Most people spent 2020 feeling claustrophobic while stuck in their homes. Brooke Weeber spent the year downsizing into an even smaller living situation.
The Portland-based artist and adventurer has successfully made the switch to “van life,” traveling and living practically full-time out of a camper van that she designed and outfitted herself. Her message to others dreaming of following in her footsteps: no experience is necessary.
“I’m no expert,” Weeber said, taking a brief break from the road at the start of winter. “And it’s definitely not anything that I ever thought I would want to do or be able to do.”
She got a taste for the camper van lifestyle at the end of 2019, when she spent a couple months traveling around the region, living out of a Volkswagen Eurovan. In 2020, after selling her home in Southeast Portland, Weeber bought a 2019 Ford Transit cargo van, which she immediately began transforming into her new home on wheels.
The six-month process involved several months of research, she said, soliciting guidance from friends, and poring over blogs and YouTube videos, deciding not only how to build out her van, but what she wanted it to look and feel like once she started living in it.
“It just felt like if I wanted to continue having this experience, I needed to make myself more comfortable to make it sustainable,” Weeber said.
After working on mechanical details like installing heating, a water pump, solar panels and wiring the entire electrical system, she began focusing on interior design. With no experience in that regard either, she looked up other builders’ designs online, and compiled some of her favorite aspects into one of her own.
In the end she wound up with a full-size bed in the back of the van with storage space underneath, a small kitchenette with a removable induction stovetop, wooden cabinets, a large pull-out table, and two bench seats that contain a portable refrigerator and a cassette toilet (which she admitted she prefers to not have to use).
To make the van feel homier, Weeber lined the roof of the van with strips of old cedar fencing and painted her wooden cabinets a bright shade of blue. Brighter colors are helpful inside dark camper vans, she said, and while many people opt for white, she didn’t like how quickly the color looks dirty.
From that space, she can sleep, cook and work, sharing the van with her dog, Huxley, as they explore the beautiful landscapes of the American West. The two typically stay at campgrounds around the region, she said, where she often has access to water, electricity, cell service and better bathroom options. From there, she can explore hiking trails and hot springs, or settle in at camp to do work.
For her, living in the van is significantly cheaper than paying a mortgage, she said, and she’s even been finding new ways to save money, like staying put at one place for longer, thus avoiding the need to spend so much on gas. Aside from her work as an illustrator, Weeber finances the lifestyle with sponsored social media posts on her Instagram page, partnering with brands like Tilley hats and Russell’s Reserve bourbon.
Weeber’s Instagram page at @brooke_weeber is also her primary way to update friends and followers of her travels. There, she posts photos and videos from her many scenic stopovers, where she and Huxley can be seen relaxing at a geothermal hot spring in Idaho, exploring a snowy Cascade mountain, climbing through slot canyons in Utah, or taking in a sunset over the Arizona desert.
“What’s really nice about being in the van is you can just come up on a place and think, this is amazing, I love this view, I have full cell service, I can get work done here,” Weeber said. “You can just stay there for as long as you want, as long as the food doesn’t run out, or as long as you still have water.”
The flip side to that freedom is a nagging uncertainty of what the future will hold – a natural consequence of living life on the road. Weeber said she doesn’t always know where she’s going to end up or how comfortable it will be once she gets there. A sudden snowstorm may strand her on the side of the highway, she said, and a lack of campground availability could lead to a night at a Walmart parking lot.
But learning how to cope with that uncertainty and work through the challenges that arise is part of what makes van life so rewarding, she said.
In February, Weeber posted an update on her Instagram page from a campground near Mesa, Arizona, with photos of a radiant sunset that painted saguaro cacti in shades of magenta and orange. It’s a far cry from the dreary, gray winters of the Pacific Northwest, and the fact that she was able to so easily escape to a new landscape entirely is the exact point of living the van life in the first place.
“There are a gazillion aspects of van life that are challenging, they run the gamut,” she wrote beneath her photos from Arizona. “But being able to follow the sun and find a place you like and stay there, well that’s what makes this lifestyle so worth enduring the harder times.”
5 TIPS FOR CREATING AND LIVING IN A CAMPER VAN
1. Assess your needs before you start
Before starting the layout of your camper van, it’s important to identify what you will and won’t need while living in it. “Do you need to fit a bicycle in there? Do you want to have a huge electrical system? Do you want to have a water pump?” Weeber said. “It seems fun to just start drawing things out; you really have to know generally the entire process before you can figure out what your layout’s going to be.”
2. Be flexible as your outfit your van, and be OK making mistakes
“You have to be really flexible about your finished product, because it’s not going to go the way that you plan, especially if you don’t really know what you’re doing,” Weeber said. “So just being open to the fact that it’s not going to go perfectly is really important in this process. And you’re going to make mistakes for sure.”
3. Don’t be hindered by budget or high expectations
Social media pages are full of high-end vans and perfect builds, Weeber said, but a custom camper van doesn’t have to break the bank. “A lot of people get really inexpensive vehicles like older vans, and build them out for cheap and they still have a great time, just as much as anybody else,” she said.
4. Apps can help you find campsites on the road
Uncertainty around where you’ll be sleeping can be stressful when you’re living on the road, so Weeber recommends using apps that can help you find campsites that meet your needs. Her favorite is iOverlander, which has reviews that are extremely helpful. “It’s just nice to have some help there, so you’re not always sleeping, you know, in Walmart parking lots, or what have you,” she said.
5. Van life in the winter has its own complications
Not afraid to brave the cold, Weeber has learned a few tips after spending the first part of this winter in her van. Instead of running her small heater all day, she’s been staying warm with a 12V electric blanket, down booties, a full fleece outfit and an insulated bath mat for the floor. “I have two major game changers when it comes to sleeping warm,” she wrote on Instagram. “I added my thick wool Pendleton blanket to the bed and when the temperatures really drop, I fill a nalgene with hot water and tuck it under my sheets near my feet.”
–Jamie Hale; [email protected]; 503-294-4077; @HaleJamesB