Van life looks idyllic on social media. But for couples, it can be challenging

It looks like a dreamy life of freedom on the open road: golden sunsets, cozy bunks and endless photo ops amidst stunning views of nature.

© courtesy Sierra Peters Buckland Sierra Peters-Buckland, right, travels with her girlfriend, Annette Hayward, in a Mercedes Sprinter van.

A growing cult of nomads are taking long road trips — sometimes for months — in tricked-out camper vans, often documenting their travel highlights on Instagram with the hashtag #vanlife.

But for couples, especially inexperienced ones, this seemingly carefree lifestyle can come with unique problems. Sharing cramped quarters and isolated from their support networks, couples on the road say they must battle boredom and logistical challenges day after day without driving each other crazy.

The death of Gabby Petito, 22, while on a cross-country trip this summer with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, has brought new attention to aspects of van life that don’t make it into sunny social media posts. Evidence shows the couple had some tense moments on the road in the days before she disappeared.

Petito’s remains were found Sunday in Wyoming. Nobody has been charged in her death. Authorities are looking for Laundrie, 23, who has gone missing since returning alone earlier this month to his parents’ home in Florida.

Many couples romanticize the idea of road trips but fail to plan key details in advance and end up trapped in a toxic situation, says Chicago-area psychologist John Duffy, who has worked with van life couples.

“A trip like this may feel like a heady, exciting adventure that will draw you closer together, and often it is. But the days, I’ve heard, can be long and arduous. Naturally, you get on each other’s nerves, at least some of the time,” Duffy said.

“And if you haven’t spent some significant time together, you may find yourselves in an uncomfortable — and, in the extreme, dangerous — level of discomfort and conflict.”

Sharing a small space can take a toll

The #vanlife lifestyle has grown in popularity in recent years, fueled by social media posts, DIY van conversion videos on YouTube and the desire to escape crowds during the pandemic.

CNN spoke to a handful of couples who have roamed the US in vans. They say they have been following developments in the Petito case, riveted by the story of the young couple who shared their interests and appeared on social media to have a perfect life.

“I followed the case borderline obsessively. Gabby had devastating and heartbreaking bad luck,” says Sierra Peters-Buckland, 28, a van lifer who’s gone on monthslong trips with her girlfriend, Annette Hayward. “But, vanlife did not kill Gabby, traveling did not kill Gabby, the national parks did not kill Gabby. A person killed Gabby.”

© from gabspetito/Instagram Gabby Petito and her fiancé, Brian Laundrie. Many van lifers have followed Petito’s disappearance and death with interest.

For Peters-Buckland, the allure of the van life beckoned last year. She quit her job at a sporting goods store in Oceanside, California, packed her bags and started planning a cross-country trip.

In April, she and Hayward bought a white Mercedes Sprinter van they nicknamed Chance. They decked it out in crisp white linen and curtains to soften the van’s wooden interior, packed a few belongings and stashed bear spray in various spots to protect against intruders. Then they hit the road.

On their last trip Peters-Buckland and her girlfriend drove 24,000 miles and visited 42 states and 50 national parks. They saw buffalo, bears, moose and bighorn sheep. One Instagram pic showed a sunrise over Death Valley National Park; the coffee mug in the foreground says, “Enjoy the Journey.”

© courtesy Navod Ahmir Navod Ahmir, 28, drives his 2018 Ford Transit van on frequent long road trips. His partner regularly comes along for the ride.

But long days and numerous daily tasks on the road can take a toll, says Peters-Buckland. She says their journeys taught them valuable lessons on handling conflict.

“Travel, especially budget travel, can be tiring and cause extra strains having to make decisions every day … expect the hard times, expect the unexpected and have strategies in place if you’re in a relationship that can get into heated arguments,” Peters-Buckland says, adding that she and Hayward learned to resolve their disputes quickly.

Of course, some couples have abusive relationships from the beginning, and their problems can’t be blamed on a long journey in a van.

But even so, too much bickering on the road is a bad sign, van lifers say.

