She Lives the Vanlife. . .with a Snake!
Could you give up the creature comforts of your house or apartment in order to live in a converted van? Many of us would probably answer that question pretty quickly: Um, no way? But you just might change your mind after seeing the amazing home that this woman built out of a 20-year-old GMC van. Could the good life really be. . . vanlife?
Here is our vanlifer and tour guide, Jennelle Eliana, with her pet snake, Alfredo. He’s pretty cute, but don’t worry. . . a reptile companion is not a vanlife requirement!
Alfredo has his own special space inside the van, of course. And so does pretty much everything else in the van. Since literally everything that Jennelle owns is inside the van, that’s a pretty amazing feat! The van has seemingly endless compartments and pockets; not a single space is wasted.
For a free-spirited girl, Jennelle is also unbelievably organized. It’s really fun to see what she’s got stored in every nook and cranny as she tours us through the van!
Jennelle is a vivacious go-getter who loves the ocean. She’s a true California surfer girl. But if you think that means she’s a flake, think again. She has fun, but she knows how to build herself a totally charming, tightly organized and fully functional home out of tired old van. . . and on a tiny budget to boot!
Fed up with paying too much in rent, Jennelle decided a couple of years ago that she wanted to try the vanlife instead. First things first: find a van. She settled on this beauty: a 1995 GMC Vandura Explorer Limited. She paid $2,500.
If you’re beyond a certain age, Jennelle’s new van might look slightly familiar. . . Can you put your finger on it? It’s the A-Team’s van! Of course, their ’83 Vandura sported a red stripe across the hood, black and red wheels and a red rear spoiler.
The black and red A-Team look wasn’t necessarily for her, but Jennelle’s van did need a new paint job. She just wanted something a little cheerier than that jade green shade. Not to mention that it was peeling pretty bad.
She originally wanted to paint the van a pretty pale pink color, but her small budget limited her color options and all she was seeing was a fuchsia/hot pink that she was like, yeah, no thanks. So she went with this robin’s egg blue.
One benefit of the paint job is that the van seems to be more socially acceptable now that it isn’t covered in peeling emerald paint. Now, she can park for the night in more upscale neighborhoods without garnering complaints from the locals.
Fast forward two years. . . Jennelle had been living the vanlife full time, but had stayed in Silicon Valley and continued to work her 9 to 5 at a local sporting goods store. But now she was ready to start traveling a bit and thought it was time to share her fabulous experience, as well as some practical tips about converting an old van into a real home. In June of 2019, she posted her first video on YouTube.
What happened next was completely unexpected. . . Jennelle became an overnight sensation on YouTube. Just three weeks after posting her vanlife tour, she had 1.3 million subscribers. She only added two more videos in July, but hers was the most subscribed-to YouTube channel in America that month. Less than a year later, she has nearly 2.5 million followers.
In this shot, Jennelle is parked in one of her favorite spots, on California’s gorgeous Highway One alongside the sparkling Pacific Ocean. Also known as the Pacific Coast Highway, Highway One stretches from San Diego all the way to Washington state and has some of the most beautiful coastline in the world. It’s not a speedy route if you’ve got some place to be, but if you’re in a chill state of mind, it can’t be beat.
Without further ado, let’s start this van tour. . . Oops! Just as the tour gets started, something terrifying happens: she sees a bug. This, from the girl who lives with a snake???
Entomophobia: a phobia characterized by an excessive or unrealistic fear of one or more classes of insect. This bug might be a moth, in which case, lepidopterophobia is the specific phobia.
Jennelle may be spooked by tiny bugs, but at least she manages to keep her sense of humor about it!
First, one preliminary item. She wants us to know the reason why the door edge is green instead of blue like the rest of the van: she was too cheap! With van paint jobs starting at $3,000 at the very, very low end, who can blame her for cutting a few corners?
Vans don’t come with a lot of insulation, so it can get pretty chilly at night. Luckily, Jennelle has a DIY hack to share: When the temperature drops, she covers all of the van’s windows with custom-sized panels made of reflective insulation material and covered in felt. The fabric panels are a snap to get in place thanks to the velcro dots she affixed around each of the windows.
In addition to serving as thermal barriers, the window covers serve as privacy screens. Jennelle likes the blackout effect: good for sleeping as well as giving a “stealthy” vibe!
One of the van’s coolest original features is the collection of engraved details scattered around the vehicle’s interior. This one is one inside of the driver’s door.
Here’s another wooden engraving on the door. Jennelle points out that these let us know that it’s not just a regular model. But she also laughingly admits that she’s already seen about ten of the same van, so she’s not sure how “limited” it is!
