Van life: meet the couples who ditched the 9-5 for full-time adventure on the open road

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Hayley Spencer
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How many hours have you spent daydreaming about your next holiday this summer? Or even better – of throwing in the towel to go travelling indefinitely? It remains a pipe dream for most of us, but a growing international community, who post to Instagram under #VanLife, have made a nomadic lifestyle on the road their reality.

A rent-free lifestyle with daily adventures, amazing scenery and quality time with your partner or travel companion make the van lifestyle seem like an infinitely appealing alternative to the daily grind – especially given the beautifully filtered wanderlust snaps posted under the hashtag. But living out of a van, without many of your everyday luxuries and creature comforts isn't without its struggles.

To find out what it takes to surrender civilisation and squeeze your possessions into a van, we met three couples who gave up their 9-5 jobs for life on the road and haven't looked back.

Rachel & James

Their story: Rachel Goldfarb, 28, a former sommelier, and James Campbell, 28, a filmmaker, headed off on their van adventure in November 2012. They quit their jobs, gave up their apartment in Florida, USA and gave away most of their possessions to tour North America in a 1976 VW Bus named Sunshine. Rachel is now a writer, currently producing her first book with James; Yellow is Optimism. They supplement their income when necessary as peach pickers.

Rachel says: 

"Sometimes our lifestyle seems too good to be true. I wanted to wake up every day in a new place. I wanted to see all the wondrous corners of America. And I can’t believe we’re doing it.

We decided we wanted to drive north so we quit our jobs and left. It was a straightforward decision, and a clean break from our former way of life. James had a really great job creating short art films about indie surf culture, and it was tough for him to leave that behind. But he was happy to take a risk, because both of us know nothing good comes without risk.

We didn’t do a lot of preparation before moving into the bus. We’ve owned Sunshine for eight years now, and so were fortunate to modify the camper space little by little over years of weekend trips and daily driving. Only a little conversion work was necessary before we started living in it – the transition was seamless.

Both of us used to dream of traveling the world, but when we began traveling slowly on the back roads of America we started to realise that you really don’t have to travel far to find something remarkable. Some of our best memories have been made down random no-name roads.

The most important thing we've learned while living on the road is the kindness of strangers. We love learning about our country one voice at a time – whether it's from librarians when we're using the internet, a hitch-hiker we’ve picked up, or a family we've spent the night with in New Mexico after we’ve broken down.

However, this way of life isn't always easy. Living out of a van means personal space becomes non-existent. There’s nowhere to go when tensions rise, nowhere to hide when we’re tired and frustrated. I’m an extreme introvert, and that lack of personal space can be tough. We’re also pretty vulnerable to the whims of Mother Nature and dealing with extreme temperatures can be hard.

We're open to continuing on our adventure for as long as we're still having fun doing so. Every day I ask myself what made me happy in the last 24 hours and vow to do that again tomorrow. I think if you repeat that every day you’ll be well on your way to the life of your dreams, whatever that may look like."

Find out more about Rachel and James's trip at Idle Bus Theory

Tessa and Dillon

Their story: Tessa Ely, 28, a former special education teacher, and Dillon Vought, 29, a former supply chain manager, quit their jobs and gave up a rented apartment to move Tessa's family home in Alaska with their sights set on extended travel around the Americas. They bought a 1975 VW Westfalia for £375 and after spending £22,500 on renovations and saving up, they were ready to set off on their travels in February 2015.

Tessa says: 

"Our life in Alaska was full of weekend warrior adventures and great friends, and I'm lucky that I had a job I loved back in Alaska. But having travelled as a backpacker through parts of South America I was excited at the prospect of bus travel and the ability to connect with people and places that are difficult to access on the backpacker circuits.

This lifestyle is not for everybody, but we haven’t regretted a second of it (except maybe that one 10-hour drive through 105-degree interior Mexico where we had to crank the heat to keep the bus from overheating.) The first mile is the hardest; after that, it all comes together. The stability of everything you fear you will miss will always be there waiting if or when you choose to return to it.

While we often have places to be to meet friends and family, when we're not on schedule and are camping alone for days, I am reminded of the importance of slowing down. There is so much to be learned if we make the time to be still and listen and concentrate on the small things like watching the flames in a fire.

Many people tell me they'd love to do a trip similar to ours but are putting it off for when they have time. But the silver lining of having a mom who has been battling cancer on and off for 10 years is how quickly I learned that that time is not a guarantee. The truth is anyone can hit the road if they choose to make it a priority.

We decided to live in an intentional way, eating ramen and living simply in order to set ourselves up for this experience. We have returned home twice so far to see our family and friends and save money in order to continue our adventure. And after setting off 17 months ago, we don’t see an immediate end in sight."

Find out more about Tessa and Dillon's trip at The Bus and Us

Danielle & Mat

Their story: Danielle Chabassol, 33, a former event coordinator for a non-profit organisation and her partner Mat Dubé, 39, a former administrator in The City, sold their four-bedroom home in Ottowa in 2012 to downsize to a small camper van and just two suitcases. Danielle now works as a writer and editor part-time and Mat is a visual artist who has exhibited in Europe and the US.

Danielle says:

"Our decision to travel long-term started out as a social experiment for us. We were feeling unhappy with the way we’d set up our lives. Instead of trying to work harder to make more money so that we could afford to take time off, we decided to try the opposite: work less, travel more, and spend quality time with our families. It was a win-win situation because we were able to put the plan into place right away, and could always return to our former way of living if we decided we didn’t like the nomadic lifestyle.

We've been on the road since 2012 and have no plans to stop soon – it's too much fun. We can drive wherever we wanted to go during the day, and sleep in our own bed at night. It's an incredible way to travel because it gives us the freedom to explore cities and wild back countries and to save money by not paying to stay in hostels and hotels.

This way of life has made us more in tune with our surroundings. Our comfort is intimately tied to the elements so we feel every change in temperature and season. We’ve also become acutely aware of our consumption of electricity and water as we produce our own electricity with our solar panels. We don't have running water so we have to carry every drop of water that we use.

Living in a van necessitates keeping an open mind and being flexible. You never know what is going to happen so you need to be able to adapt and cope with what each day throws at you."

Find out more about Danielle and Mat's travels at Exploring Alternatives.