Sprinter Van Diaries

Nikki and Jakob set off in May 2014 for a pan-American road trip in their 2008 Dodge Sprinter van.  The goal is the tip of Argentina and an unknown time frame.  Leaving the corporate world after 6 years, Nikki isn’t sure what’s next – but that’s kind of the idea.  

Learn more in her interview below.

All photos above and below (c) 2014 Nikki Levi & Jakob Celnik.


Meet Nikki

How did your trip come to be? What was life like before you left?

For me, it came about with a very simple question: What needs to be my catalyst for change? I have always wanted to travel in a way that would allow me to immerse myself in a new culture and language, as opposed to just visiting some place, but somehow I would always convince myself that it wasn’t ‘the right time’ or that it was ‘too risky’ to my career. About a year and a half of thinking about leaving for an adventure, I could never articulate one good reason for what the risk was or why it wasn’t the right time. I started to realize that I actually needed, not just wanted, a new perspective, to challenge what I thought was the path I was on and all that I valued.

Taking a year or two to reevaluate and explore was the rational decision for me, sooo why wasn’t I doing it? What was the catalyst I was waiting for? I had no answer, so I figured that I had to do it – catalyst or not, scared or not.

Sprinter Van Diaries

What lead you to a Sprinter?

So many reasons! We have a 144” wheel base with a high roof so it’s small enough that we can pretty much park it anywhere, but plenty big to haul our gear and stand up comfortably. Jakob is 6’2” so we wanted something that would fit his size. It drives like a truck – not like an RV, which is far more conducive to “off the beaten path” camping. We got to design and build it to our exact needs. We liked that we didn’t have to shuffle things around before going to sleep every night; the bed is always ready so we can pull over and jump right in. It’s easy to stealth camp with this setup. Leika, our dog, has quite a bit of space to move around. Sprinters get decent gas mileage, about 20mpg. The only qualm we had was the lack of 4×4 (they’re bringing 4×4 Sprinters to the US next year!) but we realized quickly that while we spend a lot of time on unmaintained roads, the car is much more capable than we initially gave it credit for, and has great ground clearance. I love that one of us can be driving and the other can jump into bed to read or can make a sandwich or something in the back.

Inside Sprinter Van Diarie's van
Inside Sprinter Van Diaries’ van

Did you do the build-out yourselves?  Do either of you have a carpentry background?  Was it an intimidating undertaking?

We designed and built the van ourselves. It was a bit intimidating at first, but there are a lot of great resources out there as well as people offering their advice, which made it more manageable. We’ve both used screwdrivers before, but neither of us have a carpentry background. It was a really fun learning experience. We definitely made some amateur mistakes and have some scars on our hands to prove it! Huge shout out to my Dad – he has acquired tools over the past 30-odd years so we were fortunate enough to have a lot of that available to us. Whenever he’d be helping us find a tool in his workshop, he’d love to tell us a story about it, usually related to one of the 5 kids in my family. “Oh, this tool is this many years old. I got this right before Nikki was born.” Also, at the same time as we were working on the van, my brother bought a sailboat that he plans to take around the world. We were working side-by-side in my parents’ front yard on our projects and would bounce ideas of one another, which was incredibly helpful to us! 

What was the reaction of your friends and family?

I think everyone was really happy and excited for us once we made the decision! It was interesting to see everyone’s reaction when we’d tell them we were planning to leave our jobs for this adventure since everyone comes from a different background and is driven by different things. I.e., some people were a little more concerned with the ‘risk’ of leaving our jobs than we were. Anything that’s not conventional will raise some eyebrows, and that’s great – we listened to feedback and answered questions to the best of our ability, but we didn’t need everyone’s approval to do this trip. As far as most of my friends go though, I don’t think they were that surprised with our decision and were very supportive… most don’t expect me to come back, and think I’ll just open up a surf shop in Nicaragua or start a business on the road.

Sprinter Van diaries sunset

What’s been your typical camping setup – National Forest, Walmarts, pay camp sites?  Do you spend the majority of nights in the van?

