Well-outfitted stealth RVs designed for logistical autonomy and slack.
Done correctly, they provide first-world or zeroth-world living conditions that are free from paying rent, and can be parked anywhere, while not drawing the attention that a normal RV would.
[Credit to Ziz for about half of the design work described in this post]
If what you care about doing with your life is solving a large problem with the world1 2, then gaining the ability to work towards your goals without constraints is convergently valuable / a convergent goal. I see three main clusters of reasons to work towards this:
- Reason 1: Time and money
- Reason 2: Insulation from civilizational decay and collapse
- Reason 3: Autonomy and freedom
The intention of this post is for people who want to build slackmobiles to be able to copy what I’ve learned or designed so far.
Reason 1: Time and money
Working a full-time job for months or years is a horrible idea, because it eats up basically all of your time. It makes long-term projects that require deep context impossible. It subjects you to low-grade (or not so low-grade) abuse. For a lot of people it causes chronic sleep deprivation. You are tied to a specific location and unable to move freely to other cities/regions. You lose time to commutes. You are exposed to advertisements and other race-to-the-bottom noise that entropize portions of your mind. Your mind starts to forget the patterns of player-versus-environment and replaces it with the hollow pvp algorithms needed to survive under the broken incentives in the workplace.
Working a full-time job isn’t necessary if you don’t have to pay rent, ie you recapture or build-for-the-first-time your own living arrangements that do not accrue major regular costs.
Meta optimization is an important part of optimization. One heuristic you can use is to maximally free your future self’s time more than it costs you now. IE switching to grocery delivery maybe costs you 1hrs to initially research and setup and 8hrs over time as you troubleshoot and tweak it, and saves you maybe 4hrs/month. So that’s 0.5hrs/month/hr. (maybe only over a finite period of time before it becomes obsoleted or irrelevant)
Reason 2: Insulation from civilizational decay and collapse
Non-Musk technological progress seems to have mostly halted afaict around 2015 and was majorly decreasing before then (I’m unclear on when this started).
For as long as you are dependent on modern civilization to optimize, then if that civilization decays your work will decay as well. If interaction with that civilization has side-effects, then you’re subject to those side-effects. The source of your food and housing has the potential to control you and all that you try to build.
I’m currently estimating a 75% probability that first-world civilization as we know it collapses within the next five years. I’m not completely clear on which of many possible scenarios will play out.
Having a full alternative stack is what it would look like to solve this problem completely, but you can get marginal benefits from recapturing smaller portions of your stack.
A heuristic I use is to look for the things I would miss the most weighted by my probability that I would lose those particular things in a possibly upcoming apocalypse, weighted by how easy it is to produce my own version. For example, much of my work for the next 80 years is dependent on having access to the internet and books. A solution to this is to archive portions of the internet, both resources that I already know I have a decent chance of wanting in the next 80 years and more general collections in order to catch things that I can’t predict that I would want. Once I’ve done that, there is a sense in which I control that information much more, and can depend on it even in plans where the internet collapses. The portion of my agency’s surface area outside my control decreases.
I have found Open Source Ecology to be a good source of information and inspiration for thinking about building alternatives to the civilizational stack.
Reason 3: Autonomy and freedom
Recapturing control of your housing gives you mental and logistical autonomy in ways that renting or owning a house/apartment can’t. If you’re dependent on renting, you are dependent on your landlord not thinking you are too X of a tenant, and on your credit score and some aspects of legitimacy. If you can’t do the class of things that includes drilling into the wall without your landlord’s approval, that blocks off huge portions of potential optimization space.
The autonomy to do what you want to do and to do it the way that you want to do it is important for any would-be world-optimizer, and this includes the freedom to tinker with basic building blocks and structure of your life (this is what anarchists call “praxis”). This has compounding returns.
Note: reclaiming your living situation also means that you’re the one responsible for whether your living situation falls apart, ie whether the engine fails or your toilet leaks. For someone who has been on the track of being a renter, it may take some processing to remove the habits of “someone else is responsible for it”. You may have to make lists trying to catch everything, or practice skills at building/fixing things.
Note: remember to not optimize solely for independence, but also to rebuild capabilities/powers that you would naively have had to sacrifice. IE there’s no reason to forgo electricity just to get away from rent, because solar power is cheap.
