Chasing Birds

I've got a garden to tend, birds to find, beers to drink, and stories to share.

Self-reliance or Something Like It


If you could only take three things to a desert island, what would they be?

I loathe those kinds of questions. Particularly that one. Mostly because I’m a take-the-kitchen-sink kind of person (except for when I’m backpacking). And I’m sorry, but there are only two people who could survive with only 3 things: MacGyver and Chuck Norris.

In the real world, no matter how much you think you’re prepared for something, you just aren’t. What you are is at the mercy of Mother Nature. And sometimes, she just. doesn’t. stop. In California: month after month of negligible or no precipitation. In Michigan, there’s a joke that the state has 4 seasons: Winter, Still Winter, Almost Winter, and Construction. But that last season has changed to “Is This Summer? Well, The Sky Isn’t *As* Gray…” and people aren’t laughing anymore.  In Colorado, we’re experiencing the effects of El Nino: precipitation and lots of it. And we truly, honestly, wholeheartedly do appreciate the extra moisture (we’re thinking of you, California!), but…enough already.

During our 7-day training back in the first week of May, it rained, hailed, and/or snowed every single day. One early morning toward the end of the week, we all gathered for a practice survey, excited that it wasn’t precipitating and that we just might get something accomplished today…until a heavy, misting fog rolled in and sent us away, wet, shivering, and utterly deflated. Rather than actually practice our point count methods, Matthew and I taught by discussing hypothetical situations. As a trainer, it was endlessly frustrating that we couldn’t just get them outside to practice their skills—mainly, how to manage a pencil, clipboard & datasheets, rangefinder, and binoculars all while focusing on the who, what, where, and when of the birds (all while being timed, no less). It’s like speed birding with all this extra gear getting in the way. Luckily, almost everyone managed to keep a positive outlook and the training was moderately successful despite the circumstances. Several people even learned how to fix a flat (on my truck, sadly) in a snowstorm. Then we drank some PBRs and had a snowball fight. We really try to focus on the small victories.

Blanca Peak in fresh snow.

Blanca Peak in fresh snow.


Training at Pinon Canyon on the grasslands of southeast Colorado.

But I digress (as I usually do).

I want to share with you all what it looks like to live out of a truck for 3 months. This is my third season doing point counts and I’ve got my system dialed.  My truck (Sally!) essentially becomes my Life Pod. She has everything I need and some extras because, why not? First, let’s go through the system in the bed/camper portion of the truck.

The Back End

I’ve found that the best way to keep your vehicle clean, is by compartmentalizing everything. Keep the food separate from the clean clothes separate from the cooking gear…you get the idea (though shoes still pose a challenge for me). This year, I asked Colin to make some simple plywood built-ins to provide more usable space in the bed of the truck (anyone who’s packed the bed of a truck with moving boxes can attest to how annoying packing around the wheel wells can be). Colin essentially partitioned the left side of the truck into 3 enclosed compartments and a bonus space on the end that fits my fuel can.

Wooden built-ins ala Colin.

Wooden built-ins ala Colin.

The forward compartment holds my stove & fuel bottle, a small pot, a mesh bag with dish soap and a sponge, baby wipes, TP, a folding shovel, and a bag of extra bungee cords (above, right). The middle compartment (over the wheel well) has only a few inches of vertical space, so I stash my compression and stuff sacks in there. I only need them when I go backpacking, so I don’t have to get in there often. The compartment in the back is for dirty laundry. Remarkably, the wood eliminates the odor, kind of like keeping cedar chips in your dresser. Let’s just say both the cab and bed of my truck smell much nicer than some other peoples’ rigs. Think: dirty socks, garlic, and wet carpet. Add heat. It makes me gag just to think of it.

So tidy.

Clean lines. So tidy.

The rest of the bed is split in half longitudinally.  The left side (delineated by the sheet of plywood) is for the cooler and food tubs and the right is sleeping quarters. Our cooler is really heavy and has grippy feet on the bottom, so I thought it might be nice to set it on a piece of plywood and have a way to pull it out. Colin took it a step further and sliced up a cutting board to create slides on the bottom of the plywood to keep it from shifting around and make it a little easier to pull/push (you can see the bedliner has built-in “tracks”). He also bolted in some handy nylon pull straps. Love that guy.

The final component is bedding. The remaining space fits a sleeping pad with very little room to spare, though there are a few more things to squeeze in yet. There’s a nice size space behind the cooler (on the platform) where I keep my duffle bag with pants/shorts, socks, undies, and pajamas. Lastly, in front of the right wheel well, I store my water jug (shown up above) and then my work boots (in a shopping bag) in front of that. If it’s not going to rain, I’ll usually stick my boots under the truck overnight to air out. (But sometimes I’m secretly afraid that something’s going to crawl into them.)

It’s actually uncanny how perfectly the width of the truck bed accommodates this set up.

Voila! And yes, that’s my travel Bunny.

Awesome, right? Hold onto your pants—it gets more awesome.

