Roll with Nathan, Renee, Tristan, Winter & Wylder in a VW Bus

When I talk to other people about living on the road, a lot of them say, "Sure, that works when you're traveling with one other person, but is it really sustainable when you start a family?" Leave it to Nathan & Renee and their three children to tell you it's possible.

Nathan and his oldest son Tristan started living small in 2008 in an older Class C RV. Nathan thought it was too big, so they went and found a VW Bus in Colorado. At the same time, Nathan was starting to date Renee. They'd been friends in college, but their lives had taken them in different directions for about eight years. Nathan went to see her thinking it would just be catching up, but he realized quickly how much in love with her he still was. A few months later, he convinced her to hop into the bus with Tristan and him.

They eventually got the Airstream when it became evident that a little VW bus wasn't going to be big enough for them. Now, three years later, they're back in that bus. They plan to travel for at least four months and then see where life takes them.

A big part of living on the road has always been about living very closely together. No teenager hiding in his room, no dad in some den, everyone together.

Square Feet: 25

For the past three years, we've been in our 1976 Airstream, which clocks in somewhere around 200 square feet. But we're now hopping around in our 1978 Volkswagen bus, which is closer to 25 square feet or so.

Make, Model, Year: 1978 Champagne Edition Volkswagen Transporter Riviera Campwagen

We just call it ‘the Bus’ though.

Years Living Mobile: 8

Currently Living: On the Road

We don’t particularly live anywhere.

We've been full-timing since 2008, largely uninterrupted, though we occasionally take breaks. In 2010, we took nine months while Renee was pregnant with our son Winter and lived in a tiny beach house on the Oregon coast. And in 2012, we did it again while our youngest son Wylder was born, that was in a treehouse near Asheville, North Carolina.

You recently went from living in an Airstream to a van. why?

A 31' Airstream plus the 16' van we use to tow it are big, bulky and annoying to drive and they limit where we can go. There is very low clearance on the Airstream, so although we love staying in national forest campgrounds and boondocking spots, we can't always get to all of them.

The Bus is just a simpler way of living. And even though it may sound crazy, the Airstream as a house had gotten too big and comfortable.

We'll probably get back into it at some point, but we want a break.

We're in Mexico right now, and the VW Bus just seemed like a better choice than a big old Airstream for that adventure.

What was the process like to move from 200 to 25 square feet?

The Bus is very, very tiny. It's just a car and place to sleep, really; the rest of life is spent outdoors. Except when it rains. That kind of sucks.

It's exciting. I've never been one for having too much stuff. I don't necessarily like to clean, and I think that the more stuff you have, the more time you spend moving it from one spot to another. With no possessions, all you can really do is find a trail to hike or a restaurant to visit or something.

The whole "experiences, not things" idea.

How do you balance work and living in a small space?

I'm a freelance web designer and developer and was even before we hit the road, so my work has always been completely location independent.

I went on a road trip in 2004 and saw the west for the first time—big mountains, the colors in Utah, places like Flagstaff and Lake Tahoe—and realized I didn't want to live in one place and definitely not in my home state of Pennsylvania. It took me about a year, but I quit my job with PBS and started my own thing and that has been working really well for us. Sometimes it's hard, as our family has grown to six and our income is still just me, but we've discovered tons of ways to save money while traveling too, so our traveling expenses go down even when the bills go up.

As for working in a small space, it's never been much of an issue. I can work outside if I need to, or go to a coffee shop, and Renee takes the reins with the kids.

I'm always looking for ways to work less and do more, but sometimes that can be elusive. We're hoping Mexico will help alleviate some of the costs and give me more time to spend with everyone.

What are your hobbies on and off the road?

I study trees and ecology in general, and I do a little birding. The younger boys tend to like to do that with me too. Tristan and I have been learning Spanish, though for him it's a bit more of a "school" thing than a hobby.

We also try and get out and hike as much as possible, go on bike rides and dabble in skateboarding.

What are your top three go-to items in your tiny home?

Laptop: It allows me to fund this whole thing.

iPhone: It keeps us connected with other travelers, such as on Instagram.

Ax: Because it symbolizes the opposite of those other two things: a simpler, somewhat harder life where manual labor brings a sort of reward of being able to be outside instead of sitting behind a screen all day.

