Who are you and what is your backstory?
Hi! We are Anna and James, owners of Leave The Map. We’re a husband and wife photography and travel couple currently living life on the road in our custom-built out campervan. We left our full-time jobs in Los Angeles a year ago to pursue our passions of living life on the road, instead of being tied down to one place.
James: I was previously an in-house video producer and have worked in TV and entertainment as a creative editor and producer for over 5 years. I began working for myself as a freelance director and photographer while we were living in Los Angeles and began to build the confidence that I could go off on my own and make a living.
Anna: I worked as an in-house graphic designer for 3 years, before realizing that I was just biding my time for something more. It was right after our wedding and honeymoon when we decided that something needed to change. Within a year after that realization, we were packing our things and moving out of our Downtown Los Angeles apartment to hit the road full time.
Our honeymoon really was the catalyst that kicked off this decision. We chose to spend our honeymoon traveling in a rented Escape campervan across the country instead of on some lavish beach in the Caribbean (although that would have been pretty fantastic too). We spent 14 days traveling through some of the most beautiful parts of the US, and loved every single second of it.
When the trip ended and we pulled the van into our parking spot in Los Angeles, we both felt gutted that we had to give this dream life up. We vowed at that point to find a way to make that dream a reality and we haven’t looked back since.
Our outlook on life is really what made this decision so clear to us. We both value the work hard, play hard mentality, but we want to work hard with a goal in mind. Our goal is to enjoy every single day and experience all that this world has to offer. Our jobs did not give us the freedom we so desperately wanted, so we chose to make our own reality.
We’ve always valued working for ourselves, and although it may seem easier than working for someone else it is mentally demanding. Our jobs are 24/7. We are constantly spending our days thinking of new ways to reinvent ourselves as photographers, filmmakers, and educators and finding a work/life balance all the while.
"Just go for it! If it’s something you can’t stop thinking about and a dream you have, then what is stopping you? You can only talk yourself out of so much until you finally have to say yes to something. And for us, this decision was our YES moment."
An ideal day for us is usually spent with a cup of coffee in the morning and a productive morning meeting. We sit down either outside on a sunny day or around the campsite and map out a plan. Sometimes it’s a business plan, other times it's which hike we feel like taking or which National Park we want to visit that week. But the silver lining in every one of these days is that WE decide how we want to plan out our day. A boss doesn’t dictate what time we need to come into the office or when we are allowed to use vacation days to take a week-long trip somewhere exotic.
This is not to be confused with a lack of hard work. In fact, we work harder now than we did when we had full-time jobs. And it’s that kind of thinking that allows us to make enough money to live the life we truly want every day. One of the best parts of our relationship is that we both agree on the same values. It’s why we are able to run a successful business while traveling full time. And it’s why we value the freedom of traveling and new experiences over the safety and comfort of a paycheck.
Take us to the moment you decided to begin your Vanlife?
Van life was a dream of ours before we even got married. We had even created a vision board in our apartment with inspiration so we could look at it every day and push ourselves to save enough money to buy one. The official leap took some time and was a really hard decision to make. We spent many late nights, talking through the pros and cons of leaving a comfortable life in Los Angeles to take a pretty big risk of full-time travel.
Our hesitations usually centered around money. How were we going to live this life and make enough money to support ourselves? Were we making a mistake leaving our friends behind? What would the future look like without full-time jobs? All of these questions and fears crept up as constant voices nagging at us.
But our motivations for living the van life were so strong that they silenced any fears we had. We were not motivated by money. And because of that, it was an easier decision to leave behind a six-figure job to take a risky leap without knowing what the outcome would be. Our motivation was our freedom, our time, and experiencing something new and different every day.
The challenges that eventually came with that were totally new to us and that’s what has made this life so fulfilling. We learn something new every day about ourselves. Whether it’s fixing a mechanical or technical problem in the van or working on growing our business in creative ways, every day is a new adventure and it’s been worth it every step of the way.
Tell us about the advantages to the Van lifestyle?
The Van lifestyle definitely has its advantages and its disadvantages like any other style of living. But to us, it has way more advantages to the life we were living previously!
The fact that our set up is self-contained and we can drive from state to state and campground to campground and pack up quickly is a game-changer. We’ve seen so many campsites that take hours to set up and the breakdown and for us, we keep things very minimalist so we can come and go as conveniently as possible.
In addition to that, having a unit like a van where we actually live and sleep is something that has been so ideal for smaller camping trips and even weekend getaways where we don’t feel like packing a ton of gear. Because the van is typically set up and ready to go at a moment’s notice we don’t have to prep all that much to hit the road. It’s a freeing and exhilarating feeling to just hop in the van and hit the road with a very loose plan and know that we’ll be able to find a place to sleep and explore no matter where you go.
