Hi, I’m Heather! I’m a van-dwelling visual storyteller traveling around the United States with my fluffy co-pilot, Indi. After doing some soul-searching in 2020 (read more on my blog, “How a Global Health Crisis Inspired Me to Live My Best Life”) I decided it was time for me to stop second-guessing myself and start living my life in a way that resonates with who I am and who I am becoming.
Long story short: I took a leap of faith; I bought a van, left my job, and started traveling around the US to pursue my dream of becoming a full-time photographer and travel blogger. It’s not an easy endeavor but converting my van and living life on my own terms has given me an amazing sense of freedom, especially from the societal pressure of living the standard American Dream (go to college, get a job, get married, have kids, buy a house, retire, die). I am re-writing the American Dream and sharing my story to inspire others to align with their passions, no matter what they are. Anything is possible when your heart and mind are set on the same goal.
I worked at a climbing gym in Seattle, WA before covid hit and I wasn’t making enough money to cover even the necessities of living in the city. Any time I wanted to travel or spend time enjoying myself, I had to budget for it, which meant ty trips were often short and almost never extravagant.
When I lost my job in 2020, I couldn’t pay rent anymore. I moved back in with my family, it felt like the world was kicking me while I was already down. But during quarantine, my soul-searching began, and with all the time in the world to spend thinking about my life, I finally decided that enough was enough. I bought a 2014 Ford Transit Connect XLT and planned to self-convert it for as little money as I could.
With the help from some talented friends in the climbing community (and my resourcefulness), I was able to create my beautiful tiny home for under $500 (minus the cost of vehicle repairs and aftermarket stereo and camera installation).
How I Built My Van for Under $500
· For my floor, I bought a piece of plywood and some leftover vinyl from Lowe’s. I believe it was around $75 total.
· For insulation, I bought R-Tech foam panels and spray adhesive costing around $25. I also reached out to several vandweller groups on Facebook looking for other people’s left-over materials. I was gifted some Havelock Wool and Reflectix.
· I partnered with a carpenter friend to build my dog’s bed, my bed, and the utility shelf that houses all my outlets. We collaborated on a work-trade deal where he built-out my van and I helped him with his website, product photography, and social media. If I had paid for it, it would have been over $2000 for the materials and cost of labor. But since we traded services, I did not pay anything. I felt so lucky to have been able to work out a deal like that, it was a lifesaver.
· A friend in the climbing community reached out to me when I posted on Instagram asking for advice on how to start planning my electronics. I had zero experience and often found myself stuck in analysis paralysis when researching how to choose a house battery and how to wire everything in the van. He is in the process of building out a van and he is a software engineer by trade, he had extra materials (a spare battery and all the bits and pieces needed for wiring my van for lights, a portable shower, a fridge, USB plugs, and an AC outlet. He wired my van and gifted me all the necessary materials – I am forever grateful for his generosity. I asked if I could pay him for his help, but he said, “Nah, no worries. This is hobby stuff for me, and I’m happy to help members of the climbing community.” He put in a good 15+ hours total and used all his own materials, I imagine it would have cost between $500-$1000 for all the work he put into it.
· I met another climber / vanlife friend in 2020 during a road trip to Oregon who gifted me with a battery isolator ($89 value) and helped me wire the house battery to the starter battery (this was before I worked with my software engineer friend). He spent over 3 hours wiring everything together. I asked him if I could pay him for his time, but he wasn’t interested in selling me the isolator or charging me for helping me. I bought him dinner as a thank you for his help. It was so kind of him to offer to help me for nothing in return. The climbing community is amazingly supportive.
· I re-purposed an Ikea kids’ kitchen set for my van kitchen. I was shopping at Ikea and saw it for $89. I really wanted it but couldn’t justify spending that much on a tiny kitchen. As it so happens, I visited 3 different thrift stores that day (looking for other odds and ends) and I found the exact kitchen set for $19.99! I couldn’t believe it! I bought it and it came with a tiny spatula and serving spoon, the perfect size for my tiny kitchen!
· For refrigeration, I bought a Coleman car fridge for $95. I would not recommend this fridge for van-dwellers, it is not very efficient, and the fuse keeps popping if you leave it plugged in and you turn your van on and off. I’ll be selling it and looking for an alternative option. In the meantime, I’m surviving on dry food and daily fresh food.
· For my “bathroom” I bought a tiny paint can from Lowe’s for $5. I use the bathrooms at stores or outside in nature usually, the paint can is for nighttime or when I don’t have access to a bathroom.
· I bought a RinseKit for my shower. It was $200
· The rest of the interior was either thrifted, bought at Ikea or Target, or items that I already own. I would say I spent about $75 on the curtains, rug, toiletries, food, etc.
Total cost: $494.99
Break down of costs:
$75 (floor) + $25 (insulation) + $95 (fridge) + $200 (shower) + $5 (“toilet”) + $19.99 (kitchen) + $75 (odds and ends)
My van isn’t 100% finished so I will be putting more time and money into it, but what I have right now is an amazing start, especially for someone with as low of a budget as myself. I am forever grateful to my friends in the climbing / vanlife community who have helped me out, I would not have been able to make this happen without their generosity. One day, I will pay it forward!
I get a lot of comments like, “Oh I can’t afford to do that” and “I really want to get a campervan, but I would not be able to do that myself!” My response to comments like that is: if you really work hard at figuring out how to make it work, you CAN do it. You don’t need $20k+ to make a van of your dreams, there are alternative ways to see your vision through. You just need to be crafty, resourceful, and/or connect with the right people. If you don’t know what you’re doing or don’t know how to answer your questions, put yourself out there and connect with the people who are living the life that you are dreaming! Like the climbing community, the vanlife community is generous, has a wealth of knowledge on how to make it work (for anybody), and they LOVE sharing their process, their journey, and all the fun behind-the-scenes stuff that are not only educational but also very entertaining!
What good is a dream if it’s only a dream? If vanlife is your dream, make it your reality. You will thank yourself for it once you’re living the life you knew you always wanted.
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