We’ve pretty much stayed in all those that you mentioned in addition to truck stops, brewery parking lots (simple solution to not drinking and driving!!), dirt roads, in residential neighborhoods, dispersed camping, private campgrounds, people’s driveways, hotel parking lots, beaches…so many more spots that I can’t think of right now. Sometimes we just look for convenience and don’t have the luxury of getting a nice quiet spot but we definitely try to sleep in the van as much as possible (even in 115mph winds during Hurricane Odile). The Sprinter allows us to be stealthy and spontaneous since it fits into a parking spot and is pretty non-descript from the outside. Since the start of this trip in May, we’ve maybe stayed in a hotel 5 times, either when it was too hot to stay in the van and no way to escape to elevation or the van was getting work done.   

Sprinter Van Diaries camping

When we can, we look for dispersed camping in the National Forests or BLM campgrounds since there are fewer people and tourists, it’s free, you can mountain bike and important for us, it’s dog-friendly so we can let Leika run around. Pretty much the only place we avoid is the local elementary school… we’re not interested in attracting attention as the ‘non-descript white van parked out front’. Seriously.

If your “van roles” were a Venn Diagram – how would they overlap and how would they differ?

We really share a lot of the responsibilities of living on the road. Jakob’s been a lot more involved in planning, but I’m stepping that up! He’s also a little more savvy than me when it comes to mechanical issues…But overall, I don’t think that we look at things as his or my roles/responsibilities. I think it has made van life a lot easier for us since we can share all the roles.

What have you learned about Jakob that you might not have without this excursion?

When we bought the van we had been dating for about a year, so since then, we’ve learned a lot about each other in a very short period of time! We lived together in NYC, so while it isn’t the first time we are living together, van life is so so different! Since February we’ve barely spent an hour apart, literally, and have faced a lot of situations together that we wouldn’t have otherwise happened. 

One of the first days of the build, we were working on getting some bolts out that were stuck in the van floor. I was about to start trying to drill them out when he told me to be careful with how I was holding the drill and to not bend it that way… and two seconds later, the bit snapped right off. He laughed. Back to Lowe’s we went. He doesn’t always laugh when I do dumb stuff, but on this trip I’ve challenged his patience far more than I otherwise could have, and he almost always stays patient with me. I would have also never known just how stubborn he can be if we hadn’t moved into the van and lived side-by-side 24 hours a day.

The other night, we got stuck in the worst hurricane that ever hit Baja California. He didn’t sleep all night and I’m sure he was just as nervous as me. Despite the 120 mph winds and some flooding in our parking area, he never showed it and stayed calm, making me feel infinitely better. While everything in town was pretty chaotic the next day, he remained very rational and strategic. I would have never known how dependable he is in these situations and how we would respond in extreme environments like this if it weren’t for this trip. There are plenty more things, both good and bad, but we’ve grown so much closer than we ever could have otherwise. We’ve now been together about a year and a half, but I think the experiences we’ve had add up to way more than that.

What is your favorite camp/road meal?

Tacos, sandwiches, guacamole.

What are your 5 must have items for van travel?

  1. Sun protection – Sunscreen, sunglasses, hat or Buff. This is coming from a girl that had melanoma last year at 26.
  2. Companion(s) – Jakob and Leika. With that said, doesn’t need to be anyone else but yourself.
  3. Library card – Free Reading material! We lived in San Francisco and New York City before the trip and were members of the libraries so have access to both cities’ online library catalog on both our iPad and kindle. Cheaper than buying books and saves space in the van. They also carry a lot of travel guides, so it’s a cheap way to prepare for any destination.
  4. Backpack – Trail runs, day hikes, week long hikes, day walks in cities… A backpack is always great to bring some important things along.
  5. Emergency stash of cash – Being creative, rational and proactive, you can solve a lot of problems that come your way. But it’s always good to carry a little extra cash with you for those exceptional moments – think unforeseen hurricanes that knock out electricity and flood roads for a while.

Where are you now and where will you be in one month?

We’re in Mazatlán, Mexico now. In a month… we’ll still probably be somewhere in Mexico!

Sprinter Van Diaries 1

Learn more about Nikki by following her on Instagram.