Who are you and what is your backstory?
Hey there! My name is Emma Niderno, but I go by Emma Goes these days. I’m a 24 year old full-time traveler and I’m currently a proud vanlifer as well!
I’ve been a dancer since I was 2 years old and a competitive dancer since I was 8! I’ve always loved being able to express myself through movement and performances. So, when I graduated high school and had to leave my dance company, I was looking for something to fill that void. I found yoga and I fell in love!
"There will never come a time when everything aligns perfectly, you have to just stop waiting for that to happen and take the leap. If this lifestyle calls out to you, you owe it to yourself to see what it’s all about."
Before I transitioned to vanlife, I was living in my home state of Connecticut and working at an eye doctor / glasses store. I enjoyed my years there, but I was feeling like it wasn’t allowing me to spend time on what I truly loved. In other words, it was paying the bills but it wasn’t my passion. I got tired of spending my precious time and energy at a job that I didn’t want to pursue long-term.
So I took a month off, traveled to Bali, and got certified as a yoga teacher. Once I came back to the states, I worked for two more months to save up and then moved into the van full time.
My personal philosophy is that life is way too short to spend it doing what others want you to. Only you can know what’s right for you. I’m always asking myself, “do you want to die without experiencing this?” It may seem extreme, but it’s what inspires me to say yes a lot of the time. And, without fail, I always come out of each new experience very grateful that I went for it.
Take us to the moment you decided to begin your Vanlife?
I can trace my love of nomad life back to high school. Then, I was a bit of an angsty teen who just wanted to run away. I would read books like On the Road or Into the Wild and daydream all day about just tramping around the world with whatever I could carry on my back. Obviously, my parents weren’t stoked at the idea of me being a teenage runaway, but my heart was in the right place.
Fast forward about 6 years, and the romantic idea of being a vagabond was still something I couldn’t get out of my mind. I started following a lot of vanlifers on Instagram and I found myself envying them a lot. I would tell myself, “oh, someday when the timing is right.” But after a few months of that, I realized there is never a “right” time, there’s only now.
So, I started shopping for vans! My parents were not initially on board, but they ended up helping me with the entire process. They could see that my teenage dream had evolved into a solid plan. I really had no hesitations or fears at all; this felt like the natural next step for me and, honestly, I felt like it was a long time coming. I was excited to downsize, especially after living out of a backpack in Asia for a month. I knew that having less and getting to see the world meant much more to me than anything else.
Tell us about the advantages to the Van lifestyle?
Where do I begin? The biggest advantage for me is the freedom this lifestyle brings; I can go pretty much anywhere I want, whenever I want, for however long I want. You can’t put a price on that.
I get bored of staying in one place fairly easily, so this allows me to explore areas that I normally wouldn’t have been able to go and then simply move on when I feel called. Being able to choose whether I spend a lot of time in nature or in the city is something else I love. I personally want a good balance of both, and this lifestyle allows you to customize your experience to the extreme.
"I don’t really see an end to my full-time travel. I would like to visit all 50 states and then sell my van so I can move abroad for a while. I really fell in love with Bali and I want to explore it more.."
One of my favorite places I’ve been so far has been San Diego. I had flown there before and loved it so I was excited to experience it in the van. After meeting a few people at a vanlife gathering in Arizona, I drove straight to San Diego, where those people were headed too. I never expected to spend almost two months in SD and I definitely didn’t think I would make so many new connections there, but I did. I ended up being immersed in the Ocean Beach lifestyle and I made a group of friends that I know I can always come back to. San Diego is such an amazing place for vanlife; there are lots of people doing it out there so it was a perfect spot to settle in for a while.
Another advantage to vanlife is it’s just a slower pace of life (if you want it to be). You have much more time to really appreciate things like nature, friends, travel, and simply just being. That was exactly what I was searching for in my life before I moved into the van; I wanted more time to spend on spiritual growth, being outdoors, and developing my passions.
In my old life, most days I would go to work and be so drained afterward that I would just go home to my apartment and watch Netflix until I fell asleep. Now I have the time, and more importantly the energy, to dedicate to allowing creativity to flow and really dive deep into what makes me truly happy.
Before the virus, I was planning on spending the summer teaching yoga at various festivals. Right now, since it is not safe to be teaching in person and all the festivals are cancelled, I’ve been spending my time on deepening my personal practice. I try to get on my mat at least once a day, even if it’s only 10 minutes of stretching. I think the best way to be able to serve the collective once the pandemic is over is to invest in myself. I hope to come out of this an even better yoga teacher than before! I’ve also had the chance to really take the time to set up some cool photographs. I have a lot of fun being creative in that way and it’s been sort of a blessing to be able to dive more into photography.
