Almost every unique and valuable lesson I have learned, I learned during a multi-year road trip living the van life that my brother and I embarked on in our DIY Ford campervan, initially converted for fishing trips. We had a final destination in mind and no plan for the 3,000 miles in between.
Our original idea was to hit the road from Sacramento, California, to New York City to witness the infamous ball drop on New Year's Eve. That 3000-mile road trip turned into a full-time, 5+ year tour of living the van life in North America with several different converted vans and buses.
Our story started in Montana, where we were raised. Our version of a long-distance road trip was traveling two hours east to Missoula to the Skatepark. Our parents moved around from California to Montana but rarely were the trips planned around adventure.
So the thought of living on the road for a 3000-mile journey across the United States for the first time was questionable. Is van life really worth it?
Neither of us found a reason to say no. We had some money, a semi-reliable van conversion, and a positive mindset. As it turns out, that is all you need to propel yourself into an epic journey. (No, you don't need a Youtube channel.)
I learned so much from van living on the open road. I have met strangers in parking lots that I now consider family, and I've experienced hidden National Parks. I have been invited on some wild van life adventures, including skateboarding from LA to NYC. All of this is because we decided to break out of our comfort zone and drive across the country, ultimately shaping the way I view the world.
Lesson 1: When Possible, Skip the Campground
I learned this lesson fairly early as I did not have a large amount of savings in the bank for this trip, but every time I spent money, I was very conscious of why I spent it.
A critical factor that determines the longevity of your nomadic lifestyle is money. "How do you make money on the road?" is a question that will receive many different answers from one person to the next. Some van dwellers are full-time digital nomads who take their work anywhere with a strong internet connection. In contrast, other van lifers find their jobs in the communities they travel through. However, the one topic we can all relate to is how to SAVE money on the road.
When beginning your road trip, campsites can be tempting as you learn to navigate the world of back-road boondocking. In my early days of travel, I would stay in campgrounds out of pure convenience or lack of light when I was somewhere new. However, every time I left a campground, I would see somewhere free to park off-road within just a few miles.
Before you search for the nearest campsite that will cost you $10-60 dollars or risk getting a ticket for overnight parking on a city street, search for Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in the area. BLM is a federal agency that oversees more than 200 million acres of off-grid public land, much of which is available for camping. Some spots allow free camping for up to two weeks.
You can also use apps like Sekr, which is a vanlife community-sourced database of free places to park. The app also includes reviews of the specific sites, so you know what to expect upon arrival. $10-$60 every night adds up to a pretty penny, and in this community, we would rather spend our money on gas or at a thrift store we have no reason to be in.
I also like to use Gasbuddy to seek out the least expensive gas along my route. Sometimes the difference between a station with $4.50 a gallon and one with $5.50 a gallon is only a few blocks apart.
Lesson 2: People over Places
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I am what some people call an ambivert, a strange mix of being both introverted and extroverted. While I get energy from socializing, I also enjoy my alone time. This mix allows me to enjoy the company of someone new even when I strategically go somewhere to get away from people and WiFi.
Now, I say this because I have many close friends I have today because of traveling to places where I wanted to get away from everything. I traveled specifically for the remote location, but in reality, the people I crossed paths with are where my fondest memories have come from. When you travel to somewhere desirable to you, you meet people equally fascinated by where they are at that moment. Already, you have that in common. This is more true for remote destinations that require a long hike or lack accurate directions.
So next time you are soaking in those remote hot springs that you hiked four hours to get to, talk to the strangers that also made an effort to get there. Instead of saying "Hi," ask "How's it going?" and get a conversation going.
Lesson 3: Get Lost
Scrolling through the abyss of social media hashtags in your quest for vanlife inspiration, you will probably search for images of digital nomads, Mercedes sprinter van conversions, or even the nomad himself, Foster Huntington, who re-ignited an idea that resonates with many of us with a simple vanlife hashtag.
You will come across miles of beautifully composed images of people staring out of their van's back doors while cooking or photos of folks sitting on top of their van with a jaw-dropping view.
And yes, your van is a significant component of your experience, but do you want to know where the magic happens? It begins right after you take those first steps out of the van and into a place you have never been before, and everything you do from that point on is NEW.
It does not matter if you are in the forests of Oregon or if you just woke up in a random parking spot in North Carolina that you don't even remember driving to. The point is to experience something new. New people, new hobbies, new food, and new places to watch the sunrise.
Get lost. Find a safe place to park your van, write down the cross streets or lock the location into maps. That way, you know where home is and set off into the unknown. Walk through that little two-road town with one stoplight. Splurge a few dollars on a bite to eat at a small local cafe so you can chat with the locals and get a glimpse of their perspective on life.
You would be surprised at the amount of "secret local spots" I have been led to because I stopped for a cup of coffee that I most likely didn't need and asked, "How's everything going today" with a smile on my face. I'm thankful for every stop I have made over the years.
It does not matter if you are driving a Promaster with a custom van build, a pre-built Ford Transit, or if you are practicing the art of part-time minimalism in your Prius. The enjoyment you are searching for begins when you live life and realize that you can take yourself somewhere utterly foreign to you and enjoy yourself.
Raised in Butte, Montana, Josh Monthei is a nomadic photographer, skateboarder, and an over-caffeinated writer who has been traveling North America for over seven years. His travels have spanned over 100,000 miles and include a 3000-mile skateboard trip from Los Angeles to New York City. Instagram: @josh.monthei
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