Interview with Top Reviewer Van-Tramp

Jan 15, 2020 | Interviews

Interview with Top Reviewer Van-Tramp

By Nathan Paul Swartz

It was Labor Day Weekend, 2009 when Tim first took the roadtrip that would launch his traveling lifestyle.

“In an attempt to distract myself during the early days of quitting smoking,” he says from a sailboat by the name of Merriweather, somewhere in the San Juan Islands of the Pacific Northwest. “I took a weekend trip to Yellowstone National Park in my car.” It was his first trip to a national park since he was a teenager, “After spending three days tent-camping and exploring the park, I knew I needed more.”

tim, kerri, their Airstream and Big Blue

Tim had previously owned a conversion van, and while the Yellowstone trip would change his life, his sports car wasn’t exactly the ride for the job.

“I considered a smaller RV,” he recalls, “but I knew the size would restrict me in a lot of ways. I considered a mini-van, but wanted the ability to tow a trailer for longer trips. A full sized van with an American V8 was the best choice for me.” He ended up finding an extended van on Craigslist only a few miles from Boulder, Colorado–where he lived at the time–one with an engine he felt confident he could work on as needed.

He spent 2010 sleeping in that van, a 1989 Dodge Maxi-van, in Walmart parking lots, truck stops and the occasional national park campground. In the nine months he owned “Big Blue,” the nickname he gave his van, he traveled over 17,000 miles and visited 16 of those parks.

“I wasn’t full-time in the van at that time,” he says, “so I was driving back to Colorado every few weeks, then setting out for another destination after a short stay.” By 2011, he was 100% on the road.

“That’s when I was introduced to BLM and national forest boondocking. I had no idea before then, and there were little to no resources online to find good spots like there are now (thanks Campendium!)

“What few places I knew about were in common use,” he’s referring to popular RVing sites like Quartzsite in Southern Arizona, “and not really my scene. Eventually I began peaking the van’s nose a mile or two up random forest roads to see what lay ahead, and finding some supremely epic spots that I had all to myself. This became the bar–always seeking the epic solitary spot on top of a mountain with a view to die for as my backyard. Nothing else would please me after a few of those spots.”

Tim continued to travel the US for a few years before he met another solo RVer by the name of Kerri, in 2015. The two hit it off and began traveling around the country via their own mini-caravan.

No hitching up, no leveling blocks, and no utility cords…all I have to do is step into the driver’s seat and turn the key.

“At first we traveled together in our separate rigs, but we both had plans to go to Alaska that year, and it made no sense to do it in two vehicles. I moved into the Airstream in April of 2015,” after knowing one another for less than four months, he admits, “and we traveled together in it to Alaska and back.”

The two then hopped into his van for the beginning of 2016 and headed to Baja California, Mexico.

“I expected her to hate it,” Tim speaks of his concerns about how Kerri would feel living in a van, after having traveled herself for many years with the luxury of her own Airstream, “but it was quickly obvious that she was loving it. We were seriously talking about not moving back into the Airstream, but chose to for our trip to the Southeast…”

“Air conditioning would prove to be vital down there.”

an airstream in the forest

Camping in Kerri’s Airstream at North Leigh Creek Road, Alta, Wyoming.

They hopped back and forth between living riveted, as the Airstreamers say, to vanlife for the next couple of years, before making the van their permanent home through last winter.

As to their trip to Mexico? “Simply put, we wanted to go somewhere new. By 2016 it was extremely difficult to find places in the West that I had not been, and Baja was right there. Why not go see a new place and enjoy all those new adventures? It wasn’t a difficult decision at all.”

They returned to Baja two years later to, as he puts it, “…spend more time in those places in Baja we found exceptional. The 2016 visit was a lot of driving up and down the full length of the peninsula, and we really wanted to explore a few areas with a fine toothed comb, so did just that.”

The couple has now been to every state in the US, done the entire Pacific Coastline from Todos Los Santos to Alaska, and plenty of the rest of the United States.

“Until traveling with Kerri,” he remembers, “all of my travels were between the Pacific Ocean and the Rocky Mountains — the West. My inner cowboy cared only for this region, with very little need to ever go further east. It still holds my heart with an iron grasp. Even more so now that I have traveled east. The wide open spaces and freedom found in the West is all I long for.”

Some of Tim’s Favorite Places to Camp

Looking back on their travels in the van–who’s real name is Jonas, Tim reveals, meaning his van’s nickname has a nickname–when compared with life in the Airstream, he reveals the benefits of vanlife versus that of living in an RV.

“The biggest advantage,” when living in the van, “is ease of movement, plain and simple.”

When he first hit the road, it was all about covering miles, camping for a night or two max in any given location.

