When it comes to living life on the road, intrepid explorer Lisa Jansen has fully embraced the lifestyle and spent almost five years full-time living, working, and exploring Aotearoa in her camper, making the great outdoors of New Zealand her playground.
This radical change was filled with unexpected challenges (and rewards) and now the avid adventurer and writer has released a book dedicated to her journey. Life Done Differently – One Woman’s Journey on the Road Less Travelled has been an instant hit, becoming the #1 new release in ‘Travel New Zealand’ on the US Kindle store and #3 in ‘Travel Writing’ in the UK Kindle store.
We catch up with Lisa (who’s also one of our valued MCD writers) to find out more about her determination to explore life her own way.
Q. What’s one of your earliest memories of experiencing camper life and why do you think this struck a chord?
A. My earliest camper life memories are from when I was 33 and had just bought my first camper. Camping wasn’t really a thing in my life before then. We went tent camping a couple of times as a family when I was a kid, but my family was more into resort-style holidays. I went camping a few times with friends when I was older, but it wasn’t a big deal either. I’ve often been asked where the idea to live and travel in a campervan came from. The truth is, I have no idea. It was suddenly just there, and about five minutes later, it was a plan.
Q. In a nutshell what was pivotal in deciding to experience full-time life in a camper?
A. Back in 2017, I turned 33 and had a bit of a mini life crisis. All my friends were getting married and had started families, and as much as I loved seeing them so happy, the idea of following in their footsteps didn’t fill me with excitement. At the same time, I also didn’t want to spend the next 30-plus years doing nothing but working. So, I was looking for an alternative. I wanted to know what to do with life, which wasn’t the traditional path around marriage, kids, and career. At some point that winter, I had the idea to buy a campervan and spend a summer living in it and travelling around. I wanted to take a break from work and have some time to re-evaluate my priorities while having fun exploring the country. From there, things took a life of their own and that one summer turned into almost five years of full-time on the road.
Q. What did you do to prepare for this trip?
A. Not much, really. I bought a camper (a 1999 Ford Transit High Top), gave notice at my flat and job, sold and gave away most of the stuff I didn’t want to take, packed everything else into the van and then hit the road. I often look back and can’t believe how spontaneous and relaxed I was about it all. It’s not like me. But at the time, the plan felt so right. I was happy to just go with the flow and see what would happen.
Q. What was the most challenging aspect of preparing to live full-time in a camper?
A. There weren’t many. I still remember that time for how easy and right it all felt. Everything just seemed to fall into place. There would be challenges later on, but the initial transition to full-time van life was easy.
Q. What were the highlights of this time?
A. The excitement and that feeling of being on the right track, of doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing with my life in the moment, and once I started living and travelling in my van, the sense of freedom and time. I had gone from living a very busy, career-focused life in Auckland to spending my days in beautiful, remote places with lots of spare time on my hands. I was working around 15 hours per week from my laptop and the rest of the time I could do whatever I wanted. As someone who has always worked hard and long hours, that freedom was incredible. I felt so much calmer and happier and so much more focused.
Q. How did you support yourself financially while travelling full-time?
A. I’m very lucky to have not one but two jobs that I can do from anywhere. I work as a marketing consultant, providing marketing advice and services to businesses across New Zealand. And I’m also a writer. Both are jobs I enjoy and that I can do while I travel – as long as I have internet. In the years I was full-time in my camper, I would often work more over winter and then less in summer, so I had plenty of time to explore. One of the great things about this lifestyle was that it was much cheaper than renting or buying a house, so I didn’t have to work full-time hours.
Q. What are some of your best ‘life in a camper’ hacks/tips to share?
A. The best investment I ever made was buying a custom spring mattress for my camper. Before that, I had a standard foam mattress and even though I paid for good-quality foam, it was never as comfortable as a ‘proper’ bed. The custom spring mattress was a game changer and made the bed in my camper as comfortable as the bed I had living in a house. When your camper is your home, a comfy bed is super important, so that’s my top tip.
My top safety tip is to get a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). The small devices allow you to send a distress signal when in trouble and are popular among hikers and outdoor enthusiasts who like to venture into parts of the country that don’t have cell coverage. I love travelling to remote spots in my camper, but being on my own, I sometimes worry about how I would call for help if I don’t have a mobile phone network. The PLB gave me that peace of mind. I take it with me on all my explorations and adventures away from the camper, too.
Q. Where are your top three favourite spots in New Zealand to visit and why?
A. I love all of New Zealand and find it hard to pick just three, but here we go.
Golden Bay: It’s just so beautiful. I especially love the very northern end with Farewell Spit and Wharariki Beach. The walk connecting the two is stunning. The west coast up there is super remote, which makes it a fun adventure to explore. And, of course, there’s Abel Tasman, too.
The East Cape: When I started living and travelling in my van back in 2017, the East Cape was the only big area of the North Island I hadn’t been to. So it was one of the first destinations and I had an epic time.
I love that it’s a bit rougher than many other parts of New Zealand: less touristy and developed but no less beautiful.
