Taking on Colorado Solo in a Camper Van: What it’s really like to road trip by yourself

November 4, 2020   4 Comments »

Taking on Colorado Solo in a Camper Van: What it’s really like to road trip by yourself

October 29, 2020 4 Comments »

It is said that good things come to those who wait. Yet few big decisions in my life have ever been about waiting. In fact, I believe if there is something I want, then I need to make it happen. In my opinion and experience, waiting kills a good idea or life change.

That’s why I seldom wait for things; going after what I want is how I’ve pretty much lived my adult life.

Back in April, the heart of the pandemic, I wondered if I’d ever get to travel again. All we could do was wait. I thought about how much I really wanted to get out – even if it was in my home state – Colorado. Prior to the pandemic I wasn’t ever home enough to explore my (new) home state. Now during the pandemic, I was home but wasn’t allowed to leave my county; I felt stuck – along with all of us those days.

When I’m stuck, I like to make a plan for when I’m unstuck. That’s how I found myself googling ‘camper van rentals in Colorado’.

I fondly remember my solo camper van trip in Northern California and I wanted to recreate it in Colorado. In April I looked at all of the Native Camper Van layouts lusting after vanlife and I quietly tucked it all away for another time.

What I focused on instead was my website, ebook, and friends.

Fighting the ‘Should’

In July, our restrictions loosened but still without any work, and concern for COVID19, I was still pretty homebound. Yet I found myself googling the camper van idea again. I wanted to get away and explore Colorado, and doing it in a campervan seemed safe and isolating. Then the angel on my shoulder spoke up – “you no longer have any work (paycheck) – why are you looking at taking a trip?”

She’s right, I should be responsible, put travel out of my mind, and just focus on being happy at home and not spending money.

The problem is – I hate ‘shoulds’. I also hate being responsible. I have lived my entire life running the opposite way of ‘should’ and it has served me well. I looked at the cost to rent the camper van for a week – $1100 – and decided to sleep on it.

I woke up the next morning and a VanCation was still top of my mind. Ever since I moved to Colorado I had wanted to see the sand dunes, Durango, Silverton, and Ouray. But I was waiting until someone wanted to come with me or when I had enough free time in my normally busy travel schedule.

It was then that I was reminded one of my rules of living a solo life – don’t wait for anyone. If you do – you’ll never do anything or go anywhere.

road trip by yourself
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At that moment, I fought off the should and clicked on the reservation button. After all, my business is all about travel, and traveling is what brings me opportunities – sitting around doesn’t bring about opportunities.

As soon as I hit ‘Reserve’ on the website – I was full of excitement for my new solo van adventure; I would take a road trip by myself through the parts of Colorado that I had never been to before – the Southwest.

Roadtrip to Southwest Colorado

I wrote about my entire Southwest Colorado road trip itinerary here in detail. You can see my route map, where I stayed, where I ate, and what I did. However, the best part about a road trip by yourself is you get time with yourself to think, make strategies, consider life, and stare out the window. I did a lot of all of these things on my trip and I wanted to be able to share some of the things I learned about road tripping by yourself as well as take a deeper dive into some of the things I did on this great itinerary!

road trip by yourself

The Emotional Stages of a Road Trip By Yourself

When doing a road trip by yourself I find that there are pretty standard stages you go through; Excitement, Panic, Scared, Understanding, Comfortable, and Empowered. Here’s how I went through them in my recent solo campervan experience.

Excitement

I poured through maps and searches on southwest Colorado, excited about my upcoming trip. My excitement was also bolstered because this was my first big trip since being quarantined all spring. I became familiar with camping apps, read articles on campervan tips, and I had a big list of things I needed to bring with me from food to entertainment. The excitement carried me all the way to the Native Campervans office to pick up my Smalls campervan early in the morning.

Panic

I’m not sure why, but suddenly after days of excitement, self-doubt starts creeping in as I begin driving. I start to worry about the fact that I’m driving a bigger than normal car, I worry if I’ll be able to find camping spots I am nervous about hiking alone, I wonder if I will get bored, or have to sleep in places I don’t want to (will I be sleeping in a Walmart parking lot?!). All of this while I am also trying to learn how to get used to using side mirrors instead of a rearview mirror and listen to directions from google.