The kitchen or, galley, as I like to call it is my favorite part of this whole deal. Those of you who have spent time in a camper or live in a small space know that convertibility is key. You need spaces to serve multiple purposes. My bed is kind of like a Murphy bed. When I get up in the morning, I typically fold the bottom half of it up onto itself, opening up the front right quarter of the bed. I just slide the food boxes off of the platform and arrange them as needed. This frees up a nice big workspace on the plywood platform for prep and cooking. When it’s time to get the stove out, I take the top cover from that compartment and slide it back between the cooler and the cubby. If it’s windy, I can pull that out to serve as an extra shield from the wind.  A’like so:


The galley & fixings for some tasty pho.


The plywood built-ins aren’t the only upgrades Sally’s received this year. Colin also threw together (literally hours before I left) a very handy awning for the back end. He knew training was supposed to be rainy and thought I would appreciate having the option to be outside of the cab while it was raining without getting soaked. It also doubles as a sun shade. We’ll just say that my truck became the hangout spot when I had the awning deployed. I didn’t want Colin to waste time putting something together unless the setup was simple enough to not be a deterrent to actually using the awning. I was honest with him: if it was too complicated, I wouldn’t use it. Mostly because I’m never in one spot for very long. Actually, the time while I’m sleeping is the longest I ever stay at one location.

2015-06-01 12.02.15He attached a tarp to the rear roof bar using a nylon rope and grommets on the tarp. He then grabbed these old aluminum tent poles we got from his grandfather a while back. You can adjust their length easily with a simple self-locking mechanism. He then attached a piece of aluminum straight edge to the other end with a wing nut and bolt and drilled two more holes on each end of the straight edge. To set up the awning, you just have to stick the pointy ends of the tent poles into the tarp and straight edge and nestle the blunt end into the corner of the tailgate. Extend the poles and voila, an awning. To add more stability, I hook a bungee cord to the tent pole and attach it down under the rear bumper (one on each side). If it’s a bit windy, you can do the same by hooking bungees to the tarp itself and down to the bumper. The camper shell window swings up when it’s open, so it conveniently makes a bit of a peak. When not in use, I just roll the entire thing up (including the tent poles) and secure it with the same bunges (one in the middle and one on each end). Easy peasy lemon squeezy.


Yes, I do wash my truck. Sorry you had to see that.

You may have noticed the curtains. Look again. Yep. Curtains! I put these in for a few reasons: (1) For privacy in places like campgrounds and other more public camping locales; (2) to keep the glaring sun off the cooler (and perhaps, more importantly, my chocolate); and (3) because they’re cool (admit it). There is a story behind the fabric, but I think that’s for another time. I made the curtains using 2 yards of fabric that I hemmed with iron-on hem tape (I need a sewing machine!) to make sleeves for a nylon line to go through. To install them, I attached little 1″ L brackets to the screws that hold the windows in place, threaded the curtains on the lines, and tied the lines to the brackets as tightly as I could. Turns out I used too much fabric, but I can always cut them shorter when I get the time. Verdict: I LOVE them. Would highly recommend curtains for anyone who plans to camp in their truck for extended periods of time. And dare I say it, but it makes the space feel cozy. Cozy! Massive cooler, dirty socks, work boots, and all…TruckSetup3

The Front End

IMG_0866Now a quick run-down of the cab, where the rest of my stuff resides. There’s nothing too special about how it’s organized (except that I put most-used items in more convenient locations), but one thing I do love is having a bar to hang my shirts. In the back seat, I have: (left side) shampoo, lotion, laundry detergent in the cubby; hanging shirts & jackets; (left side floor) mini library (field guides & a few books for fun); travel towel; small box of work supplies (like pencils & batteries); extra tote bag folded up; first aid kit; (middle) box of maps; (middle floor) small box of extra personal items (new contact lenses, tampons, etc.); box of tissue on top; (right side) backpacking pack with backpacking-specific gear inside and bear cannister; in the right cubby, a spare gear bag should a technician lose a piece of gear and need a replacement; (right side floor) toolbox; and lastly, under the driver’s seat, my sneakers & favorite (cute) Teva sandals (in case I need to dress up…you really never know). In the front seat, I keep my “urban” backpack with my laptop and work binder in it. On the passenger side floor, my work day pack.

Like I said. System dialed.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the tour of my home on wheels. I’ve already started to compile a list of what I pack and why (I get lots of questions about this). So, until next time…

PS: I uploaded my first batch of photos from training week over on flickr, so you should go check them out here.


    • OK, I have more to say. I just packed the backpack with my first bit of ultra light gear, 1lb 14oz tent, 1lb 14 oz sleeping bag (yes, you read that right), 13oz air mattress, and a Pocket Rocket stove should arrive tomorrow. A different sort of “self-reliance.” What I think but don’t always say is that I enjoy your blog and that you life sounds rad.

    • Love it, Kestrel– and I’m glad you enjoy the blog! I’m hoping to get a post up about gear soon…thanks for a little inspiration.

  1. I miss living out my car, counting birds! I like what you’ve done with the truck…

  2. Holy jeez n’ fark. I don’t know why I TRY.

    • Sarah, think of this as being like an apartment in Japan without kids. There can’t be any more than 10 square feet of space and there aren’t 2 small children running around, mucking things up. I’m sure your place in Japan was tidy.

    • Ok…so there’s like 35 square feet. But still.

  3. I slept in our small Toyota truck last year working on fires and you have it down much much better. I also like how you used precipitate as a verb. I miss moisture.

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