Meet The Vanlifer Who Documents Stories From Her Mobile Community

At this point, it feels safe to say van living is having more than just “a moment.” It’s a fully acknowledged movement — the mix of nomadic lifestyle that’s been viable (though difficult) since the advent of civilization and the ability of “digital vagabonds” to be online anywhere. To some extent, this has been going on for decades, but the van movement has done a good job using Instagram photos of smiling people with nice butts, reclining in little wood-paneled cocoons, to make being homeless sexy AF.

All those gorgeous Insta images tend to paint a homogenized picture of the average person living out of a van. Though the community often does have a shared system of values, people living the van life vary widely. Not every story is a simple quest for the endless summer — motivations vary widely. Luckily, the Mad Ones have Kathleen Morton, to celebrate and champion this individuality on her website: Tiny House, Tiny Footprint.

A writer and photographer since childhood, Morton found the perfect subject matter when she became part of the #vanlife movement. She discovered a group of people spending more time in nature and living a more intentional life with a smaller negative impact on the environment. To exalt these kindred spirits, she writes profiles and dedicates episodes of her podcast to couples and singles, as well as the vehicles in which they dwell. You can listen to an interview with Lynelle and Matt about their mail van or read about Ron and his VW Vanagon. For people thinking about grabbing up a van and hitting the road, these profiles can be instructional. But, they are also pure entertainment for people romanticizing the wayfarer’s life.

In a shift from the interviewer to the subject, Morton sat down to give us some insight into her own life on the road. She told us about her new van build, her commitment to the van life community, her favorite spots to set up camp, and her traveling companion, a dog named Peaches. And, she sent us some great images of her present and previous rides. It looks like a damn fine life.

Did you grow up being outdoorsy?

I grew up in the Midwest and definitely didn’t have a huge camping scene growing up. That wasn’t really something I did a lot of. I didn’t spend a ton of time in the outdoors. I ended up moving out to Colorado after I graduated college about six years ago. I did it because I was really fascinated with the lifestyle out in Colorado. It seemed like from people I talked with who lived out in Colorado were always doing stuff outside no matter the season. In the winter, they were snowboarding and skiing. In summer, they were biking and rafting. It didn’t seem that there was a shortage of things going on, and I wasn’t used to that in my background. That was the appeal for me to move out there.

I was living in Denver, and I noticed the rent increasing in the city. That’s still happening out in Denver and other big cities. I was searching for another option. My lease with my boyfriend was coming to the end; we were like, “Is there a way that we can afford to live somewhere without paying huge rent and also increase our outdoor experience?” I think a lot of people notice that they spend a lot of time outside hiking, going on adventures. It just seemed a little silly that there was a place we were using to sleep and not really spending time there, but we were paying this huge rent cost.
We were still working full-time jobs, and we looked at van life. But, it seemed like a big ordeal to get a van and live somewhere and still work a full-time office job. We started looking at camper trailers. We thought that could be a more permanent one-location solution. We bought a camper trailer for $1,800 on Craigslist. It’s a 1969 Terry Camper Trailer. We wanted to do it as a way to save money, but also, we were really interested in living more intentionally. That was something that we weren’t able to do much of in the city. We felt like we were consuming a lot, using a lot of resources. We talked about how we wanted to be environmental stewards and it wasn’t happening in the way that we wanted it to.

We were focused on environmental initiatives, and we thought this could be a great way to reduce our footprint while also exploring some new ideas, new principles like composting and just being more creative with how we use our resources. We had this camper and then we had to find a place to park. We found a family that was going to host us in their backyard. We moved in their backyard for 14 months and both worked full-time jobs and this camper trailer was pretty much off the grid. Meaning we had a compostable toilet. We didn’t have any running water. We had one electrical plug but pretty minimal, and it was only 140 square feet.

We did that for 14 months, and then, I started blogging about my experiences in the camper trailer. I realized there were other people living alternative lifestyles, which three years ago when I first started doing this lifestyle, I did not know anybody, even people in vans. I honestly did not have a clue that this was a thing. It was really comforting to find people who were also doing similar things, so I started interviewing them for my blog, featuring once a week a new person trying out a new lifestyle. Through that, I became more intrigued about van life; it’s a little more mobile. Our camper trailer was such a pain to move from one spot to the other. We didn’t bring it on trips or anything. It was just a small structure that stayed in one place.

I became intrigued with the idea that you could bring your house with you and have that freedom, so I transitioned into some remote work. During that time, my boyfriend and I split, and I decided I was going to pursue van life. I had already lived small. This wasn’t like a super new thing. The owners of the place we rented our land from had a 1987 Toyota van that they were going to chuck into a junkyard. I was like, “Can I take that van?” They’re like, “Yes for sure. We don’t want it.” After fixing it up, I took that van and did some solo trips until it broke down. Then, I had some friends that were looking for someone to buy their 1978 Ford Econoline van, a former postal van, they let me take that out for a bit. I took that on, and that one had a ton of issues. It was really wearing on me, the expense of always fixing up an older vehicle.

