I awoke this morning at a trailhead, with birds chirping through an open sliding door. There’s a nice breeze that makes rolling over and going back to sleep that much more enticing, but the day is ahead, and there’s much to do. We transition our camper from “bed mode” to “couch mode” and start our morning routine.
My name is Matt, and I’m currently traveling with my fiance, who had the vision and the ambition to bring her dream into the world and convert an ambulance into a functional, comfortable camper.
Honestly, if you had asked me 2 years ago if I thought it was realistic for me to be living on the road in a camper, I would have laughed in your face and said no. But months after setting off and making it a reality, the experience has not only shown me that I can step out of my comfort zone, but that I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time.
Travel wasn’t something I dreamed about, and my family didn’t vacation much in my adolescence, save for some trips to the old family farm in Vermont and the occasional trip to the left coast to visit my mother’s family in California. I’m a homebody at heart, most comfortable around my own space, listening to the music of my choice, and controlling the thermostat.
Frankly, I would’ve given up on convincing myself to do a trip like this much faster than Mia, my fiancée, did. I’m glad she didn’t because this trip has taken me places I would’ve never seen otherwise.
In addition to all the small towns, villages, and coastal beach cities we’ve ventured to, we’ve also made a few stops that most people will have been to at least once on a school trip. I hadn’t been to Washington, D.C., or seen the Lincoln Memorial; I have now. Even being from New York, I had never been to Niagara Falls or much less heard of Letchworth or Watkins Glen state parks—I had no idea these incredible natural marvels were in my home state.
Naturally, I was worried about not having the comforts of home with me at all times. It’s true that you have to give up one or two luxuries to undertake vanlife. This is a reality, but it’s not all bad. Some time away from more consuming habits like video games can help you appreciate it all the more when you get back.
Another reality that we faced right away: Public restrooms are going to be a necessity, usually more than once a day. This is one of the least glamorous aspects of this lifestyle, and unless you’re willing to deal with a composting toilet/septic system, public restrooms and showers are just part of the deal. I suggest getting a Planet Fitness membership to assure access to clean showers all over the U.S. for a decent price.
At the end of the day, converting a van to live in is about making compromises and choosing which parts of your daily routine are most necessary. Mia and I know we enjoy cooking and like to keep a variety of produce and products in stock, so we needed a refrigerator. You could assume that vanlife is cramped, uncomfortable, and disconnected from the ongoing world—it’s not, unless you rush in, make hasty decisions with no planning, and set off too early with a camping stove and an air mattress Velcroed to the floor.
It’s easy to get lost in stereotypes and generalizations about other places. Being from New York and living in New England, I heard certain things about other states my whole life. If I hadn’t gone on this trip, I may still believe some of the more outlandish things said about these other states and the people in them. The point of this very brief anecdote is that perspective is only gained through shared ideas or experiences.
I’m sure that there are folks who have never been north of Georgia who think some odd things about New Englanders, but the crux of the matter is that neither person can truly know the other until they have been to their homes. I found that most people I spoke to on this trip were genuinely nice, respectful, and courteous. Some just wanted to tell us how cool the ambulance is. Regardless, being able to move away from generalizations into actual experiences has been one of the most fulfilling parts of being on the road.
Ultimately, this lifestyle is just as demanding as it is rewarding. You have to think about things differently than you would if you were home. The freedom is wonderful, but it can be overwhelming when you don’t have a clear idea of what to do next. My advice would be to plan around a certain type of place to visit and let that determine your route; your vehicle’s gas mileage and the amount you like to drive per day will also factor into this.
Vanlife gives back what you put into it, and I am lucky enough to have a partner that wanted many of the same amenities that I did, so it made the transition much easier. Home is great, but you can take that feeling on the road, enjoying both the experience of new places and nature, while also still partaking in some comforts of home.
If given the choice, I make the decision again every time, because my understanding of my home country is wider and I’ve seen more beauty in the last 3 months than in my first 23 years combined. As someone who worried incessantly about how I would adapt to life on the road, it was a process, but I’ve learned that “home is where you park it.”