As a solo female, I am often asked what my experience living and traveling alone in my van entails. Besides the curiosity, I am often met with concern, confusion, and even outright disagreement from strangers and acquaintances alike.
The narrative society often expects me to tell is one of danger; that as a solo female traveler, I must travel differently in order to accommodate my gender, and that I must live in constant fear of the unspeakable.
The actual narrative I developed is different from these expectations. Van life as a solo female traveler is one of the most empowering, difficult, and joyous journeys of my life. The road has been the greatest teacher, and I believe every woman should be encouraged to travel alone as well. Telling a different story of solo female travelers became the pursuit of my own travel.
It was my first week on the road. And the following scene unfolded while driving…
“Oh no!” I cringed, awaiting the inevitable clash of glass on wood that happened every time I turned too quickly into any curve. This time, after cranking the steering wheel a bit too tight along the winding Arkansas mountain road, I clenched my teeth and shoulders, squinting my eyes to slowly turn around.
My entire glass jar of tomatillo salsa teetered on the edge of the wooden countertop, taunting me before it sacrificed itself to the carpeted van floor. I had no plan and no real idea what I was doing, but I was learning something new every day. The lesson that day was that when you live in a van, glass jars are not your friends, and velcro shut cabinets definitely are.
Is solo female travel safe?
Type into Google “solo female travel,” and the first thing that pops up are articles entitled “Staying Safe as a Solo Female” and “Safest Places for a Solo Female Traveler.” While these might be well-intentioned, they reinforce the idea that women are inherently vulnerable.
The more that we publish articles with headlines such as these, the more we call attention to women’s vulnerability instead of their strength. And unfortunately, these are the only types of articles that I found about solo female travel.
When every discussion about solo female travel ultimately comes to revolve around safety, we put on blinders to the wide array of experiences solo travel elicits, focusing instead on the one anticipated narrative of danger.
Because of this, we force the association of danger and solo female travel, and promote the idea that women should not travel alone. We have ignored the stories of women’s growth, accomplishments, and discoveries met while traveling.
My 1998 Ford Van Found on Craigslist
I craved change. I knew there were hordes of women who were traveling solo, and I sought to celebrate them instead of challenge them. So at age 20, with the money that a dingy cafe waitressing job put in my pocket, I purchased a 1998 used Ford found on Craigslist and named her Penny.
I switched my university classes to online for the semester, bought an atlas and a $20 lavalier microphone on Amazon, and left to film a documentary on solo female travel.
The Joys of Living In A Van
The joy I experience living in a van blossoms from various aspects of what I love about this alternative lifestyle, outlined below.
The adventure and ability to call somewhere new home every night.
Driving on a lonely desert road, where settled dust mingles with the twilight aura of sunset, encapsulates every feeling of freedom a human can experience. When your morning backdrop consists of a chipped tin mug full of oats, set against young aspens filtering the dawn light through the frame of your propped back van doors, it is hard to fight joy.
Living in a constant state of movement makes embracing the present impossible not to experience.
We see the term “live in the present moment” everywhere in our modern culture. It is on napkins, coffee cups, and pillows. Before I lived in a van, I thought the sentiment was sweet, but did not realize the truth to these words until everything in my life was unpredictable. When I allowed myself to truly live in the moment, I opened myself to the spontaneity that arises from engaging in the present.
We hear the term “confidence” quite often, but I have grown more in “competence” than confidence. Recognizing our own competence is a direct fuel line developing confidence.
The thing about solo travel is that no one is there to witness your growth. My family and friends were not there when I broke down on the side of a Virginia highway thanks to a blown alternator. They weren’t there to see me huddled in a Kansas gas station, waiting out a tornado, creating an active game plan to make it to the nearest shelter.
They didn’t watch me find over 100 places to spend the night for free, drive hundreds of miles in silence, yell at passing herds of cows, start my own campfires, scrub myself with baby wipes, and sneak my dirty dishes into public restrooms in order to smooch off their water supply.