Note: in recent years lots of people have begun moving into camper vans, converted school buses, and RVs as an alternative to rent-based living. The keyword #vanlife is a good way to find more info about that. What I consider a slackmobile goes above and beyond what I’ve seen the majority of van lifers do. Eg, basically all of them skimp on electricity.
How to build a slackmobile
I expect that everyone will want to build their slackmobile differently. How you build it also depends greatly on whether you’re trying to achieve a minimum viable product asap or on low funds or whether you are building an ideal resource for a world optimizer for the long-term.
Expect building a slackmobile to take months of home improvement style labor, though it may be minimally livable in days or weeks.
Expect a minimum viable off-grid stealth RV to cost around $5k-$10k, and a first-world-equivalent slackmobile to cost around $10k-$30k.
(This is written for people living in the US, since that’s where I am, though most of the advice should be applicable anywhere iiuc.)
A used box truck makes for a good base. Most of the ones on the market are near the end of their transmission’s lifetimes but not the engine, so you should ideally have $3-4k of buffer for a replacement transmission, though this might not come up for a long time. If you plan to stay within a 200 mile radius and the transmission doesn’t slip/kick often, you probably won’t need it for a long time.
It’s bonus points if you can get one with a non-rollup rear door, an attic, a diesel engine, or sideskirts. Make sure there’s plenty of headroom, including room for however much insulation you plan to install.
IMO 25 years old or less is best.
If you are not experienced with vehicles/engines, it’s worth having a mechanic do a pre-sale inspection of it before buying.
Step vans are also good, though they’re often low on headroom. Buses are more conspicuous, but an unmarked shuttle bus can work.
A vehicle that is openly an RV, trailer, or camper is much more likely to be targeted for parking tickets, security guard attention, etc.
IMO vans are too small. What seems most salient to me about their size is that they are too small to stand up or pace inside, or to store lots of stuff, and don’t have enough roof space for adequate solar power (though see this design). For most people, even if you’re on a low budget, I would recommend saving or waiting for a larger vehicle.
500W nominal solar power is about what I would consider the bare minimum: enough to run a fridge, LED lights, and laptop full time and a microwave a few times a day. 1000W to 1500W (ie covering the roof with panels) is much better, gives you the ability to run AC some and otherwise usually unconstrained power use except for running space heaters. When choosing solar panels, look at price per nominal watt and nominal wattage per square foot (since roof space is limited). (Solar panels deliver on average about 5hrs/day at their nominal wattage.)
In addition to solar panels, you need solar charge controllers, a battery bank, and an inverter to convert battery power into 120V AC electricity.
For solar charge controllers, MPPT controllers give substantially higher efficiency / electrical power delivered from the panels.
For batteries, you can use lead acid 8D deep cycle batteries, but they suck and should only be used if you’re too poor / in a hurry to afford better ones. Used lithium ion batteries from electric vehicles are better, can be bought on eg ebay. Takes some design work to get right and solid knowledge of basic circuit theory. Lead acid batteries decay over a few years, and are easy to damage (ie letting them drop to voltages lower than 11.0-11.2V leads to permanent damage, a bad battery in parallel or series with a good battery will over time destroy the good battery, and overcharging them causes the water in the cells to split into oxygen and hydrogen which if it uncovers part of the lead lowers the capacity of that cell).
For an inverter, about 2kW is needed in order to run a microwave or power tools. Keep an eye on idle power consumption, as that can be a substantial fraction of your electricity use for the larger inverters. Most of the inexpensive inverters on the market are lying about their specs, look for youtube reviews to verify. Pure sine wave inverters cost substantially more but are necessary to run some electronics and power tools. Make sure the inverter has a low voltage shutoff that keeps you from damaging your batteries (my current one doesn’t and I’ve broken a few batteries because of this).
It’s also nice if you can set it up so that you can charge your storage batteries from the engine, but not essential. This company makes high power alternators so you can use your engine as a generator with better efficiency when you’re idling. You can set this up even with a normal alternator, it’ll just take longer to charge. (Note not to leave a deep cycle and regular lead acid battery connected, since regular lead acid batteries are damaged if they go below 12.0-12.2V.)
For wiring, use stranded wire, since solid wire can more easily break from vibrations (such as when you’re driving the vehicle).
