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Van Life: Dirty, Smelly, and Perfect

Brianna Madia spends her time roaming the desert in a van named Bertha. She loves the warmth and solitude, and the environment’s scrappy toughness. “There’s something really intentional about the desert that just sort of clicked with me,” says Brianna. “There’s nothing easy about living in a place where daytime temps are triple digits and water is scarce. I remember being absolutely fascinated by all the woody little desert shrubs, all the cacti – for them to survive and thrive in a place like that takes such grit and determination and I wanted to adopt those qualities. It sounds odd, but in many ways, I literally wanted to become the desert.”

Nothing like Pinterest

Brianna doesn’t roam alone. Her husband, Keith, and dogs, Bucket and Dagwood are all part of the journey. “Keith is the dictionary definition of a jack of all trades,” says Brianna. “He can fix anything, build anything, navigate any road, solve any problem… I couldn’t think of a better person on the planet to live this way with.” The two of them lived on a sailboat for a while, so they knew they could handle van life’s realities.

It’s a reality that’s dirty and smelly, and looks nothing like the crisp, clean white-sheet pictures you see on Pinterest. “There’s water bottles rolling around everywhere and some of them definitely have pee in them…there’s dirty clothes and wet dogs and and dirty feet and dirty dog paws…our sheets are always sandy and our fingernails are always gross,” says Brianna. “There are very few candlelit evenings where you’re prepped and pampered awaiting each other’s arrival through the sliding van door. But I promise that when you’re in your 80s, you won’t ever look back on your life and reminisce on how clean your sheets were. There’s too much fun to be had…”

Let dogs be dogs

Brianna has a motto: Never Leave the Dogs Behind.

“For me, I don’t find there’s a whole lot of places worth visiting or things worth doing if I can’t bring my dogs. Dogs are so incredibly present in each moment and each day and each experience that it becomes contagious when you spend every waking moment with them. You start to see the joy in the smallest things, in the simplest things…and I owe that outlook to my dogs entirely. So it only seems fair to give them the greatest life I possibly can.”

Finding places to give them that life takes planning and preparation. “You can’t just roll up to the gates of a national park or a campground without checking beforehand if dogs are welcome or what the specific rules are,” says Brianna. “The benefit of traveling with dogs is that you’re often forced to get creative and spend time in places that are more off the beaten path – the national forests tucked outside crowded national parks, the dirt roads you’ll venture down to give them space to run. Almost all of our favorite places were discovered because we were just looking for a place to let our dogs be dogs.”

Keith & Brianna: your car care experts

Bertha’s no spring chicken. A 1990 E350, she’s pushing 30 years on the road. “She’s the same age as me and we’re both kinda known for our breakdowns,” says Brianna. “But honestly, we’ve had a few really rough spots with Bertha, but we think the things you love are worth working on, and we’re really deeply against this throwaway culture we live in.”

So Keith and Brianna have become car care experts. Keith is a self-taught mechanic – he even taught himself how to weld so he could redo the exhaust system – and both have learned to do almost everything themselves thanks to YouTube tutorials. “Any time there’s a squeak or a funny noise, we investigate. We keep her fluids fresh and always have a stash on board for top-offs, and we always keep a decent set of tools with us,” says Brianna. “We’ve been over 75 miles out on dirt roads patching our brake lines, we’ve been way out of service in the middle of Wyoming tightening our axle spindle… Having tools and a basic knowledge of how your vehicle works offers more peace of mind than anything.”

Organization: A Game Changer

In the two years Bertha’s inhabitants have been on the road, they’ve learned a lot about what to take and how to take it.

“When we first moved into the van, it was kind of chaos in here. Seeing all your stuff just shoved in every corner and crevice and backpack quickly makes you realize what you do and do not need.” Today, Keith and Brianna each live out of one drawer that they switch out seasonally – summer clothes, then winter clothes, then back again. All of their outdoor gear lives up on the roof in their Yakima SkyBox.

And Brianna’s rooftop organization skills are outstanding. When you open their SkyBox, you’ll see a neat row of backpacks and ropes. There’s the canyoneering pack with the harnesses and gear for that, the mountain biking packs with helmets and hydration systems, the climbing packs with draws and cams, and a dog-specific bag that holds Bucket’s and Dagwood’s gear. Carefully tucked away are a few random things like fly rods and dry bags.

“Organization is a GAME CHANGER when you have such a small space to occupy,” says Brianna.


Close quarters, rough roads, pee bottles, balky brake lines, muddy dogs and dirty feet – this life requires a certain type of patience in order to maintain a happy relationship. “It’s got to go beyond certain comfort zones and beyond certain boundaries and what you get in exchange for leaving those comfort zones is this incredible bond that doesn’t require all the frills to maintain,” says Brianna. “I think that’s been one of my favorite things about living this way…life…love…it doesn’t have to be these grand gestures all the time if you can find wonder in the little things about your world and the little things about each other.”

Brianna and Keith just spent their fourth wedding anniversary sitting in the dirt beside the van and eating pasta out of a pot. “It probably won’t make it into an article in Cosmo magazine for special anniversary ideas,” says Brianna. “But it was perfect.”

Five van life tips from Brianna:

Pack Smart: Quality over quantity. You don’t need three puffies, just one good one. Invest in high quality outdoor gear, even if it seems expensive at the time. Over the long run, you’ll end up spending more when you need to replace the cheaper stuff each season.

Travel Safe: Buy the guidebooks, learn to read maps, understand the local flora and fauna, STAY ON THE DESIGNATED ROADS AND TRAILS, and always tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back.

Happy Dogs: Start slow and know your dog. Don’t push them up a summit if they haven’t hiked much before or expect them to walk five miles overland in a hot desert if their paws aren’t used to that terrain. And invest in gear to keep them safe the same way you’d do for yourself.

Prepare for Repairs: Have a basic set of tools, an understanding of what’s going on under your hood. Carry replacement fluids – all of them – and your owner’s manual. If you don’t have cell service to look something up, an owner’s manual will have everything you need to know.

Always Bring: Water and water purification tablets or filters. We like to keep a little emergency kit with flares, water purifying tablets, first aid items etc. You can never ever have enough water – buy tons of big gallon containers at any outdoor store and fill them up.

Brianna is part of the Yakima RackPack, a group of adventurers following incredible passions, rolling up serious mileage and hauling a ton of gear.

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