A Thru-Hike Turned Van Life

Article by Emily McDonald

A Thru-Hike Turned Van Life

A NEMO ambassador via the Thru-Hike Syndicate program, Emily had high hopes to hike the PCT back in 2020, but when the pandemic hit, her plans were put on hold. Switching gears quickly, she bought a 2005 Chevy Express Cargo van and converted it into a home on wheels, allowing her and her partner to get outside safely and responsibly to explore the West. At a time when van camping is becoming more and more popular, Emily reflects on her travels for us and shares tips on how you can give van life a try. 

At the end of February 2020, I packed up my entire life and moved back to the United States from South Korea, where I worked as an elementary school English teacher for one year. Living in Asia challenged the way I thought and introduced me to new experiences like scuba diving in Indonesia and climbing Mt. Fuji, Japan's tallest peak. As I arrived back in the United States I was itching to get out on my next adventure. I had big aspirations to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) that Spring, and I was more than eager to start a new journey. But with little warning, as you know, COVID hit.  

Suddenly, I was stuck in my childhood home in Florida, patiently passing days tending to my sourdough starter and daydreaming of hiking out west. As the pandemic reality set in, I canceled my plans and like every other prospective thru-hiker, I was crushed. In a time when everyone was stuck inside, I wanted to be outside. While on a neighborhood walk a few months later, I thought of a solution for safe travel and a way to begin a new adventure.  

I bought a 2005 Chevy Express cargo van and, in just 30 days, I transformed it into a new home. With the pandemic in mind, I built my van to be a completely self-sufficient, an off-grid camper that would give me the ability to survive days without being in civilization. My home on wheels was equipped with a bed, fridge, stove, and shower, and powered by solar energy. I was proud of my build and ready to start my next adventure. I hit the road in August 2020.  

My travels took me and my partner, Ryan, west to Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Washington, and Oregon by October. We then made our way to California and then back up the coast to Oregon, settling into life on the road. Traveling in the van allowed me to enjoy the outdoors daily as I would've on the PCT but while indulging in amenities like a comfy queen-size bed and hot coffee every morning. I had truly unbelievable moments on my travels, like camping next to natural hot springs in Idaho, backpacking on the coast in Big Sur, California, and hiking deep into slot canyons in Escalante, Utah. With 45,000 miles of adventures, my favorite moments have been watching an unbelievable meteor shower from my Stargaze chair in Montana and enjoying a sunset picnic at the Oregon Coast on my Victory Blanket. 

When I first decided to hike the PCT, I was most excited about forming a trail family and meeting new like-minded friends. To my surprise, I found a close-knit community of outdoor loving people who have become my road family. I thought life on the road could be a lonely experience. It was inspiring meeting so many diverse people traveling by different means.  

Van life has taught me how to be present. This lifestyle is like cruising in the right lane down the highway; slow-moving. Washing dishes, making the bed, cooking meals, and using the internet all took a little extra patience. Being outside and living in sync with the land were my favorite parts. While I still hope to hike the PCT one day, van life was a worthy replacement and I am so glad I took the leap. 

Ever wanted to try van camping? Here are some tips for getting started: 
  1. Test out the lifestyle first if you can. Try camping out of your car and go on longer road trips. (I think this is especially important to try out if you plan on living with someone in a small space!) Trying out longer trips first in whatever vehicle you have access to you can really help you decide if full-time van travel is right for you.

  2. Get ready for really great moments and really not-so-great moments. Van life is a constant balance of highs and lows. The lifestyle poses daily challenges by having to constantly scout out bathrooms, refill your water, and search for a strong Wi-Fi signal to work. While some things in the daily routine are harder, there are many beautiful moments. You get to soak in hot springs before bed, wake up to beautiful sunrises in the desert and spend time in nature every day. Your attitude is the most important part of dealing with the highs and lows and understanding that what you are sacrificing in the modern comforts of a house, you are gaining in beautiful life experiences.

  3. Make road travel as sustainable as you can by saving money before hitting the road. Although you're not paying rent in a house or apartment, van life is still a lifestyle that costs money, and sometimes a lot of it. Depending on how fast you travel and what states you are in, gas prices and groceries are big costs to budget for. Other things to consider are working a remote job, looking for seasonal or tourism industry jobs, and traveling between the seasons to save on costs. If you will not be working from the road, try and have a comfortable amount of savings put aside.

  4. Go to van life festivals or van life meetups to meet like-minded people living the same lifestyle. During peak COVID shutdowns, these were limited but had been coming back in 2021. Festivals like VanFest in Utah, Descend on Lost Sierra in California, and Descend on Bend in Oregon are fun gatherings with other travelers. These are so much fun and a great way to meet fellow travelers in the community.

  5. Use apps like Sekr, ioverlander, and freecampsites to find free places to park overnight and other resources for life on the road. These apps will help you save money on campsites and find some of the coolest, most private spots to stay. These apps are user-supported, so you can read reviews of campsites, dump stations, and water fill-ups, making life on the road much easier.

    If you're thinking of van life one day, don't wait until the perfect time, or when you have the perfect rig. Get out there and give it a go in whatever car, tent, or backpack you have at the moment! 

     Follow @emily_mcdo adventures on Instagram.