These are some questions I recently answered in an interview with an old friend.
Start by telling us a little bit about you and your Van Life experince...
My name is Brian Cunningham and I have successfully traveled around the country in my Van, twice. First time in 2015 for 6 months and 2nd time in 2017 for 5 months. Not only did I travel around the entire country twice but I made money and grew a business while I did it.
1. When did you first hear about the “Van life” and what drew you to it? Basically, why the van life?
When I took my first trip around the country in 2015 with my wife (girlfriend at the time) Victoria, the word “VanLife” honestly wasn't as popular as it is now. I believe I first saw the word VanLife on someones Instagram page as a hashtag after Victoria and I had already been on the road for a few months doing the van thing. I liked it and started to hashtag my own photos with the same term.
In a broader sense, I was made aware of the “VanLife” from my mom. She had traveled across the country in a VW bus back during the 70’s movement. In my eyes, those were the original VanLifers, and hearing about my moms experience with it was initially what gave me the idea.
2. Walk us through the process in which you decided to travel and how you planned it out? How did you find the perfect van, how did you plan your route, how much did you save/estimate costs, etc;? What do you pack, and how do you decide that, and more importantly where do you shower?!
In 2014, I had been living in an apartment in Manchester NH working a fulltime job. Victoria and I were dating and spending lots of time together. By no means would I say I was unhappy with my life, but I was getting bored with the daily routine. I wanted more. I wanted adventure, I wanted to experience new things and see new places. So, one summer afternoon, as Victoria and I were aimlessly walking the streets of Manchester we came across a van for sale. We took a close look at it, and started to dream. “What if we bought this? What if we put a bed in the back and just lived out of it and traveled the country?” We were both struck with inspiration. We had found our answer.
From that day, Victoria and I had made a plan to finish working till the end of the year, save ALL our money, and start to plan and acquire the things we would need to hit the road. We didn't end up buying the van we saw on the road that evening, but I began to research all sorts of different vans, assessing them all, trying to determine which one would be best for a “Round the Country” road trip. Through my research, I found the Chevy Astro is most affordable and most reliable for a trip like this. It also comes with the option of being All Wheel Drive, which is a definite plus for those “off the beaten bath” campsites.
We had planned to Leave Jan 1st. New year, New beginnings. Plus, that was when the season slowed down for me at work so it made the most sense. Since it was going to be cold Jan 1st, we planned to head south first things first, leaving New Hampshire and headed to the southernmost point of our country, the Florida Keys. After that we would head west.
We had each decided it would be a good goal to try and save $5,000 each for the road. I calculated gas costs for the miles we would be driving and I found we would need at least $3,000 for gas to get around the country, leaving us $7,000 to use wisely on food and adventures for 6 months.
Packing can be tricky when you know you’re going to be facing different climates and seasons. I pack really light, Victoria on the other hand, likes to have different outfits. On both road trips we ended up packing more than we need, and when we got to Colorado, we shipped a bunch of stuff home. A lot of the cloths we had to ship home were winter cloths that we no longer needed once March came and we were spending more time in the south. For me, it was mostly important that I had all my camera gear and room for VanLife Clothing which I was selling out of the van. If I had any advice for someone on what to pack, I would tell them, “Just the essentials” and let them decide what that is.
Bathing honestly wasn't ever too much of an issue. That is the most popular question we get, “How do you shower?”. The truth is, we would go days without bathing sometime, but when the time came we would either meet up with a friend or family member we knew in the area or state we were in, or we would find a campsite that had showers, or if needed we would get a cheap hotel room for a night. Also, if we could find a body of water to rinse off in, that would do the trick at least for a little.
3. How did you make money on the road?
The first roadtrip Victoria and I took around the country was never really supposed to be about making money, but when we got to Colorado we started brainstorming ideas on how we could bring in some money as we traveled. We played around with some t-shirt designs and thought that would be a fun and cool way to bring in some cash, selling t-shirts. That is when VANLife Clothing was born. Now a thriving brand, you can shop on w ww.vanlifeclothing.com and read up on our blog where we share some of our stories and adventures.
