Who are you and what is your backstory?
Hello! I’m Sydney and I’m a 24 year old “solo female van lifer” at least that’s what the internet tells me to call myself. I’ve lived in a van now for almost 2 years.
The first 8 months was with my ex boyfriend and we loved being in the van together! People often assume “well I can imagine you’d break up living so close to each other.” But that wasn’t the case for us at all. It simply wasn’t meant to be… So it wasn’t.
After going our separate ways, I knew that I was nowhere near finished with this weird van journey. So I bought another van and converted my second one! I’ve lived in that van for roughly a year and a half now with my dog Ella and new pup, Pearl.
I grew up in Cumberland, Indiana with my parents and older sister. I struck gold when it comes to family because mine is hands-down the best I could’ve gotten. We were always extremely close and my childhood was kind of movie- like. I played kickball in our cul-de-sac with the neighbor kids and sped home on my scooter when the street lights turned on. My dad was a hunter so fresh venison would be waiting on the table.
People often think that I must’ve grown up rich because of the lifestyle I live now. I was rich in many ways but money wasn’t one. I was a happy kid and we didn’t need much. My parents supported all of my fairytales which is why I knew at 22 years old that I could travel the world. It was in fact possible and I didn’t doubt myself because they didn’t doubt me.
They have tried to keep me on course with a normal life but they never told me “no” when it came to a major passion. They could see when I was having a childish “that- looks- fun” moment versus an “I’m- really- going- to- do- that” moment. So they let me fly when I needed to and I landed here because of them.
I worked in a fancy restaurant as a manager in downtown Chicago during my last two years of school. The hours were *insane* at about 70-80 per week. I would do homework while I scarfed down lunch and zombie walk home at 2am knowing I had to be back at 7am to open.
Unhappiness was filling my body to the point that I was literally sick, tired, and just miserable. I didn’t know why I was so unhappy because I was doing what I was “supposed” to. I was going to school; I was working; isn’t this what people do? Not me. After 2 years of gaining weight and crying on an hourly basis, I was done. At my limit.
I discovered van life, told my boyfriend at the time who agreed, quit my job, and got a van.
Take us to the moment you decided to begin your Vanlife?
I was sitting at the end of the bar where 90% of my life took place in the restaurant where I worked. I was taking a homework break when I picked up my phone and saw a photo on Instagram. A girl named Cleo Cohen was laying in bed with her boyfriend with their legs out and you could see that they were in some type of vehicle.
I had never seen such a thing so I clicked on her photo and did what we all do.. Stalked the last 10 years of her life. I realized she had turned a van into an actual tiny home and traveled around Australia in that van. I was totally mind blown.
That sent me down a rabbit hole of “van life” which was barely even a term at the time. I saw people doing it everywhere! There weren’t even a fraction of the amount of people doing it now but there was enough for me to realize that if they can do it, so will I.
I was really so miserable at the time that I would’ve done anything to escape. So I wasn’t really that nervous. Even if I failed completely, it had to be better than what I was doing.
"I look up more, I talk to strangers more, and my head is permanently held a little higher now. That is what van life has taught me. It taught me.. me."
I graduated shortly after my discovery and there was no time like the present. I found a van in Virginia and had it shipped to my parent’s house in Indiana!
Although I hated my job, I was making good money and so was my boyfriend. We had both been saving up our money for whatever was next so we did already have a foundation to start with. We put 6k down on the van, financed the rest, and got started on the build.
Selling all of my stuff felt like a weight off my shoulders. It didn’t stress me out at all. I was THRILLED to throw away the clothes my boss made me wear. The heels I had to listen to with every step. The couch that survived 4 years of me in college (RIP that couch). And everything else. I was handing stuff over to friends, selling it online, practically dancing with every lighter breath.
The thing is that not everyone will have this experience and I know that. I know some of you would be sad to leave your job or really nervous to take such a huge leap. But leaping into the unknown is comfort for me. It’s home. I don’t do well in normalcy and I never have. (Listen to the podcast episode with my parents and you’ll learn that quickly.)
I have pretty bad anxiety and for whatever reason, it is 10x worse when I stand still. Routine makes me anxious and the constant movement of van life keeps me calm.
Tell us about the advantages to the Van lifestyle?
I could really write the longest list of things I feel that I’m capable of now that I wasn’t before. Not because I don’t have to show up at work. But because of the crazy amount of things this lifestyle has pushed me to do, try, and say.
I was defeated in my previous life. I was told every day by my boss that I was incapable, not worthy, and plenty of other explicit language I won’t go into here.
