Noël Russell is an avid explorer and part-time van-lifer based out of Oakland, Calif. She practices self-care by leaving the Bay Area on weekends and heading to the mountains. Her basecamps often include Tahoe National Forest and the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. She’s currently on her third van and loving every moment of life on the road.
We asked her how she chooses her next destination and what advice she has for fellow adventurers.
How did you originally get into vanlife?
I bought my first van about 6 years ago. I wanted a van ever since I can remember, and envied my aunts and uncles with conversion vans.
Year, make, and model?
2009 Ford E-150 high top
What did you do to modify/renovate it?
It was a former medical transport vehicle. We added a minimal build in terms of luxury, but a full camper build-out thanks to Run Away Van in Colorado. We mainly added a Dometic fridge, hand-pump sink and tons of storage. We also added a 2920 Sleep bed and it’s the most comfortable bed we’ve ever slept on.
Can you walk us through a typical day living out of the van?
We wake up and immediately pile outside to make breakfast. In our regular lives, mornings are quick. But when you’re outside, it’s the opposite — mornings are the longest part of the day. We camp away from trailheads and spend part of our mornings driving to the crag, to the trailheads, or wherever we’re going to explore for the afternoon. When we can, we’ll end the day with a campfire. Not a lot happens in the van itself.
What do you do when you’re not living the vanlife?
I work full-time at homeless shelters in the Bay Area with my husband.
What’s your favorite part of your van?
The ceiling. It has different kinds of wood pieced together. You can see the difference between the cedar, birch, pine, and redwood under the translucent finish. It makes me happy every time I look at it.
What’s been your most memorable moment in the van so far?
We purchased the van sight-unseen, and only saw progress pictures as it was being built. When [the builder] came up and opened the two side doors, I was quiet for about 5 minutes. It was just so perfect and pretty, I didn’t know what to say. It was exactly what I imagined my dream build to be.
Most challenging moment?
The only thing I wasn’t stoked on when we bought the van was the lift. Lifted vehicles have a whole other set of maintenance requirements. It’s been challenging to find the right shop to work on it.
How do you choose your next destination?
I read maps. I stare so much at maps that I have them pretty much memorized in my mind. Then we do a lot of recon missions to go and drive, take notes and photos, drop pins on GPS, etc. It’s hard work. We’re still paying for a lot of public campsites because we’re still learning.
Got any tips for finding really rad campsites while on the road?
A lot of looking around, researching online, and meeting property owners. We love unique and fun experiences when it comes to shelter, so it’s just as much fun staying in those spaces as it is meeting the people who dream them up.
What would you say to someone thinking about renovating a van and hitting the road in their free time?
Find a good van. Your build can always change. Find the right van for you, rust-free, that’s working great, and move on from there. And keep in mind you’re probably not going to get it right the first time.
Rapid Fire Q&A
Coffee or tea?
Sweet or savory?
What do you love on your pizza?
Cheese, lots of cheese
Rain on the roof of the van
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