Photo: When the weather was good, we’d swing the back doors open. It was as if we were camping in a tent without having to set anything up. This was the view from our first night camping on the Pacific Ocean, just north of Squamish, British Columbia.
In 2014, Nikki and Jakob Celnik left their corporate jobs in New York City and bought a used Sprinter. They spent the following seven weeks designing and building the van, and then planned a two-year drive from Canada to Argentina. Highlights include mountain biking throughout Canada, climbing in Mexico, getting caught in one of the worst hurricanes ever to hit Baja, and staying with a local family in Colombia. They returned to New York in October with lots of photos and stories to share.
Camping at an altitude above 14,000 feet at the end of the road on Illiniza Sur, Ecuador.
Our first night in Mexico. People told us it was too dangerous to drive through Mexico, but it turned out to be one of our favorite countries. I remember sitting there, drinking Tecate, taking in the tranquility.
Having a dog to walk forced us to stop the van, stretch our legs, and take in the view. It also made traveling a lot harder at times. Long hike? Not unless it’s dog friendly. Lunch at a restaurant? Sure, but make it quick. Leika was a champion when it came to traveling: she’s well-trained and has a great temperament, and we could trust that she wouldn’t destroy the van or run away.
Laguna 69 in Peru is one of the most spectacular hikes in the Cordillera Blanca.
It wasn’t always smiles and sunshine on this trip, but it brought us closer than we could ever imagine. We’ve certainly tested our relationship in tough situations and under stress. It’s hard to hide or ignore your differences when you live in a van and spend nearly 24/7 together. We saw the good, the bad, and the ugly very quickly and were forced to confront our issues. Somehow, it worked out for the best. We still fight but keep improving on our communication and patience with each other.
Evenings were the best: a chance to process everything we’d seen and done during the day. Camping at 14,000 feet started to become normal for us.
Trip 17: People told us we were crazy to drive a two-wheel-drive car, but we’d often see a local in a 1988 Honda Civic going up the same roads we’d been told were impassable without a 4x4. And when in doubt, help never seemed too far even in the most remote locations. Here, we’re driving through the Southwest Circuit in Bolivia at about 14,000 feet.
Reaching the border of Argentina and Chile was bittersweet. After hundreds of miles of dirt roads and remote deserts, you feel like you’re entering a different world, shopping malls included. We drove toward Chile and spent a few days in the Atacama Desert watching the red sunsets.
The Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. Magical place. We spent a full day just joking around and taking pictures. We never knew exactly how long we’d stay in a place, so we carried plenty of water (18 gallons was full capacity) as well as dry and canned goods.
One of our favorite photos from the trip. This was on a beach outside La Paz in Baja, Mexico. Twelve hours after this picture was taken, Hurricane Odile—the largest ever to hit Baja—landed on the peninsula and caused major destruction.
After several thousand miles, we knew the van well and what it could handle—and we put it to good use. Nikki would often walk out into rivers to check how deep they were and what the ground was like before we’d drive out into them. If the van couldn’t get us to the exact trailhead, we’d park where we could and walk the extra few miles.
I loved climbing onto the van roof to sit, read, and watch the sunset. It was a different perspective and somehow more peaceful on the roof.
The van took us to incredible places and allowed us to see amazing views, do amazing things, meet amazing people. The mobile lifestyle isn’t always easy, but it’s rewarding. We often went places in the shoulder seasons, when things were quieter and less expensive and the weather was not always perfect.
Last winter, we spent weekends out of town traveling to new ski areas. We skied during the day, grabbed a few beers, but also tried to get some work done.
The van before we built it out. A blank canvas, if you will. Our philosophy when it comes to campers is to think long and hard about what’s important to you: standing height, off-road capabilities, amenities, etc. And then research it and rent one for a weekend, if you can.
Wherever we travel, Leika always has her bed with her. When we first started the trip, she wasn’t so sure about the driving, but after a week, the van became her home.
The van isn’t a 4x4, but we had all-terrain tires and chains.
We get a lot of questions about personal hygiene in the van. Baby wipes become your best friend. Quickly. We had a small sink in the van but often opted to brush our teeth just like you would when camping.
Next up: Travel Hacks: Pack Like a Pro