Needless to say, my confidence was at rock bottom. All time low with no chance of returning. The crazy dreamer that my parents knew so well was gone. They expressed their concern frequently but I was too “in it” to really listen.
"One of the greatest parts of van life is that it can cater to your most introverted days AND your most extroverted."
So when I started living in the van and gaining SO MUCH confidence back, my family was nothing but thrilled. I could sit here and tell you that now I get to work whenever I want. But if you follow along van life at all, you already know most of us work remotely which means we make our schedules. That’s awesome!
.. But that’s not what it’s about and that is not what I’m capable of now. I am capable of far more.
- My tire blew out in the fast lane of a 5 lane highway and I had to get to the shoulder, change my tire, and all the while not get killed by traffic.
- My other half in this world, Ella, needed an emergency surgery when she was only 4 months old. I had no one. I was on the other side of the country in California and wept in the vet’s office while they told me she likely wouldn’t survive. Hanging on to the Ella’s almost lifeless body because she was the only not-stranger in the room.
- She was attacked by a dog about a year later. That dog’s owner came screaming at me.
- I got into a car accident a couple months after that!
I have handled things that I never would’ve handled without this lifestyle. I know what I am capable of. I know that I can handle whatever is thrown at me. I look up more, I talk to strangers more, and my head is permanently held a little higher now. That is what van life has taught me. It taught me.. me.
Tell us about the biggest challenges and downsides to the Van lifestyle?
Shoulda read this one before my previous response but let’s do it!
If I miss anything, it’s my family. My sister has gotten married and had a baby in the last few years. I’ve missed my nephew’s first words, first steps, and pretty much everything else. We video chat almost every day but knowing how close he is with everyone in my family except for me is hard.
I had to choose between speaking on a panel in the state I was already in or drive across the country for his first birthday. The panel went really well. I’m not sure about his birthday. Pictures will never do justice and they aren’t the same as his hugs.
But I also recognize that I can’t live my life according to my family’s. My sister chose motherhood and I chose myself. Both solid choices. Both make us happy.
Taking care of the van is more of a logistics issue which I try not to complain about. It’s simply part of it. Thankfully, I went with a Ford van this time around so I have way less mechanical concerns than some of the other companies. Parts are cheap and I haven’t really had to do anything.
I did get in that car accident but I wouldn’t classify that as maintenance, more so just stupidity. In terms of regular maintenance, I have had my brakes done and oil changes! That’s it.
How do you find a sense of community when you’re always moving? How do you maintain and build relationships on the road?
One of the greatest parts of van life is that it can cater to your most introverted days AND your most extroverted.
If I feel like being alone with my dogs, I go to the middle of nowhere. I wake up with the sunrise, I do Yoga, I meditate and journal.
When I feel like being around people, I hangout with van friends and drink a ton of boxed wine (shoutout to my best friend, Katie). There are gatherings every month or so which is basically 3 days of being surrounded by 200 people taking photos, doing Youtube videos, and speaking on panels. That’s pretty much all I need when it comes to being around people.
After those days, I crawl under a hole and decompress for a couple weeks. I do not get lonely. I have a line that I always say, “I’m not by myself. I’m with myself.” While it might seem cheesy to some, it means a lot to me. I’m never lonely because I’m never alone. I’m with me and I love me! That’s not an arrogant thing to say either. I’m allowed to love me. Hanging out with myself is fun.
Social media is the best way to meet up with people on the road. There’s no way around that. I wouldn’t have connected with hardly anyone that last two years if it wasn’t for social media. We message each other on Instagram when we see that we’re in the same area and hangout! It’s easy. You can also use The Van Life App to find people nearby as well!
You can also just pull into pretty much any beach on the west coast and see 10 vans with their doors open. Indiana.. Not so much. But the west coast, we are everywhere. My main point here is that if you want to connect, it’s easy to do that. If you want to retreat, that is okay and it’s easy to do that as well.
How do you support yourself financially?
When I first left in my first van, I lived off of savings for a few months. I saved enough for about 6 months. So that whole time, I was working HARD on my blog. I knew bloggers made money but I didn’t know how. I just started and said screw it, let’s see. By 6 months and running out of money, I was at least making enough on the website to eat and put gas in the tank.
By the time I left in the second van, I was making enough to really support myself on the road. My blog is monetized in a few ways: affiliate marketing, adsense, and selling my own products. I sell presets, van dimensions, and will soon be offering an extensive course on blogging and social media.
Since leaving, I now make money in more ways! I do ads on Instagram about once a month and ads on my podcast as well. I take photos for brands that need marketing pictures. I run the social media of a van build company.
