A Van Life Couple Gives Their Close Quarter Tips For Dating On The Road

Parker & Jenelle Hilton

Parker Hilton had been dating Jenelle Kappe for about two months when he asked her to live in a van with him. A travel writer and photographer, Hilton had built out and outfitted a vintage van for an epic adventure across the country. Still… it was a little soon to talk about moving in together. Especially into a 20-square foot-space with no end date in sight.

Parker knew it was a big “ask,” but he was crazy about Jenelle and didn’t want to lose the chance to be with her. At the same time, he’d been planning his trip for years. It became a moment of truth… What would she say?

“Her response was, ‘Can my dog come?'” Parker says with a laugh. “That’s all she was worried about.”

“We’re kind of a package deal,” Jenelle explains of her Australian Shepard mix, Emma. “Leaving her wasn’t an option. I said, ‘I will definitely come if my dog comes too.’”

The negotiation didn’t get any tougher than that. The adventurous trio (Emma included!) set off across the country to take photographs, sleep under the stars, and fall ever-deeper in love.

Parker & Jenelle Hilton

Jenelle and Parker — who recently married — have always been drawn to travel and adventure, both separately and together. Both photographers, they met through social media, following one another because they were fans of each other’s work.

When they first connected, Parker was stranded in Ecuador after a van trip from Montana to Patagonia had ended disastrously along the Columbia/Ecuador border. The van had broken down and he didn’t have money to fix it. Instead, he decided to hole up for a spell in the village where the van died.

On one of these quiet Ecuadorian days, when Parker saw Jenelle post that she was heading to Cambodia for a trip, he risked a comment.

“That place will change your life,” he wrote.

That simple moment changed both of their lives. Jenelle responded asking for travel suggestions, and they realized they were both originally from New Jersey. Months later, they ended up back in the home state at the same time for a visit. A first date followed soon after.

“I said, ‘Can I buy you a drink and talk to you about photography?’” Parker says. “She said, ‘Of course.’ Three years later, we’re married.”

Okay, it wasn’t quite that quick. Before that, they lived for several months in a van, touring the US. They swung down south from NJ, all the way to the Florida Keys, before turning up and heading west. It’s not easy to be enclosed in a tiny space with anyone on a trip like that, let alone a person you’ve just started dating. Still, Jenelle says she always had a sense that it would be okay. It’s why she said ‘yes’ in the first place.

“It’s a very hard thing to explain,” she says,” but nothing was work between us. It was just nothing like I’d ever experienced before… It was always kind of ‘Yeah this’ll be fun. This’ll be an adventure.'”

Living in a van together, both Parker and Jenelle tell me, is like a crash course in intimacy. There’s no privacy, nowhere to take a break… it’s the ultimate test as to whether or not you’ll make it. You have to be able to communicate, work together, and make each other laugh.

“The question of where are we going is never-ending,” Parker says. “It’s always a part of the conversation. You wake up in the morning and that’s what you start talking about. Where are we going and what do we want to do between now and then.”

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The best kind of Monday morning…

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Where are we going? And what do we want to do between now and then? Parker means that literally on the road, of course. But it’s also a question most couples ask themselves in a larger sense. Where are we going? What will do until we get there? How will we spend our time? For Jenelle and Parker, the choice was clear: They wanted to spend their lives creating and discovering adventure. Looking for that bend in the road that might lead to the perfect hike, campsite, or starry sky.

It’s an alluring lifestyle, and one Parker and Jenelle absolutely recommend. But if you’re considering hitting the road with a partner, there are some rules of travel and van life that you should keep in mind. Parker and Jenelle shared with me their best advice for wandering with your soulmate.

Parker & Jenelle Hilton

1. Embrace simplicity.

Parker & Jenelle Hilton

Jenelle: I love the freedom of van life. Van mornings, you get up in the van, and you’re not immediately hit with all the million things you have to do or a timeline. It’s, most of all, relaxing and peaceful. In our van, we had two big windows on either side of our bed so every morning we woke up to the sunrise which was incredible.

As soon as you get up, you go outside and then you’re in nature. There’s something beautiful about that, the simplicity. We didn’t have a lot of stuff because we couldn’t have a lot of stuff with us. You only had a bag of clothes.

There’s no, “What am I wearing? what am I doing?” It’s like “I’ll wear one of these three outfits I have!” The ability to just be secluded and shut off from the world is really nice.

