With the storm clouds from the day’s rain still lingering, the setting sun ignited the sky in intense golden light and vibrant hues of pink. Maneuvering my rusty Sprinter van through curve after curve, descending deeper into the canyon that leads to Zion National Park, I felt like nothing could stop the good vibes that pulsed through me as I drove into the unknown.
A few hours earlier I had decided on a whim to leave St. George, Utah and continue pushing forward on my eastward journey from California to Tennessee. Since Zion was somewhere entirely new for me, my focus was split between taking in the views of sandstone spires jutting into the sky, and glancing at a map of dispersed camping areas that I could call home for the night. Bumping down an empty dirt road, I reached the fork that led to two free camping areas, only to find that the heavy rain had turned both roads into thick red clay that would be like quicksand for a loaded-up van. With Plan A and Plan B now out of the question, I pulled over and started pondering my next move, one that I like to call “Plan C What Happens”. I turned to my travel partner, Rodi—a one-year-old Australian Cattle Dog—and asked him what we should do. No response.
Solo van trips often feel this way: moments of elation punctuated by moments of “oh, shit”. Coming from someone currently on the road, here’s what to consider when thinking about taking on a van trip alone.
Finding the Balance between Introverted and Outgoing
For anyone considering this type of trip, let me be the first to break it to you: you will inevitably spend a lot of time alone. Behind the wheel, making your morning coffee, finding a camping spot at dusk, and wandering through a new town are just some of the many times when you’ll find yourself sans company. Being comfortable with that is essential.
At the same time, traveling alone opens you up to meeting plenty of new and interesting folks along the way. I’ve found that while living in my van without a partner, I don’t have much choice but to be outgoing. Whether I’m walking up to a stranger at a full campground to see if I can park my van at their site, or asking a coffee shop owner where to find a shower in town, surviving and having fun on the road is only possible with the help of others.
Campgrounds, cafes, and outdoor gear shops are typically my go-to spots for meeting people when I arrive to a new place. Though constantly introducing myself can get exhausting, I find it well worth the effort as a way to meet people who I can chat, camp or rock climb with. While traveling solo, the random people that I strike up conversation with frequently shape my adventures and make for a good time on the road.
Fighting Loneliness on the Road
Adventuring solo doesn’t necessarily mean feeling lonely all that often. My main piece of advice for solo van travelers would be to find a community that you can connect with wherever you go. The van life community is a surefire choice, so don’t be shy to chat up the other people you see cooking dinner out of a van in a parking lot. I’ve found the van life community to be rather far flung, including everything from twentysomethings living out of their vans as they work in one place, to retirees touring around in luxury rigs. Because of this, I’ve made easier and deeper connections with the rock climbing community, so I suggest looking to your passion as a way to find people.
Staying in touch with friends and family back home does wonders for making you feel like a semi-normal member of society. It can be challenging if you’re frequently in places without cell service or internet, but making the effort to call home during long drives or on rest days can do wonders to help you feel grounded. If possible, make plans to meet up with friends along the way to break up your time spent talking to yourself. Reach out to the people you know wherever you visit, or invite along friends and family who may be willing to join in on the adventure for a week or two. Also, bring a dog. If you don’t have one, adopt one.
One of the first questions people ask me about my trip is how I can afford it financially. For one, life on the road is intrinsically less expensive than living stationary, thanks to no rent or utility bills and little need to buy new material items.
Among the many different ways to cover the expenses of van travel, two popular choices include working seasonal jobs along the way or saving up for a period of time beforehand. I chose the latter, working a full-time office job with the goal of converting my empty cargo van and hitting the road for wilder pastures. So far, I’ve driven through six states and I’ve spent less money on gas than I would have paid making my daily commute to the office.
General frugal living techniques—“dirtbagging” if you will—can help keep the costs of van travel to a minimum. Making an effort to find free camping or share campgrounds, partaking in the occasional dumpster dive behind a grocery store, and only shelling out for a $5 shower when absolutely necessary are some the keys to cheap living. At the same time, when traveling alone it’s worth it to cut yourself some slack and splurge on the things that will make for a better experience, whether it be making room in the budget for a drink at the local bar or springing for an Airbnb every once in a while.
Staying Well & Keeping Safe
Right after how I pay for my travels (okay, and “where do you go to the bathroom?”), the next question I frequently get asked is if I feel safe alone on the road. The answer is yes, but it comes with some effort and routine. I follow a set of basic guidelines to reduce risk, like taking frequent breaks when driving long distances, locking my van whenever I leave it and when sleeping inside it, minimizing the time I spend driving at night, and moving to another camping spot if I ever feel insecure where I am. Having previous travel experience is a big help in this regard, as developing that intuitive sense of the people and places you can trust is crucial.
Doing your best to stay healthy can save you the trouble of spending four days rethinking your life choices as you nurse a flu or a cold in your van. Though it can be tempting to chow down on chips and chocolate bars, taking the time to cook healthy meals certainly impacts how good you feel. Having a convenient kitchen setup in the van—with a cooler or fridge, stove, propane, water source, and cooking supplies—can make the difference between making a quality meal at camp or succumbing to snacks for sustenance.
Practical elements aside, taking a solo van trip creates a lifestyle of ultimate freedom, where embracing spontaneity is essential and chasing curiosities becomes the norm. I’ve learned to attain a sense of peace by living in that awkward space of the unknown, and to feel comfortable wherever I find myself. So long as you fill your days with what makes you truly happy, life becomes a lot bigger when you live in a tiny space.
Featured image provided by Jenna Herzog