Van Life: Thoughts on Traveling and Climbing from a Modern Dirtbag

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ClimbingTechTips Athlete Melody Goudarzi, her boyfriend Cole, and their dog Sombra have been on the road, rock climbing in North America and Mexico for eight months.

Melody Goudarzi and pup Sombra

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Melody. I was born and raised in Orange County, California. I started climbing about five years ago. I’m currently living in a van with my boyfriend Cole, and our dog Sombra. For the last eight months we have been traveling and climbing as much as possible around North America.

When did you first become serious about climbing?

I’d like to say almost immediately. I was introduced to climbing on my first trip to Joshua Tree National Park, and the following week I bought a membership at a local climbing gym. However it wasn’t until about a year and a half into climbing that I started training, and taking my progress more seriously.

So you currently live in a van, traveling and rock climbing. Fantastic! When did that become a reality?

Three years ago I started toying with the idea of trying to climb full time. I had three main reasons. First, I kept seeing all these amazing crags in magazines and on social media. It seemed there was just so much potential for climbers in the United States, and I wanted to explore more than the weekend-trip radius around Los Angeles. Secondly, I wanted to find somewhere new to live. Up to that point, I had spent my whole life in California but somehow it never really felt like home. Thirdly, and probably most importantly, I wanted to become a stronger and more rounded climber.

Initially I was trying to convince one of my closest friends to spend a year on the road climbing with me. Later I started dating my current boyfriend, Cole, who had similar aspirations – to travel, live in a van, and climb. The difference between Cole and me, is when he makes up his mind… it is made! Less than a month passed between the time Cole stated he was seriously considering quitting his job to travel and climb, and him showing up at my door with keys to a used Ford E-150 van! Originally I was going to build out my Toyota Tacoma, but as our relationship progressed so did our plans for traveling together. A few months after the van was purchased, Cole started building it out, named it Hobbes, and we set our departure date.

Can you tell us a little bit about the van you live in, and any key features?

Ford E-150 van

It’s a Ford E-150 van. Although we have neither a high top, nor lifted suspension, nor major van modifications, we did end up buying new tires and replacing the transmission. The major appliances we added to the van are a second battery, two solar panels, an ARB Fridge, and a vent fan. The key feature with our van is definitely the way our bed is set up. We knew we were going to be cooking and hanging out in the van quite a bit so we wanted more space. Cole is 6’2” in height, and we learned early-on in the building process that our original idea of making the bed fit the width of the van wouldn’t work. So instead there is a convertible bed that’s 4 feet X 7 feet, built along the length of the van. Once we’re up in the mornings, we’re able to fold up our bedding and push the bed into a couch, thus opening up more room. The passenger seat also swivels to face backwards, opening up our living area even more and providing an additional seat. In such a small space, there is a lot of Tetris-style organizing that happens in our van on a daily basis! That stated, I absolutely love our van and it’s sheltered me from rain, wind, and snow. During stormy periods when we were stuck inside for two or three days, it would have been nice to have extra room and to be able to stand up. I wouldn’t say no to a heater either. However, in the beginning we had the choice between a nicer, more comfortable van, or more time on the road. We chose to save our money, keep the van-build comfortable but relatively minimal, and stay on the road longer. I don’t regret our choice.

Racking up at the Fins, Idaho.

Speaking of money, it seems to be kind of a touchy subject with many van-dwellers. Do you mind telling me a little about the finances of your trip?

Not at all, we did a rough estimation of the costs of our trip and then budgeted about $1,000 each per month. My tactic was a bit different from Cole’s. He saved money up front and quit his job before we left. I, on the other hand, was able to transition to working remotely (I’m a clothing designer and production management consultant). Once we were on the road we realized the amount we budgeted was wrong and we were actually spending a lot less. Right now we’re averaging about $1,000-$1,500 total per month. Also the two and a half months we spent in Mexico really helped! We definitely forgo living extravagantly. We hardly eat out, and our only major purchases are climbing shoes and ropes (which we go through surprisingly quickly). We also rarely stay at paid campsites. While we’re traveling we do our best to stay at free, overnight spots. Luckily our country (at least the Western U.S.) is full of BLM or National Forest camping areas that are secluded, beautiful, and usually offer free camping.

You’ve been on the road for eight months. Where have you been so far?

Since beginning our travels, we have climbed in nine US states, as well as in Mexico. Notable crags where we have spent the most time include: The Fins in Idaho, Ten Sleep in Wyoming, The Red River Gorge in Kentucky, and El Salto in Northern Mexico. Each of these climbing areas is amazing in their own way, and together they make an incredible climbing road trip.

