The Kawasaki Versys 650 is exactly what the name suggests, a versatile system. My 2008 Versys is at home on curvy roads and is an absolutely splendid sport touring motorcycle. The Versys is not a great off-road adventure bike, mostly due to the 17” front wheel and street tires. It is common knowledge in the Versys community that a Suzuki Vstrom 1000 front wheel will fit on the Versys with a little bit of work. It took a fair amount of scouring the internet and the various pages of information on Advrider and the Kawasaki Versys forums, but the information is not in one place. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about adding a 19” wheel to the Kawasaki Versys 650.
The roof top tent game was not for us, at least not the $1000 roof top tents-the “cheap ones”. We have historically used a backpacking tent more than anything else in our off-road adventures and that worked fine. The backpacking tent is likely the best compromise between setup time, durability, cost, and storage requirements. As we have traveled and met others that camp a lot and are tough on their gear, we have come across an interesting tent and decided to give it a go- the Oztent RX5.
We had the opportunity to test the DENALI D7 LED Auxiliary light set and spoiler alert, we were blown away by the performance. I (Zach) had heard from friends and coworkers that the D7 was a powerhouse and to watch out for blinding reflective street signs when rounding corners with the lights on. I was a bit skeptical initially, but my first impression of the DENALI D7 confirms all of it!
When planning for an extended adventure in a skoolie, vanlife, or in an RV, it is easy to get bogged down in shopping for accessories. Let our experience help you pick out what you need for your next road trip or year of full-time travel.
The WORST…I repeat, WORST part of any skoolie build (based on the two that we have worked on) is demolition. Our first bus was 100% stock and still had heaters and seats bolted to the soggy, candy wrapper strewn floor. We spent several days hollering back and forth from under the bus switching which bolt we were working on and eventually we got the interior completely stripped out. When we went to inspect a full-size bus for a new project we were planning, we were ecstatic to find that the seats, AC units, and heaters had all be removed and plywood had been laid down. Score one for the home team.
One problem, that continues to appear every time Rachael and I take on a new project is that we want it to be better than the last one we did. Some would call it perfectionism or being overly competitive, but it’s how we are wired and our skoolie projects are no exception. On our first build we did not remove a single riveted panel from the bus and left the terrible yellow fiberglass insulation in it’s home and it was only when we experienced 1ºF temperatures in New Mexico in February did we wish we had taken the time to insulate the entire bus. Fast forward to our new project and we are going to strip it down to the studs. We started with a drill, then an angle grinder…and finished the project with an air chisel. The air chisel was the most effective of the tools that we used by far!
Below are some of the most useful tools and supplies that we used during this stage of the build. By clicking the link below, you pay the same price as you would on Amazon, we simply receive a tiny fraction of the transaction. Everything we earn contributes to keeping this website up and keeping us on the road, so thank you in advance!
The panels above the windows and the metal end caps are secured with a bunch of #2 Phillips screws so Rachael made quick work of those and Addy-dog made sure no one snuck up on us coming down the drive.
As we were working on rivets, Rachael’s dad comes over and says he needs our eyes to see what’s going on at the neighbor’s house a mile down the road. Several police cars had blockaded the country road that Rachael grew up on and they had a helicopter circling overhead. Turns out several street-youths had tried to break into a house and were now on the run in the wilds of South Tulsa County. We spent most of the evening watching helicopters work into the dark and later we got word from an informative neighbor letting us know that all four criminals had been apprehended. Another day in rural Oklahoma.
While Rachael and Addie worked on screws and protecting us from danger, I began grinding rivets with an angle grinder. We had heard horror stories of how hard it was to remove the rivets, but the grinder made fairly quick work of them.
And just like that, 6 hours later all of the lower panels are off and we discovered a new way to remove rivets that involves a pneumatic chisel that we will share in a different post.
We were so excited when we picked up our new bus because the seats had all been removed and the rear heaters were no where to be seen. We became less excited when we pulled the subfloor and insulation up and found that they hadn’t been screwed down and that there was sitting water under the floor. That will be a project for another day once we are done chopping up metal on the outside.
With the insulation and plywood removed, there is approximately 6′ 3″ of standing height in the middle of the bus. Because I am 6′ 3″ tall, a roof raise is in order to be able to insulate the floor and ceiling like we want and still be able to walk upright. We are planning a 10-12″ roof raise beginning behind the driver’s seat and continuing to the back of the bus.
Demolition is nasty and hard work. The engineers at bus companies work very hard to make sure busses are safe and sound and it takes a lot of work to undue their efforts. Once we got all of the insulation out we went through with the air compressor and broom and blew out most of the trash and dust that was left behind.
