Who says you need to work thirty years, retire, and then pursue adventure? According to Steph and Nate from Explorist.Life (formerly Adventure in a Backpack), you don’t have to. In 2016, the pair took off on a year long road trip in their RV, and haven’t looked back since.

Life on the road began for Nate and Steph after Nate’s dad lost his battle with cancer. After collecting only three years of his retirement, Nate and Steph quickly realized retirement, and even tomorrow, isn’t guaranteed. Three months later, they topped off the oil, checked the coolant, and began a new chapter on the road.

It’s not all glamorous: they aren’t living off trust funds, or eating bon-bons around the campfire. They work with clients on a variety of different projects, and each day starts by checking email and getting work done. But, in their opinion, an office around the campfire beats an office with walls any day.

Balancing Life in a Travel Van with Steph and Nate of Explorist.Life

Between financial advising and composing video edits, Steph and Nate took the time to answer our questions about how they make full-time travel work for them, how to approach a solar setup, and the difficulties of building out a travel van.

The Dyrt: Tell us a little bit about your backgrounds. Did you guys come from 9-to-5 careers? Did you always want to live on the road?

Explorist.Life: Before life on the road, Nate was a firefighter and Steph was a corporate Controller. We had always wanted to travel, but always assumed the only way to do that was to work until retirement and then travel after we’d “put in our time.”

Nate’s dad, who was a firefighter for 25 years, passed away in 2015 from cancer. He had been retired from the fire department for all of 3 years, never getting to enjoy a moment of his retirement due to his battle with cancer.

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After he passed away, we took a hard look at our lives and decided that there was no point in trying to save all our money today for the hope that we’ll get retirement. We decided at that point that life is too short to wait to live.

That was November of 2015. By January 2016, we were living in an RV on the road full time. I guess you could say we made a pretty quick decision!

Do either of you have a background in media or videography, or did you learn on a whim?

Neither of us had any idea what we were doing when we started. Nate had always dabbled in videography, but never as a profession or even a solid hobby. He just enjoyed capturing moments every now and then. After about a year of capturing our travels, Nate did take a videography course, which definitely changed the game for him! He learned a lot about editing and different techniques, as well as the business side of videography.

What has been your vanlife timeline? When did you decide you were going to take the plunge? After you were done building your travel van, did you hit the road immediately?

So, we were in an RV for a year before we started the travel van build. RV life was okay, but the RV was big, cumbersome, and not exactly our style. It was a good stepping block from a house to RV to van, though. It was about 6 months into living in the RV that we started dreaming of the van life. We had a full year of travel planned and stuck it out to the end of the year in the RV. Once that was over, we sold the RV. Once the RV sold, we had bought and started building our van within a week.

The van build took us 3 months to complete, and we hit the road as soon as that last bolt went in the roof rack. We had anticipated it taking less time, so by 3 months in, we were itching to get back on the road.

Where have you visited in that time?

From the time we started life on the road, we’ve visited the majority of the western states, including a month-long stint in Alaska. We haven’t been east much, other than a quick drive from Oklahoma to Ottawa, but we didn’t stop much in the east, as we were trying to get to Ottawa to visit friends. We’ve spent a lot of time in Canada as well.

In all, we’ve been to 25 states and 5 Canadian Provinces in our time on the road. When we go east, that number will definitely climb!

There are so many idyllic looking travel van conversions on Instagram, but it can’t always be sunshine and rainbows. What’s the hardest part about building out a van? What does Instagram leave out?

The hardest thing about building a van is making a decision and then living with that decision. There’s not a building code or a step-by-step guide to how to build a van definitively, and there are tons of opinions on what is the best way to build a van. But it all comes down to doing your own research, making a decision, and then being okay with that decision going forward. It’s too easy to get analysis paralysis in building a van.

Your solar setup is out of this world! Are you spending the majority of your time off grid? Do you ever stay in designated campgrounds?

Thanks! We built our solar setup to keep us off grid as much as possible. We very rarely spend time in designated campgrounds. When we do, it’s usually because a) forest roads are closed (like in the winter); b) we need to be in a specific spot, usually near a city, that doesn’t have public lands around, or c) we’re traveling with someone else and they prefer a campground. Other than those situations, we are off grid as much as possible and we prefer it that way.

Solar and electrical are probably the most daunting part of any conversion. What would you say to someone starting out to try and contain the overwhelm?