Left: Jasna Hodzic in the Tecolote Cave, El Salto, Mexico.
Right: Melody climbing on the classic Las Animas Wall, El Salto, Mexico.

How do you decide where to go, and how long to stay? Did you plan your travels ahead of time?

I really didn’t want to have a strict itinerary, the point of living in a van in the first place was to have the freedom to roam around and not be bound to one place! At the beginning we did sit down and write a list of all the crags we both wanted to visit. Cole starred his most important areas, and so did I. From there we went through a map to see which ones were in-season around the same time. This gave us a general idea of when to visit each area, but also allowed us the freedom to move on if we were bored or if the weather turned.

As far as how long we stay in one place, it really depends. Weather and our psych levels have been two major factors. For example, when we were in Ten Sleep the weather took a turn overnight and it started snowing. Wyoming is known as the land of extremes, but we still weren’t expecting snow in September! We had no choice but to leave. On the other hand, our plan for Northern Mexico was to stay for a month. However, after we arrived and fell in love with El Salto, we ended up staying for two and a half months.

When you are at a crag, do you climb every day?

This took some trial and error. At the beginning we were climbing three days in a row, then taking two rest days. As we started projecting more routes that were at our redpoint limits, we found three days of projecting was too much. By the third day, we were both too tired to climb close to our limits, and we didn’t make much progress. Two days of rest in a row also became a bit boring. If you have a normal life, two days without climbing doesn’t seem like a long time. But on the road, two days without climbing feels like an eternity. For the last few months we have been climbing two days and resting one, a schedule that seems to work best for maximizing our climbing effectiveness, and minimizing boredom.

So what do you do when you aren’t climbing?

The main thing I do is work. I’ll catch up on emails, write to all my clients, and get my work tasks done. Afterwards I’ll usually work on clothing designs for my own personal projects. Some rest days I’ll make an “active rest day” where I’ll do a set of oppositional workouts to keep me from getting injured. I also read a lot. I think I’ve read more books on this trip than I have the last 5 years.

Days we are not climbing are usually the days for errands. We refill our water jugs and propane tank, grab groceries, and do laundry. Sometimes we might even find somewhere to take showers. If we’re staying in an area that doesn’t have internet service, we’ll drive into town and find a local library so I can work.

Cole Paiement, snowed out in Tensleep, Wyoming. (photo by Melody Goudarzi)

What’s your favorite area so far?

I’d have to say El Salto. It’s a smaller area in the state of Nuevo Leon, a couple hours from the much more famous El Potrero Chico. However, while Potrero is known for long multi-pitch routes, El Salto climbing is mostly single pitch sport. The area is known for having a concentration of harder climbs (the “warmups” are 5.11-), as well as for interesting tufas on many of the routes. The climbing in El Salto really played to my strengths. I love vertical, techy routes and there was a lot of that there. Not only was I psyched on the climbing, I also loved the community that came with the place. From locals, to short-term visitors, to dirtbags like us, there were climbers from all around Mexico and North America. I left there with great new friends.

I’ve heard a few different people say that you don’t get stronger while living on the road. Has this been your experience?

Not at all! Since I’ve been on the road, my climbing has improved quite a bit. The thing is, you have to really want it. You have to keep pushing yourself and be willing to sacrifice. When you travel to so many different crags, it is easy to get a little complacent. Every area has so many classic routes that it can be hard to skip a bunch of them just to focus on one harder route. I think this is a trap that many dirtbags fall into. They want to climb as many classics as possible, but then run out of time and have to leave before they get to routes that push their limits.

Being on the road isn’t the only way to get strong though. Before I started this trip I was on a strict training regimen. I was working full-time, and training was the most effective way to improve my climbing. I spent a lot of time doing structured workouts in the climbing gym, doing supplemental exercises, and hang-boarding. Training made me much stronger and helped me push my climbing to new heights. I trained for six months, and my redpoint grade went up a full number.

Fiona Layton on the classic Las Animas Wall, El Salto, Mexico

Since I’ve been on the road my climbing has continued to improve. While I’m not as strong physically as I was while training, my technique has progressed significantly. I’ve noticed I’m on my feet A LOT more than I used to be, the way my body moves is a lot more fluid, and I climb much more statically. Training also does not address the mental aspect of climbing. Climbing outside so often has helped me push my mental limits, allowing me to try things that I didn’t think were possible for me before. Now that I’ve built a good base of technique, I think it would be awesome to start training again.

