Van Life: Making Every Mile of the Journey Count
Editor's note: At KEEN, we’re not focused on the finishes and the summits. We're all about the moments and the journey. And making sure our fans are equipped for them. Which syncs up perfectly with adventure photographers Kendal and Collin Strachan, who recently got married, bought an Airstream, and set out to discover the lesser-seen trails and views in our National Parks for the next few years. We are stoked to be part of their journey.
We LOVE America’s National Parks. They create community, encourage sustainability, and foster a connection across generations. And although we enjoy the grand views and breathtaking vistas that define them, we actually fell in love with them — and with each other — on the trails, backroads, and little-known spots that don’t get enough love.
It was during one of these hikes together that we dreamt up our plan to transition my commercial photography and video production business into something that could be really meaningful not only to us, but to the people we impact. So, last year, after we got married and went on our honeymoon, we packed up and moved to Los Angeles in search of the perfect Airstream. Then we hit the road.
Our goal: To visit every National Park that we can reach and use photography and writing to capture a slightly different angle of the parks during our adventures.
For us, photography started as a way to invite the people we love into our journey and to share the special moments that we just don’t feel are fair to keep to ourselves. So, here’s how we find those special moments, how we prepare for our treks in the parks, and oh, if you’re wondering, how we combined two lives into one 33-foot Airstream!
How We Packed for 33 Feet of ‘Home’
"Yeah, there’s no room in an Airstream for a Christmas tree. People kept asking, 'Will it be ok outside?' Yo, it’s a tree. It grew outside."
On Aug. 5, 2019, we turned in the keys on our Los Angeles apartment, locked up our storage room, and headed to Salt Lake City to take delivery of a (mostly) new Airstream Classic. Kendal and I both grew up in relatively normal spaces. Her childhood house sits on the end of a cul de sac near Philadelphia, and mine sits at the top of a hill on a 200-acre ranch near San Antonio, Texas.
Needless to say, our hearts were leaping out of our chest during that 10-hour drive from LA to Salt Lake City. “What are we doing?” “Did we really just leave 85% of our belongings in storage?” “Are we going to die of claustrophobia by the end of the week?” There’s no denying that we were firmly planted in a step that we couldn’t easily turn back from.
But, alas, moving into our Airstream was one of the most exciting days of our year. We’ve had to find a place for everything and keep everything in its place, but those 33 feet feel more and more like home every day.
Here are a couple key philosophies that we incorporate into keeping a minimal space filled with only what we need:
1: Have you worn it, used it, or needed it in the last 3 months?
Along with storage, we’ve parted ways with a lot of belongings as we’ve combined our lives and downsized. Our rule of thumb is that if we haven’t worn it, used it, or needed it in the last 3 months, it likely needs a new home. In most cases, we’re fortunate to be able to find a new home for each item. We’ll search for a donation station nearby, or if it’s a piece of equipment that can serve in a friend’s outdoor gear kit, we’ll pass it along as a gift. For the most part, we’re pretty good at sticking to this. Kendal has been quite the trooper with much of her wardrobe. There are a couple of beach chairs in the closet that I’ve hung on to past their due, however… We’re not much for sitting around when there’s a beach to be explored!
2: When bringing something new home, what is its intended use?
Times like weekend shopping trips, birthdays, and Christmas present a bit of a first-world problems; if I get something new, where does it go? Having little space helps us to stop and ask whether a purchase, be it a kitchen item or new outdoor gear, has a place not only in the Airstream, but in our day-to-day lives. If it’s not essential, it may be best not to pick it up.
3: Is it a thoughtfully designed book with info about national parks or healthy eating recipes?
If yes: Where there’s a will, there’s a way. We’ll find a place for it. (We LOVE pretty books)
If no: No, thanks 🙂
Where we hike, eat, and sleep
We love to be spontaneous, to let the trail guide us as we discover. There is, however, a very real element of preparation that’s required to enjoy yourself in most National Parks. You’ll need to know the best routes into the park from where you’re coming (don’t trust Apple Map’s estimate of how long it will take to get there! The entrance station may be another hour from your campground or your planned hike…don’t ask how we know), how to respect the natural growth and wildlife, and even how weather conditions affect openings and activities around. Definitely do your research, come prepared, and be ready with backup plans!
For us, as we’re putting together a general of idea where we’re headed and what we’ll do, there are 3 questions that cannot go un-answered:
“Where should we hike?”
