The Swallow Bicycle Works Sprinter Van

After spending the last 6-months splitting time living in our van and on our bikes, we're finally ready to share with you what our home on wheels looks like. 

Van Life

This is what our van life looks like. It's pretty stealthy if you ask us. Looks like a plain old white van. If you saw this puppy parked outside your house, on a side street in Portland, in a Rest Stop on the side of the Highway, or a Scenic Vista off of Highway 1, you would never guess that there is a whole world of fun inside and that two people and anywhere from 5-7 bikes rest comfortably inside. That's right! You can literally park anywhere with this puppy and it just looks like a parked car. Not only do you say goodbye to paying for motels, you say goodbye to paying for campgrounds as well. Motels do offer the convenience of showers, wifi, and bathrooms. Some campgrounds offer showers. So we had to figure out how to get all those things with our van.

I should take the time to mention that these days, Tom and I use this van to take us to places to ride our bikes. We're traveling cross-country with all of our gear going from place to place to visit friends, family, and to park to do bikepacking trips. We're not living in this thing full time, but more like one week, or two-weeks at a time, and generally in transit. To say we are experts would be a bit off the mark. We're learning how to live in this thing, optimize, and stay organized every day we live in it. As you can see below, this van has been a labor of love and recycling as our lifestyle changes and it's a constant work in progress. If you are considering living the van life, or you are simply intrigued to see what it's like, here is a basic overview of how we do it...


So back to the question of how we get all those comforts of home from this little-big van. When we are in transit, we stop at Rest Stops and Scenic Vistas because they're convenient, sometimes scenic, sometimes have wifi, have water and most importantly have bathrooms. We sleep there overnight, refill our water bottles as to not drain our water tank too quickly, make some breakfast or dinner if needed, and get back on the road. 

One interesting experience we had parking and sleeping in the van was off of Highway 1 in California, just outside of Big Sur. It was very late at night and we finally found a big enough spot to pull the van off the road to sleep for the night. Technically, they don't want people to park there overnight along the 1, like Rvs and such, but our van is stealthy, it just looks like someone enjoying the Scenic Vista, right? We parked the van and hit the hay. Around 3 A.M. we hear a series of loud knocks on the van door, "POLICE!" Bright lights shining from all directions lit up the van's interior. We immediately woke up, startled and confused. "Dang! They caught us" we thought, for parking overnight. We stumbled around our messy van trying to find glasses and pants. We opened the door to the van "DEA" they barked, and we were greeted with five DEA agents dressed in civilian clothing. Maybe it was because we had just woken up, maybe it was because we had a tiny bit of pot in the car, maybe it's because we are from Ohio but if Tom's search for his wallet was any indication of how freaked out we were, well we were, freaked OUT! Upon seeing the couple of clumsy, unorganized, hipstery bike people, the DEA agents explained that we weren't who they were looking for. It turns out that it is fairly common for plain white vans with Ohio license plates to park along Highway 1 to wait for ponga boats transporting marijuana from Mexico to California, to take it to Ohio... We weren't the real threats. "We have better weed here anyway, they said" and got on their way. 


For $12 you can take a shower for as long as you want, towels, wash cloths provided, at any Flying J/Pilot Truck Stop. If you are a traveling couple, don't pay for two showers, just sneak into one, there is plenty of room. If you're finding that you like Flying J/Pilot Truck Stops for refueling your gasoline/diesel, then become a member! You accumulate points as you fuel up that go towards free showers. We also carry around a solar shower for those out in the wild moments. 


Flying J / Pilot Truck Stops have you covered! Also, most towns have laundromats, duh. There is no excuse to have smelly clothes. 

Wifi/Phone Data

We've all been there with the overage costs on the data plan. If you want a $500 phone bill, drive across the country with google maps turned on. That'll do it. So the key is to quit using your phone data in the car. It's tough, take it from me, my data usage this month is 80%, Tom's is 20%. When you're in the car, you just want to gram, google, and stare at your phone. Here are some tips I've picked up to minimize the use of my phone data while on the road. 

- Purchase a GPS Device for navigation. It's safer, a lot easier to follow, will save you data, and will minimize conflict and stress between driver/co-pilot. 

