I was on a spontaneous summer road trip to Jackson, Wyoming. I had just finished a shoot in Canada and was anxious to hit the road. Running on only a few hours’ sleep, I made the six-hour drive to the Tetons, where I met with a friend to do some climbing, hiking, camping and swimming.
It was there that I first met Thomas Woodson.
As a freelance filmmaker and adventurer living out of his custom-built RAM ProMaster van, making healthy meals and bagging peaks is all in a day’s work for Woodson. Born and raised in South Carolina, he made the bold move out West just after college to pursue his dream of biking, skiing, climbing and running all within a 30-mile radius of his home base.
After an unfortunate layoff after less than a year working with an ad agency, Woodson decided he’d never have a boss again. It wasn’t until he met Joey Schusler, who introduced a slew of challenges and inspirations to his life, that he took the path of photography and traveling the world to pursue adventurous projects.
After diving into the freelance world and traveling constantly with no sense of comfort or home, Woodson made the shift to live out of a van to work from anywhere at a moment’s notice. His vision to customize his van to exactly what he wanted was already in motion.
The RAM ProMaster was an easy choice. Of all home-on-wheels options, it’s the cheapest, has four-wheel-drive for snowy conditions, runs half the price of Sprinters and has room for skis, mountain bikes and four seasons’ worth of outdoor equipment.
The desperation to have a place to call his own quickly turned the van conversion into a major passion project for Woodson, who has a degree in design. Having full control to continually develop his interior design and construction skills got him closer to his goal of escaping the trap of paying rent for a place he was not in love with.
Woodson built out his ProMaster in just one month.
When people ask how he did it, he humbly responds, “Take it one step at a time — otherwise it can feel quite daunting. Decide what works best for you, do it, then move on.”
The process of learning didn’t come all at once; Woodson spent countless hours glued to his computer screen researching relentlessly for almost six months before pulling the trigger on van life. He studied everything from various methods of insulation to kitchen options and solar-energy designs. He drew inspiration from Instagram and Pinterest, but mostly through people who had done the same: converted vans with a special attention to detail.
Woodson wasn’t set on just building out a van; he wanted to create something especially beautiful.
He worked from sunrise to sunset, sometimes 14 to 16 hours a day. Each day’s progress directly influenced the next. With some help from his dad and a local carpenter, Woodson oversaw the entire project, from insulation to installing windows, fans and solar panels, framing and all finish work.
Woodson simplifies organization and maximizes storage space by categorizing gear for each sport to its own designated areas. When he needs something bike related, there is only one spot it can be: the bike drawer. The same goes for climbing and ski gear, tools and emergency supplies. His kitchen cabinet area is full of hooks and baskets mounted inside to keep everything in place when bumbling around on backcountry roads.
Some novelty features of his van include a stainless and cast iron gas range and a diesel furnace heater. Swivel seats are also a huge hit with friends visiting, because for some reason we all have that childish spirit in us that still makes us want to swivel.
With full-size windows on both sides, the views are especially stunning. His convertible bed/booth system is perfect for creating a clean and inspiring work space to sit in.
When I met up with Woodson to shoot some photos, we were in a Walmart parking lot, which epitomizes the reality of the #vanlife lifestyle. It’s not all jagged peaks in the background and vast desert landscapes; many nights are spent posted up in a parking lot waiting for dawn to break. For Woodson’s first 10 months of van life, he had a girlfriend with him, which created a feeling of home wherever he traveled.
It’s not easy maintaining deep friendships when living on the go — showing up for a few weeks and then hitting the road again is challenging for maintaining lasting relationships. This sense of restlessness can be combatted with pursuing outdoor passions full throttle and networking with others doing the same.
Overall, the draw to van life very much reflects a spirit of freedom and a pursuit of passion that many adventurous souls crave.
When you really want something, sometimes you just have to build it yourself.