Updated: Dec 7, 2020
Meet Julien and Noelle (@WeChoseFreedom on Instagram), a full time vanlife couple who converted their 2004 TIN Sprinter Van, aptly named Cali Blue, to be the home of their dreams on wheels. What makes living in a van so alluring? Is it the freedom of the road, going rent free, or just knowing that you are living alternatively in a low impact way?
It was about two weeks ago I was scrolling through Instagram when a photo of a couple working on a Sprinter Van conversion caught my eye. Now, I love van conversions almost as much as tiny trailers (some might argue even more so), so I was immediately hooked. Noelle and Julien, both 29 live in their converted 2004 TIN Sprinter Van, Cali Blue which has already seen some amazing destinations.
“Julien and I went to high school together. We came back into each others lives 15 years later and it was just perfect timing. Julien sold his house in South Florida at the end of 2019 and now we are currently based out of Colorado,” says Noelle.
I caught up with them and asked if they wouldn’t mind being interviewed, to share some of their DIY insights and successes. Happily, they said yes!
FTC: How did you go about choosing your 'freedom' vehicle?
NOELLE: “So, Julien had another converted Sprinter van that was perfect for his bachelor lifestyle! But after we decided to live in our van full time, we started to look for the perfect build for the both of us! It was not easy, we had our ups and downs with a couple of options but at the end of the day Cali Blue is the perfect van for us! We couldn't be happier!”
JULIEN: “Originally, we were deciding between a Revel, a Promaster Travatto, a Hymer Aktiv 2.0 and a few newer "commercial" builds. Having already had a Sprinter before (a 2008 2500), I was already happy with the reliability of a Sprinter… and the great MPGs of course. I'm also well aware of some issues of the newer Sprinters so we decided to give the T1N a try.
“I had already been in contact with a company who builds some and rents others and they, at the time, used only T1Ns and swore by them. (They now use the newer years as they can no longer source T1Ns). This company's layout was everything we needed.
“Noelle cooks amazing meals and the best vegan banana bread and pancakes so she needs counter space and an oven, we needed seating space and seatbelts entertaining friends and family trips, we had to have a good solar setup since we're always charging something, I mean the list goes on and this layout is just perfect and checked every box.”
FTC: When did you know van life would be for you?
NOELLE: “Julien discovered #vanlife after renting a Cruise America RV for a camping trip with his friends and shortly after decided to purchase his first van! I have always dreamed of having the freedom to live off-grid and to travel anywhere at any time! We both have this burning desire to break away from the 'normal' life that everyone seems to be okay with. We both agreed that the white picket fence and suburban family lifestyle just isn't what we want for us and van life was the perfect answer!”
JULIEN: “That Cruise America trip as she mentioned changed me forever haha.. Just knowing that I was on the road and had anything I could ever need right there including a kitchen, bathroom and a bed meaning we could pull over just about anywhere was it for me… .
“I had about 6 hours of free time on the way back and I googled everything there was about RVs and van life. After a year of what I would call OCD research (really though) I finally decided to pull the trigger on a van that popped up on eBay for a good price after deciding it was time to quit wasting time when I got the news of a friends passing from cancer. That van was great and although it was missing quite a few things for full time living, it taught me a ton about what Noelle and I would realistically need in order to pull this off and not break up first week.”
FTC: What was your first camping experience like?
NOELLE: “It was amazing! We traveled with a rental car, over 2000 miles in two days from Colorado to California. Once we picked up our van, Cali, we decided to make a couple of stops before heading home. We found an incredible free campsite in the Dixie National Forest in Leeds, Utah. The hiking was fantastic and the views were spectacular! After that we headed closer to home and decided to stop at Rabbit Valley. We had a secluded campsite and an amazing sunset!”
JULIEN: “What she said... the first of many many adventures!”
FTC: In your vanlife journey, what would you have done differently and why?
NOELLE: “So far I don't think we would have done anything differently. Everything that's happened so far has been a blessing or a lesson. We learn something new everyday living the #vanlife and we honestly wouldn't change a thing!”
JULIEN: “I agree, I wouldn't have changed anything. It was all an experience, like buying my first van on a whim after seeing it, it just taught me what we would really need. Everyone is different and no amount of research can tell you everything; a lot of trial and error is needed to really get the best out of your experience. Also, finding out is part of the journey, which is the best part, right?”
FTC: What’s your favorite campsite that you've been so far?
NOELLE: “It was definitely during our trip back from Cali! After driving 16 hours straight the night before, we decided that we were going to stop at a campsite for the night. We looked up every free campsite with decent cell service from California to Utah! We finally settled on a place in Nevada near The Valley of Fire… .
“Wow, lesson learned! Coming from Florida we thought we knew what heat was but no way! By the time we got to the site we were burning up and sweating non stop even with the AC on! We parked, looked at each other and said let's get the hell out of here! I think the temperature was reading 111 degrees F.
