Living the Van Life

By Rachel Studebaker

Photo Courtesy of Chris and Sara Pochiba

With stunning scenery and recreational opportunities around every corner, it’s no secret that the Scenic City has a spirit of adventure. For some locals, this desire to explore led them to hit the road on cross-country road trips – all in converted, fully livable vans. Read on to meet these adventurers and learn the realities of a life on wheels.

Claire Chang and Chad Tetzlaff

Photos Courtesy of Claire Chang and Chad Tetzlaff

Claire Chang and Chad Tetzlaff

When most newlyweds hop into their getaway car, it’s not for a year-long, cross-country road trip. Only two days after getting married, Claire Chang and Chad Tetzlaff hit the road in their converted van and began a grand adventure across 38 states.

As an engaged couple approaching college graduation in 2020, Claire and Chad decided they wanted to experience full-time travel. While their initial plans took them overseas, the couple narrowed their scope to the United States due to Covid-19 regulations. Claire recalls, “We decided that the cheapest way to see the States would be through a tiny and extremely budget version of van life, and once we decided that, we wasted no time in scouting out the perfect tiny van.”

A Ford Transit Connect – a compact van with good gas mileage – was their vehicle of choice. With the help of Chad’s father, the couple dove headfirst into a five-week-long conversion process. “With little to no skill or knowledge in van conversion, we underwent multiple rounds of trial and errors, but the entire process allowed us to merge our creative ideas in a way we’ve never done before,” Claire shares.

Claire and Chad went into van life knowing there would be challenges – “it isn’t just beautiful parking spots by the ocean and happy campfires every night!” While unreliable parking, extreme weather, and cramped quarters were inevitable, they maintain that “the challenge and overall experience of living in a tiny van is something we’d never take back in a million years because it dramatically shaped us into who we are today.”

“Die-hard lovers of food” with a camp stove in lieu of a fully equipped kitchen, Claire and Chad had to get creative with their cuisine while living in their van. Encouraged by the positive feedback from their online audience to food-related content, Claire published a cookbook documenting their favorite meals prepared in the van. “It was such a joy to share a little slice of our van adventure with people from all over the world,” she shares. “We still cook a lot of those van meals in our home now, because they bring back such wonderful, nostalgic memories.”

This sense of nostalgia remains strong as the couple reflects on the over 30,000 miles they traveled in their van. Having documented all their travels, Claire and Chad get to reflect on their adventures, saying, “There was truly nothing like opening our back doors to soaring views of California’s sparkling coast, golden snapshots of Utah’s orange canyons, or magnificent panoramas of Vermont’s autumn foliage.”

For those considering van life, the couple offers encouragement:

“Van life is one of those experiences that will forever alter the way you live and see the world. It will open a whole new perspective and allow you to get a taste of a free and nomadic lifestyle. Go into it with realistic expectations and know your needs for a fun and memorable time. Cater to those needs and be open to change, growth, and unexpected hurdles. There is no better time to live than the present, so if you’ve been wanting to do van life, just go for it!”

Jacob Timpa

Photos Courtesy of Jacob Timpa

Jacob Timpa

For Jacob Timpa, pursuing van life simply came down to seeking simplicity and adventure. “Wherever I go, I have a home,” he explains. “I’m a climber and surfer, so I like to spend a lot of my time in remote places. The van allows me to feel at home in those places, be it in the wilderness or at the beach.”

Timpa acquired a partially built van in 2017, opting for a smaller model due to its ease of driving. He finished the build on his own, adding insulation, cabinetry, and a power generator to transform the vehicle into a home. Now equipped with a full-size bed, pull-out kitchen, and the nickname “Cricket,” the van has every amenity Timpa says he needs no matter where he goes.

His favorite thing about living in a van? “No rent and no mortgage!” Timpa jokes. “But honestly, my favorite part is how it forces me outside. When living in a comfortable house, it’s easy to sink into a couch and eat potato chips while binging your favorite TV shows. Being in a tiny van, that’s not really an option. I spend my days active in the fresh air and closer to nature.”

Though Timpa feels right at home in his van, he acknowledges the lifestyle’s many challenges: “Finding a place to shower. Rainy days. Laundry. The lack of storage. Locating safe overnight parking. Breakdowns. And let’s not forget about the heat!” While these realities can take time to adjust to, Timpa notes that “if you do it long enough, you start to get acclimated to the challenges.”