- Pre-Download Podcasts in a wifi environment. Some of our favorites are Reverberation Radio, Radiolab, and More Perfect

- Read a book. If you are traveling in bear country we'd recommend, Alaska Bear Tales by Larry Kaniut

- Take naps. If you are traveling a lot, you need your beauty rest, long car drives are a great place to catch up on some ZZZ's. 

- Get your wifi where you can find it. Coffee shops, Rest Stops, Libraries, friends houses. It's everywhere. Use it!

The history of our van and how it came to be

We purchased our Mercedes Sprinter Van, 2500 high roof 144", back in 2014. We found ourselves driving further and further for rides, with more people and more bikes. Bike shop business was good and it was time to get some more space. Now Tom did a lot of research on this one. He has a passion for old vans and we considered buying used. After a lot of consideration regarding the services and upkeep, let alone the price, we opted for monthly payments on a new van with a 60,000 mile service package (which we just reached the end of). 

At the time we were driving a lot of people and a lot of bikes. The van took 5 people and 10 bikes to Colorado in the middle of winter, and moved multiple individuals across country. We experimented with a lot of set ups, but back then, when our priority was people, bikes, and gear the van looked like this...

This set-up worked well for getting a lot of bikes and people in the van, but it came at a cost. It was an extreme hassle to pack. The subfloor made it more difficult to stand up and put the bikes on the rack and while the floor was removable, it required a tremendous amount of pack planning. Good luck getting anything under that floor after a few bikes were on the rack.  

Nowadays there is no bike shop and there is a lot more cross-country traveling and bike riding. We needed to be able to live/sleep in the van comfortably, we needed to carry a lot of bikes, while still carry a ton of camping gear, bike parts, and bikepacking gear as we would be leaving from the van for bikepacking trips. 2016 would be the year to make it happen. Fresh off of the Trans America Trail with a cross-country move planned, Tom set to work on the Van in the middle of January in Ohio (it just so happened to be the coldest two-weeks in Ohio that year). 

Tom will take it from here regarding what he did to make the van what it is today...

Van Specifics

  • Insulation/Headliner - Roof Insulation: Roof/Reflectix/1" pink foam board/ Reflectix/Factory headliner. Wall Insulation: Reflectix then denim batting or pink board depending on suitability, sealed with plastic sheeting.
  • Ventilation - Midship: Fan-tastic 3 Speed reversible with thermostat, Bed: Fan-tastic vent with screen, both vents are clear smoke tinted lids. The fan is set to exhaust most times, which pulls air out of the van, with the doors and windows closed and the rear ceiling vent open, a nice breeze is pulled into the van directly over the sleeping compartment.
  • Electricity - 12v 125AH AGM "house" Battery coupled to the Main battery with a Blue Sea ACR. The "house" battery is also charged by a 100watt Renogy Solar panel on the roof through a Morningstar PWM-15 Solar controller. We use a Prowatt Pure Sine Inverter for 110v AC items like big bike lights, laptops, etc. There are 3 switched pairs of LED lights to illuminate different zones of the van. Everything we use while stopped runs from the "house" battery, allowing the main battery to remain fully charged so the van always starts.
  • Refrigerator - Dometic 37liter 12v Portable Fridge/Freezer
  • Sink - Tub: IKEA less than $20, We only use the sink for filling bottles, could have been omitted. In lieue of more sophisticated plumbing, there is a MTB inner tube connected to the sink drain which can be run to the ground or to a catch basin.
  • Water Supply - $3 Amazon submersible 12v fountain pump with 5 gallon BPA-free plastic tank and hose running to a switched faucet from
  • Bike Rack - Interior, Under Bed Platform: One-Up 4 bike rack like Brian Lopes, Rear Rack: Yakima HoldUp 2
  • Bed - 4" memory foam pad on a 3/4" plywood deck sitting atop Uni-Strut frame. The frame is attached directly to the van body with Uni-Strut L-Brackets and 3/8" coarse sheet metal screws.
  • Wood Work - Recycled 
  • Toilet - Plastic portable RV or camping toilet. Emmergency use only.  
  • Extras - Solar Shower, Bike stand, Propane camp stove


Down the Unmapped Path: A Recap of The Tour De Los Padres Bikepacking Event

Back in April, Tom and I drove our van down to Santa Barbara, CA to catch the Taxi Cab Shuttle over to Frazier Park for the start of the Tour De Los Padres Bikepacking Event. We knew very little about what were getting ourselves into. We knew the ride was free to do, that it was 260 miles and 30,000 ft of climbing, that it had very little water available on the route, and that there were guaranteed enchiladas at the finish. This is how it went... 