This is one of Kendal’s little quirks. I wasn’t aware of it for a bit, but every time we visit a new park or move our Airstream to a new city or state, we find ourselves doing an absolutely butt-kicking hike. One day, on a 12-mile hike to the top of Lone Peak just outside of Salt Lake City, I asked Kendal how she finds these hikes. She replied, “I just Google 'hardest hikes.'” No kidding!
You definitely don’t need to try to find the hardest hikes everywhere you go, but we can definitely say that finding a way to challenge yourself is so, so worth it. If you’re up for the challenge, get up early, bring lots of water, and find a hike that will broaden your perspective. One of the best things about trails in the National Parks is that they’re an incredible place to find support and community. You’ll be encouraged by fellow hikers along the way, and you’ll find strength within that you did not know you had.
Spotted on the trail, somewhere in the Grand Canyon!
“Where will we sleep?”
Ok, so if the paragraph above makes us sound somewhat cool, this one will bring some balance. When we’re outside, we pretty much rise and sleep with the sun. Yes, we have turned the lights out, zipped up the tent, and fallen asleep by 6 p.m. on chilly winter nights when the sun set at 5. Could we play games? Hang around a campfire? Stargaze? Well, probably! But that mummy bag is just irresistibly cozy. Don’t judge.
Since our sleep in between hiking days is so important to us, so is the place where we set up camp! Obviously, with the Airstream, it’s pretty easy. Back in, hook up, enjoy the luxury. But we also love getting out into a beautiful, secluded camping spot with our tent and soaking up a quiet night under the stars.
Obviously, most National Parks have a variety of campgrounds to choose from. You probably know to Google which campgrounds are the best, but did you know that you can Google which sites are the best within those campgrounds? Yep, the outdoor community rocks. The best way to enjoy a campground is to get that secluded spot away from everyone else that makes you feel like you’re on your own planet.
If you really like to rough it, many parks have national forests and BLM land within half an hour from the entrance as well, where you can find all manner of free camping, usually also refreshingly free of crowds.
Camping in Joshua Tree National Park
“What will we eat?”
If you haven’t picked up on a theme yet, here it is; eat, hike, eat, sleep, repeat. Emphasis on eat. Here’s our little secret: we’re in it for the food. Sure, standing at the top of Angel’s Landing or Half Dome and taking in the most incredible sights on the planet is amazing, but what’s one step better? How about a delicious, home-cooked meal while you soak in the beauty? Now that’s a day worth remembering.
Somewhere along the way, we made a little commitment to ourselves to get out of the box when it comes to hiking foods. While you might find the occasional perfect bar in our packs, you’ll almost always find real foods — chili-lime grilled chicken that we cooked up the night before the hike, an avocado and some slaw to make a salad, even barbecue sauce in little 2-ounce travel bottles. Whatever it is, it’s our favorite part of the day.
Again, our National Parks are all about sustainability and community. What better way to enjoy time together than to create a meal with real foods, little to no trash, and an experience that leaves everyone around you eating their trail mix and sandwiches green with envy?
Why We Love the In-Between Moments
Kendal in Zion National Park
Between coming prepared with backcountry permits, trail maps, and a general sense of where the heck you are, it’s a bit easy to feel like you know what to expect as you arrive in one of our parks. There are a million and one books that will help you prepare for a trip, so in lieu of the wealth of information available to you, we’ll share something else – how to soak in the special, unexpected moments in a park.
Remember, wherever you go - there you are.
-Papa Bear, owner of Deer Creek Adventure Camp
Always take a moment to remember that the place you’re standing in is rich with heritage and meaning! Even if the park was designated in just the last few years, generations of outdoorsmen and women have come to love, cherish, and remember this place fondly. Additionally, those very people have gifted you with a beautiful legacy - they preserved it for you to enjoy, just as you must for generations to come. Nothing speaks more profoundly to this than being in the places where John Muir and Ansel Adams stood as they captured the photographs and created the trails that helped America to fall in love with its natural resources.
Finally, make it special! For Kendal and myself, our pictures represent the moments along our journey. For you, however, it doesn’t have to be a picture. Maybe you have a tradition that you take along with you. I had an old friend who told me he always found a stranger to strike up a conversation with at rest points along the trail or on the summit. Some of his funniest, and even most touching stories came from complete strangers whom he found along his path.
On that note, here's a final piece of wisdom from Papa Bear, owner of Deer Creek Adventure Camp: "Remember, wherever you go - there you are."
People ask us how long we’ll travel and where we’re headed all the time. The truth? We have no idea where we’ll finish.