Leslie Carvitto
by Leslie Carvitto
Posted July 6, 2019

Meet Maggie and Dom, the couple behind @bitesizetravels. After five months of building and renovating their van Bernie, the pair set off for 4.5 months of exploring the best National Parks and cities in the United States. In our interview, they tell us about their ‘must have’ vans items, and why Southwest Texas was their favorite stop on the road trip.

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

We’re Maggie and Dom, from NYC and London respectively. We met in San Francisco 5 years ago, after moving there separately for jobs in the tech industry. We love exploring new places and currently have goals to travel internationally 3-5 months per year! When we’re in the US, we’ll be exploring everything this endless land has to offer.

What made you decide to buy a van and hit the road?

“We love a good road trip. It gives you this sense of freedom, and the chance to see new places and have new experiences. The U.S. is such a massive country that you can only drive so far on a Holiday weekend. With a growing list of places we wanted to visit, we were feeling restless, to say the least.

We knew we had to shape our lives around travel, rather than shaping travel around work. We also realized we didn’t want to continue renting, but at the same time, didn’t want to purchase a house in the Bay Area, only to spend our lives paying off debt. Sometimes the best option is to step away and reset your priorities.”

“We really love the idea of being able to travel in the comfort of our own home (even if it is less than 60 square feet and on wheels). It also meant more spontaneity and less time/money spent on planning where and when to check into Airbnbs or hotels. After we started researching “van life,’ we were convinced it was the perfect option for us.”

How long have you been on the go?

We set off in the van last June and did a tour of the US for 4.5 months. Since then, we’ve been back in California, traveling part-time with the van for the winter. But once spring comes, we have plans to spend a few months on the road again.

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

We have a 2008 Dodge Sprinter, nicknamed Bernie. It’s a 144” WB, high-top, cargo van. We were looking for comfort, reliability, and the right price.
The high top gave us some essential headroom. We’re not tall people, but we still wanted to avoid the frustration of having to hunch over while inside. We decided to go with the 144”, rather than the extended 170” WB, because we wanted to be intentional with our space, and it was easier to park.

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Going to the mountains is going home 🏔

A post shared by Maggie & Dom 🚐🌎 (@bitesizetravels) on

Sprinter’s have a reputation of being well-built and long-lasting, sometimes up to 500k miles, with the right maintenance. After months of searching, we finally bought ours from a used van dealership outside of LA, with 150k miles on it.

What kind of renovations did you do to your adventure mobile? Did you have any prior experience with custom construction?

We installed solar energy, which powers our induction cooktop, fridge, fan, lights, and outlets. In our kitchen, there’s water tanks and plumbing for a sink. We have a comfortable full-size bed, plenty of cabinets and drawers for storage, and a roll out bench for seating. The garage space houses our camp gear and two fold out kayaks by Orukayak. We paneled the whole van interior in pine wood with white and walnut finishes to give it a homey look.

Our building experience was pretty much zero, and we didn’t have any friends or families with carpentry or electrician experience, so we were on our own. Planning all the things we wanted to do for the van felt like a daunting task. But it helped just to get started, and realize we could learn along the way. We were working full-time and didn’t have a garage. So every weekend, for 5 months, we’d pick the van up, park it in front of our apartment to work on it, and drop it off again on Sunday night. It was exhausting, and we didn’t have much of a social life for a while, but it was rewarding to do it all ourselves.

Once we picked up stride, we really enjoyed the building process. The scariest part was doing our own electricals and installing solar power, but we’re glad we did our research and figured out how to DIY.

Where has your journey taken you so far?

We’ve done a round trip tour of the US so far. Starting from California, across the northern states over to Maine, down the eastern states to the Florida Keys, and then back through the South and Midwest. We managed to stay in 35 states – visiting beautiful state parks, national parks, random quirky stops, and cities we always wanted to visit.

What has been the most magical location?

Southwestern Texas for a few reasons! Near the border of Mexico, there’s Big Bend National Park, which has some stunning and underrated Jurassic Park-esque vibes. We loved seeing the sunrise over Santa Elena Canyon. Nearby is a mysterious desert town called Marfa, which features some interesting land art. And then just down the road – the McDonald Observatory. We got the last tickets to a sold out ‘Star Party’ where you can use their enormous telescopes to for awe-inspiring views of Saturn, the Milky Way, nebulas, etc.

