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He Left Everything Behind for Freedom in Vanlife

Joe had done all the things society says will make you happy — he excelled in Real Estate, got married, had kids, and moved into a 3,500-square-foot home — but he was pretty miserable! So he got divorced, put others in charge of his properties, and bought/converted a van. His life has never been the same.

His van has been customized for his unique needs, and it allows him to get up close and personal with all the nature and adventure spots that used to be out of reach with traditional travel options. He shared an extensive interview with us, so be sure to read his story and advice below!

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From 3500 sq. ft. to Campervan in Lifestyle Overhaul

He has a dinette setup in the main area.

He has a microwave up above the seating area.

There’s a great wet bath inside the rig.

Here’s his bed in the back of the van.

I’m a fan of the groovy green seats!

The van has an awning, which is super nice!

The simple white exterior is pretty stealthy.


What got you into tiny living?

On 8/9/22 I loaded all of my worldly possessions in a 1999 Dodge van and drove across America looking for the soul of the nation. I had become disillusioned with modern life, having found it wanting, no matter how much success I achieved at the various pursuits that I was told would make me happy.

I had built a 60-house portfolio, won multiple ultramarathon events, stayed sober for 12 years, held service positions in recovery, got married, had children, built multiple businesses, ate a vegan diet- I had done every goddamn thing society recommended for my happiness but was completely miserable.

All seemed vanity and grasping at the wind, endless labor to get more things, more money, more security and prestige, become more civilized. I was constantly working, producing, earning, making something of myself but all it produced was an empty feeling, which I could only replace with the next accomplishment. In modern America it’s always more, more, F***ING MORE.

Disgusted, I went the other way. I mindfully left recovery, amicably divorced my wife, reduced a lifetime of possessions to fit into 3 suitcases, closed one company entirely, hired a property manager to look over my portfolio, and told the men working at the renovation company they now had to run the company if they wanted to keep their job. I put my air pods in and headed west, driving away from everyone and everything I had known to that point. In the prior two years, I had gone from 2200 sq ft to 3500 sq ft to a van. That initial trip out west was the most life-changing trip of my life. Back then I would have told you it was the happiest I’d ever been in my life but looking back on it now I can confidently say it was the first time in my life I’d ever been happy.

Did you build your home or buy it? How long did the process take?

A little of both actually- I bought a 1999 Dodge Xplorer class B camper van that was in decent condition then spent about a month going through the mechanics and fully customizing it. I installed new maple countertops, built new poplar doors to replace the sad laminate ones, installed 400w of solar, built a 280 AH off grid solar generator to power the house, replaced the heater/ac, added a sound system, threw in color changing LED strobe lights, painted the inside, changed all the hardware, added an accent wall and replaced all of the flooring.

The van ran great but needed a tune-up, new ball joints, new leaf springs, vacuum line repairs, and a host of other little stuff. I spent a lot of time decorating the inside with irreplaceable heirlooms such as the sheepskin my momma got from New Zealand in the 70s, a blanket stitched with a Felz family portrait, golden cobra handles imported from India, beelums from my native Papua New Guinea, Inuit artwork from my friend Gary, my grandma Mary Fran’s lilac pillow cases and Momma’s floral print sheets from the 1960s that all the Felz kids grew up sleeping on.

I turned this van into my HOME, customized to my preferences and habits, filled with things that give me purpose. Living in a van is NOT the easiest pursuit to undertake and, having done it myself, I recommend that anyone seriously wanting to vanlife take whatever time is needed to tailor their rig towards them if they want to give themselves a chance at succeeding in the tiny living. The whole process only took about a month, but I am a skilled tradesman with multiple professional licenses and a lifetime of experience so I must caution that my RESULTS ARE NOT TYPICAL in speed or quality for the average person.

How has tiny living changed your life (for better or worse)?

For someone who measures wealth solely in terms of freedom, vanlife has changed my life to the point where it seemed like I just got an entirely new one. Living in a van reduced the amount of things that I have to manage or keep up with just by virtue of the small amount of space I had to work with. By combining my largest two assets, home and auto, into one and reducing the amount of stuff I was responsible for by 95%, I suddenly had a large swathe of free time created by losing all housework, yardwork, cleaning, and maintenance associated with domestic life.

I only had 4 changes of clothes to wash. I only had two bills to fulfill- cell phone and auto insurance. I suddenly had all the free time in the world and within just a few days found myself at the lowest stress level of my adult life when I realized there was never any reason to rush since I was always already at home! I had everything I needed in one place and took this place with me everywhere I went.

This might sound trivial to the reader but the realization was immediate, electric, and life-changing. An avid trail runner and lifelong outdoorsman, I had spent my previous life traveling all over the USA by this method: find outdoor attraction, then locate airbnb near said attraction, fly to closest airport, rent a car to get to exact location. Once there, I would drive from airbnb to attraction for the day then head back to the rental for the night and repeat this til I had to leave, spending far more of my time and money just moving around than I did actually enjoying what it was I came to see in the first place.

I also was confined to more tame, touristy locations that had the infrastructure to support my lifestyle at the time, rather than the wild places of the world that I pined for. Armed with my off-grid van, I suddenly could simply drive to whatever trail, waterfall, or park I wanted to visit and park right there. Now when I get where I’m going, I am at my destination until I get ready to leave.

I now finish my trail runs right around sunset, usually taking a dip in whatever water is nearby and then cracking an ice cold beer the second I get done. Now I can fully explore an entire area and have experienced many of the few places in America that are still untamed. I don’t track time, can rarely tell you what day of the week it is, and go to bed and wake up with the sun.

