The Modern Nomads: Interview with 3 Kick-Ass Van Life Ladies
Photo Credit: Hannah Duggan (@hannahleeduggan)
#Vanlife is a hot travel topic that has been trending all over social media. The awesome thing is, our feeds are full of ladies doing it solo too. The idea of a nomadic life with the ability to travel whilst work independently from anywhere in the world is a dream so many fantasise about. But how is it done and more importantly, what is the reality of it off-screen?
To learn more I caught up with 3 ladies, Hannah Duggan, Sydney Ferbrache from Divine on the Road and Katie Larsen from So We Bought a Van on everything about their van life experience: their rides, how they earn money on the road, their highs and lows as a solo traveller and of course words of advice so you too can live out the #vanlife fantasy.
Ladies, lovely to connect with you. Firstly, tell me how your decision to travel solo came about?
Sydney: I was working as a manager at a restaurant about 70 hours a week during college. It was so stressful to study for exams while also trying to be at my job. The environment was incredibly negative and my boss was beyond cruel. At 22, I was already exhausted and knew immediately that this was not a life that I could live for long. So as soon as I finished school and got my degree, I started looking for ways to do what I love and make money while doing it. Van life popped up on social media one day and I quickly fell down the rabbit hole of people living in vans and travelling full-time.
Hannah: I’ve always loved travelling in my car – the ease of just getting in and driving away. When I got my first car I would drive 4 hours north and spend time hiking around the north shore of Lake Superior. I would sleep in my car overnight (a Toyota Echo) with pillows and blankets in the backseat. I think it was really just a matter of time before I made a real longer-term home out of one. I got sick of packing up apartments all the time and I’ve always travelled and been on the move so it simply felt natural for me to live on the road.
Katie: I first began travelling in a van in mid-2017 with my previous partner, hence the name ‘So We Bought A Van’. He had always wanted to convert a van and travel the US and I was very on board with the idea. We originally planned to travel the United States and Canada for a year, so we only saved enough funds for that time frame. When the year was up, I knew that I wasn’t done with van life. I still felt I had so much to accomplish and places to explore. It became clear that my partner and I wanted different things so I decided to buy the van and continue travelling. I’ve been solo in the van for about 6 months and it has been a challenging, yet extremely rewarding and wonderful experience.
So tell me about the fit out and purchase of your vans…
Hannah: Once I got the inkling that I wanted to move into a van I was on craigslist/the internet looking for trucks with toppers and vans nonstop. I get ideas in my head and have to act on them NOW. I think it was only a week of looking before I found my van. I really only had a scrap of paper I’d jotted down from my dad about things I should check before buying (oil, brakes, etc.) I haggled with the seller and got my van from $3,000 to $2,400. It’s kind of funny when people ask me about the build because I really had no plan. I see all these people with elaborate plans, but I just knew I needed 1. insulation (still not convinced that actually helped much) 2. walls 3. cabinets 4. a bed. My dad builds picture frames for a living, so luckily he had a LOT of the tools I needed, so I spent almost every day over there working on the van. I really just figured it out as I went along. I think it drove my dad crazy when he would help me, because he’d always be asking me what my ‘build plan’ was and I would just shrug!
Katie: I drive a 2016 144” WB Mercedes Sprinter High Roof. We bought the van new in October of 2016. We worked diligently while still working full-time jobs to convert it, which took just over 6 months. It was a lot of work but I’m so happy the build is a DIY self-conversion. Everything is hand-crafted with so much attention to detail. I have a large custom size bed, plenty of cabinets for clothing and food, a 2-burner propane stove, running water and a sink, a portable toilet, a fridge, and a bunch of storage space underneath the bed in the rear of the van. My entire electrical system is run by solar so all the energy is renewable and I don’t require any hookups. I love that the build is functional for everyday living, especially off-grid.
Sydney: I’m currently on my second van which is a 2017 Ford Transit with a high roof. I had the same family friends who converted the first one do my second build as well. I have a full kitchen with a fridge, induction stove, sink and faucet, as well as a full bedroom that turns into my office during the day.
What are you plans? How long do you expect to be on the road for?
Sydney: I have no plans and don’t set time limits on myself for these kinds of things. I will be in the van until it doesn’t feel right anymore and then I will transition into whatever the next chapter holds. I really believe in doing what you think is best for yourself and van life feels good to me right now. I could wake up at any point and not want to do it anymore and then I’ll cross that bridge as it comes.
Katie: I honestly don’t think about that much. But when I do think about it, the answer is simpler than most people like: I really don’t know. I had to pull on all my resources to make this work as a solo traveller and I want to make sure that all that effort receives the respect it deserves. I could see myself doing this for 3-5 years but in all honesty, that’s just a guess. I could burn out in 1 year or I could continue living in a van for the next 10 years. I don’t plan much in advance and while that may seem childish at times, it’s really allowed me to live in the moment and cherish what I’m doing now instead of worrying about the future. What it comes down to is that I love my way of living and I find myself feeling anxious and constricted in more stationary settings. I enjoy change, I enjoy (organised) chaos, and I REALLY enjoy adventure. But most of all, I value freedom – from things, people, places, etc. In each moment of each day, I get to do exactly what I want to do and exactly what feels good. I can’t imagine any other way of living.