"If you are camping in the winter in the van, make sure you have some kind of propane heater or an actual heating system. Even with the proper insulation and layers of blankets, you will wake up with frost on the windows. And one last little tip, ...."
The skills we’ve been able to acquire since living in the van have been absolutely invaluable. Our strengths are creativity and art, not in mechanics. So it was definitely an eye-opener to us to take this jump and immediately need to know the in’s and outs of the inside of the van but most importantly the mechanics of it. Having the confidence to know that if we break down we can jumpstart the van. Or if we have battery issues with the house battery, we can check the proper connections and fix the problem quickly. It was definitely a learning curve at first. But trial by fire and some frustrating moments along the way has taught us a lot that we know now.
In addition to the mechanics and the technical side of things, the design of a tiny home has been challenging and really fun as well. We’ve both worked really hard to design a living space that feels equal parts home as it does a functioning workspace. As photographers we want our van to represent our creative side and also be an appealing place to shoot. At the same time, functionality needs to take priority over the look, so we have constantly found compromises and have learned to adapt our design and ideas to the reality of living in our tiny space.
We have certainly discussed having kids and definitely want to in the future, maybe a few years down the line. We always talk about the values that we will instill in our children in the future, especially on our long drives across the middle of the country. We want to raise our kids with an awareness of their environment and to have a great appreciation and respect for the outdoors. This planet is beautiful and it is precious, so it is our job to not only enjoy it but to take care of it.
The knowledge and education that we gain when traveling full time will all be passed down to our kids with the hopes that someday they find a passion of their own, whether it be traveling the world, telling stories, or living in a van!
Tell us about the biggest challenges and downsides to the Van lifestyle?
Social media definitely glorifies van life! And although we are biased and love it, there are a lot of downsides to living in a van that many people don’t talk about.
The lack of space is really the biggest challenge to traveling full time on the road. Although we do our best to travel with minimal gear and pack only what we need, the small space fills up quickly and you realize just how little you need to be comfortable. Over the past year of traveling we’ve adapted to each other's tiny living situation and now know exactly what to bring on each trip to ensure we don’t overpack. But the first few trips we took, we’re packed to the gills and made for some really frustrating nights getting ready for bed.
Another challenge is finding a safe and comfortable place to sleep every night. Most people think it’s just easy to pull over on the side of the road and set up camp for the night. But there are way more factors for camping in the van. If we are out on the west coast, BLM land is usually our go-to, because there are way more options to camp outside of the parks for free. If we are in a national park, state park, or private campground, we either book a site ahead of time or cross our fingers and hope a site is available when we arrive. If none of these is an option than Wal-Mart, Cabelas and Cracker Barrel parking lots are the last resort as they are free and for the most part safe to camp for a night or two. The safety of where we camp is always a priority so we always want to make sure we make a smart decision of where to stay every night, and that definitely gets challenging over a long period of time.
One of the worst days we’ve had during vanlife recently was actually a little over two weeks ago right outside of Salmon Idaho. We were looking for a place to camp for the night in some kind of dispersed campground since we were only staying one night. The best we could do was outside of the national forest down a dirt road along the Salmon River, a decent spot but mildly sketchy. Not every spot you camp at in the van is glamorous, in fact more of them aren’t. So we set up camp inside the van and locked the doors, put our curtains up and closed the windows, when about 30 minutes after it got dark out we heard and eventually saw 5-6 pickup trucks barreling down the road. They stopped right at the end of the road, just passed our site and we were sketched out but intrigued as we watched from the window.
Turns out an entire search and rescue team and the local volunteer team on their dune buggies skidded down our “peaceful” dirt road in search of someone that was either lost or hurt along the fast moving Salmon River. We were both terrified and interested at the same time. Huge flooded spot lights lit up the camp area as we watched for a good half an hour this group of local volunteers and rangers search the river. Eventually they pulled someone up out of the river and left faster than they got there, laughing as soon as it was all over. We were shocked at how quickly the mood changed and immediately felt like “what did we just witness?!” We both slept like crap that night, wide awake worried about what else would happen outside of the van while we slept. Luckily we got out of our site early and hit the road, trying to put behind us a very uncomfortable and weird night spent in the van. Nights like that happen often, but this was definitely a unique experience.
Cooking every night with a tiny sink and having limited access to running water is also a challenge. Most campgrounds have amenities that allow us to do dishes in the sink, but it’s still an additional step to take and in the Fall and Winter months, doing dishes with cold water is torture.
