NATASHA NICOLE @theunprofessional, though her rig is quite pro + efficiently rad. Encouraged by her intuitive compass she sets out across the country fully self-sufficient, with her carefully tuned-in DIY Van setup. Her time is mostly spent following her passion for action sports; motocross, mountain biking, snowboarding, surfing, skating, and more, which has taken her across the country (the US for now) nine times so far! Follow her adventures/shenanigans on her Instagram @theunprofessional and TikTok @sooonotpro. Her advice is super helpful, her life inspiring, and her voice incredibly genuine. She brings her dog Stone along for the ride too!
SO...Where are you right now?
RIGHT NOW I'm outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. My parents and my brother live down here so this has been my home base of sorts since COVID started. Here I can use my parents' internet for my work from home and that just makes everything easier. It's also freezing cold here and I'm not used to that anymore. Living in the van in LA was never a problem even though it's uninsulated. I think the coldest it ever got was around 45. Here, the high in the middle of the day is like 36 degrees, and it’s not even snowing.
Is it somewhat comfortable sleeping in the van at night or freezing?
FREEZING. That's why I keep going back to my mom's house over here. If I have something to do like going snowboarding it’s not too bad - I have a good technique. I have an electric blanket and a double sleeping bag so the dog and I both fit. It’s not really that big of a problem if it's cold, but also I'm a cold person anyway, which is why I'm always wearing that Chewbacca suit on my TikTok. I fear the cold, I would almost say. I am afraid to be cold more than I am to do many other things. I would do a snowboard jump bigger than I ever had before if you told me for the rest of the day I wouldn’t be cold.
What is the most essential thing that you have in your van?
If there was nothing else in the van and I only got to keep one thing, what would I keep? Not counting the bed? Then the toilet.
If you don't have a toilet you can't park wherever you want, you have to park near the closest bathroom to wherever you think you might want to play the next day.
Before I got the van I was living in a Honda Element, and the difference between the Element and the van is that the Element had no toilets. So I always had to park near the gym or some other bathroom. The beach bathrooms don't open until seven and I'm an early riser, so it was turning into a situation where it wasn't fun to park wherever I wanted and wake up to a sunrise. It was more like, all right, what time does this bathroom open?
What kind of bathroom setup do you have?
I have a composting toilet. I didn't pay for the super legit one because I'm a logic person more than anything, and when I looked at Nature's Head, which is the most common toilet for this, it's around a thousand bucks and it is essentially a bucket with a fan on the side, and you have to empty the piece separately. I didn’t like it. I don't want to see any of that. So I looked at what the process of composting was, and then I built a bucket toilet that’s just a trash bag in a bucket, but you fill it with sawdust and every time you go, flushing is throwing another handful of sawdust on top. It's kind of like kitty litter. And so that is my toilet and the sawdust is free because it comes from The Home Depot or wherever. My plan was to test this out and then if it didn't work, I would buy the Nature's Head and cut the hole in the side of the van, (the fan has to be external) but this one just never failed me, so I never upgraded. And every time I meet someone who has Nature’s Head, they're always talking about how much of a pain in the butt it is to empty.
Have you done any other van customization build-out?
WELL, when I first got this van, I didn't have time to build it out before I lived in it.
Literally, on my birthday, I flew from California back to Virginia, which is where I'm from, and I bought this van from a dealership in the middle of nowhere that was getting rid of their last year's inventory.
I flew home, bought the van by one o'clock, drove the van down to see my family; It was like, hey, happy birthday to me. Boom. And then I drove back to California starting that next morning.
SO, I didn't really have a chance to put the time in like a lot of people do, how you see the people with the super cool vans. And I always kind of wanted that until I started really living in it. That’s when I realized that if I don’t do anything permanently then I can move it all around forever. So anytime I want something to be in a different place, it's not a whole situation for me to get it to that next place. I can just undo a couple of screws and push this over here, pull that over there.
ALSO, I have done everything in this van myself. I'd say the scariest thing that I did was cutting the holes in it - I put a fan in the roof because it needed it. That took me over a year to do because I was just scared to cut the hole. I also built a sink and recently put in an actual, permanent 2-burner stove that runs off a little propane tank. Other than that, having solar is a life-changer because then you can watch TV and play video games on your computer.
I saw your Youtube video about fitting solar panels on top. How do you know how to do stuff like that? Do you just figure it out?