It was the morning after we had completed the Tour De Los Padres Bikepacking Event and we were sitting over a cup of coffee at the event organizer’s kitchen table with a serious ride hangover. One of our party, was suffering from a continuous bloody nose from the dry conditions, another was applying aloe to blistered second-degree sunburn. I was feeling some complex emotions. I had just completed one of the most difficult rides of my life through some of the most beautiful and diverse scenery I had ever seen in such a short distance. As I was sitting at Erin's table that morning, I couldn't figure out how I felt about my first bikepacking experience where the route required me to hike miles of steep, rutted, terrain and drink water out of tadpole inhabited cow troughs. Despite the beautiful scenery, this was one tough ride. If we weren't hiking up steep technical terrain, we were riding it. I kept asking Erin how he came up with the route, especially since the most challenging paths and trails that the route follows, do not show up on most maps or GPS devices. As a route maker, I was curious about the sanity of an individual who would get to a certain point on a route and decide that a hardly-a-trail path looks promising and when that path ends, that individual continues to go further, on foot, to the next place that is rideable, rather than turn back. I mean, I've hiked my bike on a fair share of rides out of necessity and desperation, but this was intentional hike-a-biking! I was perplexed. I couldn't figure out if I loved it or hated it. Understanding that I would at one point write about this experience, Erin suggested that I take a week, let the experience soak in, then write what I thought. We'd actually be leaving on a month long tour through the interior Pacific Northwest a week later so I was conveniently going to be a little preoccupied. It wasn't until the third or fourth day of our Tour of Cascadia that I realized the impact Tour De Los Padres had on my riding style, navigating, and route making.

The Event

Tour De Los Padres is a bikepacking route and annual event that started three years ago, in Southern California. Every spring a handful of assorted cyclists from racers to tourists participate in this informal, self-supported, no-fees challenge of riding from the mountain town of Frazier Park, up and down Mount Pinos, into the Carrizo Plain and back through Southern Los Padres National Forest, ending on the palm tree lined beaches of Santa Barbara, California. The route comes in at 260 miles, with close to 30,000 ft of climbing, following 60% dirt roads, 20% singletrack (and hike-a-bike), and 20% paved roads. The number to really look at is the 30,000 ft of climbing...

The Plan

Tour De Los Padres is not a race it’s a challenge. The goal for riders is to complete the difficult route with limited water supply without having to catch a ride, or press that emergency $60,000 helicopter rescue button on your SPOT Tracker. As with any event that lists riders’ results on a public website, for some, there naturally becomes a sense of urgency to complete the route as fast as possible.

When prepping for rides like these, Tom and I definitely get sucked into the mentality of doing the event as fast as possible. It's psychosis through osmosis. While we ride our bikes as much as possible for enjoyment, we aren't training to be in physical form for racing. Nevertheless, we can't help but get sucked into the racing mentality when we are around people who are trying to beat last year’s time, or who have to be at work on Monday. In these situations, we go in with a plan that will get the route done in the fastest possible time that we can handle in "race" mode. Then, we pack an extra days worth of food in the case we have to abort that plan. This fastest possible plan looked something like this...

Day One: Ride 117 miles with 8,000 ft of climbing.

Day Two: Ride 66 miles with 10,300 ft of climbing

Day Three: Ride 84 miles with 10,300 ft of climbing.

I told you the climbing was no joke on this ride.