You read that right and if you follow us on Instagram and Facebook (and you should if you are into this kind of thing) you are already aware that we bought a huge, beautiful, full-size school bus to replace our little 4-window that has been so good to us over the last few years.
How and Where did you find your new bus?
As soon as the Covid-19 pandemic began to take hold in the United States, Rachael and I saw the writing on the wall that full-time travelers were about to have a rough time finding places to work, shower, and get supplies.We made a plan to retreat back to Oklahoma where we have a super supportive network of family and friends to hunker down with throughout the lockdown.
We knew that we would be extremely bored sitting at our parent’s or sibling’s houses with nothing to do, so we made a plan to start a project that we have dreamed about since we first bought our little bus. We scoured Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and other online resources to find a bus that was long enough to accommodate our plans and that had a serviceable engine and transmission. We inspected a couple of busses before finding one that we liked in Lubbock, TX, approximately 500 miles and 7 hours of car driving away.
We loaded up a makeshift overnight vehicle consisting of a borrowed Chevy Suburban and an air mattress and took off for the Texas panhandle. We observed as many Covid-19 protocols as we were able and noticed that the majority of Texas was acting like the coronavirus didn’t exist. We made a deal on our bus and drove the two hours to Amarillo to sleep at a rest area. We couldn’t help but take a few photos in the lot.
We got on the road early the next day to make our way back to Oklahoma. I reached for what I thought was the headlight switch and nothing happens. As rain started to sprinkle on the flat windshield in front of me, I thought to myself that people drive in the rain without headlights every day, this will be no big deal. An hour down the road, the rain picked up to a pour and the driver’s side windshield wiper stopped wiping. Now I was driving a 16,000 pound behemoth of a bus down the Interstate at 58 miles per hour with no lights and no windshield wipers…these trips are always an adventure.
We stopped for lunch and to take a conference call a few hours in and decided to try and let the rain pass…PS, it didn’t pass. The rain kept falling and we kept trudging along at slow speed for the interstate crossing into Oklahoma. Traffic around Oklahoma City was a really unique experience and taught me a lot about the handling and weight of the new rig. Nearing Shawnee, OK the water temperature gauge started rising and the warning alarms starting ringing as I began to smell coolant coming from the doghouse. I pulled into a truck-stop to inspect the engine and found no obvious sign of failure, so I filled up the radiator and drove another 10 miles before the temperature started to rise again. Upon further inspection, I found a tear on a heater hose that was leaking a strong steam at this point. The rain had picked up to a cold deluge and darkness was getting close, so we parked the bus at a truck-stop and returned the next morning to fix it.
We returned the next morning, replaced the hose, filled it with coolant and took off for the 2 hour drive that was left between us and our destination. The bus ran solid on the rest of the drive and the temperature never moved once warmed up. We pulled into the bus’s new resting place for at least a few weeks and sighed a breath of relief that it made it in one piece. On a side note, the Cummins 5.9L 12-valve diesel got 10-13 miles per gallon on our return trip.
Why buy a new bus?
This is a great question and it has a few reasons that we have slowly been compiling for the last two years of traveling full-time in our shorty.
We Wanted More Room- We found a 4-window school bus is great for 2-week long trips down a forest service road or even for long-term travel when traveling is the primary concern. However, when you mix in the reality of having to work most days for at least a few hours the space becomes very small, very quickly.
We Wanted a Home Base- After traveling around North America for two years full-time we grew tired of how much work it was to have a weekly (much less, daily) routine that involved showers, work and a toilet. We found ourselves sleeping in our short bus, driving into town with our 4Runner and spending all day in town to get all of the errands done that we couldn’t do in our bus. The new bus will have a full shower and toilet as well as a separate living area from the bedroom.
We Wanted to Haul Our 4×4-This spring we drove both of our vehicles separately, our bus and ’86 4Runner, out West and frankly, we didn’t enjoy driving separately but we loved having a capable off-road vehicle to explore with and commute into town for supplies. We briefly considered flat towing our 4Runner but the wear and tear on both the toad and towing rig made this less appealing to us. Our short bus is not a powerhouse and we were not confident in it’s ability to tow our fat truck around safely. Our plans have changed and we have decided to flat tow or dolly our 4Runner behind our fully converted bus. The extra room was too tempting!
What’s the Plan?
Our build plan is broken into a few phases: demo, infrastructure, and build out. In the first stage we will completely gut the interior of all panels and stock insulation and return the bus down to it’s metal framework. In stage two we will raise the roof 10-12 inches and remove all of the windows. Later in stage two we will skin the entire bus in sheet metal and add actual RV windows and insulation. In stage three we will build out the interior to resemble a typical camper or RV including running water, a solar power system, and fridge/freezer combo.