(If you live in Europe, note that, iirc, parts of Europe get abnormally poor solar power conditions in their least sunny months. This may make getting a high power alternator a higher priority.)
- A bed (ie foam mattress) set up to fold against the wall for more floor space
- A sink (minimum product can use 5 gallon tanks for fresh/grey water (you can use one gallon jugs for fresh water if you want instead of a faucet)). In the long run, it’s better if you can install large water tanks underneath the floor.
- A microwave and other kitchen stuff as desired (electric kettle, toaster oven, induction cooker, etc). If you have a low-power inverter, the surge power draw from a microwave as it starts can trip that inverter. I used a microwave with a dial timer to solve this, before I upgraded inverters.
- A 12/24V top-opening car fridge and freezer (more expensive but more efficient than normal fridges/freezers). You can save some space by having them mounted on drawer sliders (since then the volume swept by the lid opening doesn’t have to be storage dead space).
- A cassette toilet (which you can dump in porta potties or public toilets at night)
- Storage (ie filing cabinets or lockers that are latched to prevent them from opening while driving)
- Probably a desk (can easily build yourself)
- Probably a monitor
- A good set of tools and spare nuts/bolts/etc
- For bedding, I think a mummy style sleeping bag plus a warm/fuzzy blanket is the best combo
- For heating, a small 1.5kW space heater is good for when you’re plugged into shore power, but a 100W electric blanket (relatively high-power for an electric blanket) is about as good (esp combined with a sleeping bag) and is more feasible to run off of solar power
- For an AC, I don’t have a great answer for this yet. Theoretically, it’d be best for it to be through the floor, for stealth, with eg a grating to walk on, but ACs are sensitive to being turned on their sides (condensed water can drip into the motor).
- For lighting, RGB LED light strips are efficient and cheap, use several for better lighting. The ability to have orange/red lighting at night is great. If you want an engineering project, you could use a single board computer to make them change colors automatically, but I find using a remote to change them manually works fine. These strips and controllers often develop glitches. Currently I just work around them, have not found a supplier that doesn’t eventually glitch in some way.
- For a shower, I haven’t built one, but this site has designs for a recirculating shower (to save water and energy for heating). So far, I’ve used showers from places I already had access to. Some people use gym memberships, but I’ve never explored this because I don’t want my shower to require social cognition and being subject to pop music.
- A combo washer/dryer is good for saving space, even though it’s more expensive than regular washers and dryers. I haven’t figured out which one is best for water consumption and haven’t gotten one for myself yet.
- For insulation, you can get away with nothing if your area doesn’t get too hot/cold, like SF, but probably want closed cell spray foam by default. (Idk, like 2 inches on the sides, 6-8 inches on the ceiling and under the floor are probably good. This is about as much as the better cold-weather RVs use (though they are designed to be plugged in to grid power), and about as much as building codes recommend for houses in cold parts of the US (but again, under the expectation of grid power).) Polyisocyanurate is often reported as being slightly better insulation, except it does not perform as well in cold weather, so I don’t recommend it.
- For ventilation, cut at least eg two 1’x1′ holes in the floor with a fan on one of them, or do something else with equivalent airflow. A CO2 monitor is useful for telling if your ventilation is inadequate (costs about $100).
- Light blocking baffles for the ventilation holes are good, but not trivial to build and I haven’t done so yet.
- For internet, I use a cell phone set up as a mobile hotspot with a TTL hack so that my computer traffic is treated the same as my phone traffic, so I have unlimited data that doesn’t get throttled after a certain amount of use. Once StarLink is up, probably I will switch to that.
- (optional) a hammock and well-supported mounting points
- (optional) a rug
- (optional) spare tire, jack, wrench, flares, spare fuel, tire chains
- (optional) camera for backing up
Minimum viable product
Minimum viable slackmobile is probably: bed, storage, ventilation holes + fan, RV fridge, microwave, cassette toilet, set of tools, RGB LED light strips, 8D lead acid deep cycle batteries, solar controllers, 2kW inverter, and 500W+ (nominal) of solar panels. Pictures and a cost breakdown of my converted minibus, which is a bit better than minimum viable product, is at the end of this post.
