There’s something about life on the open road that is just, well, liberating. With no mortgage to worry about and the ability to roam wherever you please, it offers the kind of intoxicating freedom that few other lifestyles can afford. But more than the romance of endless horizons, what is it about van life that ignites a spark in so many of us?
After losing her flat during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and faced with turmoil both within her family and a stricken world, Amy Nicholson took a bold step: she bought and converted a van. Now, having embraced a simpler, happier way of life through her home on wheels, Amy shares with us her journey to happiness on the road.
Had the idea of van life always appealed to you? Was there a defining moment when you decided to finally go for it?
Vans have always been a part of my life. My dad has been into vans for as long as I can remember, and my parents even toured around the Rockies in a van for their honeymoon. I actually took my first van trip, a road trip around New Zealand, 5 years ago, and I just loved everything about it – the simplicity of the lifestyle and the beauty of the natural world around you. After that, I completely fell in love with van life, but although I went on as many trips as possible, a full-time transition hadn’t seemed possible. That was, until Covid hit. In what was already a difficult time, I lost all of my freelance work and I lost my flat, too. I found myself moving back to my parents and was in a really dark place. After some long conversations with my dad, I started to play with the idea of making a van a home – a real home – and that was the start.
How did you find the experience of converting your van? How long did it take overall?
As I’d been able to absorb lots of information from my dad and road tripped myself over the years, I had a really good understanding of how I wanted the conversion to go. I had already done a lot of research and had plenty of ideas about how I wanted the van to look and feel. For example, an office space for my freelance work and a nice kitchen area were essential. Essentially, I knew that it had to feel like a home. It needed to be practical, but it also needed to be personal, comfortable and cosy. During the conversion itself, there were lots of tricky moments, but I had great help along the way, and it challenged me in a really positive way. Overall, the conversion took 6 months.
What’s the van life community like? Have you been able to meet like-minded people?
The van-life community is amazing, both online and on the road. Online, there is this amazing network of people who are all really supportive, encouraging and open. During the conversion, I shared updates on my Instagram page, and I would often receive really helpful messages from people offering tips and advice that I wouldn’t have thought of. Now I’m on the road, I still share my journey with everyone and get to meet brilliant, like-minded people as I go too. There’s definitely a sense of camaraderie between fellow van-lifers, and you regularly find yourself striking up conversations wherever you are. People are always interested in your journey and have great stories to share.
Now you’re on the road, do you find that van life improves your mental wellbeing?
In 2020, I was in a particularly dark place. I’d lost my work, I’d lost my flat, I felt isolated and, most devastatingly, my sister was diagnosed with cancer. It was a really difficult and scary time. Fortunately, my sister is on the road to recovery now, but the events of 2020 highlighted the reality that life is short. Overwhelmed by the pressures of life and the curveballs it throws at you, the battle with mental health and wellbeing can be a real struggle. Finding a way back to the surface isn’t always easy, but for me, my van changed everything. It suddenly gave me a space to be comfortable, to recognise my own needs, and to write my own adventures. It allowed me to break away from the shackles of social conventions and become who I wanted to be. Most importantly, I was able to find happiness within myself.
For you, what are the most important aspects of van life that promote a happier, healthier mindset and lifestyle?
There are so many advantages, but I think one of the most fundamental is just living simply and reconnecting with your environment. Your priorities change and you realise that you can live without so many of the material things you thought you needed. In fact, even if you wanted that extra outfit, the lack of space makes you think twice about what you need, rather than what you want. You become much less wasteful, and it’s very liberating.
Of course, there is a great social aspect to life on the road, but you also learn that you can rely on yourself. One of the most important things about this van life is how at ease I feel with myself now. Through spending time on my own and ignoring social pressures, I feel I have become a much better human. And, what’s great is that you can help other people to realise the same thing – that you don’t have to live a certain way, be in a relationship, or dress a certain way, if you don’t want to. Everyone can live the life they want to. I feel very passionate about that.
What’s the best part about life on the road? And what’s the hardest part?
One of the best parts of life on the road is being able to truly live in the moment. If there’s something I want to do – I just do it. Some people would find it really stressful, but I love that way of life. I also love having the opportunity to wake up in out-of-this-world places – it’s like having a new back garden every day – the novelty will never wear off. As for the hard times, sometimes it can be stressful finding places to live, but that’s all part of it. The practical things like cleaning the toilet are also not fun! It’s not the most glamorous, but again, it’s part of the deal and it’s also really important to leave as little impact on the environment as possible.
So, with all the places that you’ve been to, what is it about Cornwall that draws you back?
I’ve been coming to Cornwall my whole life, so there is a nostalgic element for me. But more than that, there’s something about the beauty of the county and the laidback lifestyle here that naturally really appeals to me. The people are more chilled. The vibe is more relaxed. It’s very outdoorsy and there’s great surf. I think being by the sea is so good for you, and I would be in the water every day if I could. I think stripping everything back and living a simpler, more sustainable life is so important, and the environment here encourages you to do that. I used to live in London, and it’s just a world apart down here.
What is the one thing that you couldn’t be on the road without?
My blanket! I have an Atlantic Blanket on my bed which perfectly matches my duvet and the tones of the van. Well, actually, I’ve got about fives blankets in my van. They’re so versatile and so cosy – whether you’re out on the cliffs or cuddled up in the van at night. It’s all about the comfort factor. In the evening, I like to light some candles, cuddle up with my blanket and put on a chilled playlist – it’s bliss.
Knowing what you know now, would you go back and change anything?
There’s nothing I’d change – I just love my van life. I love the van itself and I love what it’s given me. I have no regrets; everything that has got me to this point is part of the process and I wouldn’t change it. I was going through a really rough time, but now I feel amazing. That’s all down to the van and I want to keep it going for as long as possible. When all is said and done, we’ve got to try and overcome challenges and find happiness in life. I’m honestly so proud of my sister and what she has got through, it’s been so hard. I feel more than ever now that it’s important to be real, it’s important to share, and it’s important to do what makes you happy. Life is short.