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Life On The Road: Katie Larsen of @soweboughtavan


The original plan was to take a year off and travel extensively around the U.S. Countless miles and 50 states later, vanlifer Katie Larsen couldn’t imagine living any other way. She’s now two years into living and traveling in her Sprinter Van. She took a moment to sit down with Outdoorsy and share the joys, challenges, and lessons she’s learned from living on the road.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are are you from and where you are going?

“My name is Katie and I’m from Portland, Oregon. I’ve been bouncing around to different cities and traveling for nearly nine years—two of which have been in the van full-time. After I graduated from college, I went abroad for a bit, spending time in South Africa and Europe. During this time I realized how little of my own country I had actually seen, which ended up being a motivator to take the leap into road travel.” 

“While I really try not to plan too far ahead, I see myself living this lifestyle for at least a few more years, if not longer. It is the more comfortable form of travel in my opinion!”

What inspired you to buy a van and hit the road?

“First and foremost, travel was always behind this decision. Before the van, I was spending nearly all of my free time camping, hiking, and taking mini road trips during my weekends off. I knew I wanted to implement more travel into my life and this was a perfect way to do so.”

 

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“I also was in limbo at the time—needing to refresh my work environment, living situation, and purchase a new car. I was feeling very suffocated and endlessly exhausted with my day-to-day life. It seemed like the perfect time to begin shifting into something new, which ended up being full-time travel.”

How long have you been on the go?

“I’ve been in the van full-time since June 2017. The original plan was to travel the U.S. with my partner for a year and see as much as possible, then settle back into a normal routine of life. But as you can imagine, after I had a taste of freedom I couldn’t imagine living any other way. My partner at the time was ready to move forward with different dreams and so we decided to separate and pursue different paths of life.”

“This van became my home after the first year of travels. It carried me to beautiful places and through amazing experiences. Even so, I tried to go back to Portland after the split and sell the van, going as far as fully moving out, but couldn’t follow through with it. It broke my heart to think about letting go of this wonderful thing I had created. Within a month I was moved back into the van and was ready to hit the road solo.”

 

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What kind of vehicle are you traveling in and why did you choose it?

“My van is a 2016 Mercedes Sprinter 144-inch WB High Roof (what a mouthful!). It was really important to be able to fully stand up in the van and have enough room for the interior to feel like a studio apartment as much as possible. The 144-inch is the smallest length of the Sprinter model, which still allows me to fit in nearly any parking spot.”

“A used vehicle was highly considered in the process of purchasing a van. However, with my lack of mechanical knowledge and priority of reliability, this really was the best option for me. I also travel at the speed of light—something that I am working on!—so having a low-mileage vehicle that could handle the number of miles I would add throughout my travels was important.”

 

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Did you do a rebuild or make any modifications to it before hitting the road?

“The van was just an empty shell of a vehicle when it was purchased. It didn’t even have windows! This allowed us to completely design the van from scratch, choosing each and every detail of the build. The entire process took about six months and we could not have done it without the help of our friends and family.”

 

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“Our parents were kind enough to let us use their driveways and tools throughout the process and offered a massive amount of assistance. Friends were even recruited for small projects on the weekends. While it was a lot of work, we can proudly say that we personally touched each and every piece of material in this van by the end of the process.”

What are some of the off-the-beaten-path places you’ve discovered?

“With the expectation that traveling full-time would only last for a year, I ended up visiting all 50 states within the first year. I am not exaggerating when I say that I travel fast! However, I’ve never regretted this. It allowed me to really check off the things I was excited about and the things that I felt “obligated” to see while on this long-term cross-country road trip. Now, I move much slower. I am able to revisit places that I loved, explore new areas of places I’ve already been, and dive deeper into some of the states that I was pleasantly surprised with.”

“One of my favorite routes I’ve driven was through British Columbia Yukon up to Alaska. It was wild and secluded and just down-right beautiful. Because it is more of an off-the-beaten path than the average highway in America, it consisted of a lot of “side-of-the-highway” meals and naps. It also included a lot of driving into the National Forest and just finding a place to camp for a few days. That was over a year ago and I have high hopes to visit again soon, with much more experience under my belt this time around!”

 

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What advice would you give someone just starting a long-term trip or full-time life in a van?

