Coming off of a Burning Man festival, Kristen decided to take her dream trip to New Zealand – touring for three months in a “hippie van.” The founder and creator of the popular outdoor’s blog “Bearfoot Theory” is so glad she did. Back in the United States, she’s reflecting on her solo adventures and planning for the next big one – living full time in her new 4×4 Sprinter Van.
Learn more in Kristen’s interview below.
Get To Know Kristen
You recently returned from three months touring New Zealand in a van. What spurred that adventure?
I went to Burning Man for the first time last year, and the weeks following, I was feeling a little restless. It was funny because I read this article that said after Burning Man, there’s a period where you’ll be in la-la land, and whatever you do you should wait a while before making any big life decisions. Well, I didn’t listen. When I started my blog a year and a half ago, I wrote an Adventure Bucketlist, and driving a hippie van around New Zealand was at the very top. I dabble in airline mile hacking and had been saving enough for a free ticket for a trip just like this. So I thought, what’s stopping me? At 32, I’m single and don’t really have any big commitments, and if I waited for someone to come with me, I might be waiting a long time. So I didn’t really think about it too much. I booked my flights, starting looking for a van, and it ended up being one of the most valuable experiences of my life. So I’m glad I trusted my gut and went for it.
How long did you prepare for your New Zealand trip? Do you have any resources/tips for others who would like to pursue a long, international road trip like that?
In all of my previous travels, you’d probably consider me a little type-A when it comes to planning. Before starting my blog, I worked a normal 9-5 and didn’t want to waste a second of my weekends, which meant I researched and planned things out to a T. For this trip, I wanted to do things a little differently. I picked up a few guidebooks (the New Zealand Frenzy Guides were particularly helpful) and downloaded a couple of phone apps that showed where the campsites were, but other than that, I had no real plan. As I was loading up my van in Auckland on my first day, I asked a guy at the rental place, “so where should go?” He told me to head to Raglan, a little surf town a couple hours away, and there I went. Flying by the seat of my pants gave me a lot of flexibility to alter course if the weather wasn’t good, for example, or if I wanted to stay longer in a place I really liked (like Queenstown). New Zealand is also a very easy and safe country to travel in, and there’s pretty much only one road around the South Island. So you can look at the map every night, see what trails and campsites you’ll be passing the next day, and figure out your plan.
Were you (at all) a little bit afraid to leave the US for three months for that solo excursion? What did it feel like once you finally packed everything up and relaxed in the plane seat en route?
I’ve always been independent, but I’d never traveled like this before – internationally, in a van with no plan, and alone. While I think my parents were actually more nervous than me, the thing I was most afraid about was getting lonely. If I wanted to make friends each night at camp, it would be up to me to introduce myself. And having to be 100% responsible for every decision – good or bad – meant I needed to be on my game.
It took me a couple of days of being in the van to relax and get into my groove. But luckily the way the campsites are set up there, it’s pretty easy to meet people. Before I knew it, I was making friends with cool people from all over the world who were following their passions. I backpacked with an Israeli named Daniel, picked up an Italian hitchhiking winemaker who cooked us an authentic spaghetti carbonara dinner, danced with a super fun group of Kiwis at a New Years Eve festival, and tackled my first-ever multi-pitch climb with a Slovakian – all experiences I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t been traveling solo.
Could you provide a map of your route in NZ? What were some of the most beautiful highlights?
I was eager to get to the mountains, so from Auckland, I booked it to the South Island which I ended up completely circumnavigating. I went to New Zealand for the mountains, and the areas around Mount Cook, Mount Aspiring, and Milford Sound did not disappoint. That said, some of my best memories were in places where I had no expectations. For instance, the Copeland Track is an overnight backpacking trip on the West Coast that leads to some hot springs. Growing up in Idaho where we have a ton of hot springs, I almost skipped this all together until a fellow traveler convinced me to join him. I’m so glad because it ended up being a really incredible spot.
The beaches in New Zealand were also amazing, and that’s coming from a mountain girl at heart. Kayaking the Abel Tasman coast, watching the sunset at Wharariki Beach, and shooting the night sky at Gillespies Beach – all highlights.
For those folks interested in doing a New Zealand road trip and who might be more limited with their time, I’m going to be writing up some suggested itineraries and a bunch of travel tips on my website. So please stay tuned!
What did you learn about yourself behind the wheel?
Ah, so much! Apart from learning how to be comfortable and confident on my own, one of the biggest takeaways was improving my ability to go with the flow. Things don’t always go as planned when you are on the road. Like when it rained for four days straight when I was at Mount Cook…or my first solo backpacking trip where the trail was a bit of a flop…or the countless times I got stuck behind slow moving semi-trucks on windy two-lane roads (Got road rage?….New Zealand is bound to cure that!). In the past, I think I would’ve let these things get to me, but I learned how to relax, keep a smile, and roll with the punches.
