INTERVIEW WITH AMBER AND CHRIS
Who are you and what is your backstory?
We’re Amber and Chris, and we’re rock climbing dirtbags living full time in our self-converted Promaster named Giovanni Camperosa.
Chris and I are kindred spirits but we came from two totally different worlds, me from the rural mountains of Montana and he from the suburbs of Philadelphia. We met at a small private university in Philadelphia my senior year, work colleagues first and foremost. I was also just coming off my first major heartbreak and was desperately looking for a distraction.
I knew Chris was a rock climber and rock climbing was something I had always been interested in, but never really had the access. What better way to distract myself from a broken heart than a new hobby? Well, an immediate love of climbing eventually led to more between the two of us and the adventure hasn’t stopped since! It’s even become our motto and brand: Always the Adventure.
"Vanlife is freedom... As rock climbers specifically, it allows us to chase the prime climbing seasons in different crags, or as we call them “sending temps”."
Prior to my senior year, I had studied abroad at Oxford University and backpacking solo through Europe. That trip completely changed my life and derailed me from the people-pleasing overachiever careertrack life I had been on. Instead, I fell in love with travel, told myself I was going to finish college only because I had made it so far, and planned to live the next foreseeable years out of a backpack.
Being the bad influence that I am, Chris decided to quit school entirely and booked a one way ticket to Montana with me for the summer after only dating a month. Had one of my friends told me the same story, I would have said they were insane. But sometimes, things just feel right and you can’t explain why. It’s that feeling that’s guided just about all our hairbrained adventures over the last four years.
After a summer in Montana, we took off to Central and South America together on an open ended backpacking trip. After six months of that, we started to feel the nagging urge for a home that was a little more than a backpack. We threw proverbial darts on the map and decided to move to Alaska. No jobs, no housing lined up, just a pipe dream that all stemmed from my childhood obsession with the animated film Balto. With everything we owned loaded into a Toyota Camry, we hit the road and drove 5,000 miles from Philadelphia to Anchorage guided by the hope that we would find a place to set down roots.
Take us to the moment you decided to begin your Vanlife?
A year into our Alaska lives it became clear that Alaska would never be quite home (though it is an amazing state that we absolutely love in many ways). At the same time, we didn’t want to completely start over again. We were tired of feeling displaced, of renting, and of feeling like our home was never ours… we just weren’t ready to commit to a single location quite yet. There were too many places to see and too many rocks to climb.
I had always followed vanlifers on Instagram with a distant admiration and “one day in the future” sort of attitude, but the more we thought about it, the more a house on wheels seemed like a truly viable solution to our dilemma. We halfheartedly searched for some used vans and box trucks online, but found the prices of used cargo vans to be absurdly high given their 100,000+ mileage counts. Buying new was financially scary, but we knew it could pay in the long run to have a reliable vehicle with a fresh engine. After all, when your car is also your house, you really don’t want it to be constantly in and out of the shop.
"For a while we really struggled with that. Here we were living this dream lifestyle and we felt absolutely miserable much of the time. It felt like we were failing at our dreams because we weren’t enjoying them 100% of the time...."
We didn’t plan on buying a van when we did; it just sort of happened. We had been to a dealer to price shop and one day, we received a call from the salesman telling us there was only one van left with our desired specs left on the lot. We applied for a loan, just to see what they would say, figuring it would take at least days to hear back. Not ten minutes later, they called us back to tell us we had been approved for a loan with a decent interest rate.
Being impulsive as we were, we scrounged together enough money split between all our low-limit credit cards to put down a sufficient down payment, went to the dealer, signed the paperwork, and drove off the lot in the white windowless hull that would be our future home.
Then the really hard work started: van conversion. For those who have never converted a van before, let us tell you it is HARD and you will want to quit about once every single day. Our 9 month sporadic build was riddled with problems, like getting kicked out of our rental house because our landlords didn’t like the look of the van, moving into a new house that we could only have for three months before essentially being homeless if the van wasn’t finished, and building out of a leaky shed that repeatedly soaked our lumber through the deep months of an Alaskan winter. All the while we were selling off everything we owned and working three jobs each to pay for the build.
