Keith and Brianna Madia don’t care that their van doesn’t have air conditioning. They do care, however, if their two rescue dogs, Bucket and Dagwood, are overheating. They don’t care if Bucket and Dagwood only know the command “sit” when there’s food involved, but they do care that both dogs feel comfortable rappelling into remote canyons. And for the Madias, vanlife isn’t about the van—which saw minimal renovations before becoming their home—but about the freedom to be outside, all the time.
Brianna and Keith, respectively 27 and 29 years old, grew up together in Connecticut, a far cry from the expansive Utah deserts they now call home. The wilderness found its way into their lives, regardless: Brianna’s family camped, biked, fished, and fostered her love of anything that creeps and crawls. Keith took a solo camping trip to the woods of Tennessee in college and promptly decided to become a professional guide. Drawn together by their love of the outdoors (and their desire to get away from the East Coast), they’ve been together for eight years, and married for three.
Despite the fact that their Instagram has over 100,000 followers, Brianna, who runs the account, is refreshingly outspoken against transplanting outdoor experiences and culture onto the internet. They came into internet fame accidentally, in fact, thanks to a wedding photographer and an REI-promoted photo. So her account is refreshingly no-nonsense. She uses her platform to call out the emphasis on picture-perfect adventuring and overcrowding in wild places fueled by social media (among other things, including the importance of rescuing shelter dogs).
What does your day-to-day life look like?
For me to answer this, I’d have to have some type of routine in my life and currently…I have none. It’s chaos at times but it’s been a huge character development period for me. Usually we wake up…somewhere. Maybe in a parking lot, but usually out in the desert. We slide the door open and the dogs run off and we make eggs and coffee and then plan a day based on weather and any work we have to get done. Sometime I’ll go to a dog friendly coffee shop, other times we’ll go climb a multi-pitch. If it’s too hot for the dogs, we’ll plan to float a river or simply go sit in one for a few hours. There isn’t a single day that’s the same. I’m writing this right now from a parking lot I’ve never slept in before in a town I’ve been to 500 times. So…it’s an unpredictable life 🙂
What are your preferred ways to get after it?
Climbing and canyoneering are probably our main go-to’s but we also love mountain biking, kayaking, and snowboarding. Climbing is a huge thing for us because it’s something we have to consistently work at. It’s a problem you get to solve immediately because it’s right in front of you. It’s simple. It’s a hand placement or a dynamic move. It’s not complicated like other “problems” in life. Canyoneering we love because frankly, it’s what gets us so far off the grid we don’t see other people for days. That was the main inspiration to teach ourselves (and our dogs) how to be technical canyoneers. We were herded through Antelope Canyon on a guided tour and it was like walking through a mall. I hated every minute of it. It took us all of 10 seconds to realize that when you add the really intense technical and rope skill aspect to a canyon, you also remove about 98% of the population’s ability to get there…thus increasing the likelihood of having it all to yourself.
Adventure mobile year, make, and model?
1990 Ford E350 Clubwagon, but she’s been customized with a lift and 4WD. Her name is Bertha, after one of our favorite Grateful Dead songs.
Where did you get Bertha, and how did you modify her for the road?
We found her on a classified ad two years ago and our modifications were mostly exterior. We installed solar panels and wood flooring and storage drawers under the bench seat. We got a ladder from a junkyard and built a makeshift solar shower for 90 bucks. We bought a front seat rotator and an awning and a bike rack and a ton of roof storage. Our van was never intended to be a Pinterest-worthy rolling studio apartment. It was always meant to haul 700lbs of gear down gnarly backroads in the desert so that’s where we focused our energy and money.
What are your van life necessities—what’s inside?
We’re minimalists. Our necessities are our dogs and a good sense of humor. The inside of our van is really just a bed and a bench seat. We don’t have any type of refrigeration other than an old shitty cooler. We cook all our food outside on a Coleman camp stove. We have a 5 dollar strand of Christmas lights that have served as our “indoor lighting” for over a year now. We don’t have any form of working AC whatsoever. A lot of the focus of “vanlife” tends to be on the van itself…which I totally understand. But for us, it was always about living outside. The van is just what gets us there.
