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#VanLife Dog is Their Co-pilot, Literally

As with most adventures, Van Life is better with a dog.

by Nico Suzuki
July 23, 2021
A man with long brown hair and a wide brimmed tan hat sitting in the open part of a van while petting his mixed breed dog in the woods
David Keller / Stocksy

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The road is calling a new wave of nomads, and their travel mode of choice is a converted van, truck or camper. Millennials are dropping out and taking to the highway, leaving behind the nine-to-five grind for a life of freedom, adventure and self-discovery.

These van dwellers lead stripped-down lives in tricked-out vehicles that combine technology with good old-fashioned ingenuity —tiny homes on wheels incorporating solar power, Wi-Fi, mini appliances and a surprising number of creature comforts.

Van Life with Dogs

As with most adventures, Van Life is better with a dog. “I wouldn’t think of going on the road without my dogs,” says Sarah, a onetime lawyer turned nomad who travels with her three rescues—a Terrier mix, Sheldon; a Chihuahua, Frida; and a Pit mix, Ariel—and her surfer boyfriend.

Dogs provide quality company and also offer a degree of security—they’re excellent at raising the alarm. During cold winters, they give new meaning to the term “three dog night.” For the most part, the lack of space doesn’t bother dogs, who seem to relish the coziness.

“You’ll often find me somewhere in the Sierra Nevada, on the trail or driving along the backroads with my partner and our two rescue mutts (Fin and Lhotse) in tow,” says Noël Russell, who lives part-time in a self-designed converted campervan.

Some folks can’t imagine living in such a tiny space, let alone sharing it with other people and dogs, but Russell likens her desire to have her dogs accompany her on her trips as “the difference between a dog lover and a dog owner is like the difference between bacon and bacon-flavored.”

Living for Today, Not Tomorrow

Unlike the snowbirds of their grandparents’ generation, today’s nomads aren’t waiting for retirement to hit the road. Their time is now; most find that happiness is not tied to material wealth or possessions. They seek experiences: oceanside sunsets, mountain air, tribal gatherings.

One could say that vanlife is having a moment. Consistent with its generational tilt and proof positive of its appeal, it has exploded on social media as participants document the boho romance of the road for a more stationary audience. There are vanlife gatherings, YouTube videos on van customization, Pinterest and Instagram pages, and tons of photos of van dwellers and their dogs.

“I like to think of the van as a tiny house with a giant yard,” says Ron Hope, reflecting on his two-year odyssey as his dog, River, snoozes in the front seat. It’s enough to tempt a person to sell everything they own, buy a van, grab the dog and drive into the sunrise.

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Tips for Van Life with Dogs

Few people log more time on the road with their dogs than van dwellers—but to characterize them as travelers would be a mistake. These dogs live on the road and their humans care for them just like most people who live in a traditional house, except their home is on four wheels. Here are a few tips to help you get started with life on the road with your pup:

  • Try never to leave your dog(s) in the van or camper, particularly in warm weather. Best practice: take them wherever you go.

  • Keep them cool by investing in a vent fan, reflective window coverings, cooling blankets. Always have a bowl of water on hand.

  • If you absolutely have to go where dogs are not welcome, try booking a dog sitter or daycare online.

  • Plan your route to avoid rising temperatures and extreme cold.

  • Commit to training your dog so they respond without fail to come, sit, and stay. More advanced commands are your security blanket.

  • Keep your dogs’ medical records and vaccinations on file—you never know when you may need them.

  • Give your dog lots of exercise at city dog parks, BLM land, beaches, and hiking areas. A tired dog is a happy dog and a good van companion.

  • Develop a routine — a daily rhythm is good for people and dogs alike.

Gather up Essential Van Life Gear

  • Long leash and tether—for those times that your dog needs to be tethered outside.

  • Compact dog carrier for smaller dogs; a lightweight front-side carrier comes in handy for tired pups.

  • Portable water carriers: stay hydrated! And a dining mat for easy cleanups.

  • A good brush and a first aid kit for nicks and cuts, ticks, and stickers.

  • Good ID tags and a chip with up-to-date, universal contact information.

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Nico Suzuki

Nico Suzuki is a freelance writer and editor in the San Francisco Bay Area.