We recently sat down with TETON Sports Customer Experience Manager Alli Neal to talk about something many of us have fantasized about at one time or another: living the van life. Among other things, we asked her what sparked her desire to travel, what it's like to be a digital nomad in the 21st century, and what her (and her dog's) must-have items are for staying comfortable on the road. Here's what she had to say:
THE VAN BEHIND THE VAN LIFE
I have a 2008 Chevy Express with an aftermarket hightop. I’ve only been living in the van for four months now; before that I was living out of my Subaru Impreza and long-term Airbnbs. The size upgrade has been AMAZING. Being able to stand up and change in my vehicle, work in my vehicle, make coffee in my vehicle, and get from my bed to my driver’s seat without exiting the car in a pinch have all been total game-changers.
I’ve always moved around a lot—usually every 1.5 to 3 years. I love exploring new places and making new friends. In addition to needing to be in different places at different times of the year for all my hobbies (it’s hard to ice climb and surf in the same place, for example), I can also spend more time with friends and family all over the place. During the pandemic, I realized that my support network is strewn all over the US: Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Minnesota, Tennessee, New England. I’ve spent more time with friends and family in the last year than I have in the previous decade. Between adventure and time with the people I love, my heart is full.
ON-THE-ROAD ESSENTIALS FOR KEEPING COZY
My cozy must-haves are: a $10 pair of Target slippers with a rubber sole, a giant Land’s End sherpa-lined bathrobe, and my TETON Sports Camper -10°F Canvas Sleeping Bag. I haven’t pulled the Camper -10°F out of “storage” yet because it’s so warm (even though it started getting pretty chilly in October in Vermont), but sleeping in the high Utah desert in January, it kept me and my dog Ace from becoming popsicles. My dog was never a guy with a wardrobe, but living in the van, he definitely has some key pieces, including a winter coat and a really cute pair of striped pajamas.
Doing van life in the winter is doable, depending on your setup and where you winter! I spent my winter in Arizona and Southern California, which were wonderful, before heading north to Minnesota for ice climbing season. I don’t live in the van in Minnesota in February because I’m just not set up for it, but I have friends up there who do. They have well-insulated vans, good sleeping bags, and tiny wood stoves. I’ve spent a couple of nights in a friend’s van during a Minnesota winter and I’m glad I have a house to crash in when I’m ice climbing! Between good layers, a Bridger -35˚F Sleeping Bag, and my dog, I wouldn’t be worried about sleeping in the van, but I would never get out of bed. It’s cold out there!
GET OUT THE MAP: DECIDING WHERE AND WHEN TO CAMP
I let two things dictate where I’m going and when: where the adventure is good, and where my loved ones are. June is for mountaineering in the PNW, March and April are great in the Rocky Mountains or the Southern Appalachians, and May is a sweet time to hit up a canoe-packing trip in Northern Minnesota (before the mosquitoes get you!). The southwest is perfect for winter, and the dead of February is for ice climbing up north or in Ouray, Colorado. Fall is obviously best spent in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont: the surfing in Maine in September is actually pretty good and the hiking is obviously amazing during peak foliage.
Out west, I almost always wildland camp. There’s so much beautiful available free space managed by the BLM and the USFS, and I’m set up to be off grid. The only tough thing about that is commuting to somewhere I have enough hotspot signal to work all day. I don’t have shore power hookups in my van, so I don’t get much benefit from an established campsite, but there just isn’t very much public land with dispersed camping in the Midwest and back east. When I’m looking for somewhere to sleep, I check out Freecampsites.net and iOverlander. The best places I’ve slept have been USFS sites both in the White Mountain National Forest and just outside Mount Rainier National Park. The weirdest place I’ve slept was a seaside cemetery in Maine.
It’s so cliché, but my favorite comfort meal in the van is instant ramen. Roasted chicken instant ramen and a handful of shredded white Cabot cheddar? Oh yeah. My dog isn’t allowed to have people food because he has a sensitive tummy and the van is absolutely no place for cheesy dog farts so his snack game is weak, but he really loves these chicken and apple dog cookies my college roommate gave him when we visited her in Maine.
THE PERFECT TRAVEL COMPANION
I really worried about how Ace would do with nomad life. He has been adjusting well, and we’ve been on so many good adventures together! His favorite part of van life is definitely that when we’re sleeping in cold weather, he’s allowed to snuggle under the covers with me, but he’s really enjoyed some of the forests and deserts he’s gotten to run around in.
Since I moved out of my SLC apartment, I’ve:
- Canyoneered, rock climbed, and unsuccessfully sandboarded in Utah
- Surfed in San Diego and Maine
- Rock climbed in Arizona, Minnesota, Arkansas
- Mountaineered in Washington
- Hot spring soaked in Oregon
- Canoe-camped, backpacked, cross country skied, and ice climbed in Minnesota
- Fly fished in Massachusetts
- Hiked in Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Colorado, Nebraska, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont
And most importantly, I attended my great aunt’s 93rd birthday, spent a week cooking for one of my best friends when she brought her first baby home, celebrated my brother’s engagement and my sister’s first child, finally met my good friends’ pandemic babies, and got so much quality time with so many people.