Ahh, vanlife. The ultimate epic adventure. I know we've all thought about it. Let's ditch the mortgage, rent, utility bills, and all the other stagnant details of everyday life and hit the road. But then you think... could I really do it? Nah... probably not.
Alexis, of @reggieandthevan, is here to tell you otherwise. YES - you too can pack two people + two dogs inside an 80 square foot van and head off on the never-ending journey of freedom and the open road!
Here she is, to tell you about her vanlife adventures in a van named Gertie:
So, you’re thinking about hitting the road for an extended period of time are you? Dreams of magic sunsets, epic views, surfboards, mountains, long, sunny days at the crag and the stoke of the open road fill your mind. But, you’ve got a dog or maybe even two. Do not fear - they can come with you! It’s really not as hard as it sounds to pack a couple of adult humans and a couple big dogs into 80 square feet.
We are @reggieandthevan and we are here to share what we’ve learned living on the road for a year and a half with our two dogs in our 1985 Volkswagen Westfalia.
Our path to vanlife wasn’t so much a choice as it was a necessity. Although my husband and I had purchased our van shortly after getting married and adopting Reggie in 2016, we were steady weekend warriors until my husband was laid off from his job during an economic downturn. We were faced with a choice: we could continue to pay high rent in a city where we were both stagnating, or we could hit the road in search of a way of life that prioritized our deep passion for life, our career goals and playing in the outdoors.
We had two weeks to pack up our apartment of 7 years. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but we decided we were going to go and never looked back. I field a lot of questions about deciding to live in a van and I often don’t have a good answer for people. There is no formula for living unconventionally. The most important step if you dream of a life on the road is just to say: “yes.” The rest will come if you’re really committed to making it work.
Our first journey from Northern British Columbia, Canada all the way south to Michoacán, Mexico was not without difficulty. We had our share of breakdowns. Living in a van tends to make you hyper-aware of both the beauty all around you and make the challenges of life more acute all at the same time. Driving a 34-year-old vehicle will teach you a great deal about patience and going with the flow-- mostly just because when you’re stranded on the side of some highway in the middle of nowhere, you don’t have much other choice than to figure out how to fix things yourself.
The dogs are always patient with our slow pace of travel. Since dogs live moment-to-moment anyways, they adjust quite naturally to the ebb and flow of a slow, scenic-route kind of life. You would be hard pressed to find dogs happier than ones who get to spend all day every day with their humans - the majority of it in wide open spaces. My dogs are no exception. They’re never happier than when they’re loading up into their mobile home bound for a new adventure.
Now that you know a little about our story, I’d like to share some lessons we have learned from living small with two large dogs:
The first thing you need to consider is how your dog handles car rides. Creating a positive association with your rolling home will be key. Start with short drives around the block. Make each experience positive and make the destination fun! Gradually build up the length of the trips you’re taking. If you’re consistent, your dog will quickly begin to associate your rolling home with adventure and will eagerly jump in to hit the road anytime.
Now that your dog feels at home in the van, it’s time to pack up their gear for the long haul. While it can be tempting to pack every toy and piece of gear your dog owns, remember: you are now living in a tiny space. Everything you need to survive has to fit. From experience, I can tell you that nothing is more frustrating than over-packing your van.
When packing, we stick to the basics: Two leashes and collars for each dog - one waterproof leash, one climbing rope leash each, one collapsible fabric food bowl each and a silicone water dish. We keep a big bag of food in our Thule roof rack and use it to refill a small Tupperware container that fits under the edge of our bed. We attach extra leashes and gear with carabiners right next to the door. Everything else for the dogs is stored in one, small duffle bag. We have one dog bed that I designed to fit perfectly in the space between our bed and the floor and keep a doggie sleeping bag to use for extra chilly nights. Since Reggie is a big boy, he chooses to sleep on the floor. Redwood is much smaller and sleeps cuddled up in the bed with us. We also keep treats on standby, a doggie first aid kit in case of emergency and a Furminator.
Truthfully, there is no real way around the dirt, dust, grit and hair that comes along with adventuring with dogs every day, but can save yourself at least some dog hair in your breakfast if you take the time to brush your dogs on a regular basis. The most frequent question I get from people curious about vanlife with dogs is “how do you stay clean?” The answer is pretty simple: you just don’t.
Now that your dog is comfortable in your new home and your gear is all packed up, it’s time to plan your first destination. Make no mistake; traveling with your dog is very different than traveling without them. This doesn’t mean it has to be less fun, it just means you will need to plan accordingly and adjust your expectations.
Many adventure destinations in the USA are not dog-friendly. Before planning a trip to a National Park, ensure that you are familiar with the rules surrounding dogs in that particular park. Nothing is worse than showing up at a destination after a long day of driving and finding out your dog isn’t allowed to join you on the trails.
Luckily, there are plenty of destinations on public lands that are equally as epic as National Parks if you’re willing to forgo the luxuries of established campgrounds. When staying on and exploring BLM land, please be aware of leash laws in ecologically sensitive areas and most importantly, clean up after yourselves and your dogs. The ability to explore the magnificent public lands in the USA is a privilege- not a right. Educate yourself on leave no trace principles prior to hitting the road. Don’t be that person.
There really is no formula to doing vanlife right. It’s different for each and every one of us nomads out there on the highway. The best advice I can give you is to always put the dogs first when making plans, do your research on dog-friendly areas, pack light and, most importantly, have fun. While living on the road comes with its share of daily challenges, the dirtbag life with dogs is the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had. The challenges make the legendary days all the more exciting.
Next step - start looking at vans on craiglist!
Thanks Alexis for sharing your vanlife (+ two mutts) adventures, and be sure to follow @reggieandthevan on Instagram to keep up with their journeys!