My Vanlife Story
I lived in a van down by the river. Well sometimes it was parked by a river, sometimes among the trees and sometimes in a Walmart parking lot. I find it amusing that the human reaction to “I live in a van” can be drastically different depending on who I am talking to. Some react with utter fascination and flatter me by thinking I’m the only person in the world crazy enough to do this. Others have close to no reaction and find it completely normal.
It’s not often a story continues to change after the experience is already over but I have a feeling my perspective and the way I tell this story will continue to evolve the more time I have to sit with it.
To be honest, I’m still searching for the right words.
September 2017 to November 2018
Days on the road: 450
National Parks: 24
“Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going too fast - you also miss the sense of where you are going and why.”
- Eddie Cantor
From September 2017 to November 2018, I lived on the road in a converted Sprinter camper van with my then partner Matt. I have been off the road for about two months now - I am still reflecting on my time spent traveling and and processing what I learned from this incredible experience. It feels like an ongoing journey - but one thing is definite - I don’t feel like the same person I was when I left on this trip. It’s not actually ME who has changed, but the things I want out of life that have shifted.
It’s hard to tell this story without addressing the elephant in the room… I moved into the van with a partner and we traveled together for 15 months but the end of my vanlife story was also the end of our relationship. There are a whole lot of feelings and emotions wrapped up in that statement but Matt is a really important part of this story. It’s not something I’m ashamed of, regret or am trying to hide.
I still have plenty of adventure dreams in my future; including things like building my own successful business, rafting the Grand Canyon, camping under the stars as often as possible, owning another van (someday), building the tiny home of my dreams and being surrounded by a loving and authentic community every day. I’m working on building the life I want.
We took 40k+ photos while on the road… so as much as I want to, it’s impossible to share all of it. Here are some of my favorites.
I’m pretty sure Vanna is what got us all those likes on instagram - she was our home on wheels and made an epic appearance in all those drone shots. You will hear me refer to Vanna as the third person on this adventure. Vanna is a 2006 Sprinter 3500, 170WB (I think?) with a dual rear axle. She is equipped to live completely off-grid - solar power, fresh water, electric pump to sink (which doubled as an outdoor shower with a hose attachment), 2 burner propane stove, mini fridge, toilet, DIY insulated curtains and tons of storage.
I love talking design and layout for vans… I would actually love to apprentice in a van build shop and learn all the behind the scenes. I hope to one day build out my own dream van - it would probably be a shorter wheelbase Sprinter and look something like this. Here are two more to drool over: @voyage_on and @vanlife.sagas. I also have a quickly growing obsession with tiny houses and am frantically saving photos and ideas with a hope of designing my perfect home base (just need to figure out where to put it).
Outdoors & Camping
This is the fun part. The camping, biking, hot springs, National Parks, paddle boarding, hikes and all those other perks of basically living outside. These are the things I already miss and I can’t wait to get back out there on some trips this summer!
Instagram vs reality
I just want to pause here to address the reality of #vanlife. Instagram shows the highlight reel - those 30 seconds of the day that were absolutely perfect. I don’t want to discount those moments but I do want to bring attention to the other 23.5 hours of the day. During my time on the road, I tried to be as honest as possible about the struggles that came along with my choice of lifestyle. The photo above on the left is from one of those magical nights spent somewhere in Colorado nestled among the trees with the place all to ourselves. The photo on the right also accurately depicts many nights spent sleeping in Walmart parking lots. And you know what, those nights weren’t bad either. When we were nestled inside our little home on wheels with the curtains closed, it didn’t really matter where we were (assuming it was cold or dark outside). We cooked dinner, drank wine, listened to music, played games and watched movies just the same.
Every photo on this page is a real photo from the life I was living on the road but many of these photos show only the best parts - not the whole story. But it’s the moments which make all the other sucky stuff worth it.
After a year on the road, I decided to analyze the stats of where we were actually spending our time (that’s right, I kept track of where we slept every single night in a nerdy spreadsheet).
FRIENDS & FAMILY: 133 nights (36%)
URBAN: 114 nights (31%)
FREE CAMPING: 85 nights (23%)
CAMPGROUNDS: 33 nights (9%)
The truth: Things break (a lot), we called AAA many times, we broke down, we spent hours waiting at the laundromat or at a repair shop, we spent miserable nights with no sleep because it was so hot and humid, we woke up to the sound of a water pipe bursting due to below freezing temps, we spent 2+ days trying to exile a mouse that made our van it’s new home. I’m not compaining about these thigns and I’m not even saying these downsides are any better or worse than renting an apartment or owning a house… they’re just different. They just feel generally ignored by those looking at the ‘dream life’ on instagram. These are the true behind the scenes moments - but they are also all the things that make the really wonderful days and nights spent in that perfect camping spot under the stars so magical.
If you are interested in any part of vanlife, here is my tip - go find REAL PEOPLE on instagram living this life and follow them. Unfollow all of the ‘vanlust’ account aggregators that re-post a highlight real of magical van photos with no grounded reality of sharing the real story. Here are a few of my favorites: @van.there, @louellathevan, @s0weboughtavan, @van.project, @adegreeoffreedom, @wildbythemile, @comeswithaview, @trebventure, @briannamadia and SO MANY MORE!
Also if you’ve never seen @youdidnotsleepthere on instagram… please go check it out right now because it is my favorite comic relief depiction of social media distorting reality.
Community - this was both one of the hardest parts of living in the van but also one of the most wonderful.
I met a lot of amazing, inspiring and kind people on the road. I also became a part to an incredible online nomadic community where connecting online becomes much more important.
But I still struggled not having my community around me in person on a more regular basis.
Among other nomads I met organically during our travels, the Women On The Road and She Explores community became one I connected with immediately. It was a safe place where I feel understood and constantly inspired by the stories shared and the women I’ve connected with IRL through these groups. One thing I love about the @womenontheroad community is - it has never been focused around what type of vehicle you drive, how you travel or how often. It’s not about “vanlife” or any other one thing. It’s about living your own truth in whatever means available to you. My friend Rachel said it best in a recent WOTR podcast episode…
“You can't be inauthentic to van life because your narrative is your narrative, and your narrative alone."
I am incredibly thankful for every single every person that took us in for a night, offered a hot shower, let us use their laundry room, filled our bellies with a home cooked meal, made the effort to come visit us somewhere new, shared recommendations, sent encouraging messages along the way and lent their ears to listen to both our triumphs and struggles on the road.
This adventure would not have been the same without you.
No story is complete without a little food porn... and it would be a shame if I ate my way accross the country and didn’t share it with you. You will see that meat and veggies make my world go round. I loved cooking in the van but also enjoyed plenty of delicious burgers, BBQ and the occasional pizza. Who doesn’t also like to have someone else cook for them? One of my favorite parts of traveling was getting recommendations from people about all their favorite places that we couldn’t miss - I tried to return the favor by sharing some of our favorites with others here.
Photo credit: When you see epic landscape & drone shots they were taken by @Mr.McMatt. Matt was our in-van photographer during our travels - he is a ninja with a camera, running around the woods barefoot, snapping shots when no one is looking and capturing the beautiful landscapes that I never had the patience for. Matt took the photos and I told the stories.