Down By The River: A Guide To Reality Based Vanlife

By Brendon Voelker

It’s a quarter ‘til sunrise in the Blue Ridge Mountains. You step out of bed as the day begins to break and the rays of light cascade through the windows. You flip on the hot water kettle, grind up some coffee, and prep the pour over just like that hipster at the local coffee shop. Slicing up a couple of bagels, you grab the peanut butter from the cabinet as your other half sets the table. At 7:13 on the dot you open the door to catch the tip of the sun as it crests the horizon. The cool brisk air catches you in the face as the dog runs out to take care of his morning business. The best part? It all happened in a van – down by the river.
#vanlife is something that’s taken off immensely over the past several years. Whether you’re living in a Mercedes Sprinter that looks like the result of a Pimp My Ride episode or cruising around in a sketchy white Chevy window-less work van, there’s a full spectrum of ways to live it – but it also comes with some drawbacks.

One of the biggest hurdles is finding somewhere to park. One of the most significant myths surrounding this lifestyle is that you can always park at Wally World. Well, unfortunately, that’s wrong and something that was learned after a knock to the driver’s window at 2am in Pennsylvania. As a blanketing company policy, Walmart does allow overnight parking. They realize the benefit of travelers staying on their property and the likelihood that if you walk in to use the facilities, you’ll probably walk out with a drink and snack.
As a rule of thumb, if Walmart is with a larger shopping center or plaza, you can’t park there. Typically, that land is owned and managed by a third-party. As a comparison, a mall is like an apartment complex, and the stores are nothing more than tenants. On the flip side, when Walmart owns the property, it’s nearly a guaranteed place to spend the night. In almost every case, the massive Supercenter will be accompanied by an Applebee’s, Sally’s, Starbucks, Game Stop, and an AT&T store – or another equivalent mixture. Surprisingly enough, Applebee’s has even been known to carry local and regional beers, often at a far better price than the near downtown bar.

Trailheads are another overnight parking hack. This doesn’t necessarily hold true for trailheads located in cities or National Parks, but many trailheads on public lands (BLM, National Forest, WMA, State Forest, etc.) are fair game. If there is an extensive trail network nearby, it is often expected that vehicles may be left there while their occupants are out camping or backpacking. The iconic Appalachian Trail is an excellent example of that, as it is accessible at hundreds of points, many of which are remote trailheads in backcountry settings. To make life even better, some entities such as Rothrock and Bald Eagle State Forests in Pennsylvania offer free campsites scattered throughout their lands. Buy a local map, figure out where you’re riding, then call the ranger’s office and make a reservation. Nearly all the campsites are near either hiking or mountain biking trails.

Now you’ve found somewhere to park, but you also forget one key thing – where do you go to the bathroom? Where do you take a shower? Where do you brush your teeth? These and countless other questions are often masqueraded by more glamorous aspects of the lifestyle that you see on Instagram. Even if you have a vault toilet within sight, chances are there toilet paper is only a single-ply with an equivalent to 200-grit sandpaper.
So how do you get from an empty panel van to a fully-outfitted end-product? First, you decide on the van, then you choose how to fund said van. We have lived it, both part-time and full, and if you want some insider knowledge on how to do it, look no further. It’s a process that we will tackle piece by piece, but let’s round this out with some rad vans and their owners.

Meet Dustin and Terri Watts and their dog Rye. President of Terrapin Beer Company, Dustin designed one killer rig with the help of Kelly Thompson of “Rad Van Conversions.” Both avid and arguably some of the best mountain bikers in town, their van is perfect for short or extended trips and serves as their hub, whether at a race in Colorado or at a trailhead in North Carolina. For the van, they chose a Ford Transit, an increasingly popular alternative to the Mercedes Sprinter with plenty of standing room. According to Dustin, the ‘garage’ under the bed contains sliding trays that hold gear and up to five bikes of any thru-axle size. They have a countertop with a fixed propane stove, sink, and a fridge full of your favorite Terrapin beer to enjoy under the awning after a ride.

After almost three years of living in a Mercedes Sprinter, Brendon decided to keep things simpler and embrace the “free candy” jokes that often seem to follow white box vans. Purchased used in Dallas, he has been doing all the work himself as time allows. One of the biggest things he’s learned from the road is that you never really know what you need until you take your first trip. Currently, he uses his van for part-time work trips, as well as a vacation vehicle for himself, his girlfriend, and their dogs. He built a PVC water tank for his roof, replaced the trim on his cargo doors with pegboard, recycled palate crates for storage, insulated everything, and installed hardwood flooring he scored for free off an old neighbor. This van has seen West Texas red dirt, snow in Santa Fe, and can usually be found somewhere in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A 2-bike rack sits on the receiver for shorter trips, but there is room behind the bed for an additional. As both an avid mountain biker, trail runner, and independent race director, this van has it all – even a CB radio so he can shoot the breeze with truckers along the way.