by Rebecca Holland
David Sandel and I met on a road trip along Route 395 in California, and instantly bonded over a love for Jordan and the fact that we’re both from Wisconsin. When he mentioned he’s been living in a van for the last couple of years I had so many questions. How does it work? How did he decide to do this? Does he like it? Does he get lonely? I’m sure I was annoying, but he answered them all happily. Fast forward half a year and we caught up again over the phone, where I asked versions of the same questions, this time for your benefit. The #vanlife trend has gotten big over the last year or so, filling up my Instagram and inspiring a slew of articles about how to do it right. But David was doing it before it was cool, simply because he wanted a change and to spend more time outdoors. If you’re interested, he can help you do it too. In addition to consulting for future van dwellers, he works as a brand ambassador for athletic gear; writes for Grind TV, Active Junkie, Teton Sports, Business Insider, and more; and helps brands drive sales through email and other digital marketing.
So, tell me about yourself in a few sentences.
Ok. I was born and raised in Wisconsin and then got a degree in electrical engineering, moved to Texas for a year, then back to Minnesota for six years (for engineering jobs), then moved to colorado, where my residence was for three years. For the past two years I’ve been nomadic, living in a van, sometimes staying with with friends and family when I pass through, or traveling internationally. Over the past 16 months I’ve spent just a little less than half that time outside of the US, in Spain, Mexico, Thailand, and Singapore.
Why did you choose to go nomadic?
Because the life of an engineer just didn’t fit me very well. I didn’t feel connected to any of my work or employers. I was forced to go sit in a cubicle even if I wasn’t working on something for eight hours a day. Eventually I just thought, yeah the money is good, but the life kind of sucks. It’s stressful, and I had seasonal depression from the Midwest in winter or regular depression because I hated the job.
And why did you choose to live in a van?
When i moved to Colorado a year before I went nomadic, I started rock climbing in a gym. I’ve played sports and have been athletic my whole life, but I got super into climbing and wanted to move somewhere I could climb every day of the year and be outside. I became a sponsored rock climber, and there was a growing trend of dirtbags living in vans traveling to climbing areas. Now that fad has exploded. So many people I know are doing it or want to do it.
How did you actually do it?
I bought a van in Colorado and drove it back to Wisconsin. My dad and I worked on it together because he has a heated garage and all tools we needed. All my summer jobs growing up had been construction, and my dad’s entire life has been some sort of construction or building. He’s a master craftsman. Between the two of us we got it done in six weeks working eight hour days.
And two years in, do you think it was the right decision?
That’s still TBD. I’m definitely happier with my lifestyle and work right now, but there’s also uncertainty in income. I have clients and make money, but it’s fluctuating all the time. Some months it’s two to three thousand dollars, some months it’s more like two hundred. That’s difficult. In the summer, living in the van is fine and if you can find a nice spot on BLM land–federal land, state forests, national forests–where you can set up a homestead for week or two. That makes it easier, but when you have to sneak around cities and sleep in parking lots…if you do that for a week or two straight you start questioning if it’s sustainable.
What are some of your favorite moments so far?
There are two that stick out in my mind. Theres a spot right outside Moab. The land itself is BLM land. It overlooks Arches National Park. I went there alone last January. You can see these really bizarre super red and super orange rock features sticking out of the earth, and beyond that the La Sal mountains, with snow on them all year, and right in front of you the canyons 500 feet down. I was hanging out there for a couple weeks. I could go rock climbing, mountain biking, see the sunset and sunrise, and basically have the whole place to myself because it was January and there were no tourists. That was pretty fun. This summer I took a road trip with someone. It was 10 weeks. We started in Colorado, then Utah, then California, up to Squamish and Vancouver. We stopped at all the classic climbing areas and hiking areas and national parks, so that was pretty fun.
Do you have any tips for people who want to live in a van?
Make sure you really, really, really want it. Do as much research as you can, read blog posts, get on Facebook groups and reddit subgroups for van dwellers. Make sure you’re ready for some awkward living situations, like only showering once every 10 days. Have your bathroom strategy figured out.
What has been the most challenging part of this lifestyle?
It is challenging, specifically when I do have work and I can’t just take a week off to go mountain biking. I don’t have Internet in the van so I have to stick close to cities and work out of coffee shops and libraries. That’s fine during day, but in the evening I don’t have a gym membership, and coffee shops close, so what do you do? If I’m in new city and don’t know anyone and not staying with friends it gets hard, especially in the winter when it gets dark at 4pm. There’s a lot of downtime. Also if i’m stuck in a city, finding parking spots and being discreet about sleeping in the back is challenging.
And the most rewarding?
The most rewarding is being able to be mobile and going to all these awesome places and having the flexibility to do it without only two weeks vacation. From a work perspective, the most rewarding thing is getting results for my clients. Most of them are not big companies. They’re startups, and they start super small, so seeing how my efforts result in them doubling online sales is pretty awesome for me.
I’m just about to leave to shoot content for a buddy opening a brewery in Colorado. We’re doing a brewery tour in Colorado, Utah, San Francisco, and LA. From there I’m going to Red Rocks until I choose another big trip (maybe back to Mexico or Spain), OR until it gets too hot there.
If you want to make van life your life, you can hire David for consulting. He talks you through everything from how to downsize your life from an apartment to a van, what to do about water and food, what type of van to buy, construction and building it out, and more.
Are you a small business hoping to grow your digital presence? You can also hire David for web design, email marketing campaigns, automated sales funnels, social media marketing, setting up an e-commerce store and integrating it with an entire digital package and strategy, and much more.