Living on the road was never something we romanticized. It’s much more pragmatic.
I grew up in Colombia, where nature wasn’t something you went out to explore; you just lived with it every day. Ben Sasso, who is also a photographer, and my boyfriend, grew up as a boy scout who became very comfortable with the outdoors. We’re both happiest when we’re somewhere in the desert, shirtless, barefoot and climbing on rocks. So to be honest, the decision to pack up and live in a Sprinter van together was an easy one, and after years of us wanting to do it, we ended our apartment lease last year and finally made the jump.
Aside from waking up in beautiful locations and having the outdoors easily accessible, we saw a lot more perks—it was also an opportunity to spend more time with friends and loved ones we don’t get to see often. We shoot in locations that would otherwise be hard to get to and find hidden gems that haven’t yet been crowded with tourists or Instagrammers. These are actually my favorite places to live and shoot in: the off-the-grid land owned by the Bureau of Land Management that may be unnamed and unmapped but is just as gorgeous (if not more) than more popular areas.
The biggest plus for us, though, has been living a simpler, less cluttered life. It’s a very freeing feeling to know that everything I need or want fits inside our tiny home on wheels.
Ben and I had already been living together, so we didn’t need to combine our things. We didn’t own a lot of things to begin with, having been very minimalistic. Ben has what I call the “Doug Funnie closet,” with five of the same white t-shirts, three of the same tan pants and two of the same shorts. Everything we own manages to fit inside that van—we don’t have anything in storage or anywhere else.
Ben sold his Contax 645 along with some lenses with it and a couple of Canon lenses that he didn’t use (like the 20mm). I sold some accessories like PocketWizards I rarely used and my old 100mm Macro lens. We donated a bunch of camera bags, some old Polaroid cameras and vintage cameras, and random extras like a computer mouse, trackpads and extra chargers. We kept only the necessities: our Canon 5D Mark IV cameras, my five and Ben’s three prime lenses that go with them, two flashes, plus my Polaroid Land Camera with film packs and my Canon AE-1 (but after four months of never using it, I’m going to sell it too). We bought a Fuji Klasse 35mm Point & Shoot so we could still have an easy, light, small film camera.
A STREET VAN NAMED “THE TARDIS”
We chose a 4×4 Mercedes Sprinter because we wanted to be mobile and have a breezy time parking and maneuvering through cities, but we wanted it to go off-road too. The van (named “The Tardis” after the iconic time machine from Doctor Who) needed to be 100 percent reliable since it would be our transportation to weddings and client work.
There were certain amenities we didn’t want to give up, like a sink, power and heating, so we called on Sportsmobile to build it custom for us. It was definitely more expensive than if we were to build it out ourselves, especially if we got a VW or an older model, but we were okay with paying more to make sure we had the best reliable option. We looked at the used market for Mercedes Sprinters and saw that they resell really well and don’t lose much value at all. We can easily sell it in a few years if we want and make almost all of our money back. In a way, we saw it as buying our starter home, which it is—it’s our home.
By saving on rent and utilities (we run on solar power, with two panels installed on the roof), it’s financially beneficial. We get our water from city water, at campsites and the like. Sometimes we pay for it, sometimes places let us have it for free, but what we pay is minor compared to a regular water bill. The only home bill we have is our cell phone, which is bundled with our Wi-Fi hotspot.
Last year, I flew maybe 25 or 30 times. This year, I’m flying two or three times to weddings that are far and make no sense to drive to for a weekend, but I’m shooting a handful more weddings this year than last. The van runs on diesel, and in many places it’s cheaper than gas. It’s surprisingly fuel-efficient for such a big vehicle. It saves me a ton of money on incremental expenses that add up a lot when traveling. The van helps us keep those at zero. It also means Ben can come with me on wedding weekends, which would have been impossible before, unless we bought him a flight too. Now we both go for less than the price of one of us to fly before, and we can spend more time together.
Mapping It All Out
Our journey is generally determined by where I book weddings, which are all over the States. Once we map out a journey, I share my travel calendar on social and book photo and mentor sessions for the days in between weddings, in locations we’re already planning to be in, and Ben books his sessions for the same locations. So far this year, we’ve shot in California, Arizona, Kansas, Tennessee, Colorado, New Mexico, South Dakota and a few other places.
Keeping up with our businesses is obviously super important, so we made sure to incorporate everything we could possibly need in our new life on the road. We kept our 24-inch iMacs—they store inside a shockproof rolling case that gets put away in a metal safe, built into the van for safety. We also have another safe where we keep our camera gear. We have an auxiliary battery to power laptops, phones, iMacs, all the devices, and regular 12-volt outlets all over the van to plug in whatever we may need. Our Wi-Fi hotspot has worked very well for us, though sometimes we work at cafés or friends’ houses for the more data-heavy tasks, like uploading high-res wedding galleries.
