For the summers of 2015 and 2016, I decided to live homeless as I took the slow ride up the west coast of the United States along the infamous Highway 1. I started from Mexico and turned back after a few weeks exploring National Parks in Canada. While on this road trip, I took it upon myself to save thousands of dollars by living in my car which enabled me to travel longer, see more, and be introduced to a style of traveling I thought I would never take part in. I first got the inspiration from a number of Instagram accounts promoting #vanlife.
What is #VanLife?
If you explore this hashtag on Instagram, I dare you to not become motivated to ditch your 9 to 5, buy an old VW Vanagon, make some renovations and head out on your own #VanLife journey. If I had the money at the time, I would certainly be the proud owner of a classic Vanagon by now.
But truthfully, a new wave of #VanLife is becoming. It’s no longer an exclusive club for the risk-takers. You can join #VanLife and still work an office job. Now, the culture represents its fair share of weekend warriors who hold traditional careers and only travel at the end of a long week. Even just staying put while calling a Wal-Mart parking lot “home” and practicing a minimalistic lifestyle is accepted as #VanLife. There’s plenty of different #VanLife styles nowadays.
What it means to me?
For me, #VanLife became life in my 1998 Nissan Altima, so it wasn’t a van at all. After reading this article by Suanne from Cheap Living about living and traveling in her Toyota Prius, I saw it entirely possible to maximize the space in my car to make it livable, too. Soon, I was brainstorming every day for a month to find the most effective way to utilize all the space in my Altima.
I would test different sleeping styles and positions every night before taking off on the road. I didn’t want to head out with an extreme budget and then realize I couldn’t get sleep in my car after all. Finally, I found the best solution and it actually ended up being some of the best sleep in my life. I crafted some window shades out of cheap fabric, I created a system for cooking and keeping food fresh that wouldn’t be bothersome, and I did more #VanLife research than you can fathom. I wanted to be sure I knew all the tips and tricks to ensure the simplest possible lifestyle on the road.
Hitting the Road
I left home with little-to-no-plan except to go West. I had done all my car living research, but never planned the details of my trip. It was always a dream of mine to live a California summer. Though, I thought I could make surfer friends and live life like portrayed in California dog days movies – this wasn’t exactly how it turned out.
My first few nights in the Altima were a breeze. I spent a night outside of the Grand Canyon in an Arizonan National Forest where it is free and legal to car camp. To my surprise, temperatures dipped below freezing on a chilly May night in Arizona. However, despite the unexpected cold weather, I kept warm without any problems.
I loved the freedom it had to offer. Each morning, I had no clue where I’d be going to sleep. If I enjoyed a camp spot or city or desired to go on another hike the next day, I’d set up camp for a few nights. When I was ready to move on, I’d drive until I was tired or would stop and set-up camp to watch the sunset. The lifestyle was an orthodox traveler’s nightmare. There was never any plans or schedules; I was living in the moment and going whichever way the wind would take me.
The Slow Ride Up Highway 1
I never had a plan, but I knew eventually I was going to make it to Highway 1. Every dream I had ever had about California developed from scenes from movies involving a convertible cruising on a scenic, ocean-view route along the Pacific Ocean. Highway 1 was that dream of mine.
I ended up starting from the Los Angeles area – so not quite at the Mexican border. It seemed every fifteen miles I was pulling onto the shoulder to take in the view. The ride was more picturesque than I imagined and I hadn’t even reached Big Sur yet. When I finally reached a sign that read, “Welcome to Big Sur”, I stopped the car, hopped out and started exploring.
Due to my ignorance for research of the places I’d be traveling to, I had no idea that Big Sur is a rugged stretch of California’s central coast between Carmel and San Simeon. So I explored a resort that sat at the southernly beginning of Big Sur thinking thatBig Sur was one place, not an entire stretch of scenic views.
Big Sur, the actual entirety of Big Sur, is stunning. Bordered to the east by the Santa Lucia Mountains and the west by the Pacific Ocean, it’s traversed by narrow, 2-lane highway, known for winding turns, seaside cliffs and views of the often misty coastline. It’s possible (barely) to whip around the winding turns, but who would want to? I enjoyed the slow ride (probably only accelerating faster than thirty-five miles per hour a few times throughout the entire ride through Big Sur.
I rode along Highway 1 for a few weeks; stopping when I felt like it and sleeping on the shoulder of the gorgeous views from the coast. One place I knew I was going to stop in was San Francisco. I spent some days there before continuing onward to the Northern half of California. There were many other towns along the coast that grabbed my attention. I stopped every time I saw a group of surfers and obsessively watched; trying to soak in the surfer culture.
I hiked a few off-the-beaten-path hikes around the Redwood National Park area. Then, I spent a few more nights sleeping under gigantically-massive trees. The entire time, I couldn’t, for the life of me, fathom the magnitude of these giants. Californians used to live inside the burned-out, hollowed-out Redwoods. I contemplated a night in one of them, but living in my car was just too comfortable.
Falling in Love with the Pacific Northwest
The most underrated, unexpected part of living in my car was traveling through the Pacific Northwest. I left California after spending several weeks seeing the entire coast. I was saddened to think that my California dream was over as I continued my pursuit to the Canadian border. However, I was soon taken aback by what the states of Oregon and Washington had to offer. In one week, this region became my favorite part of the United States. Matter of fact, after returning home later that month, I came to a conclusion. I would return the following summer to do a similar trip, however spending more time in the Pacific Northwest.
Whether it’s the spruce-filled mountains, the rugged, rocky coastline, the unique and quirky towns along the coast, or the relative calmness and inexpensiveness when compared to California – everything was so easy to love in the foggy Northwest.
The following summer after my initial 2015 road trip, I decided I wanted to go back. This time saving some time to explore our northerly neighbor’s fine country. For a long time, the National Parks in Canada were screaming, begging for me to come visit. I craved a real nature, outdoorsy experience. I vowed I would leave my car and explore the woods of Canada’s National Parks for a few weeks. This didn’t exactly happen. I just became too comfortable with living in my car, and I loved it! Do I regret spending every night of the journey in my car? Yes, a bit. But did I enjoy the relaxedness and simplicity of it? You bet I did.
I found an excellent temporary, makeshift car camp perched in-between the heart of all of Canada’s infamous National Parks. I spent one week in the same camp spot. With the Canadian Rockies as my window view and the Columbia River as my shower and background music; there was no reason to move. It was the perfect spot to call home while I explored all the Canadian wilderness had to offer.
Although I never set up a tent, wrestled with bears, or trimmed my beard with a hatchet like I had imagined a proper Canadian wilderness experience being like, living in my car still enabled me to see everything I wanted to in Canada at a fraction of the price.
One Day Living in My Car Again
I sold my Nissan Altima when I moved to Europe at the beginning of the year. However, I still envision myself returning to life in a car at some point in my future. The simplicity and solitude that it gave me are just a few of the things that I have yet to be able to find elsewhere. In fact, at the root of all Van Lifers’ desires to move into their vehicles is a yearning for a simpler lifestyle. It just rids your everyday life of all complications. It makes you forget that you once entertained yourself with complications that never actually mattered.
I encourage all of my readers to try #VanLife once at some point in their travels. It’s traveling that can’t be replicated and must be experienced first-hand to understand.
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