Kristen has been living in her Sprinter van since August. Working with a builder, Kristen designed her van to have a near queen sized bed, a bathroom with a shower and a full galley with a 2-burner gas stove.
Three years ago, she started a blog called Bearfoot Theory named after the Grateful Dead dancing bear tattoo she has on her right foot. On her blog, she encourages others that it’s never too late to get outdoors by sharing resources to help people get started.
Square Feet: 100
Make, Model, Year: 2016 4x4 Sprinter Cargo Van
You used to own a house and then sold it to buy this Sprinter. Why?
Previous to vanlife, I was renting an apartment in Salt Lake City and starting a travel blog called Bearfoot Theory, but I was mostly living on the road full time. My apartment in Salt Lake was a mess and served only as an expensive place to do laundry and catch up on work in between trips. All of the back and forth was burning me out, so I started to think about a mobile home base.
I could wake up at the places I was photographing and blogging about without all of the headache of packing and unpacking.
I decided to use money from a condo I sold to buy an empty 4x4 Sprinter van and hired someone to build it out for me. Once the van was complete, I moved out of my apartment. I either sold or put what I didn’t need (or couldn’t fit) into storage.
Take us on a tour inside your home.
When I was designing the van, I had a couple of requirements. I needed a comfortable place to work, I wanted to sleep across the length of the van instead of parallel to the backdoor, and I wanted to maintain the walkway to the back of the van.
On the driver’s side of the van, I have an overhead cabinet that spans the length of the van where I store food, maps and other small stuff. My galley is in the back with a two-burner stove and a small fridge.
Behind the sliding door on the passenger side, I have storage cabinets and one of my water tanks. At the very back on the passenger side, I have a bathroom with a shower—one aspect that I’m having second thoughts about. If anyone is thinking about putting a shower in a 144” Sprinter, talk to me first. There’s so much I wish I would’ve known before deciding on a permanent shower.
As for storage, since I opted against the platform bed, I don't have a “garage” to store bigger items. So for extra storage, I installed an Aluminess roof rack on the top of my van, along with one of their storage boxes on my rear bumper.
For power, I have 180 watts of solar (plus a 120-watt portable panel), three 125 Ah 12v batteries, and a 2000-watt inverter. I have the batteries connected to the alternator so they get juiced up while I’m driving. That was one of the smartest things I’ve done, since I now show up at camp with full batteries, even if it’s cloudy out.
How do you fund your lifestyle?
Three years ago, I started Bearfoot Theory with the intention of turning it into a full-time business. I had no background in blogging or web development, but I dove in head first and taught myself the skills I needed to be successful. I’m excited to say with a ton of patience, grit, and hard work (plus a little bit of luck), I’ve somehow managed to pull it off.
Do you travel solo or with another person?
Originally my plan was to travel solo, but I met my boyfriend Ryan last year when I was in the process of having my van built. He wooed me with his amazing camp cooking skills, so I decided to shift gears and invite him along.
Do you ever travel solo?
Prior to this van, I spent three months traveling by myself in a van all around New Zealand. I’ve always been pretty independent and outgoing, but before I left for that trip, I was a little bit afraid of getting lonely. Luckily, the way the campsites are set up there, it ended up being really easy to make new friends, and my concerns were squashed pretty quickly.
Where do you sleep on the road?
I use the app Allstays Camp & RV. It shows you all the campgrounds near you (from free dispersed BLM camping to private campgrounds).
Do you ever worry about safety?
While I’m confident in my intuition, when I’m alone, I’m definitely a little more on edge and I’m more comfortable in established campgrounds than being off the grid.
I’m also figuring out exactly what I need in the van to feel safe. When I first got the van, I bought myself a big can of bear spray, but I’m not so sure that’s the smartest weapon of choice considering I would probably end up blinding myself in the process. I also just got a Delorme InReach which allows you to send custom texts with your GPS coordinates to your contacts even when you are out of cell service.
On the flip side, traveling solo offers so many benefits that you don’t realize until you do it. It opens you up to forging new friendships. If you want company, you have to go out there and make it. It makes you more self-reliant and confident since you have to be 100% in charge of your decisions at every fork in the road. You learn how to be happy and stay busy with just yourself.
