“We didn’t know where to settle down, so we didn’t.”
Julia, Marcel, their two children, Emmi and Samson, and their adorable Border Collie Lab mix Cody, have been living on the road for over three years. Originally from Germany and with one kid born on the road, their adventures have been nothing short of exciting and inspiring. From Junior Ranger programs to climbing trees to riding bikes on BLM, they are tackling America one free campsite at a time. After spending some time with them, I was completely overtaken with the charm of their family and their braveness in traveling full-time while raising children in a different country. After reading my potentially too personal of questions and their raw, honest answers, I hope you’re as enamored with them as I am.
Please briefly introduce yourself/your family. What is your story? What kind of adventure vehicle are you driving (make/model/year)? Are you full-time, part-time, or a weekend warrior? How many people/animals travel in your rig?
Our family consists of two adults, two kids and a dog, traveling full-time in a ’66 Streamline Duke (24-foot long). It may not necessarily be considered vanlife, but after an incident with a Class A in the very beginning, I have a strict “two-systems-policy” concerning engine and living quarters. We left Germany a little over three years ago with our baby, Emmi, to explore the US. I was also pregnant and we just completely failed in finding a spot to settle down. The more you see the harder it gets to make a decision! So now we are traveling around, not necessarily looking for a place to settle down but more bumping around the country, wherever the wind blows us.
You previously mentioned that you have switched your mode of transportation twice. What have you learned along the way? What are you doing differently on your third renovation?
Like I said, strict “two-systems-policy”. We had to spend weeks in a hotel in Yuma when our Class A broke down and I swore that I would prevent that from happening ever again. So now we don’t have the engine and living quarters combined. Our Ford Excursion works as a car, an office, and a camping vehicle for places that are harder to get to (remote Campsites, for example). Like many other travelers we learned that we definitely don’t need as much as everyone thinks we do. We downsized from a 36-foot motor home to a 26-foot trailer the first chance we got, and then downsized again to our 24-foot trailer. The trailer is currently unfinished but we are working on it, mainly at night (luckily the kids sleep through the sound of a circular saw), which is so different than before. We are much more able to rough-it. We didn’t have a place to park for any part of the renovation, so this trailer was built completely by solar powered tools on various BLM and National Forest (without littering, of course).
The biggest change we’ve made to our build is the designated kids area. Previously, we had the kids’ bunks in the middle (like many setups), which resulted in almost breaking our ankles on toys daily. That setup also meant that whenever bedtime rolled around it had to be dark and quiet. Now they have their own little kids room in the back of the trailer. It’s only 6-feet long but big enough for two bunk beds with a desk and closet under each. They love their little room, the privacy, and the personal space. I can even send them to their room for the first time in their lives! Although I still almost break my ankle whenever I have to go in there. We’ve learned a lot about what we as a family really need. We’re still learning. For example, we’ve been without a proper bathroom or running water for three months, but I made it a priority to have the stove and oven ready when we moved in.
What made you guys decide to do this in America instead of Germany? Can you discuss a bit what it is like for you? Has this brought about any challenges for you guys?
Plenty! For example, we’re not rich so we can’t simply fly home for the holidays. We never planned on full-timing in the States, so we never considered it in Germany either. In hindsight, I totally see us traveling around Europe in a camper, but not within the next two years. It is way easier over here, so maybe this is a way of easing into more global traveling. The US is generally way more free, whether it be camping options (boondocking is prohibited in most of Europe) or kids (you’re legally not allowed to homeschool in Germany, so once the kids turn 6 you only have the official school breaks to travel). Also, you can’t just go ahead and modify a rig based on your needs because you have to have it checked and licensed. You can’t even add a spare tire without an expensive inspection.
Even though the European and the US culture are fairly similar, we’ve still had our challenges, but it feels like they aren’t much different from the challenges people born in the US have right now. Our kids are bilingual and with us not necessarily being planners we don’t know if they’ll grow up in the states, somewhere else, or all over the place. But I’ve come to accept some of the quirks I had my issues with in the beginning…but I just can’t get over the grocery prices. Lastly, we came over with two suitcases and two backpacks, so in contrast to everyone else, we actually had to buy stuff to start this minimalist life.
Do you see yourselves traveling in a converted trailer in any other countries as well? Where else would you like to see?
We’d love to. There is still plenty to see in the states, but Canada is high on our list. If it weren’t for the logistics we’d probably be on our way to Europe and Asia already. We just got this trailer and while I’d love to ship it overseas, it doesn’t really make sense (especially since its hard to find a car in Europe that can tow this much weight). If you ask us in person, you’ll probably get a very enthusiastic “all over Asia” answer from one of us and a very enthusiastic “not necessarily Asia” answer from the other. It’s all a balancing act of fitting our dreams into one family. Maybe down the road we’ll have a more global traveling plan but for this year, we’ll stick to America!
I know you both (Julia and Marcel) work from the road. Can you describe how this differs from work prior to living in your Streamline?