That was just me pretending I knew how to put solar on and trying to figure it out. I put the solar panels on with VHB because my job is to take phones apart. Pulling a phone apart is very difficult, and the only thing that holds that phone screen on is a thin, millimeter-wide strip of the sticky stuff that I put on the roof. I thought, man, if it takes this much force for me to get a phone open, I can totally stick a solar panel to the roof with that. And I did. People are always telling me that it’s going to fly off, and I'm like, okay, time out.
Number one, it's been on there for three years, I've been across the country seven times with it, and it's never blown off. Number two, before I attached it to the roof, I would just sit it up there. And sometimes I would forget it was up there, and I would just drive off, and it would be flapping in the wind. And then in the event that it did fall off, it's not a big thick piece of metal or anything. It's a little thin piece of plastic with solar diodes on it, thing weighs like two pounds - maybe. It'd be way more dangerous if my surfboard came off. I would say the solar panel stickage is my number one invented thing that I got fully on my own.
What's your favorite place you’ve been?
I’m going to have to say Malibu on a perfect day, where the waves are good and the air is good and I’ve got a good parking space. All the people had to go to work and I’m just surfing. As far as places that I've lived long term, I would say Malibu is the most fire spot I’ve ever stayed.
But then as far as single-day campsite-type situations, I used this app called iOverlander, and the campsite that I found in Colorado was right off of the Colorado River and it was so perfect. The only thing that was kind of sketch was the swiftness of the river because it was during late spring or whenever the snow is melting.
So, my dog and I were chilling out by the river and I thought “hmm, I’m going to skip some rocks.” So I threw a rock, and this fool ran full speed into the river. And he’s old. He’s an excellent swimmer but the river took him so fast. I’m not a river person, I’ve only been around the ocean really. I had no idea what to do so I just jumped in after him. It was about 8 o'clock in the morning or something. It was so nuts, it belonged on a TV show.
I stabbed the middle of my hand and I still have a spot from it, cuz once I got him I just grabbed whatever I could, and it was a thorny bush of course. It was so crazy. That's a fun thing that happened. Like in the moment, not fun, but we eventually got back to where we started. It was so crazy, but that was that spot. That was definitely my favorite place I’ve ever gone that I didn’t live.
I also went to a caravan meetup for girls that was put on by women on the road. I got to hang out with so many girls with vans and we had a bunch of activities. We just got to meet each other face to face. I would say as far as the community part of van life, that's the coolest thing that’s happened. But on my own, the Colorado spot. And then as far as the living situation, Malibu all day.
So what is it like to have your dog with you in the van?
IT'S AMAZING. I didn't bring him when I was in the Element cuz there just wasn’t enough space. I didn’t realize how bonded I was to the dog until I didn’t have the dog. I only made it 2 months in the Element before I came back and got him.
But, everything does have to cater to him more than it does to me because he's the most vulnerable. I have plenty of ways to keep track of the temperature in the van remotely.
BUT ALSO, just that he's in there by himself you have to think about where you park. You have to think about how hot it is outside. You have to think about whether the people that are going to see the van and think that it's too hot inside. You have to worry about whether when you get back and open the door, is he going to jump out, and then someone will call the police because California is on the next level of being in your business. I’ve come back to the van in Venice after going skateboarding at nine o'clock in the morning when it's 65 degrees and there's been a policeman standing outside of my van, like,
“Somebody called and they said the dog was in here, so I had to come and ask you if the dog was in here” and I say, “Yeah, the dog's in there.” And he asks, “Does the dog have water and ventilation?” “Yep, the dog’s got water and ventilation.” Then he says “Alright, cool. Well, I'm outta here.” It is a good system to have in place for people who might not take care of their animals, but it is also very annoying.
SO NUMBER ONE for the dog, you have to make sure that you are putting the van in a place that is good for him. And then just keeping an eye on the temperature. And if it is in the summertime when it’s warm, I can never do anything before the peak heat of the day. I’ve set up a three fan system in the van that swirls the air and pulls it out if it’s hot.
Work is the more important one that a lot of people don't think about. I started out as a full-time genius at the Apple store in LA, and that was fine because it was winter. When it got to the higher seventies and lower eighties, I realized that it wasn't going to work for me to maintain full-time as I had been doing it. So I went part-time night shift so that I only work when the sun is down and then I don't have to worry about the dog, because California doesn't keep its heat after the sun goes down.
IMPORTANT NOTE - I find that a lot of people are more travel or wilderness-oriented van lifers. I am a middle of the city action, time-oriented, van lifer. In van general, I could see where it might be in your best interest to get a cat.
What's it like being a SOLO WOMAN on the road?