As a photographer who shares stunning views and montages of climbing feats, Timpa is keenly aware of how only the highlights of van life make it online. “Social media can easily make it look like a dream, laying in bed with the doors wide open, looking out at a majestic landscape,” he shares, adding, “What you don’t see are all the gnats flying around the van because the doors are open.”

Timpa has traveled from the beaches of south Florida to the Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest, but admits that the Oregon coast has a special place in his heart. He says that he has too many stories to tell and emphasizes that “the people you meet are where the greatest memories are made.”

When it comes to van life’s presence in Chattanooga, Timpa observes, “The community here is strong, friendly, and growing. Either passing through or here to stay, we all look out for each other! And that etiquette is found most everywhere.”

Timpa acknowledges that van life isn’t for everyone, but encourages those who are interested to go for it. He concludes with a piece of wisdom gained from his travels:

“I’ve learned a lot from living in a van, but my greatest lesson is – van life or not – take it slow. If you spend your life rushing from place to place you end up rushing through life. Slow down, take it in, and enjoy the ride.”

Matt McLelland

Photos Courtesy of Matt McLelland

Matt McLelland

An avid outdoorsman, Matt McLelland is taking his hobbies – and his family – on the road via a converted Sprinter van.

“All of my hobbies involve being outdoors: camping, kayaking, hang gliding, trail running, mountain biking, skiing,” McLelland shares. “When a drive is involved – especially one that involves spending the night – having the van adds to the adventure.”

McLelland purchased his van in 2018 before van life’s recent rise in popularity, which made finding the parts and components for a successful build a challenge. He spent the next five months learning the ins-and-outs of van conversion, including attending a workshop in Portland, Oregon, and putting together his van. “I knew from the beginning I wanted to keep it simple – something that was functional yet minimalistic,” says McLelland. Features such as an external awning and upgraded suspension enhance his van while a roof rack accommodates gear from skiis to hang gliders.

“One of the great things about van building is the work is never really done. As you meet other van lifers and see the creativity from van pages on Instagram, you’re always seeing more efficient ways to utilize space,” McLelland adds.

Plugged into both the van life and outdoor recreation communities, McLelland cherishes time spent with people who share his passions, saying, “I love destination trail or mountain bike races where the organizers allow camping the night before at the start line – there are often 10 or more other vans joining me, and the conversations about racing, vans, and the outdoors in general are some of my favorite moments.”

Locally, McLelland is fostering a growing network of van lifers. He and fellow van owner Jim Hardiman co-founded the Chattanooga Van Owners Club and organize periodic meetups in the area. McLelland also gives credit to local van upfitters Site Seven Campers and Moxie Van Co. for helping locals create their dream builds.

Considering the challenges that accompany traveling in his van, McLelland points to its 58 square feet of floor space, saying “You really have to like being in a small space.” He adds that keeping the van clean is surprisingly difficult and jokes that an action as simple as changing a t-shirt can turn a clean van into a mess.

McLelland advises anyone interested in building a van to do their research first: “Spend time looking at the thousands of photos of other people’s vans to get inspiration and ideas on how to build your own.” He notes that it’s important to select components that work best for their needs and recommends to “follow the 80/20 rule. Design your van around the way you use it 80% of the time, not the 20% of less frequent requirements.”

Most importantly, van life has been a way for McLelland to bond with his family. “My teenage son and I have taken three cross-country road trips and the journeys allowed us to spend quality time together. It provided an opportunity for great discussions, listening to epic audiobooks, and random unplanned adventures you can never anticipate,” he shares. McLelland’s most recent trip took him from Chattanooga to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he summited Grand Teton with his wife and son, and his next adventure is surely just down the road.

Kris Presnell and Kathleen Ayers

Photos Courtesy of Kris Presnell and Kathleen Ayers

Kris Presnell and Kathleen Ayers

Far from a conventional lifestyle, van life can offer people weary of their everyday routines just the change of pace they’re looking for. This was certainly the case for Kathleen Ayers, an avid traveler who found herself craving more than the occasional weekend away, saying, “I’d be back home before I knew it, dreaming of the next place.”

Her partner, Kris Presnell, felt similarly. While Kathleen admits it felt a little crazy at first to give up the comforts of her home, she and Kris made the leap into van life and agree that life on wheels has given them the freedom they wanted. “Giving up all the things I thought I needed has been so freeing. For me, having less means working less and exploring more,” Kathleen shares.