I struggle with the fact that building the Internet allows me to do this. But at the same time, I do this because I don’t want to be behind a screen.

What's it like raising a family in a small space?

It can be challenging as all hell to be honest.

I don't know particularly that it has to do with the small space, but raising three boys can just be tough. Our two youngest fight constantly, everything is a competition about what's fair and who has what. And with Tristan moving into his teenage years, it's a new experience. They can all be so wonderful too, though. Even 10 minutes of them being their best selves can erase an entire day of havoc, but it leads to a lot of disagreements between Renee and I on how things should be and what we need to do to calm life down.

Being on a schedule, I think, has worked well for us in the past, but we've been out of that rhythm. It's hard when you adjust to a schedule that works for you in one part of the country, and then you move somewhere else and need to figure out something new. For example, we spent the summer in the Pacific Northwest. Weekdays I worked, weekends we went to campgrounds with no cell service. It forced us to spend more time together, to get off of the computers and out into the world. It worked well.

We’ve been doing this a long time, but it feels like we’re constantly figuring it out all over again.

Tell us a little bit about school on the road

For the younger boys, school is just everyday living. Arts and crafts and studying nature and learning to be themselves.

For Tristan, who is 14 now, he began school in a more traditional setting, though it was a Waldorf school. They emphasized imagination over reading, writing and arithmetic and took learning from an angle more about what the child is interested in and ready for than what he "should" be learning. I think that's informed much of what we do, and there have been years when he was completely unschooled, and years when he went to public school (while the boys were being cooked). The past two years, he's largely been in charge of his own schooling. He does Spanish and web design online, he writes stories similar to "Lord of the Rings" and he goes out and identifies a plant and bird every day.

In addition, there is exploring state and national parks. It all rounds out quite well, the basics like reading and math and writing are all in there, and I try and keep it enjoyable for him—but challenging too.

He recently took the Iowa Standardized Tests though, and for a kid who has had a mixed bag of education and largely been homeschooled by his rather hands-off father's approach, he killed it. He only got below average on one test and above average on like 20. I am proud, and I am bragging, but it's really a testament to how this life has crafted him and the great kid he is.

What has been the most rewarding thing about living small?

When things are good, it's all about the family time. Things aren't always good, but when they are it's great. Seeing the boys learn to walk, talk and go from piles of goo to building castles with Legos, watching Winter as he can rattle off the names of trees or Wylder put together puzzles or Tristan make friends with any and everyone at a campground.

I am very fortunate that I don’t have to go off to an office and miss my kids growing up.

What is the most challenging thing?

There are a lot of things. I want to take it slow, so we find a campsite for a few weeks, and then I am desperately bored and want to leave. Repeat. It's a silly problem, but there's an addiction to travel that sets in, even when it doesn't always make sense.

And maintaining the vehicles.

And saying goodbye to great friends, even though you know you'll see them again. Right now that's one of the biggest things. I miss my friends in the Northwest, Renee misses family, Tristan misses family. It leads to tension that, frankly, I don't know how we could ever resolve because these people are scattered all over the nation.

Just trying to be great parents is the short answer though. And I think we’re doing a good job, but it has continuously proven to be the hardest thing we’ve ever done.

What is your advice to other families who want to live small or hit the road?

Give it a go! Find out what's right for you, maybe rent an RV for a week or two, see if you like it. If you don't, try a different kind (bigger or smaller). My thing is, I tell people that anyone can do it. It's possible. Not everyone will do it, and those who do, not all of them will like it. We've seen people fall in love with it like we did and others who bailed after a few months. It doesn't matter.

You can always go back to a more traditional life, even if it’s not the one you had before. But you’ll at least have tried something new and given your kids the notion that trying is all that matters.

What's next? Any news you want to share?

Being in Mexico is new and exciting and maybe a little scary for some of us.

Right now we're leaving it at that.

We have ideas about what we’ll do after that, but I don’t like to start planning the ‘next next’ adventure when we’re still working on the ‘just next’ one.

Follow Nathan, Renee, Tristan, Winter & Wydler and their adventures

Edited by Kate MacDougall.
All photos credit to
Nathan Schwartz.