INTERVIEW WITH KAREN (@TRAVELLING K)
Who are you and what is your backstory?
I'm Karen and I travel full-time in an RV around New Zealand. I've been living permanently in a travel trailer for over three years with no plans to stop.
I was born in New Zealand, studied graphic design and went overseas to live in London, then Melbourne. I made the most of the opportunity and travelled as much as I could. Eventually I realised I needed to be closer to my parents as they got older, so I moved back to New Zealand. Then I decided living in an RV was the thing for me!
I’ve documented my whole RV experience, from the awkward and uncertain start, to sharing the time I got a flat tire (see here)… and that other time I got a flat tire (see here).
I’ve found having an online presence has enabled me to experience some amazing things, like traveling around the UK with a loaned Bailey caravan and Peugeot car. How did this happen? After slowly growing my YouTube channel, I decided that to expand further I needed to visit the UK with it’s huge caravan presence.
"That first drive down the road, towing to the closest campground felt tense. I kept visualising sideswiping cars or clipping road signs."
I reached out to a well known caravan YouTuber in the United Kingdom. He introduced me to Bailey caravans and I pitched my video ideas to them. Luckily they liked the sound of them and were happy to loan me a caravan. Check out this part of my journey here.
Take us to the moment you decided to begin your Vanlife?
How did I end up in an RV? When I moved back to New Zealand, I planned to save for a house and settle down. I started a full-time graphic design job in Auckland and began to save. After six months, I realised Auckland house prices were insane and my plan wasn’t going to happen.
I started thinking of other ways I could have a home, and was looking into tiny houses and vanlife with the idea of exploring New Zealand and finding a cheaper town to live in.
I finally settled on a travel trailer that you tow behind a vehicle because it’s more affordable than anything with an engine like a motorhome or large campervan. I also liked the idea of being able to leave my home behind and drive a normal vehicle to work.
"Just start. The unknown is what stops most people, with all the things that could go wrong running through their head. You will not be able to know everything before starting this lifestyle, but you’ll figure it out."
This lifestyle was also attractive because it meant I had the best of both worlds. My own home and the ability to travel. After travelling so much overseas, I realised that having a home on wheels might be the best solution to still feel like I was exploring the world.
I couldn’t find the ideal travel trailer in the city, so I quit my job, left my flat and went on a roadtrip to find the perfect RV. Luckily I didn’t have much stuff at that stage, as I’d just moved back from overseas and was only renting a bedroom in a shared flat. It did make the transition easier. I sold my furniture and stored some boxes with my family.
I found the perfect trailer at the top of the South Island and had a restless sleep the night before, wondering if this was the right thing to do. It was going to be the biggest financial item I’d ever purchased! I was also aware that I had zero experience with RVs. But I felt like I’d already changed my life for this grand plan… I couldn’t go this far and stop.
That first drive down the road, towing to the closest campground felt tense. I kept visualising sideswiping cars or clipping road signs.
I admitted to the campground owners that I’d just bought the caravan so they found me a site that didn’t require reversing. I spent five days just familiarising myself with my new home and continuously popping to the shops for items I needed. It really was a steep learning curve for the first six months as I practiced how to reverse with a trailer and learnt how often I needed to empty the tanks.
You can see the start of my travel trailer journey here.
Tell us about the advantages to the Van lifestyle?
I’ve learnt so much in the last three years. I’ve handled many new and stressful situations, and it’s improved my self confidence.
One of my more challenging trips near the start of this adventure was staying in the Coromandel for winter. I had the caravan parked on some grass and then it started raining and raining. I was relying on my solar set-up for power and the solid cloud meant I wasn’t getting enough power.
I felt stuck in this spot because I didn’t think the caravan would get off the soggy grass. I just needed to hunker down and wait it out. When it finally cleared and dried out, I moved on to the next town over a steep hill. Unfortunately, I got stuck behind a slow truck and my car started to steam from the stress of towing a heavy caravan slowly up a very steep hill.
After that trip, I got my mechanic to give my vehicle a good check over and improved a few things. I also upgraded my solar battery set-up, so in the future, I could last much longer before I have power problems.
I feel extremely practical now too. I finally bought myself a power drill and my tool box is growing. I’m happy to give it a go, fixing my own RV issues, and have reached the stage where I feel comfortable trying to renovate an older RV.