The Ride

Like we always do, like kids let out to the playground with their friends, we started the ride fast with a couple of like paced riders, Rita and Armand. We crushed the first day too, or I should say the first 115 miles. Something happened to Tom and I during the last two miles as the sun went down and it grew dark... Our legs just stopped working. We saw the campground in the distance up the hill, but had no energy to pedal further so we walked. Then it hit me, we had not ridden 100 miles in one day since September when we were riding the Trans America Dirt Road Trail. It was now April and we were feeling the distance, and obvious lack of “training”. We finally reached the turn to the campground where Rita was sitting, contemplating her next move. Rita was one of the people who planned to be at work on Monday so she was fairly committed to complete the ride in three days even if she had to ride in the dark for a while. Despite our semi-commitment to racing, we had planned to sleep during this event. We said goodbye and good luck to Rita* and set camp for the night with our single remaining compadre, Armand.

*Rita ended up completing the ride in three days, becoming the first woman to complete the route, and second place finisher overall, badass...

The next morning we learned what made this route truly unique as we followed a steep gravel road to an overgrown powerline access double track over a series of steep rolling foothills, into an overgrown valley of cow pasture, to a rutted and rock strewn cow path. We employed the push bike-hold brake-walk method in order to maneuver our bikes and bodies over the steep technical terrain. As we pushed and pedaled, each transition of human agility required to cover the terrain would trigger a wave of revelation in understanding what bikepacking can be. The temperatures were in the 90's and, sure, we were riding through a miraculous fairyland of blooming wild flowers that made Death Valley's "Superbloom" seem like a joke, but it was 6 o’clock and we had spent our day half biking and half hiking over just 36 miles. So much for our intended plan! We decided to set camp and commence tour mode. To our delight, Armand was in too.

We spent the following days riding a new rythm, one that was influenced by our renewed goal to simply complete this challenging route, rather than to cover the difficult terrain as fast as possible. With Armand's companionship and shared enthusiasm for the incredible views, private camp spots, swimming holes, and sunsets, our Tour De Los Padres experience morphed into an enjoyable learning experience, rather than a desperate one. It wasn't easy, but we were all in it together. We laughed at ourselves and said that bikepackers, people who do this stuff all the time, were the ultimate badasses. We wondered together about what the world might be like if everybody had to push a bike, loaded heavily with water, food, and the necessities up hills that were more appropriate to crawl up. Completing the route was the ultimate reward, however I still wasn't sure if I would seek out this experience on my own ever again.

The Impact

A little over a week after completing Tour de Los Padres, we set out on what was supposed to be a month long tour through Cascadia following two separate dual sport motorcycle routes across Washington and into Canada before picking up the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route in Banff to ride to Whitefish, Montana, where we would Amtrak back to Portland to get our van. Again, we had a plan, only this was meant to be a time for Tom and I to live on the bikes and explore new to us places via the dirt and roads less traveled. There was just one glitch in our plan. Our route called for a lot of high elevation riding in mountains that were still very heavily covered in snow. Within 40 miles on the first day of our tour, we were hiking our bikes through deep snow pack and only gaining elevation. There was no way we could follow our intended route. It was a harsh reality to accept so we set camp for the night on top of the mountain to deliberate on whether to turn back or continue further in the morning. Forward would require a 7-mile hike through snow and completely abandoning our planned route. It would mean navigating our own way across Washington while avoiding the snow and pavement to get to our destination of Whitefish, Montana. There was only one way to go.

As we traveled forward, I realized the extended impact that riding the Tour De Los Padres had made in my method of route selection for our Tour of Cascadia. By not following a pre-planned route and schedule we had the freedom to explore the enticing unmapped paths we came across and connect them with the next dirt road. Sometimes, it required some hiking but we know now that to skip five miles of pavement by hiking a bit is a trade we like to make. The more diversity in the terrain, the more fun we have. Had we been following roads on a map or GPS, we would not have experienced some of the most memorable terrain and scenic landscapes we rode through on our Tour of Cascadia.

This is a quality over quantity experience. It’s not getting to a destination the quickest or the most direct way, it’s getting there the fun way, on less pavement than ever, and it’s rewarding in ways you may not expect. My experience riding the Tour De Los Padres Bikepacking Route exposed me to a new way of riding, making routes, and simply covering terrain with my bicycle. As with any learning experience, the first time was difficult for me, but the result is a shift in my perspectives about bicycle travel and a new set of skills that I can now apply to my own riding and routes. Thanks Erin, for showing me the way!