“My work at the time allowed me only a few hour window each day to move, so I didn’t want to waste that precious time with setting up or breaking down camp. The ease at which one could fold up camp and get moving again, in a van, is second to none. No hitching up, no leveling blocks, and no utility cords…all I had to do was step into the driver’s seat,” a feat that wouldn’t even require him to get out of the van, “and turn the key.”

a blue van parked in a meadow near a forest

Camping in Big Blue in 2014, at Cabin Hollow in Panguitch, Utah.

the same van, now painted tan

Big Blue, now painted tan, hiding out somewhere in Mineral, California. From Tim’s now “retired” Instagram account.

That he can park anywhere a normal car can, and easily navigate dirt roads, were additional perks.

“I struggled for a while when I moved into Kerri’s Airstream,” he says, “Surely with a queen bed always ready to be laid upon, toilet always at the ready, sinks, heater, etc. life was easier in that sense. But, maintaining two vehicles,” as an Airstream requires a truck to pull it, “and the setup and breakdown of camp, made life more difficult in another sense. We carried many more things that I considered luxuries, including full backpacking gear, two kayaks, extra chairs and tables, and so much booze! All of these things were used regularly, so they all came spilling out of the truck and trailer each week, and had to be put back away at the end of the week. It took hours. With Kerri’s work schedule we stayed in each camp for a week at a time, making it–at least–only a weekly chore.”

Having grown up in California’s Bay Area, his move to Boulder got him hiking more, which lead to the desire to quit smoking. Tim looks back on and speaks fondly of the decisions he’s made in life, and the lucky opportunities that allowed him to make those decisions. Quitting smoking only to have that choice lead him to a life of travel, moving around a lot as a younger man giving him a naturally nomadic disposition, and possibly the greatest of them all, meeting Kerri–these all changed his life for the better.

Given the recent boom in the popularity of camping in general, Tim and Kerri began seeking out more and more remote locations.

He admits that so many people out looking for a spot can be frustrating at times. It’s not as easy as it was ten years ago to just drive into the forest and find a perfect spot. “On the other hand,” he shares, “the more trafficked campgrounds and boondocking locations forced us into exploring areas which we may not have done in the past. Before the boom I rarely drove three miles down a dirt road, but in 2018 Kerri and I would spend entire weekends–and hundred-plus miles–not seeing asphalt, or other campers, at all. It wasn’t harder at all, just more fun. In fact, Kerri and I got quite a sensitive nose for whether a random dirt road would pay off with an epic spot or not. Some of my best memories in the van now come from our time exploring the extreme backroads of the Sierra and Cascade Mountains, through California, Oregon, and Washington. While the campgrounds were full, those backroads were all our own.”

Tim’s advice if you want to find your own remote location? Well, he says to check Campendium first. “New nomads can find years and years worth of traveling from this single resource. During that time, and with some exploring, one will gain a sixth sense for where other great places might be that are not published.”

He also mentions Benchmark maps and the Gaia Maps app, combined with the Public Lands app. “A quick Google Satellite view often rewarded us with a dozen spots to check down a particular road. Then we could pick which one we liked the most after a day of exploring.”

Tim is less concerned these days about how full the national parks and forests are, as the couple has moved their traveling life onto a sailboat, after a documentary about a teenage girl sailing the world which they’d watched together got them thinking.

“We both came out the other side with a huge will to sail at some point in our future. We had planned to finish off a few more years of land-based travel first, and maybe start looking for a boat in 2020 or 2021. It was always a 5-year plan, and we went a few years without thinking much about it again.”

Then the summer of 2018 came around, and while they were camped in the Olympic Peninsula they took a walk around a marina.

“What was a simple leisurely walk to admire some boats turned into my wanting to ask a question about the length of a particular boat, and then that gentleman inviting us on to his boat and showing us around. As luck would have it, he was selling that very boat and we fell in love with it. We couldn’t stop talking about it for a week.”

Still, they took some time to think about it and looked at a few more boats, until “Two weekends and a dozen or so boats later, we stumbled onto what would become our boat.

“Offer made, offer accepted, four weeks of paperwork later, and we became boat owners. It literally all happened within a two month period, and we didn’t even know how to sail yet.”

They moved onto the boat last April. They’ll pop back into the van come winter, as they refine their sailing skills in the Pacific Northwest, and foresee this being the usual routine until they sail to parts warmer one day.

They plan to sail to Alaska’s Inside Passage next year. Maybe head to South America or Oceania after that. Maybe they’ll do one last trip in Big Blue before all of that, or maybe just rent vans to explore the more landlocked locations their sailboat takes them in future.

For Tim and Kerri, the world is an open road that doesn’t end just because you run into a little ocean.