Who are you and what is your backstory?
My name is Sarah and I am a full-time traveling Occupational Therapist (OT). Prior to living in a van, I was living in a cozy two bedroom condo in Los Angeles, CA. The decision to transition into living in a van slowly evolved over two years.
As a travel therapist, I typically work 13-week contracts all over the country. I had started traveling for work when I graduated in 2013 with my master’s in occupational therapy.
Up until 2016, I had lived in New Jersey, Maryland, Texas, Arizona, and California. I had started to get addicted to travel and the outdoor lifestyle. I grew up in southern New Jersey and other than swimming in the ocean, I hadn’t had much outdoor experience until I started traveling for work. When I took a job assignment in Arizona, I started to hike and camp and quickly fell in love with it. I started to think I might be comfortable traveling in a camper set up.
Take us to the moment you decided to begin your Vanlife?
Initially, I was very tired of moving so frequently, every three months. It's difficult to find short term housing that is affordable.
I started to think about less expensive and more convenient options. I initially thought I might purchase a travel trailer. After more research I decided something “all in one,” meaning, my car and living space would be a more feasible option for me. I wouldn’t have to always be at a designated spot and this would make adventures in between job assignments, as well as on the weekends more convenient.
Aside from the convenience factor, another big piece of my story is finances. As an OT, I work primarily with older adults and it's terrifying how many people are ill-prepared to get old and sick. Listen, we will all get old and sick, I see it every single day. Some more than others, but we all most likely will get to the point where we need help taking care of ourselves.
"I often write on my blog 'collecting experiences, not things.' This is something that was ultimately forced by living in a van. I literally could not buy many “things” because I had nowhere to put them. This is one of the best advantages of van life..."
The quality of life of those older adults who are well prepared and not prepared at all is night and day. It breaks my heart to work with older patients who need continued care but are being forced out of facilities and cannot afford the care they need. This typically results in further decline, constant rehospitalizations, and a really miserable experience for the patient.
Seeing this situation time and time again made me become a lot more serious about becoming more financially responsible to avoid situations like this as an older adult. I knew one of the ways I can reach this goal would be to pay off my large amount of student loans and debt which started around $172,000 when I started to really pay attention around May 2016. I knew that significantly decreasing my housing costs could help me with this goal.
I ended up buying a 2010 Ford Transit Connect which cost me about $12,000. My van was professionally converted for slightly less than $5000. This made my grand total investment into van life, $17,000.
Tell us about the advantages to the Van lifestyle?
For me, the biggest advantage was the decrease stress of finding housing and moving every 13 weeks. Whenever a job ended I just turned the ignition and drove to my next location. If I wanted to explore an area over the weekend I didn't have to worry about booking a hotel or packing, my house and all items were with me at all times.
After I bought my van I took a job assignment in Alaska. Since I had the camper van I was able to drive up to Alaska and truly enjoy myself. If I had a regular vehicle I probably would have flown and missed out on a once in a lifetime trip.
I often write on my blog “ collecting experiences, not things.” This is something that was ultimately forced by living in a van. I literally could not buy many “things” because I had nowhere to put them. This is one of the best advantages of van life, it forces you to spend more time outside and experience your surroundings. One of my best experiences was living on the kenai Peninsula in Alaska in my van. I spent many nights in Seward, Homer, and Coopers Landing. These are places that would have been much more expensive if I had to secure traditional housing.
Tell us about the biggest challenges and downsides to the Van lifestyle?
If you search the hashtag van life on social media you will find tons and tons of photos of people lounging in the back with majestic mountains or the ocean in their backyard, or some other ridiculous photo. It's true, there were some days like that for me, but there were also so many just regular mediocre days.
I am a little different than most van dwellers I mean because I have a “regular job” for most of the time. I typically go to a building for 40 hours a week, and don't have the luxury yet of traveling full time. When I am in between assignments tho, I do get to enjoy this type of freedom.