Special Note About The Route

If you are thinking about riding the Tour De Los Padres Bikepacking Route, or participating in the event, visit the website and study up, especially since there is very little water available on the route. If I haven't made it clear already, this ride is physically and logistically tough. If it sounds a little beyond your ideal level of strain, there is a Tour De Los Padres Touring Route that has less mileage, less climbing, and less hike-a-bike. If you are exclusively a dirt road bikepacker, consider riding the Los Padres Wilderness Corridor Route, which has incredible 360-degree views, along deserted gravel roads, with great camp spots along the way. 

The Adventure Dispatch

Back in the fall of 2014 I was offered the opportunity of a lifetime, to join the Specialized Adventure Dispatch Team, do what I love with those I love, and share my stories along the way. The last two years have been some of the most memorable, meaningful, and educational years of my life. This year, Specialized sent the camera crews out for Tom and I's version of an overnight camp-out. Me being me, I set out to find a place in Northern California I had not been. I wanted it to be some-what of a close drive to our place in Petaluma, and I had to avoid the snow since this whole thing would be happening in early March. I had heard whispers of the Lost Coast of California and quickly learned that the infamous hiking trail could easily be paralleled with some dirt roads in the King Range. After plotting the route in Ride With GPS and landing on a 75 mile ride with 11,500 ft of climbing I knew this was not going to be an easy, but hey, the pictures would be great, right? The closer we got to our date, the worse the weather forecast became. These cameramen were on a tight schedule, it had to happen, it was going to happen, even if we had to ride through a torrential rain, wind, and hypothermia in one of the wettest climates of California. 

And that's just what we did... 

In retrospect I was a little over ambitious with this route especially since there was a camera crew following us around. Works of art take time, lots of it! If I ever find myself being followed by a camera crew again, I will heed the advice from my fellow Adventure Dispatcher Teammate, Benedict Wheeler, AKA @Ultraromance and only go on a 4-mile ride, maybe even ride in the support van a bit ;)

To learn more about the Lost Coast Ridge Trail, visit

How-To: Streamline Your Tent Pole Storage for Bikepacking


Assembling our Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 is a breeze. The tent uses a unified group of individual pole sections, so it’s just one bundle of sticks. We have used this simple method for storing tent poles for a long time and it works. Easy on, easy off.

The downtube of the bike is home to many cables, straps, bolts, accessories and happens to be close to some important moving parts. The key for good storage here is to securely locate the goods out of the way of moving cranks, chains, and keep in mind that a suspension fork allows the tire to travel closer to the bottom of the bike throughout its travel.

For securing our tent poles we use 5mm black elastic cord. It’s available many places, can be tied and untied, and has a nice poly kind of casing to keep it tough. We use 3 loops at intervals which are held in place by neighboring etcetera. Once the loops are stretched around the poles they wont really move, so placing them next to a strap or item that will keep the loop generally located for quick packing is the goal here. The loops are sized so that when tied they are “just” loose around the downtube. This makes it easy to get a finger between frame and loop but keeps things tidy enough when you’re traveling without the tent poles. We use a simple square knot to secure the loop to the downtube. If your bike has wires or hoses which need to be free from the influence of poles or pressure, hang an untied trial loop around and/or under different points, with and without poles and you’ll find a way around interference.

To load the poles, arrange them into a bundle, inline to eliminate poking and snagging hazards. Hold the bundled poles tightly in one hand as you stretch the middle of the three cord loops open, away from the frame, and insert the end of the bundle, releasing the loop as you slide the poles toward the second elastic loop. The final loop can then be stretched or slipped around the free end of the pole bundle. Spin the cranks slowly by hand to check for interference and rearrange anything that looks “iffy”.

Step One: Tie three loops around your bike’s downtube where they are useful, safe, and not impeding other functions.


Step Two: Gather poles into a unified bundle.


Step Three: Insert end of bundle through middle, then bottom loop. 


Step Four: Secure the third elastic loop, check for protrusions and interferences. 


Step Five: Ride on with your streamlined bikepacking tent pole setup!