Scared

My first night of sleeping in the van by myself I will admit it, I was scared. I felt weirdly vulnerable that first night in the camper by myself. Even though I have locked all of the doors, put the window covering up so no one can see in, it still feels weird to be in there alone. I brought a can of pepper spray with me that I have placed nearby along with my keys in case I need to make a fast getaway. I didn’t sleep too well that first night, hearing every little noise or squeak. It happened to be really windy the first night too so the whole van swayed at times!

Understanding

Once I wake up that next morning and realize that I’m just fine, I start to let the fear go. The next day of driving is easier. I’m getting used to this new vehicle to drive, where things are, how big it is.

Comfortable

Suddenly I have my music playlists on and I’m singing along, snacks on the passenger seat and I’m comfortable and relaxed as I drive along. I’ve settled into this new vehicle and each day I settle more into the campervan life in general.

Empowered

This is where the magic happens – and it will happen. You wake up, make yourself breakfast, walk around the campground and you feel strong and confident. I think it’s impossible to not travel by yourself for days and not come out the other side feeling empowered and strong. This partially comes from the fact that you are doing what you want to do in life. Suddenly you don’t want it to end because you love the feeling of independence and strength traveling alone gives you. I am no longer scared of every little thing or worrying about what may happen. Soak up your new confidence!

6 Things I Learned on My Solo Camper Van Trip Through Colorado

When I took off on my solo campervan trip after months of quarantine, I knew it would be a good chance for me to stretch my travel legs again. It would also give me some work/writing which I was excited about. However, what I was most excited about was the chance to stretch my mind. Travel by myself gives me time with my own thoughts, it helps me sort out my feelings on things happening in my life and form strategies for my next moves. This is especially true for solo road trips. I have all that time in a car to look out the window and just think; I think we all need that occasionally. And it’s especially needed after 4 months of quarantine!

I learned a lot on my solo road trip to Colorado’s Southwest, some emotional, some practical, some funny, and life lessons.

southwest colorado roadtrip

1. When Sledding Down Sand dunes, Start Small and Work Your Way Up

This is probably a metaphor for life, but in this instance – it was specifically about the Greater Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado! I rented a sand sled on my first day and was excited to try something new I had never done before – sled down dunes. When they gave me the board, they also gave me a square chunk of wax telling me to wax a bit before each ride to go faster and slide easier. I smiled as it reminded me of surfing and suddenly brought memories of my last big trip floating into my head.

I walked out to the dunes with my board and cube of wax so excited to be trying something adventurous and new. Maybe I was a bit too excited.

Before you can sled down, you have to walk up – it’s hard to walk up sand dunes. It’s one of those great life surprises where it looks so easy and beautiful, and then you start up and realize that it is extremely strenuous and slow going. It’s two steps forward and one back. These dunes are at 8,000 feet too, which made it even more challenging!

colorado sand dunes solo

I huffed and puffed my way up dunes and decided to pass the smaller hills up. I was working so hard to get up here, I might as well go big and get a good ride I thought. I hadn’t really considered that I had never done this before – it’s sand, how hard could it be?

Once I went past all of the kids and beginners, I found a good steep decline that looked like a good place to ‘start’. I was dripping in sweat, as I waxed my board the way the rental place taught me. I started my gopro and tried to think about how I could hold the camera while also holding onto the board. I still had no concern that this could turn out badly on my first run.

Then I scooched my way down the steep dune until the wax did its job; suddenly I was sliding down the dune. I wobbled all over the board as I went faster and faster. I started to turn sideways and the little balance and control I had was completely lost as I rolled over on my side and toppled down the hill end over end.

