Living The Life That Makes Us Happy

Bryan, Jen and Karma the Wonderdog
On the road since 2012
“We now choose collecting experiences and memories over collecting things. We feel like we are living each and every day to its fullest with no regrets, other than wishing we had done all this a decade earlier.”

What were you doing before you went mobile?

We spent the last few years leading up to our “departure” saving money and paying off debt, downsizing and moving into smaller and smaller homes and purging our belongings while preparing for our road trip.
We knew even then that there would be a tradeoff, and knew that our jobs provided many things for us.  We fought against the urge to leave and asked ourselves why we couldn’t just make it work.  Why we couldn’t just be “normal” and content like everyone else.  Eventually, it simply wasn’t an option for us anymore, and we had to make the leap.

What led you to decide to quit your jobs and start traveling?

We were by most accounts happy in our past lives.  We simply didn’t love the idea of working the rest of our lives with only a few weeks vacation a year, no savings to show for it at the end of each year and waiting for some eventual retirement (if we lived long enough) to finally enjoy ourselves. Jen had tried to get us to quit and run away for years, but my brain couldn’t handle the idea.  “What about our retirement?  Our 401K, our plan??”
Finally, I began to come around to her ideas, but I needed a bit more security than she did (savings, a plan, a bit more savings to make a return easier when/if needed). We planned and saved enough for what we thought would be two years on the road living affordable in Mexico/Central America. That was almost five years ago, most of which we have lived in far more expensive places. The tipping point for me was the stress and health impacts of my former job and lifestyle.  I walked into a routine Dr appt in my 20s and heard the question “have you been told you have high blood pressure?”.  When I got home told Jen, I was ready.

How many vans have you had so far and what’s their story?

Our first van was a classic, split window 67 VW bus. We searched for the perfect home on wheels for almost a year and looked at everything from SUVs to box trucks to ambulances and school buses. We had fallen in love with the classic bus early on and finally admitted that we were eventually destined to own one.  It worked great for our first trip despite breaking down every few days. In fact, the breaking down may have helped us get over the old lifestyle/mentality and to adapt to the new slower pace and lack of a plan.
We just changed over to a 4×4 Sprinter van last year and have been building it into our perfect home on wheels.
We will never replace the bus in our hearts and still often wish that from the outside we were driving that bus, the love that immediately comes from everyone who sees it, and the mentality that it evokes both to the driver and anyone who passes. But once we climb inside the sprinter, can stand up fully and can live in total comfort compared to the bus.  We quickly fell in love with the new van (and the new possibilities) as well.
How did you renovate the Sprinter?
We knew mostly what we wanted after a few years living in the bus, but we also knew from experience that you never really know until you’ve tried (it took us only a few weekend trips in our first build in the VW to completely rip out the build and start over).  This time we made some trial cabinets to test things out during our summer travels.  We made very few changes when we started the final build, but far better than building a final camper and having to start over.
We also have learned that much like a typical house you will eventually want to renovate your van.  On top of that, because our home is a functional auto, it’s nice to be able to take out cabinets and return the van to an empty shell as needed.  I worked hard to design our entire set of cabinets/components to be “plug and play” so they can be removed easily as needed and put back in or moved to any other sprinter van. The basic system is a lightweight aluminum “exoskeleton” with bamboo walls and doors.  It bolts into factory holes and allows us flexibility without doing damage to the van itself.  We are still in the process of finishing and adding details, but loving the functionality and feel of things so far!!
Which are the three must-have items in your van?
Our non-negotiable for van living are/have been:
– A fully stocked kitchen with fridge/ice (for happy hour/entertaining and breadth of cooking/meal options)
– A comfy/spacious/full-time bed that doesn’t need to be folded/put away
– The aesthetic.  I’m a maker and a designer of small homes. It’s very important for us to feel like we’re living in a beautiful yet minimal space that we are proud to invite others into or share with those who have an interest in the lifestyle.
How do you plan your routes and travels?
We barely do.  Planning is probably our most lacking skillset.  We have mostly framed our decisions/plans around a daily discussion about where we want to be that day, what would make us happier (if anything) and how to get there.
Which are the three most scenic routes you have seen on your journeys?
Wow…tough call.  Off the to of our heads:
– Sunshine Coast, BC
– The Pacific Coast of El Salvador
– East Cape of Baja, Mexico
– Canadian Rockies
Yes, we know that’s 4, but we aren’t really a fan of rules, and we could have easily listed a dozen.
What is the pace of your travel?
Slow. No slower. No really; very, very slow.  Our pace was originally set by our VW Bus, an almost 50-year-old vehicle that was running at 1/2 capacity most of the time…and that speed worked out just fine for us. 😉

