From touring folk bands to big rig drivers, people have always made a living on the open road. But not as many choose to make a life there: Most who spend their nights on the road do so out of necessity.
However, a growing niche of adventurous types are choosing to downsize their lives, sell their homes, and live on the road because they simply enjoy the freedom it brings. Knoxville native Kevin Humphrey has joined those ranks and has spent the last year or so preparing for his great American adventure. We sat down with Humphrey to hear about the best parts about van life, how he built his home-on-wheels, and the downsides of his new lifestyle, as well as some practical tips for anyone else curious about becoming a van vagabond.
What made you decide to throw your life into the back of a van?
I was born in Knoxville, and was raised in the area by my mom and grandmother. We moved around a lot when I was young so I never got very attached to one place, and that's definitely carried on into my adult life. I'm 30 now and I've lived in dozens of places, including a summer on a 50-foot yacht in Florida.
I was a slave to my job. I had to work 60-plus hours a week to make ends meet and I was miserable. I wanted to cut my bills so I could escape the rat race, but I wasn't totally sure how. Then I came across a video of photographer Travis Burke who lived in his van. That video sparked my curiosity and before I knew it, I was out van shopping. I eventually found a big red conversion van that ran great for only $1,500 cash. I built a bed, a work space-kitchen combo, and lockable gear storage inside. About six months later, I moved in.
What will day-to-day life look like for you on the road?
How do you support yourself?
Right now, I'm still a photographer by day and a bouncer by night. But once I hit the road, I'll be [doing] real estate and other projects to earn money. Several full time-travelers make a living telecommuting, writing or designing, and manufacturing items that can be shipped to buyers—all good ideas. The great thing is how little it takes to live the life I do. About a year ago, my bills were over $1,600 per month. Today, they're just over $200. Gas and food will be a very real expense, but they’re variables that I can control.
What’s been the hardest part about the transition?
Turning my keys into my landlord was one of the scariest things I've ever done. There was no turning back. I literally made my bed, and now I had to sleep in it. The first few nights were a little restless. Noises and wind would wake me up a lot but that faded fast.
Organization remains a difficult thing to manage. It's a small space, so throwing a T-shirt on the floor or leaving a cup on the counter isn't an option anymore. Everything’s gotta be in its place or the van looks trashed in no time. On the flip side of that, no matter how messy it gets, cleanup only takes about five minutes.
What couldn’t you do without in your van?
A big burly sleeping bag. The van is surprisingly well insulated and it stays pretty comfortable down to around 45 degrees. Below that, comes out the sleeping bag.
My dog, Lola. She's my best friend and she's well accustomed to van life now. It's not easy living in a vehicle with a pet, though. If it's hot out and I need to be away, I'll either leave the van running for her or arrange a dog sitter. She can also draw unwanted attention when she's hanging out up front people-watching. But for every negative of having her with me, there's an even greater positive, and I'm happy we're sticking together.
Baby wipes—they're awesome! They clean everything from dogs to dashboards to camera equipment, and they're dirt cheap.
What’s the weirdest response you’ve gotten when someone finds out you live in a van?
_“Down by the river?” _I used to hate that phrase; now I try to say it before they do.
What are your favorite local spots to camp/park?
I sleep at a lot of Wal-Marts. They're not glamorous but they're everywhere, most locations welcome overnighters, and the 24-hour traffic and security is extra piece of mind. There's usually decent Wi-Fi in the parking lot, and anything anyone could ever want is 100 feet away.
Where are you allowed/able to park/sleep that might be surprising to readers?
Almost 250 million acres in the U.S. is owned by the Bureau of Land Management. It's a lot less governed than the parks we're used to in East Tennessee. Camping is permitted for two weeks at a time, free of charge. After two weeks, campers are required to move at least 50 miles before setting up another campsite. It's perfect.
A lot of big-box department, hardware, and sporting goods stores are ok with overnighters but it's best to ask first. It's a smart move on their part. I appreciate the places that keep people with a mobile lifestyle in mind and I make a point to spend my money there. I'm sure RV’ers and truckers are the same way.
What do you see as essential for van life?
A sense of humor. There's a lot of pretty ridiculous and laughable moments.
A strong indifference to others' opinions. No one had an opinion of my life when I was working 60 hours a week and had a regular apartment. Now everyone has some kind of opinion. I just appreciate the good ones and ignore the negative ones.
Don't sweat the details. A lot of the finer points of van life are downright annoying. Public bathrooms, gym showers, and bad weather are all things that take a lot of getting used to. But those things pale in comparison to the amount of personal and financial freedom I have now, so I make a conscious effort to not let them bother me.
How long do you plan on living the van life?
I have no idea. I might be gone a few months or it might be years.