Life can change in a blink of an eye. If you’re a SCI survivor like me, you know this to be true.

I’m not the type of person that settles down easy. Traveling is a necessity in keeping my heart, mind, and soul functioning. September of 2020 is when I bought a 2019 Ford Transit Cargo Van. I spent the following three months turning my new van into a home. As soon as January rolled around, I hit the open road.

The question I’m asked most is how I’m able to live #vanlife being a wheelchair user. My first response to this question has nothing to do with the wheelchair. I’m a nomad. No matter where I’ve lived, I’ve never felt at home and let me tell you, I’ve lived in quite a few places. Cities, suburbs, cars, tents just to name a few. The van feels feel like a Ritz-Carlton compared to some of my past “homes.”

Life is all about adapting. If you’re reading this you’ve most likely been forced to adapt to a new life or you’re a supporter of those of us in SCI community. You get it. Follow that dream no matter if you think it’s possible or not. There’s only one way to find out, so send it.

Startup for van life is a bit expensive but you don’t have to go all out. I sure didn’t. My van still looks like a utility van from the inside out. I don’t need fancy wood paneling or paint jobs. Functionality is all my heart desires. There are a few key features needed to somewhat comfortably live out of a van. Here’s what I’ve added to mine.

  • Insulation – This is critical in keeping your van cool during hot summer days and warm during freezing winter nights. Insulate EVERYTHING! Floor, walls, roof and windows.
  • Solar Power – I have two 100-watt solar panels, 40-amp charge controller, 1200-watt inverter, and two 100ah batteries.
  • Flooring – I went with a vinyl wood flooring. This is a must if you use a wheelchair.
  • Heat – If you’re living in freezing temperatures regions, there’s no way around it. Propane or fuel heaters will keep you from freezing.
  • Ventilation – A rooftop fan is a must. It helps circulate air. Ideally two fans are the way to go. One brings fresh air in and the other pushes stagnant air out.
  • Kitchen – A boy’s gotta eat right? I have a Dometic fridge that keeps my beers cold. Ohhh, I put food in there too. I also have a 2-burner propane stovetop and 14-gallon fresh water tank sink combo.
  • Bed/garage – I was able to fit a full-size bed in the rear of the van. Under the bed is the garage where bikes, tools and camping gear lives.

I have the bare necessities for survival. I can confidently spend two weeks off grid with no worries. The only worry comes from loved ones who have no idea if I’m still alive.

After a few months I actually downgraded in a few areas. I realized I was taking up precious storage space with clothes I wasn’t wearing, kitchen cookware I wasn’t using and random keepsakes that I thought had meaning. I kept telling myself, “If I don’t use it, I don’t need it.”

My favorite part of living out of a van is being ready to ride bikes at any time. I still work full time but when all your gear is loaded there’s no reason to not use it. I followed a dream and couldn’t be happier with my decision.

I’m living my dream. I’ll sing it for a year. I’ve sang laughter and tears. I’ll sing for today because tomorrow might be taken away.

— Matthew Tilford