Photographer Kathleen Carney has lived in her 2002 Suburban 4×4 for 18 months. Her rig has 180,000 miles and some slick custom carpentry to suit.
And her new husband, depending on his work schedule, joins her for stints. "We built out the Suburban with the help a very knowledgeable and wonderful friend," Carney told Adventure Sports Network. "Being involved in every step of the process was crucial in getting what we wanted and also in understanding how to fix things."
Building her business as an outdoor photographer, Carney, 30, has traveled all over, shooting projects for REI and Outdoor Research, as well as Outside and Backpacker magazines. But she counts the desert Southwest among her favorite spots – southern Utah, northern Arizona, and Baja, California.
"I love the mountains, too, but something about the desert keeps calling me back," she says. "When I don’t have a lot of work on the schedule I go to Zion or Moab to climb or canyoneer."
Carney shares these tips for carving out a successful vanlife:
Think Outside the Van
It's so much cheaper to purchase a 4×4 Suburban, and typically a Suburban will be in better shape than a van. Our total budget for everything — the vehicle, build out, recovery gear, etc. — was $10,000. It was a no-brainer. We knew we would have less space, but the thought was the Suburban was a place to store gear, sleep, and move around the country. We wanted to live outside and use the vehicle for the necessities.
Go for the 4×4
If you enjoy outdoor recreation and that's the main reason for building out your vehicle for extended travel, get a 4×4. It opens up a whole world of adventure opportunities and access that I would have been more nervous to tackle if I was in a two-wheel-drive vehicle.
Focus on Functional Design
Think about ease of access to the things you need the most when building out your rig. For example, I'm so thankful we made our bed platform low and built shelves on the side. It makes grabbing clothes and food easy, and there's more headspace.
Invest in recovery gear
Stuff is constantly breaking; it's a moving tiny house, after all. Learning how to fix things is imperative. I broke down in the middle of nowhere a couple times by myself. Make sure you have the skills and the tools to get yourself out of that kind of situation. I’ve used tire plugs, an air compressor, hose clamps, and a variety of other tools many times.
Get a comfortable mattress
I knew I wouldn’t make it long on the road if I weren't getting good sleep. I have a 4-inch foam mattress that folds up so I can easily access the compartments beneath it. I sleep so well on it, and I’ve slept with the windows open for so long now I think it’d be hard to be cooped up in a house again.
Set some goals
A thing I’ve heard from a lot of people, if they are lucky enough to travel for an extended period of time, is that they get bored after a while and they feel as though they lack a purpose. I work on the road, so I have career goals, but I also have athletic objectives I’m working towards. In 2016, I wanted to learn to surf, so I spent a lot of time in Baja and San Diego surfing. Last year, I wanted to learn trad climbing, so I went to three climbing festivals, took clinics, and linked up with partners to learn to climb cracks.
We have solar power on the roof and charge our auxiliary battery when we drive. Because of this setup, we have an awesome fridge that allows us to keep fresh food in the truck and eat more like we would at “home.” I’m also able to charge my camera gear and computer, plus we can have some nice, normal perks, like catching up on Game of Thrones in a Walmart parking lot.
All photos by Kat Carney
Read more about vanlife