Travel photographer, videographer, model and vanlifer Emma Goes talks life on the road in a 1997 Ford Econoline van.
What does your typical day look like, from when you wake up to when you go to bed?
I’ll wake up and make myself breakfast – usually involving tea. If it’s a work day I’ll spend most of the day on my laptop and taking small breaks to go outside, stretch, or goof around (very important). If it’s an adventure day, I’ll drive to the spot we’re exploring and have fun! This usually involves hiking and taking photos. At night, I’ll make myself dinner and after that I’ll watch an episode of a show or read before I go to sleep.
How long have you been a vanlifer?
I’ve been full time since January 2020, so about 10 months.
How did you first discover vanlife?
I was always fascinated with being nomadic; in high school I would fantasize about running away and hopping on a train. When I got a bit older I started to notice more and more people sharing their vanlife journeys on Instagram and it totally clicked for me! This is what I had been looking for.
How did you ultimately decide that vanlife was right for you?
I wanted a way to never stop traveling, but to have all my belongings with me!
Any annoying pre-conceptions people have about your lifestyle choice?
Oh yeah. That I’m homeless, dirty, have no ambition, blah blah blah. I think the thing that bothers me the most is when people who know nothing about vanlife assume that I’m deserving of pity or that something must have gone wrong in my life to have led me here. But usually when I explain to them the lifestyle and the philosophy behind it, most people end up very impressed and wishing they had the guts to pursue their happiness to this extreme. It’s all about education, especially since most of the population has no idea how many people are actively choosing vanlife. Anything that goes against societal norms will always be met with hesitation at first.
Tell us about your van
My van is a 1997 Ford Econoline E250 with a v8 engine and a high roof. When I first bought it, it was actually built out professionally by a company called Coachmen. But it was very dated and not what I wanted so I gutted the whole thing and built it back up from scratch!
Where do you travel to in your van? Any places or destinations you would recommend?
All over the US! And hopefully Canada and Mexico once the borders are re-opened. If you’re like me and you hate the cold, I would suggest exploring the southern states in the winter and the northern ones in the summer.
What has been your most memorable experience on the road so far?
Probably just all the amazing campsites I’ve gotten to call home. Being able to make any beautiful part of nature your backyard is something I’ll never take for granted.
What is your biggest vanlife fail so far?
It involves my build! I wish I had installed a built-in stovetop in my kitchen. Instead, I opted for a portable two-burner camp stove and I really hate having to break it down and set it up every time I move spots. Either that, or getting stuck in the sand while I was trying to beach camp in Oregon. Luckily, a nice person with a Jeep and a winch pulled me out!
How do you make money while on the road?
I’m a photographer! I mostly work with companies to create branded lifestyle content for their websites and social media accounts. I also sometimes work with people to shoot things like portraits, events, etc. I’m building the business right now, so I’m still working on growing every day!
How much money do you save by living in a van?
Compared to how much I was saving/spending in an apartment, I’m living large in a van! Obviously my income is less than when I was working a 9-5, but my expenses are way less too. I have no rent, electrical, or internet payments and my van is paid off. All I really spend money on is gas, food, and a few small monthly bills.
What are some vanlife hacks you would recommend for travelers on a budget?
Free stuff is everywhere! Camping, food, experiences, etc. All these things can be done on a budget. Even your van build! You don’t have to have a souped up Sprinter to live a nomadic lifestyle.
Have you ever felt unsafe while living in a van?
Overall, no. Most places I’ve been have felt very safe, and other vanlifers and campers generally share the same mindset – just wanting to be out in nature and chill. There have been a couple times where I was glad I was traveling with someone else, though. For example, I was hiking with a friend and we were on the trail past dark. When we were coming back to the vans, a man was on the trail behind us. I’m sure it was just another hiker going back to his car as well, but as a single female alone I would have been more scared. But, hey, that’s what I carry pepper spray for!
What’s the biggest downside to living in a van?
Well, since Covid began it’s been much harder to find things like showers and public restrooms. That’s probably my biggest complaint. Also, this may not apply to everyone, but something I really miss about apartment life is having a full-length mirror. It seems minor, but to me it’s something I really enjoy. That’s something that will definitely be going into my next build!
How do you meet new people while on the road?
There are three ways as far as I’m concerned:
1. Online: Instagram and vanlife Facebook groups are so awesome for connecting with other travelers. You can keep track of where people are and meet up with them if you’re close!
2. Vanlife meetups: Before Covid, there were a ton of scheduled meetups every year. I met a lot of my friends at a gathering called Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Arizona. Now, there aren’t as many happening for obvious reasons. But they’re such a great way to find a community, because vanlifers tend to have similar interests and personalities so everyone usually gets along and has a great time!
How do you stay in touch with friends and family?
My family all lives back in Connecticut and I haven’t been there since I left in January. I was planning on going back for the holidays, but the virus has changed that. We mostly just text, call, or facetime! We’re very lucky to be living in a time where communication is very easy. I always joke to my family that they’re lucky we don’t live in a time where all they would get from me is an occasional postcard!
Do you have any advice for others who are considering living or traveling in a van?
DO IT! No matter how small the steps are to get there, start taking them. If you’re just a tiny bit curious about the lifestyle, it’s worth trying. Even if you end up hating it, you will have learned so much about yourself and the world around you. But please keep the good sleeping spots and beautiful nature areas on the down low; we don’t want them to get flooded with people 😉
What are 3 essential items you can not live without while in your van?
Solar panels – I know A LOT of people live just fine without them, but I don’t think I could. I work on my laptop and with my cameras and I need access to electricity to power my appliances.
A fridge – speaking of appliances, I’m so grateful to have a fridge. I don’t think I need to explain why that is.
A cooktop – being able to make warm food for myself is truly amazing, especially in colder weather.
Fave vanlife recipe?
I’ve never really been a lover of cooking, but my go-to food is rice and veggies! Super easy and makes me feel nourished and happy. When I’m feeling more motivated to cook something I might make a curry dish or something like that!
What are you listening to lately?
I really love listening to my Discover Weekly playlist on Spotify! I think it’s so fun to find new artists and explore them. What I listen to on repeat is stuff like Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac. Sometimes I’ll switch it up with a podcast. Lately, I’ve been listening to History of Egypt!
Who inspires you?
Too many people to name! I really love following people who are unapologetically themselves. I also really look up to a lot of other photographers who are traveling and shooting just like me. I love following their journeys and getting inspired.
Any future plans you’d like to share?
Truthfully, I don’t plan very far ahead (another reason I love the wandering lifestyle). But my general idea for the next few months is to stay in the warmer areas – maybe southern Texas or New Orleans. I was actually hoping to fly back to Bali, Indonesia for a while but all the borders are closed so we’ll keep an eye on that!
Check out Emma’s photography and keep up with her travels via her website Emma Goes.