The spirit of wanderlust is in Australian Renee Hahnel’s veins. It was first stoked by her parents, who took their family on a road trip through the east coast of Australia when Renee was 5 years old.
But Hahnel was just getting started. The self-professed travel addict—now living in the United States—has visited 28 countries and offers a unique perspective on #Vanlife, the social media movement embodying the spirit of the open road. Vanlifers take to the world's most remote and beautiful places to chronicle their journeys via photos and videos.
How many different places have you been to since you started traveling in the van?
We have covered around 10,000 miles so far, driven through 12 states, flown to [the U.S. Virgin Islands] and visited 21 national parks. We started the trip at the beginning of April and it will continue through the end of October.
What did you do with the van while you were in the Virgin Islands?
We left the van at an airport parking facility—outdoors because Ruby doesn't fit in underground parking. We missed her so much while we were gone.
What locations surprised you most?
Saguaro, Petrified Forest, Carlsbad Caverns, Big Bend, Hot Springs and Mammoth Cave national parks were all much more scenic than we expected. Big Bend National Park in particular was a real gem and I can’t wait to return one day.
Has the journey been what you expected?
Yes and no. It has been as crazy, busy and adventurous as I expected. There have also been places that I have enjoyed way more than I thought I would, and a couple that have sort of let us down. Overall, the trip has been fairly on par with what I imagined.
For someone who gets to travel so much, what's at the top of your travel bucket list?
Patagonia, Northern Norway, Greenland, Africa, the Italian Dolomites and the Alaskan National Parks are very high on my travel bucket list right now.
Do you have any travel rituals on the road?
Each day is different given the nature of this fast-paced road trip, but we do have some rituals. Our day usually starts with rising before sunrise to catch the best light for photography. After that we often tidy up then cook some breakfast. I am also keeping a journal of our happenings each day and try to sit down in the evenings to put my thoughts on paper.
What are the best restaurants you’ve found during the trip?
We have eaten some really yummy food on the road. Highlights were a delicious falafel food truck in Marfa, Texas (Food Shark), and pretty much every meal in the Virgin Islands. We have been trying to buy fresh, local food in each place we go so we can cook nutritious meals.
You can van life with one famous person, dead or alive: Who and why?
Bono from U2. Can you imagine the meaningful conversations you would have on those long drives?
What drove you (excuse the pun) to pursue van life?
My husband and I have been living a modified version of van life for years. We have a Toyota 4Runner with a rooftop tent that has previously been our version of a camper. We have also lived out of vans and cars on numerous trips around Europe and New Zealand, but never for more than five weeks at a time.
In December we were approached by Evolve about going on a road trip to all 59 U.S. National Parks. [Evolve] just released a new plant-based protein drink and have partnered with the National Parks Foundation, so it felt like the perfect way to celebrate its launch. GoWesty jumped on board and provided us a van for the seven-month trip.
Living on the road has always intrigued me—the idea of waking up in a new place every day and having just a small collection of your possessions with you.
Tell us about the van.
We have a GoWesty ’88 Westfalia Vanagon named “Ruby.” My favorite space in the van is our little work station. We have a pull-out desk and a small sofa that just fits my husband and I plus our laptops. When it's night time and our fairy lights are on and a candle is burning, it’s a really cozy space to get some work done.
What’s the one thing that’s always with you or in the van?
Mosquito repellent and stop-itch cream for our bites. The bugs have been so bad in Florida and the Virgin Islands.
What is your goal with the U.S. National Parks project?
To explore each park and share the experience with our audience via social media and mini guides on the Evolve website. Getting content for our clients is the most important thing, however we do have some personal goals for the trip. My goal is to learn as much about the parks as I can, and to really immerse myself in the experience.
We are attempting to get “off the beaten path” as much as possible and have the regular tourist experience. We hope that gives us a true perspective of the parks and all they can offer visitors.
Show us your best-loved #vanlife Instagram post.
Probably this photo from a magical morning in Great Smoky [Mountains] National Park:
All images Courtesy Renee Hahnel