It’s not like we had years of work experience before. Marcel hated being stuck in an office all day and not seeing Emmi, especially after spending the entire first year at home with her (paid paternal leave is awesome!) but that was only for 6 months. Afterwards, he quit and we began traveling. We basically decided to wait until I finished up my masters, then ditched the rat race before we ever really set foot in it. It seems like most people feel like a burden was lifted after finally breaking free of the office culture, but we never truly entered that environment in the first place.
The smaller we go with the trailer size, the more of a challenge the office situation is. We mainly work in the car or when the kids sleep, but we’d love to invest in a 4x4 van down the road, with a “real” office space in the back. Our work environment also changes frequently, depending on where we are. Warm climates are great for working in the car, until it gets too hot. Hammock work happens sometimes too but rarely, due to the kids.
The main difference for me (Julia) is that I can’t actually work in the field I studied. I’ve done some genetics and microbiology, in combination with food testing, and we all know that you should not put a lab in an RV (Walter White anyone?) so I’m doing my best with remote work. I’m learning a lot but down the road I’d love to actually work in my field.
What is the best part about traveling with young children? The worst part?
We’ve done a fair amount of traveling without kids and, don’t let anyone fool you, it’s so much easier. But almost everything in life is, so this shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. The best part of traveling with kids is that they force us to get out there. Even though we are basically camping 365 days a year, Marcel and I both consider ourselves homebodies. We would stay inside watching Netflix for weeks at a time if it wasn’t for work and the kids. Today we got snowed in at our campsite, about 30 minutes outside of Zion. We had already driven through the park the day before and it was the perfect day for just cuddling up in bed. However, the kids were climbing up the walls and we decided to tire them out on a hike. So we went on this gorgeous hike past waterfalls and up slick rocks and it was so much better than staying inside all day. We even got a couple hours of Netflix in after they went to bed!
We are also saving lots of money by not having to pay for a babysitter. If we are with friends, we normally sit around a fire until late at night. If we were living in a house right now, one set of parents would have to take care of child care and I’m sure we wouldn’t have as many epic nights as we do now!
The worst part about traveling with kids is Samson’s tendency to try everything his big sister does, so we’ve had our fair share of ER visits. We have to keep that in mind when we’re headed to more remote areas of the country, just to be safe.
One more thing worth mentioning is that the kids are growing and developing complex wishes, more than just “what’s for lunch?” Emmi is our wild card. She’s our social butterfly, whereas we can go weeks without the need to meet someone. She loves the winter and snow, while we avoid it. Making sure everyone’s needs are met is a challenge that we’ll have to continue to navigate even more once the kids reach a certain age. Oh, and they also still think campfires are special! Probably because we make them less frequently than your average camper.
I know Emmi recently convinced you guys to cut her hair super short. I love that you listen to your children and empower them and admire how you’re raising them. How do you feel living on the road has affected your parenting style?
A friend of mine (@weelittlenomads) recently said, “I thought that living in a small space with young children would be really difficult but I’ve finally come to the realization that living with young children in any kind of space is really difficult." I feel like that quote perfectly sums it up. Parenting on the road isn’t necessarily easier or harder than parenting in a suburban setting. The thing is, we don’t know it any other way.
We have time-outs on epic hikes, fevers in national parks and the kids fight often because a sibling intruded their personal space in a 130 square foot trailer. There are definitely some aspects that are easier in comparison, such as always having a “huge garden” ready for them to play. All the playing, climbing, and hiking are things that we wouldn’t be able to give them on a regular basis. I also especially feel like Emmi is such a wild child that I don’t even know how well she would deal with an 8-4 school situation. I love that we are able to just embrace their personalities rather than try to mold them into something they are not. We’re putting enough money in the therapy jar already without that.
The ranger program is huge with Emmi and Sam. Can you talk about some of the parks you’ve visited that you felt tailored to kids best with programs, activities, etc.?
One of the best programs was Joshua Tree. They really put effort in getting Sam to talk, which he doesn’t do very often. It was also one of the only places that actually allowed Sam to finish the program and get a badge. I feel like in that age group specifically, it’s so much more important that they learn to appreciate the parks and the background view rather than having their facts down perfectly. Zion was kind of a downer, but other families had more luck ranger-wise. They wouldn’t hand out booklets to anyone under the age of 4, even after we offered to pay for it, and one big task for the program was watching a movie. We would’ve preferred just hiking at that point.
Honestly though, I think it comes down to the rangers, not necessarily the park itself. Emmi is obsessed with rangers and is often found waving them down when they are patrolling random boondocking spots (enforcing the stay limits) before we can stop her.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
The only thing I can think of is that there are so many families or expecting parents who think that they can’t do this with kids, especially with little kids. Trust me, it isn’t so bad or as hard as everyone makes you believe it is.
Connect with Julia and Marcel online!
Cody's Instagram: @oh.mr.cody