"My one piece of advice would be to try out different types of camper vans before you decide. This is something I wish I did before purchasing. At the time there weren't many options to try camper vans out."
The biggest challenge was getting ready for work in the morning as I did not have a bathroom in my van and couldn't stand up. Another big challenge was being sick. I have never been able to stay in the van if I was truly sick. I ended up getting a hotel room those nights because sometimes you just need a real bathroom.
One specific event was when I was staying at a Walmart parking lot in Alaska. I came down with a severe case of food poisoning. I decided I needed a hotel, I couldn’t stop being sick for long enough to drive my van to the closest hotel. I had to call the only phone number of a coworker I knew after being there for only 3 weeks at midnight to come to drive me to the hotel.
One important lesson I learned is to always have an emergency kit. This must also include medication for every event. I always have Pepto Bismol, Excedrin, acetaminophen, and NSAIDs. Most of the time this can get you by until you can get better help.
How do you find a sense of community when you’re always moving? How do you maintain and build relationships on the road?
Since I work full time as a travel occupational therapist, most friends I have met have been at work. There is also a community online and on Instagram for travel therapists as well as van lifers. A great group for travel therapists I participate in is Travel Therapy Therapists on Facebook. My work contracts can be as short as 3 months or as long as 1 year. Initiating and keeping meaningful relationships can be difficult.
I have a rule that if someone invites me to do something I say yes. This has brought me to baby showers in Texas, wineries in California, and long hikes in Arizona. I have made some great connections and life long friends. Facebook and social media make it easier to stay in touch. There is also a benefit to having friends who often travel around, even more places to travel to for vacation!
How do you support yourself financially?
As mentioned before I am a full time Occupational Therapist and the contract work I do as a therapist was and continues to be my main source of income. By starting my blog and connecting with other bloggers I have done some occasional content writing for other websites.
What is your one piece of advice for people who want to do what you do?
My one piece of advice would be to try out different types of camper vans before you decide. This is something I wish I did before purchasing. At the time there weren't many options to try camper vans out. Now there are sites similar to airbnb for all different types of recreational vehicles. Two specific sites I have used are outdoorsy.com for RV rental and hipcamp to rent camping spots. Actually living in a van for a night or two will give you some great perspective on aspects you like and don't like in your own van.
What have been the most influential and helpful books, podcasts, blogs, websites or other resources?
I don't have any specific van life references but I have used bearfoottheory.com for information on outdoor adventures. I also frequently follow Making Scents of Cents and Millenial Money Man blog for some financial guidance. I even did interviews for both of these blogs in the past, How vanlife is helping me conquer 172,000 of debt and How I’ve Paid Off $29,000 In Debt By Living In a Van
What does the future look like?
I recently was living in Denver for a year with my Fiance and our 85lb dog, Borealis. We started traveling again and are currently in Santa Fe, NM. I sold my van before leaving Denver as it's really not big enough for two people and a large dog. We are renting a casita in Santa Fe but recently bought a pop up truck camper for our adventures. We are considering investing in a larger vehicle to live in for the future. We are getting married this summer in Colorado so we are excited planning that. My goals are to finish paying off my debt and enjoy traveling all over the US with my partner and our dog.
Rapid fire questions
What are the top 3 Van essentials that you couldn’t live without?
A comfortable bed, a heated blanket, and easy access storage.
Top 3 favorite places you’ve visited?
Morraine Lake, Seward, Alaska, and Grand Tetons National Park.
Where are you now?
Santa Fe, NM
How long do you usually stay in one place?
3 months or longer
When did you first start Vanlifing?
Are you full-time or part-time Vanlifing?
Switched to part time Truck Camper “living” with my Fiance and dog.
How many weeks have you spent in the Van in the last 12 months?
What kind of vehicle/rv/trailer/setup do you have?
I previously had a 2010 Ford transit connect, now a 1990 Four Wheel truck camper.
Where can we go to keep up with you and your adventures?