I keep getting locked out of the forum its asking for the site password which i dont know

    • Bob

      Royz, you should be able to get in now. It is some bug from the hosting company, I have no idea why it happens.

  12. Cleveland

    I love it when individuals come together and share ideas.
    Great blog, stick with it!

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