I'm not sure how I found Shelby & Simon, but I'm happy I did. If you stumble across their YouTube Channel like I did, you'll probably end up spending several hours watching episodes such as "Where do you park? Where do you sleep?" and my absolute favorite, "Halloween in the Sweat Lodge."
Watching their videos, I can't help but experience the raw nature of van life. It isn't always as pretty as we paint it, and it's important for others to share the real story. Shelby & Simon are those people. They make light of the bad and move on with humor, reminding us that life is too short to get hung up on things that don't go our way.
Square Feet: 126
Make, Model, Year: 1992 Dodge B350 Conversion Van
Currently Living: West Coast of Canada
Simon and I are traveling into the US for the winter, and then back to Ontario, Canada, for the summer.
Months Living Mobile: 4
What were you doing before you went mobile?
I was finishing my degree at the University of Ottawa in fine art and gender studies, and Simon was working full time as a commercial photographer. Together we were also running our wedding photography business, which we’re still maintaining on the road.
We were living in downtown Ottawa in a lovely little bachelor apartment, and we actually really loved our life there. However, Simon was itching to leave Ottawa since we met three years ago. He was signed up to leave for Asia to teach when he met me, but he decided to stay. Since I was still in school, we were tied to Ottawa until I finished in April.
Why did you make the change?
Simon and I both love traveling and had been to New York City, Texas, Florida, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland together before moving into our van. We kept seeing people who were traveling around affordably in vans and kept admiring photographers who worked from places we’d never been.
We realized that we needed to leave Ottawa in order to grow as artists and people.
We’re also really looking to find a place that we want to eventually set down roots.
What was the process like to move into your mobile home?
We spent a year looking at vans on Kijiji. We ended up buying and retrofitting a 1972 van. We worked for a few months insulating, painting, putting flooring in, mounting solar panels, etc. But then, unfortunately, the van burned down in a fuel line fire. We were pretty devastated about losing all the work—both emotionally and financially—we had put into the van.
A few months later, we found another van on Kijiji—the one we have now—which is much more set up in terms of the inside living space. We spent five months hunting down electrical issues, replacing parts and then making the inside of the van feel more like our home.
During this process we went on a month-long backpacking trip across Europe without our van. When we got back, we only had one month to sell almost everything we owned and cram what was left into the van. Luckily, we were only moving from a bachelor apartment, so we didn’t have as much as some people moving from a house into a van might have. We sold the valuable furniture and electronics on Kijiji and had two garage sales. Then we gave the rest away to friends, donated it to charity and eventually ended up storing a few boxes at my parents’ place.
It was a really good exercise in seriously looking at the amount of stuff we had accumulated and thinking about what we really needed to function and be happy day to day. At first, it was really hard getting rid of stuff, but then it became addictive to think about how much lighter our life would be without possessions. The majority of what we kept in storage was cameras, artwork, winter clothes (in case we decided to live in Ontario again) and books.
How do you balance work and living in a small space?
We work together, which actually makes things more difficult. We shoot weddings and decided to make a commitment to work from May until September, and then travel from October until May. It’s a real challenge for us not to overwork and to dedicate time to ourselves and on dates together.
Even when we’re in the “off season," we are constantly on social media promoting our business and emailing with clients. We mostly work in coffee shops because it gives us a chance to get out of the van and to have reliable Internet. It actually works out pretty well to not have Internet in the van because then we can dedicate time to our work and relax when we’re in the van or out adventuring. We do have a Wi-Fi antenna, which Simon sometimes uses to upload our YouTube videos, but only one person can use it at a time.
The key to working and moving in the small space has really been to only have “one cook in the kitchen”—literally and metaphorically speaking. But one of the major reasons we wanted to move into a van was because it would force us to get outside in a way that living in an apartment doesn’t. It’s easy to lie inside and watch movies all afternoon when you live in a warm, cozy apartment or house.
Exploring with the best adventure dog: Champ
Being outdoors has been instrumental to our mental health.
What are your hobbies on and off the road?
Simon is a huge tech nerd; he loves playing with gadgets and building his own. He is always looking for hacks to make our lives easier—such as solar panels, Wi-Fi antennas, extra outlets to charge our tech on and wiring in lights to dark corners. Right now he’s working on making his own quadcopter to get aerial videos. Simon also picked up a skateboard and mountain bike, which he loves fixing up and also riding. He’s an avid coffee enthusiast and makes a point of seeing all the best coffee shops in whatever town we’re in.
I'm a big bookworm. I spend a lot of my time reading and writing. I'm interested in art, feminism and Indigenous culture. I use my research to inform my art practice. I also love knitting and other crafts such as beading. I recently made my own mukluks. When we’re on the road, I ensure that we see great art in the area. I also recently bought a mountain bike and am excited to get out on it with Simon.
We both love cycling, hiking and shooting with old film cameras. We have our own little darkroom in the van.
Even though we love getting out of the van, we also really love making popcorn and watching movies. We have very different tastes in entertainment, but they converge on superhero and kids movies. We’re currently watching two series: Gotham and Jessica Jones.
What are your top three go-to items in your tiny home?
Eno Hammock: It’s so light and portable that there’s always room for it. It can be set up nearly anywhere. It instantly gives us a relaxing spot to lounge and get some alone time.
Kobo eReader: Even though I insisted on having a bookshelf, Simon loves his e-reader. He can have hundreds of books on one little device, and it takes up very little room. It hardly ever needs to be charged and you don’t need to have a light on to read. He’s slowly converting me.
Lenovo Y50 Laptop: It took us a while to find a laptop that could take over the demanding tasks our custom desktop was doing for us. So now that we finally have it, it’s almost always on doing something, like editing our latest YouTube video or wedding.
What has been the most rewarding thing about living small?
It’s a toss up between two things:
1. The affordability of living small, combined with a total lack of a desire to buy anything new has really let our money go further and will let us work less and enjoy more of the time we have.
2. Getting back to nature, enjoying where we are and exploring new surroundings every single day.
What is the most challenging thing?
On a physical level, hitting your head on literally everything, all the time. But in a more general sense: the feeling of being in each other’s way all the time.
On a more emotional level, the sense of aimlessly wandering can be tiring sometimes. It can be scary to not always know your direction in life.
What is your advice to future homeowners who want to live small or hit the road?
Just do it. Don’t overthink it. This lifestyle can’t be planned to perfection. Reading about it in forums and subreddits is fine, but with this lifestyle, you have to make your home your own.
What's next? Any news you want to share?
We’re now vlogging (video blogging) and sharing our adventures with videos on Youtube, which we upload every other day.
We’d love to connect with people who want to meet up, show us around their town or give us recommendations on places to see. We love getting an insider view of a city. We’d also love to meet up with artists and photographers to collaborate on exciting projects.