As always, we will be updating our social media channels first followed by detailed blog posts here and bi-monthly videos on our YouTube channel. Any support online is greatly appreciated!
During most of our travels around North America, we have worked online as our primary source of income. Our employment has required that we be connected 3-4 days per week during the heavy times of the year and 2-3 days during the slow weeks. This demand on our time has necessitated that we stay connected to the internet far more often than we would prefer, scroll down to find out how we stay connected while living in our skoolie!
2019 has been a year of new experiences, being in new places and having new stories to tell. So to keep with the idea of new, we celebrated Thanksgiving on a beach in Florida. This is a first for both of us, but hey, 2019 has been all about firsts!
However, I can only handle so much newness, so the meal will be traditional.
Mashed Potatoes and Gravy
Bacon Wrapped Green Beans
Sweet Potato Casserole
Turkey for two
Gluten free gravy mix
Gluten free pie crust
Pumpkin Pie Spice
Heavy Whipping Cream
To be proactive and not cook everything on Thursday, I made the Pumpkin Pie Wednesday evening. I love our new Camp Chef oven! Not wanting to try pie dough in the bus, I did something very out of the ordinary. I bought a pie crust, shh, don’t tell my mom! Wal-Mart had a ready made gluten free crust and it tasted just fine. Not homemade, but still good.
Thursday morning was beautiful, the sun was shining and we watched dolphins swim next to a ship while we drank our morning coffee. Turkey prep began. Turkey is in the oven, cooking and smelling wonderful. Next step, sweet potatoes. While the water is heating up I step outside. When I come back in there is an odd smell and I look and look. Then I notice the water isn’t boiling and it should be by now. Then I notice there is no blue flame. Discussion begins and we realize the last time the propane was changed was in Nova Scotia, in August. Good news, the Camp Chef is way more efficient than the traditional Coleman. Bad news, it’s Thanksgiving, I have ingredients everywhere and neither of us want to move the bus to search for propane, on Thanksgiving. So, the trusty Coleman is pulled out of the back and put back into commission. It came in clutch, everything in our Thanksgiving feast, except the Pumpkin Pie, was made on the Coleman camp stove!
The turkey was cooked in the cast iron. Mashed potatoes and gravy were always a stove top item. Instead of baking the bacon wrapped green beans, they were cooked with the lid on. It ended up caramelizing the butter/brown sugar mixture much better than the oven ever has. Then the sweet potatoes were mixed and cooked on the stove top. We still wanted the marshmallows to be browned, so out came the MSR Pocket Rocket. We used it like a creme brûlée torch and it worked!
After stuffing ourselves we took a leisurely stroll down the beach. We spotted several types of birds, saw a few fish jump and then watched as two dolphins played. Sharing Thanksgiving together was a special day and one that we won’t forget!
Rachael and I had one big regret from our time in Baja this winter, we didn’t do a whale watching tour. These massive mammals make colossal journeys along the coasts of North America and we only caught a glimpse of them from a beach near Cabo San Lucas. When we started planning our trip to Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island, we decided that we would book a tour and take our chances seeing these creatures on the opposite end of the continent in St. Lawrence Bay.
Enter Captain Mark. When you research whale watching on Cape Breton Island, this shop comes up over and over- fantastic reviews of a fun and educational experience with a local who respects the animals and knows the area extremely well. Sit tight as this is another review about how AMAZING our time with Captain Mark was.
Booking our trip was dead simple. Captain Mark’s website is super easy to use and processing was fast and secure. It took me less than five minutes to book our boat and are we glad that we did. The docks were littered with people who neglected to book early and were high and dry because they didn’t book early. Book early folks, Captain Mark fills up quickly.
Pre-Adventure Check In
We arrived 30-minutes early as the instructions online had told us to and the staff got us checked in, provided a receipt and had us sit tight for life jackets and departure. The life jackets were top of the line and were the smaller CO2 filled variety. This was a pleasant departure from the big clunky orange jackets that we were expecting.
Captain Mark greeted us on time and led us down to the boats. The pre-departure chat was informative and included all of the safety precautions about what to do if you go overboard or if the captain is rendered unresponsive. All required safety equipment was on board and we felt very secure in the Zodiac.
Let’s talk about the boats for a minute. When researching, I was expecting a large boat (think lobster fishing boat) with a ton of people on board and a creeping slow engine. We chose Captain Mark’s because they utilize a smaller, faster, and much more environmentally friendly watercraft, a Zodiac. The Zodiac is a combination of inflatable pontoons and a rigid frame that is one of the most common short distance watercraft in the world. Organizations that rely on speedy and concise travel in the water like the US Navy Seals and environmental protection agencies from around the world use the Zodiac for good reason, it works.