The day we moved into the van was the happiest and most surreal of my life, and considering I went into the project not knowing how to change a drill bit, we’re pretty darn proud of how our little log cabin on wheels turned out.
Tell us about the advantages to the Van lifestyle?
Vanlife is freedom. That’s the biggest draw for most people and we’re no exception. As rock climbers specifically, it allows us to chase the prime climbing seasons in different crags, or as we call them “sending temps”. In our first year of vanlife alone, we have gotten to experience more climbing areas more intimately than we could have in a decade only taking climbing trips.
Our absolute favorite climbing destination in the world is Bishop, California, this amazingly quaint town surrounded by monolithic boulders and the dramatic backdrop of the Eastern Sierras. We had gone on two other climbing trips there while living in Alaska, and despite that, vanlife just made us appreciate it on a different level. Vanlife allows you to be more than tourists; it allows to become a temporary local.
But vanlife is also a lot more than just freedom. It’s a constant learning experience, even if it’s often by the School of Hard Knocks. Vanlife teaches you how to improvise and come up with solutions on the fly. It has given us tremendous resiliency and the confidence to say, “We’ve gotten our two ton van unstuck from red desert clay with nothing more than sagebrush… we can do anything.”
More than anything else, vanlife has given us an understanding of what it means to live mindfully. Things that most people do take for granted are things that require absolute intentionality when you live in a van: supplying ourselves with water, going to the bathroom, finding showers, doing laundry. Before living in a van, we didn’t think twice about these daily tasks; now, we often plan our days around them. Which all leads us to live more presently, even on days when we don’t have a task list to accomplish. We’ve learned you don’t always have to be doing something to have had a worthwhile day. Just like with yoga, the benefit of movement can only come if there is sufficient breath between.
Tell us about the biggest challenges and downsides to the Van lifestyle?
Make no mistake: vanlife is a lot of sacrifice. Yes, you gain the freedom to live absolutely anywhere (#HomeIsWhereYouParkIt and all that) but that comes at the price of no routine or consistency. You give up things like running water, on-demand hot showers, a mailing address, a familiar doctor, pets (which many people make work while living in vans, but we just personally don’t feel right about and it thus a big thing we’re suffering without), even the luxury of taking a poo and never having to think about where it goes.
With intentional living comes little things that can exhaust you over time. Every time you move to a new spot, you need to figure out your resources. Where am I going to dump my toilet? Find safe drinking water? Where can I legally sleep? That’s one of the biggest things I miss. The security of always having a place to go at night. Few things in vanlife are more stressful than questing for a campsite as it’s getting dark and you just can’t find anything. Or having to park in a sketchy area in a city because anywhere else will probably end up having the cops called on you.
For instance, one night in Anchorage, Alaska, we actually had a homeless man open the door to our van, clearly tripping on drugs, and say, “I thought I was told to come in here.” He then proceeded to keep trying all the doors after we shut him out and locked the van until we were forced to move.
Weather can also be super challenging. If you get stuck in a week long rainstorm in a house, that’s one thing, but to be stuck in a windowless van for days on end leaves us climbing the walls.
"We’re not big on planning. We’re the type of people that decide to drive from one coast to the other on December 22nd with a goal to arrive by Christmas Day in order to surprise family (true story)... "
The stigma of vanlife is also challenging. Lots of people either assume vanlifers are lazy, sponging off government assistance, or lucky, as if these tiny homes on wheels just fell from the sky at our feet. We hear that phrase all the time: “You’re so lucky”. While yes, it does take a certain amount of privilege to live this way, luck didn’t get us here. Years of working 14 hour days across multiple jobs did. They simply don’t see all the hard work and sacrifice we made (and still make) to live the way we do.
How do you find a sense of community when you’re always moving? How do you maintain and build relationships on the road?