Keep it simple and don’t overthink it. Electrical and solar are definitely daunting, but with plenty of research, asking experts online, and taking it step-by-step, it doesn’t have to be so difficult. We actually have several solar wiring diagrams on our website that give step by step instructions on how to build a DIY solar setup. We’ve even done a lot of the leg work of figuring out wire sizes and lugs needed (which is a daunting task in and of itself!), so we hope that we’ve helped a few people overcome that fear.

Do you guys make a plan of where you’ll go and where to stay ahead of time? Or do you make it up as you go?

A bit of both! When we travel, we are typically following videography jobs or events that we want to attend. We put those into the map and then plan around them to places near there. Where we stay tends to be a last minute thing, because you can’t exactly reserve free campsites. So we usually take a look at the map and pick out 2 or 3 potential spots that we could stay. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s the thrill of this lifestyle!

We had always wanted to travel, but always assumed the only way to do that was to work until retirement and then travel after we’d “put in our time.” Click To Tweet

Many vanlife feeds spark feelings of wanderlust and freedom. What does the actual day-to-day of life on the road look like?

Our typical day-to-day routine starts off with coffee in bed as we check emails and get a little work done before we fully start the day. Neither of us are morning people per se; we both like to get up early (usually around 6am), but we aren’t talkative in the morning. We prefer to get work done in silence before being social, even with each other.

After that, it depends on if we are staying in one spot, driving for the day, taking an adventure, or working all day. Van life can definitely induce feelings of freedom, and it does offer that. But we do still have obligations to our work and our clients. So some days are spent on the computer all day and others are spent driving all day. We try to maintain the flexibility and freedom to stop and take adventures on the way, or we’ll go for a hike, bike ride, or get out on the SUPs in the middle of the day to break up the work day. The flexibility that it really offers us is to be in places that are beautiful and full of activities, which allows us to partake in those activities much more often than we would if we were in a house.

Most people would say they can’t imagine living in a 60 sqft travel van with their partner. What does it look like to spend 24/7/365 with yours?

This is always a tough question to answer, and I’m not trying to paint us as the perfect couple. But to be completely honest, we just truly enjoy each other’s company and love being together all the time. We’ve never been the type of couple to need our alone time or space to ourselves, even when we lived in a house. We are perfectly content sitting in each other’s presence in silence, so we never feel the need to constantly entertain each other.

Electrical and solar are definitely daunting, but with plenty of research, asking experts online, and taking it step by step, it doesn’t have to be so difficult. Click To Tweet

And we’re not newlyweds either, haha! We have been married 7 years and have been together for nearly 14 years at this point. I don’t think our enjoyment of each other comes from the newness of marriage these days! (We get that a lot, haha).

Being on the road for days and months on end, you’re sure to have a few hiccups. Where’s the worst place you’ve broken down?

The worst place we’ve broken down was in a Home Depot parking lot in Bozeman Montana, where it was -6 (F) and snowing. Our tensioner pulley broke, which destroyed the serpentine belt. What made it worse was that tensioner pulley was a special order part, and it was a holiday weekend, so it was going to take 4 business days to get the part in! And the weather showed no signs of letting up.

You recently started an online forum for DIY Campervans on Facebook. What sparked this idea and how has the community reacted so far?

There are quite a few van forums on Facebook, but the thing that sparked us to start ours was from the general lack of moderation in the existing groups. As we mentioned before, there are so many different ways to build a van, none of them being the right way, and people tend to get passionate about their way. We wanted to create a community that was inclusive and not intimidating for beginners, who could ask questions without being ridiculed, and we put a very basic stipulation on the group: if you’re going to give advice, cite it. Our goal is to build a community of informed van builders who have statistics and data to back up their claims, not just “I did it this way so it’s right.” In our group, the phrase “in my opinion” goes a long way!


Follow Nate and Steph as their adventure continues on InstagramFacebook, Twitter, on their website, or by joining one of their Facebook groups: DIY Camper Van Crew or The Unbound Explorist.

Megan Walsh

Megan Walsh

Megan dreams of one day being a professional recreationalist, and welcomes any and all tips on how to get there. When she isn’t climbing, skiing, or enjoying shavasana, she’s drinking coffee and furiously typing away at her computer––or watching Netflix. Her work has been featured in Climbing Magazine, Utah Adventure Journal, and on Moja Gear.