Who are you and what is your backstory?
We are Nikki and Alex and Lucy Gray living in our self-converted camper van named Captain Olivia Benson, Manhattan SVU (yes, she has a full name).
We both grew up in different suburbs of Massachusetts and we first met during someone else’s Tinder date in 2014. We do love seeing the expressions when we tell people this in person but, c'est la vie. We bought our van on June 10th, 2019, picked it up September 30th, and were married October 5th. We are newlyweds with a newly completed mobile tiny home and a whole lot of new plans for adventures.
Our lives were, to be honest, pretty mundane before van life. We were stuck living in stationary places locked into going to an office for a 9-5 job. The commute was terrible, everything was too expensive, and every other day was rainy and gray because we lived in Massachusetts. We were unable to travel and we couldn’t save money to stay ahead of our finances. We were truly living paycheck to paycheck. Despite this, we were as happy as the next person. Our families were close by and we had a full social life. Alex works hard as the lead guitarist for his band, Sweetie, and I am working on publishing my first novel.
To make things easier, the “I” going forward will be Nikki as I can type slightly faster than Alex.
Still, there was a dissonance. We were happy but we weren’t content.
When Alex and I reconnected on February 19th, 2017 (of course I remember our first date), we knew instantly we would marry and that we held the same beliefs and worldview. Enjoying experiences and doing for others is our love language. We value traveling to learn and see new things and participating in our local and global communities is extremely important to us.
Part of the reason we wanted to become mobile was so we could have more money to donate to causes we believe in and participate in important demonstrations wherever they may be.
The leap to van life was easy for us when we considered those reasons. Well, easy mentally. Physically, it’s been a challenge to adjust to way less elbow room but it’s a good challenge, one that allows us to stretch new muscles and gain new levels of flexibility, so to speak. We have done something we are extremely proud of and are also very cognizant of how fortunate we are to have done so. It at once is satisfying and humbling.
"Oh, we could fill a book with all our mistakes and what we wish we could do over. It might make it faster just to list them all out. Ready?"
Right now, nothing much has really changed about our daily lives. We still are working our same jobs, maintaining a living space together, and interacting with our family and friends. Except now we’re doing this all from a home base of a white work van with a home stuffed inside it.
The major change, besides the van, is that life for us is way more fun. I suppose we didn’t realize how trapped we felt in a traditional lifestyle until we had vacated it. But living in a van allows us to gain a sense of peace with our finances and control over our work/life balance. And because of all that, a greater sense of fulfilling joy has moved into the van right alongside us.
Take us to the moment you decided to begin your Vanlife?
We can actually remember the exact date: January 2nd, 2019. We had just gone to the city hall in Cambridge, MA to file for a domestic partnership for insurance purposes.
On our way home, we idly discussed our future and it began to sound a bit bleak. The next step we were taught to take after a union such as marriage is to buy a house, then you have kids, etc. Adding a huge mortgage to our combined debts would very much narrow our world.
We wouldn’t be able to travel as much as we wished, we wouldn’t be able to participate in the global community as much as we wanted. Honestly, we wouldn’t be able to have any fun because of financial and location constraints. We grew quieter and quieter during the drive home, the prospect before us equally daunting and depressing.
"But our main question right now is one that’s probably on everyone’s mind: How to responsibly begin traveling and meeting up with new folks again. We can’t imagine the answer to this is anything but in flux, but it would be interesting and helpful to hear how other people who live on the road are approaching this very unique situation."
I’m not sure if it was one of those wacky “your phone is always listening” moments, but we opened YouTube later that day and were greeted by the smiling face of Bryce Langston from the channel “Living Big In A Tiny House.” Quite ridiculously, I burst into tears as we both realized that this was the answer. Swirling around us as we sat in our overpriced apartment stuffed with things we didn’t need was the feeling of anticipation.
So, we wanted to go tiny, that much was clear. But we didn’t want to pick a place to live. We had barely traveled the country and didn’t know where we wanted to permanently land, we still don’t. That’s when we descended further down the YouTube algorithm rabbit hole and found van life. And the rest was history. We were going to live in a van and were all in 100%.
Tell us about the advantages to the Van lifestyle?
One bonus of living in a van was something we had never considered before moving in, but we can reach our fridge while we’re laying in bed. As two avid snackers, we were extremely excited to figure that one out. Speaking of food, it is so extremely satisfying to walk out of the grocery store and already be at home. If we forget anything at the market, it isn’t a chore to go pick it up. Aside from food (are you sensing a theme with us here?), we absolutely love that our backyard is the whole world. We open up our door and are immediately immersed in the outside, something that was severely lacking when we were living traditionally.
