“Take the first step, tell yourself you’re going to follow through with the plan. Then the rest of the pieces will fall into place.”
Dan and I connected after we both hiked the Arizona Trail in spring of 2021; that alone would have given us plenty to chat about. But it turns out we have even more in common: thru hiking the Colorado Trail (both last summer) and John Muir Trail (upcoming for Dan), camper conversions (he’s well ahead of me here), and the decision to take a break from traditional work to spend more time traveling and exploring the outdoors.
In this interview Dan shares some fantastic insight into hiking the CT and AZT, the logistics of building and traveling in a van, and the process of knowing when it’s time for a lifestyle change. If you love spending time in the wilderness and have ever felt “the urge to do something more,” you’ll find plenty to ponder and relate to in his thoughtful answers.
Alissa: I understand you took a break from corporate work to travel in your van and hike some of your dream trails. As someone who started a career break of my own a few years ago, I’m always interested in these types of decisions. What motivated you to go ahead and take the leap?
Dan: In 2019 the urge to do something more in life became so strong that I couldn’t ignore it. I wanted to live the life of adventure that I had been dreaming of. I was working as a test engineer in the automotive industry developing prototype vehicles. This life did offer excitement but it was full of stress associated with long days and heavy workloads. It was time for me to stop saying I wish or maybe one day.
I was unsure what something more looked like or how I would accomplish my goal. Growing up in the Midwest I had always loved traveling to the western states to hike and camp in the mountains. I thought that spending time in the mountains would be just what I needed. I talked the company I was working for into giving me a two-month sabbatical. This was not an easy process but once the sabbatical was granted, I packed my 4runner and headed west to hit all the hiking trails I could. Once the two-month sabbatical was over I knew it wouldn’t be the last, I was hooked.
Closing in on the end of 2019 the urge to do something more was growing. Going through the motions at work was no longer enough for me. I had been researching van life and thought it would be a perfect fit. At this point I was only half in but I bought a van and started the conversion process. Once the conversion was done, I knew I had to take advantage of the opportunity I was setting myself up for. I started selling my stuff and put my two weeks’ notice in at work.
How do you feel it’s working out so far?
Van life is working out well so far. One of the keys for me is trying to stay flexible. The ability to adapt to changing needs goes a long way.
Any advice for people who are craving a similar type of break but find themselves hesitant to make it happen?
As time passes it’s only going to get harder to make the decision to leave. If you’re constantly getting the urge to take a break, that feeling doesn’t go away. Take the first step, tell yourself you’re going to follow through with the plan. Then the rest of the pieces will fall into place.
“There is an outdoor experience you get from total immersion. This gives you the chance to see little things that happen in nature that would be missed on day or even weekend hikes.”
I chose the CT because of the trail length and the scenery. I had recently started van life and wanted to be able to experience thru hiking and life on the road during the summer season.
This winter I was looking for a place to avoid the cold and snowy weather. I ended up in the Superstition mountains just outside of Phoenix. After spending about 3 months in the area, I found myself on the AZT a few times. I started doing research on the trail and got excited about all of the different terrain types. The AZT is like multiple trails in one. I also liked being able to start the AZT in the spring, this would leave my summer open for other traveling or hiking possibilities.
Was the Colorado Trail your very first thru hike? If so, how did that go? Did you feel prepared once you hit the trail?
Yes, the Colorado Trail was my first thru hike. I think it went better than expected, it’s going to be hard not to compare other hikes to my time on the CT. I met a great group of hikers on the first day, had aches and pains but no real injuries, and the views were amazing.
I felt like I had a pretty good starting point. I did a few shake down trips, one in particular to the White in NH where we got tons of rain. That trip made me feel more comfortable navigating around wet gear.
What draws you to thru hiking in general, and to the middle-distance trails like the CT, JMT, etc. in particular?
I gravitate to middle-distance trails because I want to experience life on the trail and life on the road. Being on trail for a few months and then being able to get back in the van gives me the split I’m looking for. It’s nice to have the ability to get the taste of both in one season. I also have a dog and don’t want to leave him for 5 to 6 months. I hope to be on a longer trail sometime in the future.
