How to Travel and Work from a Van Full-Time
For many people, full-time travel throughout the United States in a van, through deep wilderness of the Northwest or desolate plains of the Midwest, signifies a rupture with society. The ability to escape, if nothing else.
But for Stephanie Yarbrough and her husband Jim, van life doesn’t mean hiding from reality. Instead, it provides deeper connections to friends and family and strengthens her remote work, which she had previously done in her stationary life in Denver, Colorado
While her travels – which began in 2015 after the loss of her father-in-law – have taken her to far-flung corners most Americans never have the vacation time to see, she’s maintained a career in business consulting and started Adventure in a Backpack, a media outlet to help inspire others to achieve their adventure travel dreams.
We spoke to Stephanie about what it’s like to work full-time from a van, and the most amazing places and experiences she’s had–and even what marriage is like from a van.
First, for those who aren’t yet familiar with Adventure in a Backpack, can you explain what it is? And for those who don’t know what “van life” is, can you elaborate on what that looks like?
‘Adventure in a Backpack‘ is the media outlet for adventure travel that I and my husband run. It started as a way to share our lives and adventures with our friends and family, but over the years it has grown into something much more. Our mission is to educate, inspire, and entertain our fans on adventuring safely and responsibly with the knowledge and tools to embrace our natural playground. Whatever form that takes is dependent on our current mode of travels, which happens to right now be van life.
Van life is, at the basic definition, living in a van (or other vehicle) full time. Some van lifers are nomadic, some roam freely. For us, we travel full time and rarely stay in one spot for more than a couple of weeks. To us, it’s a sense of freedom and minimalism that we weren’t able to achieve while living in a house. We built out our campervan ourselves, and added some amenities, like a composting toilet, that make life in a van a little easier.
Could you tell us about your journey to making this lifestyle shift? Why did you do it, and why did you do it when you did?
We had always wanted to travel and see as much of the world as possible, and for a long time we thought that we’d buy an RV when we retired and travel that way. But in 2015, we lost my father-in-law to cancer. He was just 53 years old, and his entire retirement had been spent fighting cancer. Rick was a huge influence in both of our lives, and he always encouraged us to go after our dreams, no matter what they were. He had planned to travel in his retirement as well, something that never got to happen for him.
We realized at that moment that we weren’t guaranteed retirement, or even tomorrow. So we decided to just take the plunge. Three months after he passed away, we were moving into our first RV (before the van) and hitting the road. It was really his courage and strength through his battles with cancer that motivated us to do this and to pursue an alternative lifestyle.
What have been some of the most memorable moments?
The most memorable moments are the little things that we get to enjoy on the road that we wouldn’t have experienced living in a house. For instance, over the past few years we have gotten to visit friends, aunts, uncles, cousins, and distant relatives, and even acquaintances that we’ve met online, that we would never have had a chance to visit had we not been in their area. Doing that has really strengthened our relationships with relatives who weren’t part of our childhoods.
On a similar note, we get to visit my 96 year old grandma a LOT now. She lives in San Diego (which obviously is a fantastic destination anyway), so we always make a point to stop in for a few weeks any time we head that way. Since she lives alone, it gives me and my family a lot of comfort knowing that I can visit her much more regularly than we used to and really get to see how she’s doing.
Outside of people, the memorable moments are special times that just make us feel like we are in a dream. Watching a moose gallop across a field in Denali as we stood on the side of a mountain; watching a meteor shower while soaking in a natural hot spring in California; watching little ducklings chase their mom while paddling down a river in Montana. These are things I’ll never fully be able to describe to others, but made me feel that right there was exactly where I was meant to be.
Where have you traveled that you’ve thought, “Wow, I can’t imagine not having done this in a van!”
This past winter, we traveled around to eight different ski resorts, from Colorado to Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Alberta, British Columbia, and California. We’ve always wanted to do a long winter road trip and visit a ton of ski resorts, and I don’t know how we could’ve done it if we weren’t living in a van.
What has it been like to live with your partner in a van? What advice do you give other couples hoping to do the same?
My husband and I have been together since high school, and we’ve always worked really well together. I’m not trying to paint it as if we have a perfect relationship, but we just get along really well and understand each other. We don’t have those moments of needing “personal time” or “alone time” when we’re in the van. We genuinely love being together and around each other, and that makes living in a small space like that much easier. We get lots of time to talk to each other while we drive, but we are also both okay with silence, too (not bad silence, just silence in our own thoughts).
My advice to other couples is to be patient and be flexible with each other, because things are bound to go wrong when you’re driving around in your house.
For people who are craving this lifestyle, what do you think are the most important qualities they should have? How can they build these in their “uni-local life” before switching to van life?
I think the most important quality is being flexible and remaining calm when things don’t go as planned. As a planner and analytical-minded person, this one was pretty tough for me in the beginning. I wanted to know exactly where we were going and where we could camp each night. But that quickly went out the window, and now I’m a pro at changing plans on the fly.
Before switching to van life, a few things you can start to do is take small road trips and see how things on the road are in practice. It might seem simple to live in a van at first, but then you realize you need to figure out where to get water, where to park, where to shower, etc. So going on shorter road trips and camping trips before setting out into van life is helpful.
Also, minimizing your stuff! It was crazy how much stuff we ended up just giving away at the end of our time in our house. And for the first six months on the road, we were constantly stopping at thrift shops to donate another load of things we didn’t need. We’ve always thought we were minimalists, but living in a van is a totally different level of minimalism!
You also work full time as a consultant in your van. Do you think there’s any stigma against being a professional and also living/working in a van? How have some of your clients reacted?
I was truly worried about this at first, but to my surprise, my clients love it. Most of my client calls start with clients asking “so where in the world are you today?” I think it gives them a sense of adventure learning about all of the places that I’ve seen, and I love to share a bit of my personal life with them all. No one has reacted negatively about it, but if they did, I don’t think they’d be a good client for me anyway.
I’m sure the question in everyone’s mind is, do you believe this will be a long-term lifestyle, or do you plan to stop at any point?
I don’t think van life will be a forever lifestyle, but we’ll keep going as long as it stays interesting. I’ve never been good about staying in one lifestyle for very long, so it really depends on how our lives change. We do plan to keep traveling for a long time, but that may be in the form of moving overseas, backpacking, or some other crazy plan I come up with in the future! I think there is too much of the world to see to stay stationary for long.
Lastly, if one day you finally put the van in the garage, what are you going to remember most about these years? What wisdom will this experience have given you that you’ll pass along to future generations?
The generosity of people and the beauty in our own backyards is incredible. We just have to seize the opportunity to embrace it and open our eyes to it. No matter the negative things going on in the world, just interacting with fellow humans in person will remind you that we are all just alike. And that’s beautiful.
You can always make more money; you can’t always make more memories.
Anything else you think is really important for people to know?
The most common question I get is how do I make money, and how much does it cost to live in a van. No, we aren’t trust fund kids (far from it actually). Business consulting is something I’ve always been able to do remotely, and for a while I worked from home when I lived in Denver as well. So it came pretty easily to me to move my business into the van. So long as I have internet and my laptop, I can work from anywhere.
You can definitely make van life a very inexpensive lifestyle. We do afford ourselves some luxuries, so our expenses are around $2,000 – $2,500 per month, depending on how we travel. That does not include the cost of our van, as we do own it outright with no monthly payment. I can say that is FAR less than what we were spending living in a house in Denver.