You mentioned on Instagram that your parents didn’t exactly approve of your road trip but that they’ve come to accept it. What were their hesitations?

I (Maggie) am a first generation American. My mom is a refugee from Vietnam and my dad is an immigrant from Malaysia. I’m lucky to have the lifestyle choices available to me, and largely credit that to my parents seeking a better life, and providing me with access to a great education. But I also know that because they didn’t have the same options when they were my age, it is harder to understand my motivations.

They questioned why I wasn’t satisfied with a well-paying, stable job and felt that I spend too much time and money traveling. They were especially confused as to why I would buy and live in a van rather than spending that money on a house. I just try to tell them that it’s possible to have a balance between financial stability and pursuing personal goals. What’s the point of money if you’re not happy? It’s an ongoing process of convincing them to trust my choices more 🙂

What does a typical day on the road look like for you?

When we are van traveling, our day’s activities are decided the night before, or the day of. We don’t plan ahead much more than that! We’ll wake up, cook breakfast, and embark on that day’s adventure. Depending on where we are, that could be a hike, swim, kayak, etc. We try to cook most meals unless we’re in a city with some must-try eats. Then, a day isn’t complete without a nice lookout for the sunset. Most days we were on the move and may drive 1-3 hours, and at the same time we’d always check freecampsites.net to see where we could park that night.

On the 2-3 days a week where we were working on the road, we’d set up at a coffee shop or work cafe for the day. Then catch an evening film or visit a local brewery.

What’s one misconception about living and traveling in a van?

There’s a perception by some people that if you’re traveling in a van, you’re lazy. When in fact it’s the complete opposite – most people we follow in the van community work hard to be able to van travel. Some work seasonally, or remotely, and many people are building businesses as they go.

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

  • Induction cooktop – cooking meals is faster, more efficient, and safer. A popular option for van builds is a propane cooker, but we couldn’t imagine having to light a flame in our van at the peak of summer
  • Shower option – we used a pressure shower bag, which held 4 gallons and had a showerhead. It’s the perfect thing to rinse off after a hike or beach day when you can’t access a normal shower!

  • Fridge/cooler – we have a 50L Dometic fridge powered off solar. No need for ice and we have plenty of fresh groceries
  • Space for gear – our Orukayaks come with us everywhere, but other people may have room for bikes, skis, surfboards
  • Fan – our overhead fan was useful when we were cooking, and also for cooling off the van. We only wish we had two while in Florida

What’s surprised you the most about life ‘on the road’? What have you learned about yourself in the process (so far)?

How little you miss the comforts of a home/apartment. Everything we brought with us in the van had a use, and we knew where everything was. Where we did have to settle for alternatives, didn’t feel like such a large sacrifice in the end. We did laundry at laundromats, got wifi at coffee shops, showered at the gym. But we were able to have experiences that could otherwise take a lifetime to have.

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Story time from one of my favorite nights of our 4 month vanlife trip. Dom and I drove our van into Alabama hills. We wanted a spot to ourselves, so we ended up taking a road marked “not recommended for vehicles” 🚐. On the way, we encounter a film crew in the middle of shooting an indie, horror movie. Stupidly, we never got the name of the movie. Right after passing them, we of course get stuck in a sand pit 🤦‍♀️. With some maneuvering and sheer luck, we freed ourselves and settled into a great spot for the night. Snug in the van, nestled under the Sierra Mountains, and just in time for a brilliant sunset. Peaceful night? Nope – Dom wakes me up in a panic after hearing some noises and is convinced there’s a bear outside. Switch the lights on and we find a… cute little mouse who snuck into our van😅 We spend hours trying to catch it in the middle of the night and end up dubbing it Dwight Shrewt. Although, turns out it wasn’t even a shrew, it was a desert mouse 🤷‍♀️. Despite it all, getting to watch the sunrise paint the mountains made me forget how tired I was. And in the end, taking the risk and ignoring the sign was all worth it, cause it was a night we won’t forget 🌄✌️

A post shared by Maggie & Dom 🚐🌎 (@bitesizetravels) on

Converting an empty van into a home-on-wheels taught us we’re more capable than we sometimes give ourselves credit for. And that confidence means we can take on bigger and bigger challenges.

Want to give life on the road a spin? You can find plenty of rental vehicles at Outdoorsy! 

Leslie Carvitto

Outdoorsy Author

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