Through my YouTube channel, I’ve had the confidence to appear on camera. I’ve also been able to meet some amazing people through asking if I can film them (like the time I interviewed Andrew Ditton).
"And some of these RV chores are dirty! I’m still not a fan, but I’m getting used to emptying my toilet cassette."
Other advantages have been seeing my own country. Experiencing some magical sunsets and really getting to know the roads and smaller towns where you don’t normally stay for a holiday.
One of the best sunsets I experienced recently was staying at an empty campground in Opotiki at the end of winter which was right by the beach.
It had been an overcast and cool day and I was enjoying watching TV on my laptop. Glancing out my window, I happened to see the start of a wonderful sunset and I dashed to the beach.
The sunset just kept getting better and the colours off the water is something I’ll always remember. RVing has meant I’ve been closer to nature and been right there to experience these moments.
One town I have been surprised by is Gore. It’s teased as being a boring farming town, but I found the locals to be so friendly. I was welcomed into an RVing community and it instantly felt like home. I ended up extending my stay and could have happily stayed longer.
Tell us about the biggest challenges and downsides to the Van lifestyle?
One of the biggest challenges is mail and the logistics of receiving things while on the road. I’ve ended up pre-planning to have items sent to local post shops or friends, but this doesn’t work well when the item arrives late.
Another challenge is water.
The campgrounds I now stay at are generally quite basic. Most have water taps but not all places can properly dispose of your grey water. We are very strict about grey water in New Zealand.
I’ve learnt to be very careful with how much water I use and always pre-plan if I need to collect water and learn where the closest dump station is. And some of these RV chores are dirty! I’m still not a fan, but I’m getting used to emptying my toilet cassette.
I’ve learnt to only book for one or two nights when I stay at a new campground and extend the time once I get a feel for the campground.
There was one campground in Invercargill that I pre-booked for three nights then regretted it. This campground was full of long-termers living in run-down buses and caravans. I spent the whole time with drawn blinds and couldn’t wait to move on.
Not knowing were the good mechanics are in the area is another challenge. In fact, this applies to doctors and dentists and all the other useful businesses you get to know in your community.
I’ve now got four good mechanics dotted around the north island. But I’ve been in trouble previously, when my vehicle started playing up in Queenstown which is at the bottom of the south island.
I asked the campground owner about mechanics in the local area and turns out there’s not enough mechanics in town. The best was fully booked. I eventually got my car fixed, but moved on wondering if I’d been conned or not.
Some of the downsides to this lifestyle are having no garden and no room for some of your hobbies. I go through patches where I crave having a vegetable garden. Sometimes I just wish I could start a craft project too. I’ve given up on having physical books and just stick to ebooks. Storage is an issue.
How do you find a sense of community when you’re always moving? How do you maintain and build relationships on the road?
This was tricky at the start. I was staying at the commercial campgrounds that were full of fast moving tourists and wasn’t meeting anyone. Eventually I started finding the campgrounds that New Zealanders used and were also living this lifestyle.
I joined the local RV club and stayed at their parks. Sometimes they have happy hour together. You take a camping chair and drink, form a circle and have a chat.
For dating, I have found that staying in one place is helpful. I have dated someone while working in an office and staying at the same campground all summer. Another option is dating someone who also lives this lifestyle.
"Long term, I daydream about owning some land in New Zealand with plenty of quirky homes on wheels."
It’s challenging because it’s still such a small niche for people under 50. But manageable, as I’ve heard a few lovely stories. I’ve actually started a Facebook group for younger RVers in NZ and hope to create a welcoming community.
I also found a place where people were staying for longer and I was there all summer. This place really has a sense of community, where I felt safe leaving my windows open and we’d stop to have a chat, or drinks on Sunday afternoon. This campground is through the local RV club and is called a Park Over Property.
For maintaining relationships, I rely heavily on social media.
I try to visit older friends when I’m passing by their home, but am aware that I’m losing touch. With new friends who also move around, we try to keep in touch through social media and organise a catchup when nearby.
How do you support yourself financially?
I am a graphic designer and YouTuber.
My previous work as a graphic designer was in permanent positions or freelancing through recruitment companies over the last 10 years.
