When Isak Kvam discovered artist Brenden Leonard, who, in 2012, was exploring the United States in a beat-up Astrovan, he was hooked by the glimpse of such a free-wheeling lifestyle.
“I was like, ‘You can do that?’” recalled Kvam, now the proud co-owner of a built-out Ram ProMaster that he shares with his partner, Maria Thompson. Since buying it in 2018 and building it out together through 2019, they’ve steered the van to vast Western deserts, bumpy Forest Service roads, and remote campsites. And they’ve done it all while working full time.
Kvam and Thompson’s extended road-tripping has honed their remote-work skills, and in recent months, millions of Americans have joined the ranks of remote workers. About 42% of the American workforce worked remotely at the peak of 2020, according to Steve King, whose Emergent Research consulting firm has tracked remote workers since 2005. That’s up from just 7% in 2019.
And not everyone’s sticking close to home, King said. The number of digital nomads—people who make traveling a lifestyle—rose 50% in 2020. With travel restrictions in places, most of them are exploring the United States instead of going abroad, and 1.9 million Americans reported they were doing it all by van.
“The vanlifers are much more nomadic,” said King, who has heard from van owners heading for outdoorsy meccas like Boulder, Tahoe, and Chattanooga. Others are making a beeline for sunshine in Florida or Austin.
Along the way, traveling remote workers like Isak and Maria have picked up road-tested tips for staying productive, having fun, and being mindful of local communities while they explore. We caught up with digital nomads everywhere from rural Kentucky to the San Francisco Bay Area to learn how they balance full-time jobs with full-time camping.
After months of building out their Ram ProMaster, Kvam and Thompson headed straight for America’s most spectacular national parks. They were longtime wilderness lovers, but they found that vanlife offered something deeper.
“When you’re on vacation, you get a jam-packed schedule of all the things you want to see,” Kvam said. “On the road, you get a much deeper connection. You can live more slowly.”
But turning their van into a two-person office was a challenge, Thompson said. Over time, they learned to split the van in half—Kvam in the back, Thompson in the front, using a laptop stand that clipped to the passenger seat. “We’re in this tiny space together, but not interrupting each other,” Thompson said. “Giving ourselves mental space, since we can’t be physically separated, is huge.”
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A passionate rock climber, Shang lived in a converted Sprinter van for 9 months in 2019 after quitting her job to rock climb. Now back to full-time work, Shang and her partner use the van to road-trip between vacation rentals and cabins.
“We have a ton of equipment for our home offices, and the van’s become a kind of glorified moving truck,” Shang said. By taking turns at the wheel, Shang and her partner pull epic 72-hour driving shifts on their way to remote and beautiful locales.
Juggling professional life and rock climbing works well, said Shang, because she’s open with her colleagues about where she’s logging in from. “Whether people are doing childcare or doing a side job, everyone has something going on. It’s just keeping that communication open.”
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Combining a love for travel with some serious financial savvy, Castillo and Venega moved into their van in August 2019, and they’ve been living on the road ever since.
During the week, their Ram ProMaster is a roving office parked somewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area. On the weekends, though, they explore California, from Tahoe peaks to Joshua Tree National Park, where they stayed at a Hipcamp property in the desert. “I love picking up and going without having to pack,” Castillo said. “I love just being able to have my bed with me wherever I go.”
When they’re exploring, they unwind from work by seeking out spots with no WiFi or cell access; it’s a good way to reset after a week on the computer. On workdays, though, it’s all about staying connected. In addition to two mobile hotspots, they use a Weboost that helps amplify cell signals.
The key is to be prepared, they explained. “We do our homework,” Venegas said. ”We’ll drive around and test the coverage…if we like the area, then the following day we’ll work there.”
Since 2014, Reyes-Acosta has worked her way across North and South America, often at the wheel of her 1995 Ford Econoline E-250 van. That means chasing adventure, while staying grounded enough to focus on work.
“I think humans need some routine to feel sane,” she said. “The challenge is to remain flexible while you travel, but still keep those baseline practices.” (Reyes-Acosta is a big fan of time blocking and other productivity strategies, and her van routine includes daily rituals of meditation and morning tea.)
She recommends becoming a “temporary local,” staying in each place long enough to find your favorite café, the best parking spots, and good internet access. For her, taking it slow has proven to be more rewarding than just racking up miles: “The challenge of slowing down forced me to be in a place where I was really present.”
Without a commute, you can spend more time exploring. Try out working from camp for yourself, and always remember to recreate responsibly.
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