If you've ever wondered what it's like to be a nomad, just ask 28-year-old Trent Arant.
About four years ago, after a breakup, the filmmaker moved out of his house in Atlanta, Georgia, to hit the road with his dog, Millie. Since 2018, he has lived over 20 cities and visited over 20 U.S. states, all while living and working as a full-time independent contractor from his van.
"Van life has really put life into perspective for me," Arant tells CNBC Make It. "Being able to travel around the country and experience all these unique people and unique places … I'm forced to go out of my element and experience things I wouldn't normally experience."
The freedom that comes with being on the road is equal parts thrilling and lonesome, he says.
"Living in a van is not as glamorous as it seems on social media," Arant says. "It's fun and adventurous, and I feel like I'm living life right now, but I do feel homeless sometimes. I don't necessarily feel like I belong anywhere."
It isn't exactly a freewheeling, zero commitment lifestyle, either. Arant only pays about $700 in monthly payments for his tricked out a 2020 RAM ProMaster Van, but he spent almost $10,000 on renovations to make the recreational vehicle a home.
Here's how Arant transitioned to his life on the road, and how he maintains his lifestyle living out of a cargo van:
Into the wild (in a van)
When his relationship ended in 2018, Arant was working as a visual effects artist in Atlanta's film industry — and living alone in a home that was previously shared. Restless, that's when he decided to experiment with life on the road with Millie, who he rescued in 2017.
For two years, he traveled around in a van that he bought off of Craigslist for $6,000. He put $4,000 into his first van's renovations.
Then, after months of "haggling with dealerships," Arant purchased his first new vehicle – the 2020 RAM ProMaster Van – from a lot in Charlotte, North Carolina, in November 2020. It had a bigger "width and was easier to build out" than other models, Arant says.
The original cost of the van was $47,000, but he negotiated its price down to $38,000. He took out a loan, which he's currently repaying in $700 monthly increments. He says he expects to have the van completely paid off in 2026, ultimately paying a total of roughly $50,000, including interest on the loan.
Around this time, he also started a content-creating side-hustle on TikTok and YouTube, partially to document his new lifestyle.
Building a home on the road
The move from the first van to the next was more arduous than one might expect. Arant camped in South Carolina for five months while renovating his new living quarters, officially completing the project and moving into his new van in April 2021.
"When converting this van into a livable space, I had to essentially build a home form scratch," he says. "The shell of the house was there, but I still had to add insulation, gas and even electrical." He also mounted solar panels on the roof his van to sustainably power his appliances, which include a full-size gaming PC, complete kitchen, toilet and outdoor shower.
Most of his work as an independent visual effects artist is remote, so Arant works full-time from his P.C. He pays nearly $280 per month for auto insurance and Wi-Fi, combined.
A cooking enthusiast, Arant says the kitchen was particularly important when "building out" his van. It includes a relatively large fridge, a three-burner stove, an oven and a working sink, which draws water from a 40-gallon tank under Arant's bed. The excess water drains into a six-gallon tank, which he empties outside or at dump stations.
The home-on-wheels does include a shower and toiled, but Arant still often stops at public restrooms. He pays $20 per month for a Planet Fitness membership, partially so he can shower in warm water.
The cargo van also has an AC unit, roof fan vents and diesel heater to regulate the temperature. Perhaps the biggest perk of all, Arant says, is his full-size memory foam mattress: At 5'10", he can lay completely flat on the bed.
Millie, Arant's four-legged travel companion, also has a space of her own. She sleeps in a 2.5-foot by 2.5-foot space, equipped with a fan and a light.
The wallpaper of the great outdoors
Arant moved into the van for the flexibility to travel around the country, of course. Atlanta is still technically home, but only when he's occasionally required to work in person. When he spoke with CNBC Make It in February 2022, he was living in the mountains in Asheville, North Carolina.
While he says it's often difficult to meet people and maintain relationships on the road, some of his favorite van adventures have been solo trips to remote locations.
"I think one of my favorite places I've ever been to was this spot in the middle of the desert in Nevada," Arant says. "I had this hot spring all to myself, and I was surrounded by snowcapped mountains. It literally was a dream, and it was so therapeutic for me."
He also relies on Millie for company, to cheer him up when he's having a bad day.
But for the foreseeable future, the occasional loneliness is a price Arant says he's willing to pay for adventure. He plans to keep living out his nomad fantasies in the van, unless he meets someone who wants to settle down off-road.
"I don't have a timeline of when I want to leave van life behind," Arant says. "I'm just waiting for that moment where I meet someone that's ready to build a life outside of this lifestyle."
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