Living a nomadic lifestyle has offered a sense of freedom we didn’t know was possible for us. A feeling we thought was reserved for retirement and one that you only get a taste of on the weekends. Think about how you spend your free time now and what your life will be like when you retire. Now, decide to make that your reality, right now.
There is one thing we’ve noticed as something in common that we share with others on the road, and that’s a love for the outdoors. Aside from work, we’d rather spend our time outside than inside. We realized we weren’t spending much time in a house we were working so hard to pay for.
We didn’t originally know that we wanted to live in a van. There was a process that took place over a couple of years leading up to this decision. If you’re reading this—you’re probably in your phase of researching the lifestyle to see if it’s a fit for you. These days “van life” is a more common and popular thing. What used to be considered only for the poor is now almost glamorized. Our process started back in 2017 when we decided to relocate our lives to Colorado. A thousand miles from any of our friends or family; this is where we decided to move in together for the first time.
Shawn and I had dated long-distance for about a year and we were ready to be together full-time. We found a pretty big 4 bedroom duplex house to rent for the same price as a one-bedroom in the city, so we snagged it. We quickly learned it was way too much space for us as we began to fill every room with random stuff. We spent the majority of our time at home in only three rooms. Everything was spread out and far away within the house. It was definitely more space than we needed. We were finally living together, but we still felt we didn’t see each other enough. At least we had the same two days off from work to be together. After commuting to and from work most days, going to the gym, doing chores, and making meals; there wasn’t enough time or energy for much else. We needed to make a major change, but how?
We began asking ourselves questions to find the answers. What if we switched our weekends with our work week? Two days of work with five days of play. We could imagine how much better our lives would be. How this change could affect our health—mentally, physically, and emotionally. I can’t speak for everyone, but I can easily say the majority of people are working solely to pay bills and afford the house they live in. It’s not common for you to meet someone who loves their job and would choose to work over having free time to fill with their favorite hobbies.
Imagine not having a rent payment due each month. No electricity bill. If your monthly expenses were far less, would you still work as much as you do? Would you still stress about asking for a raise or that promotion within the company to make more money? I wouldn’t think so, but then again I never thought I would know the answer to these questions. I’ve always worked multiple jobs to afford what little rent I was able to afford while living with roommates. Living life stressed like this made me lose all hope of ever owning my own home let alone having extra funds to travel for fun.
I would watch those shows on TV showing cute tiny homes and thought—maybe that’s what I need to look into since I’ll never afford a “real house”. Then again, these little homes seemed imaginary, like something of a fairytale. I had never seen one in person, were they even real? Maybe they were too expensive also.
It wasn’t until we moved to Colorado and had settled in for about a year that I saw online there would be a tiny house festival happening nearby. This was an event where you could walk through multiple tiny homes to get a real-life experience of what they look and feel like inside. We then heard about a tiny home-building company in Lyons, Colorado called Simplicity. We stopped by to meet the owner and chat about potential work. He recommended another builder to go and meet, Ryan with Tiny Home Connection. We also stumbled upon a hotel-style community of tiny houses you can rent out for a night, Wee Casa. Our network within the community was growing.
Over time, we became friends with a handful of people within the tiny house community. We attended events, listened to speeches on legalities, helped with putting a frame together on a build, and began planning our build. We learned there can be many issues with where you can legally park your tiny home, even if you own the land. Not only did we not own property, but our savings was slow going and even the cost of a trailer to build on was daunting.
We had begun saving not only money but physical items that we thought we could use within the build such as windows and fence wood. We also started a 3D sketch up on the computer of what we’d want the layout to look like. We changed this design multiple times. We first planned on a 30-foot trailer with a 7-foot gooseneck, but we would need a really large truck to pull this around or need to pay someone else a lot of money to do so. We adjusted our sizing down smaller and smaller until we started looking at our fold-up trailer in the garage from Harbor Freight and talking about how we could “beef it up” to make it work. Maybe we’d build a cute gypsy wagon as you see on Pinterest! Okay—this was getting a bit ridiculous. Shawn looked at me, in all seriousness, and asked—“then why aren’t we just building out a van”? This sounded way too small, but then I thought again about just how small that gypsy wagon would be…okay, yea, that makes more sense.
