Hello Emma and Sven!
For the people who don’t know you, tell us a little bit about the story behind you.
We are a couple, Emma and Sven, and together with our VW bus Big Emma we are GoBigEmma. Emma is from Illinois in the US, while Sven is from Germany. In our bus, we’re traveling from Alaska to Argentina.
How was your life before van life and how is it now?
Before we moved onto the road, we lived in Germany where we both studied and later worked. The idea to travel the Panamericana had been on our minds for a while, and when we had some money to start us out, we decided to give it a shot and head out. Now, we spend our days traveling, trying to enjoy life as much as possible while writing our blog and exploring the world.
What does the van life mean to you and why did you choose this lifestyle over your previous life?
Vanlife means freedom of mobility. I can do my favorite thing in the world, which is to travel and experience culture, while still having a place I can come home to at night, wherever we go. Vanlife also means an alternative lifestyle, it goes hand in hand with a simpler life. It also means to be part of a community.
What do you miss the most when you are on the road?
We sometimes miss the comfort of a stationary home. Access to a hot shower and a toilet whenever we want, a large bed, the luxury of not having to think about every step of life. Emma also misses having an oven to cook cheese-covered casseroles.
How did you realize that it was possible live in that way against the common life path? Was it difficult to take the plunge?
We mostly made the decision to live in this bus because we already had the bus, it has been in Emma’s family for a number of years. We did however need some time to get used to the idea to live in a car. We didn’t really know that there was a vanlife community until we started living on the road, we had our eyes on the trip we’re taking and kind of just slid into this community without planning it.
Is it worth it?
How do you afford it?
We’ve saved up some money before moving into the car, we also do freelance work to keep us afloat, and generally try to keep our expenses as low as possible.
Tell us a little bit about your van, what is the story behind it?
Our van is Big Emma, she is a 1975 VW bus (for the VW nerds, it’s a Riviera camper conversion, has an 1.8L fuel injected engine with hydraulic lifters). She’s red and yellow and has a pop top. 4 people can sleep and live in her comfortably. Emma’s family bought it from a carpenter who outfitted the interior, which we only slightly modified. Unknown to us, the bus was already named “Emma” when we bought it, hence the name “Big Emma”. She is awesome.
How would you describe a normal day in your life now?
A morning usually consists of Sven making coffee and breakfast while Emma is still asleep (Emma is not a morning person). After breakfast we get the car ready if we move somewhere and go. Some days are driving days spent entirely on the road, some days are work days spent in a cafe, and then there are the fun days where we go do awesome things or hang out with people. Evenings sometimes have us searching for a new spot to spend the night, then trying to find a level parking position in that spot. We make camp, cook dinner, and often watch a TV show episode or do some writing before falling asleep.
What are the best moments you have lived in this adventure?
There are so many answers to this question. Seeing the Aurora dance across the sky in Alaska, touching massive glaciers and walking in ice caves. Seeing billions of stars and enjoying complete silence in the middle of nowhere. Meeting amazing people, especially other vanlifers and being part of this epic community.
What are the worst moments you have had to face?
Hands down, on the top of that list are breakdowns. We fix everything ourselves if we can, and that has been a major challenge for us, as we are by no means experienced mechanics. Trying to change a wheel bearing in the pouring rain by the side of the road at nearly midnight with no prospect of a shower just sucks.
How long have you been living on the road?
For about 7 months now (in January 2017).
What’s next? Short term, mid term, long term.
Short term: go to Mexico. Mid-term: get to Argentina. Long-term: no idea, we’ll think about that in Argentina.
PRACTICAL STUFF. How do you deal with the next things? Can you give us a couple of tips?
Pack lightly. Stay organized and always put things away when you don’t need them. We spend a lot of time doing what we call “playing Tetris”, which means we move everything around all the time to get to things or to utilize the space the best. Get rid of anything you don’t actually need (the phrase “but maybe this will be useful later down the road” leads to chaos).
Eat on the road. Stay healthy.
We cook almost every day, it is very rare that we “eat out”. We don’t eat a lot of organic food (its too expensive) but we also generally don’t eat/use a lot of processed food. About staying healthy: we don’t go to the doctor for regular check ups – our (travel)insurance doesn’t cover that in places other than home. Therefore, we only go to the doctor in emergencies.
Shower and hygiene on the road.
Shower: friends’ or couchsurfers’ houses, rivers and lakes, our solar shower, free public showers where available (beaches!). We rarely pay for showers and would rather go a day without than pay. We also brush our teeth twice a day and use deodorant. In wild places we do dig holes to take a shit (one of the very annoying parts of vanlife).
Find a good place to spend the night.
Use of two major online-resources: www.freecampsites.net and iOverlander (the classic choices). We also use google satellite images and make heavy use of BLM land where you can legally camp for free. Sometimes we will drive an hour or more to get to a good campsite where no one will kick us out. In cities we try to couchsurf or stealth-camp (but we prefer the former to the latter).
Relationships with family and friends.
Skype or call whenever we have time and stable internet. We also have an open invitation for anyone to come travel with us, which we sincerely hope some of our friends/family will do before we reach Argentina. Make a lot of new friends along the way.
Most important and useful things you can’t live without on the road.
VW repair manuals. Internet access. Buddy heater. Foldable wash basin. Pillows. All sorts of electronic devices (hard drive, laptops, phones, camera…). Good curtains. A companion to have good conversations with. Good books.
Travel routine, how much time do you spend in the same place?
We move around a lot. The longest we stay in one place is usually visiting friends over a few days. On our own we have a rare day where we stay in the campspot from the night before, but often we move on (for internet, to get somewhere new, to meet other people).
What are your favorite and most van friendly places you have been?
Alaska (in the summer): you can camp virtually anywhere. The West Coast (especially Oregon because they have lots of BLM land): there are many many VW people to help out if we run into problems. Not Banff.
Where do you look for van life ideas, resources, inspiration, help?
Other vanlifers. Sometimes Instagram. For mechanical/VW help we look at www.thesamba.com (the online VW forum/community in the States.
EXTRA QUESTION. Do you have any road-pets?
No, but we have discussed the option of getting a dog at some point along our way. There are a lot of pros and cons, which will probably go out the window when we see that perfect puppy that needs a home. We had a cat back home, but she wasn’t the type to live in a van (now she is living comfortably with Emma’s parents).
What advice would you give to the people who are doubting to give this huge step?
One thing we can promise: vanlife is never ever boring, not even for a minute. It might sometimes suck, but it’s worth it. It helps if you are financially stable and mechanically inclined. It also helps if you like getting to know new people and generally enjoy dealing with new and exciting situations. Do it, it’s worth it!
Where can we follow you and learn more from you?