FOR ME, it's not that scary. I'm generally trusting and I don't get sketched very often. I probably sketch less than I should. But I think that has also worked out in my favor. I think by not worrying about it too much, but also being ready, I have somehow prevented people from thinking that I would be a good lick to hit. I'm walking around and I'm smiling at you, but at the same time, if you came in here, I’m not letting you take me to the secondary location by any means. There's a certain sense of power in the fact that I am trained in self-defense and I do know how to fight. And I have these huge brothers who have been beating me up my whole life. But there's also a bit of altruism I put on the world that it probably doesn't deserve. I feel like if you were that bad, I would have felt the vibe off of you. Or if something was to go bump in the night, my dog would wake up before I did, and then I would be able to get ready.
ALSO, when you live in a van, you don't have to park anywhere sketch. For months I lived in one of the nicest neighborhoods in LA and no one cared, because this looks like a dog walking van and no one walks their own dogs out there. I can see how it might have been a problem for people with RVs, but for me, it wasn’t bad. It's a difference in how you’ve got to think about it, but you don't have to put yourself in dangerous situations. I think I have a natural sense of self-protection already just because I did grow up racing motocross and having to be out, by myself, in the backwoods that weren’t necessarily very friendly to me. I would go to the backwoods and race against the sons of some of these guys who weren't very friendly and beat some of their kids. When I got off the track, they would look at me weird, and I would just have to push my bike back to my trailer and load it back up. I think I have a lot of “look a man in the eye” in me already.
What motivates you to do all these extreme sports?
THEY ALL FELL INTO PLACE AT DIFFERENT TIMES. As a little kid, skateboarding was first, other than biking. My dad was my original supporter for doing stuff that other people might not have let me. He got me a skateboard with a witch doctor on the bottom of it for my birthday. I don’t know how I knew about skateboards, I was 6 or 7 years old and thought that I needed to be strapped in to jump. I learned how to ride the skateboard, of course, at my grandparents' house in their little courtyard.
AND THEN when I was probably 10 or 11, they built a skate park at the park near my house, when I was about to go to middle school. So the thought was, “yeah, I'm going to be the cool skating girl in middle school and wear all my thrasher t-shirts and my beanie, all cool.” I was always so bummed cuz my mom made me wear a helmet. Now I get it.
That was my first community of extreme sports, cause I went to that skate park probably at least once a week. My first triumphant moment was when I learned how to drop in. There was this 8-foot tall bowl, and the local pros who I thought were the craziest guys ever at the time said to me, yo, drop in here.
I don’t know where I got this idea, but whenever I'm a beginner at something, I approach the professional, the top person on the team, or whoever. And I say, “Hey, I see you're really good at this. And I want to be good too. Can you make me good?” I don’t know where I get that confidence or where I got that idea, but from day one that’s always been what's happened. That's why I am unprofessional on Instagram because all of my friends are pro everything, and then people see me, a Black girl where I shouldn't be, alone. And they think, “Oh, you must be professional too, because why would you be here?” I'm like, “No, I suck. I just really like to do this.”
SO THE PRO'S SAID, “Hey, if you drop in over here, that's the biggest thing you can do in this park, drop in over here and ride around this bowl.” I didn't even have knee pads at the time, I just had a helmet. And I died. I think I'm still suffering from some of the ligament damage that I did to my knees on that day. It took a long time, but I did it. It took so long that other kids were coming over and watching. All eyes were on me for a long time. When I finally got it, they lifted me up out of the bowl. That's also when I fell in love with crowd surfing. It was great.
THEN I MET A KID who was actively racing motocross, and that really started the next chapter. I had had a 4 wheeler that we rode at our grandparents’ farm, but I didn’t know about race tracks or jumps. His dad took me one time, and I begged for a racing dirt bike for four years after that. Eventually, I got one. So then I started racing dirt bikes, and that's where all my old friends come from now.
THEN SKIING. When you skate as a little Black girl, there are hateful people, but there are also positive people out there who want to see you win. The ones that did would always offer, “Hey, you skate, do you snowboard?” I remember saying no, and they said I should come skiing with them, and learn how to ski and snowboard. I asked my mom if I could go and she said yes.
SURFING is the newest one, but it's the one that I like the most. I started surfing because my first time in California I thought, “What's the most California thing I can do? I'm going to take a surf lesson.” And I did, and I was very bad. But that’s where I got the tip of using the Wavestorm.
Later that year my dirt bike broke and I needed something else to do, so I went and got a Wavestorm, and good on me. Good on me for that one, because this is much, much safer - much better for longevity. And much more fun as far as a full day of activity.
What's playing in the van?
VANNLIFE.com: Natasha Nicole: The Unprofessional