Choose Your Own Adventure

Local woman living the ‘van life’ is living her dream

     London, New Zealand, Portugal, Africa, Australia, all of the US National Parks. For many of us, visiting these bucket-list destinations might seem out of reach, but Samantha Woiwood and her boyfriend Samuel are checking them off one at a time as they pursue their dream of living the ‘van life’ out of a 2006 Sprinter van. 

     Born and raised in Lee’s Summit, Sam attended Lee’s Summit West and went on to study communications at the University of Central Missouri, where she studied abroad in Europe and her wanderlust was ignited. Following graduation she worked for Cerner and later the Kauffman Foundation as an event planner but also moonlighted at the Monarch Bar and The Guild to earn extra traveling money; Samuel also worked several jobs. They knew they loved traveling, but renting a camper van to drive up the Portugal coast on a 2019 trip convinced Sam and Samuel to make a long-term commitment to van life.

     “Even before the Portugal trip, I knew I wanted to live alternatively. I love the idea of being minimal and not collecting things. With any small space, it is easier to say no to buying more clothes because you literally have no space for them! I knew that deciding to live out of a van would push me to be more creative with less,” says Sam.

     Once back stateside, the couple began planning in earnest. “In February 2020, Samuel and I started shopping. The first van we found was a 2018 ProMaster that cost around $28,000. After considering it, we sat down to tell his parents we were going to buy this van (at this point, it was early March 2020). His dad advised us to wait and see how the pandemic played out. We thought he was being a bit dramatic, but luckily, we took his advice.”

     “Sure enough, Samuel lost his job the following month. I had lost my second job as a bartender and we were so relieved to not have a car payment over our heads. Shortly after that, we found a beat up 2006 Sprinter van for $3,500. We knew she needed a lot of work but we had nothing but TIME!! We now have zero debt and this helps us with being able to afford travel.”

     From planning events in copious detail to making spontaneous decisions, Sam and Samuel have adapted to van life. When asked about how they decide where to travel next, Sam said “We do zero planning! That has been the best thing. We just drive in a general direction and look on the map to see what is around us. It is truly just seeing how one adventure leads to the next. Many times, we end up meeting other van-lifers who give us recommendations on what to do and see around the area. We also try to ask locals about hidden gems. At first, having no plan was hard for me, but over time, I’ve learned that the best things are totally unplanned.”

     Although their plans are to drive Sintra - the van they ended up naming after their favorite city in Portugal - until she can go no more, there are some bucket-list destinations and personal goals that require alternate transportation. Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa is one example. 

     In October 2021, Sam spent eight days with her uncle trekking up the highest mountain in Africa, a feat that whetted her appetite for climbing and inspired additional goals. Of the journey, she says “Every night when I was laying in my tent, I daydreamed about what the actual summit of the mountain would be like. On the sixth day when we actually summited Kilimanjaro, I realized the entire journey isn't actually about being on top of the mountain but about the experience I had getting there. I had experienced the trek with a team of 11 incredible men who had me laughing so hard I cried and who made sure I had food and clean drinking water. These men are now my close friends (so thankful for Facebook!)." 

     Sam has plans to climb Mont Blanc in Switzerland and Mount Everest Base Camp in Nepal later this year and would like to take a course on mountaineering so she can guide a team of her own one day. In the meantime, she and Samuel are winding their way across the United States, soaking up experiences and building relationships as they go. She says shifting from typical suburban life to traveling full-time has been surprisingly easy.

     “We only have to keep track of one thing: our van! Finding parking spots is made simple by using an app on our phone. Planet Fitness gyms are littered across America, and we never have an issue finding a place to shower. People are interested in our life and are excited to share their knowledge about whatever area we are in. So many we meet offer anything they have that will make our life more comfortable. Making new friends comes easily: we see another van, walk over, and the next thing you know, we are sharing meals and stories! “

     Since the couple had banked their earnings for several years in preparation for their adventures, they started with a cushion but are always open to earning extra money along the way. “Last summer we ended up in Idaho, where a distant cousin of mine was hiring raft guides for the summer. With money from raft guiding, we were able to float for months without having to touch our savings. We currently are working in New Mexico at a ski resort for the winter so we can ski for free. The paychecks are just a sweet little bonus on the side. After this job, we will travel for a while until we stumble upon another seasonal gig!”

     Living flexibly means they have the capacity to visit family and friends when they’d like, and Sam and Samuel are grateful for the understanding and support their families have shown them as they embrace a very nontraditional way of life. “Our families support us in so many different ways. My parents bought us a National Parks Pass that we’ve used countless times! His parents bought us an In-Reach that is a satellite phone so we can reach them even if we are out of service, camping in the woods and when we are totally off grid.”

     As for areas this adventuresome duo aspires to get around to at some point, Sam says “Baja, California is a MUST. Yellowstone is also one of our top "bucket list" destinations as well as all of Central America and Canada!! Since my partner is originally from Australia we have the idea of moving to Australia and buying a van there so we can travel the coast of his homeland within the next couple of years.”

     With a couple years of van life under their belts, Sam has nothing but encouragement for those considering making a similar lifestyle change. “We talk to so many people who say ‘I wish I had done that when I was your age!’ If you’re interested, start saving your money; don’t be afraid to buy an older van! Vans like ours will notoriously go for a million miles! Start getting rid of stuff now. Space is limited and it forces you to realize what is actually important to you. Once you start living smaller, you actually start living larger. And lastly, just DO IT! Don't wait on others to go with you or to be ready. You have to go when YOU are ready and do what you want to do!”

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