Locals Embrace ‘Vanlife,’ Head Out in Search of Adventure

By JON COEN | Nov 13, 2019
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

Shane Dennis had just bought a breakfast burrito in Dana Point, Calif. From the parking lot, he’s on a phone call back to his native Long Beach Island that he’d left a week ago. He was about to spread out in the back of his converted Sprinter van with all the comforts of home, enjoy his breakfast and research a meet-up of other people living in their vans.

There are not too many 25-year-olds who own their own homes in 2019. But Dennis had purchased a house in Ocean Acres a few years back.

“1,300 square feet felt enormous to me. It was cool. It had a nice backyard, but I just wasn’t happy there. I hated paying a mortgage and really just wanted to travel,” he explained.

So Dennis sold the house in June and bought a 2013 Mercedes Sprinter van in July. He built out a full kitchen and a Murphy bed. He has a water pump and a shower off the back. The interior sports tongue and groove wood and tile, every detail worked out with custom craftsmanship.

His moving home got 12 to 15 mpg highway miles across the country. He’s also found that it’s the best way to travel with his two dogs.

Dennis also installed 400 watts of solar panels on the roof and three batteries. “If I conserve,” he said, “I can go for a week without sun.”

He left in late October, driving straight to California and experiencing the desert of Joshua Tree National Park. Then it was out to the coast, to the famous surf spot Old Man’s in Orange County.

The idea of building out a vehicle for self-sufficiency with long-term travel is not new. LBI travelers and surfers have been doing it for decades. Local surfers have made the long journey from the Island through Central America since the 1970s. The LBI region is particularly conducive to this split lifestyle because of the opportunity to make so much money in the summer followed by a winter where many businesses shut down. But overall, the “vanlife” has been a growing trend on social media the past few years. With 6.2 million hashtags on Instagram, it represents a carefree way of life that looks, through various levels of authenticity, more fun than the traditional RV life, more DIY, with better fuel efficiency.

Ron and Colleen Panetta are in a different situation but are exploring the vanlife as well. They aren’t leaving their Ship Bottom home that they completely renovated themselves but want to stay in when they aren’t traveling for surf, music festivals and paddleboard races and other fun road trips. Ron is a senior director of business development in healthcare. Colleen teaches art and does commissioned artwork.

The Panettas found a 2014 Sprinter van last year from a dealer in Pennsauken.

“The van was originally a contractor’s vehicle that had plastic wall liners, steel shelving and a steel bulkhead, all of which we removed first. Basically that left us an empty metal shell to work with,” said Ron.

“Some of the first things we did were installing functional large windows on both sides of the van and rear windows on the back doors. We also installed a rear camera and a hitch mounted below the rear bumper. Following that we added foil-faced soundproofing material inside the shell and then sheep’s wool insulation throughout the ceiling walls and floor to avoid any chemical or loose fibers floating around. I’ve left chases around the perimeter for the future wiring to be done. We then added luan panels to the walls, hardwood flooring, tongue and groove ceiling, wood cabinets, a wet shower stall with toilet, small closet, small kitchen sink and counter, a full size bed with a lot of storage in the ‘garage’ beneath and dinette set behind the driver seat.”

The Panettas just added a refrigerator/freezer with toaster oven and have laid out where the solar panels, batteries and chargers will go. They installed a large roof rack and ladder with modular bicycle rack. Colleen fabricated blackout window covers so that from the outside, it’s impossible to see at any light inside the vehicle.

“That keeps us stealth,” laughs Ron.

They stayed comfortably in the van at last year’s Sea.Hear.Now Festival in Asbury Park and have already made trips to Rhode Island, Florida and Boston.

In an unfortunate wrinkle while working on the van, Ron developed Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare neurological disorder in which the body's immune system mistakenly attacks part of its peripheral nervous system, and was laid off from his job. He was released from the hospital last spring and has been working on recovery.

“Actually we’ve had really fun experiences so far, but we didn’t realize how much we would need to travel on a budget until recently with getting GBS and being out of work,” Panetta said. “It’s really neat knowing you have everything with you, and if you decide you want to go here, there or anywhere or just stay an extra day or two. Your little house is with you all the time with no need to make hotel arrangements. The fact that it’s a pretty stealthy vehicle allows us to park virtually anywhere … and we have.”

Twenty-five-year-old Stephen Dipietro of Beach Haven bought a van two years ago and customized it for his uses including a very unique porthole that he installed on the side. He already has several winters of van adventure under his belt with both surfing and snowboarding forays.

“The van came completely empty, just the metal shell. The first thing I had to do was insulate and lay down the floor. I framed out the whole van with wood and filled every surface with insulation. I used a combo of insulation board and spray foam. Next, I ran 12-volt wiring throughout the van for fans, lights and outlets. Those run off of a house battery that is connected to a solar panel on the roof,” Dipetro explained.

He used reclaimed 60-year-old cedar paneling from an old barn to panel the walls and ceiling. The porthole was his father’s from an old Navy ship. His final installations were a bed big enough for two, a locker for a closet and a seat from an old ambulance. The whole conversation took three months and cost about $2,000.

For Dipietro and the Panettas, vanlife allows them to travel the way they want in an affordable manner. But for Dennis, the vanlife lifestyle is becoming the focus. He uses a user-updated GPS-based app called iOverlander that provides info for travelers on amenities, things to do and places to stay. He planned to drive north to Los Angeles to a networking event for people living in vans.

“I’m hoping to meet a ton of people with vans and get advice on where to go and places to park,” he explained.

He has already learned that it is illegal to sleep in a van in San Diego County between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. and the oceanfront campground in Carlsbad, Calif., is $70 per night.

He has been actively following and researching the most high-profile van lifers who have staggering followers on Instagram and YouTube. Dennis explains that the most successful ones have actually been able to subsidize their nomadic existence by creating online content that they make income from.

His plan is to find a similar hustle. He will stay in warmer climates through this winter and then next spring and summer plans to drive through the Pacific Northwest and get to Vancouver Island, B.C., by June. He is on Instagram at @ShaneDennis625.

In the future, the Panettas would like to do a full cross-country trip.

“We talk about taking a southwesterly route all the way through Nashville, Memphis, the Grand Canyon and Southern California, then heading up the coast highway to wine country, the redwood forest, back through Yellowstone and working our way back. There are lots of folks to see along the way as well,” Panetta says.

Dipietro is a veteran of the road at this point. He’s already into this season’s journey.

“I went to North Carolina first to get some surf and visit some friends and then I’m going to shoot straight across to California. Last time I did it I took my time, and did the southern route, but this time I’m going straight to California as fast as I can. I’ll start in LA and go north. I’ve never been on the coast north of San Francisco. Quiet towns and raw coastline are more appealing to me than the chaos of Southern California, also way more inviting to camp out in a van. I’ll keep making my way north to Canada just in time for peak snow season.”


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