Here’s a shot of her “throne.” Jennelle is the van’s only driver so this seat belongs to her butt alone. All GMC Vanduras came with four captain’s chairs. But leather? You had to pay extra for the “limited” model for that luxury!
Jennelle is grateful that the van has both front and rear a/c and heat: “It’s been a lifesaver!” No matter how well-insulated, vehicles can get hot. . . and cold. Vents are scattered around the interior, so she can adjust on a microclimate level.
Her HVAC system has another super cool feature: the “Environmental Air System,” which is basically an air purifying system. Here, she shows us the system’s switch up on the front dash.
The actual purifier for the Environmental Air System is located back by her bed. Originally, the system was designed to take replaceable air filters. Given that the van was discontinued in 1996, it may be kind of tough to locate one of these filters. . . if they’re even made anymore.
We’ll get back to this sleeping area soon! Right now, we’re staying up front and checking out the console.
First up is her FM transmitter, which she really, really likes. These cool (and cheap) devices basically bring bluetooth functionality to vehicles that are so old, they only have an FM radio! With the transmitter, Jennelle can make a song on her iphone play over the van’s speaker system. All she has to do is tune the radio and transmitter to the same signal.
Jennelle shows us that she has a dual iPhone charger plugged into the FM transmitter, “just in case anyone wants to road trip with me.” Any takers?? Based on her YouTube following, it would be surprising if she didn’t have one or two!
The console’s three holder slots are super handy. Jennelle thinks they were originally for cassette tapes back in the day. Of course, nobody uses tapes anymore, so it’s just bonus storage space for Jennelle!
Slot #1 is for her hair pick. Slot #2 is for a kazoo, naturally. Wait, what? You’ll see!
Oops! Maybe Slot #2 isn’t so useful. . .
Slot #3 to the right works great for her sunglasses though.
In sunny California, sunglasses are a must for any serious driver (not to mention surfer). Luckily, the console has a perfect spot for Jennelle’s back-up shades.
And, in case she loses pairs one and two, there’s a third sunglasses compartment down at the base of the console and a fourth one above the windshield!
She may appear a little obsessive about her shades, but for someone who lives a lot of her life outdoors and on the water – and the rest of the time in a vehicle – sunglasses are crucial. Not only do they prevent discomfort and the strain of squinting, but there are significant health benefits as well. More on this later when we get to her. . . FIFTH sunglasses compartment.
Jennelle had to search far and wide to find a mug that fits in this distinctively shaped cup holder. By the way, she prefers tea to coffee.
What console would be complete without. . . a cactus holder? Just watch out when you reach over to grab those shades. Looks like Jennelle might have learned this the hard way!
And the tour continues up top. . .
Starting from the left, first up is the remote for her string lights. Also called fairy lights or Christmas lights, string lights are a very popular lighting solution for vanlifers. They’re cheap, easy to install and pretty quaint too.
This switch here is for a super deluxe feature. . . an automatic sunroof. Not all Vanduras came with one. Let in those California rays!
Next up, I kid you not, is. . .
. . . more sunglasses storage! It’s actually a really good thing that Jennelle has so many pairs of shades available. The American Optometric Association says you should always wear sunglasses during the day, as they protect your eyes against the sun’s UV rays (which could lead to cataracts) and the blue light from the solar spectrum (which increases your risk of macular degeneration). Plus, they make driving much safer: they help minimize the hazards of distracting reflections during the day and also make it easier to adapt to darkness at night.
Once again, Jennelle shows off her good hospitality with this dangling Android charger. As we’ve already seen, she has an iPhone herself, but she keeps this charger “because all kind of people are welcome in this household.” Even Android users!
This heart patch is more than a cute decoration. Jennelle says she put it next to the mirror “to remind myself to love myself even on those days where I’m looking a little rough and it’s apparent that I live out of my car.”
Not sure that she has too much to worry about in that department! If you haven’t noticed, Jennelle is quite easy on the eyes. She’s got a mega-watt grin, fierce style and an easygoing charisma that comes across even in front of the camera. That ease with herself probably comes naturally, but she also had some experience with camera work prior to posting her first YouTube video. Before she became a YouTube sensation, she had already built a sizable following on Instagram (in the triple digits – only a fraction of the millions of YouTube followers she has now, but still pretty impressive!)
Moving back down to the passenger side door, she shows us an essential vehicle owner gadget: the tire pressure gauge. As a green living advocate, Jennelle probably makes good use of the gauge, since underinflated tires are major greenhouse gas emitters.
If you’re concerned the tour’s going take a turn toward the mundane, don’t worry. . .
