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On the road with… Wilderness therapy field instructor and vanlifer Zack Rizzo

His most important advice? Keep an open mind

For all of the struggles of living in a van, they’re far outweighed by the rewards—even (or especially) if the reward is knowing that you can handle whatever the road throws at you. That’s why Zack Rizzo—former Roadtrippers crewmember, current wilderness therapy field instructor, part-time vanlifer, and full-time great dude—has chosen to live on the road.

He’s living proof that you don’t need to quit your day job or invest an arm and a leg into the fanciest RV to find happiness on the road. The power of an open mind and a good attitude are the secret ingredients to vanlifing like a pro!

What was life like before you lived on the road? What inspired you to make the change?

Life immediately before living on the road was fairly typical. I was working a 9-to-5 job after having been working on trail crews (hiking around and digging in the dirt) for a few years. I noticed that I missed the freedom that came with the trail schedule.

We’d spend eight days camping and working on a project and then have six days off before heading back out again. The 9-to-5 was incredibly rewarding in its own ways, but the freedom and the feeling of being disconnected was absolutely missing. I didn’t really realize how much I valued those two things specifically until they were gone.

The inspiration itself was pretty straight-forward. I’ve been active in the outdoors in both a leisure and professional capacity for awhile, so I was never too many degrees of separation away from someone who was living the vanlife. It was certainly on my radar as something I had wanted to pursue for awhile when the timing was right for me.

It just so happened that my current job as a wilderness therapy field instructor fit both the practical side of living in a van and the career advancement categories for me. There’s also something to say here about the challenge. I find that I’m at my best when I’m presented with a genuine challenge. Any opportunity for personal growth and learning how to be a better human is something I’m always searching for.

The vanlife hits all those things for me, it’s very much life saying to you, “Here’s something you’re going to struggle with, how are you going to handle this?” I live for those kinds of moments.

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?

I’m rockin’ a 2005 GMC Savanna 2500 cargo van. It’s got way too many miles, a back door that takes some finagling to open, and a gas bill that would make a polar bear shake his head in disappointment, but it’s home. For every complaint, I could also name 10 things I love about it. Spending as much time in it as I do, I’ve grown incredibly fond of it.

The view from vanlifer Zack Rizzo's van.
Waking up in the most beautiful places. | Photo: Zack Rizzo

I did all the interior work mostly by myself, with the help of a few friends here and there over the course of a month. I have a bed where the middle piece slides out so I can put a table in there and comfortably seat 4 or 5 around it when I want to have people over.

I also installed an exhaust fan that will create a nice breeze when it pulls air from the open front windows. Aside from those things, it’s pretty straightforward. A few shelves, storage under the bed, and a cheap little cooler to keep some food cold. I also have a small solar panel that sits in the dashboard connected to a battery that I charge my phone and laptop on. It’s a pretty minimal setup.

I don’t necessarily wish anything was different about it, per se. Sure, it’d be nice to have a brand new extended Sprinter with room for all the bells and whistles, but a huge goal for the lifestyle switch was to learn to live simply and intentionally.

I went in with a budget of about five grand and was able to come in a few hundred bucks under. I mention that to illustrate that it’s possible to make the switch on a limited budget. There’s nothing wrong with all the decked-out rides you see on Instagram and Pinterest, but for many of us, the cost of that isn’t a reality.

Other than the ride, what other preparations did you need to make to transition to living on the road?

Not many, actually. I was already living in a pretty small downtown apartment in Bozeman, Montana when I decided to make the switch. The only real change was downsizing just a bit more. Some people also choose to get a P.O. box, but I have a mailbox where I work, so it wasn’t necessary.

A perfect vanlifer campsite in the woods.
Setting up camp in the woods. | Photo: Zack Rizzo

Where are you now? Where are you headed next? How do you decide where to go?

I work in Southern Utah as a field instructor for a wilderness therapy program, so a lot of my time is spent in the Southwest. It’s a great base. Utah, Nevada, and Arizona are known for having some of the highest concentrations of public lands in the country. Most nights I’m staying for free on land that belongs to us all.

It also doesn’t hurt that the Southwest is an outdoor-lover’s paradise. From world-class climbing to hiking, to exploring intricate slot canyons, there’s no shortage of places to get lost for a few days.

As for getting a bit further out, I have six days off so it’s not out of the question to roam a little further. My next trip will be to California with a few friends to explore Joshua Tree and fall off some surfboards. A little further down the road, I have plans to explore Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

What’s the hardest part about living in a van? What have been some unexpected challenges?

I’d say the hardest part can sometimes be finding a place to sleep in unfamiliar areas. There are a few apps and websites I use to try and scout out places in advance, but sometimes driving around at night when you were ready to crash a few hours prior can be a little stressful and anxiety-inducing, especially when the place you scouted out turns out to be full when you show up.

Where do you eat most of your meals?

I cook most of my meals on a portable two-burner Coleman stove.

Where do you find Wifi?

Coffee shops are your friend here, especially if you love the beans as much as I do. One of my favorite things is exploring quirky local shops and the Southwest is chock-full of them. I’ll also occasionally spend a few hours at a coworker’s home if need be. My work also has a computer in our staff lounge.

Zac's van parked at a camping spot for the night.
Zack’s van parked at a camping spot for the night. | Photo: Zack Rizzo

How do you shower?

Being that my job entails working eight days straight in the wilderness without showering, my work graciously has installed two showers for staff to use. If I’m out of the area and there are no public showers around, I’ve found that turning a water bottle upside down over the top of you works just fine.

Where do you park your van for the night? What kinds of places do you like to stay at?

Mostly public lands. Sometimes I’ll stay at established campgrounds but most nights I’m down a sandy dirt road in the middle of nowhere.

What are some essential tools that make living on the road easier?

A comfy bed, a cold beverage, a good book, coffee for the morning, and an open mind that’s ready for anything.

What lessons have you learned that you would pass on to those aspiring to live on the road?

Grilling out at overnight camping spot. | Photo: Zack Rizzo

I think I would give the same simple advice that I pass on to many of the clients that I work with. Life is really 10% what happens to you and 90% how you choose to react to it. It’s the same with vanlife. You will undoubtedly be challenged, you’ll be too hot or too cold, your food will sometimes spoil, you might run out of gas or get a flat tire somewhere, you might even be lonely at times.

The important thing is your attitude. If you can approach it all with an open mind and a willingness to dive into the uncomfortable things, you’ll come out the other side stronger and better prepared for what’s next. The reality is that the world is going to keep on turning, and so will your wheels, so you might as well enjoy the ride.

To find out where Zack is headed next, follow him on Instagram, @zackrizzo