LIVING WHERE WE WORK
We technically have two beds. One is in the back of the van; the second is in the pop-top. In the winter, we sleep in the “downstairs” bed, and in the summer we use the pop-top for airflow. The downstairs bed then turns into a dinette area, with two couches facing each other and a table in the middle. This is where we work on our laptops or iMacs whenever we need to. Sometimes it gets a little tricky to switch mindsets between, “This is a workspace,” and, “This is where we relax and play,” but it’s something we have gotten better at with time. Instead of having days where we work for two hours, get distracted for an hour, work again, repeat, we have full workdays and full non-workdays. It’s easier for us to be productive with that type of timeline, and then we can take days off whenever we want—drive to visit a National Park, go climbing or veg out watching Netflix.
Most van dwellers we know don’t have heat, so they have to just avoid winter. We enjoy snow and didn’t want to be so limited, so we included a diesel-run heater in the van that can run all night so we sleep comfortably in winter months. But even with heat, the weather affects us greatly. Whenever we spend any time in below-freezing temperatures, we have to empty and drain all our pipes, including our water tank, or it will freeze and damage the pipes (that was a lesson learned for us). Basically, you’re always “outdoors” in a van, so anything that affects its exterior can easily affect the interior when the van is parked.
The questions we may hear the most have to do with hygiene. We have a small porta potty we use that stows under the sink, and we take it out just when we need to use it, but we don’t use it often. For the most part, we use whatever else is available, like camp bathrooms, gas stations, friends’ houses. We don’t have a full shower—we have a spray hose in the back, attached to our 23-gallon water tank. We often go four to six days without one, and we shower whenever we’re staying with friends. It’s just like camping, which we were used to already, so it hasn’t been an issue. Sometimes I do miss hot baths, though.
STAYING ON SOCIAL
I really wanted a place where I could document our life on the road, without worrying about flooding clients or other photographers with those photos, so I opened a new Instagram account. We landed on the name @SheepFeet because we both feel the comfiest when we’re lounging in our wool socks—that’s our happy place. While the account was started purely for fun, it’s grown to be my outlet for talking about van life, meeting other people who live on the road and getting connected with brands that align with our lifestyle.
It also reinforces my wedding photo brand. The simple act of having a separate account has helped me attract couples who live similarly and value the same minimalist, adventurous life. It’s actually pushed my work forward in a way I didn’t anticipate. I have been able to shoot things and places that would have been impossible before (like an impromptu couple session in the middle of Badlands National Park in South Dakota), and I have been able to connect with couples I really admire who have become friends. I found that sometimes potential clients don’t reach out simply because they don’t like the idea of having to pay a travel fee, so when I announce that I’ll be traveling somewhere, I often get a lot of inquiries from people who maybe wouldn’t have considered bringing me out to their state.
During our first month on the road, in the winter, we spent a couple weeks in Utah. Let’s just say we didn’t have it all down yet. We forgot to drain our pipes and empty out the water tank, and everything froze, expanded and messed up our pipes. Around the same time, our heater broke (unrelated—the filter got some dirt stuck in it and it wasn’t heating). So, we were in 5-degree weather in a heater-less, water-less, broken van. We ended up having to post on social media something like, “Hi friends! If there is anyone in the SLC area that would be so kind as to let us crash on your floor for the next two days and use your shower, that would be greatly appreciated!” and we explained what happened. Several people responded, and we found someone nearby. She had followed us for a while on Instagram and knew us through social media, but we had never met her.
That is one thing about van life that has impacted us so much: the incredible kindness of strangers. Everywhere we go, people reach out offering their showers, their driveway for us to park, and at campsites we meet people who are always interested in chatting and helping in any way possible. It’s been really amazing to be able to experience that everywhere we go. (Oh, and we got our heater and pipes fixed for free—they were still under warranty. Thank you, Sportsmobile!)
DOWN THE ROAD
We don’t plan on living in the van forever, but we do see this lasting a while. The original plan was one year, but we’re five months into it (at time of writing) and we’re already excited for year two. In the future, we’ll likely go part-time on the road so we can always keep traveling.
Reality Check #1
It’s not all about beautiful locations. We’ve slept in our fair share of parking lots and truck stops.
Reality Check #2
Eating healthy might become harder. It’s easy to stop at the drive-through to get a cheap, quick bite. Our main go-to is quinoa bowls.
Reality Check #3
Weather becomes a big part of daily life. We keep up with road conditions and traffic. If we’re off-roading, we make sure it hasn’t rained a lot recently to avoid too much mud.
Reality Check #4
We listen to podcasts and audio books to help with the crazy-long, 10- to 13-hour drives.
Reality Check #5
Going a week without showering isn’t pretty, and you’ll need to learn to master the baby wipe and camp shower to get by.
CreativeLive Video Tutorial: How to Define Your Style and Brand, taught by Ben Sasso