Speaking of passengers, here’s her current shotgun companion: Boba the Bear. Boba originally belonged to Jennelle’s friend, whose boyfriend had purchased it for her at Costco. When the relationship went south, the friend was about to toss Boba, but Jennelle intercepted him just in time.
Boba is cute, but he does more than keep Jennelle company. For one thing, he allows her to drive in the carpool lane (shhh. . .) And for another, he wears the coats she can’t fit anywhere else!
Down at Boba’s feet she keeps a very sentimental item: her pair of rollerblades. Jennelle treasures her rollerblades because prior to purchasing the van, they were her main ride.
Last stop on the passenger side is the seat itself, where Jennelle laughingly shows off her “sexy sewing skills.” Looks like somebody besides Boba has been riding shotgun!
With the front driver’s area now thoroughly covered, Jennelle is ready to show us her bedroom/bathroom/kitchen/living room. In other words, her actual living space!
But first, here’s a before shot of the van’s interior at the time she purchased it. The second row captain’s chairs and rear bench are extended into a sofa bed. That’s a whole lot of beige. . .
Before we enter, Jennelle takes a moment to bask in her own glory and tell us that she single-handedly ripped out all of the seating and sofa bed components in an Autozone parking lot – with nothing but her “sheer strength and a wrench. . .”
Actually, she confesses that it took a week of work and a concussion before she finally got them out! She says that compared to that ordeal, converting a van was easy-peasy!
Speaking of basking, let’s just take in that breathtaking view for one more moment. . . Believe it or not, there are places along beautiful Highway One where Jennelle is free to park overnight at the water’s edge. Vanlifers have to know the rules, though: in some counties, it’s absolutely verboten.
OK, she takes just one more stop on the way in to show us the world map on the interior window of the right rear door. According to Jennelle, “you’re not really a vanlifer unless you have a world map somewhere in your van.” Kind of surprisingly for such an adventurous gal, Jennelle has not actually traveled much at all. In fact, she’s only ever been out of the state of California once, to visit a friend just over the border in Las Vegas.
On the left rear door window is this adorable seal photo. Or as Jennelle jokingly calls it, her “body goals for the summer” because she’s “trying to thicc (with two Cs).” Throughout the tour, Jennelle peppers her narration with adorable cracks like this.
And in we go! Right up front, we’re greeted with Jennelle’s welcoming spirit.
We’ll start with a quick sweep around the space to get oriented, beginning with this first view on the right. In the seatback pocket is her pink table (dining/computer/etc.) The pink basket holds her shoes. Her compressor fridge sits between the two seats.
Scanning our eyes leftward, we see the kitchen area. If it looks a little bit like a child’s play kitchen, your eyes aren’t deceiving you: Jennelle sits whenever she’s at the sink. On the right edge of the counter, we see the side of Alfredo’s terrarium. Alfredo is an albino ball python, by the way. More on him soon.
Continuing left, we see her cozy sleeping area. When Jennelle first moved into the van, she was just starting the conversion and didn’t have a bed yet. So she actually slept in a hammock for the first six months!
Looking at this sea of pink, it’s hard to picture that bland sleeping sofa that was in the original van. Beige, be banished!
Back to basics now: floors.
When she bought the van, it was totally carpeted (in beige, of course). She ripped all that out and replaced it with this new waterproof vinyl flooring.
Part of installing the new floor was putting a layer of insulation. She didn’t know what kind to use, so ended up putting in this many (three).
First, she tried Great Stuff foam spray. Second, she used a layer of Reflectix. And last but not least, she put down a layer of polyiso foam board. Now that is one well-insulated van floor!
Insulation slows the rate of heat transfer into and out of the van, making it easier to maintain the right temperature. It will stay warmer in the winter by preventing heat loss and won’t turn into a sauna under the hot California sun in the summer.
The insulation process was not without its mishaps. . .
This yellow stain on the door is a little memento of the time Jennelle accidently aimed the Great Stuff spray the wrong direction – and got it on the door as well as in her eyeballs. Ouch!
In between the two front seats is Jennelle’s Dometic CFX28 compressor fridge. Clearly, it was very pricey!
Dometic’s line of compact, compressor coolers are really popular with vanlifers. They have some high-tech features like a turbo cooler and memory function (and a usb port for charging electronics!) and can deep freeze down to –7 °F. Best of all, they’re super efficient and can be run on solar power.
Here’s a peek inside the fridge. The contents: two lemons, some old bananas (she throws these out), oat milk, chai, a whole bunch of kombucha and some cold brew. As she puts it, “just the essentials for survival.”
If you have the sense that Jennelle might not cook that often, you’d be correct.
