Trying a taste of camper van life | CNN (2024)

Trying a taste of camper van life | CNN (1)

Traveling by camper van gives you freedom to explore new areas without having to find a hotel room.

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Home is where you are. Home is where you make it. Home on the range. Home is … in a camper van? Absolutely!

When I tried camper van life for the first time, I went all in. For three weeks, my husband and I drove a kitted-out, circa 2012 Ford Econoline van across North America, traveling from northern New Jersey to Los Angeles as we wound our way along the length of Route 66 in November 2019.

It was a bold move, but I knew it was the most cost-efficient and efficient-efficient way to see as much of “the Mother Road” as we could. My hope was that by renting a camper van, we’d save money on purchased meals and hotel rooms and also feel more immersed in the journey and deeply connected to each town we visited.

Our first night in the Bloomington, Illinois, Walmart parking lot was a little nerve-racking. I lay in my sleeping bag, listening to the activity beyond the van and wondering if we could handle this adventure. But after the first successful sleepover, we quickly settled into a routine.

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We’d wake up each morning for a quick bathroom run and even shower at some of the surprisingly luxurious recreational vehicle parks we patronized. Then we’d cook breakfast on our camp stove at the rear of the van and hit the road by 8:30 or 9 a.m.

After a day covering roughly 130 miles and experiencing the historic sites, local museums, former filling stations and proudly kitschy roadside attractions along Route 66, we’d make sure to arrive at our nightly destination by 4:30 p.m. — sundown in November comes early.

By the time we dropped off the van near Los Angeles International Airport in late November, I felt like I was saying goodbye to a new but dear friend on the last day of summer camp.

Trying a taste of camper van life | CNN (3)

Camper vans allow you to save money by cooking your own food — wherever and whenever you want.

We’d unwind, explore the sights of the town, treat ourselves to dinner away from the van, then bunk down in our sleeping bags and do it all again the next day. (We spent two-thirds of the trip sleeping in the van and the other third in historic lodgings along the route, such as Boots Court in Carthage, Missouri, and the El Rancho in Gallup, New Mexico.)

The benefits of camper van travel

Now, I’m not saying you must spend weeks on an epic road trip to fully experience the joy of a camper van. And I’m certainly not saying you need to sell all your possessions and become a full-time van lifer — I’m grateful to return to my house and my cats after every trip. But even a few days of traveling and living in a camper van can give you a whole new perspective on yourself and the world around you.

When you’re in a camper van, everything you need is within reach — to an extent. I loved the challenge of condensing our lives into approximately 75 square feet and finding creative ways to live comfortably but efficiently. The morning coffee? It’s right there. Your outfit for the day? Just reach behind you.

If you need to change your shoes into hiking boots, grab a raincoat for an unexpected downpour, refuel with a quick snack or recharge with a 20-minute power nap, you don’t need to go far. And you don’t have to repack your bags to leave a hotel every morning.

After the first night, I embraced the security and sanctuary of the van, knowing that whatever we had was around us. If we couldn’t find it right away, it wasn’t lost. We had exactly everything we needed — everything except, well, a bathroom, which brings me to the next life-changing aspect of a camper van.

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Camper van life makes you brave and gets you out there, interacting with others and connecting with the world. You’re always in the environment, not separated by hotel corridors and lobbies. You’re discovering creative places to stay for the night, looking forward to chatting with bartenders during the nightly dinner at a local restaurant or just fielding questions from strangers about the van and your trip.

During our Route 66 adventure, our van prompted exchanges and allowed us to have moments we would likely have missed in a rental car.

In Arcadia, Oklahoma, we stopped by Pops 66 Soda Ranch and struck up a conversation with a woman admiring our brightly painted camper van. She told us about one of the chairs at the nearby Oklahoma City National Memorial representing a boy named Zackary who loved collecting pennies. The next morning, we found Zackary’s chair and placed a penny on it for him.

Because the van functioned as a full campsite rig, we didn’t have to figure out the logistics of bringing or renting equipment to camp in Joshua Tree National Park in California. We spent two nights in wonder among the granite boulders, with Cassiopeia shining brightly above, and two mornings waking up with the sun and the scent of high desert air.

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Tips for trying the van life

Ready to try camper van travel? Companies rent vans that come fully equipped with mini kitchens and bedding, so it’s almost as easy as booking an Airbnb. Some even come with toilets and showers, so that doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker. Rent one for a quick round-trip weekend visit or explore further by taking a one-way jaunt to another rental hub and then flying home.

If you’re itching to have a new type of travel experience, you’ll find it behind the rolling door of a camper van. As another well-loved saying goes, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey” — but with a camper van, you’ll get to appreciate both at once.

Casey Barber is a storyteller, artist, creative strategist and editor of the website Good Food Stories.

Trying a taste of camper van life | CNN (2024)
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