This is going to be on the sappy side, but we really, really like being around each other. It was something we noticed when we moved into our first solo apartment together. Even with all the space we had, we kind of just hung right next to where the other person was. This might be a nightmare for some couples, but even if we’re having an off day or are annoyed, we don’t want to physically be apart. In the van, we’re always just a step away. Of course, we still need some personal time. but we prefer having those quiet moments to ourselves while the other is right there on the other side of the van having a private moment of their own.
Another huge advantage to living in a van was building it ourselves. Don’t get us wrong, the 10 month long process was absolutely horrendous. We were constantly worried about money and had little building experience. The van build really strained our relationship. But on the other side of it all, it’s the most amazing thing. We did this, we built that, we lasted through it. We know we can solve any problem together, we communicate much better than before, and there is a deeper level of trust inherent with each other. The pride from achieving something as massive as this project is second only to the new strength built between us.
Tell us about the biggest challenges and downsides to the Van lifestyle?
Before van life, we were living in an apartment of 2,100 square feet with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and too much stuff. The f-bomb was dropped more than a few times as we began to realize how much work it would be to shift our lives to a space 2,000 square feet less than we currently had. Self-care is much harder, especially without those dual bathrooms, because you can’t just hop in the shower or take a quick bath. If we want to strive for perfect cleanliness, we really have to stick to our routines otherwise we end up not showering for 5 days.
We also have a dog. Lucy Gray is our amazing, beautiful, silly two year old puppy and while we couldn't imagine life without her, it certainly adds a layer of difficulty. There are many places we would want to hike that don’t allow dogs. We can’t leave her in the car so day-long experiences, such as visiting an amusement park, are out. She has food, toys, and supplies that take up valuable space. Did we mention she hates the car? I usually have to sit on the ground in the kitchen while Alex drives so Lucy can sit in the passenger seat, lest she has an anxiety attack.
If we decide to go ahead and do an activity that forbids dogs, we have to search for a daycare close by, which means we have to budget for the price and make sure it’s a chain franchise so we won’t have to wait for the okay from an evaluation at a new daycare over and over again. Admittedly, it’s very difficult. But we adopted her before knowing anything about van life so she’s less of a stand-out problem and more just something that makes our lives unique.
How do you find a sense of community when you’re always moving? How do you maintain and build relationships on the road?
After our wedding, instead of taking a honeymoon, we immediately started building out our van. This was our biggest mistake, though who couldn't have predicted anything that’s happened so far in 2020?
To make a long story short on that end, we’ve had to postpone our honeymoon again to 202, but at this point, who knows. We tried and have since kept trying to make the van and our travels feel like a “mini-moon” but it didn’t work. Getting splinters and crying about solar panels and fighting over kitchen pantry measurements doesn’t put anyone in a romantic mood.
Once the hard part was over we started having tons of fun. We decided to join Instagram, despite my reservations, and in a few weeks we had already virtually met so many amazing people that all my uncertainties flew out the window. A few months into posting on social media, we decided we wanted a more formal way to document our adventures and time in the van so we launched our blog.
I think I was the one most shocked by the positive response. I hadn’t used social media in years and only knew it as a shallow wasteland that gave me anxiety and increased my body dysmorphia. But we’ve connected with amazing van lifers from all over the world, some of whom we’ve met up with already.
Of course, COVID-19 threw a major wrench in any forward momentum we might have enjoyed pre-quarantine in building our community, but anything worth having is also worth waiting for, in our opinion. In September we’re heading to TinyFest Midwest as one of the open houses and are hoping to meet many more kind and lovely people.
How do you support yourself financially?
Alex and I are extremely fortunate to have kept our jobs throughout the pandemic and both of our offices have migrated entirely to online business since March. We had plans before COVID to negotiate with our respective employers about working remotely full-time, but that conversation was taken off the table because of the coronavirus.
That being said, building a van is pricey! Because we learned our lesson with debt, credit cards and student loans alike, we promised to never use credit again. Since October 2018 when we cut up all our credit cards, we haven’t looked back. We did, however, take out a loan for the van. It was hard to make the decision but this was going to be our home that had to be reliable and covered under a really good warranty, just in case. As such, I have taken on a freelancing job on top of my normal 9-5 to help build up our savings and pay off our debts faster. I’m also working on publishing my first novel and maybe that could bring in a few extra dollars.
