Book Review: Sara Riley Mattson’s “Camp Like A Girl”

Sara Riley Mattson

Sara Riley Mattson


August 1, 2016

By Lisa Petrison

By Summer 2008, I thought that I had achieved as much relief from my illness as I likely was going to get.

It had been about six months since I had moved out of the moldy house (putting aside all of my possessions because I was reacting to them so much). And I was doing a lot better.

But then I spent a week camping with Erik Johnson in the wilderness near Lake Tahoe. I had never been tent camping or even set foot in an RV before that, but he was kind enough to invite me and it seemed like an adventure.

Of course, he kept me away from the notorious problem spots in the Tahoe area. And I felt so much better while I was there! Almost like I was totally well.

Then I went back to Chicagoland, where my reactivities went off like a pinball machine everywhere I went. All I could think about was getting back to where the air was pristine. I would look at pictures of the bleak Nevada desert and had never wanted anything so much as to go back there.

The problem, though, was that without Erik’s babysitting, the idea of getting out into the wilderness seemed an insurmountable task.

All the commercial RV’s seemed likely to go moldy, and converting a Sprinter into an RV (Erik’s first suggestion) seemed way beyond my ability and budget.

Eventually I bought an SUV and ordered a new Casita fiberglass trailer; drove to Rice, TX, to pick up the trailer; couldn’t tolerate the chemicals in the trailer and returned it; lived in a house with a roommate in New Mexico for several months; did full-time tent camping for five months (spending a night or two per week in hotels); and then finally ended up driving to Wyoming to look at a four-year-old Casita, which I ended up buying.

That used Casita did work out well, and I lived in it most the time for the next four years.

But it took a whole year from the time I decided I wanted to get out to the wilderness to the actual time of purchase of an RV that I could use.

Plus it was really expensive (more than $30,000 for the used SUV and used trailer).

Not to mention the fact that the whole ordeal was pretty stressful.

So it seemed that there really had to be a better way.


Sara's cargo van.

Sara’s cargo van.

An Argument for a Cargo Van Conversion

As more people tried mold avoidance over the next few years, a couple of new MECU (“mobile environmental control unit”) possibilities emerged.

The all-aluminum Camplite trailer was introduced, and some mold avoiders such as Beatrice Latherings did well with it (usually after an initial period of chemical off gassing).

Other mold avoiders, like Joey Tuan, converted cargo trailers into mold-resistant and low-VOC mobile homes and made a lot of progress.

Still, both of those approaches were expensive (requiring the purchase of a heavy-duty truck or SUV in addition to the trailer).

In addition, both approaches were time-consuming, with a big lag between the time when people decided they wanted to pursue mold avoidance and the time that they became set up well enough to actually be able to do in in a serious way.

In addition, especially for chronic illness patients with no previous RV experience, towing a trailer and learning how to deal with it can be pretty intimidating. I have heard some real horror stories about this.

That being the case, I became increasingly convinced that perhaps the most reasonable thing for people to do right off the bat, as a first step, is to buy a simple cargo van and then do a mini-conversion of it.

The idea here is to have a small, safe, comfortable indoor space as shelter from the elements and to store possessions.

Tent camping for long stretches of time is not too bad if the weather is good. But it is pretty miserable when it is raining, and absolutely impossible during the 50 mph winds that happen frequently out in the desert.

A van also gives a lot more flexibility than tent camping. Obviously it’s not possible to tent camp in the Walmart parking lot, but (in a pinch) it’s certainly possible to do that in a van in those towns where the store allows overnight parking.

I would not have wanted to spend five years living in a van without any plumbing or kitchen facilities. I don’t think that many people would want to do that (though some people have).

But as an interim step, to get out of difficult buildings and into the wilderness in an expedient way, I think it’s a really plausible alternative.

It’s much easier and less expensive to find a tolerable cargo van than it is to find a tolerable RV.

Basically the only vaguely mold-resistant choices in standard RV’s are the Casita, the Scamp and the Camplite. All of these are in hot demand in the resale market and take quite a while to off gas when new.

New vans tend to be much easier for people to tolerate than new RV’s, and used vans are much more plentiful and inexpensive than used Casitas, Scamps or Camplites.

The lack of need for the purchase of a tow vehicle is an additional plus.