"If you are going to live in a van, make an actionable plan to get there. If you aren’t ever going to take the leap, THAT IS OKAY. Find something you are so passionate about that you have no choice but to do it."
I work from my laptop every day but I get to choose what time and when I take breaks. I hike in between, swim in the ocean, go to dog parks, etc. Very different than napping on my textbook sitting at the end of that bar.
It was definitely stressful at the beginning to figure out if I was going to be able to make enough to support myself but I wasn’t against staying in one place and making money for awhile if I had to. I could get a part time job and travel on my days off. I never had to do that but I would’ve in a heartbeat.
My bills are drastically less than they were in Chicago so my living expenses are extremely low. I kept things cheap and lived below my means. And hey, it worked. Work hard and save hard.
What is your one piece of advice for people who want to do what you do?
My go-to advice is always this: You are either going to live in a van one day or you are not. You will either make the leap or you won’t. Figure out which person you are now and move forward with that knowledge.
If you are going to live in a van, make an actionable plan to get there. If you aren’t ever going to take the leap, THAT IS OKAY. Find something you are so passionate about that you have no choice but to do it. That is how I felt with van life. You will feel the same way about something. But do not spend years of your life dreaming about something you will never do. Go after it or go after something else.
I think everyone living on the road learns it all the hard way. None of us know how to live in car before living in a car. We just do it and tell ourselves we will figure it out as we go. You learn every day. You grow every day.
If you are on a journey of self discovery, I couldn’t think of a better way to live. When everything in you life is stripped away, all the BS you’ve been hoarding in your closets, you will come face to face with what is important in this life. And that my friends, its life itself. LIVE IT.
Go outside. Close your eyes. Breathe the air. Hike that mountain. Write that book. Sing that song. Cuddle your dogs. And take note of every second. Be grateful and have fun.
You literally do live one time. You will have this life ONE TIME. Experience it. Do not watch the days go by. Your days are numbered. Why waste time like that? Break up with your unhealthy relationships. Tell that bad friend you don’t have time for her anymore. Do what you need to do. But do not, do not ever waste your life. It is worth too d*mn much to go to waste.
What have been the most influential and helpful books, podcasts, blogs, websites or other resources?
My favorite book of all time is The Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes. First of all, Shonda Rhimes. #Queen But that book is great motivation for anyone and especially a good Grey’s Anatomy fan.
Second on the list is To Love and Let Go by Rachel Brathen. Great for anyone grieving and wanting to learn how to grow from it.
Apps are a little less emotion provoking and more just convenient if you live on the road. AllStays for parking lots to sleep in, freecampsites.net for all the free BLM you could ever want, and my website, divineontheroad.com, if you’re looking for approved free campsites! I hate to really push my own stuff but I do like being a friend and resource for anyone wanting to pursue this lifestyle. So my podcast and website are basically about van life and van builds and van things all around.
What does the future look like?
I’m not really in a place right now where I think about the future much. I think about what it might look like but I always see myself on the road. Whether I stay in a van or get a bus when I start a family. I recently got into a new relationship with someone who travels full time in an RV! So we don’t know exactly what the future holds but we do know that it’ll be on the road.
My short term goals are to finish the blogging course and start Youtube. I plan on having both done within 2 months from today. After that, I would like to launch merch for my podcast and then begin writing a book about my travels. Long term is still a big question mark.
The road is my home and I strongly feel that. So no matter what vehicle I am in, I will always drive around the world. I plan on going to Australia some day as well to van it up there for a couple months. But who really knows!
Is there anything that you need that you can’t find or anything you are seeking help with?
I’ve become pretty accustomed to figuring things out. I don’t need much anymore and I think I’ve turned myself into an overly resourceful person. I do wish it was easier to find someone good at graphic design and Youtube editing. If that’s you, hit a girl up! (Not if you’re a guy looking to join me on the road, ain’t happening. Already have one.) BUT I would love to hire more creatives to help me organize everything and make it so I don’t have to do it all myself.
Rapid fire questions
What are the top 3 Van essentials that you couldn’t live without?
Pour over coffee maker, dogs, headlamp
Top 3 favorite places you’ve visited?
Yellowstone (all of Wyoming, really), Southern Utah, Taos
Where are you now?
South Lake Tahoe
How long do you usually stay in one place?
About a week
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?
Probably 45 of the 52 weeks
What kind of vehicle/rv/trailer/setup do you have?
Where can we go to keep up with you and your adventures?
Podcast: My Solo Road My podcast for all the juicy details (we get very real over there)