“So once we were back on the road, I found a spot last minute in Leeds, Utah, which I mentioned earlier, it was part of the Dixie National Forest. It was exactly what we needed! The dirt road was smooth and the site was nice and spacious. It was a pretty primitive site but that's why we have a van!
“Once we got settled in, we went on a little hiking adventure before the sunset. Once we made it to the top we looked down and saw our van sitting pretty with an amazing view behind her! I took it all in and just thought to myself, ‘wow, I can't believe we actually did it!’”
JULIEN: “That Rabbit Valley place was great. Secluded enough, great cell service, amazing views and multiple hills to climb. We love to climb just about anything. The steeper the better.”
FTC: What is your top tip for smooth adventuring?
NOELLE: “My top tip for smooth adventuring is to roll with the punches! Nothing is ever going to be perfect. Something not so great is always going to happen… at the worst moments… with the worst timing. Don't overreact. Don't blame yourself, just breathe. For real. It's just how you overcome it and move forward. Always move forward. That's just life and #vanlife is no exception! Be organized! Being well organized, like OCD organized, while living in a van is key to success! Everything has a place, if you take something and use it, put it back where you found it! You'll save yourself the headache later, trust me!”
JULIEN: “Yeah, all that is great but make a list.. And check it twice. We're always moving at 100mph and if we don’t, things get forgotten. Sometimes it's something easily replaced like a phone charger but other times it's your wallet and you're 100 miles away from home trying to pump gas after realizing you left the oven on... Make a list… .”
NOELLE: “Agreed. Never leave a campsite, gas station, restaurant or anywhere without checking to make sure you have all of your belongings! I left our shower tent leaning up against the back tire instead of putting it away because I didn't have the key at the time! We didn't have a bathroom for 4 days because I had to order a new one. Lesson learned, don’t be lazy!”
FTC: What's your favorite luxury item in Cali the Van?
NOELLE: “Luxury is a funny word. Well I guess for me, my go to luxury item would have to be our laptops. They are the most luxury item we have besides the actual van itself that we use everyday to make our incomes! Then when we want to have a nice cozy night we can use them to watch movies!
“I would also have to mention our amazing pantry that pretty much sold me on Cali in the beginning! It is so nice to have that extra storage especially in a kitchen, in a van! I'm a little OCD when it comes to my kitchen, I like to have everything in its place! It rolls out seamlessly and with the shelves being as wide as they are, I am able to store all of my dry goods and spices in there without crowding the kitchen area. Which to me is a real luxury!”
JULIEN: “Honestly... Not sure I have one. I'm forced to say the van itself, it's like a 5 star hotel room that comes with you anywhere. Aside from that, my workout shoes that I'm currently wearing are over 5 years old and I'm pretty sure these are paint stains all over my pants haha, what is luxury?
FTC: How was your experience buying your van? Any tips?
JULIEN: “We bought it this way, as I mentioned, a company built it.. Long story short though, we didn't buy from the company itself. As they were finishing their LAST T1N before moving over to the newer years, I put a deposit down and after about 3 weeks, they noticed the engine had issues and had to swap it. They offered me the van with another engine or a refund.
“Not wanting a swapped motor, I took the deposit. We were pretty bummed and I decided to check websites one last time even though I already knew of just about every camper on the internet when I happened to stumble on a gentleman selling the SAME exact one that he purchased from that same company about 2 years ago for occasional camping.
“It was perfect and so was the timing. He updated so many things that we realized we would have had to deal with and ended up getting a better deal for a van that had been seriously looked through and been barely broken in. I personally think it was meant to be... .
“As far as tips go, RENT a van before buying to see if it is for you and what you will need and can't live without.”
NOELLE: “I would have to say do your research! Make sure you get familiar with van life and what you are going to need to be on the road. You are going to be the one living in it so make sure it's exactly what you want! DO NOT SETTLE! The perfect van is out there, but if you have the desire to build then go for it!”
FTC: What’s next on your list of awesome life adventures?
NOELLE: “I definitely want to see all of the state parks across the country! And maybe Canada! I'm obsessed with waterfalls so the adventures never end!”
JULIEN: “Jeez so many things.. We just started our IG page (@WeChoseFreedom) and we love helping others see what the VanLife is like and answering questions helping potential VanLifers feel comfortable about making the transition.
“The VanLife community is among the nicest and most genuine we've yet to come across. Also, I help clients find and buy their dream classic cars all over the United States so we'll be going to see and purchase many cool cars all over.
“Besides that, we have a ton of friends all over (mostly Florida) and we'll be visiting them also. We have plenty to do and we're really excited. We're barely a month in, who knows what tomorrow brings.”
All photos credit to WeChoseFreedom
All words copyrighted to Fern the Camper
Follow us on YouTube!
Find us on Instagram
Did you like this article? Please give it a heart and leave a comment below. Letting us know what you like best means we can produce more that you like!