I did that until I felt like I couldn’t handle it anymore. Now, I’m in another 1987 Toyota van. This one I bought from a friend who is pretty mechanical. It’s pretty small in here. I’m in here right now. It’s like 40 square feet, but we made use of all the space to build it out. That is what I’m currently traveling and living out of. I fund the experience by finding seasonal work like working on farms and also freelance work and also finding other odd jobs so I’m able to make the money work.

For the most part I try not to spend too much on gas and try not to travel too much to too many locations. I just have everything with me.

What’s the new build like?

I helped build out my van with Colorado custom van builder Run Away Van. It features a charging system, refrigerator, pull-out kitchen, fold-out bed and plenty of storage. Everything was built with 1/2 and 3/4 ACX cabinet grade plywood. All boxes were built with biscuits, glued and nailed to avoid wasting space with framing. It was trimmed with cedar and reclaimed snow fencing from the wild Wyoming prairie lands.

It sounds beautiful. You’ve lived in a vehicle exclusively for years now then.

I would say collectively it’s hard to calculate. I’ve been in three different vans and a camper trailer. Probably for three years I’ve been living small, it’s just the house has changed throughout that time.

Your intention is just to keep it up?

It’s hard to say. I would like to live a more environmentally conscious lifestyle. I think for me it doesn’t matter what the vehicle is to do that. If it’s a camper trailer. No matter what it is. I think for me it’s been a great way to be conscious of my water use. Also, just not be wasteful in the food that I eat because I only have limited space for food that will sit in my van. I have to be creative with how much I’m using of certain things. I feel like I was a little wasteful in my previous lifestyle, and I didn’t really think much about it. I was just a little less in tune with what I was doing. Now, I feel like I’m living more intentionally with more purpose, and I enjoy it, too. I feel more connected to the outdoors.

I love the community. I still do interviews. I have a podcast. I’m the American representative of Van Life Diaries, which is the big hub of vanlifers throughout the world. We host gatherings. We have van meetups all over the world. We’re working on a documentary right now; it’s going to come out next summer. I’m involved with all these projects and we spread awareness about the van life movement. It’s been pretty fulfilling to be part of this community, for sure.

How did you end up with sponsors? Do they find you?

Through my blog, I’m sharing these weekly interviews and things like that. Blogs take a lot of time, podcasts take time to put together, so I started reaching out to brands that I felt connected to. They were already doing stuff in the van life community or they had some sort of environmental initiative like they gave back to a non-profit. I sought out some brands that I felt were special and I was already using their items. I asked if they would sponsor things and started that collaboration. Also, from being in it for so long, I do have brands that reach out and ask to be involved. Van Life Diaries and I are both pretty particular about who we work with. We meet up with them at Outdoor Retailer. That’s a great spot to meet brands.

That’s a big outdoor expo that was happening in Salt Lake City, but now it’s going to be in Denver. That was a great way to have face-to-face connections with brands and tell them about what you’re doing and how they can get involved. Then they come to the gatherings and it’s hard not to come to a gathering of 200, 300 vans and not see how amazing this community is, how diverse it is. Everybody is sharing their talents. Everybody hanging out for the weekend. It’s just a cool experience, and brands want to be a part of it.

A lot of the cities that you’re mentioning are West Coast cities. Have you predominantly stuck to one side of the United States?

Yeah. I still feel like there’s a lot of West that I need to explore. Having grown up in the Midwest, I feel like there’s a lot out here. Also, I like the temperature. A warmer climate is always nice. But I’ve also done trips out on the East Coast. I think a lot of the work I do and a lot of my connections are all out here, which keeps bringing me back here and keeping me here.

What have been some of your favorite locations that you’ve been to?

Yeah. I love California a lot, Northern California. And, there’s a great community of vanlifers out here. I love the Pacific Northwest. The Olympic Peninsula is really pretty. Olympic National Forest, which is right outside of Olympic National Park has some great areas to backpack. I love the National Parks in Canada because I can bring my dog backpacking with me there. I can’t necessarily bring my dog on backpacking trails in National Parks in the US, so that’s been a good appeal. Yeah, generally I like National Forests that are outside cities. I like the mix of being able to go into a city and work on a computer at a coffee shop and get my stuff done for the day. Then, being able to go into the National Forest at night and camp for free. Those cities are really appealing for me right now, having that mix.

That totally makes sense. I didn’t realize you were still living with your dog.

She has been with me the past two years. I have an adventure companion. Her name’s Peaches.

She’s cool with living in a 40-foot van?

She loves it. It’s hard to make it up really. It’s her house. She runs to it. She wants to always be in it. It’s like a safe space. Also, I think she knows when we get in the van, we’re going somewhere; it’s like going on an adventure. Whether we go hiking or climbing or whatever, it’s going to be a lot of outdoor time for her. Yeah, it’s no different than a house in a lot of ways. Dogs always like to come back to their house. It’s just her house is smaller than the average person.

What do you have coming up?

I’m working on the documentary with Van Life Diaries. That will be released next summer. I’m working on a book, which will be released next summer. We’re going to have several gatherings throughout the US where we will be screening the documentary and sharing the book next summer. Those are the big things that we’re working on. We’re super excited about them but lots of work. Next summer will be a good time to be sharing with everybody, with the whole community so we’re really excited.