When I finally came to a stop, I was stunned – what the hell just happened?! I was covered…I mean COVERED in fine sand stuck to my sweaty body, and when I initially fell into the sand I landed on the side of my head and felt the sand get impacted into my ear as I rolled!

sand dunes colroado

I was fine – just slightly stunned, and I had an ear full of sand. Maybe I should’ve started small I thought.

greater sand dunes national park colorado

2. Don’t Plan Out Your Whole Trip

Chance is a beautiful thing, but we seldom leave things to chance. We plan every second of our days, weeks, months…and many of us plan every moment of our vacation. However, I think it’s important to leave vacations, especially road trips, open to change and chance. One of the reasons I was so excited about my solo campervan trip was because I was yearning for freedom. I wanted to go wherever I wanted, stop anywhere that looked interesting.

My normal rule of thumb is to plan the first 1/3rd of a trip and leave the rest pretty loose. This strategy helps me get through the first few emotional stages of a road trip too. By the time I hit the ‘comfortable’ stage, I’m ready to take on more uncertainty and that means not having to stick to a plan. I only had a plan for the first night on where I was going to camp – the rest of the week I just winged it based on how far I had driven or on advice from someone I met along the way. I loved embracing the uncertainty of where to go and what to do. Things unfold like I’m reading a story where I don’t know what’s on the next page.

camperan by yourself

3. When Locals Invite You to Dinner – Go!

When I left on my trip, I sent out a newsletter telling people about my trip. I had an email from a reader that afternoon saying the she had met me in person 6 years ago at an event at REI where I did a presentation on the Camino de Santiago. She was writing me because she and her wife lived in one of the towns that I was planning on going through on my trip! She offered her help and also invited me to a home-cooked meal at their home.

I was so excited that she wrote me and impressed that she still followed me, however I didn’t commit to dinner since I was trying not to plan things (see above), but I said I’d contact her when/if I got to town.

While in Durango I was planning out my day and remembered the invitation she put forth and texted her to see if they were still free. I love meeting readers/locals, so I really did want to meet them. However, in these times of COVID19 it means that you have to consider the risk too. We had agreed to wear masks and eat out on the patio, so I felt comfortable with that. She also provided some advice on some places to check out in the region.

Sitting on the patio talking to Georgian and Leigh about the Camino de Santiago (which they ended up doing after attending my presentation), and world travel was soul soothing. I hadn’t had a travel conversation like this for such a long time and it felt wonderful to talk about far off lands again for all of us.

4. Let Nature Speak to You

I had driven quite a way to get to the Florida Campground near Lemon Lake. It was off the beaten path on a dusty gravel road and tucked back in a forest. I chose my spot by the river, parked, made a little plate of cheese and crackers, got out a beer from the cooler, and sat at the picnic table with my journal.

Birds landed in the trees around me twitching their heads to look at me. A chipmunk ran up a big fallen tree trunk probably hoping I would drop some of the cheese, and the river warbled on in the background. It was a beautiful environment for camping. It was here on day 5 where creativity decided to visit me.

solo travel

Oh, hello there…it’s been a long time since you visited. Where have you been my friend? I have missed you. You give me hope and enthusiasm. Without you I am just a ball of stress.

I sat and wrote; notes for the trip, lists for the future, ideas for projects. Everything came flowing out of me so fast I couldn’t keep up with my thoughts. I couldn’t write fast enough. Or maybe I was out of practice – it had been years since I had actually taken pen to paper – and it felt good.

I even came up with a book idea. I also thought a lot about my relationship and who I am in my core. I am independent. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be with someone, but it has to be the right fit where I can still feel and be independent.

At that moment a hummingbird suddenly flew right towards my face like it was on a kamikaze mission. I heard it’s high pitched shrill and the sounds of its wings. It startled me so much that I gasped and clutched my chest. It flew away as fast as it came and I was left clutching my chest and holding my breath. What was it trying to say? I didn’t know. Tears started streaming down my face; this close encounter with nature spoke to me in some weird way. Maybe it was confirming some of the things I was writing about, maybe it was just curious, but it was strangely my most memorable moment from the trip.

I always say that a solo traveler is more approachable, and maybe that extends to nature too. The whole time I was at the picnic table writing and marveling in the creative fairy that decided to visit me, I was surrounded by birds coming to check me out – I felt like Snow White.