This is Jennelle’s only pan. And her only cutting board. Her kitchen’s got a few other “only”s too.
The truth is that she eats out 99% of the time. It’s a luxury she can afford since she doesn’t have to pay rent!
On the other hand, she does want to try cooking for herself a little more often so that she can start saving. For what? A new van conversion, of course!
Here, Jennelle demonstrates her future self eating in.
To further her cooking goals, she purchased this Jetboil MiniMo, a propane-fueled camping stove.
What has she cooked in it so far? Well, she started with something easy: ramen. Who can mess that up? But the water exploded everywhere. She hasn’t tried cooking anything else since.
At last, we’re moving on to Alfredo’s crib! Jennelle built this impressive 20-gallon terrarium for her cold-blooded companion.
Here she’s removing the eraser wedge she uses as a lock on the sliding glass doors. She had the doors custom-cut (six times, until she got it right).
Then she slides the glass over to show us Alfredo himself, “chillin’ in his warm side hide.” Underneath this little cave is a heating pad, which Jennelle controls with a remote attached to the outside of his enclosure.
How cute is this? Apparently, Alfredo loves to rest his head on the photo of herself that Jennelle placed in his terrarium. His second favorite chin rest is the large pink crystal you can see in the previous image.
Once, Jennelle nearly lost Alfredo. She was cleaning out his terrarium and then forgot to lock it back up when she popped out to run into a store. Upon her return, Alfredo was nowhere to be found. She went into an absolute panic. Thankfully, she found him eventually – just chilling inside an insulation layer in the van wall.
The incident made Jennelle realize how attached she’d become. But, she says that there is an interesting dynamic to her relationship with Alfredo: while she loves him soooo much, he’s “literally incapable” of loving her back. She says that’s fine though – because it’s like every boyfriend she’s ever had!
Alfredo’s terrarium is actually part of the same built-in structure as the kitchen area.
The kitchen counter is covered with these beautiful tiles, errr. . . stickers? Jennelle thought she was ordering ceramic tile, but when the stickers arrived she thought they looked just fine. She added a layer of polyurethane on top for waterproofing.
To get water to the compact bar sink, Jennelle installed a Val Terra manual hand pump. Here, she’s demonstrating the pumping action, which pulls water up from the water container beneath the sink.
At the sink basin is a rack she uses for drying her dishes, which she points out is more of a theoretical than an actual practice.
In fact, the only thing she uses the sink for is washing her face and brushing her teeth. Unlike most vanlifers, who dream of custom-fitted, large capacity water tanks, this 64-ounce Hydro Flask is all the tank Jennelle needs.
To plumb the sink, she just drilled a hole in the top of the container and inserted a tube that connects to the hand pump above.
For the majority of her water needs, Jennelle actually uses this 7-gallon water tank. She pays only a buck to fill the whole thing up with purified water, which she only needs to do once or twice per month since she’s really only using it for drinking water and tea.
For water drainage, some RVers and vanlifers use a grey-water (aka wastewater) tank. Jennelle tried this in the past, and decided it was. . . gross. So she opted for another solution: drilling a hole through the van floor and letting everything drain outside.
Being a committed environmentalist, Jennelle knows that with the decision to drain her wastewater “comes great responsibility.” One way she exercises this responsibility is by using only biodegradable soap. She thinks that Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castile Soap is “the bomb.com.”
Another thing Jennelle is really passionate about under the sink is her air purifier. She pulls it out and runs it every night. The purifier helps a ton with the dust and debris and pollen that is “inevitable when you live in a van.”
I wasn’t kidding. She really, really loves this air purifier!
She first purchased the purifier after she had some bodywork done (to the van, that is). The work produced a lot of paint dust, which was making her sick. After two days of running her purifier, she was much better.
In the cupboard next to the sink cabinet and underneath Alfredo, she keeps all of her toiletries. Pretty significant collection for a tiny house dweller!
Her garbage can to the right, on the other hand, is quite modest. Jennelle explains why: (1) She doesn’t really accumulate that much waste. (2) It’s kind of gross driving around with a big pile of trash. She makes a point to empty it every time she gets gas, which is about once per week.
Speaking of gross, Jennelle segues seamlessly to addressing what she knows is a burning question in her viewers’ minds: where she goes to the bathroom.
First off, she wants everyone to know that there’s only one rule on her van: No One Is Allowed To Go Number Two Inside The Van!
So, where does she go when she’s got to go? For the most part, she parks in the city so there are tons of toilets available to her.
