van life with dogs

Van Life: What You Need for a Nomadic Lifestyle

Jayme and John Serbell first met while serving in AmeriCorps NCCC and traveling the country in a van, so it’s fitting that they would also fall in love with van life and take their two dogs on the road fulltime.

“Ever since the beginning of our relationship, we’ve been travelers,” said Jayme. “Once you get into this lifestyle, it can be addictive. Every day feels like an adventure, and we’re not 100 percent sure where we’ll end up. We have the ability to choose what our life is like every day.”

For those who don’t know, “van life” is a term used to describe people who work and live nomadically in a van, RV, converted school bus or even just a car. If it has wheels, and you’re comfortable living in it fulltime, it meets the qualifications.

The Serbells, creators of the Gnomad blog, are driving across the country in their spruced up 1996 Chevy Express, camping and exploring nature as much as possible, and writing about their journeys along the way.

This tiny-home lifestyle is popular among some millennials who desire travel and adventure in favor of owning a home or wearing a suit to work.

Although it’s a popular topic on Instagram these days, the nomadic life has been around since before the covered wagon and freight train boxcar.

But before you list your home as a long-term rental on Airbnb, you should learn more about life on the road. So keep reading for tips from the Serbells, as well as for lessons from a professional van modifier, to see if you have what it takes to love the #vanlife.


Prepare to Spend Extra Money on Comfort

You don’t need to spend a lot of money to live in a van, but the more you spend, the more comfortable you will be.

“You could get a $500 van, throw a cooler and sleeping bag in it and be good to go,” said John.

The Serbells, and probably most other people considering the lifestyle, wanted a few more amenities. Thanks to what they call “YouTube University,” Jayme and John were able to convert their 1996 Chevy Express for $6,600.

“If you’re building a van, choose three things that are most important to you and build around those,” said John. “For us it was to have: Off-the-grid-features, storage and a big-enough bed for two humans and two dogs.”

If you want maximum comfort while driving down Pacific Coast Highway or to Yellowstone National Park, pull out your wallet, especially if you don’t have the skills or time to add them yourself.

Close to California’s iconic shore, dozens of construction and automotive specialists run saws, mark wood and install electronics for high-end van conversations at the El Kapitan warehouse.

“On average, our customers spend about $130,000 to buy and convert vans into living spaces,” said Brendan Kuhn.


His crew of construction pros can add almost anything to a high-end van or RV. Once they even found room for a Plexiglas-covered piano in a Mercedes Sprinter van.

You probably won’t need to practice your scales behind the front seat, but Kuhn says you should consider, and budget for, key amenities that make living and traveling in a van comfortable (listed in order of importance):

• Auxiliary battery

• Fan

• Bed

• Extra Windows (If the back of your van doesn’t already have them)

• Insulation

• Power inverter

• Solar panels

• Reinforced cabinets

• Interior walls

• Water tanks

• Water pumps

• Water heater

• Galley and appliances

Kuhn said it’s essential to make an itemized budget before building or buying anything, which should include any special tools you will need to pimp your van. After all, El Kapitan gets its fair share of failed DIY vans at their warehouse. Many owners are disappointed to discover they don’t have the budget or patience to drive their conversions to the finish line.

You’ll Need a Minimalist Mindset

Once you’ve added all those necessities and amenities to your micro-space, you won’t be left with room for much else.

“Storage was super important for us to build into our van, because it’s a small space,” said John. “Every nook and cranny has a storage function to keep everything organized.”

When it came time for the Serbells to pare down their belongings, they initially planned to get a storage unit. In the end, they decided to get rid of everything, since they’d be on the road indefinitely.

“We embraced the minimalist lifestyle,” John said. “We used to feel attached to things, but once they were gone it felt like a huge burden was lifted.”

For those who have treasures they’re not ready to part with, Public Storage is a great alternative!

“I have clients who live in their vans and use storage regularly,” said Kuhn.


Find a Way to Make Money on the Road

Opportunities to work remotely are steadily increasing, thanks to the Internet, which gives van dwellers like Jayme and John a way to work from wherever they have Wi-Fi.

They maintain their blog and work on other websites to earn cash on the road. Van life tends to appeal to the “digital nomads,” aka individuals who can work from a computer screen.

“The hardest part of this lifestyle for us, because we work online, is finding reliable Internet,” said John. “We tend to go out to the wilderness, so it’s hard to find places to camp with internet service.”

At El Kaptain, Kuhn’s crew regularly adds Wi-Fi hotspots into living vans for their customers. It’s a feature that exists, but “it’s not cheap,” he said.

If you have the technology skills to work from home, that could mean your van, too!

“The idea of trying to make money on the road will stop a lot of people, but there’s a lot ways to do it,” said John. “Stop thinking about why you can’t do something, and start thinking of why you can.”


Van Life: Prepare to Adapt to Anything and Everything

Depending on weather, mechanical issues, road construction and a plethora of other of potential unknowns, your route and life can change in an instant on the road. So if your stress level can easily go from 1 to 10, van life may not be for you.

“There’s a lot of things that can, and probably will, go wrong on the road,” said Jayme. “Your van could breakdown and you could have an unexpected expense. Those incidents do arise and you have to adapt. That could be extremely difficult for some people and for others, it could be easy.”

“You have to have the mindset that it’s all part of the adventure,” added John.

After all, the whole idea behind van life is breaking away from the norm and experiencing everything you can!

“I’ve become such a beautiful person living in the van,” said Jayme. “I was scared of things and so insecure, and that’s been washed away because I found out how strong and capable I am.”

Photos courtesy of John and Jayme Serbell, Brendan Kuhn.

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