Hannah:I’m actually on a break right now! Its winter, it’s cold, I was home for the holidays, and I was doing some overseas travelling too. I think this whole #vanlife trend is really setting this expectation for people to just LIVE their whole life in a van. I really don’t see it that way. I love my van and I’ll live in it for extended periods of time, but I don’t feel any need to exclusively live in it if I’m just not feeling it. It’s a huge part of my life, but it’s so weird when people ask me “so are you selling it??” Like what?? No! I don’t have to live my life in a straight line just because people have gotten attached to seeing me in a van. If anything that’s the beauty of having it – it’s always there when I want to mix my life up again. Which is often.
Hannah: My highlights have been wherever I meet the people who impact my memory of the place! My first run in was in a tiny town called Thornbury in Canada. A girl named Riley popped her head in my van and invited me to her family’s house for the night – they folded me into their family and I spend a few days with them! Other places are Guelph, ON where I met my friend Sarah from IG. Hermon, NY where I met Ally who took me to her house in the middle of nowhere and we stargazed. Portsmouth, NH where I spent a few days with a very cute boy. And Sandwich, MA where I met Charlotte – the sweetest grandmother ever, who took me in to watch Jeopardy and eat spring rolls and let me park my van in her driveway.
Sydney: So far my biggest highlight has been raising my puppy, Ella, in the van. She is so full of energy and gets me excited to wake up every day. Getting to experience all of these places with her is amazing and I couldn’t imagine doing this without her. We went to the Women On The Road gathering this year which was one of the best experiences of my life. It was incredible to meet so many beautiful women that have similar mindsets and love travelling as much as I do.
Katie: They have changed over time. There are seasons of life where my van travels revolve around people; I’m caravanning with friends or visiting a city to see someone special or family. There are other seasons where my focus revolves around locations. It could be a park, or a hike, or a general city or state. For example, I’ve been hugging the California coast lately. I can’t explain why but it just feels like the place I’m supposed to be right now. I’ve been extremely drawn to it. With all that being said, no matter what my life is revolving around at a certain point in time, I think the biggest highlight or theme has been freedom and just understanding the value of time with that freedom.
What about the lows, I’m sure it’s not all as glamorous as it seems?
Sydney: Ironically, mine’s also to do with my dog. Ella needed a really intense surgery because of some intestinal problems she was having. It was a major procedure and involved weeks of recovery. Times like this are so stressful and being far from family was really difficult. I’m obviously an adult but I am still pretty young and I’ve never dealt with something to that extent alone before. I felt super lonely and helpless and I had no idea how to care for a recovering puppy while still in a van. To make things worse, the day after her surgery was the major California fire outbreak. I was having dinner with a friend I had made about a week before and we suddenly had to evacuate her house because the entire neighbourhood was literally in flames. It was not the best week for us! But we got through it and it definitely taught me A LOT about handling chaos on the road.
Katie: I don’t think I have ‘low points’. I think a better way to describe these would be ‘minor inconveniences’, at most. For example, transitioning to being a solo traveller was harder than I expected, especially since I stayed in the van that I built with my ex. Additionally, I went from living off of savings and having an immense amount of free-time to working remotely and requiring cell reception daily. Certain states are also extremely against overnight parking/primitive camping, which can present a huge challenge. There are times where I miss a normal toilet or hot water, but the important thing to remember is that I choose this lifestyle. I am here 100% by my own free will and all these “low points” or inconveniences don’t even come close in comparison to the upsides of my lifestyle choice.
Hannah: I’ve run into a few cops waking me up in the night to tell me to move along. Though these haven’t been too bad, cause I’ll just drive a bit till I find a Walmart or somewhere to sleep again. I think my lowest point was when I decided to come home; I had just gotten my period and my moods were all out of wack. I had just left NYC and the craziness of being surrounded by people and then suddenly leaving that was just disorienting. I got super into my own head and just couldn’t shake the loneliness. But the best part was remembering I can go home! I love remembering I can just change my mind whenever I want. If something isn’t making you happy, then do something else!
Katie: I like my alone time. In fact, I cherish it. I don’t experience the emotion of loneliness that often. I used to a lot, but that was usually around people I wasn’t actually connecting with well. Travelling solo has allowed me to dive deeper into who I am as an individual, challenge myself and pursue self-development. And I’ve found that I really actually like spending time with me. I’ve found self-love and enjoy being my own friend. I get most excited to climb into bed and watch a good movie with popcorn when I’m by myself. Taking time to be comfortable being alone and learning to be your own friend is invaluable. It’s changed my quality of life.