I think it’s a combination of things that draw me to thru hiking. There is an outdoor experience you get from total immersion. This gives you the chance to see little things that happen in nature that would be missed on day or even weekend hikes. The trail brings people from all different backgrounds together in one spot. Everyone is sharing in the common bond of overcoming trail challenges and enjoying nature. The challenges can sometimes lean on type 2 fun so after forgetting some of the details I’m ready for more.
What did you love most about the Colorado Trail? What was most challenging?
The high elevation mountain views were my favorite. The CT was my first thru hike so there is a learning curve associated with that. Hitting multiple passes in a day and the weather were challenging. Once I reached the Collegiates, there were stretches with multiple days of cold rain and hail. Then in Silverton, an early season snow storm hit. The storm caused a few of the water sources to become snow and ice covered. The miles took longer to cover which led to getting into camp at night.
What did you love most about the Arizona Trail? What was most challenging?
Being at the Grand Canyon for sunrise then hiking to the bottom and camping was a pretty special experience. The group I was with got the boat beach all to ourselves for about 30 min to an hour. The Saguaros are a favorite of mine too. The long water carries, terrain, and weather were difficult for me. I started the trail in a snowstorm and within a week it was close to 90 degrees.
When I was planning logistics for the trail I thought I might be able to complete the AZT on one pair of shoes. The pair I started with had a few hundred miles but needed to be swapped in Kearny (about trail mile 260). Then I tore a chunk out of the soles of that pair and replaced them in Flagstaff (about trail mile 560). I also ripped a 2 inch hole in my pack near Picketpost trailhead. I was able to patch it, which worked for the rest of the trail. When I got off trail, I sent my pack back to the manufacturer. They did an excellent job with the repair.
Which trail did you think was more challenging overall, the CT or AZT? Which one was most rewarding?
The AZT was more challenging for me. The constant exposure in very warm temperatures coupled with long water carries made for tough days. I also didn’t expect to go through shoes so quickly. The rocky terrain was hard on gear and the body.
The CT was the most rewarding, partly because it was my first thru hike and partly because of the big mountain views.
Did you have any gnarly weather situations on either trail?
On the CT there were frequent hail storms which caused me to wait at the treeline for hours. Then with about 75 miles left on trail a major snow storm came through. I was held up in Silverton for 5 days. Once I got back on trail I was told that the snow ended 25 miles out of town, I quickly realized that wasn’t true. Most of the remaining miles were done in snow, sometimes knee deep. I can vividly remember putting on frozen solid shoes in the morning and packing up a frost covered tent.
[Note from Alissa: Yikes! I was very lucky with weather on the CT during late July and August – we had no snow at all! This is a great reminder that weather in the mountains is full of surprises.]
Day one on the AZT was in a snowstorm. Getting out of the car at Montezuma pass there was a light dusting and flurries in the air. When I got up towards Miller and Bathtub Springs the snow was closer to 8 inches. I’m glad I was able to make it below the snowline that night. Even though it was a chilly evening, setting up camp day one in the snow wouldn’t have been ideal. The heat on the AZT was brutal in the lower sections of the trail. Phoenix and Tucson were having record April temperatures.
What were the major differences, if any, between your gear for the CT and AZT?
I made a bigger push to drop my base weight on the AZT. I wasn’t overly heavy on the CT but I noticed quickly how much nicer it is to carry a light pack. I swapped out the big three and then a few smaller items:
- Nemo Hornet 2p to Six Moon Design Lunar Solo
- REI Magma 15 sleeping bag to Katabatic Alsek 22 quilt
- REI Flash 44 pack to Superior Wilderness Designs Long Haul 40
I carried a sun umbrella for a portion of the AZT but couldn’t get it to work for me. I think it was partly because I bought the short handle version and partly because of the wind. I also carried an 1/8in closed cell foam pad. I used that to protect my inflatable sleeping pad from all of the sharp things and also as my sit pad.
What’s your preferred thru hiking shelter (tent, tarp, etc) and model, and how has it worked out on the trails so far?