Most of the luxuries that we have at home were overlooked and underappreciated until we started to live in a van. Getting our mail delivered, showering every day, having strong wifi, doing the laundry, cooking with an oven; the list could go on and on. But as challenging as these daily routines are, they have taught us how to adapt to our environment in a way that we would never have been forced to do.
As far as planning out our trips, they can be mentally draining when we over plan. When we first bought the van, our tendency was to plan every mile of our trip. But we’ve come to realize that some of our best and most memorable moments we’ve had on the road, happen spur of the moment when we haven’t planned anything. So our new approach is to find a balance between pre-planning a route and just going with the flow. Our attitude towards this life is that the best adventures happen when you least expect it and we really do try our best to live by those words as much as possible.
How do you find a sense of community when you’re always moving? How do you maintain and build relationships on the road?
As wonderful and eye-opening as traveling is, it can also be extremely lonely. When we left Los Angeles, we not only left our jobs behind but our community of friends as well. So it has been challenging to find a strong community on the road while always being on the move.
Over the past year, we have met some amazing people in campgrounds across the US, and in some cases, those connections have made that part of the trip the most memorable.
Last year, we visited Big Bend National Park in Southern Texas for the first time and spent about 5 days there. We had no expectations of what the park would be like and until that part of the trip hadn’t really met anyone that we clicked with on the road. The park was absolutely stunning on its own with so much to do and see, but we felt like we were desperate for community.
On our second night camping at the Chisos Basin campground, we’re on our way back from a hike when we met a group of other van lifers. They were traveling with two kids and we hit it off immediately. At the same time, another couple came over and invited us to check out their camper and we connected with them as well. Later that night a friend we met earlier in the day, who was solo traveling with his dog found a spot next to us in the same campground and we spent all night getting to know each other. We sat outside staring up at the endless star-filled sky and admiring how beautiful it was just to be present. We went our separate ways the next morning, but that night was an incredible moment and one we both talk about often.
After that trip, we reflected on some of our favorite memories and those four days spent in Big Bend were at the top of the list. It was the community of this campground and the friendships we created that really made that trip and it’s something we are searching for everywhere we go.
From that point, we joined every online van community we could and started following fellow “van-lifers” on Instagram (@lovehardtraveloften @slowcarfasthome @sebastian_schieren @andtheytravel). By connecting this way, we’ve established friendships and have shared similar experiences with other travelers and have given and received advice from people in the community. It’s a strong group of like-minded individuals, with a passion for exploring, and we are always open and willing to meet new people on the road.
How do you support yourself financially?
We fully support ourselves from our photography and travel business, Leave The Map. Our main source of income comes from brand partnerships where we create professional photography and video for social media and external marketing campaigns.
Because we have a social media presence on Instagram, Tik Tok, and YouTube we will often create content for other brands and advertise their products on our platforms. This generates income for us as well. We are also in the early stages of developing some digital courses on our website www.leavethemaptravel.com as well which will ideally generate passive income while we are on the road traveling.
In addition to the content side of our business, we teach other travelers and entrepreneurs how to take a leap and pursue their passions full time. We have both made sacrifices and difficult transitions leaving stable jobs with consistent income and have proven that it is possible to make a living doing what you love.
So this past year we decided to create a group “Mastermind” where we provide the tools, community, and confidence for others to do the same. It was definitely a tough transition to leave a consistent paycheck behind, especially not knowing where the next one would be coming from. And it can be difficult to stay optimistic as a full-time travel business when traveling as an industry has taken such a huge hit this year. So we’ve adapted our business to work with the new normal and so far it’s been working out really well!
In addition to our self-made business, we also have passive income from previous investments we’ve put into place. Years ago we both began investing in the market on our own and through retirement plans from our previous employers. Making sure we have a nest egg and savings to fall back on is always important to us and it motivates us to continue to work even harder to make sure it continues to grow.
What is your one piece of advice for people who want to do what you do?
Just go for it! If it’s something you can’t stop thinking about and a dream you have, then what is stopping you? You can only talk yourself out of so much until you finally have to say yes to something. And for us, this decision was our YES moment.
Of course, we did our research beforehand and had saved enough to afford to buy the actual van. But the self-doubt, the fear, the worries, and all of the emotions that we struggled with before taking this leap, hail in comparison to the freedom and joy we gained from making this change.
Some of our biggest learnings have come in the build process of the van. Because this was our first build and we’d never lived in a space this tiny before, we got a little eager with the design. We probably spent more money than we needed to build a closet and shelves in the first iteration of the van that is no longer there. We had the tendency to rush through some of the builds to get everything done quickly and hit the road when in reality we probably could have taken our time and thought some things through more carefully (lesson learned).