“We all have routines, whether in a van, apartment, or a house,” adds Kris. “Our routine is just more focused on our mental and physical health now … Spending more time in nature, preparing healthy meals with purpose, and exercise. And travel! I could travel every day and never put a dent in what there is to see.”

The couple’s transition to van life began in 2020, when they purchased their vehicle and partnered with Moxie Van Co. to bring their vision to life. Solar panels and a lithium battery deck allow the couple to have power off-grid and trial and error helped inform their current setup – which now features a kitchen island, roof deck, and heater.

Currently on the road, their travels have already left them with countless stories – and many more in the making. Kris and Kathleen have visited seven states so far and kicked off 2023 in California, their favorite state yet. With a shared love for adventure, the duo enjoys hiking, mountain biking, practicing yoga, swimming, and catching the occasional wave – all with a new backdrop each time. They are grateful for the places and people they have met along the way, saying, “We get to visit new, beautiful places every day. We are always meeting new people, whether on a hike or at a camp spot, van festival, or yoga studio. We’ve met so many amazing people thanks to van life.”

When it comes to extensive travel, Kris and Kathleen emphasize that having a contingency plan for accidents is crucial. They learned this firsthand after a run-in with a deer left their van out of commission as a vehicle – and as a living space. Thankfully, the couple had planned ahead and were able to cover lodging while repairs were made. “Setting off on a van adventure is kind of like setting sail,” describes Kris. “You don’t leave the marina without securing the deck.”

At the end of the day, Kris and Kathleen advise those new to van life not to sweat the small stuff. They share, “Things don’t always work out; not every road is open, not every good spot is vacant, sometimes the road is too rough, maybe the hills are too steep … Just roll with it! What you’re looking for is just around the next bend.”

Chris and Sara Pochiba

Photos Courtesy of Chris and Sara Pochiba

Chris and Sara Pochiba

Now on their third vehicle, Chris and Sara Pochiba are pros at living and working on the road. The idea to live out of a van originated from the freedom that came with being self-employed. “As digital nomads, we’ve always said that we could ‘work from anywhere,’ and van life was the real test to see if that claim was really true,” explains Sara.

Transitioning to a van was also a budget-friendly decision. “As a young couple on a budget, buying and converting a van was a much more affordable way to see and experience the world as newlyweds,” says Sara. By working, sleeping, and preparing meals in the van, the couple spared lodging and dining expenses that can quickly add up during travel.

The Pochibas purchased their first van in 2018 and upgraded to a second van in 2020 – both converted almost entirely by the couple from their driveway. For work that required more professional expertise, they brought the vans to Site Seven Campers. Sara is grateful for all the new skills she picked up during the process, saying, “I can now say I know how to install an entire electrical system with solar panels, work numerous power tools, and plumb a van with fresh and gray water systems.”

Both vans boasted a self-contained system including water and power, allowing the couple to stay off-grid until food supplies dwindled. “The only reason we ever had to leave our epic camping spots in the mountains was to go grocery shopping,” says Chris.

These amenities allowed Chris and Sara to go from big cities like Miami and Seattle to remote corners of the wilderness. Sara recalls a favorite memory, where she and Chris spent the summer solstice on the coast of the Arctic Ocean: “We witnessed the summer sun with 24 hours of daylight, dipped our toes in frigid arctic waters, and saw many grizzly bears roaming freely just outside our van,” she recalls.

When back in Chattanooga, Chris and Sara notice how the number of van owners has soared. “When we first began van life and would pass through Chattanooga, everyone had questions about the van … Now, you can’t drive around town without seeing a dozen vans pass by,” says Chris.

The couple’s No. 1 piece of advice? “Rent a van first.” They explain that rental is a low-cost and low-risk way to gauge one’s comfort with van life and consider the size of van and amenities they prefer before making the leap into full-time van life. They also encourage travelers to practice mindfulness; Sara notes, “Remember that every town and forest you roll your van into to camp is someone’s home. Treat it (and them) with respect and leave no trace when you’re camping.”

Forty-eight states and five Canadian provinces later, the Pochibas are entering a new season of adventure – this time in a camper that they plan to ship overseas. Armed with countless memories from the years spent in their vans, they look forward to many more experiences to come.

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