And for an absolute (#1) emergency, she reaches way back under the sink cabinet to a secret cupboard (marked “Headphones”) and grabs one of these water bottles. In double emergencies, she grabs both – for when “16 ounces just doesn’t cut it.”
Back on top of the sink, she shows us her toothbrushing station. And a piggy bank with 73 pennies inside. Next to the pig is a built-in ashtray filled with the eraser wedges she uses to secure Alfredo’s crib.
Further down the ledge is this good-sized compartment – which she uses to hold her flat iron, naturally. Vanlifers may forego some creature comforts, but she’s not an animal, people!
Here, Jennelle shows us another essential (and pricey) piece of equipment she has on board: her Goal Zero Yeti 1400 Lithium power station. This machine powers things like Alfredo’s heating pad and her fridge. She wrapped the cords in colorful embroidery thread to make it look “less ugly.”
The coolest part of Jennelle’s system is that it’s completely powered by the sun! She installed these three 100-watt solar panels on the roof and connected the panels to the power station below.
Back in the sleeping corner, she has a little nook for her world map-printed laundry bag. She uses laundromats for her clothes washing needs. The pretty pink vanity case next to the laundry bag was meant for makeup, but Jennelle uses it for. . .
. . . snacks (which, she laughs, are dangerously close to her bed)!
Isn’t Jennelle’s sleeping area adorable? She was lucky to find a slightly-shorter-than-full-size mattress on Amazon that is the exact same width as the van – which is also the exact same length as Jennelle! She’s five foot five.
She’s pleased with the perfect fit, but does note with a smile that she has plenty of room to share. Hint, hint, fellas.
Jennelle keeps a few important things in the small space behind the head of the bed, such as a jewelry box and her laptop. But the most special item in this nook is this ceramic container holding the ashes of her cat, who died in her senior year of high school.
She knows some people would think it’s odd to drive around with the cremated remains of a cat, but she’s happy to have another little travel companion. Plus, everything she owns is in the van so that’s just the way it is.
Her platform bed creates a perfect storage space for her clothes. Here, she shows us an amazingly deep and well-organized drawer. Tidiness is essential for successful small-space living!
Another item that fits perfectly in the van is also the most recent addition: Jennelle’s new 7-foot surfboard! She mounted it securely to the ceiling with eye hooks and ratcheting straps and reports that it’s held up so far.
Also hung at the foot of the bed, Jennelle’s calendar is hilariously empty. Glad she’s taking care of her teeth though. Apparently, overscheduling is not a problem when you’re livin’ the vanlife!
Next to Jennelle’s calendar is another essential item: her key hook. She’s always losing her keys in the van, which must be a nightmare – like losing your house and your car keys at the same time. So she really tries to remember to use the hook.
The pocket next to her key hook holds a hodgepodge of items, including an eye mask, a pocket knife and this essential safety item: a taser. She says the reason she got the taser is that a crackhead once broke into her van while she was inside. That’s a pretty good reason, wouldn’t you say?
A row of compartments above her bed provides even more storage space. One compartment holds her journals, another holds her mailing materials (she sells her clothes on Instagram), and this one holds: her yo-yo, her ukelele. . . and some bubbles (naturally).
This bar that stretches along the back doors was originally meant for hanging clothes. Jennelle added some cheerful decorations, wrapping it with a silk flower garland and string lights.
Now we’re moving around to the back of the van. Originally, the ladder was there to access the van’s heavy-duty roof rack. Since the roof is now used for solar panels, the ladder makes a perfect wetsuit drying rack!
On the interior of the van’s back barn doors are these good-sized built-in compartments. Jennelle keeps her slack line on one side and these jumper cables on the other.
Jennelle throws some air quotes when she calls this little section her “garage.”
If this battery looks familiar, it’s because it’s similar to the one she showed us inside the van earlier in the tour. This one is the Zero Yeti 400 Lithium battery, whereas the other is the 1400 model – a big step up!
The turquoise tub behind the battery holds her surf gear. Amazingly, there’s another tub just like it behind this one. She keeps her tools in this second tub.
There’s just one last thing Jennelle wants to share before wrapping up the tour. . . A lot of people ask if she can stand up in the van. Thanks to the skylight, she can!
When the hatch is open, she can also do this! But most importantly. . .
. . . she can do this! That’s what that kazoo is for!
And that’s a wrap for this fun-loving vanlifer’s home tour.
Jennelle spent about a month working on her van conversion. She was able to borrow the necessary tools from her employer at the sporting goods store, who also let her work on and live in the van in the parking lot behind the store until the project was complete.
In the Fall of 2019, Jennelle set out for her first really big adventure: touring several national parks in the American West.
Seems like a pretty nice life, don’t you think?