For every person who dreams of living in a van and traveling the country, there are probably a few reasons why it’s kind of impractical. Often, a lot of those reasons are good reasons. You know, family, work, all of those pesky little things to consider. But that doesn’t have to stop anyone from selling it all to hit the road. Just ask Nathan from Wand’rly. He and his family (kids, a parent, and dogs have all been included in the family at various times) have been on the road pretty much full time since 2008. Since then, Nathan and Co. have seen it all; they’ve tried out different rides, visited countless cities in many countries, and have generally become our favorite van life gurus. This is Nathan’s story, and some of his best advice on how to make the most of living on the road.
What was life like before you lived on the road? What inspired you to make the change?
Nathan: So, I had this girl of my dreams from college, but life sent us on separate paths. I got a house, had a kid, and was working the 9 to 5 for a PBS station in Erie, PA. She was hiking around Europe. I thought she was gone for good, but then one day she showed up and was telling me all of these amazing stories about traveling around. I had just traveled cross-country for the first time a few weeks before, and though I really did love my job (I was an animator, web designer and graphic designer), and didn’t mind the house life and being a single dad, it sparked something in me and I just couldn’t shake it.
Once again, she went off to live her life, and I set out to change mine. I quit my job, became a freelance web designer and moved to Brighton, England. A couple years passed and I was living in Pittsburgh, PA (a much cooler town than most folks realize), had spent some time in Portland, OR (Pittsburgh is cooler, because it’s a bit more real), and anyway, I was sitting in a coffee shop one day and realized if I could work from any old coffee shop in Pittsburgh, I could work from anywhere. I just loved the idea of traveling, and Renée, the girl from college, she was really the inspiration of it.
Tell us about your ride. How old is it? How long have you had it? Did you do any work on it? What do you wish was different about it?
Nathan: We’ve had a multitude of rigs over the past decade of traveling like this. That first year, I had a 1990-something Dutchman Class C RV. I quickly grew tired of it, right around the time Renée emailed me to the gist of, “Hey, I just saw online that you were just in Colorado. Why didn’t you come and see me?” To which I replied, “Because I didn’t know you lived there. But I’m headed up to Fort Collins to buy this 1978 VW Bus.”
Which was kind of the truth. Except that I was also eyeing a ’72 in Phoenix and a ’69 in Austin. I picked the ’78 because, well, it was closer to her. Three months later we were all (including my then 8 year old son ,Tristan), living and traveling around in it together.We ended up having another baby, Winter, a year later. We took six months off living in a beach house in Manzanita, Oregon and then hit the road again in that old VW for another year before we had another baby, Wylder, and decided we needed to upgrade to a 1976 Airstream, which we towed with a Ford van (not that old, 2006) for three years or so. Renée’s mom joined us at that point too.
Then, I guess about three years ago now, we got over hauling around a 31′ Airstream plus the van, gave the van to Renée’s mom and put the Airstream in storage. Our Bus had been in storage at my dad’s house, so we grabbed it, headed to Mexico, and lived in that for about sixteen months traveling around Mexico and Belize.
I did all of the engine work and any interior stuff we wanted myself on the VW, but we got back to the US and visited a mechanic in Austin who had a lift and promised he could swap out our exhaust, which had been catching fire, and which had 40 year old rusted bolts holding it on. A couple of long months of living in tents later, he destroyed the VW’s engine and we ended up getting that 2006 Ford van back. So…we’ve been in that for the last year now. In that, we built a bed and a little kitchenette similar to what you’d see in a Westfalia, and have loved the ability to drive fast and far if we need or want to, climb mountains, and since it has no poptop or high top, just pull off anywhere and look like a normal cargo van more or less from the outside.
Other than the ride, what other preparations did you need to make to transition to living on the road?
Nathan: I suppose telling family about it was the hardest thing. “We’re going on a trip for a year,” though, turned into ten years, and so there was this slow falling out with some, but most of them have come to accept, if not understand it. We’re five people living in a van and our oldest is now 16 (he has his own tent) so I can see why it’s difficult to grasp or truly understand.
Other than that, it’s the same old, “Sold our stuff and hit the road,” story. There weren’t many other folks we could find doing it, Live Work Dream comes to mind as the one reference we had, and the Bare Naked Family found us shortly into our travels, but we hadn’t known them beforehand so it wasn’t a help then, however they have fast become our “road family” and were a wealth of information.
Where are you now? Where are you headed next? How do you decide where to go?
Nathan: We’re currently in Durango, Colorado and plan to spend some time here as we homestead a little plot. I’m not sure where we’ll go immediately next, probably scoot around the Four Corners area, but our next big idea is to go to Australia for a year or however long they’ll let us tour around their nation.
What’s the hardest part about living in a van? What have been some unexpected challenges?
Nathan: The hardest part about the VW was keeping it running. Compared to that, living in a reliable Ford van is a breeze. I think the biggest unexpected challenge we face is figuring out where to go, when we’ve just finished exploring where we wanted to go last. Like, you’re at Spot A or Town B and it’s been amazing, but you’re ready to move on, so you head off into some desert and find…nothing that quite compares.
Where do you eat most of your meals?
Nathan: Never anywhere specific. If we’re staying a place with a picnic table, we utilize that of course. Otherwise, we don’t bring our own table or anything like that, so we eat on the ground or in our camping chairs. We like restaurants, and feel they’re a great way to meet locals, so we eat at those several (expensive) times a week.
Where do you find Wifi?
Nathan: We use the hotspots on our AT&T accounts.
How do you shower?
Nathan: Rarely, maybe twice a week if we’re boondocking, which we usually are. In those cases, we find rec centers or pay an RV park a few bucks each. We also dig state parks and those often have showers. If we were sitting at a campfire, having a few beers, and I felt a bit overconfident, I might say something like, “Covering yourself in water daily is overrated, unnecessary, and takes a toll on the environment.” But instead I’ll just say, “I don’t mind being part of the great unwashed.”
Where do you park your van for the night? What kinds of places do you like to stay at?
Nathan: Well, initially we flocked toward national parks. My way of figuring out where we should go would be to pick the next closest national park, look up the nearest towns, and then see if there are any fast food or big box chains nearby. If none of those showed up, we’d figure it was a pretty small town that was maybe worth visiting. We’re looking for the less homogenous, strip mall side of America, where if we hang around for a month, the 500 locals living there start wondering if we’ve moved in.
These days, our ideal spots are boondocking in national forests in the summer and BLM deserts in the winter. Free is nice, and we’re set up to live that way, so we figure we might as well take advantage of that. If we want showers or power for some reason (long bouts of rain, for example), we go for state parks. States like Texas, Florida and New Mexico have really great state parks that are cheaper than any RV park and give you way more space and natural beauty.
What are some essential tools that make living on the road easier?
Nathan: For us, it’s my laptop since I make my money online. We run a Coleman stove and a little 12v fridge, which give us most of the conveniences of life and let us run a kitchen from anywhere, and as I’d mentioned our phones keep us connected to the internet. We also love our bicycles.
What lessons have you learned that you would pass on to those aspiring to live on the road?
Nathan: I’d just say take it slow, it’s more fun to see more of less than it is to drive like crazy all over the nation or continent or world or whatever, and that it’s not a competition…I think the less you try and make #vanlife a job and the more you just let it be fun, the more fulfilling it tends to be.
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Header image via Instagram/Wandrly