I’m currently using a Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo trekking pole tent. The Lunar Solo is a great option especially for the price point but I don’t like that it takes a bigger area to set up and it is more prone to condensation then other tents in its class. I like trekking pole tents for the weight savings and simplicity but might try a tarp in the future.
Favorite meal after a long day on the trail?
If I’m in town after a long day of hiking my go to meal is a burger and fries.
My favorite trail meal is bean burritos. In some trail town grocery stores you can find dehydrated refried beans which is the key to the burrito. I’ll mix half a pack of beans, half a pack Mexican rice- side, a handful of spicy cheese-its, and a few squirts from the mini sriracha.
What’s your most beloved item in your pack that cost less than $20?
That’s a tough choice between my sit pad or gloves. The gloves are usually an instant mood improver when it’s cold and windy. The sit pad was a must have on the AZT. It kept all the sharp things from poking me during breaks.
Trail running shoes or hiking boots? Why?
Trail shoes, I wore Brooks Cascadias on both my thru-hikes. I chose trail runners because they are lightweight, breathable, and dry out quickly.
When you’re having a good day on the trail, how do you feel?
Unstoppable, it’s a difficult feeling to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it before. It would be something similar to a runner’s high.
When you’re having a tough day on the trail, how do you feel? How do you help yourself to feel better and keep moving?
This is also a difficult feeling to describe. There is nothing but time to think about the issues that are bothering you. I’ll play music or listen to a podcast to get my mind to stop fixating on a topic. Or I’ll take a break and eat one of the treats that I have in my bag, thinking about all the food I’m going to eat in town helps too.
You’ve got a coveted JMT permit for this summer! What are you most looking forward to about that trail? What are you most concerned or uncertain about, if anything?
While I am looking forward to the classic JMT views through Yosemite and summiting Mt. Whitney, I’m also looking forward to slowing down and taking all the pictures. I finally bought a real camera and the JMT will be the first long trail I take it on.
My permit is for September 13th so an early season snow storm is in the back of my mind.
“I learned quickly that your van build is never done, it’s always evolving.”
So you built out a van and are using it to travel around and hike. Awesome! My husband and I recently started a conversion project with an old ambulance and are finding it both fun and challenging, so I’m interested in your van conversion project.
What part of your van build are you most proud of?
I’m proud of the electrical. When people look in from the outside they don’t realize there is a maze of electrical wires behind the walls. Developing wiring diagrams is not too far from one of the things I used to do in my automotive engineering days. My background helped me add a bit of detail that is usually overlooked. For example, making sure the correct wire size is used especially for the long runs from the van’s engine bay to rear house batteries. My electrical system can be seen in more detail at trailsofdanindy.com/electrical.
What part of the build was most challenging?
Trying to convert a van that isn’t level and doesn’t have straight lines made things challenging.
Did you plan everything out in detail before starting to build, or figure it out as you went along? What balance do you recommend?
I had a decent plan of what I wanted to accomplish but that needed to be adjusted. Once the build started plans needed to be tweaked partly because the van isn’t a perfect canvas. There are bends and all sorts of random angles. It’s also easy to make a plan and it quickly exceeds the amount of money that you budgeted for it. Then other parts of the project are adjusted to save money.
There needs to be a plan for what you want in the van and how you think you’re going to accomplish it. Staying flexible with the build will go a long way in keeping the build moving forward.
If you were advising someone with really limited time, just a few days, who wanted to build the bare minimum to get out on the road for a few weeks, what would you tell them to start with? In other words, what part of the build do you think provides the most comfort and convenience on the road?
I would suggest focusing on the sleep setup. If you’re not getting a decent night’s sleep you probably won’t enjoy the experience as much. Then making sure there is a spot for a cooler or fridge.
Lights are usually overlooked in this scenario, because there is limited build time, there probably wouldn’t be a dedicated electrical setup. It’s nice to have lighting inside so you can read or find items in the dark. LED fairy lights are inexpensive and easy to hang without making them permanent.
If there’s still build time left, I would add a pull out table or make space for a folding table. The table can be used for cooking or spreading out when you get to camp.
Finally, don’t forget your camp chair. Having to sit in a cramped van or on the ground would get old.