There are two Zodiac models available from Marks, the Northstar and the Tourmaster. The first is a smaller boat with outward facing seats and a smaller engine. In our case, this boat was captained by one of Captain Mark’s staff. The boat we booked was a bit bigger and had forward facing seats with 2 larger motors. The seats were as comfortable of seats as you could expect from a small ocean-vessel and the ride quality was extremely fun.
We departed the harbor on time and in style as Captain Mark pinned the throttle and the Zodiac sprang to life with the bow high in the air and the passengers all smiling ear to ear. Despite the 4-5 foot swells, the boat handled the rough water well and we never felt unsafe or like we would fall overboard.
Once we got to open water we quickly spotted a family of pilot whales surfacing a short distance away. Every few seconds several pairs of whales would surface and spout from their blowholes. The benefit of the Zodiac over the larger vessels was obvious quickly, Captain Mark’s boats could simply get close to the animals quickly and turn off their motors in time to not disturb the animals. We drifted alongside this pod of pilot whales for around 30-minutes. Some would taper off to open water while others seemed to revel in the social interaction with humans and the attention that accompanied it.
The competing whale watching companies in the water at the same time as us were in larger boats, potentially old fishing boats. The boats seemed to rock more in the swells than the lighter Zodiac raft did and they were much slower, arriving to the site of the whales after they had long since left. We were glad that we were booked with Captain Mark.
After the first pod disappeared, we continued North and started to edge in closer to the shore before we came across a second large pod of pilot whales. These whales, much like the first pod, mostly stayed near the boat performing underwater turns and rolls before breaching close enough to the boat that we could feel the spray. I’m convinced we could have stayed with that pod all evening and they would have continued to put on a show for us.
We left the pod and turned toward the shore where the real beauty of the tour began to shine. The amount of unique local knowledge that Captain Mark shares on his tour is impressive- from old settlements that no longer exist to Buddhist monastery that offer a 3 year retreat on the cliffside of Cape Breton Island.
Captain Mark took his time navigating the coast and pointing out points of interest as well as an abundance of seals, eagles, and even some “wild” horses on an isolated beach. Mark seemed to be as involved in the local community as he was in his tour business and had stories to prove it. The boat ride itself was a fantastic adventure even if we hadn’t seen whales. The Zodiac is a blast to ride in and it made spotting and seeing the whales up close extremely easy. We had so much fun and we can’t wait to come back to Cape Breton just to enjoy Captain Mark’s tours.
July has been an interesting month, to say the least. We said goodbye to family in South Dakota and began our slightly mad journey to the East coast. The journey was mad only because we chose to do it in the hottest month of the year in a bus without air conditioning. July was also a lot of driving and not a lot of enjoying locations on the map, hopefully August will slow down and cool off a bit. We are still on track to visit all 49 driveable states by 2020 and we knocked several off of the list in July.
A North Dakota National Park
We are on a journey to see all 50 states together and to take our bus to 49 of them, so a side trip to North Dakota was needed. ND gets a lot of hate from the other states and it is pretty obvious why…there is not a lot there. One place worth mention and a visit if you are close is Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Unfortunately for us, our vehicle was too big to pass through the construction area on the road in the park so we only got to see a portion of Teddy’s park.
The claim to fame of the park is its wild horse herd, which we were lucky enough to see in our short time there. These some 1000 horses roam free here and are truly something to behold. Like most of the plains, there are a ton of prairie dogs and bison to see roaming the banks of the Missouri River. The landscape and horses make a visit to this park the MOST interesting thing that one could do when visiting North Dakota, and I say that in the nicest way possible.
Headwaters of Big Muddy
Due to the time of year that we are crossing the country, most of the things that we would like to do in Minnesota are in the far-north and simply not an option right now. We have plans for a Boundary Waters trip someday that will allow us to explore Minnesota more in-depth. An attraction that we did get to visit in Minnesota was Itasca State Park near Bemidji. Lake Itasca is the start of the Mississippi River and at the headwaters Big Muddy is a simple 8-foot wide stream.
The park is extremely nice and we gladly paid for camping to have access to the showers and water fill up. The bike trails that run through the park were also a super nice way to go check out the mighty Mississippi without having to move the bus.
Caves in Iowa?
