Thanks for following along with the van adventures of me and my husband Steve (@walasavagephoto). I have decided that only blogging about the details of what we’ve done and where we’ve been might get tedious, so I want to start sharing some of my thoughts from the road. We are only on our second month of traveling around the US and living in a van and we have learned a lot very quickly. There are so many misconceptions I had about van life and there have been many fun discoveries as well as plenty of challenges.
We get a lot of questions about life on the road, so I thought I’d give some preliminary answers to the most common questions here in this blog post. I am sure that as Steve and I continue to travel and learn, sometimes the hard way, my answers will change. Maybe I’ll answer the questions again at the end of the trip!
Why are you doing this trip?
This is a tougher question than you might think! There was no ah-ha moment or large event that caused Steve and I to leave our jobs and take some time to travel America and live out of a van. We talked a lot over the past few years about doing something different before we become more tied down. We considered world travel, backpacking around Europe, and even hiking the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail. But at the end of the day, we wanted to stay in this country and we wanted to see as much as possible.
Our list of “must see” (also: “must hike” and “must photograph”) spots in the United States had been growing out of control. Whenever we had a week-long vacation to plan, it was overwhelming trying to choose where to go. The Pacific Northwest? The Rocky Mountains? The Southwest? National Parks? Every time we chose one place, there were hundreds of places we were brushing aside. So this trip feels like the perfect opportunity to see/hike/photograph as many of these places as possible all at once, while we are still in great physical shape. The hope is that in our future travels there won’t be as much pressure to see everything, but instead we can return to our favorite locations to see them in more depth.
Where do you sleep?
Most nights we sleep in the van, a Ford E350 cargo van. There is a wooden bed platform in the back of the van where the seats used to be, built by the amazing previous owners. We covered the platform with layers of foam and a nest of blankets and covered the windows with light-blocking curtains. There is also a vent in the back window that can blow air in or out (it blows stinky air out after a long hike or cool air in on a hot night), twinkle lights, and a secondary battery that we can use when the car is off.
We try as often as possible to park in free or cheap (but also safe) locations. Often we find free dispersed campsites or low-fee campgrounds in National Forests, BLM land, state parks, Wildlife Management Areas, or other public lands that allow camping. We do a lot of research on where to sleep and we often discover great spots on crowd sourced websites for free camping. Even though many of these areas have spots for tents, we find it’s typically more convenient and easy to just sleep in the van.
We sometimes do traditional camping and sleep in our lightweight Cabela’s tent, but that is usually when we are backpacking in the wilderness and can’t bring our van with us!
If we want less wilderness and more access to stores and businesses, we stay in Walmart parking lots, as long as we ask the management and they are cool with it. Occasionally we have splurged on a cheap motel or KOA if we are in need of a shower or an actual bed to sleep in.
Where do you shower?
So to start out, I will say that we certainly don’t shower as much as we are used to. We take advantage of showers when we stay at a motel or a campground with amenities; however, those stops are few and far between. We have an inexpensive nationwide gym membership which includes a guest pass, and that is where we do most of our showering. In between showers, we freshen up in restrooms and as the weather gets warmer, hopefully we will jump in more lakes and rivers to rinse off!
What do you eat?
Let me start with the morning. Typically we wake up and make coffee. I pretty much need coffee to function. Most often we boil water with a camp stove and drip coffee through our GSI lightweight filter. When we have a campfire and extra time, we use our vintage looking GSI percolator, and when we are pressed for time, we sometimes make instant coffee (not my favorite). Our breakfast is either granola bars or dry cereal and bananas when we are on the move, or oatmeal when we have time. A few times we have indulged in some campfire egg and sausage scrambles and homemade breakfast burritos. I’d love to make pancakes at some point, they seem like the quintessential camping breakfast delight!
Lunch is almost always peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Blah! We also keep dried fruit, nuts, granola bars, apples, trail mix, and other small snacks in the car when a sandwich isn’t enough. Mint Chocolate Clif Bars (with caffeine!) are our favorite energy boosting snack for the trail.
Our dinners vary day to day. Sometimes we cook pasta on the camp stove, rice and beans, or tacos. When we have a campfire, we enjoy cooking meat and veggies in foil packets. If we are in a rush or in a city where cooking would be awkward, we indulge in fast food. (We have found that Taco Bell had the cheapest value menu!)
Eating and drinking cheaply is a challenge for us because as we travel to new cities and states, there are so many amazing restaurants and breweries we would like to check out. We try our best to stay on budget and cook as much as possible, but occasionally we can’t help but try the local cuisine. Like tacos in the Southwest. And Texas BBQ in Austin. And seafood in South Carolina. We have also made a pact to go to only one brewery in each state, so that we won’t be tempted to taste every beer we see.
How do you plan what to do and where to go?
This is a tough question and we are still figuring this out. During the preliminary planning for the trip, I created a custom Google map with pins for each location. Every time something beautiful popped up on my social media feeds (mainly Instagram and Tumblr), I would add a pin to the map and include a link to the photo for reference. It is kind of like a Pinterest board, but arranged on a map. By the time we hit the road in February, the map had accumulated hundreds and hundreds of pins – an impossible number for our trip. The pins include lakes, waterfalls, hikes, state high points, campgrounds, scenic overlooks, hot springs, etc. Since we know we can’t hit every pin, we use the map as a general guide on where to go next. We have a rough plan of where we want to be each month, and a few future camping reservations scattered about in coveted locations, but mostly we figure things out a day or two ahead.
We also do research on each area, check out visitor’s centers, and talk to people we meet on the road to find more ideas of where to go. For example, we might not have visited the Wupatki National Monument had it not been recommended to us by our bartender at the Grand Canyon Brewing Company!
So what is a typical day like on the road?
This is a difficult question to answer, as every day is so different and unique. Some days we are driving. Some days we are hiking and exploring. Some days we are checking out a local quirky town or roadside attraction. Some days we are catching up on laundry, shopping, errands, and van tuneups. Some days, more often than I expected, we are reorganizing and cleaning the van. Some days we are editing photos and blogging. Some days we are relaxing at a campsite, cooking meals and enjoying a campfire.
There is no set pattern or agenda to our days, which is so wonderful and uniquely different from working a 9-5 job. Sometimes it can be stressful to me, as a person who typically lives by structure and deadlines. As a teacher, I have always liked planning and organization and have typically preferred to have an end goal and to take steps to work toward it when I am traveling or just in daily life. Taking things one day at a time without a set plan is not how I am used to doing things, so it has been quite an adjustment. I do believe it is having a positive effect on me overall. This way of living is teaching me to be more flexible and easygoing. My stress levels are lower and I feel healthier and more relaxed.
Well, that is all for now! Just a reminder, these are very preliminary answers and in no way do Steve and I claim to be experts about van life. We are learning a ton every day and constantly adjusting course.
Do you have any other questions about life on the road? How about suggestions for us? Feel free to send them my way (email: firstname.lastname@example.org or Instagram: @carrieoutdoors).