What’s like living with a dog on the road?
It’s perfect.
In fact, the dog is the largest reason we travel by van right now.  She is getting older, and it doesn’t seem fair to leave her for long periods or to put her in a crate on a plane. It’s also fair to mention she’s the perfect dog and makes things remarkably easy in all environments from snow to 100+ degrees, so we can’t take any credit. What she does on a daily basis is remind us of how happy you can be about the simple things every day. The sunshine, snow, a beach and a ball, to a dog everything is amazing, and that lesson isn’t lost on us in the least.  She’s a constant reminder that today is the best day ever… since yesterday.
Living in a small home, what effect has on your relationship?
I think it brought us closer.  It certainly frees us up to spend more time together, which was one of our original goals.  Small spaces require working together, and good, open communication is key.  All the things that also make any successful relationship.
Vanlife will test you, but it can also pull you together.  For us, it’s perfect.  We clearly very much enjoy each other and are thrilled that we get to spend at least 23 out of every 24 hours together.
What about your hobbies and fitting the gear in the van?
This is a large part of why we “upgraded” from VW bus to sprinter van.  It simply holds much, much more gear.  Many of our hobbies are actually facilitated by the van life.  Travel, hiking, backpacking, climbing, surfing, snowboarding, etc.  Others require a bit of planning or oblige us to be in one place for a while.  I’m an artist/maker, and when I have a project in mind, we will often head for Portland so that we have access to a communal shop and can work with our hands.  Last summer we made Vancouver BC our home base so that we could play beach volleyball several days a week in between travel/exploring.
What’s your favorite gear?
Surfboards, Snowboards and Climbing and Snorkeling gear.
Which are the best places to practice your hobbies?
This is part of why we worked hard to create a home base and are beginning to find ourselves looking for/finding a rhythm of nomadic living mixed with longer term stays. Many hobbies (design, art, writing) can be done from anywhere. Others are simply easier when you’re in one place for a while, which is why we find ourselves planning locations with access to a community shop or access to a crowd who also enjoys beach volleyball, climbing, etc.
What do you like to read?
Mostly nonfiction. Travel or stories of how others changed their life for the better. Anything but the news! These days we find most of our reading is simply learning about/prepping for the next destination and finding the local favorites/highlights. We try to find a balance between prep/research and merely exploring once we arrive. Too much planning can steal the adventure from a trip.
How long can you live off the grid?
We are still figuring that out/testing our systems.
During summer trips in our old VW bus, we could be off the grid for typically 3-4 days at a time before needing to top off our batteries or resupply.  In the new van we’ve almost tripled our solar/battery capacity… but, It has also been far more difficult in the winter for several reasons (battery life is shortened, as is the length of days and solar gain.  Our food/drink storage is also reduced thanks to all our gear/layers).
How do you keep your van warm in freezing weather?
We have a diesel fired Espar heater that pulls directly off the sprinter fuel tank.  It works great to keep the van at a comfortable temperature and uses almost no fuel even when running 24/7.  The dog and we have been comfortable even during periods in this trip when temps were consistently around -20F.
What about showering?
We try to make cleanliness/hygiene a bonus rather than a difficulty.  If we are in one place for an extended period a monthly climbing gym or yoga studio membership provides not only showers but usually a sauna, exercise facilities, a community, etc.  It’s a win/win.
This current trip is far more nomadic, so it’s slightly more challenging, but showers aren’t so hard to come by if you’re creative.  We will often use it as a reason to get a “bonus.”  Many resorts, for instance, will offer day passes to their spa/hot tub/sauna, etc., which means we aren’t just paying for a shower, but a day long spa-like experience.
What’s the most rewarding part of traveling by van?
Freedom. The ability to wake up each day and decide where we want to be, and if we aren’t there, we already have the means to get there.  It also comes with a constant supply of new things, new experiences and new views at a very low cost.
We also now live more simply, slower and more mindful.  We see more sunrises and sunsets each year now than we did in our entire life before.  Our hours around a campfire have skyrocketed.  We have a deeper connection to nature.  We can stop to enjoy the little things and have zero stress for timelines and deadlines because we refuse to make them.
The most challenging?