“If the arguments are happening super regularly, becoming aggressive, or causing deep sadness, the reality is you should not be traveling together in a small space. And probably not be in a relationship,” Peters-Buckland says. “We need to stop normalizing toxic behavior so more people don’t end up like Gabby.”

Van lifers must take care of their mental health

Van lifers say they meet like-minded people and make friends all over the country. But it can be lonely being away from their social circles.

Navod Ahmir has been driving his black 2018 Ford Transit van cross-country on a part-time basis for a year now. He’s been up and down the East Coast and to a gathering of Black nomads in Georgia. His partner regularly comes along for the ride.

© courtesy Kate Kulpa Katherine Kulpa has taken a few road trips with her boyfriend in a rented van. “There are definitely parts of van trips that are tough,” she says.

“I think the importance of community and how much being alone on the road for long periods can take a toll on your mental health isn’t discussed enough,” says Ahmir, 28, of Rocky Mount, North Carolina. “It’s a balancing act between learning to be more social and living with fewer attachments to people and things.”

© courtesy Sierra Peters Buckland Sierra Peters-Buckland and her girlfriend have traveled so far to 42 states and 50 national parks.

With a support system hundreds of miles away and nowhere to flee after a disagreement, couples are forced to get creative about resolving conflicts, he says. Ahmir and his partner are careful to take breaks from each other when needed.

“For example, if I’m taking a nap, then my partner may relax in the cabin, work at a nearby park bench or explore the area until I wake,” he says. “Communication is key, as it’s equal parts listening to understand and speaking up for yourself.”

Like stationary couples, van life couples must practice patience and find what works best for their lifestyle, he says.

Ahmir works remotely in finance and is planning to make his van life permanent later this year. But he says Petito’s case has made him and his partner refocus their priorities to maintain a healthy relationship while on the road.

“We read a lot of personal development books and strive to apply that knowledge to our daily lives, which filters into our relationship,” he says. “Because of this case, we’ll be highlighting our focus on better communication.”

Long trips take a lot of planning

Chicago resident Katherine Kulpa, 31, has gone on several road trips with her boyfriend in a rented ProMaster cargo van.

Van life for couples involves detailed planning that factors both people into the equation, she says.

“It requires a lot of teamwork and communication. You have to make joint decisions on travel plans, often times on the fly,” she says. “Traveling as a couple is fun, but sharing a smaller space can be challenging if you’re not organized.”

On their most recent trips — to North Carolina’s Outer Banks last fall and Shawnee National Forest in Illinois this summer, security was also a concern. They traveled with their dogs, Kasper and Daisy, and stuck to campsites at night.

They also shared their travel itinerary in advance with family and friends.

“Social media makes most travel look more glamorous than it is. There are definitely parts of van trips that are tough,” she says. “If you don’t have a shower or bathroom inside either that can be a challenge, and usually means you have to find a campsite or public restroom. The van can get messy easily, so you have to stay organized.”

Couples should first ask themselves key questions

Heading out on the road for weeks or months at a time requires major logistical and financial planning.

For couples, that should also include talking with a therapist or life coach, says Duffy, the psychologist.

“Talk through a series of questions: How long do we plan to be gone? What is the purpose of the trip? How much do we plan to spend?” he says. “One couple I worked with spent some time in session talking at length about who would be driving, leading to a discussion about control in their relationship. These are important discussions to engage in ahead of the trip.”

Couples should also figure out how they will manage changes in plans or emergencies, he says. And while road-trippers can’t prepare for every contingency, a plan can help with problem solving and conflict management, Duffy says.

Young couples often have less experience living together and resolving issues together. Confine them to a small space for days or weeks at a time and there is an increased potential for conflict, he says.

A core idea of such trips is to create memories together, but couples should also have a plan for spending time apart to give each other space, Duffy says.

“Some can do that silently within the vehicle, even seated next to one another,” he says. “Others will need to pull over in a town or out on the road, and allow each other that space. Without planning a method for conflict management ahead of time, the van … can quickly become a toxic and unhealthy environment.”

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