My name is Emma Niderno, but I go by Emma Goes these days! I’m a photographer, yoga teacher, and professional vanlife dirtbag. I live full-time in my 1997 Ford Econoline that I converted into a perfect little home on wheels.
I want to say my vanlife dreams really began in high school when I became obsessed with the nomadic lifestyle. I was so inspired by books like On the Road and Into the Wild; I craved the freedom and fluidity of constantly traveling. As I got older I started to get inspired by other vanlifers on Instagram, and one day I decided it was my turn.
When I bought the van in October 2018, it was already built out as a camper by a company called Coachmen, but I wanted to make it my own. So, I gutted the whole inside and started fresh. My inspiration for the van interior was to have a bright and open space while still fitting all the amenities I wanted. I went with white for the walls, cabinets, and ceiling, with a dark wood floor. The kitchen countertop is a single slab of raw-edge pine that was locally sourced in Connecticut, my home state. It definitely adds a considerable amount of weight to the van, but it’s worth it for the aesthetics (and the wood smell)! Since the van was already a camper, I was able to reuse some of the materials and save on the cost of buying new items. The fridge and water pump were still in great working condition and I reinstalled them in my build! The kitchen sink is also from the original van.
My build is, in my opinion, 100% off-grid. Some would argue it’s not because I don’t have a toilet, but I strongly believed I wouldn’t need one, and I definitely don’t regret my decision. I have 300W of solar power, 250amph, and a 2000W inverter/charger. My fridge runs all day and night and I can charge my phone, laptop, and cameras whenever I need to. If I decide to build out another vehicle in the future, I would probably add a bit more power. But for me, and my current energy needs, this is more than enough. For water, I have 10 gallons of fresh water and a 7-gallon grey water tank. Because the van was already a camper, I can fill my water tank from a little door on the outside of the van, and I also have the option to plug in my van to an outside source of shore power. That’s one of my favorite features of my van, it’s a game-changer for sure!
Overall, including the cost of the van itself and the initial engine repairs, I put about 11k into the whole build. This was over the course of about 7 months since I started building in December 2018 and finished around June/July 2019. I was working full time and almost every paycheck was going toward build materials; every day off I had was spent working on the van!
The process of downsizing was pretty easy for me. Prior to moving into the van, I spent a month living in Indonesia with just a backpack. I got used to having very little items and I found that it made me much happier to let go of things. I’ve also always loved getting rid of stuff so moving into the van was easy and very cathartic. And selling furniture from my apartment helped with my travel fund, so that was a definite plus!
Living in a van has honestly exceeded my wildest expectations. I knew it was going to be awesome, but it has truly been even more beautiful than I could have imagined. Besides getting to wander wherever I please, wake up to breathtaking views, and have my whole house with me everywhere I go, I’ve found that meeting so many different people along the way has been a really special part of vanlife. Anyone who travels knows that when you meet another traveler, you’re instantly friends. Now I feel like I have a huge family that’s spread out all over the world!
One of the more challenging aspects of vanlife is finding a safe place to park. Some parts of the country are much easier than others. For example, the west side of America is very easy due to all the acres of BLM and National Forest land available. But on the east coast, it’s a bit more difficult, especially in New England, where I’m from. But apps like iOverlander and FreeRoam make it much easier!
My biggest piece of advice to anyone wanting to try vanlife is to just go for it! Take any step in that direction, no matter how small. Life is way too short to wait for the “right time,” because (here’s a secret) there is no right time. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, I think buying a van is a great investment. If you try out vanlife and love it, you have a new home on wheels! And if you try it out and decide it’s not for you, not only have you had the experience, but you can resell your built-out van for more than you bought it for. I truly think everyone would benefit from some amount of time living on the road. It expands your mind, thickens your skin, and you’ll come out of it with some pretty rad stories.
Like most full-time travelers, I like to keep my future plans pretty vague to leave room for spontaneity. But my loose plan going forward is to continue to travel to North America until I feel satisfied with how much I’ve explored. Then I’m going to sell my van and use the money to travel internationally for a while. I’m very excited to keep doing photography all over the world. And then, who knows! I’m interested in buying and building out a medium-sized school bus. Or maybe moving out of America for a while. Can you tell I’m not a huge planner? I barely even plan my routes from place to place!
If you’re interested in my travels or want to check out my photography work (or book a photo shoot!) you can follow me on my socials:
YouTube: Emma Goes