Another state on our list that was relatively close to our route was Iowa. Although we would have loved to hang around for RAGBRAI (on our bucket list for sure) the only other thing that we found of interest to do in Iowa was to go caving. You read that right, we found a cave to explore in IOWA! It would be unfair to compare these caves to the caves we just explored in South Dakota as they are completely different types of caves and these are not nearly as elaborate or as well-preserved as the caves in South Dakota. We hiked all over the small Maquoketa Caves State Parkand had mostly free rein of the some 10-12 caves in the valley. We were pleasantly surprised by the lack on any real rules or regulations in the park and it was pretty much chaos compared to the National Park managed caves that we visited in June. Would I travel across the midwest to walk around these caves in East Central Iowa? No. But I would stop in on my way to other places on the East Coast.
Iowa was also a really good stop to get my stitches removed from my misadventure in SD with a table saw. It cost $2500 to stitch my finger in South Dakota and only $97 to remove the stitches in Iowa.
Newest US National Park in Indiana
I too have been seeing the buzz all over social media about Indiana finally having a National Park, Indiana Dunes National Park. Previously designated a Lakeshore, the National Park Service has simply slapped a Nat’l Park sign on the entrance and has neglected to do much of anything else. We spent the day hanging out on the beach and attempting to enjoy the waves of Lake Michigan lapping on the sand. In true National Park style, there were thousands of people in the park and no accommodations had been made for extra trash or more porta-potties and parking at 8AM was a nightmare for a 22-foot long school bus.
We still had a good time as we tend to do just about anywhere, but we hope the NPS invests in Indiana before the next time we visit. The BEST part about our trip across the midwest was getting to meet up with a bunch of Rachael’s extended family, most of whom I (Zach) had never met. We were welcomed in to the air conditioning, thankfully, and we got to go out to lunch with most of the Fort Wayne cousins. It was an absolute treat and we now have a reason to come back to Northeast Indiana!
Bay City Bust
We made a mistake- We should have driven the West Coast of Michigan and explored the Upper Peninsula for a couple of weeks while a heat wave attacked the midwest, but we didn’t. Instead we wanted to explore part of Ontario so we drove through the least pretty and most boring section of Michigan, the Southeast. I had visited Bay City as a kid and remember it being a type of coastal town with pretty boats, I was twelve after all. We made the drive to Bay City to find a ghost town. Shops were closed in the middle of the day, streets were empty, and it just seemed like nothing had happened here in a long time, perhaps since I was there as a twelve year old.
We hung out by the river and got some work done but soon made plans to escape Michigan and head to Canada, at least we would have Tim Hortons to console us. And console us it did. Although Tim Hortons sold to the company that owns Burger King, we will still continue to patronize them as long as they continue to serve delicious crullers and affordable coffee.
Shortest International Visit EVER
Entering into Canada north of Detroit was a really smooth border crossing. Something that always happens in our bus, people tend to think we smoke weed, which we don’t. No huge political stance or moral objections to it, it’s just not our thing. The border agent seemed to think we looked like drug users and informed us several times that weed was legal in Michigan and in Canada, we simply needed to declare it, only we had nothing to declare. Ahh the joys of living in a school bus and having long hair!
We spent a few days in Canada lounging along the North Shore of Lake Erie in the little town of Port Stanley. This town was the perfect place to charge the batteries and sit in the cold lake while record highs smacked the Midwest and Northeast. We found public camping near a beach and road our bikes or walked all over town and worked in a nearby coffee shop when we needed to. It was a pleasant couple of days.
Niagara Falls was the other reason that we wanted to cross Ontario and we were not disappointed. Although Niagara is a haven for tourists, the falls are still beautiful, especially from the Canadian side. After exploring around the falls, we prepared for another breezy border crossing back into the states and we suddenly found ourselves in New York!
Upstate New York
Upstate New York is a really interesting place to visit. The bulk of attractions in Upstate revolve around the lakes region of the Finger Lakes, Lake Champlain, and Adirondack Park. New York is also home to the Number 1 State Park in the United States, Letchworth State Park and was the site of the Winter Olympic Games in the 80’s.
As is the case with most of the Eastern US, public land is rare, but we found several good camping spots and explored the North end of the state, one of which was next to a retired fire tower. Unfortunately, we did not have a ton of time to spend in New York and hopefully we can come back and spend a bit more time when the weather is cooler.
Vermont and New Hampshire
Despite the challenges of camping for free in VT and NH, we still managed to see some sites like the Ben and Jerry’s. Factory, the Green Mountain National Forest, White Mountain National Forest, and beautiful landscapes of dense green forest along the way. We found there were simply too many people touristing for our speed. Also, the heat was a bit much. The temperature was in the 90’s during the day and high 70’s at night and in a bus with no AC, that is simply too hot.
We will likely make a weekend trip to Vermont and New Hampshire in the fall some day, but for now we are heading North!