Victoria makes and sells crystal wall decorations and sells those online. This past trip, I helped build and design a website for her and those have been selling really well. www.spunoutwirewraps.com
We both get paid to do promotions on our social media and work with a handful of really cool brands.
I am a professional photographer and can occasionally find gigs on the road, but mostly find work through social media. For example, I got connected to a camping company, RVC Outdoor Destinations www.rvcoutdoors.com , through Instagram. They own campsites all across America and wanted me to get them professional photos of their property to promote on social media as well as for their website. Another gig I came across was for this newly opened Art Gallery in Telluride, Colorado, “Gallery NOW” . Victoria and I were just taking a look at the art and got into a conversation with the gallery owner. We told him what we do, and he hired us on the spot to get him photos of his gallery and to promote it on our instagram pages, pretty cool.
4. Where do you park the van when you need to sleep and how do you plan that out?
Finding a place to park and sleep can be tough sometimes, but one place that is always quite reliable is Walmart. Mostly all walmarts will allow you to park overnight and sleep in your vehicle. It helped us a lot to have this app called “ALL-STAYS”. This app shows you all the walmarts, campsites, truckstops, and rest stops in America. When the time came, I would open up the app, look and see what was closest and drive to wherever it was to park and sleep for the night. Never really had much of a plan as to where we were going to be sleeping. We would sort of just wing it.
5. How do you live in a van- cooking, cleaning, bathroom, etc;? Basically I want the nitty gritty, be real with us and let us know is it easier or harder and what makes it so?
Living in a van can be done many different ways and it especially makes a difference what kind of van you have and how it’s set up. Some vans have a stovetop and sink built in them, and some even have toilets. Ours was never that equipt. We pretty much just had a bed in the back, but I always had a Coleman camping grill stored under the bed. When we would be camping, I would cook our meals, which most of the time was something like mac and cheese, soups, pasta, beans and rice. Occasionally, if we were with friends, we may grill up same meat. If we were on the road, we would stop for like subway or the occasional gas station food... yumm.
Cleaning was easy because you only have a small space to clean. We would vacuum the van at car cleaners every so often and do our laundry at laundromats like other normal folk. When we had to use the bathroom we would have to find a public restroom somewhere, or just outside if we were in the middle of nowhere. I’d be lying to you if I told you we never peed in a cup in the back of the van. It just has to be done sometimes when your doing the VANLife.
6. What was the biggest surprise for you about living on the road?
Every day was a surprise. Just waking up engulfed in the mountains, or canyons, or desert. Wherever we were, I would wake up, roll out of the van and just feel inspired to be out there, anywhere, somewhere new.
7. What are the challenges that come with living on the road? What are the easy parts?
Not having your own bathroom can be challenging at times. And finding ways to bring in money can be hard, but doable.
The easiest part for me about life on the road, was getting back in the driver's seat to start driving somewhere new. I never needed much convincing to continue onward to new adventures. One of my most favorite things about the VANLife is the journey in between the destinations.
8. What’s it like living on the road and being in a relationship? What challenges does it bring and does it strengthen your relationship in any way?
I loved the fact that I had Victoria with me. She’s my co-pilot, my partner in crime, my ride or die. Things get tough at times, like in any relationship. I believe living in a van in such close quarters definitely heightens tension at times and makes you go a little crazy toward each other, but for me and Victoria, it didn't take us long to work through whatever it was and be happy to have one another.
I believe it has strengthened our relationship. We have seen each other for who we truly are and still have love, if not more love for one another. We have worked through many obstacles together on the road and came out of them stronger than we were before.
9. Any tips for the novice van lifer? What are some suggestions you would give to a newbie that only someone, who lived on the road, can supply?
Well the best advice I could give to someone who wants to do the vanlife, is to just do it. Save money, pick a date, and don't let anything stop you, just go do it.
Advice for a newbie... definitely download the “ALL-STAYS” apps. I believe they may cost a few dollars to download, but totally worth it.
10. How did you work on the road as a photographer? Did you seek out clients or plan your trip around client work? If you didn’t work with clients how did you chose your material to shoot on the road? Did you plan your route on where you wanted to take pictures or did that evolve as you went?