The craziest part about all this is that despite a sudden dirth of free time and head space, my production and work ethic has actually INCREASED. I still work like a man possessed, but tiny living has drastically changed the things I work towards. Instead of keeping my yard maintained, I started recording my adventures and producing social media content. Instead of daily house chores, I began pecking away on a book. Instead of folding laundry and emptying the dishwasher, I made my first artwork and began dabbling with interior design. Tiny living has reignited my passion for life and redirected my mindset from the maintenance of a modern, domestic life to awaken the creator inside of me.

How do you make money on the road?

Here is where I differ from most vanlifers: I live off of passive income from real estate holdings. I currently own and (half-ass) operate 5 very successful companies from a van 😆 The crazy part is how little money I spend. Apart from gas, I live on about $30/day, so even without the rental income I would be able to work to support this lifestyle with sporadic seasonal or gig labor. I have done odd contracting jobs for folks on the road.

Having a van has greatly maximized my worth as a tradesman since I can easily travel to exclusive places with high labor demand and non-existent housing, where wages are insanely high because no workers can afford to live there (think Jackson Hole, WY or Whiterfish, MT), and utilize my van to sidestep the prohibitive cost of living while still earning the grossly inflated wages.

For an itinerant carpenter just wanting to see the world instead of punching 40 hrs a week, this is an amazing springboard. I am getting into building vans for resale and can’t wait to see what that turns into. During my van build, I learned how to build solar arrays and am building solar generators for vanlifers also. One day I hope to have a van-building hippie compound where people can park their rig to work on it in a place where there are many people sharing labor, ideas, and materials.

I have made some money with social media content but use these earnings for an ulterior motive: now that I report income from social media content, any place I go in pursuit of monetizing more content is now tax deductible, making everything from my last skydiving adventure to 3 weeks of van life across Europe a tax write off. That’s the end of class for today, children.

What’s the hardest part of tiny living?

That’s easy – being in the city. In many American cities, it’s hard to find a place to park overnight unless you wanna be in a Walmart parking lot or rest area. Using the bathroom is simple in the forest, just pick a tree – not so much when you’re in town. In a city, it’s usually noisy and bright, two things that I hate, even at night. You gotta worry about theft and parking tickets and all kinds of stuff that don’t exist when boondocking out in the styx.

When your living space is <100 sq ft total, you spend most of your time outside the van, and in city, this isn’t very exciting. A city park is about the best you can hope for. Plus, I turned to tiny living to GET AWAY from city life, and I just feel like a real jackass staying there in a van.

Other than this, the only hard part about vanlife is just getting used to it. It’s a definite adjustment going from decades of spacious house life to the cramped space of a van. Everything must be cleaned and put away immediately following use. To save energy, I eschew my fridge for a cooler, which greatly changed my dietary choices and cooking methods. To further conserve resources I live without utilizing AC or heat and learning to live WITH the weather, rather than alter it via thermostat, has been an interesting, yet definitely rewarding, transformation. Bathing regularly in the often chilly natural bodies of water I surround myself with instead of a warm shower has probably been the van life change that this warm-blooded Georgia boy has hated the most.

What’s the most rewarding part?

I can literally go anywhere and do anything at any time. In my van, I have every single thing I own in life and everything needful for survival. I am unchained. Current events don’t concern me one bit. Nuclear winter could happen when I’m out in the forest and nothing would change in my world. I have nothing external to hold me anywhere, the only thing that keeps me put is my desire to stay put. I spend my time doing as I please instead of meeting the obligations of a domestic life in modern America. For the first time in my life, I have control over how and where I spend my days. I practice ducklife, always chasing sunny and 70, and get to travel the world. In my van, I feel untraceable and untouchable. In every single sense of the word, I AM FREE.

Any advice for people looking to go tiny?

Just do it, man. I am so sick of hearing people say to me “I wish I could live like you, but I have this job, or my wife doesn’t want to, or I can’t take my dogs with me, or I don’t have the money” or some stuff like that. I also had all those things and just decided that freedom was more important.

I cut away anything in my life that inhibited my pursuit of freedom in any way. And I mean anything. I got rid of the wife, the job, even the dog. Changing your entire existence is a scary prospect and one that isn’t done overnight, but one that can definitely be started on immediately and worked upon daily.

Knowing where to start is a problem for most, but I would recommend online vanlife, tiny house or skoolie groups full of people already living the lifestyle you want to live. These forums are full of people with tons of free time who (mainly) will offer tons of tips and life hacks. Meeting up with people vanlifing in the real world for a few hours will educate you far more than weeks of online research. I emphatically encourage anyone wanting to vanlife to customize their rig to their desired lifestyle to the utmost given their skillset and financials because this alone will determine if you love or hate tiny living.

For example, I personally hated RVing in a roomy class C motorhome in a campground hooked to shore power and water but completely reinvented myself in a small, mobile off grid van. But mainly, get busy living or get busy dying, man. This life of freedom is not for those who want it, need it or crave it, it’s only for those who do it, man. If the wild is calling you, you had better answer before the ringing stops, possibly forever.

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Natalie C. McKee

Natalie C. McKee is a contributor for Tiny House Talk and the Tiny House Newsletter. She's a wife, and mama of three little kids. She and her family are homesteaders with sheep, goats, chickens, ducks and quail on their happy little acre.
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