Parking tickets happen. Police target large vehicles, especially ones that look like RVs, especially in eg the SF Bay area. Most of the time, ime, they weren’t actually legal parking tickets, and I’ve been able to appeal them just by searching and reading the relevant section of code. I usually prefer parking lots for office centers or that otherwise have multiple businesses that aren’t stores; industrial areas; or near other large vehicles in residential neighborhoods off of main roads. You can just ignore security guards and not come out / not reveal that you’re inside, they’ll go away. In California, they have to give 72hrs notice before towing you, unless you’re blocking a roadway or fire lane or similar, and if they violate one of a bunch of requirements then iiuc you can get multiple times the towing cost back from them in small claims court (I haven’t had to do this) (see eg this document about towing rights by the SF police).
I recommend installing an audio recording app on your phone and turning it on for vehicle-related security guard or police encounters.
US National Forests and National Grasslands allow you to stay up to 14 days for free in most places, though the limit is usually only enforced in popular locations. Bureau of Land Management land allows you to stay up to 10 days for free in most places, and that limit is also rarely enforced. BLM land is often not marked on common maps. Local open spaces/parks, state forests/land trusts, and regional/tribal parks all have their own rules which you would have to look up. National parks/monuments cost money, usually state parks do as well. Staying in places like this is in vanlife contexts is called boondocking.
RV/trailer parks/campgrounds usually have the ability to hook up to freshwater, grey and black water drains, and electricity, and almost always cost money.
Other RV considerations
- Normal AAA roadside assistance doesn’t cover towing for large vehicles like RVs/box trucks. AAA premium or plus does, depending on location, as well as several other roadside assistance companies catering to RVs: Good Sam, Coach-Net, Escapees, Motor Club of America.
- If your truck breaks down, another vehicle (like a pickup truck or SUV) can tow you a short distance to a better location (ie not on the freeway) using tow chains. One person has to stay in the broken vehicle to turn and use the brakes (ie: not hit the towing vehicle), and the tow should be done very slowly.
- Trucker radio exists, but I haven’t used it and can’t comment on it. It’s called CB or citizens’ band radio. Before the internet, truckers used this as the basis for mutual aid and coordination. Idk to what degree this still exists. $30-$150.
- Getting insurance is difficult if it’s not registered as an RV. For some vehicles, you can get insurance through Geico’s website, because their system doesn’t check the difference between eg a box truck and a van that share the same model name/number.
- Getting your vehicle registered as an RV has different requirements per state, you generally have to show the government that you added a set of features like a sink, toilet, etc. However, you can skip this by registering as an RV via mail with Vermont, and then immediately transferring the registration back to whatever state you prefer (or keeping it with Vermont).
- For mail, there are a few options:
- A PO box. Some things won’t ship to a PO box and some websites won’t accept a PO box as a billing address. For shipping, you can usually get around this by using the post office’s street address and putting “box # xxx” in the second line (check with your post office branch first), or by using mail forwarding (note that some government mail bypasses forwarding). Setting up “Informed Delivery” (where they send pictures of arriving envelopes to your email address) is good, but ime it’s imperfect and sometimes they won’t have a picture.
- A UPS store box, or other private mailbox (non-name brands may be cheaper). (Usually/often has an equivalent to informed delivery).
- For mail, but not packages, there exist services that will open your mail and email you a scan of the contents.
- Receiving mail at a friend’s house, or finding someone you can pay to receive/hold your mail by eg going door to door.
- One thing I do is remove or tape over all logos and unnecessary product information to reduce random injections of brand info into my thought process. Doing this completely recovers a mental resource that most people consign as lost. (I don’t cover logos on food, since I go through food too fast for that to be worth the time.)
- If your vehicle has windows in the living area, I recommend two layers of dark-colored blackout curtains. (Cardboard or foil make the vehicle look like a lived-in RV. If you have darkened windows this is less of a concern, but security guards may still see it.) If you want to be able to let sunlight in during the day, you can install snaps.
If you don’t have a driver’s license
You’ll need to practice for 8+ hours, probably follow the guidance of whoever is helping you as to when/whether you’re ready to pass the DMV exam. Remember that the DMV exam is about demonstrating your ability to be by-the-book correct, which is different from how people normally drive.
In California, there are several simple questions that are insta-failures if you get them wrong: where are the rear view mirrors, turn signals, brake, horn, parking brake, windshield wiper control, defroster, hazard light button, headlights control, and glove box? Also: are seat belts for you and them fastened? Demonstrate arm signals. Do the brake lights, horn, and turn lights work? Do you touch a curb (including in the part of the test where you back up alongside the curb)?
