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Meet The Environmentalist Vanlifer Tackling The Problem Of Plastics In Our Oceans


“I think a lot of people are working for the weekend,” says Kathleen Morton, the founder of Tiny House, Tiny Footprint and co-founder of Vanlife Diaries. “It’s, like, just working to escape.”

And for a while, that was her life. About four years ago, she and her then-boyfriend Greg were living in an apartment in Denver, both working full-time jobs and taking trips into nature when they had a chance. Then, one day Greg asked her, ‘What if there were a different way to live?’

“I was like, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about,’” she recalls. “This is what people do, you know? People live in apartments and houses.”

But on a trip to New Zealand a few summers ago, Greg had seen people living out of vans. He wondered, what if they tried that?

“And I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m doing a van,” Morton says. She now lives full-time out of a 1987 Toyota van.

As a compromise, she and Greg decided to try a camper trailer first. They found their future home on Craigslist: a 1969 camper trailer for $1,800.

But the challenge was just beginning. Now the proud owners of a camper trailer, the couple needed to find a place to park it. They went door-to-door asking homeowners if they’d let them park in their yards. Morton recalls that people thought it was “really weird.”

Just when they thought all hope was lost, they found a family on Airbnb that agreed to let them park in their backyard. And just like that, the couple downsized from a 1,000-square-foot apartment to a 120-square-foot camper trailer.

“That was our first taste of tiny living,” Morton says.

Though she and Greg eventually split ways (he took the van), Morton ended up buying another ‘87 Toyota van and now lives on the road with her dog Peaches.

Environmentalist Kathleen Morton | Outdoorsy
Kathleen Morton with her dog, Peaches. Photo by Allison Mayor.

Rooted in Nature: Morton’s Quest to Help the Environment

While many choose van life for the freedom or the adventure, Morton chose it for a different reason: the environment.

“We weren’t being environmental stewards or very intentional or conscious about our waste and our water use and electricity,” she says of her former apartment living. “We wanted to do this as an experiment.”

Morton’s deep connection to nature was forged through the many trips she and Greg took, where he taught her how to identify plants and forage for food. That’s when a profound shift began.

“I don’t want to be having a negative impact on these spaces,” Morton says. “I felt like there are small things that I could do to have a more positive impact.”

She and Greg lived off-grid, reducing their waste through composting and minimizing their electricity and water usage.

“It was very life-changing for me,” she says. “That experience kind of just showed me what was possible.”

Environmentalist Kathleen Morton | Outdoorsy
Kathleen Morton. Photo by Marianne Brown.

#PlasticFreeVanLife: The 30-Day Challenge to Reduce Waste

Through her growing platforms, Morton hopes to spread awareness about the environmental harm caused by trash, particularly plastics. The average American generates 4.4 pounds of waste per day, according to a 2014 report by the Environmental Protection Agency. Much of it winds up in our oceans and our drinking water. A study commissioned by Orb Media found that microplastics—tiny plastic particles broken down from larger plastics—are in 94 percent of tap water in the U.S.

On a recent trip to Baja to film “Into the Arena,” Morton experienced firsthand the effects our waste has on the environment. At the end of the film, you can see her driving along a beach road lined with trash.

“That was a landfill in Baja,” she explains. “We were driving down the peninsula, and it was just off the side of the road, and it was just really shocking for us. … There were a lot of people we saw just picking through it … There were dogs that were running around. I think a mom had just had a fresh litter of puppies, and we were seeing all the puppies roaming around within the trash.”

This July, Morton is promoting a 30-day plastic-free challenge to help people reduce their environmental footprint. Throughout the month, participants will receive emails with tips to help them live more eco-friendly lives. For example, instead of grabbing a paper cup at your favorite coffee shop, Morton recommends bringing your own mug or tumbler. Instead of asking for a to-go box at a restaurant, you could bring your own reusable one.

On top of that, Morton will be putting pressure on companies to rethink their plastic product parts and packaging. She hopes to get businesses to consider recyclable or sustainable materials, such as providing compostable to-go containers instead of styrofoam ones.

“This is a way to kind of light a fire in everybody,” she says.

Environmentalist Kathleen Morton | Outdoorsy
Kathleen Morton. Photo by Kathleen Morton.

#VanLife: Keeping It Real in the Age of Instagram

While #vanlife has drawn a lot of ire for its staged photos—a pristine van parked near a cliff, its backdoors swung wide open to a view of the Grand Canyon, for example—Morton will be the first to tell you everything is not as it seems on Instagram.

“A lot of people kinda get caught up in the idea … that it’s gonna be this glamorous, wonderful lifestyle, and it’s actually really difficult,” she says. “It’s really dirty and messy.”

Sometimes you have to drive through bad weather conditions or really rough roads. Other times, you spend hours just searching for gas. “And that can be really stressful,” she adds.

Even so, Morton wouldn’t have it any other way. “The way I wanted to be living, I think it just took me four years of a journey to really figure that out,” she explains. “I finally feel like I have the van that I love, and I have a lot of work that’s sustaining me.”

Environmentalist Kathleen Morton. Photo by Colby Thompson.
Photo by Colby Thompson.

Think You’re Ready for Van Life? Morton’s Words of Wisdom

If you’ve been scrolling through #vanlife photos on Instagram or eyeing old camper vans on Craigslist, Morton has some words of advice: “Choose your adventure first and then your rig second,” she says. “Make it less about van life … what that picturesque idea that might be from Instagram or whatnot, and think really about what is your dream and what is the experience that you want to have.”

Maybe you really want to connect with nature. Or maybe you want to become more creative or artistic. “Really examine the purpose,” Morton advises.

Once you know your goal, you might find that your ideal life doesn’t involve a van. It might involve a camper trailer, a tiny house, or maybe just going on a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia.

“There’s some great ways that you can go out and experience this without actually having to go through the process of finding a van, buying it, getting it built out,” she says.

Morton recommends renting different rigs to try them out before leaping into a huge commitment. “You can have these experiences and kind of see what you like or don’t like. That could be a really helpful way before you kind of just jump into it.”

If you want to explore this lifestyle and discover what’s right for you, Outdoorsy can help you find your perfect rental, whether that’s a vintage VW bus, a 14-foot travel trailer, or something else.

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