Another huge lesson for us has been to just enjoy each place and be present in the moment. Because we are big planners and want to experience everything, we often rush through parks or campgrounds and only stay in one place for a day or two. In preparation for our upcoming trip out west, we will definitely be taking things a bit slower and try to appreciate each place over a longer period of time.
As some general Van Life/travel warnings; Always monitor your gas level, especially when driving through large National Parks where gas stations are scarce. You’ll burn through gas way quicker than you expect driving up elevated mountain passes, so be prepared. If you are camping in the winter in the van, make sure you have some kind of propane heater or an actual heating system. Even with the proper insulation and layers of blankets, you will wake up with frost on the windows. And one last little tip, always bring a Road Atlas! Ours never leaves the dashboard and this will save you in so many situations when you don’t have service or can’t find a mountain road on Apple Maps. It’s honestly a must in every Van Lifers travel kit.
What have been the most influential and helpful books, podcasts, blogs, websites or other resources?
We’ve used a ton of different apps that have made our lives way easier on the road. Roadtrippers is one of our favorites because it lets us map out our entire trip with the landmarks and places we want to hit along the way with a full itinerary.
For finding the best hiking trails around the country All Trails is a game changer! Not only can you find hikes wherever you are, but they rank them by the skill level of the hike you’re looking for and you can log each hike you complete to start keeping a record of them.
HipCamp, Campendium, The Dyrt, and iOverlander are all amazing apps for finding campsites and lodging for the night. These apps remove a lot of the stress of finding a campsite each night and at the very least offer some comfort that sites are in abundance everywhere.
What does the future look like?
As of now, we are just living day by day which is really freeing. We used to live by long-term planning and now we’re just taking things as they come. We had big travel plans before the virus hit and everything got canceled. It really made us think about our goals and our travel plans and realize that things can change at the drop of a hat.
Next week, we’re finally heading out on a long trip again and the plan is to head to Glacier, Idaho, the Tetons, and Colorado. It’s a very loose plan so that we can keep things open for fun stops along the way. During quarantine, we decided to focus on our business and really set up Leave The Map for long-term success. We launched a group mastermind program teaching entrepreneurs and creators on how to start an online business and get paid to travel. We just wrapped up our last call the other day after 3-months of training, new friendships, and watching our students create successful businesses that they are passionate about. We’re really excited because we plan to launch the second round in the fall. So if you’re an entrepreneur (or aspiring entrepreneur) and creator and want to be our next success story, then definitely get on the waitlist, https://leavethemaptravel.com/travel-mastermind!
As far as “an end to this lifestyle”, travel is in our blood so no matter what happens, it will always be a major part of our lives. We do have dreams of buying a house one day and having a family but we’re in no rush!
Is there anything that you need that you can’t find or anything you are seeking help with?
We’re very lucky to have family and friends who are skilled in the camping and handyman departments! We have also found a lot of help from van life Facebook groups. It’s amazing how willing total strangers are to help out when you share a common interest. However, there still are a few things we need help with!
- What do you all do for heat? We have Mr.Buddy and have been thinking about getting an Espar installed but haven’t decided yet.
- We’re still trying to figure out what to do for Wifi. Currently, we use our hotspots but they run out pretty quickly. Any recommendations, please send them our way!
- We’re always open to location suggestions and meeting new people! Feel free to DM us to say hi and maybe we can meet up!
Rapid fire questions
What are the top 3 Van essentials that you couldn’t live without?
- The house battery/solar - it’s so nice to be able to be off the grid but still have power!
- Magnetic hooks - We didn’t realize we needed these so badly until we had them!
- Our homemade blackout curtains - These have been amazing for insulation and for our overnights in Walmart parking lots. From the outside, you wouldn’t even know we were in the van!
Top 3 favorite places you’ve visited?
Big Bend National Park
Where are you now?
How long do you usually stay in one place?
1-3 days during our first big trip but we’re headed to Glacier, the Tetons, and Colorado next week and plan to stay for a few weeks and focus on slower travel.
When did you first start Vanlifing?
August of 2019
Are you full-time or part-time Vanlifing?
Full-time but have been spending more time with family lately because of the virus
How many weeks have you spent in the Van in the last 12 months?
We’ve been in the van for exactly a year now and took 4 months off over the winter and quarantine.
What kind of vehicle/rv/trailer/setup do you have?
We have a 2018 Dodge Promaster 2500 Series 159 wheelbase
Where can we go to keep up with you and your adventures?
Website - www.leavethemaptravel.com
Instagram - instagram.com/leavethemap
Youtube - youtube.com/c/leavethemap
Tiktok - tiktok.com/@leavethemap