A Glasgow couple who left their old lives behind to travel the world in a camper van have shared the ups and downs of life out on the road.
Gary MacDonald and Rachel Digney have journeyed across Australia, South East Asia and Canada, juggling jobs and driving several hours a day while living on a shoestring budget to make the most of their backpacking adventure.
Needless to say, it’s not all been plain-sailing: They once went 20 days without a proper shower, were trapped in their van during covid and were almost stranded in the scorching, uninhabited deserts of Australia.
The modern ‘van life’ movement has gained popularity over the last few years: People of all ages and walks of life around the world are choosing to move into their vans or RVs and adopt a minimalist lifestyle.
Many van dwellers sadly report having little alternative, due to the rising cost of housing. Meanwhile, the growth of remote working during lockdown has made a life on the road more appealing for aspiring nomads.
It’s also popular with backpackers as a way to travel on a budget – and Gary and Rachel say it’s made them happier than they’ve ever been.
“The highest point has been having absolute freedom. We drive around, go wherever we want and save so much money on rent. But it’s definitely not for everyone,” Gary said.
The 30-year-old from Pollok left his job as a personal trainer to travel to Australia in October 2017. Rachel, 31, who he had only been dating a few months, made a snap decision to join him just five weeks before the departure date. The pair have barely left one another’s side since.
“We always wanted to go travelling but never had the opportunity – so we decided to just do it,” Gary, said. “We had no jobs set up when we got there. Just a one-way ticket each and a hostel room for three nights.”
While working on a potato farm in Mount Gambier, they began discussing their next move. After advice from a friend, they bought Holden Commodore station wagon for $2000, stuck a blow-up mattress in the back and headed out to see more of the country.
They spent eight months living out of the large car, taking turns driving several hours a day. They batted off flies and mosquitos as they cooked simple meals of cheap noodles and chicken on their portable camping stove. They avoided nights out, instead drinking five-litre boxes of wine for $5 and saving up all of their money to hike mountains, skydiving, scuba diving and trekking in the rainforests, spotting wild crocodiles and kangaroos.
Another hurdle was the search for showers, toilets and places to fill their water. They would stop off at service stations and leisure centres along the way.
Rachel said: “We once went three weeks without a proper shower – we had to use water tanks that caught rainwater and use a bit of soap and baby wipes. That was rough.”
With the nights growing dark early in Australia, they would settle in around 5pm, inflate their blow-up mattress and watch a box set on their laptop. They would shift their mass of belongings into the front seat each evening and move them back in the morning when it was time to drive.
Living out of a car took some getting used to: the blistering heat and humidity, the constant fear of the car breaking down and sharing close quarters with your other-half 24/7 can take its toll. And the pair are keen to share the realities of van life that you don’t see on Instagram.
“It’s tough at times – and there have been tears,” Gary said.
“The lowest point was that a lot of stuff can go wrong living in a car. You have to look after it the way you’d look after your house. You have to get it seen and fixed as soon as possible.
“The stress of hearing a noise under the hood. You can deal with no showers, a lot easier to the extent than you would in the outback.
“We’ve broken down, we’ve blown a few tyres, we were stranded quite a few times in the outback while we were driving.
“At one point we were driving eight hours and had not seen a single other person. It’s just red sand on either side, in the middle of nowhere. We always carried a spare tyre, we were always well prepared for situations like that.”
In 2018, they decided to sell up their car and travel South East Asia for a few months before coming home for a year to attend their friends’ weddings, but their minds were still on their next adventure. They both worked nightshift at Sainsbury’s to save money for a two-year trip of a lifetime in Canada.
A fortnight after landing in Toronto in September 2019, they bought a second-hand camper van for $4,000. This time, they researched solar power and kitted the van out with internet, a small kitchen and decorated the walls.
“It’s so much better than living in the car– it feels like luxury to us. A proper home!” Rachel said.
Gary added: “I’ve never been much of a handyman, so it felt like an achievement fitting a full electrical set-up. You learn so much on the go in this lifestyle. and that’s what’s great about it.”
Unfortunately, when covid hit, they pair had to put their travel plans on the back-burner and faced an even more difficult time living in their van in Vancouver during lockdown.