Tell us about your adventure dog, Charlie.
Charlie is an Australian Shepard Border Collie puppy that was a bit of an impulsive move by my boyfriend Ryan. To be perfectly honest, I was a little skeptical when I first found out he got Charlie. I love dogs, but the thing that immediately popped into my head was all of the places I wasn’t going to be able to take him, like the trails in most of national parks that I like to write about. But since that initial gut reaction, I’ve completely fallen for that little fluff ball.
Are there any limitations to traveling with a dog?
As for vanlife with a dog, proper training is key, and it’s definitely going to be an adjustment with so many places off limits. At the same time, I think that opens new doors. It forces you to get a little further off the beaten path where there’s fewer people and dog restrictions don’t apply. Or in places like Zion National Park, I research doggie daycare options.
How do you find community?
If you put yourself out there on social media, it opens up the possibilities for meeting people pretty much wherever you are. Lately I’ve been experimenting by posting where I am on Instagram and seeing if anyone is around and wants to meet up for a hike or a beer. So far I'm 2 for 2.
When did you start being drawn to the outdoors?
I only went on one camping trip as a kid. I was 5, and it was on Catalina Island. My dad transported all of our gear from the boat to our campsite in a little red wagon, and I now laugh when I think about what a stretch that was for my parents.
My first overnight backpacking trip was right after college. It didn’t go super smooth, but it showed me what the outdoors could offer me. I gradually started hiking more, got into better shape and eventually went on my first extended 5-day backpacking trip at age 26 in Kings Canyon.
I will say that not growing up in an outdoorsy family, the outdoors were always an intimidating place. I doubted my capabilities and didn’t really know how to get started.
What's your favorite outdoor activity?
If I had to choose just one, I’d say hiking. The mental and physical benefits are huge, and there’s very few barriers to getting out there.
Over the last two years, I’ve also been reintroduced to skiing, and I’m seriously having the time of my life. The last time I went skiing was 10 years ago. I was getting lapped by my friends over and over again, my goggles were so foggy I couldn’t see sh*t and my ski boots were killing me. I promised I’d never do it again. But then I moved to Utah where we have the best skiing in the country, and learning how to enjoy skiing was the only option for surviving winter. I’m still not that good, but I am confident I can get down almost any slope, and it's one of the few outdoor activities where I’m fully immersed in the moment.
What story comes to mind when you think about the best moment you've had outdoors?
My best outdoor memory was watching the sunset on my last night of a 22-day backpacking trip on the John Muir Trail. I hiked that a few summers ago with one of my best friends right after quitting my 9-to-5. We watched the sunset over Guitar Lake and I thought, this is the ticket. That trip, and specifically that last sunset, helped solidify my desire and commitment to never return to a cubicle.
Has there been any challenging moments?
I went on my first solo backpacking trip in New Zealand last year. I wanted to love it. I wanted it to open up a new world of possibilities for me, but when it came down to it, I really didn’t enjoy it. On that hike, I kept losing the trail, ending up in one muddy bog after the next, and when I finally got to where I was going to camp the first night, I felt completely defeated. Luckily, the next day, right about when I was ready to give up, I ran into a 78-year-old-man named Miles on the trail and a couple of young guys from the States, and we ended up camping and hiking together before returning to the trailhead on the third day. In the end, it was a pretty positive experience, and I’m still friends with the two guys I met on the trail.
Is vanlife your forever lifestyle?
I think I’ll be mobile for the next couple of years at least, and I know I’ll always be a minimalist to some degree. I’m not sure if it will be in the Sprinter or something else, but either way I like small.
What's next? Any news?
I’ll be attending the Overland Expo for the first time in May. This summer, I have a few big solo trips planned, including a five-week trip up to Alaska. This year I have two group trips I'm offering. The first is a hiking and camping trip in Southern Utah in May, and the second is a 10-day wilderness backpacking trip through one of the most remote national parks in Alaska.
Follow Kristen of Bearfoot Theory
Produced by Kathleen Morton.
Edited by Kate MacDougall.
All photos credit to Kristen Bor.