Tell us about the biggest challenges and downsides to the Van lifestyle?
Truthfully, I haven’t encountered many things that are extremely challenging. For me, moving into a van was a breath of fresh air. I don’t miss staying in one place at all! Sure, now I can’t watch hours and hours of TV at a time, but I can watch an episode or two here and there and it’s actually so much better! You come to appreciate those things even more.
The one thing I did encounter was a mechanical issue with my van that caused it to not shift into park. I was dealing with an issue where, every once in a while when I would shut off the van, it wouldn’t turn on. I ended up discovering that the shifter cable was not registering that my van was in park; it thought it was still in reverse. I could try a few times and usually it would work eventually. But in Tucson, the problem amplified and I wasn’t able to get my van in park at all - it was stuck in reverse even when I shifted all the way up. So I ended up having to find a shop that was open, which was difficult because it was a Saturday. The only one in town I could find checked it out and we realized that my shifter cable was extremely stretched out and needed to be replaced. Unfortunately, the part wouldn’t be available until Monday. Since the van was not drivable, the guys at the shop were kind enough to let me sleep in their parking lot for two nights until Monday. It was definitely not ideal, but I was so grateful that the shop owner was understanding and got me on my way as fast as possible!
I will say that the top challenge is where to use the bathroom. Before I moved into a van I was VERY shy about using the bathroom outside. When I first packed up my van to leave, I had a little toilet in back for emergencies if I couldn’t find a public bathroom. But I’ve since gotten rid of it because I find it unnecessary, especially when you’re camping in the wilderness. It may be TMI, but the reality of vanlife is that a lot of us just dig a hole and do our business there. And, truthfully it’s totally fine! No clean up or dumping black water tanks required!
As far as finding camp spots goes, there are so many resources out there. If I’m wild camping, I like to use iOverlander or FreeRoam to find a spot that I know is legit. But once I get to the area, the best part of exploring further and finding your own spot that isn’t on the map. Another awesome thing is asking locals where the good spots are. Sometimes you’ll find an absolute gem because you got tipped off by someone who saw your van in a parking lot and was curious about your lifestyle!
How do you find a sense of community when you’re always moving? How do you maintain and build relationships on the road?
I personally am totally fine being alone, but for others I know it can be an issue. For the past few months, I’ve been traveling with someone who also has a van so I haven’t been completely alone. But I do think there is a lot to learn from solitude.
As far as finding a community, I would say Instagram is your best friend! I have met so many other vanlifers online. Either you see that they are tagging a location near you, or you just find their account by chance, never be too shy to reach out. Vanlifers are the friendliest people I have ever met and they are always stoked to meet up, camp together, or just give you a recommendation of where to head next. It really is like a big spread-out family all over the world.
Another awesome way to meet vanlifers (and how I met a lot of my friends) is to go to vanlife meetups! My first one was Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Quartzite, AZ. As soon as I pulled up to camp I knew I had made about 30 new friends. We all care deeply about each other and we really created a little community for the duration of the festival. Now we all stay in touch and camp together from time to time! It’s truly a blessing to have such a huge support network, and it really wasn’t too hard to find! You just have to look in the right places.
How do you support yourself financially?
I’m actually technically unemployed! I quit my job a week before I moved into the van and I’ve been using my savings to travel so far. And I’m amazed at how much I’ve been able to save. Usually one paycheck would last me right up until my next one, two weeks later. But in the van, I’ve been able to make that money stretch for two months!
I am a yoga teacher, reiki healer, and tarot reader so I can do that on the road. Although, with the current Coronavirus situation, I’m not able to teach yoga or conduct healing sessions. So, right now I’m just doing the tarot readings on my Patreon. https://www.patreon.com/emmagoes
I also sometimes pick up odd jobs here and there to make money, such as customizing clothing, editing photos and videos, and working on farms. I toyed with the idea of getting another full time or part time job that is totally online, but I find myself resisting that because one of the reasons I transitioned to this lifestyle was to get away from the stress of working a job I didn’t care about.
So for now, I would just call myself a financial opportunist! And I’ve managed to make it 5 months with no income, and the universe somehow just takes care of the rest.
What is your one piece of advice for people who want to do what you do?