It sounds like you two have visited a lot of crags. Is it difficult to move around so much?

Yes and no. I’ve noticed I don’t climb as well for my first few days at a new crag. It takes me some time to trust the rock, and get comfortable with the climbing style. This could be anything from the angle of the wall, to how spaced the protection is in the area. For example, Ten Sleep generally has closely spaced bolts, often only four or five feet between them. When we first arrived it seemed a bit excessive, but before long I was used to it. Afterwards we went to the New River Gorge and I bailed on my warm up because I refused to move past the second bolt, convinced I would hit the ground if I fell going to the third. It was irrational, and by the end of our time at “The New” I was starting to get used to the protection. It just took a couple days.

Ideally if I’m stoked about an area and want to project something at or above my repoint limit, the perfect amount of time to stay in one area is four or five weeks. For the first week or two, I climb a few grades lower than my redpoint, enjoy the climbing, and get used to the style and the rock. After that I start looking for a project at my limit I am excited about. This part is fun because I don’t have to put any pressure on myself, I’m just project shopping to see what suits me or what doesn’t suit me and I need to work on. After that I can focus on sending one route, or multiple projects.

So basically, I don’t think it is difficult to move around a lot, as long as we can stay longer than a couple of days. It is nice to be able to visit new places every few weeks (or longer), but more frequently than that is difficult. Moving to a new climbing area every few days wouldn’t give me the ability to really push myself.

Relaxing after a full day of climbing in the Needles, California.

Do you have advice for people looking to embark on a similar climbing lifestyle?

Be open minded with your plans, it makes for a much better adventure. Don’t worry if you had to miss an area you really wanted to climb, you can always come back later. We’ve had to change our plans quite a few times. We skipped Squamish (and the rest of the Northwest) because of the 2017 fires. We were forced to leave the Red River Gorge because the humidity in the van everyday was becoming a major issue. And, my favorite, we left the Homestead because our dog Sombra wouldn’t stop trying to eat the Africanized bees.

It’s not a fairy tale life. Be prepared for setbacks, to rarely shower, for your face to break out (like mine did), and for unexpected expenses. If you expect to run into inconveniences and minor discomforts you’ll have a much better time. If you’re serious about wanting to set out on a climbing adventure, dive right in and start planning. Set a departure date. I toyed with the idea for more than a year, and to be honest it was nice to have a partner who helped push the plans along more quickly. Once the departure date was set and we told our families and friends about our plans, it definitely made the whole idea much more real. It was not easy to leave everything behind, but since then I have not looked back. I suppose my only regret is wishing I had started saving money much sooner.

One more thing: if you don’t have a partner, don’t think you have to stay home. Though for the most part Cole and I climb together, we have visited many crags where solo climbers are welcomed and have an easy time finding people to climb with. The most notable areas are the Red River Gorge, Ten Sleep, and El Salto, but for the most part anywhere that climbers congregate is a place to find potential partners. However, this advice might only hold for single-pitch sport climbs. Finding partners for multi-pitch or big wall climbs could be a completely different adventure.

How about the future? Where do you plan to go next?

Well, right now we’re in California earlier than planned. We were supposed to stay in Arizona for two weeks but we left after four days because of weather. We’ll definitely be stopping St. George, and the Arizona Strip, and we plan on going to Ten Sleep for part of the summer. Then hopefully we can go back to Mexico to meet up with friends. To be honest not much of this is planned, we have a general idea of what we’d like to do but mostly we figure it out as we go. That is the best part!

Nighttime in Tensleep, Wyoming.

Is there anything else that you want to tell readers?

Traveling to so many different climbing areas has been really eye opening. It has also given me a chance to see common threads between these climbing areas. As much as it sucks to talk about, human waste is becoming a huge issue, especially in more remote climbing areas. It is pretty common to see wads of toilet paper stashed under rocks, or catholes dug up by the local wildlife. It is an eyesore, a very gross one. It’s not that hard to pack out your waste. Grocery stores sell scented trash bags that can cover the stench for a bit of time. Also scented doggie bags work really well for both owner and pet. If you really don’t want to pack out your waste make sure to bury it in a substantial hole, at least six inches deep, and at the very least pack out your toilet paper. If that is too much for you, consider staying home. In general, climbers are great at respecting the environment and the areas they use but this is one problem that all of us need to work together to address.

Okay, one last question: what’s one thing that you can’t live without on this adventure?

Dirt. Whether I like it or not, I cannot live without it.

Melody pushing her limits on El Camino De Chino, El Salto, Mexico
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