4. A Mouse in Your Van Makes It Hard to Sleep

And then again, sometimes nature gets a little too close.

Molas Campground was one of my favorite places I stayed with beautiful mountain and lake views at about 9,500 feet near Molas Pass. I had an incredible evening making camp dinner and then walking around the lake taking pictures of the sunset reflections. I was fully in my ‘Comfortable’ emotional stage and I settled in under my cozy covers in my van to go to bed early that night because I had a big hike planned the next morning.

I was starting to doze off and I heard it….a little pitter patter that was coming from underneath me. As I sort of ‘came to’ and listened more intently I realized I knew the sound – it was a mouse running from one side to another. I used to have them in my bedroom ceiling when I was a teenager and I could hear them run across the ceiling – until my dad put a trap in place.

road trip by yourself

I was confused though because this mouse was running beneath me. I thought that it must be underneath the van outside…but why would it be running back and forth under my van? My sleepiness was starting to win out again and I was dosing off when I heard the scurrying again and suddenly I felt something run across my little bed above my head!

I sat straight up and let out a gasp…and likely some cuss words.

The mouse was in my little camper van…not outside!
The bed in the camper van was raised for storage space underneath – and somehow a mouse got into my van and was stuck there! It was freezing outside at altitude so I couldn’t just open the door and hope it made its way out…I was stuck with the mouse.

Somehow I managed to calm myself down enough to go to sleep after an hour or so…hoping it was all a bad dream. I had actually sort of convinced myself that it wasn’t real. The next morning when I was packing up my stuff to leave for the trailhead I saw 2 or 3 Kleenex that were shredded to tiny bits on the floor or the van under my bed. It wasn’t a dream…

But the lesson is – I survived. I now know that I’m capable of sleeping in a small space with a mouse…a good skill to have.

5. It’s OK to Pay for Campgrounds

When I first got my campervan I had dreams of disbursed camping everywhere. In case you haven’t heard of the term, dispersed camping is camping on public lands away from developed recreation facilities and the important part is that it is free. However, thanks to the emotional stages of traveling alone – I initially thought that camping out somewhere free was a bit too scary to me. I sort of wanted to be by people instead of our in the middle of nowhere alone. So I started out paying for campsites in developed places.

dispersed camping

The campsites I chose were often pretty secluded and basic – but there were always other campers around. At first I felt like I was chickening out by paying for camp grounds, but giving myself a hard time mentally did me no good. I realized that it was ok to pay for spaces as long as it made me feel comfortable.

And just like the emotional stages of traveling alone – this initial feeling changed as I become more comfortable and by the last night I was enjoying dispersed camping!

Sometimes growth takes a long time, and sometimes it only take a week. Regardless of how long it takes, be patient with yourself and accept where you are.

6. Being Alone isn’t Sad, It’s Empowering

So many people think that being alone is sad and lonely, but I find it quite the opposite. I love being on my own, every moment I’m on my own I’m building up muscles at being independent.

A roadtrip by yourself is a great time to build up independence muscle.

campervan view road trip by yourself
Learning to enjoy the view no matter what your window

Make Your Own Way

As I listened to my music and sang along while winding through the mountains, I kept on thinking about my future. Inevitably that evil thought crept into my head as my mind wandered, “Should I be further along?”. Should I be doing more during the pandemic, should I be working harder, am I doing things right in life?

There it is again…’should’.
I loosened my grip on the wheel which had been building up along with my stress as I thought about these ‘shoulds’. I was reminded again of the Camino de Santiago – another solo trip I took that was incredibly empowering – when I realized that doing my own thing is what made me happy. I’m not a good follower. I’m not good at ‘should’. What I’m good at is making my own way.

‘Make your own way’ was my motto for years and it had slipped to the background in the last few years. But that’s exactly what this solo campervan trip was about…doing my own thing, waiting for no one, and making my own way.

A wave of happiness came over me, I felt like I had vanquished the ‘shoulds’ and wandered back to the center of who I am. Pandemic or not, I could still make my own way. Not even a mouse in my van could stop me.

camper van and mountain views

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