One year in a camper van: a review

April 30, 2024.

On April 28, Aaron and I celebrated our one year vanniversary! We left our home in Bend, Oregon on that day in 2023 to set off on a two-plus year road trip. In the past year, we’ve seen and done so many things that are impossible to summarize in a short blog post, but I’ve chosen to reflect on a few elements of our travel that I find interesting to talk about. And so, our year in review…

Camping | Travel planning | Community | Education | Surprises |Top ten list

road trip
Van in the wild.

Camping

We’ve been tent campers our whole lives. Being thrust into the world of van camping took us a bit by surprise. We camp in almost a completely different way due to the convenience of our rig. No more campfires, no more set up and break down time, no more long winter nights with nothing to do.

To be honest, I thought I’d miss campfires more than I do. Now, I find them more of a nuisance than anything. When we are forced to camp in an actual campground where people are having fires, it’s hard to breathe and everything gets saturated in smelly camp smoke. Since we have a comfortable place to hang out in the van, complete with plenty of things to do, we almost never feel the need to make a fire. Besides, with all the restrictions and high fire danger in most of the places we travel, it’s relatively unethical to even consider having a campfire.

Since we have good lighting and (when we need it) ample ways to stay warm in the van, we can spend time reading, writing, playing games, making art, watching movies, etc. And since every day is a camp day, it feels less alluring and special to do things we only do at camp, like build a fire. Plus, we filled our van storage area with everything we own, so there’s no room to throw firewood in the back. On rare occasions, when the conditions are right and firewood is scattered near our camp, we’ll bust out a campfire.

Travel planning

Some of the apps and websites I use for trip planning. Some.

As much as I love planning camping adventures, it has become a bit of a beast to have to be in constant planning road. I feel like it’s a part-time job to calculate drive times, find legal places to park overnight, scout open skies for Starlink on Aaron’s work days, as well as locate public facilities like bathrooms, trash dumps and water fills. Some counties and states have been much easier to plan than others. Cities can be an absolute nightmare with overnight parking bans, especially for tall vehicles like ours. I’ve learned to use a variety of apps and services to locate places we can legally park overnight (I’m not interested in stretching the rules and ruining the ability for others to park in the future).

I was reluctant to sign up for any paid services, but I decided to try the combo of Harvest Hosts and Boondocker’s Welcome for a year to see how I liked them. After barely 6 months of our annual membership, we’ve stayed at 14 different locations on the apps, some for multiple nights. We’ve met some great people, visited local farms, breweries and restaurants we otherwise wouldn’t have known about and enjoyed beautiful, convenient places to stay.

It sounds like an ad, but for the way we travel, these apps have been essential. As we moved away from the vast public lands in the west, we’ve needed to be more creative in finding places to stay and the folks who offer up parking on both sites have really helped! I especially enjoy the boondocking sites in cities, so we have a place to park where Aaron can work all day and I’m walking distance from shops, museums, trailheads and other services. I expect we’ll rely heavily on these services on the East Coast.

The other app that I use on a daily basis is iOverlander. This provides an interactive map overlaid with crowdsourced data about places to camp. Options include private and public paid campgrounds, dispersed campsites and safe, legal places to park in cities. Since the data is crowdsourced, it’s not always accurate and I cross-reference anything I find with Google maps satellite data, public lands data and internet searches. I find it just as useful to confirm places I want to stay and places I do NOT want to stay, based on the type and volume of public comments left for given locations. So far, I have found a ton of great camp spots by using this app!

Community

We both feared that full-time travel would isolate us. But we’ve both noticed that since leaving home, we’ve felt more connected to community than ever. As with anything in life, you get back what you put in. And since we worried about losing connections as we wandered off into the unknown, we made a good effort in making sure we not only kept the friendships and loose connections we had, but actively created new ones on the go.

As much as people complain about social media, I’ve learned that you can make it your friend or foe. I aggressively unfollow any account that offers me no benefit or is a constant stream of hate, judgement or just shows the worst of people. Instead, I actively look for people who share things that I’m interested in: hiking, art, wildflowers, travel, nature. I also have no problem reaching out to strangers on the internet when we share things in common, or if I’ll be traveling to their neck of the woods soon. Most decent human beings are happy to share advice or knowledge if you show them some interest and respect. I’ve even made some real life friends from first meeting people online.

Our Capoeira community has also been a bottomless well of joy, support, strength, personal growth and culture. We’ve made stops to train in Eugene, Oakland, Berkeley, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Denver, St. Louis, Tucson, Phoenix, El Paso, Juarez (Mexico), the list goes on and on. In each new place, we forge connections with fellow Capoeiristas, both people we’ve met before and people we haven’t. Sometimes we just go to class and nothing more. Other times we share meals or other social activities. And sometimes they offer up a driveway or recommendation for a place to stay. Although I feel the effects of not being able to train in a group on a regular basis, they always welcome us with no judgement and are happy to meet us wherever we are (physically, mentally, musically!) I appreciate having this art as a foundational part of our trip.

