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“Some people can’t imagine emptying a composting toilet”: How a data analyst and mechanic live in a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van

By Madison McNair| Photography by Jessica Lee
“Some people can’t imagine emptying a composting toilet”: How a data analyst and mechanic live in a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van

Who they are: Madison McNair, 30, and Raynor Vickers, 34 What they do: Madison is a data analyst, and Raynor runs a van conversion business The van: 2017 Mercedes Benz Sprinter 170 Expenses: $200-$1,000 a month for gas (depending on whether they’re travelling that month), $0 per month for repairs because their van is under warranty, $125 a month for insurance for both the van and Madison’s car, $400 a month for phones and Internet Income: $2,000-$10,000 a month—as contractors, their incomes fluctuate quite a bit

Raynor and I met on Tinder in 2016. At the time, both of us were in successful careers. I owned a property in Collingwood and he owned a house in Angus, but we weren’t really enjoying life. I was working too many hours at a financial services company and Raynor was bored out of his mind as a mechanic at a dealership. We really wanted to spend our time travelling, but we had mortgages to pay off and properties to maintain. When we got married in 2017, instead of one of us moving into the other’s house, we sold them both.

“Some people can’t imagine emptying a composting toilet”: How a data analyst and mechanic live in a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van
Madison and Raynor travel frequently for their jobs

We bought our Sprinter van new from a Mercedes dealership for $55,000 in early 2018 and invested $30,000 for flooring, insulation, solar panels, battery banks, a fridge, plumbing for the sink, cabinetry, speakers, lighting, a camera security system and a heater. Raynor is a mechanic so we didn’t have any labour costs.

He took a leave of absence from his job for the winter, but I was doing my work remotely. That way, we had enough money coming in to not eat into our savings. Our transition to this lifestyle wound up saving money for my clients because it meant I wasn’t constantly flying to and from client meetings on their dime. We’d just drive to them and park at a commutable distance. Raynor’s business came about when we met other van-lifers—people who were trying to build their own vans but didn’t necessarily have the expertise (or the budget to hire a company) to outfit an entire van as a living space.

“Some people can’t imagine emptying a composting toilet”: How a data analyst and mechanic live in a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van
Raynor works as an auto mechanic

Our van has a sink, an electric stove top and an electric kettle because we like lattes. We also have six five-gallon water jugs in the back that we refill when we need water, which is about every two weeks.

For internet, which is essential to my work, we have phone plans on the Telus network and a mobile hub on the Bell network, which provides us with spread out coverage. We also have a pay-as-you-go phone for Internet as a back-up and a cell phone signal booster, which increases reception when we’re in an area with poor signal.

“Some people can’t imagine emptying a composting toilet”: How a data analyst and mechanic live in a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van
Madison cooks on an electric stove

Now that we don’t have to worry about our mortgages, we spend a lot of time travelling just for fun. We can fit a week and a half of fresh groceries for the two of us in our fridge. Our battery banks also charge whenever we drive. In extreme scenarios, like when we were stuck in Vancouver’s whiteout snowstorm in January, we can last for days and days on a combination of solar power and battery reserves, without moving the van. Our van is warm enough to live comfortably in minus-40-degree weather. Our heater is diesel-powered, and it’s made for transport trucks that drive across the country, so it’s consistent and sufficient.

What most people are baffled by when they see our home is that it doesn’t have a shower, but we have a Planet Fitness membership. For $23 a month, Raynor is able to take me as a guest and we can shower there. If we’re not near a Planet Fitness, we go to truck stops, community pools and spas to shower. And we do have a composting toilet, which we have to empty regularly. It’s gross, but a traditional bathroom is a comfort I’m willing to part with.

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“Some people can’t imagine emptying a composting toilet”: How a data analyst and mechanic live in a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van
The dry toilet doesn’t use any water, needs to be emptied frequently and slides into an alcove when not in use
“Some people can’t imagine emptying a composting toilet”: How a data analyst and mechanic live in a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van
The couple purchased a Simcoe County property in 2019 for Raynor’s business

Some people can’t imagine emptying a composting toilet, but I’d rather have this life than what I was doing before with a six-figure mortgage. Eighty-hour work weeks and two weeks of vacation are big prices to pay for home comforts.

We’ve now spent more of our married life living in the van than in a traditional home. We’ve travelled coast to coast in the U.S.A. from San Diego to Key West Florida, and also in Canada, from Cape Breton to Vancouver Island. Winter in the Rockies has been breathtaking, which is why we’re doing it again this year.

We’re hoping to expand Raynor’s van conversion business after we get back. We bought a house last year in Tay, Ontario, and have plans to build a shop there. With that property, we could potentially host clients who are in the process of converting their vans for living in. We love the freedom that living in a van gave us and want to help others fulfill their dream.

As told to Jessica Lee

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