What drives you nuts about extended travel in your van? Van life can’t all be as perfect as it looks on Instagram, right? 🙂
Van life isn’t as perfect as some Instagram feeds portray. There are stretches of travel when your views are of a parking lot or crowded camping area. After a few weeks on the road the chores stack up. The laundry pile is overflowing, you haven’t showered in awhile, the gray and black tanks need to be emptied, and the fresh water tanks are running low. The stack up of chores seems to fall on one town day. Living in a van can simplify life but providing basic necessities becomes more challenging. The more time you spend on the road, the better you get at finding all of the places to complete a chore day. This stack up of events can get a bit overwhelming sometimes but the longer I’m on the road the more flexible and resourceful I become.
I can’t resist asking a followup question, partly for selfish reasons because we struggled with this recently on our trip around southern Utah. Where and how do you take care of chores on the road?
I consider my chores to be filling fresh water tanks, emptying gray and black tanks, emptying trash bins, showering, laundry, and groceries. I try not to do all of those in one day. One of the first places I look is on iOverlander. You can set filters to see water fill ups, showers, and dumping stations.
In places like AZ freshwater tanks can be filled at stores called Water & Ice (or something similar). Because the water quality is poor they have stores that have water taps inside. It’s about 25 cents per gallon depending on the location, which works out well because other free water sources are difficult to come by in dry states like AZ. If you’re in a state where water is more plentiful, water could be found at: trail heads, campgrounds, visitor centers, tourist info center, grocery stores, rest stops, gas stations, city centers, and parks. If you’re unsure about the water source, carrying something like this Sawyer faucet adapter would be good.
Emptying gray and black tanks can be a little difficult to find a spot if you’re in the city. I have small tanks so they can easily be taken out and emptied at: trailheads, porta potties, rest stops, parks, RV dump stations. If it’s a crowded area I normally try to find something a little less crowded.
Gas stations or grocery stores are where I normally empty my trash. After buying groceries and organizing them, I’m left with trash. It’s convenient to use the trash cans that are in most grocery store parking lots.
My primary method for showering is at Anytime Fitness which is a national gym chain. In a pinch I will use a shower bag. I fill the shower bag up at the beginning of the day then stick it in the sun so it warms up. Sometimes community centers or pool type places will let you pay a small fee to shower, campgrounds will do that too. Two other options are truck stops and laundromats (some of them have showers).
What area have you most enjoyed camping and exploring in your van so far?
Pre-van I was traveling for a few months in my 4runner. I made it to Montana then drove north into Alberta, hitting Banff and Jasper. Then I cut west to British Columbia, making stops in Whistler and Squamish. Those places were some of my favorites that I have traveled to.
What, if anything, is your van build still lacking? What’s the thing you really want to add next?
I learned quickly that your van build is never done, it’s always evolving. Adding a diesel heater is at the top of my list. I got away without having one this winter by staying in Arizona. I did find myself in a few cold situations though. I ended up at the Grand Canyon for Christmas and on the first morning I quickly realized that my weather app was wrong. My water lines were frozen, my dog’s water bowl was frozen, and the windows were frost covered. After doing some digging the 25 degrees I thought it was supposed to be was actually 3 degrees.
What’s next for you? Does your break have a defined length or is it open-ended?
In the short term the JMT is next. I would also like to complete the Long Trail so I can achieve the mini triple. My break is currently open-ended. I frequently get asked when I’ll be done, and I always say, when the money for traveling runs out or it stops being fun. I do see staying put in areas for longer periods of time something that may need to happen in the future.
Awesome, thanks Dan for sharing your stories and experience. Congrats on taking the leap to follow your interests and live life on your own terms. We can all learn from that!
Best wishes for a scenic and snow-free JMT hike and whatever else comes next.
More Outdoor Adventure Resources
If you enjoyed this interview, you might also like these:
- Light(er) Weight Backpacking Tips and Tricks
- Most Scenic Sections of the Colorado Trail
- What It’s Like to Hike the Arizona Trail
For even more, see the Hiking and Backpacking section. Happy trails!
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