Are you dreaming about ditching the 9-5 to live the vagabond van life? Hitting the road to live in your truck, converted Sprinter, or even a Skoolie?
It’s certainly a romantic idea full of seemingly endless freedom and open-ended possibilities for new and exciting adventures. But it can also be really tough. And really smelly.
It’s a big transition for sure, and here’s what I’ve learned since I made the decision to live out of my truck and pursue mountain guiding nearly a year ago.
When deciding to do it or not, there is one real consideration.
How do you want to spend your time?
Are you called to National Forest service roads, trailheads, campsites, climbing gym parking lots, and the occasional picturesque overlook that scream “I live in my van and love my life!?” Being places is easier when you don’t have the comfort of a fixed apartment. You are not restricted by rent, property, or location; the opposite of being “house poor.”
I want to hike, climb, snowboard, and travel constantly. I want to devote myself to these things, like sleeping at a trailhead so I can climb before work and following the seasons so I can ski when and where conditions are ideal. I want to see new places and spend time enjoying them.
For me, the idea of living in a vehicle was created out of necessity.
When I realized the massive pay cut I would take changing my life, I knew I had to be creative about lowering my expenses. The three largest expenses were rent, student loans, and a car payment; in that order.
There is nothing I could do to get away from the crippling debt of American higher education; if I sold my truck I’d be restricted to the schedule of public transportation when the kindness of friends wasn’t available. So I needed to cut out the rent.
$1500 a month will get you a small studio in Downtown Boston. Some creativity on top of an existing car payment got me a mobile basecamp.
Beyond deciding how you want to spend your time and deciding if living on the road is actually something you want or could handle, there are a few different aspects of life that I’ve noticed will change dramatically.
It’s tough to work a cubicle job or a normal nine-to-five while living in your vehicle. When I worked a demanding job in Boston, I needed a nice apartment to come home to. I needed the comfort and stability, the couch, and the dishwasher. Now that I spend my days guiding and climbing, I’m happy to sleep at a trailhead and watch the same movies on iTunes I’ve seen five thousand times.
Guiding big mountains means that I am away from “home” more than half of the time during climbing season, but it’s great to know when I am exhausted after a 36-hour summit day that my bed is waiting for me in the parking lot at the end of the trail.
Building out your space is the difference between having a home and sleeping in your car.
The average Boston or NYC studio is between 500-700 square feet. The back of my 2013 Nissan Frontier is 30 square feet. If I include the floorspace in the cab, it brings it up to about 50 square feet. Not enough room for me to be a IT Project Manager, but plenty of room to be a mountaineering guide, ski instructor, and climbing bum.
The bed of the truck is my bedroom, the back seat is my closet and storage, and the tailgate is my kitchen, workbench, and favorite hangout spot. Plus, for $40-80 a month I have a bathroom, shower, living room, home office, and gym facility at my climbing gym of choice.
Still, storage facilities are a necessity. Especially if you own a mountain of gear and equipment.
It’s tough being in Western Washington where it rains so many days a year, compared to Yosemite or Smith Rock where dry sunny weather is guaranteed during the climbing season.
Weather plays a larger role in your day when you live outside, but it is beautiful hearing rain on your car roof at night. Most importantly, when a friend offers me their couch and hot shower for a few days, I skedaddle out of the woods and take those luxuries for all their worth. My truck isn’t great for laying around, watching Netflix, and taking naps.
National Forest and Bureau of Land Management makes up an enormous percentage of the beautiful places in this country. They all have dispersed camping, and most people experience very little of it. I’ll go months without having to pay for camping in amazing remote(ish) places.
On my drive back from Alaska this past summer, every dirt road brought us to the most ideal campsites I’ve ever seen. Until we got back to civilization.
City slicker car camping sucks and you have to drive an hour to get to a spot that doesn’t feel like a drunk bum is going to crawl in or have city lights blaring through the windows. If that’s your scene, get window curtains and a car alarm.
Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough room for a sink, fridge or dishwasher, at least in my truck or most cars you may be living out of. So you need to change the way you think about food and cooking.
Coolers are great for the weekend warrior but aren’t feasible for long term use. It’s time to adjust your thinking away from the need for refrigeration. Fruit and vegetables don’t need to be refrigerated in the short term, but chicken breasts and Italian sausages do.
I’ve found that frequenting the grocery store is more practical. It’s tough to keep leftovers but with a little more planning you can cook edible portions. My kitchen consists of a 1L Jetboil, 2 GSI sporks, an Aeropress, a Leatherman, and a single piece of Tupperware, but I eat like a king. Fresh fruits and vegetables that I buy daily, oatmeal, hummus, cheese, salami, rice, and 5-star sandwiches.
I eat better food for less money than I ever have before.
50-square feet doesn’t offer a lot of room for hosting friends. Even mild hospitality is tough. They will throw their crap all over your well organized living space, put their feet all over your dash, and move your whole life around. You simply cannot accommodate friends with all their stuff. I’ve tried.
When friends visit, you’ll need to plan things to do and places to go that can accommodate. It’s like being 17 and not wanting to hang out at anyone’s parents house. If you’re not careful, you will end up driving around in circles until you eventually decide to scrap the day and go bowling. If you really want a challenge, try to date someone while living in your truck.
It’s not easy and it’s definitely not for everyone.
You’ve gotta want it. It requires a shift in the way you think about most things. Ditching the apartment and living a mobile life has been an arduous transition, but it has created a deep appreciation for the people, places, and things in my life. It’s an alternative lifestyle with a growing following for good reason. Rent is expensive and there is a lot to do and see out here.