No one witnessed me summit mountains in Wyoming, give directions to lost families in Idaho, or help a dehydrated man in South Dakota find a water source. No one saw my tears when I sobbed in a North Carolina Walmart parking lot out of loneliness, when I was robbed in St. Louis, and when I backpacked through the Illinois woods at midnight without a light source to find my van.
I could tell others about these events, but ultimately, I am the only one fully aware of my own competence. Solo van life taught me to not wait for the external validation from others to tell me that I am a capable woman. I learned to value my own opinion of myself. It has shown me that my capability is self-driven and that my competence is powerful and real.
Meeting various types of people, but receiving kindness no matter whom I met.
Be it mechanics in Virginia, hitchhikers from Taiwan, veterinarians in Arkansas, raging liberals in Colorado and strict conservatives in Alabama, every one of them has showered me with unbelievable kindness. I have been offered meals, directions, and smiles. I have had strangers run up to my van to help dig me out of mud without even having to ask, been fed copious amounts of scrambled eggs in the parking lot of Yellowstone National Park by a family I met mere hours ago, and received countless scraps of paper with addresses and numbers to call if I needed help.
The power of worldly women.
The community of women who travel solo is a fiercely supportive and encouraging community. It is composed of women from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds, socio-economic statuses, age, types of employment, body shapes, and gender identities. All we care about is our uniting desire to explore the world and ourselves.
Creating a documentary that celebrates these women and serves as a microphone to their voices has been one of the most humbling experiences of my life.
Despite the joy I experience on the road, it is not always the gilded idea of “van life.” On social media screens, it appears to be a sought after life by all who are lucky enough to call it theirs. Clean, colorful vans filled with attractive, fit couples, who look well fed, calm, financially comfortable and somehow clean.
By now, I think for the majority of us, it is possible to understand that no life is perfect, including this one. It is pretty expected that delving into life on the road also entails delving into mechanical issues, waiting on the side of highways, driving around in the dark to find a place to sleep, and begging strangers for a battery jump.
The Challenges of Solo Life On The Road
Far less exposed are the emotional mental challenges I have dealt with on the road. Below, I have highlighted the four most difficult challenges I have experienced since setting out on the road, challenges I continue to work through.
It happens. A lot. When it does, I remind myself that in order to experience loneliness, I must know what it means to not be lonely. And to know what it means to not be lonely means that I have been part of some pretty incredible communities in the past.
When I feel the loneliness creep up, I’ll think about these communities, listen to some of my favorite music, make pasta, and call someone who matters to me.
2. Feeling Unproductive for Anyone other than Yourself
I did not expect this one to happen. But after a few months of driving around doing exactly what I wanted when I wanted, I found myself looking for a bigger purpose than my own enjoyment. As a result, I decided to hit it harder with my documentary, and prioritize finding solo female travelers to interview. This helped remind me that my journey served a purpose greater than myself.
3. Having No One to Double Check
What does that road sign mean? Is this a safe place to sleep? Can I park here? Is this enough water for a day hike? Does this light on my dashboard mean anything important? When we have another person with us, we can run these questions through them.
When we don’t, we have to trust ourselves and our decisions. While it is empowering to prove to myself that I have the intelligence to decipher the answer, it would be a lie to say it never becomes exhausting.
When you live in a van, you are constantly aware of where you are sleeping that night, where you going to get your water, where you are going to dispose of that water, where you are going to dump your trash, where you are going to wash your clothes, and where you are going to fill your propane, among other things. It is amazing and tiring all at once.
Van life is Life… Just In A Van
Van life isn’t for everyone, which is entirely okay. There are millions of ways to lead a beautiful, meaningful, and adventurous life, and this is simply one of the may options. Social media makes van life seem impossible not to love, which is simply not true.
Van life is life, just in a van. It is a means to growth, challenge, and inspiration, and it is a path that is beautiful whether lived by solo men, solo women, couples, and everyone in between.
As a solo female traveler, Katie is passionate about exploring outdoor spaces, involving others in the fight against climate change, and being a student of the world. She has traveled the U.S. in her van in order to film a documentary on solo female travel, and is currently on a mission to travel the world armed with nothing but a backpack and a fierce desire to taste the best local dessert in as many places as possible.