Tell us about your dogs!
Bucket is 6 and she’s some type of hound mix. Dagwood is 5 and he’s an American Dingo. They’re both rescues with rough pasts. Bucket took about 2 years to become less terrified of everything on earth. Dagwood was adopted by 2 different families and brought back before we got to him. We’re maniacally passionate about shelter dogs. The straight fact is that when people go to breeders, dogs like Dagwood die. They’re euthanized because they’re just a little different, a little “too much,” and no one ever comes for them. My dogs are the greatest joy of my life and I couldn’t imagine doing a single thing without them. A majority of our lives in this old van are shaped entirely around them.
What are the unique challenges of van life + dogs? What are the rewards?
We don’t go anywhere they can’t go. That includes all national parks or any areas with strict leash laws. It’s a huge sacrifice (of course I wanna go climb in Joshua tree but not without my dogs I don’t…) and of course it’s constant problem solving with how to keep them cool in the desert. We only go to restaurants or coffee shops with outdoor seating. We shop at dog friendly places (Home Depot has a small grocery section and allows dogs inside!) The rewards are immeasurable because there isn’t a single moment of a single day that I’m not with my best friends. They stopped being my “pets” a long time ago. At this point, they’re practically an extension of my own body.
How did you train them to be such good adventure buddies?
I’m actually horrendous at “training” dogs…Bucket and Dags sometimes know “sit” if you’re holding food and that’s about it. Everything else they are, they became because I trusted them. It sounds really stupid, I’m sure, but Bucket was so terrified of everything except us, we knew she wasn’t going to run away from us. So she was just…never on a leash. Dagwood is a wanderer. He’ll roam for hours but he always comes back because we’re his pack and he’s gotta come check on us. I’m a big believer in exposure. Bucket could have remained a terrified dog but instead we chose to consistently expose her to the world—to people and other dogs and loud noises and new experiences. We exposed Dagwood to as much off leash time as he needed to realize that this wasn’t a one-time thing. I think people take their dog off a leash once a month and expect them not to go totally nuts. Of course they are! It’s like spring break! But if you consistently “free” your dog it becomes a routine for them and they’re much more likely to just hang out.
What would you like people to know about raising good adventure dogs, and what a life of adventure is like with a couple furry companions? Any advice, or myths you’d like to dispel?
Dogs are not stupid. They are not so far removed from their ancestors as people seem to think. Your dog has instincts that you’d be wise to observe and admire and let play out when you’re out exploring together. Don’t “love” your dog so much that you don’t let them actually be a dog.
How do you make a living on the road?
I’m a freelance writer doing mostly outdoor blogging and some technical writing for my former full-time employee (a software company) and Keith is an adventure programming specialist for a wilderness therapy company in the Utah desert. That’s why we stick mostly around Utah because Keith usually works 3 days a week.
Is vanlife something you’d like to do long-term?
We’ll be living this way for quite some time but I think we’ll move onto another sailboat eventually when the dogs are a little older. We lived on a sailboat right after college and it’s kind of what sparked this whole love of a small life.
Pros of van ownership?
Freedom. The feeling of doing something your own way. And there’s something amazing about having your whole house with you all the time. So convenient!
Cons of van ownership?
I think people are under the impression that we’re just a couple of gypsies and that this van runs on hopes and dreams. But we need regular incomes because this life is far from free. Vans break down. Gasoline costs money. So I think people should be aware of the work that goes into this lifestyle before assuming it’s all a magical Pinterest board. It’s not. It’s dirty and smelly and sweaty and you’re gonna spend a lot of time on the side of the road laying on the ground trying to figure out where that damn leak is coming from.
Advice for others looking to do a similar adventure?
Stop googling. Stop overthinking. Stop looking at photos of other people doing this. Figure out what works for YOU and then go. Don’t spend years on a build out because it’s never gonna be “perfect.” You live in a god damn van for christ’s sake. Just put the thing in drive and go.
Photos courtesy of Brianna and Keith Madia.