The beginning of van life
Not only was this a financial decision, but we talked about our priorities and desires to live this alternative lifestyle. That is when we realized with a van we would be able to park and move around very easily. We didn’t need to pick a location to settle down just yet.
We thought about what truly makes us happy—being together. What we enjoy spending our time doing—climbing. We both didn’t love working so many days and hours. We rushed through the week anticipating the weekend to have time together and time to go climb. Often times we felt too tired to do the things we wanted on those days off. This also meant leaving chores and responsibilities neglected. We would rush the entire year anticipating our vacation time of one week to go to our favorite climbing destination, Bishop, California. What if we could figure out a way to spend more time together? What if we could find a way to work together? What if we could spend longer than a week, once a year, in our favorite place? If we built out a van we could travel to many different climbing destinations, park anywhere in a regular parking space and live rent-free, allowing us to work less.
Taking the leap to move far away from everything we knew showed us how easily we can adapt to a new environment. We thought about how exciting it was to meet new people while exploring different climbing areas. We could keep this lifestyle going in other parts of the U.S.—and for longer. And we could do this for as long as we wanted to really. The idea of settling down was starting to feel constricting.
Living on the road full-time seemed like something I would need a lot of money for. I thought about all the years I worked more than one job and still struggled to pay my rent. I was scared to make such a huge change of pace and leave the comfort of what I’d known all my life. On the other hand, this was exactly what excited me. I’d had a rough childhood growing up with split parents and even living two years without electricity or hot water. I had always loved camping after having those experiences. I had already learned to appreciate the small things. What was there to be so afraid of? As a safety precaution, I made sure to save up the first and last month’s rent payments. This way, if for whatever reason this life didn’t work out, we could find another place to rent and go back to our regular lives.
Fast forward three years later and we are loving our new normal. We’ve found more free time to do what we love. We get to travel around the U.S. to check out whatever climbing destination we want. We get to spend quality time with family who had moved away and we wouldn’t get to see otherwise. I also got to meet some of Shawn’s immediate family that I hadn’t met yet.
We have found this lifestyle to be more affordable. We have fewer bills to pay so we don’t need to work as much to pay for those. Depending on how much you choose to travel, you can spend less on gasoline as you’re no longer commuting to and from work every day. We personally make all our meals and we don’t drink on the regular so we aren’t spending a lot of money on meals or going out for cocktails. We make an effort to find free attractions to check out and choose to spend money on experiences for special occasions only.
Don’t get me wrong, living in a vehicle instead of a house is not easy. It does take effort, every single day. You are more conscious of how much water you’re using, conserving, and searching for a place to fill up. When you use the restroom, every day, you have to either find a public toilet to use or decide how to dispose of it, if you choose to have one in your van. You have to work a little harder to clean up after making meals or anything you do because you’re in such a small space—it can easily become cluttered. You get some strange looks from others who aren’t familiar with the lifestyle. When your vehicle breaks down, it’s a much bigger issue because you also have your house inside. You can’t just tow it to a mechanic and get a rental while you wait for it to get fixed. There are trade-offs and you have to decide what it’s worth to you.
All in all, we’ve found the nomadic lifestyle to be less stressful and more rewarding. We work for ourselves now and it only needs to be part-time. We have met an amazing community of friends who quickly became closer than other friendships we’ve had for many years. Our elderly dogs and cats get to spend a lot more quality time with us now that we’re living in a van full-time. We would highly recommend this lifestyle to anyone who thinks they’d want it. If it’s something you think you’d enjoy doing—we believe there’s a way to make it possible.
Want more stories from full-timers?
Why We Chose a Travel Trailer with Happy Trails Family
Traveling with Two Dogs in a Fifth-Wheel RV: Wander Free and Queer