2. Come up with a routine.

Parker & Jenelle Hilton

Parker: We both followed a routine pretty easily. When we were on the road trip, whenever we pulled up to the campsite, whether that was in the backwoods of British Columbia or the deserts of New Mexico, Jenelle would start making a fire and I’d start cooking dinner. It was unspoken. That’s just the routine that we fell into. We’d cook dinner and then we would both do dishes and then sit around the fire and hang out for a couple of hours, every night.

Before that, you have to get water, you have to get firewood, you have to get groceries. When you’re moving all the time, you have to stock up, so the routines were pretty fixed.

Since that trip, when we do need time together, we metaphorically sit around a campfire for a couple of hours. Having that routine — our traveling roots — it’s really easy to come back to that. Like, “Okay, we need that time and we have to alot that time,”

I really, really appreciate that we have that to fall back on; of knowing that routine.

3. Always Talk It Out.

Parker & Jenelle Hilton

Jenelle: Communication is really huge in the van, because you’re in such tight living quarters. It’s always super important to discuss whatever is happening. Traveling can be very stressful and hectic to begin with.

During our big trip — which ended last year — we were living day by day. Every morning we woke up trying to figure out where we were going to go and where we were gonna sleep that night. And it was just us so there was no escaping. There was no like, “I’m gonna go for a walk” or “I’m gonna go downstairs.” You were just stuck with each other.

So one of the best things we ever did was straight out talk about it like, “Okay, what’s going on? What’s bothering you?” and then you face it instead of letting it fester. You’re in in a van so ignoring problems would just exaggerate every little thing.

4. Don’t hold a grudge.

Parker & Jenelle Hilton

Parker: The van is about twenty square feet of working/living space. It expedites every serious confrontation you could possibly have.

We were driving so much. Then, at night, we’d go out for whiskey or wine and just sit by ourselves. You talk a lot about everything that usually would be under the radar for awhile. Everything’s out in the open, and so any conflicts you have, either have to get resolved or figured out pretty quickly.

The confines are so small that you can’t hold a grudge, ever. You have to work things out.

5. Be curious, and go with the flow.

Parker & Jenelle Hilton

Parker: For Jenelle, the world just kind of fuels her. To be moving, for her, is such a purifying, energizing thing. There’s this beauty in the way that Jenelle travels that I’m always inspired by because I think intrigue and curiosity drive her.

Just to be moving is enough for her, and I think that’s such a fascinating thing.

6. Keep technology out of bed.

Parker & Jenelle Hilton

Parker: As far as rules for traveling together and living in such a small space, no cell phones in bed. That’s a very serious rule and I think it’s made us really appreciate our time together. We’ve come to just really appreciate our time. If we’re in bed together yeah, we’re sitting by each other and we’re reading but we’re together and we’re not looking at Facebook. I think we both realize how important those nights around the campfire were to us.

We try really hard to not let life get in the way.

Jenelle: There were a lot of amazing nights for me. There was a lot of time of us just talking and it could be anything; something we thought was interesting or how we felt. We talked, and sat around a campfire having drinks and finding out about the history of one another. That’s something rare that a lot of people don’t get in their relationships. Which is maybe why it was like so easy to be like, “Yeah, this is it. We’re ready to be together.”

7. Always be up and open for an adventure. And laugh. A lot.

Parker & Jenelle Hilton

Parker: Jenelle’s a lot of fun and, as far as adventuring goes, there’s nothing that’s off the menu. I tend to just have pretty harebrained, silly ideas, and she’s game all the time. She’s just a lot of fun to travel with.

She was and is, a good traveler. She never complains and she’s really okay with whatever the plan may be. She’s just a lot of fun to travel with. It all keeps coming back to that.

Jenelle: As a travel partner, Parker is equally as adventurous, if not more adventurous, than I am, which is incredible. He has this incredible, positive outlook on life, which I find inspirational. He’s courageous in ways that challenge me to be more courageous.

Having a partner to experience these things with gave me this ability to enjoy traveling and new places even more because I had a home with me (in Parker). I had that comfort with me.

I was really able to open myself more. He’s done that for me, which has been incredible. And he’s really good at laughing. Like very, very good at laughing.

Parker & Jenelle Hilton

Parker & Jenelle Hilton

Parker & Jenelle Hilton
Parker & Jenelle Hilton
Parker & Jenelle Hilton
Parker & Jenelle Hilton
Parker & Jenelle Hilton