Three years ago, Justin was dating a girl who talked him into doing a yearlong road trip. They started saving and a couple months later, she dumped him. That’s when he roped his brother Adam into the idea. One night over 2-for-1 beers at the local Applebee's, Justin asked Adam if he wanted to go on a road trip after he graduated college. Adam would take photos and video while Justin wrote about the experience.
What started out as a way to take a year off has now turned into a year of work. Justin & Adam are preparing for a career of full-time freelancing.
The one thing that hasn't changed is that they remain brothers who not only share the same blood, but also the same tiny space.
Square Feet: 82
Months Living Mobile: 4
Make, Model, Year: 2008 Dodge Sprinter
We picked a Sprinter Van because these vans are easy to customize, built to last, easier to drive than a RV and can go places that RVs can’t. They can be built in ways that make it easy to live off the grid. We picked this particular one because a guy in Rhode Island was selling it for a good price and it had less than 100,000 miles. Van life seemed like the way to go to keep costs low, customization high and mobility constant.
I like to climb, surf, explore, write, take photos and make videos (I like to group the last three into one because they’re helping pay for this trip). I’ll also add hanging out with friends, photographing concerts and riding my bike. Gosh, I miss my bikes. I really wanted to bring them, but they wouldn’t fit in the van. And there’s no way I was going to let them hang off the back of the van on a trailer hitch.
I’ve been enjoying reading now that TV isn’t an option. I love surfing (when we’re on a coast), skateboarding, hiking, eating at local spots, meeting natives and taking photos. I love to hang out with my close friends, photograph concerts and surf as much as possible. I also play guitar. I have a travel acoustic for the road that I bring out occasionally. But man, I miss my electric rig.
Why did you decide to buy a van and take a trip together?
Adam: When Justin was originally planning the trip with his girlfriend, I thought he was crazy. When he insisted that he was still going to go by himself even though they’d broken up, I thought he was insane. But the more he talked about it, the more interested I became—especially since college graduation was in sight and I still hadn’t decided on a career path. After a lot of talking and hypothetical dreaming, I told him I wanted in and we began planning. I figured that diving headfirst into an experience like this would beef up my portfolio, which would be way more valuable than putting a desk job on my resume. And I would get to see the whole country in the process. It almost seems like a no-brainer looking back at it.
What was the process like moving into your mobile home?
Justin: Some parts were easy, but some were also tough. I’ve never left home before, so that was the toughest part for me. Leaving all of our family and friends was difficult.
Getting rid of some things was actually really easy. I knew I needed to get rid of a lot of stuff I hadn’t used—or thought about—in years.
The build out was a lot easier than I thought it would be. We had a plan for how we wanted to build out the van, which made it a lot easier. A lot of people use 3D programs to design their vans. We didn’t. We got our van and walked through it saying, “this is where the bed platform’s going” and "this is where our desk is going” and “the kitchen will fit right here.”
Adam: Moving was a challenge in itself. I enjoyed downsizing and getting rid of things that I didn’t need.
I also felt like I was abandoning some of the people in my life. We’re a tightly knit family and I have some really close friends who I almost felt guilty for leaving behind—even if it was only temporary. But they understood that this was something I had to do for my personal growth. Of course, we still stay in contact regularly. It’s just different.
What’s it like traveling and living in a van with your brother?
Justin: I thought it’d be a cakewalk since we’ve lived together all our lives, but it’s been far from that. I’ve had to completely relearn my brother and get to know him in a whole new way, but it’s been fun. I think what I’ve been forced to learn is how I can serve my brother best—how to help him when he’s down and get him where he’s going. In a way, I'd like to think that this trip is also giving me a crash course on what it’s like to be married. But not to my brother—that’s gross.
Adam: It’s actually pretty tough. Despite having a lot of similar interests, we have completely different personalities. And even more, opposite temperaments. Figuring that out and learning how to best deal with each other in that aspect was a whirlwind. It was rough for a while, but we’re definitely getting to know each other on a deeper level. It’s really gratifying, getting to know somebody so well and being able to rely on each other when we’re in trouble. I don’t think this trip would be possible with anyone else.
How do you fund this trip?
We’re working with some stellar companies (Merrell and EnerPlex) who see eye to eye with us. One of our obligations is to provide them with content. Every Monday (or sometimes Sunday), we work all day long. We’ve been known to work 16 hour days at coffee shops in order to pump out content for them and our own personal use (which also benefits our sponsors). I also have some revolving writing contracts that I work on some nights in the van, and when we come across reliable Wi-Fi, I send them out.
What about healthcare and retirement benefits?
