Darby Comm Account Executive Dan Arnett and his new bride retrofitted a Ram Promaster, packed up their belongings, rented out their house, and hit the road for a three-month cross-country vanlife tour of the United States. He shares 5 tips for anyone else considering tackling #vanlife for a few months – from what it takes to retrofit the van to what they had to consider so they could both work while hitting the road.
When my wife Brannan and I got married in June, a lot of people asked us what we had lined up for our honeymoon. Planning a wedding is tough, after all, so how were we going to unwind? Two weeks laying on a white sand beach? A luxury hotel stay, complete with room service and a spa day?
Instead of holding frosty tropical drinks, we’ve been holding power drills and jigsaws as we convert our Ram Promaster into a campervan for a three-month vanlife excursion.
The idea was simple: fix up the van and take it on a cross-country journey to San Francisco, where Brannan’s brother is getting married in September. The execution hasn’t been quite as simple as it sounds. It’s been quite the project, but as we near the finish line and gear up to get on the road, we wanted to share some tips for planning a long-term van trip, for anyone else out there who’s thinking about taking the plunge into #vanlife!
1. To Successfully Vanlife, Cover Your Bases
There’s a lot more that goes into planning a long-term van trip than just fixing up the vehicle and setting the itinerary. With three months away from home, we needed to figure out how to cover our mortgage and how to keep working during our time out west.
Thankfully, living in a tourist destination like Asheville makes it fairly easy to rent out your house! We found a property management company that specializes in long-term rentals, and within 24 hours of posting our home, we got two very qualified applicants! After a little tidying up (OK, a lot of tidying up), we handed over the keys and now our mortgage is covered while we’re away!
As for our jobs, Brannan has always worked fully remote, so moving her workspace from her home office to the van was a breeze. For me, I’m lucky to work with such a flexible and encouraging company as Darby Communications! They’re excited for us and were happy to find a way to accommodate this new way of working. Not only that, but my awesome clients were all so excited for us, and have been looking forward to seeing where our vanlife journey takes us!
2. Build for Your Needs
Once you’ve got the details ironed out for how you’re going to make it work, it’s time to focus on the van build. We found out quickly that there’s no standard way of doing anything in a van. Just about every aspect of it is customizable, and no matter what project you decide to take on, there are at least a dozen different ways to do it (each of which has legions of staunch defenders on Reddit who will try to convince you that you’ll ruin your van if you don’t do it their way).
The important thing is to figure out your needs and then build the van to meet them. For example, we knew that we would be working from the road, so we needed an office space to set up our computers and work comfortably. That meant that instead of doing the popular “platform bed” layout that lots of Promaster owners choose, we opted for the convertible “bench-to-bed” option: when we’re done working for the day, we take our table off its stand and sit it flush with the bench seats to form our bed platform.
No matter what you decide to do, you’ll probably be able to find dozens of vanlife YouTube tutorials, blog posts, Reddit threads, and Instagram Stories to show you how to do it. However, you need to realize that means there’s a lot of research involved in the van build, so it’s super important to…
3. Plan Ahead
Most projects in the van build need to be done in a specific order; for example, you shouldn’t put up the insulation until you’ve installed your windows and ceiling fan. Some projects, like the electrical, require a clear vision of what you’ll need on your trip, and what you may want or need in the future. I spent countless hours running electrical wires through the van, some of which we won’t even be using on this trip. However, I wanted to have extra wires installed in case we wanted to add any more appliances or devices in the future.
Obviously, there’s a lot of planning to be done for the trip itself, as well. Picking a route, setting an itinerary, and researching destinations will help you ensure that you’ll always have a place to stay, even if you’re just boondocking it. And even with three months to travel, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover to get out to San Francisco and back. That means we need to be smart about where we go and how long we stay there to accommodate travel time and work hours.
4. Be Flexible
When committing to the vanlife lifestyle, you have to be willing to make adjustments. It just so happens that lots of the places we had originally planned to visit, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, are totally slammed right now due to the popularity of domestic travel and road trips during Covid. I guess we’re not so original.
The good news is, San Francisco is the only place we absolutely have to be, and since we’re bringing our accommodations with us, we have a lot of flexibility in terms of where we go and where we stay. We’ll likely spend more time off the beaten path, and take advantage of this opportunity to explore lesser-known parks, towns, and monuments. After all, Yellowstone’s not going anywhere.
5. Get the Right Gear
Needless to say, we’re going to be spending a lot of time traveling and playing outside. Thankfully, our clients at Darby Communications make tons of great gear perfect for that!
So far, my Astral shoes have been indispensable. Ever since I got up on the roof of the van to install our solar panels, my Brewers have been my go-to van build shoes. I had been wearing some clunky boots but found that the Brewers gave me a lot more balance, stability, and grip—all things that you want when you’re up on a roof. In addition to the Brewers, I’m bringing my Loyaks and my TR1 Junctions, all of which can perform in the water and on the trail, and look good in town, too.
From UCO, we’re bringing our 6-Piece Mess Kits. With a bowl, a plate that serves as a lid, a 2-piece spork set, and a collapsible cup, this mess kit contains everything needed to pack and enjoy a meal, all in a lightweight, compact package. We’re also bringing our Flatpack Portable Grill & Firepit, which will let us enjoy a campfire or a charcoal-grilled meal no matter where we’re camping.
We’re also bringing the Eldris LightDuty from Morakniv—its compact size is perfect for the van, yet it’s tough enough to handle camp tasks when needed. We also have our Pedco Ultrapod 3, which helped us document the van build process itself and will help us photograph our adventures out west!
Our SylvanSport gear is perfect for keeping us organized in a tight space. We’re using the Packing Cubes to organize our clothes and miscellaneous items; their dimensions are the perfect size for our overhead cabinets, and they’re easy to access from the front, or pull out and unzip from the side. We’re also bringing the Hacky Pack Day and the Hacky Pack Duffle. The Day is the perfect size for a hiking daypack, and the Duffles will help us get our laundry from the van to the laundromat. Both of these bags pack down into a 4-inch ball, meaning they take up very little of our precious space!
In the end, planning this trip has been one of the biggest projects we’ve ever taken on. But with time, preparation, and a whole lot of help from family and friends, it’s all possible. We know that three months from now, we’ll look back on it all and know that it was worth it. Stay tuned for updates!
Be sure to follow along with Dan and Brannan’s journey on their Instagram channels and Darby Communications will occasionally be posting updates as well!
Darby Comm: @darbycomm