Sweaty post-Capoeira photo from Albuquerque

In addition, we’ve still regularly attended our book club (now over Zoom!). We sign up for service projects every few months. I send a monthly newsletter as well as personal cards, postcards, letters and art. I’ve joined an online art class/community where I can geek out about painting with other watercolor artists of every skill level and background. And we occasionally get to meet up with our friends who come to us! We’ve been so grateful to share our travel with our friends. Also, the breadth of our journey has led us to visit friends and family who we haven’t seen in 5, 10, even 20 years. It’s been so fun to reconnect with folks all over the country. Maybe, you’re next?

Education

I have always had a love of learning and a vast curiosity about the world. This trip has blown the doors wide open, providing countless opportunities to learn and be challenged about what I think I know. We’ve made many stops at historic and cultural sites. Botanical gardens and zoos. Workshops and lectures. Guided tours and hikes. We’ve learned from ordinary people just going about their normal business in places we’ve only read about and developed deep unconscious biases about.

Every act of service is an educational opportunity. By joining volunteer projects, we’ve met great people, learned new skills and developed a deeper understanding of and appreciation for an area. We’ve done some trail work and joined trash clean-up parties. We’ve also done many trash pick ups on our own.

I think travel can be a great teacher, but only if your mind is open to learning. I’ve met plenty of travelers who seem to have missed the memo and are outright rude or woefully uninformed about the places they’ve been. I try very hard to see the good in all people, but I’m often surprised at the massive gaps in knowledge among people who should know better. For me, travel has taught me to be more humble and to question what I know with honest curiosity. The people who speak confidently about how they’ve got the world all figured out—those are the ones you need to watch out for.

LGBTQIA+ history in San Francisco

Surprises

Speaking of bias, let’s talk about the Midwest. This was the most recent time I felt like I spoke too confidently about something I didn’t know much about. I knew all the stereotypes, which I’ll spare you here. But when we actually visited the Midwest (my first time, even), I found that I really enjoyed myself. We found gorgeous outdoor landscapes, delicious food, incredible art, engaging museums and lovely people. I don’t know why I had such an innate revulsion about the idea about visiting this large, diverse swath of land in the middle of the country. That was extremely short-sighted. Now, I don’t know if I could *live* anywhere with no mountains, but I’d go back and visit in a heartbeat.

Now let’s talk sunsets. Since we’re basically outdoors every day, we’ve seen hundreds of epic sunset. There’s no way you can watch a sunset and not have faith in the world. Each one so different, so perfect, so awe-inspiring. I’ve seen plenty of sunsets before, but something hits different when you see one almost every day. I just appreciate them so much more now than I ever have.

You have no idea how long it took me to choose just one sunset pic to share.

And finally, it’s become easier for me to experience awe on a daily basis. Literally everything is exciting because it’s brand new. I was getting pretty good at this even back in Bend, but I am certain that I find multiple things that break my mind open every single day. Whether it’s a flower or bird I’ve never seen before, a new sound, a curious natural phenomenon, a unique piece of architecture or a novel way to present a familiar food. I am constantly gob smacked by everyday things. I remind myself that every place I visit is someone’s home. Someone knows every nook and cranny, has identified every flower, tree and fungus, has seen that bird a million times. But not me. And as I face new experiences on a daily basis, it is very easy for me to find joy in ordinary things.

Surprised that I haven’t talked about our van build? You can find van stuff ad nauseum online if that’s what you’re into. I have no interest in monetizing our lifestyle or promoting brands. I would just love to break even on paying for web hosting (#goals). So if you want to talk van details, you can find that elsewhere. We spent a lot of time and money investing in something that would make this trip easy, and it’s basically all panned out. I’m sure we’ll have breakdowns and other issues down the road, but things have mostly gone to plan so far. People travel in vans for dirt cheap and in luxurious style. People have been traveling nomadically for as long as there have been people, and this is just one of the latest iterations. We’re grateful to have this opportunity and see no end in sight yet!

Top ten list

  1. There
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  7. A
  8. Top
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  10. List

By this time, you should have expected this. I can’t stand a top ten list. I can’t tell you my favorite place, favorite hike, favorite flower, favorite restaurant. And even if I could, they wouldn’t necessarily be *your* favorite. Each day I have new favorite experiences, and they’re not necessarily repeatable. The weather, my mindset, interactions with other people, how my body feels, what I’m thinking about, all of these variables impact my experience at any given time and place. So, I encourage you to quickly scroll past any website that offers a top ten list. Instead, go make memories wherever and whenever you can. Every place is special, if you arrive with an open mind.

There are no best places, best products, best people, best anything. But there is so much to learn and a vast amount of space to explore in this short lifetime. However you are able, I hope you can get out and enjoy what this state, country and world has to offer.

Got questions? Please ask away in the comments or send me a message! I’m always happy to talk hiking, van travel and anything remotely related to this post.

Waking up with 30,000 sandhill cranes in Southern Arizona

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