I lost my healthcare when I quit my job back in November. It was a total bummer, but my parents were gracious enough to put me back on their healthcare plan. When I was employed, I regularly contributed to my Roth 401(k). Now that you mention it, I need to roll that over into my investment account. Our dad is a financial planner (he owns his own firm in Florida) and helps guide us in the way of good investments without charging a consulting fee. Thanks, Dad!
Where do you park?
We primarily park at Wally World (Walmart). Occasionally, we find free campgrounds, and we’ve started utilizing BLM and National Forests now that we’ve been exploring further west.
Where do you shower?
We shower at friends’ houses, campgrounds (when we splurge for a campsite, which isn’t often), lakes or beaches, hoses from the sides of buildings, and we’ve even been known to indulge in the glamorous sink bath from time to time.
Top Go-To Items
Phone: I love to stay connected on social media, listen to music and watch YouTube videos. I’m addicted to some vlogger (video blogger) channels. In a way, it's similar to watching TV since we don’t own a TV.
Journal: I like to write down the things I see and my feelings in the moment. I really want to be able to look back on this trip for the rest of my life and enjoy the memories. I’m going to a write a book at the end of our road trip, so I kind of need to remember this stuff.
Camera: I love capturing moments—whether they’re photos or videos—and I love being able to share them with the world (via social media). I hope I can inspire people to get out there, live their dream and just enjoy life.
Guitar: For Adam, he doesn’t play guitar every day, but it’s definitely his comfort item. Whenever Adam gets into a funk or a bad mood, his guitar never fails to bring him out of it.
Who inspires you?
Brendan Leonard: Brendan is one of my favorite writers and one of the first people that got me thinking about van life.
Chris Burkard: Chris is possibly the most inspiring surf/travel/adventure photographer in the business. He’s a big reason why I picked up a camera in the first place.
Jimmy Chin: Jimmy is an inspiring climber and skier who sparked my interest in travel photography and videography.
Jon Acuff: Adam's reading yet another one of Jon's books right now and you can tell Jon's a smart dude. If you’re in the process of searching for a new career or quitting your job, read any of Jon's books for inspiration.
Adam Elmakias: This is one of Adam's favorite concert photographer; also a great entrepreneur.
People we’ve met along the way: We’ve met a lot of people on the road and through our blog who have shared their stories with us.
What has been the most rewarding thing about living in a van?
Justin: Three things in particular stick out to me:
- Waking up and asking Adam, “Where do you want to go and what do you want to do today?”
- Meeting new people. I’ve been able to meet so many new people and learn their stories in just a short amount of time, and I’ve been able to learn something new from each person. There are also a lot of characters out there with awesome stories.
- Having random people who follow us reach out via social media or email and tell us how we’ve inspired them, that they love what we’re doing and the content we’re creating. Or they tell us that we’re living their dreams. Sometimes it’s really tough living on the road and it can really take an emotional toll on me, but hearing those kind words has a way of turning my mood around.
Adam: I love having a loose agenda. Although we hold ourselves to certain guidelines and standards, we technically don’t have to be anywhere at any given time. It’s pretty freeing. We get to do whatever we want.
What is the most challenging thing?
Justin: I’m a creature of habit (always have been), and not knowing when the plan changes (which happens often) is terrifying for me. That being said, I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and challenge myself on a daily basis, and this is allowing me to do just that.
Adam: I struggle with managing expectations. I'll have a vision of how a place is going to be or how a project is going to turn out, only to have weather throw me a curve ball or not be able to get the photo that I anticipated.
What is your advice to people who want to live small or hit the road?
Do your research. Save your money and pay cash for everything. We don’t believe in debt. Go into it with zero expectations. Go for it.
Do you plan to go back to your previous way of living?
Justin: In some ways yes, and in some ways no. I plan to buy a house or rent a house or apartment some day. I don’t plan to go back into banking (I'm not knocking the industry; it’s just not for me). I’d like to be married at some point and have a small home base with a workspace. But ideally, I'd want traveling to be my work. Maybe even with a future wife—who knows? I'd like to go away on assignment for a couple weeks (or a few months) and come back home to edit and start working on logistics for the next assignment. That’s the dream.
Adam: At some point, probably. I definitely want to get married at some point and possibly set down roots somewhere as a home base. Ideally, I'd be self-employed and my future wife would want to travel as well. Working remotely is bomb.
What’s next? Any news you want to share?
After this trip, I’m going start writing a book. That’s been a dream of mine since I was a kid, and I think I’ll have enough content after this trip. Aside from that, I wish I knew. Adam and I will be editing our “docu-movie” to release in early 2017. It will cover the ins and outs of our planning stages, van build, trip highlights and more. I hope that I’ll have a solid freelance, photo, video and writing career to jump into after this trip.