When you returned home, you wrote on your Instagram:
“After spending three months in the Vanette, my 700 sq ft apartment is feeling almost a little too big and I’m finding my closet packed with things that I didn’t miss (or need). Crazy how when you downsize for a bit it makes you relize what you do and don’t need to be happy.”
We’ve heard that a lot of people feel this way after traveling (Editor’s note – I know I did!). What are some of the things you do need to be happy?
Oh yea. Coming home was a bit tough. Since quitting my 9-5 office job two years ago, I’ve been working on downsizing. I’ve found that the less stuff I have, the fewer chores I have, and the more time I have to do things I like. Even so, my first night back, I felt kind of overwhelmed, like my apartment was full of clutter. So I immediately cleaned out my closet and took a bunch of old clothes to Good Will.
I’d say the things I need to be happy aren’t necessarily things. I really value my relationships with my family and friends. Being able to stay in touch and feel connected with them is very important to me. And music. Music is a force in my life that I absolutely could not go without. See my (awkward) moves on the dance floor, and you’ll know what I mean.
While I’m not going to claim to be a total minimalist (I’m a sucker for a plush pillowtop mattress and other creature comforts), I’d say that the material things I need to be happy are mostly related to my outdoor hobbies – like my backpacking gear and my car that gets me to the trail.
Two years ago, you quit your full time job in conversation policy in Washington DC to start your blog, Bearfoot Theory. In what ways do you still support conservation?
First off, thanks for asking this question. It’s a great one and right off the bat makes me realize that I could be doing a lot more.
With growing pressure on our outdoor resources, it’s super important that we as outdoor enthusiasts practice Leave No Trace and try to educate others about how to be good stewards. I try to weave those themes into my writing on my website, especially since many of my readers are just getting their feet wet in the outdoors.
The political debate over public lands is also in the forefront. While it’s easy to think that we as individuals don’t have an impact, voting for candidates who support preservation of public lands and funding for conservation programs is critical, as well as voicing our opinions to those elected officials who don’t.
Finally, on the ground level, I’d like to get more involved in some volunteer restoration projects this year. There are a bunch of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) that do trail work, habitat restoration, and beach cleanups, and I’m looking to link up with some of them.
How does inspiring others to embrace the outdoors inspire you?
I didn’t discover my love for the outdoors until after college, and is has made a huge difference in my life. When I’m outside is when I’m most happy, and thanks to the outdoors, I’m more confident, in better shape, and feel more grounded in my everyday life. And many studies have shown there’s actually a science to it. So I’m incredibly stoked when I get an email from a readerwho tells me they saw one of my posts and decided to try backpacking for the first time and loved it. It makes all the not-so-fun behind-the-scenes work that goes into blogging totally worth it.
I also tell people on my blog that it’s never too late to try a new outdoor activity. It doesn’t matter how old you are. If you want to try climbing, scuba diving, running, or whatever it is….go for it. The worst that happens is that you aren’t into it and never do it again. On the other hand, you might discover a brand new awesome hobby. This is happening to me right now with skiing. I skied a bit as a kid, but I was never good and I didn’t like it all that much. But when I moved to Utah last year, I decided to give it another try. I got a pass up at Alta, and it’s been such a pleasant surprise. I’ve realized it’s just another fun way to get up and enjoy the mountains, and it doesn’t matter how steep or fast you go. Ultimately, having my life out there in the forefront helps keep me motivated to make sure I’m living the life that I’m encouraging others to have.
Take a photo of your 5 must have items for van travel.
Rumor has it that you’ve bought a Sprinter Van to build out and live in come the summer. What drew you to the Sprinter? What model/size did you go for as a solo traveler?
The rumor is indeed true. Last year I knew I wanted more flexibility to travel and the ability to work from the road. I thought about a tear drop trailer and other types of vans, but I kept coming back to the Sprinter due to its (relatively) decent gas mileage and the fact that you can fully stand up inside, which makes it a lot more livable. As it’s going to be my every day vehicle, I went with the 144” inch wheel base (the shortest model) which can technically fit in a normal parking space. The small model will also make me think about what I’m taking with me on the road, rather than just bringing along the whole kitchen sink. With all the rugged terrain I want to explore in Southern Utah, I also opted for the 4×4 so I can go off road. A Santa Barbara-based company called Townsend Travel Trailers is doing my build out, and I will be documenting it on my website for anyone who is interested in the details.
What are you looking forward to?
I’ve got a pretty exciting year ahead. In terms of the Sprinter, I’m equally excited for the opportunities to get out into the wilderness as well as visiting my friends who are spread out all over the West – all while being able to stay on top of my work.
I’m also going to be doing some fun international travel this year, including a 16-day Everest Base Camp Trek in Nepal where I’ll be joined by a group of Bearfoot Theory readers. I’m so excited to see the Himalayas and to experience Nepalese culture with some folks from the Bearfoot community. If anyone is interested, there’re still a few spots left!
Finally, at some point I’d love to return to New Zealand, perhaps during their winter. As lovely as it was in the summer, I bet it’s even prettier with those peaks dusted with snow.
Photos Courtesty of Kristen Bor
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