Chris and I are both incredibly independent and self sufficient people. We grew up only children with pretty much only our moms in our life. That’s worked really well for us living in a van. That’s one of the first things we usually get asked: “How do you live in such a small space with each other?” Step one is get used to spending time with each other, which we’ve always done. Pretty much from day one of our relationship, it’s been he and I against the world and we’ve always spent more time together than most couples. If you go from working separate jobs and seeing each other only a couple hours a day, vanlife might come as a rude surprise.
Other people assume we have the perfect relationship and surely must never fight if we live in such a small space together. That’s 100% not true. We fight all the time, but the difference is, we don’t try to avoid it. We’re honest which other which means we may fight a bit, but we get over it in a matter of minutes. If one of us is having negative thoughts, we figure it’s best to just get it out right away so it doesn’t fester. There just isn’t room in a van for hard feelings and resentment.
That’s why we’re confident in calling ourselves best friends, and why we don’t really get bothered by the fact that we don’t really maintain many close relationships with people while living on the road. While we do casually keep in touch through social media with some people, we tend to live more in the social moment, enjoying the company of people we find ourselves around but not necessarily counting on ever seeing them again. Ironically, some of our closest friends today are those we’ve met while traveling and only hung out with for a brief period of time. Sometimes, the shorter the sweeter!
How do you support yourself financially?
We both work as freelance writers with a couple regular contracts, usually specializing in writing about rock climbing and sustainable living/ ethical consumerism.
On top of that, we run our own vanlife and and climbing website, AlwaysTheAdventure.com. It doesn’t make much, but it’s a little something which really does count. In general, vanlife is more costly than a lot of people think. While yes, going from a $1,500 monthly rent payment to a $400 monthly van payment was huge, other living expenses don’t just go away: car insurance, van maintenance, phone bills, groceries, gym memberships, and of course, gas. Without a steady paycheck, those bills can still be stressful.
Our writing income unfortunately doesn’t fully cover our monthly expenditures so we also had some savings before going into the van, and will likely need to pick up temporary full time work again in the future to replenish them. That said, you can definitely live more cheaply than we do.
We’ve come to learn that splurging once in a while is key to vanlife happiness. For instance, if really cold weather is forecasted (as in single digits cold) we splurge on a hotel room! You can also live much more expensively than us, too. Overall, we’re pretty frugal in that we stay in rural locations, don’t eat out much, and never pay to sleep in campgrounds or RV parks. We already lived frugally before vanlife so it was an easy adjustment for us.
What is your one piece of advice for people who want to do what you do?
Vanlife is not all sunshine and rainbows, or beach views and cheeky underwear like Instagram makes it out to be. More often than not, it looks like greasy hair from not showering for a week and trying not to get your own poo on your shoes while dumping your own toilet.
While we knew that going in, we didn’t quite know the extent of how hard it would be at times. The fact is, you do absolutely hate it some days. Days when you would kill for a hot bath in the comfort of an actual house. Just like life, there are good days and bad days, and vanlife tends to amplify both to the extreme ends of the spectrum. High highs and low lows.
For a while we really struggled with that. Here we were living this dream lifestyle and we felt absolutely miserable much of the time. It felt like we were failing at our dreams because we weren’t enjoying them 100% of the time, especially since no one else on social media ever admitted to feeling the same way. We’ve since encountered so many people that have sympathized with us and told us about their own dark side of vanlife. If only we had known from the start.
If we could offer one piece of hard-won wisdom to new or future vanlifers, it would be this: You are not alone in your struggles. It’s okay to have bad days, to feel inferior to other vanlifers, to consider quitting even. You don’t fail at vanlife just because you fantasize about your old apartment. The struggle is normal and it doesn’t mean you don’t love it or that it isn’t 100% worth it.
What have been the most influential and helpful books, podcasts, blogs, websites or other resources?
