A Charming Tiny Home on Wheels: Brenda’s Story of Vanlife, Exploding Toilets and All

Some people dream of living in a big house with unlimited space, but Brenda from Portland, Oregon isn’t one of those people. She lives in a 2012 Ford E-350 named Copper with her dog, Ranger, and has all the space she needs.

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Photo Credit: @theroadthroughmyeyes

Before Brenda embraced van life, she had already experienced that ‘large home’ life in a five-bedroom mansion overlooking a lake with an indoor pool with her then-husband. She recalls feeling uncomfortable with the wasted space, all the cleaning, and the general emptiness.

When Brenda divorced her husband, she moved into a one-bedroom apartment and could remember even that feeling too big for her needs. Downsizing to a studio apartment also didn’t make Brenda feel any better.

It wasn’t until Brenda really thought about her goal of owning her own home by 30 that she started wondering about tiny home life. She was clearly accustomed to living in a small space, and tiny homes ticked that box.

However, when Brenda couldn’t make her family’s Christmas get-together due to work commitments, she took a weekend trip down the Oregon coast and realized she was in her element. She loved the freedom of not being stuck in one space and having no schedule or real destination. It was at that moment that she realized van life was for her.

After a brief pause to take up a job opportunity in Melbourne, Australia, Brenda returned to North America mid-pandemic in 2020 and decided to fulfill her dreams of life on the road. She purchased her 2012 Ford E-350 and, with the help of her dad, started building the van for her upcoming adventures.

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Photo Credit: @theroadthroughmyeyes

As her dad worked for an auto body shop, they had use of the facilities to complete their entire conversion from start to finish in 42 days. As both of them were working full-time jobs, they dedicated much of their spare time to the task. Brenda couldn’t believe that she had her dream home in a little over one month.

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Photo Credit: @theroadthroughmyeyes

While Brenda still holds a traditional nine-to-five job, which she performs remotely, she still has plenty of time for traveling. Her goals with her new van life are to explore in nature, check out secluded locations, and save money on rent and bills to gain financial independence as quickly as possible. But, most importantly, she just wants to live simply with less.

The Interior

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Photo Credit: @theroadthroughmyeyes

Brenda is all about simple living in her van. The bedroom area doubles as her lounging area, and she’s proud of how multipurpose it is. Unlike other van lifers who install plenty of upper cabinetry, Brenda opted for shelving with copper wire. These house her collection of Terracotta pots bursting with plant life.

Brenda said she chose to have minimal storage in her van because the more storage you have, the more stuff you accumulate, and she wanted to own as little as possible. Her use of copper in the shelving was intentional due to her van’s name, Copper. She chose the name because it’s her favorite dog character from The Fox and the Hound.

Perhaps one of the most exciting features in Copper is the marine skylight hatch over the bed. This hatch opens 90 degrees, letting Brenda climb through it to star gaze and watch the sunset from the van roof. She also loves watching the stars from her bed every night.

Rather than opting for a traditional mattress, Brenda chose a three-inch-thick Japanese sleeping mat. It has a slight incline at the head area and was a far more practical option than cutting a traditional mattress to size. The bedroom area also features touch lights for convenience.

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Photo Credit: @theroadthroughmyeyes

Brenda’s bed is more than just a bed. After adding a leg and a piano hinge, she can now turn her bed into a comfortable and luxurious sofa. This modification ensured she’d have plenty of space for a bike in the rear if she wanted to travel with one. However, she now just props it up into a couch when she wants to watch movies in bed. Brenda installed a projector in the van for this very purpose.

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Van lifers often struggle with basic tasks like showering and toileting, but that’s not a problem for Brenda in Copper. When she wants privacy and warmth, she chooses to shower in her van with indoor shower curtains. She hangs two from the various hooks around her van’s walls to form a full leak-proof circle. She also has a collapsible pet bath or kiddie pool to collect the water. Her shower is located directly under the ceiling fan, which sucks the humidity out of the shower.

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Photo Credit: @theroadthroughmyeyes

You’ve gotta go when you’ve gotta go. Copper features a portable toilet that she stores in a cabinet when it’s not in use. Her camping RV-type toilet is for number one only!

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Photo Credit: @theroadthroughmyeyes

Most van lifers have no problems with portable toilets in their vans, but that hasn’t been Brenda’s experience. After driving four hours from Oregon to Idaho, she decided to fill up with fuel at a gas station and use the toilet in her van rather than subject herself to the germs of the average public toilet.

When she stood up and reached behind her to pull the flush handle, fresh warm urine shot several feet into the air, covering her new flooring and her in the process. Brenda said it was the first shower she’d had in days, and it wasn’t that refreshing as you might imagine…

As shocking as it sounds, Brenda learned it was all about science. Pressure can build due to elevation in air-tight, smell-proof toilet tanks, and she paid the ultimate price for not realizing this when pressing the flush button. All that built-up pressure had to go somewhere!

L-Shaped Kitchen

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Photo Credit: @theroadthroughmyeyes

As far as van kitchens go, Brenda’s would have to be among the most aesthetically pleasing and practical. It’s positioned in an L-shape, with the sink in the corner and the large faucet to the left. The gorgeous wood countertop provides plenty of space for meal prep and cooking accessories. She also has a 110-volt toaster oven, a 110-volt fridge, trash storage, and a 30-gallon water tank in her kitchen.

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Brenda decided to put her sink in the corner of the kitchen to maximize the available space. She also opted for the under-mount option and paired the sink with a large, traditional faucet with an extendable arm. This comes in handy for showering herself and washing Ranger, the dog.

Her kitchen also boasts an abundance of spices within a space rack, with copper accessories to stay on theme. She uses velcro to keep everything in place, which seems to work like a charm.

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Photo Credit: @theroadthroughmyeyes

Brenda installed multiple hooks around her van, not only for her shower curtain but also for her hammock. This allows her to use her chair in various positions, based on whichever view she wants to enjoy.

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Photo Credit: @theroadthroughmyeyes

Brenda wanted to ensure that her van felt like a home rather than just a vehicle. She installed a wall between the living quarters and the cab with a sliding pocket door within a quaint arched doorway. This wall also enabled her to install storage space above the cab for her clothing. Overhead cabinets in this area also provide additional clothing storage space.

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Photo Credit: @theroadthroughmyeyes

Brenda is fortunate to work her nine-to-five job remotely, so a dedicated workspace was essential. She has a small desk and a folding chair by the window, letting in plenty of natural light to work comfortably.

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Just as Brenda has her own home, so does Ranger. Brenda made Ranger a custom bed underneath her bed. When she has to leave him alone to go hiking or shopping, she secures him in his bedroom area to ensure outside sounds don’t bother him. Ranger loves his bed so much that he goes in there voluntarily rather than snuggling with Brenda on her bed.

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Brenda calls the rear of the van her ‘garage,’ which is where she stores her hiking equipment and other outdoor essentials. When she lifts her bed into ‘couch mode,’ she has extra room in the ‘garage’ for a bike.

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There’s nothing better than parking somewhere beautiful and enjoying the view, but Brenda has it better than most. She can open up her rear doors and enjoy spectacular sights while she relaxes in bed.

Follow Brenda and Ranger’s adventures on their blog, Instagram, and Youtube!