Sydney: I honestly think I am more connected to others now than I ever have been. I go to dog parks and talk to people all the time. I look up when I’m walking down the street and start random conversations with total strangers. I go to gatherings and meet amazing people who understand me better than I’ve ever been understood. The connections I make now are deep and meaningful and random and wonderful. In between those connections though, I get to separate myself and stay on BLM land to get the time I need alone. I have felt lonely a lot in my life and I can say with 100% honesty that I feel the least alone that I ever have.
Hannah: There have definitely been these times during my travels but I’ve actually got really good at being alone and learning to embrace that lonely feeling. I think it’s good for us to learn how to be alone and cope with what that can feel like sometimes. I live alone, I travel alone, and I make plans alone – I love other people, but I can’t base my happiness off whether other people are going to join me or not, so I’ve learned to be happy alone, and if other people join then that’s just an added bonus
Sydney: This sparks an interesting story actually that just happened! This summer I was watching a documentary about a particular cult that was incredibly violent and had some rather wild beliefs. There was a massive raid by the FBI when they got word that the cult was abusing the women and children, and that the law was no longer being considered by them at all. The leader had a very specific name that’s hard to forget. I was leaving Planet Fitness the other day and a guy approached me with a great conversation. He asked about Ella and van life and we spoke for a good 10 minutes before I told him my name. He shook my hand and said his name which was the name of the cult leader from the documentary I had seen! I immediately asked him if it had any relation to the religion and he said he was one of the top members which is why he adopted the name of the leader. He told me I was welcome to join, I asked a few more polite questions about it and we soon parted ways. As soon as I turned away, my jaw dropped and I couldn’t believe I had just met someone so high up in a cult. Crazy who you meet on the road!
Katie: One of my favourite stories since moving in the van is that a nearby camper came over and knocked on the van to ask if I was interested in going for a walk. I wasn’t alone at the time so we agreed and ended up spending a few hours walking and exchanging travel stories with this wonderful older man, who then gifted us with a nice bottle of wine at the end of our hangout. He was just another nomad out exploring the world, yet it’s hard to imagine another scenario where we would have spent time with a complete stranger like that. Moments like these are so cherished and help renew my faith in humanity.
Now on to a question a lot of people will be wondering – how do you fund your travels?
Hannah: I actually have a whole video (and channel) on Youtube dedicated to this – I’ve always had odd jobs to support my travels, so I’ve always had saving from doing those things. Other things I’ve done are research studies (like participating in random tests for the science kids at university etc). I also like to go thrifting/antiquing and up-sell things I find online. This was a great way to make some extra gas money in the van, and gave me something to kind of work on every day. The biggest answer I have for this question is that I’ve done egg donations – this pays on average 10-15k per donation (this is not necessarily my compensation), and I’ve been doing them since I was 19. I’m about to do another one this month, so I plan on filming the process for anyone who has questions! I’m hoping the video will be up by mid November.
Sydney: Due to my love of writing and degree in business, it was natural that a blog would be my means of making money. I just had to learn how to do it! So I taught myself and later took an online course to further my knowledge on web design and affiliate marketing. So I do this as well as advertising on my website along with web design and creation for others. I also help people set up their blogs and learn to monetise them. I get to partner with really awesome companies and small brands to do affiliate work and help my audience find brands that contribute to the good in this world with their products which is super fun!
Katie: I work remotely as a digital marketer, freelance writer, and social media specialist. I work a handful of jobs, some long-term contracts and some short-term, yet all freelance. Some of my long-term employment includes working as the Editor-In-Chief for Go-Van, and online magazine, platform, and resource for all things van life related. I also work as a social media specialist for various companies, including Travel Her Way, a women’s only adventure company I’ve been working with for over a year. Additionally, I do freelance writing and pick up gigs as the opportunities arise.
Lastly, what advice would you give to anyone interested in pursuing van life?
Katie: My biggest piece of advice is to really think about WHY you are interested in moving into a van. Why is this lifestyle intriguing to you? Are you looking to travel? Simplify? Connect with the outdoors? Understanding why you’re intrigued and your motivation behind this decision is going to help lead a lot of your upcoming decisions. Not only will it affect what kind of rig is right for you, it will influence how you travel, where you travel, and more. There are so many ways to live out of a van and you really need to figure out what will work best for you individually.
Hannah: Just do it. There’s literally no time like the present, and the sooner you start the sooner you get to play! You’re never going to be entirely prepared, and you’ll always be figuring things out as you go – this is true with anything in life – so why not start now?
Sydney: My biggest advice is always to just freaking do it. I can be a bit harsh sometimes so I try and say it as nicely as possible. But life is way too short to keep sitting there saying you’re going to do something. It doesn’t matter that it’s scary or big. Write out the absolute worst case scenario. Then write down exactly what you would do to fix it.. Now you have no excuse and you have a plan in place for a worst case scenario that will hopefully never even happen. And if you’re driven enough, you will succeed anyways. When you follow your heart and work hard, I can assure you that things will fall in to place. You can put any fires out as you move forward. But you won’t get anywhere by standing still.
If you’re contemplating van life then I don’t think you need much more persuasion than this!
Thank you Sydney, Hannah and Katie for allowing me to delve into your interesting lives. Safe future travels!