It all started with Dylan’s Magaster’s Alternative Living Spaces YouTube channel, long before the inklings of personal vanlife entered our minds. Less about vanlife specifically and more as inspiration to spurn conventional living and dwell on the fringes of society, Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild was a huge influence in our adventurous spirit. We actually came up with our name Always the Adventure based on a quote by the subject of the book, Chris McCandless: “The very basic core of man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”
As far as practical inspiration, the websites Gnomad Home and Divine on the Road were really helpful during our van build. Now that we live in the van, we absolutely could not live without the apps iOverlander (which is a contributor based app that maps out nearby vanlife resources like wild camp spots, RV dumps, propane refills, and more) and Gas Buddy (which helps us find the cheapest nearby gas).
What does the future look like?
We’re not big on planning. We’re the type of people that decide to drive from one coast to the other on December 22nd with a goal to arrive by Christmas Day in order to surprise family (true story).
Especially now given the uncertainty of COVID-19 (which chased us nearly 2,000 unplanned miles in its early stages), planning seems especially futile. For now, we’ll likely be staying somewhat close to where we’ve been sheltering in Montana and hopefully pick up a bit of work over the summer so we can be totally free by the time fall climbing season rolls around.
Beyond that, who knows?! We’ve been talking a lot about getting property and building a cabin to serve as basecamp so we can live in the van part time. Vanlife and travel will always have a huge place in our lives, but we do yearn for a physical place to be able to return to. The only trouble is that we love so many places we can’t decide where, so we’re going to keep traveling until we find that perfect place that feels like home.
Is there anything that you need that you can’t find or anything you are seeking help with?
We pride ourselves on being very self sufficient and don’t generally ask for help. Instead, we tackle things with a can-do (or rather van-do) attitude. The only thing we ask for as vanlifers is respect and consideration, in general, but especially in these trying times.
When COVID-19 steamrolled into a pandemic, we vanlifers felt a ton of backlash and criticism by people telling us to “stay home” when we had no home at which to stay. Just our van. One look at our Alaska license plates and no one wanted anything to do with us, no matter how respectful of smaller towns we were or how socially distant we tried to remain.
The fact of the matter is that travel isn’t exactly a luxury for us; it’s the reality of our lifestyle, so the only sort of help we ask for is in understanding that we’re trying our best. We may live in vans, but we’re successful people chasing our dreams. Those dreams just look a little different than most.
Rapid fire questions
What are the top 3 Van essentials that you couldn’t live without?
- Teva Ember Moc indoor/outdoor slippers: We literally both own two pairs and unless we're out hiking or climbing, we pretty much never wear anything else!
- MSR water dromedary bags: Water storage for long periods of time off -grid is the one most difficult aspects of vanlife. These are reusable ways to stockpile tons of water… then just fold away once empty!
- Whale Water Systems Gusher Galley foot pump: Way easier to use than handpumps and save us tons of water over an electric water pump.
Top 3 favorite places you’ve visited?
- The Buttermilk Boulders- Bishop, CA
- Ibex- West Desert, UT
- Snow Canyon State Park- St. George, UT
Where are you now?
“Sheltering (mostly) in place” in Northwest Montana. I’m originally from here so we have a bit of a support network here (including access to showers since public gyms are closed!). In fact, we’re parked in the yard of the very first apartment Chris and I rented together years ago.
How long do you usually stay in one place?
Usually around a month, to get the full experience.
When did you first start Vanlifing?
We moved into the van at the beginning of May 2019 so we just celebrated our first year vanniversary!
Are you full-time or part-time Vanlifing?
How many weeks have you spent in the Van in the last 12 months?
We took a brief hiatus of a month and a half over the Christmas season to visit Chris’ mom but otherwise we’ve spent around 50 weeks in the van.
What kind of vehicle/rv/trailer/setup do you have?
2018 Dodge Ram Promaster 3500 cargo van named Giovanni Camperosa
Where can we go to keep up with you and your adventures?
You can follow our adventures in real time via our Instagram @alwaystheadventure, or learn more about the nitty gritty details of vanlife, van building, and how to be a rock climber on the road through how-to guides on our website, www.alwaystheadventure.com.