What is your one piece of advice for people who want to do what you do?
Oh, we could fill a book with all our mistakes and what we wish we could do over. It might make it faster just to list them all out. Ready? I hope you’re taking notes.
Okay, here we go: don’t skimp on noise reduction panels because they really need to go everywhere, don’t use wool insulation on the floor there will never be enough space to put enough wool down so it won’t be cold in the mornings, put joists between every rib on the floor unless you want a saggy part underneath the vinyl planks whenever you stand at your sink, don’t use 80/20 for any internal structures though you may use it on the roof, don’t wait to run your electrical wires before framing out your walls, don’t skimp on buying enough batteries, don’t buy cheap wood, don’t buy boxes and baskets to use before the space is built, don’t think a $5 bucket from Home Depot is going to cut it as a toilet, for the love of everything holy do not forget to use LOCTITE on everything you can, don’t use silicone in place of construction adhesive, don’t paint before everything is finished, don’t buy an 120V AC fridge just because it’s cheaper than a 12V DC Dometic, don’t use foam thicker than 4” for your bedding/seating area, don’t try to make a microwave work we can tell you now that it will never work, and don’t forget to measure fifty times but expect to still be wrong.
What have been the most influential and helpful books, podcasts, blogs, websites or other resources?
We wish we could shout this at everyone looking into van life: William Prowse IV! His website Mobile Solar Power and his self-published book, available on amazon, saved us. Nowhere else we looked explained the intricacies and complexities in an understandable manner as did Will. His YouTube channel was quickly bookmarked and we have done everything since at his recommendation.
Reddit was another amazing source. The subreddits r/VanLife and r/vandwellers were indispensable during our research phase and beyond. We also turned to various bloggers for tips and inspiration such as Gnomad Home, Parked In Paradise, and 40 Hours of Freedom. There’s no manual for building out a van. People have been building houses for centuries and there has been the time for a universal knowledge base to accumulate, a sort of known familiarity for even a layperson. Not so with turning a vehicle into a house, which is why this amazing community and their various ways of documentation are priceless.
What does the future look like?
We’re in van life for the long haul. Our plan is to live in Olivia for at least 5 years, with 2020 being year 1, though we know we might have to be flexible with whatever may come. Eventually we want to build our own tiny house and have a permanent location, but before then we’ll probably upgrade to a larger camper or an RV if we decide on adding children to the mix.
In the immediate future, we’re heading back to the Catskills to take advantage of our friends from @ourhomeroams before they return to Ireland in a couple months. Then we will wind our way lazily west for Alex’s sister’s upcoming wedding. This is only going to happen after we fix up our electrical system, a whole saga posted on our Instagram highlights that is all very dramatic. Pro tip: don’t underestimate your battery needs just because they are expensive.
Is there anything that you need that you can’t find or anything you are seeking help with?
This might be a bit of a strange thing for some “#vanlifers” to admit, but we aren’t really savvy at using apps or databases to find where to park for free on public land. We’re super nervous about it because we don’t know what we’re doing and we’re worried we might overstep some unwritten boundary.
But our main question right now is one that’s probably on everyone’s mind: How to responsibly begin traveling and meeting up with new folks again. We can’t imagine the answer to this is anything but in flux, but it would be interesting and helpful to hear how other people who live on the road are approaching this very unique situation.
Rapid fire questions
What are the top 3 Van essentials that you couldn’t live without?
- Two Maxxair roof fans - we don’t have A/C so the airflow and ventilation they provide is essential
- Our WeBoost cell signal amplifier - we tried getting internet without it in the middle of nowhere and the middle of nowhere just laughed back at us
- A really quality computer monitor - sure, we picked this life so we could experience more of the outdoors, but on a rainy, lazy day there is really nothing better than cuddling up and watching a movie and Alex needs a second screen for work
Top 3 favorite places you’ve visited?
- Lake George, New York
- Portland, Maine
- Denning, New York
Where are you now?
Currently on Cape Cod, Massachusetts at my parents house, specifically in their driveway. It’s hard to be grounded right now because of COVID but the plus side is that we can give our bucket toilet a break.
How long do you usually stay in one place?
Right now it’s about 2 to 3 days, but that might change in the future as we really settle into van life and get our “sea legs.” Maybe they would be called “road legs?”
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?
Captain Olivia Vanson, Manhattan SVU is a 2019 Ford Transit 350 LWB van and she’s a real beauty.
Where can we go to keep up with you and your adventures?