“My best advice would be to try to let the small things go. The reality of life is that control is nearly impossible. You can plan as much as you want but at the end of the day, life is going to happen. In all steps of this process, from preparing your vehicle to planning your route, to figuring out where to sleep for the night, you need to be responsible at the very least, but leave room for spontaneity to find its place. Half the joy of having this freedom is using it and opportunities will be missed if you are constantly trying to stick to a plan or schedule.”

“I used to feel the need to have a plan so I could answer the repeatedly-received question of, “Where to next?” Now, I just look at them, smile, and say, ‘I have no clue.’”

How do you balance work and travel?

“This is a good question and I wish I could answer it better but it is something I struggle with. The truth of the matter is that I do work a lot—some by choice, some to simply pay the bills. Part of it is because of financials, yes, but I also have my fingers in various projects that I am truly passionate about. This community works hard to build resources for each other and I believe it is important to offer support where I can.”

 

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“Even so, I am grateful to not wake up at 6 a.m. and commute somewhere to sit in an office all day. I am in full control of my schedule and can plan around weather, day hikes, meetups, etc. Sometimes it means I work until midnight but personally, the trade-off of freedom has always been worth it.”

What’s been the most magical spot on your trip thus far?

“Jackson, Wyoming. I’d visited Yellowstone before but had never quite experienced the entire area that is Jackson Hole. From the town itself to the Tetons and the primitive camping to Yellowstone, the entire region is just incredible. Some of my most memorable days of van travel were in Jackson Hole—filled with fishing, hiking, and more.”

“You can drive from one of these epic parks to another in under an hour, and still barely have to get off the main roads at the end of the day for primitive campsites with mind-blowing views. The amount of beauty that is squeezed into that span of land is just incredible. It’s also an area that I would visit at any point in the year, no matter the season. It has so much to offer.”

 

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What does a typical day look like for you?

“Most mornings, I leisurely wake up around 8:30 a.m., drink coffee and answer emails in bed. (Lately, I’ve also been trying to add sitting in the sun undisturbed for 10 minutes each morning.) I’m usually up and running around by 10 a.m., ready for whatever I have planned that day. Even though every day is different, I still keep certain things routine. I always do lunch and dinner around the same time, complete at least an hour of exercise, and try to park wherever I’m sleeping by 5 p.m. I fill the rest of my time with work, reading, getting outside, journaling, and meditation. It’s important to keep some things concrete in my life when everything else is ever-changing. I also do my best to limit my driving to under three hours per day and make sure I leave some days without any driving at all.”

 

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“The beauty of not just remote work, but open schedule remote work, is that I can plan my work days around activities. Whether that means hiking from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., then working all night, or finishing my work first thing in my day and having my afternoons to myself, I have full control of what my day is like, as long as I get my work done.”

“So long story short, there really is no ‘typical’ day. Every day is truly unique from the last, and I absolutely love it.”

What are your 5 must-have items for van life?

  1. “Monopoly Deal. Hands down the best game to ever exist.”
  2. “Kindle. I hook mine up to my public library account so I can borrow ebooks without breaking a budget (best van life entertainment hack I know!)”
  3. “AllStays App. I use this as a resource to find propane, water, showers, primitive camping, and more.”
  4. “Wingman Leatherman Tool”
  5. “A good candle. Not only does it logistically help with condensation, but it’s also a small addition that adds so much coziness.”

 

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What has surprised you most about life on the road? What have you learned about yourself in the process?

“In the beginning, as I traveled with a partner, I really wanted to just seek excitement and see as much as I could. It was about travels and sightseeing. Since going solo, it’s really been more of an emotional journey than anything else. I have deeply gotten to know myself as an individual, which has been such a pleasant surprise. I’ve healed from past experiences, learned to be my own friend, and found that it really is possible to have fun by yourself!”

“I also thought diving into solo female travel would be this isolating experience of being alone in the woods all the time but the truth is my community has never been stronger. I’m making more friends on the road, caravanning with other van dwellers more frequently, and striking up a conversation with strangers almost daily.”

 

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“Overall, I’m just so much more self-aware and this allows me to live my life in a way that is constantly satisfying who I am as a person. The more I get to know myself, the more I know what I want, what works for me, and how I thrive. My overall quality of life has immensely increased since finally learning to tailor my life to my personality instead of the other way around.”

Rapid Fire Q&A

East coast or West coast?
“West coast”

Sunrise or sunset?
“Sunset”

Coffee or happy hour?
“Happy hour”

Mountains or ocean?
“Usually mountains, but lately the ocean”

Route planning or spontaneity?
“Spontaneity”

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