If the DMVs nearest you are booked far into the future, you can check for the soonest booking date at various other DMVs across your state. You can book with a driving school to use their car for the exam (though make sure the driving school has available slots for this at the right times). If you can, it’s also worth booking a 30min-1 hour practice session right before the exam, in the vehicle you’ll use for the exam and on the streets that the exam will be on.
If you’re using a non-driving school vehicle, arrive 1-2 hours early and practice driving on the streets near the DMV.
Other things you might consider in the project of using a slackmobile as a base for reclaiming more of your stack.
- Heat pump and HVAC system for lower power requirements for heating, and retention of heat/cool while keeping CO2 from building up. A countercurrent heat exchanger is the most efficient passive design, and can in theory be arbitrarily efficient
- CO2 sequestration (to bring CO2 levels to less than modern day levels for a predicted improvement in cognitive ability) (maybe just for a respirator rather than for the entire RV?)
- Software-defined radio
- Archives of portions of the internet (I recommend blurays or enterprise hard drives for long-term storage)
- Electric scooter for getting to places that don’t have parking available nearby (or folding bike, or roller blades)
- Large tools (eg bench grinder, drill press, vise, welder)
- 3D printer, ideally both one that can print metal and one that can print plastic, maybe other things too
- Diesel-electric engine for the truck, which would allow it to drive short distances per day off of solar power alone
- A set of the most versatile medical equipment and supplies
- A lithium ion battery backpack to run power tools away from the vehicle
- Encrypted dash cam (annoyingly not something you can buy afaict, but you can set up a regular camera and a raspberry pi or similar)
- Water filtration/purification, to be able to refill freshwater from streams, lakes, etc
- Yeast, algae, and bacteria bioreactors to create food and all necessary nutrients
- How much of more this capability set can be compressed down to a small volume?
- Materials for aldehyde-stabilized cryopreservation along with a cryofreezer (expensive, but one of the ways for keeping algae/yeast/bacteria long-term for the bioreactor anyway)
- If you are trans, enby or bigender, a lifetime supply of hormones. Estradiol esters can be ordered via alibaba (though alibaba is a very low-trust environment, which imposes various costs). Progesterone is more expensive, but it may be possible to use an existing modifed-to-produce-cholesterol yeast or Nannochloropsis algae plus genes for the enzymes required to convert cholesterol into progesterone to make it over time. For testosterone, one would probably want to build some kind of bioreactor like that. (presumably this requires either gene therapy tech or cDNA + PCR?) One can buy testosterone on the black market, but it would be risky to buy or carry the quantities needed for a lifetime supply. Another alternative would be to buy progesterone, hydroxyprogesterone, or other testosterone precursor and convert it to testosterone.
Example minibus conversion
I currently live in a converted minibus that is a bit better than what I describe as minimum viable product. I’m in the process of designing and starting to build a better slackmobile in a box truck.
I bought the bus for $1500 ($700 nominal, $800 retroactive registration fees) with some damage to the cabin that needed to be fixed (two walls structurally detached, leaky roof, missing rear door). I found it by monitoring Craigslist a few times a day for a week, and paid a friend to drive to visit several vehicles over a span of a few days. After buying it, I parked it outside a hardware store to fix those problems over a few days. Over the following month, I added solar panels, two sets of drawers, a foam bed, a rug, LED lights, an 8D battery, a 2kW inverter, a microwave, a freezer, a cassette toilet, couch cushions, and light blocking curtains, and cut a hole in the floor for ventilation with a fan placed over it. Later I added a desk, a set of lockers, an electric kettle, a printer/scanner, a CO2 monitor, another ventilation hole, another cassette toilet as a sink, a fridge, and a whiteboard.
Here is a spreadsheet of everything in my bus, how much it cost, and where I bought it. This includes things like clothes, laptop, vitamins, tools, etc. The total cost I’ve documented is around $9000, plus insurance and gas (about $2200 in my first year), though there are some things I don’t have documented (including expenses getting my license).
- death, systemic injustice, factory farming, mass surveillance, existential risk, poverty, global warming, etc
- or even a relatively small problem that is nonetheless far outside the Overton window, such as building the technology to become a dragon