Home Sweet Van
After just four months of dating, Juliana and her boyfriend Richmond decided to build out a Sprinter Van together and travel the American West. They documented the process on their blog, Home Sweet Van, and quickly grew a rabid following on social media. No surprises here: Juliana’s openness and love of travel is contagious. She has a great photographic eye which allows you to step into their life for a while.
Learn more about Juliana, the buildout, and the growing pains (and positives!) of moving into a van in the interview below.
How did your trip come to be?
One of the things that brought Richmond and me together, from our very first date onward, was our shared love for travel and adventure. When we met, the two of us had very different ideas of what an epic road trip would look like. Richmond was more into the idea of the Endless Summer, because he’s been surfing since he was a kid. He had plans to build out a van and head south to find and catch the loneliest waves in Baja and beyond. I, on the other hand, was more interested in the mountains and in the romantic idea of driving off into the West. Something about it has always called me, maybe because there’s so much I’ve heard about yet never seen. I’ve always been fascinated with the history (although a lot of it is dark) and the drama in the landscape. So for a while before we met, I’d been scheming to take a road trip on my own, probably with a dog (I was hugely inspired by Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck, it’s a favorite). But once we met, our separate road trip ideas slowly began melting into one. That’s how we ended up at a yearlong trip, West of the Rockies, from Alaska down to Baja. It captures the best of both of our original ideas, plus is packed full of climbing, backpacking, hiking, and surfing opportunities.
Why did you choose to build out a Sprinter Van?
Prior to meeting Richmond, I’d never really considered the van build idea. I had zero experience building before we started our project together. But Sprinters are more common amongst both the surfing and climbing communities, for good reason. Ample living space, as well as ample space for gear. Once we started talking about traveling together and combining plans, he got me excited about designing and working on the interior together.
Four months into our relationship, talk was more serious, though I was still a bit in denial that we’d actually go through with it so soon. Richmond certainly made me put action to my words when he showed up one day at my office with an empty cargo van and his name on the title. I was kind of speechless and kind of in shock for a while! I went through a lot of feelings, but eventually accepted that he’d gone ahead and purchased it without me.
How did you decide on the year and size?
That’s all thanks to Richmond. He did a ton of research on what to look for, which Sprinters were worth investing in and which weren’t (apparently those made after 2006 have a lot more mechanical issues), and made a really educated decision. And obviously, he put the money down, but we’re in this together financially at this point. Looking back on it though we both wish that the Sprinter was slightly newer, because this one has a fair amount of rusting underneath and had some minor mechanical issues.
Overall though, it was a solid choice. He bought it used for $12,000 with about 170K miles on it (Sprinters can go to 500k if treated well). It’s just shy of 18’ long, so it fits into most standard parking spots (I’m seriously blown away sometimes the places that we’re able to fit into). The turning radius is also amazing. It runs on diesel too, which makes it pretty energy efficient, and it gets something like 25 MPG. Incredible for such a big van. Since we took it in to get worked on last, it’s been running like a dream. But again, looking back, a slightly newer one would have required less upkeep and less upfront cleaning.
Did you use any other buildouts for inspiration?
We definitely scoured the internet a lot for other build-outs. One of our favorites was that of Sprinter Van Diaries, who traveled in South America for a while. Their wood paneling and minimal look definitely inspired us.
The bedlift, one of our more popular features, was inspired by some content Richmond found on Stealth Sprinter. While the aesthetic of their build wasn’t something we were into, using the idea of the bed lift was one of the biggest design decisions we made.
The move to create the “porthole” windows was originally inspired by the couple of The Rolling Home, who have a really beautiful and well designed interior. We’re also both big admirers of Jay Nelson, who worked on the Patagonia WornWear truck, which has some sweet portholes. Because we couldn’t actually install a porthole window without compromising our paneling on the side, we decided to go with what we have now. It turned out pretty well, so we were glad we took a risk there.
Otherwise, a lot of the design was done in the moment or as solutions to problems. We spent a lot of time talking and deliberating, at times a little too much probably. But we’re so happy with how things turned out, and overwhelmed with the positive response from the van community! So much love, it’s very encouraging.
