We’ve all said it before: “Let’s just leave – pimp out a van and drive it across the country!” But few of us take the plunge that Instagram has so aptly named, #vanlife. Janna & John are among the few. They kept delaying their big adventure because something always got in the way until they decided that life was too short not to travel.
Kathleen and Greg from Tiny House, Tiny Footprint caught up with the newly engaged couple as they cruise around the States in their 2009 Dodge Sprinter Van. Beyond shirking rent and showering in yoga studios, the converted roadtrippers had a thing or two say about what it really means to commit to the van life.
Like many of our friends, we’ve talked about doing something like this for a long time. And we realized that unless we just friggin’ do it and cannonball into the deep end of the unknown, it’s going to end up being a regret rather than a collection of amazing stories and experiences.
Why the change?
We were living in Encinitas, California. John was formerly the editor in chief at “Powder Magazine,” and I worked as the creative strategist for a creative agency, called think PARALLAX, in Encinitas. After taking two months off, John now works on the road as executive producer for Powder Productions—Powder’s in-house studio for multimedia features and video—and I freelance as a writer and strategist.
We both got our dream jobs right out of college (John at “Powder,” me at “Surfer Magazine”—that’s actually where we met), and although those were incredible years, we felt like we might have missed out on that early 20s wandering. We are both adventure lovers, and we realized that we are happiest when we are roadtripping/camping. We talked about doing something like this for a few years—always in a far-off, dreamy way. And although we had a nice apartment, good jobs and great friends, the routine of life started to become the norm. The urge to “get busy living” called at us every day, it seemed. And we realized that it wasn’t too late. We had no kids and no mortgage. We’d saved up and had no reason not to go live our dreams.
All that matters to us is in our van. And we’re on the road to who knows where for who knows how long.
What was the process of moving into the van?
“Once we finally decided to pull the trigger, it happened really fast. We bought a van at the end of May and spent the next two months building it out after work and on weekends. Meanwhile, we sold or donated nearly everything, got a small storage unit for keepsakes, extra gear and a few pieces of furniture we couldn’t part with.
By the time we left San Diego at the end of July, we’d converted our empty van into a tiny cabin: we’d put in laminate floors and cedar paneling; we built a bed, cabinets and a kitchen; and we put in a swivel seat, a vent fan and solar panels on our roof. It was overwhelming at times, but so worth it. We will never forget that feeling of pulling out of our driveway in the van after passing off our apartment keys to our landlord. It felt like this huge weight had been lifted and we were free. I cried.
John couldn’t stop saying, ‘Holy shit, we did it!’
How do you balance work and living in a small space?
“For the first two months of our trip, we took a sabbatical from work, which was fantastic. We slept in, read and drank coffee until noon, hiked or biked or explored all afternoon and then camped somewhere new each night. Once we started working again, it was quite a shift. We’ve had to develop a new schedule, which has taken some getting used to. The good news is that we are currently two hours ahead of the west coast, where our jobs are, meaning we have an extra two hours in the morning before our coworkers get online. After coffee and a morning run/hike/yoga/bike, we usually work in the van or at a coffee shop until mid-afternoon and then go explore or do something else outside before dark. It can be a bit stressful when we have a lot to do and we’re sitting on our computers looking out at mountains or a lake that we can’t go explore until work is done. Living small means I work less than half of what I was working at home and still live the lifestyle we want to live.”
“We debated getting it (of course we’d rather feel disconnected when we’re in nature or camping), but it just allows us to spend more time outside and not waste time trying to find places to work with Wi-Fi. We ended up getting Wi-Fi for the van.”
“We shower at campgrounds (although now in the east, a lot of them are closed for the season), or at friends’ houses along the way. We also go to yoga studios with showers, take a class and shower there sometimes. We’ve stayed at hotels a few times too when we were feeling super dirty and couldn’t find a campground with showers.”
What are the absolute-must-have items in your tiny home?
- Bluetooth Speakers: For evenings in the van or playing cards at campsite picnic tables.
- Coleman Stove: A friend gave us this little red stove and it’s awesome. We use it daily, at the very least for coffee in the morning but often for multiple meals a day.
- Goal Zero Solar Panel System: It’s pretty amazing. We use it to power our lights, mini-fridge and computers. It’s the best.
- Buddy Propane Heater: I know you only said three, but I have to throw in a fourth now that winter has rolled around. This heater gets the van nice and toasty.
When does the going get tough?
“We went into this with no real plan and no real route. We’re not planners, so we’re kind of just winging it day by day—which is great, until it’s getting dark and we don’t know where we’re going to sleep that night. I’d love to pretend that I’m this super brave person, but I’m not. I’m irrationally paranoid of kidnappers and murderers, so I get really anxious if we haven’t found anywhere to park the van to sleep before it gets dark. We’ll be driving around a city, through neighborhoods, asking each other, “This looks safe, right?” I know if I don’t feel completely safe, I won’t sleep all night—I’ll just lay there awake listening for sounds of ax murderers. So we’ve realized that for both our sanities, we need to figure out a rough plan each day and specifically where we’re going to sleep before sunset. That is now our priority each day. Though we still don’t plan more than a day in advance.”
Is there a “going back” now?
“People ask if we miss having a real home. Nope. There is so much awesomeness out there to see and experience, and if you have a desire to live the vanlife and your job allows you to work remotely, seriously do it. Or just save up and live really, really frugally. We plan to do this for a year and then end up in the Pacific Northwest, at least for a little while. At first, we assumed that once we landed there, we’d get “real” jobs, but now we’re realizing that we could very easily keep freelancing and stay at least semi-mobile forever if we wanted to. Europe next year in the van? Maybe!”