A year ago, I packed everything I owned into a Mercedes Sprinter camper van and set off to travel full-time.
It was the middle of the pandemic, I’d just left my full-time job, and I felt trapped in the concrete jungle of Chicago. My mental health was at an all-time low, and nothing I tried was making me feel better. So, instead of continuing to suffer quietly, I got rid of everything except my essentials, moved into the van, and resolved to build a life on the road.
Little did I know that in just one year, I’d cover nearly 40,000 miles of roads all around the United States, visiting 33 states in the process. Since moving into the van, I’ve visited dozens of national parks, got caught in snowstorms, fell in love with unexpected places, and learned more about myself than ever.
“Van life” is a growing movement captivating young people everywhere, and I feel lucky I’ve been able to experience it first-hand. Here are five of the most important lessons my first year of van life has taught me.
1. Nature is the best healer
Although I live in a van, I spend most of my days outdoors. Once I hit the road, the amount of time I dedicated to hiking, walking, and doing outdoor activities increased exponentially. The more time I spent outside, the more I started to notice the clouds of depression and anxiety were becoming lighter and lighter.
Spending so much time outside has helped me become more mindful, to appreciate my surroundings and the beauty and splendor of nature. Some of my greatest pleasures include breathing cool mountain air, swimming in lakes, and spotting wildlife in the distance. In just a year, I’ve felt the weight of my mental health challenges lifted, replaced by the joy of being in the wild.
2. It’s not as glamorous as it looks on Instagram
When you hear “van life,” you probably think of sun-tanned couples sitting in pristinely clean vans looking out at some of the most magnificent places in the country. Although van life is incredible in a lot of ways, it’s not always as glamorous as it seems.
I sometimes have to go several days without a shower, wifi can feel impossible to find, the bathroom situation is sketchy, and it can be difficult at first to make friends and connect with others. The van gets messy very easily, and I have to work a lot harder to keep it clean than I did in my previous apartments.
On top of that, I live in my vehicle, which means every time I have to leave my van at the mechanic, I need to find somewhere else to live for a few days.
Though these experiences have been challenging, the rewards of van life have been well worth it in the end.
3. The best kinds of friends will stick with you no matter where in the world you are
As a huge extrovert, I dreaded the thought of losing my friends because I didn’t live in their city anymore. And, to be honest, I have lost some people who were once close to me.
But, more importantly, I’ve gained the knowledge that all of the best people stick around. Now I’ve got a smaller but much more trusted and beloved set of friends who live all over the country (and the world). We’re just as much a part of each other’s lives as we’ve ever been — even more so now that I can easily visit them in their cities.
I get to spend 100% of my social energy on a group of people who uplift and inspire me. What’s better than that?
4. Spending time alone can actually be fun
I used to be the kind of person who never liked being alone. I’d constantly make plans with other people because I was terrified of feeling lonely or left out. In the van, I’m alone the vast majority of the time… and I’m actually okay with it.
Being alone gives me time to process complicated emotions and memories and makes me more mindful of my surroundings. I also don’t have to worry about pleasing other people all the time or care about what others think.
You know that saying “you do you?” That’s the mantra I live by. Van life has empowered me to be 100% myself and to love the person I am with my whole heart.
5. There’s nothing more freeing than being on the road
Every time I’ve “settled down” for a few weeks, I get this serious sense of longing for getting back on the road. I’ve learned that I can’t stay in one place for too long — it’s not in my blood. There’s nothing more freeing than being able to jump into my van, drive somewhere new, and set up camp for as long as I’d like.
My friends sometimes ask me when I’ll be ready to settle down. The answer is I don’t really know. I’ve built a company, raised a Husky puppy, and learned to love myself more because of my life in the van. The road is my home, and I can’t think of any place I’d rather live.