When I decided to buy an RV, I also started a blog that transitioned into a YouTube channel: Travelling K
It took me about a year to learn how to earn money outside the city. I started by freelancing in Auckland businesses, then going on big road trips. But I didn’t like the campgrounds in Auckland and this really wasn’t my original goal. I wanted to leave the city.
Eventually I found an ongoing freelance job in Hawkes Bay, which is known for its beaches and wineries. With time, I’ve been able to work more and more online.\
It took me two years to start earning money from my YouTube channel and that was through Patreon. Patreon is where fans can contribute monthly, and in exchange they get exclusive content and recognition: My Patreon Page
I’ve only recently activated adverts on my YouTube channel, and it was perfect timing as one video went viral: “Don't make my mistake ⛴Caravan On Ferry: Calais To Dover 🇫🇷🇬🇧”
What is your one piece of advice for people who want to do what you do?
Just start. The unknown is what stops most people, with all the things that could go wrong running through their head. You will not be able to know everything before starting this lifestyle, but you’ll figure it out. And I can guarantee that you won't be bored.
I’d recommend having some extra savings for that first 6 months. It will take a while to settle into this lifestyle and figure out what accessories you actually need and how to find work.
What have been the most influential and helpful books, podcasts, blogs, websites or other resources?
- Heath & Alyssa - An RVing couple in America who openly share about their experience and really focus on making money on the road. I highly recommend their podcast and blog posts. Website: HeathandAlyssa.com
- Gone With The Wynn - They previously RVed around America, but now they are on a catamaran around the Pacific Islands. They do an amazing job capturing what their lifestyle is like and are a huge inspiration for me. Youtube Channel: Gone with the Wynns
- Finding Simon - He was doing vanlife and is now renovating a boat in Canada. He shares the highs and lows of what this lifestyle is like and made me consider vanlife for a while. Youtube Channel: Finding Simon
- Less Junk More Journey - An American family living in a fifth wheeler. Nathan really portrays the pros and cons with this lifestyle. He’s also an amazing story teller. Less Junk, More Journey
- Pat Flynn - All about starting a business and making money. His podcasts are full of helpful tips and cover all types of businesses.
- Facebook Groups. I learnt the most practical RV tips through Facebook Groups. If I got stuck, I’d ask a question and get conflicting answers back. The most active New Zealand group is Motorhome Friends New Zealand.
Campground Apps. We really have some great RV apps in NZ. Campermate and the NZMCA travel app give you all the information you need. With campground locations and reviews, where you can dump your waste, where are the supermarkets and fuel stations. I use them all the time.
What does the future look like?
The last six months have been amazing, with a trip to the UK and working with Bailey caravans and Peugeot, check it out here.
The big change since I got back has been upgrading my car and downgrading my travel trailer! I just bought a vintage caravan to renovate and really don’t know what I’m doing.
I bought it because I want to learn about how caravans work but don’t want to damage my current caravan. With this empty shell, I feel safe practicing and testing out ideas.
It’s already been challenging as I’ve managed to smash the front window as the rubbers gave out while towing. I’ve already learnt that there are seven water leaks after it rained recently. It shall be an interesting year...
Long term, I daydream about owning some land in New Zealand with plenty of quirky homes on wheels.
Is there anything that you need that you can’t find or anything you are seeking help with?
Right now, it would be so helpful to know a good website developer. I’m stuck!
I’m keen to know of any vintage caravan renovation advice - it’s a 1973 Royal Anglo Caravan. I really am learning as I go along and have already made mistakes. It’s stripped right down to the barebones.
Rapid fire questions
What are the top 3 Van essentials that you couldn’t live without?
Fridge, Fixed bed, Solar power
Top 3 favorite places you’ve visited?
Milford Sounds and Karamea in New Zealand. And since I just got back from RVing around the UK… Whitby.
Where are you now?
Gisborne Region in New Zealand
How long do you usually stay in one place?
There is no set system. Sometimes just a night if intensively travelling, but once I stayed put all summer.
When did you first start Vanlifing?
Are you full-time or part-time Vanlifing?
How many weeks have you spent in the Van in the last 12 months?
What kind of vehicle/rv/trailer/setup do you have?
UK caravan. A 2007 Sterling Europa.
Where can we go to keep up with you and your adventures?
YouTube: Travelling K
Facebook Page: Travelling K