The gyms closed for several months, meaning they couldn’t use the showers, and they had to queue half an hour to use the toilet at the supermarket.
Due to the strict rules, they spent hours hunched over in the van and unable to leave to stretch their legs: “it was tough, mentally and physically, “Rachel said. “There were times where we did feel like giving up.”
Gary even contracted covid himself, and the authorities put them into a quarantine hotel for four weeks – though having running water was a welcome change.
The couple explain there has been rising stigma around travellers, particularly during the pandemic – and they say there have been some “horror stories”.
One of their friends, a native Canadian who chooses to live in a van for financial reasons, recently had his windows smashed and graffiti daubed on the doors.
“People can view you as dirty or homeless, and can look down your nose a bit. Sometimes they think because you’re travelling, that you’re spreading covid. But when you get to know us, we’re respectful,” Gary said.
“We are actually clean and tidy as a community. You see other van lifers actually going out and picking up rubbish in the car park. We’re not homeless, we’re just houseless!”
He added: “The people have been mostly friendly and welcoming. We’ve got an ‘adopted mum’ who checks in on us and cooks us dinner sometimes. She’s lovely. ”
Things began looking up when they landed jobs at a ski resort over the winter season last year, though they chose to live in the van in freezing temperatures rather than pay $750 for the accommodation; a fair chunk when you’re on the minimum wage.
Even through the stricter phases of lockdown, the thrill-seekers still enjoyed heading out on the slopes, hiking in the forests and white water rafting.
“Vancouver is the only place where in the spring, you could ski in the morning and go to the beach at night, Gary said.
“As long as you wear a mask, stay away from others and don’t hang about in groups, you can do a lot of things safely.”
They’ve also made “friends for life” with other travellers working at the ski resort from Australia and Ireland and have connected with other people in the van life community.
Rachel explained: “Our friends who used to travel know what it’s like and tell us the door is always open at their apartment for showers or laundry. We feel bad about taking advantage of that too often – at the end of the day, we did choose this. No one chose it for us.”
With three months left on their visa, they are focusing on getting a permanent residency so they can continue life on the road and travel to see the beautiful scenery on Canada’s east coast.
If their application is refused, they plan on converting a transit van and travelling around Scotland instead.
“We still love the transient lifestyle and haven’t got rid of the travel bug quite yet,” Gary said. “We’ve been doing it for two years so we know what to expect – and you save so much money.
“In the worst case scenario, we will have a holiday home on wheels if we decide to have a more settled life.”
Gary and Rachel say trading in a roof for wheels has been the “experience of a lifetime” and has completely changed their mindsets. They insist throwing everything to the wind, quitting their 9-5 and going out into the great unknown is the best thing they’ve ever done.
Gary admits he used to care too much about impressing friends and fitting in in his old life in Glasgow.
“Before, I wasn’t doing what made me happy and I cared too much about what other people think. I’ve got such a clearer head since leaving all my “stuff’ behind. I’m more open-minded and I realise I didn’t need it.
“Those materialistic things don’t fulfil you. Even a toilet and a shower is a privilege in this world that you start to appreciate. It’s eye-opening.”
He added, laughing: “I do miss my X-Box sometimes though!”
Rachel said: “We have everything we need here in the van. If you like straightening your hair and wearing makeup every day, it’s probably not for you. But this keeps you young and there’s this constant sense of adventure. You can go anywhere you want.”
If you feel like trying out the van life after a long year of lockdown, be prepared: It’s not the shiny, bohemian lifestyle you might see glamourised on social media.
Gary said: “It does come with its issues. My advice is go into it expecting everything to go wrong and you’ll never be disappointed. Like waking up with no power or having leaks from the extractor fan. Then, when you have a nice day, it feels fantastic!”
Rachel added: “It’s opened up so many opportunities for us. You’re told to live a certain way but you can take a step back from the usual ‘buy a house, get married, have kids’ set-up – there’s more to life than what society tells you have to do.
“We’re living smaller and we’re much happier for it.”
Follow Gary and Rachael on @GR_Travels.