In 2019, travel photographer and blogger Dani Rodriguez – of @dani_the_explorer – and her partner built a campervan and set out to travel the entire United States. From Arizona to the Pacific Northwest, over to Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, New England, South Carolina, then back to Arizona… the two spent endless months on the road.
Thanks to international travel being out of the picture in 2020 due to Covid-19, more and more people are looking at building out campervans and RVs in which to explore more of their home country. With Dani currently in the planning stage for their next road trip, we thought we’d catch her in between ventures to find out everything there is to know about living on the road in a caravan.
Here she talks making money on the road, preparing for the trip, and everything to expect from life in a van…
What made you decide to hit the road?
I just started to take my freelance photo career seriously and knew I wanted to see more of the world. When my boyfriend Scott (@scottyreichard) said he wanted to take a break from working a 9 to 5 so he could see more of the world, we both knew what we had to do. We put in a date to end our lease, bought a van, built it, and started planning on when to hit the road!
How did you go about preparing to do it?
The most significant preparation that needed to be made before moving into a campervan was building it out. We didn’t have much building experience but used YouTube to learn what we had to. Meanwhile, we sold all of our clunky furniture on Craigslist and snagged a wifi hot-spot plan, which was the last “essential” we needed to get ahead of time. As we got closer to finishing the build, we started doing some fun planning like mapping out where we wanted to go.
How long did preparations take to get ready?
The van building took about three months since my partner was still working his job during the process, but it proved to be the right amount of time we needed to get everything together.
When you say you ‘built a caravan’ – what does this mean?!
We took an empty cargo van (a Nissan NV 2500 to be exact) and made it into a home. We added a bed frame, cabinets, kitchen etc to make it entirely liveable. The campervan has running water and electricity as well.
Did you have to save up much money before you went?
My partner saved up a year’s worth of his salary, but I continued to run my finances the same as I did when we were in an apartment. Since I am a full-time travel blogger and photographer, I continued to work on the road and made sure I had a steady income from my clients. Brands paid for me to take their products on my adventures, write, and photograph them. We worked with various tourism boards and outdoor-related brands to do photography, sponsored Instagram posts, and sponsored blogs.
Have you ever faced financial fears from being on the road?
Not necessarily. I took my photo and blog business pretty seriously and knew that if I couldn’t sustain myself consistently, then it wasn’t going to be for me!
How did you plan where you were going to go? Did you stick to the plan?
We made a general map of destinations. We knew we wanted to visit a lot of the US National Parks we had never been to, so we revolved most of our plans around those locations. For the most part, we were able to stick to our plan.
Is living on the road exactly how you expected it to be?
It was a bit different than what I expected. I love van life, but I think folks always paint it to be this perfect nomadic picture, however, there are lots of logistics to consider! Rather than spend days and days in beautiful locations all of the time, you have to think about where the nearest grocery store is, where you’re going to camp next, where to shower etc.
Can you sum up the experience in a few sentences?
As a whole, I think van life and living on the road embodies everything that comes to mind when you think of freedom. You can do WHATEVER you want to do! If you want to spend the day at a park, in the mountains, or watching the beach’s sunset, you can. That’s what makes it so great.
What’s something you never expected from this experience?
I never expected to love having less. I think it’s easy as humans to prioritise things over experiences. It is so beautiful to focus on just enjoying the moment rather than enjoying material items.
What’s been the hardest part about living on the road?
The logistics! Most folks don’t realise that most of your day can revolve around planning where to go next, restocking on supplies, finding a place to shower, etc.
And what’s been surprisingly the easiest thing?
It was a lot easier to find camping than we thought. There are so many free apps that help make this possible, and in the USA, we’re lucky enough to have plenty of BLM land to choose from. Cooking was also easy! We love cooking and slowly came up with some go-to meals we could whip up in minutes.
Could you live on the road for your whole life?
Hmm, I don’t think so. We mainly wanted to live on the road to travel while we’re young, but eventually, we want our own place to settle down and enjoy it. This is just where life is taking us now.
While on the road, did you ever feel the need to spend a night in a bricks and mortar place?
Yes of course! You can’t deny the comforts that come with a stationary bed and “place of your own”. Luckily we have travel credit cards we use to snag hotel rooms with travel points. We treated those days as “treat yourself” days and would enjoy the amenities available before hitting the road again.
Was charging your appliances ever a concern?
No! We built the campervan to have solar power so we could charge all of our electronics.
Can you tell me some of the best things you’ve experienced since setting out?
When you’re exploring, you rarely miss a sunset and it’s the best feeling in the world to end each day with a burst of colour.
What has been the highlight of the trip?
We’ve loved being able to cross various destinations off of our bucket list.
And the lowlight?
The lowlight for us, like many, has been COVID-19. We’ve had to get multiple long term Airbnb stays to ensure we were staying safe and not harming others. However, we’re positive things will pick back up.
If you were to do it again, what would you do differently?
If we circled the USA again like we did when we first moved into the van, I would take the trip slower. Sometimes we felt a tad rushed because we wanted to see so much, but we plan to take things slower in the future.
What’s your key advice to other people wishing to do a lengthy road trip in their caravan?
Take your time! With all the freedom you have, there is no need to rush around. Enjoy the freedom.
Would you do it again? Where to next?!
Yes! Soon we plan on leaving Arizona and heading north to enjoy the rest of the summer.