Another good thing about the purchase and mini-conversion of a van is that it leaves a lot of good options open for further down the line.

For instance, if a trailer is purchased later on, then the van could be used as a tow vehicle.

Those who have less-reactive families who want to live in a real house could use the van as a safer place for sleeping, parked outside the home, without the kinds of questions that nosy neighbors might ask about tent camping or a parked RV.

Even if a tolerable house or apartment is eventually found, the van could be continued to be used for periodic camping trips out to more pristine areas.

And finally, the cargo van is likely to retain its value well, and selling it should be a fairly easy thing to do if and when it is no longer needed.



Camp Like a Girl

The main downside to just going out and buying a cargo van to use to head out into the wilderness is that especially for those who start out totally unfamiliar with RV’s, camping or even rural life, the idea of doing it often just seems wholly foreign and pretty peculiar.

That is why I think that Sara Mattson’s new book – called Camp Like a Girl – is so great.

What comes across very strongly in the book is how much Sara (who started out as a committed city dweller) loves her van and her current life in it.

She writes:

My van has taken me to some of the most beautiful places in North America, and, at least since I was a child, it is the only place where I fall asleep easily and sleep soundly all night long. It is less a consolation prize and more a strange and completely unexpected answer to a very long list of health problems from which I have been wishing for relief nearly all of my life.

It has provided me with the most spectacular views and a sense of connection to nature I have not felt since I was eleven years old running through the woods every day after school. In a sense, designing my van was an extension of the project nearly all of us were compelled to attempt as children. My very own fort.

The van turned out awesome. At every step I kept the goal of a nontoxic and mold-resistant end result foremost in my mind. Aesthetic aspects came second, but I must say that the Himalayan salt headboard and the pressed floral “tin” ceiling have pleased my city girl sensibilities.

As the months have gone by, I find that I’m growing more and more fond of the nomadic lifestyle my van affords. When smoke from wildfires pours into the area where I am camping, I drive to clean air. When it gets too cold, I drive somewhere warmer.

My mind, which had become so accustomed to the endless novelty of the internet, has calmed considerably with this lifestyle. Novelty now presents itself as new vistas and new wildlife. A surge of adrenalin comes, not from watching a scary movie or drinking a triple espresso, but from from running out to save the clothes on the line during a surprise rain storm and then falling into giggling fits at the futility of the errand. I didn’t know I was missing this in my life until I started living this way.


The other great thing about this book is that even though I personally have no knack at all for construction projects, Sara explains  the simple things that she did in enough detail that it makes me think that I could just follow her instructions and end up with a pleasant and livable space myself.

It’s also really great to realize from the book how much health progress Sara has made as a result of her mold avoidance activities!

So all of these things together make this into a cheering and inspiring book – one that I think has the potential of helping a lot of people move toward wellness relatively quickly.


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The interior view of Sarah’s van from the driver’s seat.

The Van Conversion

Following are the basics of how Sara and her husband did some modest work to make the plain cargo van into a safe and pleasant living space.

Each of these projects is simple enough and is explained in enough meticulous detail that I think that even I could follow along with the instructions and complete them on my own, without any outside help.



Sara taped or anchored sheets of polystyrene to the walls and ceiling of the van, therefore making camping in cold temperatures less of a problem and also increasing the soundproofing.



Sara used decorative thermoplastic ceiling tiles with the appearance of pressed tin, attached to the ceiling with Velcro (thus avoiding the use of glues and allowing her to easily remove them if necessary).



Sara used plastic bins stored on metal shelving (held in place with bungee cords when driving) to store her relatively few possessions.



Sara describes how she built a wooden platform bed with storage underneath.



Sara explains how she decided not to heat the entire living space of the van and instead just purchased infrared heating pads to warm the bed itself. The mattress for the bed ended up being two layers of mattress toppers from the company Sleep on Latex.



Because Sara felt good when getting salt treatments, she fashioned a pretty headboard full of Himalayan salt for the bed.



Sara and her husband usually sleep in campgrounds with electricity.  They have an extension cord that they drop out the window of the van so that they can have power inside the van at night.


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Sara does laundry.

On the Road

Sara provides additional details about what her life is like on the road in the book.



