Nomadic Vet: Van Life Up Close & Personal

Dr. Nikki Johnson, DVM
March 20, 2024

Vet Van Life and the open road of endless opportunity

I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but at one point, there was a shift from me wanting to have every room of my house decorated and full of items that felt like home to wanting to sell everything and live as minimally as I could. I’ve lived out of my van for almost a year now, and although there have certainly been struggles and hard times, there have been so many more wonderful new experiences, opportunities, and chances to be present.

The freedom and flexibility of van life means I can sleep in a quiet neighborhood, a campground, an RV park, or in the middle of nowhere on open Bureau of Land Management land. It means I can lay in my own bed with my dog on my lunch break and read a book or recharge in whatever way feels good. It means I always have my clothes, my food, and my activities right there as close as can be. 

I realized that a complicated, full life isn’t actually the key to happiness for me. It’s finding joy in the little things and being able to enjoy them.

From the great outdoors to getting out the door

Let me backup…

The first big move I made after veterinary school was to Charlotte, North Carolina. I moved for the hiking, climbing, and really just the amazing access to nature. Also, I didn’t want to live in Florida my entire life without at least trying somewhere new. I fell in love with Charlotte pretty much immediately even though it was hard moving somewhere where I knew no one. The green of the trees, the way the leaves turned in the fall and the flowers bloomed in the spring, the real rock I could climb on just a quick drive away — it was everything I wanted. And for a few years, I thought I would never leave.

So I started looking at buying a house. At this point, I was nearly 30, out of school long enough not to be terrified of my loan balance every day, and ready for some stability. It took me a long time in a tough market, but through some luck and a looming pandemic (yes, I bought my house in April 2020), I was able to purchase a wonderful small home with a great big yard for my dog.

My house needed some serious work, and it became my project (along with a lot of help) over the next year. I filled my space with furniture, art, plants (a LOT of plants), and made my backyard an area where all of my friends could spend time together. And we really did spend so much time there. Our COVID “pod” would have family dinners and play games out on the porch. It was the best. But the thing they don’t tell you (or actually they probably do) about owning a house by yourself is that it’s a lot of responsibility and work! 

From maintaining the lawn to dealing with pestcare, cleaning, maintenance costs (thanks to being a house from the 1940s), and utilities, I quickly started to feel overwhelmed by it all. Wasn’t home ownership supposed to be this amazing transition? For me, as much as I truly loved my home, it always felt like a huge responsibility that I could never get a grip on.

After I lost my cat (my soul cat) and got the opportunity to move across the country, I took it. I was ready for a change, despite loving that place and that home so much. I was fully ready to sell everything I owned and just move into a furnished house in California — although that is not what I did at first. I moved most of my things the 2,400 miles to Southern California and started over in a new house (a rental), filling it with things with my partner at the time and making a new home there.

That situation didn’t end up working well for me for many reasons, so when it was time to say goodbye again, I decided to move forward with an idea I had been thinking about for years. Since I bought that house in Charlotte, I dreamed of something more mobile. My best friends were now spread throughout the country, and I was constantly flying around to spend time with them all. It was time for me to sell (almost) everything I owned and buy my van. 

Why I ended up living in a van down by the river

For those who haven’t read my first article, here’s the quick version of what drove me to van life: I read a book at the beginning of the pandemic that taught me so much about being a woman living unafraid and searching for a way to live my most authentic, truest life. This is where my idea for van life first started — with the questions:

  • How can I spend time with my community and my family that is spread so far apart?
  • How can I not feel tied down and restricted by my job as a veterinarian that can be really emotionally exhausting?
  • How can I see the world and experience nature on a daily basis?

What I ended up discovering was my love of wandering and exploring new outdoor places, a desire to live minimally, a realization that community is the most important thing to me, and a new career path (relief work) could all be possible with a mobile relief vet lifestyle, and that’s where the van came in.

Once it was time for me to move on from my rental in Southern California, I immediately continued my search for a converted camper van. I had been looking at options for a couple years at this point, but I had never seriously considered the possibility. I got very lucky and found a wonderful van not too far away from me in Southern California, went and looked at her, and the rest became history. I sold or donated almost everything I owned, downsized to the size of a van, sent a few boxes to my family in Florida, and I hit the road. 

I write this now from a camp chair in the middle of Joshua Tree, surrounded by friends working on their own separate projects, the bright sun on my face and a real feeling of contentment in my life. The only things I own are in my van, some clothes and gear, and all I need to decide is how I want to spend my time and when I want to work to keep up with my bills.

vet van life campsite

How to live the van life

1. First, figure out your budget

This is super important, since you can buy rigs that cost anywhere from $20,000 to $200,000! Finding an option that works for your budget and your needs is the most important first step. Prices are based on brand of vehicle, size, AWD/4WD capability, number of miles, and how fancy the build is. I truly believe there is a van/rig out there for everyone!

2. Decide what your essentials are! 

I have gone through this step multiple times already. You often start off thinking you need so many extra items of clothing, pieces of gear, or remnants of home. But only some of them can make the cut for the limited space that you have.

Also, what will you do with the rest of your stuff? Storage unit? Sell it all (my method)? Leave it with a friend? 

3. How will you work?

This looks different for everyone. For me, traveling to different places doing relief work through platforms like Roo has allowed me to live this lifestyle. It does require me to plan my routes and work a bit ahead of time. I also do some telemedicine and virtual work, which really makes things so much easier on the road!

If you’re going on the road as a van vet, you’ll also need to think about getting licensed or temp licensed anywhere you expect to practice.

4. When can you hit the road?! 

What do you need to finish up? Ending a lease, selling a house, leaving a job, etc. are all things to get settled before getting on the road.
Want to learn more about how to go from zero to van life? Here’s an all-inclusive article that goes a lot deeper than I have space for here.

Van Life FAQ

Here are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions I get about van life:

Where do I shower? 

I have a Planet Fitness Membership, which means I can go to any of their gyms (and there are a lot of them!) for a workout and a shower. Many of them are even open 24 hours. I do sometimes also rent an Air BnB when I'm working so I have more amenities when I am visiting an area.

How do I find places to work? 

Roo is one of my best resources for this, especially when I’m in new and unknown territory! I also have contacts I’ve made over time working in different areas that I can reach out to. Vaccine clinics have also been a great supplement to my income!

What about going to the bathroom? 

I get this question so much! Often when I’m traveling and driving, I’ll stop in the morning for a coffee or to fill up on gas and use the public restrooms. I do have a compost toilet in my van, though, that I can use whenever and easily dispose of everything when I make stops. 

Is it hard to meet people and make friends? 

It is, and it can be really tough! I'm really fortunate that I have wonderful friends and communities spread throughout the US that I try to visit as much as possible. I also have activities like rock climbing that often lead me to like-minded communities in each area I visit. Alone time is also a really valuable part of life for me, so I feel like I truly get a great balance being on the road!

I’d love to hear any other questions you have or any topics you’d like me to cover! 

Please watch my video on social media and feel free to comment! Along with this article I’ll be posting a van tour to show you the setup I have in my van — keep an eye out for this on my and Roo’s Instagram!

Go out and take big risks, it’s worth it!

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