Services.  We wouldn’t call it difficult per say, but finding a place to sleep, finding wifi and cell signals…these things are somewhat challenging, especially if you need them for a specific reason like a pre-scheduled work call/meeting.
We don’t choose to be in a campground 30minutes from town; we prefer to be either camping in the middle of nowhere without other people and with an amazing view… or, in the case of this trip, in the middle of the action/communities.  We most often find ourselves stealth camping for access to the lifestyle and experiences that originally drew us to a place.
How do you fund this trip?
We actually feel like we save money on the road when compared to living at home.
We have downsized our life so significantly that at this point all we need to do is make enough money for gas, food and drink (and hopefully the occasional “splurge”). Our lifestyle was born out of working the money problem from the opposite end, not by trying to earn more, but by reducing our costs. Once we figured out how to have someone else pay our mortgage things got much easier. Now our goal is to find a way to have multiple small income streams that will ensure our lifestyle continues. Currently, those streams come in the form of Zenbox clients, selling artwork or furniture and renting out our home while we’re away.
How do you balance work and traveling? What is Zenbox?
Life comes first.  We don’t consider Zenbox work.
That was part of our commitment to each other when we left.  In fact, I promised Jen that the first time we take a client for money rather than creativity or passion, that’s when we would shut the doors.  My life also requires creativity and an outlet for it, which is where the combination comes from.
Zenbox design was not a plan or an intent. We converted our garage into a 480sqft tiny “home base” for us so that someone else could pay the mortgage and we could have a home to return to between travels.  It was done purely out of necessity, but soon neighbors and others who stumbled upon the project kept asking us to help them design their own small homes.
At one point Jen pointed out that I was working at 3 am for free… not that it was a problem, but that I clearly enjoyed the projects and maybe we should consider putting a name on it, and Zenbox was born.
What we didn’t realize at the time is that this “work” could also be done remotely, which is huge for us in terms of sustaining our lifestyle!
What’s your advice to people thinking about vanlife?
Go for it!  If there’s a reason you’re considering such a crazy leap or dramatic downsize, there’s probably a good reason, so just go, do it.
Surround yourself with like-minded people as soon as you can.  It makes the idea seem less dramatic and lessens the chance of anyone telling you you’re crazy or trying to talk you out of your dreams/goals (whatever they might be).
It’s a horrifying choice- leaving behind everything you’ve always known and have been told you’re supposed to do. Trust me; I was more terrified than anyone!  Now I realize how paralyzing that fear was for so long.  The real beauty that I can see in hindsight now that seemed so terrifying before is that you can always go back.  You may choose not to, as we have, but the beauty is that the place you are right now is already well known.  You can always go back if you decide to.
What are your future projects?
When the current winter road trip is complete, we will start another round of work to finish out the van.  Mostly just finishing what we started and honing the details (drawers and shelves that didn’t get finished in the “push” to leave), and testing a few ideas we’ve had but simply haven’t had the time to complete.
Our roof rack and awning are just a mockup for now, and while they are working perfectly, we still need to fabricate the final versions.
We already have a few potential projects helping others design/outfit their adventure van and love the excitement/interaction as people move in that direction!
Outside of van projects, we are mostly living vicariously through our clients’ projects.  We would love to buy another old home and convert it into a beautiful, minimal modern space but part of our lifestyle at present is realizing that it’s far better to have someone else paying for those projects while we use them as an outlet for creativity.
What’s Next?
We have no idea.  We are horrible planners more than a few days in advance.  We love our lives right now and wouldn’t change a thing.  We also know that at some point we may change our minds and want to have a more permanent home (or homes).
We also know that while we still love the chance to explore every inch of the PNW, we will eventually set our sites further.  We will eventually branch out to all of the north America, to further abroad, to the world.  We have already begun to realize that we will eventually live on a boat and explore by water (no, we don’t know how we will afford that beautiful catamaran in our minds, and no we don’t know how to sail, but we’ll figure that out when the time comes).

Follow Jen and Bryan

Instagram @TheDangerz
Website The Dangerz


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