What did you and your boyfriend learn about your relationship (if anything) in the buildout process?
We definitely learned a lot about each other during that time, especially because (like I mentioned) this was so early on in our relationship. I won’t lie, at first it was a struggle, and communication was tough. We fumbled through a lot of things together. Because we have such contrasting personalities (something that makes our relationship so spicy), we definitely have to work hard to understand each other sometimes. At times, we don’t easily relate to each other: while I’m very intuitive, Richmond is very logical. Sometimes we get lost in translation. But we’ve learned this about each other, and throughout the build, improved our communication skills. We’re still learning as we live out life on the road. In fact, I think we’ve done the most improving in the last couple of months. That being said, I don’t think couples ever stop learning from each other. It’s healthy and one of the things I love about being in love.
You’ve grown a strong social following through your travels. Why did you decide to share your story on Instagram and through a blog?
It really started to kind of keep a “diary” of sorts, to log our project, as well as to share it with family and friends. But as we started building out the van and sharing the progress, we were truly blown away to find that there were so many people that were interested in the process, in the build. People wanted to see not only where we were going in the van, not only the destination, but the journey. People wanted to know how we were building. This really excited us because we had no idea there was such a huge community of people that had similar goals! And now that we’re on the road, it’s got even more insane. We get so many questions about how we did this or that. I definitely am working on outlining it all in some kind of ebook, but it’s definitely a side project at the moment.
It’s funny because when I opened the Instagram account and had to choose the name, @homesweetvan was the first thing that came into my mind and I remember thinking it was pretty corny. I ran it by Richmond, but he liked it. So I thought, sure, why not, it’s catchy, it sticks…and now, we have over 40k people who are following along with our journey! And I really can’t believe it. I never imagined that it could get to this point. Everyone’s so encouraging and enthusiastic, which keeps us doing it. We love talking van.
What is the most epic hike you’ve been on so far?
I can say the Subway (Bottom Up) hike in Zion National Park, hands down. It’s this incredible, naturally formed subway tunnel in this amazing slot canyon, back in a part of the park that gets much less traffic than the main area. The hike is 9 miles round trip, and crosses in and out of a beautiful, bubbling river, riddled with waterfalls. The whole time, you’re surrounded by breathtaking red sandstone cliffs that seem to just shoot up out of the ground toward the sky. We even stumbled on some perfectly preserved dinosaur tracks on the way up! Dinosaur tracks, just out in nature, right off of the trail. It was incredibly special, and I’ll never forget it.
But Richmond is really the reason we even got up there to do it. I have this irrational fear of moving water, which includes flash floods, and these types of slot canyons will flood even on sunny days with no signs of rain in sight (so I’ve read and so they say at the Visitor Center in Zion). It had been raining a lot around the time we went hiking so I was letting my fears get to me. After some internal pep talk though, I decided not to give in to the weakness and just go. And of course, I had an incredible time. It really was one of the most amazing hikes I’ve ever been on to date. Top 5 of all time for sure.
Take a photo of your five must have items for travel in your Sprinter Van.
*not in any particular order of importance*
JetBoil: packs down light, great for backpacking and early hikes when caffeine is key! We start every single day with this thing.
Kindle: this is “entertainment” on the road. We don’t have Hulu or Netflix or anything like that. We’re taking the opportunity, being off the grid, to catch up on reading.
Broom: this keeps us sane when things get dirty! Though not for long. Usually right after sweeping, crud starts accumulating. But it’s a ritual that’s necessary, so I love this little thing.
Snow Peak (insulated cup): again, coffee and tea are comforts that we indulge in thanks to the Jetboil. I bought this cup right before we left (it was spendy) to be my one mug, and it hasn’t failed me. No regrets! It’s double-walled titanium, so it’s always the perfect temp and doesn’t burn my fingers.
Cast iron: cooking with this thing has really become an art. I love cooking, and we’ve been able to do so much more of it on the road. I’d say 99% of our meals use the cast iron. It’s an essential, and it’s well seasoned. Everything we make in it hits the spot. I’ll miss it terribly on our backpacking trips.