My best piece of advice is to just go for it. There will never come a time when everything aligns perfectly, you have to just stop waiting for that to happen and take the leap. If this lifestyle calls out to you, you owe it to yourself to see what it’s all about.
Honestly, it’s a low-risk move in my eyes. If you try it out and hate it, you learned something and you have the experience to show for it. And even financially I don’t feel it’s a big risk, because either you invest the money and build your new home that you absolutely love, or you don’t want to continue vanlife and you sell the van already built out. And trust me, there is a huge market for already built vans.
My only words of caution would be to make sure you know what you’re looking for when buying a van. If you don’t know a lot about cars, bring someone that does! Or even better, have a mechanic come take a look at it before you buy. I made the mistake of trusting the sellers of my van when everything sounded fine and I ended up having to put a lot of money into fixing the things they lied about.
What have been the most influential and helpful books, podcasts, blogs, websites or other resources?
The two most helpful apps for finding camp spots are iOverlander and FreeRoam, in my opinion. However, I still think social media as a whole is the best thing you can use to make your life easier. Connect with other vanlifers on Instagram, in vanlife Facebook groups, and in vanlife Subreddits. They are your family and will help you if you’re in need, just have a quick question, or want to know where to park next.
As far as your build goes, they don’t call it YouTube University for nothing. Watching other people’s builds on YouTube was SO immensely helpful during mine. Any question you may have will probably be answered thanks to the hundreds of people on that website uploading helpful videos (including me!).
I have a list on my website of every expense in my van build process here: https://www.emmaniderno.com/van-expenses
And my entire van build is on my YouTube! Here is the first video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5KQcRtg3_BQ
The solar build was definitely the most challenging part for me. For help, I looked at Renogy Solar’s website a lot and I even called them a few times with specific questions!
As far as other resources go, I unfortunately didn’t save any specific links I used. But I basically just searched Google or YouTube with the question I had and there were ALWAYS results that helped me!
Some other great apps that really help in the vanlife lifestyle are:
- GasBuddy (helps find the cheapest gas in your area)
- AllTrails (hiking maps that tell you the difficulty and length of every hike near you)
What does the future look like?
Well, we’re currently in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic so my plans for the year have changed a bit! I was originally planning to be in Colorado by April and then make my way back to the California Coast (where I was before) and then drive north through California, Oregon, and Washington. But now that the National Parks are closed and it’s not super safe to be constantly moving, I’ve slowed down a lot.
I was in San Diego for about a month and a half before things started getting shut down. Once things started to get a bit more intense, I moved to the BLM outside of Joshua Tree for a month, and then went to a spot near Big Bear, CA. I definitely didn’t plan on being in Southern California for this long, by now I was hoping to have already made it past Yosemite at least. But everything happens for a reason, and I’m just making the best of the situation.
My friend I’ve been traveling with and I have just moved much more slowly than normal and made a point to only go into town to get supplies once every week and a half or two weeks. We’re kind of waiting it out in SoCal and hoping the national parks will reopen sometime soon. We don’t want to have to skip visiting places we’ve been dreaming about for years.
I don’t really see an end to my full-time travel. I would like to visit all 50 states and then sell my van so I can move abroad for a while. I really fell in love with Bali and I want to explore it more and make that my home base for a bit while I explore more of Southeast Asia.
I also would love to build out a more unique vehicle like a school bus or something even crazier. Long term, I’d like to have some kind of homestead where I grow my own food and maybe raise a family in an alternative living situation. I’m not sure yet! Us vanlifers don’t like to plan too far ahead and I’m always open to new possibilities that come my way and change my course.
Is there anything that you need that you can’t find or anything you are seeking help with?
The only thing I would say is that if anyone has any work opportunities, I’m always looking! I really love working on organic farms and learning about permaculture and homesteading. I’m also always looking for yoga or tarot clients!
Rapid fire questions
What are the top 3 Van essentials that you couldn’t live without?
Fridge, solar panels, a mirror
Top 3 favorite places you’ve visited?
Sedona, New Orleans, and all of Southern California (but I know this list will change once I see more of the country)
Where are you now?
San Bernardino National Forest in Southern California
How long do you usually stay in one place?
Depends on the place! Sometimes one day, sometimes two months!
When did you first start Vanlifing?
Part time: June 2019
Full time: December 2019
Are you full-time or part-time Vanlifing?
How many weeks have you spent in the Van in the last 12 months?
About 20 weeks
What kind of vehicle/rv/trailer/setup do you have?
1997 Ford Econoline E-250 with a high top
Where can we go to keep up with you and your adventures?