Sara and her husband often stay at campgrounds with showers. At other times when Sara needs a shower, she uses a shower fashioned from a heavy water jug with tiny holes drilled into the lid. She uses two gallons of water for each shower, half room temperature and half hot and mixed together, usually previously processed through their Berkey filter. She said that this is now her favorite way to shower and that the water feels great to her.



Sara and her husband do all their laundry by hand, using a a bin or a Wonderwash. They wring the water out of the clothing using either a spin dryer (when they are camping with electricity) or a clothes wringer. The laundry then dries fairly quickly on a line.



Sara is a former yoga and Pilates instructor, and she shares instructions for a number of exercises that she feels may be helpful for recovering chronic illness patients in the book.



Sara and her husband do almost all of their cooking outdoors. They have a two-burner electric stove; an electric coffee percolator to boil water; a Magic Bullet blender; and a hibachi grill that does not require electricity. (Sara was reacting to their propane stove and so they gave it away.) They have just two pans (a saucepan and a skillet); one set of dishes each; a small cutting board; and a few knives.



Sara and her husband have only a cooler for keeping food cool, and they often are camping far enough from civilization that they only make it to the store once a week. They solve this problem by eating the most perishable food soon after their shopping trip and then moving toward vegan cooking with more durable produce items (such as apples or potatoes) later in the week.



Sara includes a chapter listing ways of controlling for cross-contamination that have been particularly helpful to her.


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Sara meets a wild burro at Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota.


This is a really delightful book, and one that has been badly needed for a long time.

It’s great that Sara did such a wonderful job with it!

The detailed instructions provided in the book for the van conversion should be especially helpful to those who are considering following this path to wellness.

I also am looking forward to reading Sara’s new blog, which will provide more details about her life on the road and her future adventures.


Envy of the Agile Heart

From Sara Riley Mattson

Sara’s book is called Camp Like a Girl: Finding Health and Wellness In Nature, A Cargo Van Conversion Story.

It currently is available for $4.99 on Amazon Kindle (free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers).

Sara also is a musician and recently released an album called Envy of the Agile Heart focusing on how she felt during her mold avoidance experiences.

The album can be purchased or sampled for free on the Bandcamp site.

Those signing up for Sara’s newsletter currently can get a free download of the album.

Sara also has just started a personal blog sharing her mold avoidance experiences.

Her website is



Mold Avoidance on the Road

Erik Johnson provides information on his experiences with converting a cargo trailer and building a truck camper in the book Erik on Avoidance: Writings About Mold Avoidance, 2000-2015.

Corinne Segura shares information on what she has learned about avoiding mold as well as chemicals as she put together a tiny house and a trailer in her blog My Chemical-Free House.

Joey Tuan shared his experiences converting and then living in a cargo trailer in a blog post called A Toxin Free Home for $7000.

The RV’s, Vehicles and Camping section of the Mold Avoiders forum archives also includes some discussion on the topic of van and RV living. (Site registration is required for reading.)


How to Live in a Car Van or RV

Books on Van Living

These are some additional books on living full-time out of a van, written by people other than mold avoiders.

How To Live in a Car, Van or RV

Off the Grid

The Tiniest Mansion


Walden on Wheels


This is a popular website/blog/forum on van living, run by the author of How To Live in a Car, Van or RV.

Cheap RV Living



From Paradigm Change

A selection of photos from my own mold avoidance travels are featured in my photo blog, called An Unplanned Journey.

A Beginner’s Guide to Mold Avoidance (written by Erik Johnson and me) is mentioned as having been a helpful resource in Sara’s book. The Beginner’s Guide is available for free in PDF format for those who sign up for occasional emails on mold avoidance topics from me. It is also available as an Amazon Kindle book.

The book is the basis for the Facebook group Mold Avoiders, which now has more than 3500 members. Please join us there!

For updates on additional information about recovering from mold-related illness, sign up for occasional newsletters from Paradigm Change. You also will receive a free copy of the book Back from the Edge, which provides information about the extraordinary life of mold avoidance pioneer Erik Johnson.

The Paradigm Change Publishing page of the website provides information about a number of additional books of interest to those pursuing mold avoidance.

Find out about new information about recovering from chronic illness and living a healthful lifestyle by liking the Living Clean in a Dirty World page on Facebook.

Any and all civil comments from individuals not selling commercial products are welcome in the comments section of this blog.

Links on this page are in orange (no underlining).

Thanks very much for reading this blog.


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