Do you have any tips for working from the road?
I hate to ruin everyone’s romantic idea of our trip, but we’re not actually working at the moment! We get so many messages and questions about it that I should probably include it in our bio description. In order to make this happen, we saved up a lot of money over the year that we built out the van. That said though, we may end up working remotely at some point. I know we would both feel extremely lucky if we could make that happen. Especially if we intend on continuing our trip into South America, we’ll definitely need more funds. For now, we’re just enjoying the ride.
As for tips, from our minimal experience scrambling for internet connections, I would definitely recommend getting a solid data plan and a good hotspot. It’s been tough and kind of sad to have to cave to Starbucks when we can’t find another good, reliable local cafe (which we usually try to do).
How has solar power enhanced your experience?
Wow, solar has really made our lives way less complicated. Because we have few power needs, it’s felt great to be so off the grid. Richmond was working on batteries at a startup in South San Francisco prior to our departure, and it’s his expertise, so we certainly have a prime setup. We have the batteries hooked up to the alternator just in case we run into weather and the panels can’t get charged, but we only had to use that as a last resort in San Francisco. Out here in the desert, for the most part, sun has been plentiful! It’s a great feeling, knowing that the energy you’re using every day (however minimal) is coming from the sun and begins it’s renewal each morning with the sunrise.
Is there anything that has become a luxury in your “vanlife” that wasn’t in your San Francisco life?
Well, number one is definitely showers. A shower, and being clean in general, is a huge luxury for us right now. I’d say on average we shower once a week if we can. That really depends on how close we are to a reasonably priced gym or fitness club. 10 days is pushing it, and our hair is getting pretty dreaded. When things really get smelly, we use baby wipes, which are a great way to fake it. Especially out here in the desert, dust and dirt gets all over. I think we’ll have much longer stretches between showers in the future, when we’re near some alpine lakes or on the coast. Overall though, I think it’s been great and I’ve loved showering less. For example, I think my hair is a whole lot healthier than it was showering every couple of days. My skin is also a lot healthier, since I’m not constantly drying it out with hot water.
Number two would be a toilet! Though neither of us wanted to install a toilet in the van. It’s just too small of a space. We’ve mostly been at campgrounds, so finding a pit toilet is usually really easy. Mostly, they’re really clean, but occasionally can be gross. Overall, it hasn’t been a huge problem, but sometimes when we’re on the road, we have to hunt for a bathroom.
Number three is a heater. Currently, we don’t have any heat source besides the engine block heater, and things can get chilly. When we were in Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, we woke up one more to a 15 degree temperature reading, and we definitely felt it. Some mornings, we get straight into our down jackets and watch our breath as we exhale little puffs of steam into the freezing air. If we get desperate at some point, we’ll get one, but we’ve survived for this long.
Another luxury (though I kind of considered it one even in the city) is a dishwasher. We wash everything by hand. It’s not a big deal at all, it’s actually nice to take the time, but it certainly was a privilege to do large loads of dishes all at once at our apartment.
Having a washer/dryer in our apartment in the city was also a huge plus. Now, we go to the laundromat every couple of weeks and hang out for a bit. But I did that at my first apartment in the city, so I’m not going to say I desperately miss having that.
Where are you now and where will you be in one month?
Currently, we’re in Moab, where we just finished a sunrise hike to Delicate Arch at Arches National Park. Moab is an incredible place, so stunningly beautiful, and we just finished listening to Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey on our way out here. It’s so easy to understand why he loved this park so fiercely. So far, it’s been amazing. We’ll be in this area for another few days, then will head into Colorado.
In one month, we plan on being in Northern Colorado, probably somewhere around Boulder or Rocky Mountain National Park. We’re really excited to get up into the mountains and explore, since neither of us have really had the opportunity. We’ll be doing a lot of hiking, climbing, and hope to do some backpacking, but have heard that the weather has been unusually cold for this time of year. We’ll see, since we’re definitely not ready for snow. Hopefully, we’ll get lucky and things will warm up!
Photos courtesy of Juliana Linder
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