Victoria and I knew we wanted to travel out west again in 2017, so we decided to buy another van and make the journey west. I had worked at one of RVC outdoors locations for our first trip, so as I was planning our second, I reached back out to them. We had made an agreement to collaborate, so I knew from even before we left I had some income coming in from photography gigs. The arrangement with RVC Outdoors made us have to plan out more of a route the second trip, to make sure we hit our destinations on time. Although for the months of February, March, and April, I wasn't booked at any of their locations so I still got to wander around without much of an itinerary.
Some Clients I picked up on the road. Like the Art gallery in Telluride for example, or some photo shoots for boutiques in Oceanside California. I got to meet up with Brandy Bailey, the owner of Clothe+Arrow, a boutique in California. She bought some VANLife shirts from me to sell in her shop, and we happened to be in her area, so we hand delivered them. We ended up camping for a few nights behind her RV in Oceanside. Good times.
What equipment did you use?
I shoot with a Nikon D610. I love my wide angle Tokina 16-28mm 2.8 lens. I also have a polarizing filter and a Graduated ND Filter that fits that lens that I use for mostly landscapes. I have a Tamron 24-70mm 2.8 lens that I like to use for more of the portrait or lifestyle shots and a Tamron 70-200mm 2.8 for the close up portraits and farther away shots. I use a ProMaster XC522 tripod. I use my Macbook Pro to edit with Lightroom mostly, and sometimes Photoshop.
- How much time did you spend at each destination?
It would all depend, some places we hung around for a while, some we just stopped by and left.
I would say we spent the most time in Colorado.
Did you live off of photography only or did you have side gigs?
I also had VANLife Clothing ( www.VANLifeCLothing.com ), which has been doing pretty well.
- Would you do the van life full time and/or with a family?
I am a person who loves change, which is why I love the vanlife so much, but for me, even after living the vanlife for 5-6 months, I am usually ready around that time to change it up again. I
honestly like being a “homebody” at times as well, but for me it's all about balance. The Chaos and the Peace must coexist.
I’m not quite sure what VANLife will be like with kids, but I could see Victoria and I doing TONS of roadtrips when we have kids. That won't be for a while tho, we still have a lot of adventuring on our own we want to do.
11. What’s your favorite place that you have been to and photographed?
The Northern Lights in Iceland. Amazing.
12. Where are you going to go next, or are you done with the vanlife?
Victoria and I have a lot of places we want to see. We have now seen a good portion of the US, and I know there is still so much more to be seen, but we talk more about international travel possibly being our next adventure. Maybe a Eurotrip, Austrailia, New Zealand, we don’t really know yet.
13. What’s the scary part of vanlife- have you been robbed, have you gotten lost, have you been an accident?
We were never robbed, or ever too lost or in any accidents, but we have broken down a good number of times. One of the times, our van just kept shutting off right as we were on some winndy mountain road with logging trucks zipping by honking at us because there was no breakdown lane. That was scary. Every Time it shut off I would have to turn the key off and then it would start back up again. We got a mechanic to look at it immediately after that situation.
14. Was it ever dangerous?
Generally no, we always felt pretty safe, except for at times like I explained in the previous
15. What do you do with the van when you are done with the trip? Do you get a new van for every trip?
After the first trip in 2015, I got back and sold it, then Bought the one that I have now. The same one from the 2017 trip.
16. Do you meet a lot of other vanlifers on the road?
Well at campsites and national parks you meet people doing that sort of stuff. We came across some other people our age doing the life on the road like us in Sedona Arizona. We ended up camping with them for about a week and explored Sedona and the Grand Canyon with them. They weren't in Vans, but 2 were in a truck and 2 were just in their car and/or a tent. Great people, we had some fun out there.
17. What’s your favorite experience, that you have had, on the road? Least favorite experience?
Most Favorite experience would be going out at night in the national parks or even just in the middle of nowhere and seeing how many stars you can see. The stars never fail to inspire me.
Least favorite experiences, driving through cities with traffic, especially LA.
18. Was it difficult to convince your wife to go on the road or was it her idea? What
does she think about it?
No it was not difficult to convince my wife to go on the 2 Van trips. She has a gypsea soul and loves to change things up as much as I do.