Abbi & Callen, a husband and wife photography team, have been calling home to some of the most incredible places in the western U.S., such as Moab, Utah, and Yosemite National Park in California. I asked Abbi to share their process for building out the van, some of the hardest moments on the road and navigating a small space with a dog and another human. Get a glimpse into why they live and run their business out of their van and what's next for the two of them.
Before the van, we were living on the road in a little camper we towed with our Subaru Outback. It was more of a cargo trailer with a shell and a bed platform, but it worked at the time. We decided to live full time on the road because we were spending all of our free time road tripping around the western U.S., but we were always driving back to our apartment in Houston, Texas, for Callen’s job. Returning to Texas became harder and harder each time and we eventually planned a three-month sabbatical to take off and live on the road. Every time we talked about coming back after the three months ended, it felt like a tease, so we decided to just go for it.
After a few months living on the road and booking a lot more weddings than we’d originally anticipated, we created a sustainable lifestyle where we were making good money and loving life. We decided to dedicate a few years to it, but step one was figuring out a better living situation (the camper was pretty awful). After a ton of research and checking out other nomad's rigs, we decided on a 2017 RAM ProMaster 2500 van with a 118 wheelbase, and haven’t looked back (although Callen sometimes jokes we should have gotten the 159 wheelbase instead).
Callen did the entire build in just three weeks. We were on a time crunch with just under one month to drive to Texas (from California), sell our camper, trade in our Subaru for our van, and build out the van before returning back to California for a wedding. Callen worked from 8 a.m. until midnight for three weeks straight building everything from the inside out. We often joke that it’s a utilitarian build, because the drawers are a bit janky and the cabinets still don’t have knobs, but it has everything we need and works just fine.
I painted the walls and cabinets, threw in a few blankets and added some throw pillows, so it truly feels like home. We also have two important pieces of art on the walls from our old apartment—a wooden plaque my friend made us for our wedding and an old-school, original Chouinard ice climbing axe for decor.
When we were building out the van, we discovered the biggest priority was storage. We don’t have a storage unit anywhere and we like to dabble in a ton of outdoor sports, so we needed room for all our toys. We built our bed pretty high to maximize space underneath and we also have a huge rack on top of the van full of gear.
At any point in time, we have all the supplies that we need to skydive, rock climb (trad, sport and big wall), whitewater kayak, backpack/camp, snowboard, snowshoe, motorcycle (trails or roads) and, of course, take amazing photos of it all.
It was also super important to me that it would feel like a home. I make our bed nearly everyday (even though Callen teases me endlessly about it), because I just love the nest aspect of everything.
What would you change about your van?
We wouldn't change a thing about our build, but Callen says he would’ve gotten the bigger wheelbase. We also both agree that if we had known how much our business would have grown over this past year, we might have invested in a 4x4 van instead. We’re still mixed about that. Overall, we’re happy with it. We might add in a few windows and upgrade to nicer seats eventually.
Describe a typical day in vanlife.
There's never really a typical day, but I almost always try to find some time to sit down with my computer and get work done (running a business is no joke). And much like a puppy, Callen needs physical activity everyday or he gets grumpy. Unless we’re shooting multiple gigs in a row in one place, we are almost always moving every day.
We are trying to relax more this year—chilling at campsites longer in the mornings and arriving to camp earlier in the day—but we’re both very "go-go-go," so it’s hard for us to be in one spot for too long.
What's your travel schedule like?
Our travel schedule is loosely based on where we want to be each month, and then, we book weddings from that. During our first year on the road, we let weddings dictate where we were and found ourselves moving from places we loved more than we wanted. So this year, we were intentional about choosing where we wanted to be and we were strict on our availability. Thankfully, our business has been very successful and we have had the freedom to turn down gigs that don’t match our ideal plans.
Is there anything you miss from your previous life?
We really miss having a solid community that we’re around all the time. We came from an incredible community of friends in Texas that we spent time with on a weekly basis, but now we are constantly moving and don’t have a neighborhood.
That being said, we’ve been amazed by the connections in our travels. And after a year and a half, we’ve got a solid community of friends in Moab, Utah and Yosemite National Park, and a lot of fellow nomad friends that we meet up with a few times a year in random places when our paths cross.
I also really miss having a microwave and my own restroom.
Tell us about one of the hardest moments you've had on the road.
One of the very last nights we spent in our camper, we woke up after a very busy and exhausting weekend to find our dog had brought in a bunch of ticks from outside. They had been in our bed all night, and after finding one on my arm that morning, we spent more than an hour removing them from blankets, the dog and our sheets. I'm thankful there was only one we had to remove from skin located on the back of my neck. It was truly horrendous.
What's been the most memorable moment?
So many incredible moments come to mind that it’s hard to choose just one. For me, it’s all the little things added up. As I write this, I am sitting at a campground in Joshua Tree with the dog tied up beside me. It’s just a perfect day and a truly beautiful moment.
That being said, my fondest memories involve the communities we’ve found traveling. Whether it's sitting in a friend’s living room in Moab, Utah, sipping wine and stretching out sore muscles after a day of silly adventures; or being invited to a dinner in Yosemite with people we’d never met, we're always forming tight relationships on the road.
What's it like to live with your significant other in small space?
Extremely difficult and extremely beautiful. Callen and I joke that we’re pros at conflict resolution because 1.) this lifestyle brings about a lot of conflict and 2.) there is nowhere to hide! We can’t stay mad at each other when we live in a tiny van.
That being said, people assume we are really similar (mostly they assume I’m also hyper-active and outdoorsy), but in reality, I’m a pretty chill homebody. I love long mornings, going to coffee shops and chilling in the van. Callen needs activity constantly, which while amazing, can also bring about a lot of conflict when our desires don’t align (or we fail to communicate our needs in a graceful way). That being said, we are super good at sharing the space.
How does your adventure dog, Charlie, feel about vanlife?
I wish I could ask him! I know overall he loves it, and I wish he could understand that the bad days are necessary for the good days. He loves the freedom he has and being off leash, and I’m sure he loves exploring so many unique spaces. I also think it’s great he gets to be with us so much. That being said, he definitely gets tired of it and loves when we stay at a friend's house. He is stoked about being indoors and resting on couches. He has also become so attached to us now that he gets super upset if we leave him.
Up next is a lot more incredible weddings in gorgeous places. Our business is thriving and we are absolutely loving it. We also recently did our first big international trip together (to Patagonia!) and completely fell in love, so we’d be stoked to see the business expand down there.
Follow Abbi & Callen and their photography business
Produced & edited by Kathleen Morton.
Photos courtesy of Abbi & Callen Hearne.