What is going nomad?
It’s the feeling of freedom you get on the open highway, the land laid out before you in an endless opportunity for adventure, friends, and fun. It’s knowing that all your worldly possessions are within arm’s reach. A feeling of independence. Of possibility. Of hope.
And it’s a “thing,” in this day and age. More and more seniors take to the open roads every year, living on their retirement funds and their own wit, as they venture forth to parts unknown. And a large part of this group comprises single, older women. They rely on themselves and each other — there’s a preponderance of online “vanning” groups for ladies — and strive to find peace on the road, never beholden to some man in their lives with his demands and expectations.
How to Start Going Nomad
So you want to go on the road in pursuit of the van life. But how do you start? Some have or buy RVs. Others stick to their SUVs, planning on availing themselves of hotel amenities on a regular basis. The most popular option, however, is a van, tricked out to maintain your self-reliance. Not too big, not too small, but right in that Goldilocks sweet spot: just right.
I happen to be closely related to a senior woman named Joy who’s in the process of going nomad, and I’ve been present to witness her “adventure before the adventure,” of buying and equipping a van for the voyage ahead. In this article, you’ll read Joy’s own words about the feelings involved, with plenty of photographic evidence of the sheer number of chores to be done before hitting the road.
The Initial Brainstorm
But first, let’s take a look at a journal entry of Joy’s, from a year prior to her beginning to buy equipment, when the idea of going nomad was just germinating in her mind.
I want to live simply, be able to travel extensively, visit places with good weather, make new friends, and have more money to spend on living the adventure.
What do I picture? A comfy setup with bed, sink, toilet, places for clothes and shoes, cross-stitch, crochet and puzzle stuff (jewelry too, perhaps). [See our article on keeping your mind sharp.] I’ll eat less food, exercise more, hang out with the dogs, journal, sit outside, see clean rivers and lakes, and visit friends.
Values include less consumerism, not wasting money on rent, etc., visiting beautiful places, giving my life a ‘haircut’ — dumping all the superfluous stuff in my life.
I can’t wait to be able to sleep under the stars, to live simply and be free of working a job — finally!
My feelings include excitement at the prospect of a new way of being in the world, anxiety about choosing and buying my van, worry about being stuck somewhere, anxiety that the dogs won’t shape up and behave around other people and dogs.
I know Joy, and I’ve seen first-hand that when she strikes upon an idea with merit, she makes it a goal to bring it to life. Such was the case with this one.
Going Nomad – Interview with a Senior in Van Life
How did the idea of going nomad first come to you?
Joy: I have a friend who bought a van, and I don’t remember if it was her first, or if I saw her post and went to one of the van sites. She came down during my vacation to Florida and I loved riding in her van. Some of the van groups I’ve visited are — SUV/Car Living and Camping (Women Only), Solo Female Van Life, and Friendly RV/Camping Women.
So you caught the bug. What did you do first?
Joy: This old codger on Facebook named Bob Wells has a number of videos about outfitting a van for cheap. I was impressed that there are so many people going nomad. There’s an annual meetup with signups to volunteer to help build out people’s vans or get help building out yours. So my first idea was to buy my van and head out to that meetup, which is in Arizona. But I’ve learned a lot of stuff watching his videos and reading his book.
You were in it to win it, you just needed a vehicle. What was the van buying process like?
Joy: Oh my God, it was trying. I started looking in February of ‘20 and I found a van, but because I wasn’t planning on leaving till December (at that time) I didn’t want to register and insure it. The guy who was supposed to drive it to me and sell it to me, he flaked and not only didn’t show up but kept my $250 deposit. Then I started looking again and found my van (a ‘98 Chevy Express 1500) in July. It had a high roof, windows, and I liked the color.
Good news! What customizations did you do, and which ones were the hardest or the most fun?
Joy: I paid my son to wrench out the couch/bed and two back chairs and passenger seat, then tore out the carpet, paid a guy to torch out the seat tracks, bought a van-rug and put it down.
Next I invested heavily in the slide-out slat bed, which we must have built three times. I bought an 8” foam twin size mattress, cut it in half with a turkey carving knife [to accommodate the futon-like sliding feature of the bed], and had to take 4” off because it was too heavy to maneuver. Then I bought a closet I found on Facebook Marketplace for $100, brought it home, and then realized it wasn’t deep enough for clothes hangers. So I rebuilt the closet, and it’s still one of my favorite things in the van.
Then I needed kitchen space. On the websites, they devote half their van to the kitchen, but I don’t plan on cooking that much, so I bought a potting table and modified it to fit the space and attached it to the interior wall. I liked that it had a built-in dishpan, and a drawer.
The next thing was a secretary desk, very small, antique, with three drawers, I had to drill holes in the back of it to make space for my Jackery [AC] power station. I also purchased two solar panels to go with the Jackery. Then, the refrigerator. That was a dilemma because it’s hard to find a chest-combination with part fridge and part freezer.
And the last issue was whether I should leave the front passenger seat in and put it on a swivel, or pull it out and have more room for my two dogs. I found an ottoman for $60 on Facebook Marketplace that has plenty of room for one dog and a lot of space inside it.
Then I took the van to a mechanic and said I wanted to drive to California and back and I wanted it to keep running the whole time. All the necessary work doubled the cost of the van itself. Then I had to locate a front console/glove compartment because the original one was cracked and yucky, and that involved a whole lot of searching, until I found somebody on a Chevy owners’ van page and he shipped it to me. My mechanic installed that and ordered and put in two lighters as well, which I’ll need for my 12-volt appliances and to charge the Jackery.
Finally, I had a back-up camera installed, so I’m almost ready to go. I had purchased a MaxxAir vent intending to have it installed, only to find out that I’ll have to use fans [and open windows] instead.
The last thing is the bike rack, which has to have a ramp for my heavy electric bike, and Yakima came out with one like that that also has a swing-away so I can get to the back doors from the outside.
Oh, and the potty too. And I sewed curtains and put flowered vinyl on the windows and made a divider to seal off the cabin from the front for peaceful sleeping
GG: Sounds like you’ve covered all the bases. What advice would you give to anyone considering going nomad in a van?
Joy: You should have a clear idea of how to designate space in your van. Do you cook and eat a lot? You need more kitchen space. Are you tall? I couldn’t have my bed going sideways, because I’m too tall.
And don’t settle. I wanted windows and a high roof, and even though I looked at a whole lot of vans that didn’t have those things, I held out on spending until I found it. And go on the van websites and watch Bob Wells’ videos, and the most important advice I got both from my son and from Van Life’s page, was to try it for a year. Get a storage area, put your basic furniture and stuff you need to set up a household, in case you don’t like it.
Are You Going Nomad?
So there you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were. Still thinking of going nomad in a van of your own? Keep your head on straight and break down complicated goals into smaller steps. Remember that van life will come with its own set of challenges. Instagram pictures are one thing, but there is a reality to van life that is not captured on social media.
Some book recommendations to help inform van life before heading out on the road:
- Van Build: A Complete DIY Guide to Designing, Converting and Self-Building your Campervan or Motorhome
- Van Life: Your Home on the Road
- How to Live the Dream: Things Every Van Lifer Needs to Know
- How to Live in a Van and Travel
Good luck, and happy “vanning!”
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