Mackenzie: I’m an ocean lover and I kind of only discovered Mackenzie by accident a few years ago when I was trying to escape a heat wave by the coast. It was love at first sight. I especially love Lake Tekapo but the whole area around Twizel, Lake Pukaki, and, of course, Mt Cook is stunning. I rode most of the Alps2Ocean trail on my bike, which is one of the highlights of my travels.
Q. Are there any unexpected adventures/experiences you can share?
A. So many – surfing with dolphins at Curio Bay in the Catlins is a favourite memory; watching the sunrise from the top of Roy’s Peak near Wānaka or from the comfort of my camper bed in some beautiful spot; meeting so many amazing fellow nomads and hearing their stories.
I got stuck in the mud once at Whatamango Bay near Picton. Luckily, several locals were more than happy to pull me out. Ever since then, I always stop and walk onto grass first if I’m not sure it’s dry enough. At some point, I had a little mice issue, which was no fun at all. They were tiny and kind of cute, but something about having them in my home freaked me out. I had several sleepless nights, with mini panic attacks every time there was a weird noise. After that, I learned to always keep all my food in sealed containers.
Q. What’s one of the greatest learnings of this time on the road?
A. That’s an easy one. How little I need to be happy! I went from living in a fancy house in Auckland with a closet full of clothes and shoes and lots of other stuff to living in a small van with only a handful of outfits and fewer stuff and had the best time of my life. It showed me that I don’t need a lot of money to live a happy life and that meant freedom. I realised that I wouldn’t have to spend the next 30 years of my life working 40-plus hours a week in an office just to earn a lot of money. Instead, I could work less and spend more time on the things that make me happy, such as travelling and writing. That realisation has had a huge impact on me and has changed my life. It’s without a doubt the most valuable thing van life has taught me.
Q. What are your best storage/packing tips?
A. When I set off for full-time van life, I made three piles: Must Come, Maybe, and Not Needed. Surprisingly, I managed to fit everything from the ‘Must Come’ pile and even a few things from the ‘Maybe’ pile.
It was quite amazing how much storage space my small camper offered. As it turned out, I never used almost all of the things from the ‘Maybe’ pile and would get rid of most of it over the years.
I have a small storage unit in Auckland that has come in handy over the years. I leave winter clothes there in summer and summer clothes in winter, which means I don’t have to have all of them with me all the time. It’s also come in handy for a few other things I wanted to hold on to but didn’t have space for in the van.
Q. What do you miss most about life on the road?
A. I miss different parts of it at different times. I sold my camper in August 2022. Since then, I’ve been a full-time house sitter, so I still travel around but not as much anymore. This past year, life has been more about work and other priorities, such as writing and publishing my book, than about travel and adventure. I miss how life is so effortlessly exciting when you live and travel in a camper. Every day is different without me having to put any effort into it. Something as simple as going to the supermarket is exciting because it’s a new supermarket. Funnily enough, that constant change and excitement is one of the reasons I took a break from living in my camper. It’s fun, but it’s also exhausting. There are so many small decisions you have to make every day, from where to go next, where to park for the night, where to get groceries or water, where to find the nearest dump station and so on. After four-and-a-half years, I was tired of that. But now I miss it, and I’ve been thinking about getting a new camper soon – probably a caravan this time around.
Q. Describe your set-up, some info on your van and how it was kitted out?
A. I had two different campers during the years I lived on the road. Both were Ford Transit High Top vans with more or less the same layout: two seats at the front with a walk-through in between. The kitchen area was behind the passenger seat and the little toilet and shower were opposite that. Two long benches on both sides at the rear turned into a bed at night and then big rear doors that opened sideways. Both had lots of storage under the benches, above the driver’s cabin, and in cupboards everywhere.
There are three key questions I debated when I bought my first van and was balancing comfort with cost.
1. Do I need a high-top van? I’m really glad that I did get one. I’m almost six feet tall, and I like being able to stand upright. It made it so much more comfortable and more like a home than a camper.
2. Do I need a separate bathroom? I’m glad that my vans did have one. The shower came in handy occasionally and I also liked having somewhere I could quickly get changed during the day without always having to draw all the curtains.
3. Do I need a permanent bed? To be honest, I would have loved to have a permanent bed. But in the end, it just wasn’t possible without going with a significantly larger camper. And at the end of the day, it only took a few minutes each day to convert the lounge into my bed and back again, so it wasn’t that big a deal.
Q. What campsite did you most enjoy in New Zealand and why?
A. I’m all about the views. I love nothing more than being parked up in a beautiful spot with the doors wide open and a stunning view – ideally over the ocean. I also love peaceful, remote locations that don’t get too crowded. So my favourite campgrounds are the ones providing that, and I don’t mind if the facilities are minimalistic and rustic. Marfells Beach near Blenheim is a great example. As are Pakawau Beach Camp in Golden Bay, Glendhu Bay Motor Camp, Mangawhai Heads Holiday Park, the campground at Tauranga Bay in Northland, and many more. We are truly spoilt for choice here in New Zealand.
To follow Lisa’s adventures, visit lifedonedifferently.com.