Tall Man, Tall Van: Nate Hemann Shares His Experience Travel Nursing While Living The Van Life
Like many travel healthcare professionals, nurse Nate Hemann wanted to pursue traveling to experience new sights, meet new people and gain experience working across the country.
Before starting his journey, Hemann decided to make his first major commitment to the travel life in an unconventional way—by converting a freshly purchased 2018 Ford Transit into his permanent home away from home.
Hemann started documenting his experience building and living in his van on August 2, 2018, through his Instagram account, @thetallmanvan. From his posts, Hemann shares messages of positivity, his enthusiasm for nature and all the highs and lows of living in a van while working as a travel nurse.
I spoke with Hemann to find out more about his nursing career, how he converted his ride and why he decided to tackle the #VanLife.
Editor’s Note: Photos in this story pulled from the @thetallmanvan account were used with permission. Some of the answers below were edited for clarity.
Q: How did you get involved in the nursing profession?
I decided I was going to go to school for nursing in about the 10th grade. I honestly don’t remember a single moment that sparked it. I did, however, grow up right next to the Mayo Clinic, and with both of my parents working there, as well as nearly every other adult in my life growing up, it’s really no surprise that I ended up with a career in the medical field. I have also always loved people and science, and to me, nursing is the best fit for me with my strengths in both of those areas.
Q: What made you want to pursue the travel nursing route?
Travel nursing was not something I had ever thought about until holiday break during my senior year of nursing school. I went on a study abroad trip with 20 some other nursing students to the Philippines to learn about and dive into the culture and nursing practices there. This single trip set me on the travel path that I am on now, both in my career and in my personal life.
I made it a financial goal of mine after graduating college to always be able to say “yes” to travel when asked by anyone around me, and so far, I’m surpassing my goal of traveling whenever possible far more than I ever imagined I would.
Q: Being that you’ve just started your travel career, what has the experience been like so far?
Although I technically began my travel nurse career the beginning of October 2018, I feel that it really started in July of 2017.
After working one year as a staff nurse in Duluth, Minnesota, I packed up my car and drove to Seattle to be a part of the amazing team and culture of Harborview Medical Center. After a year at Harborview, and meeting all of the countless, amazing travel nurses there, I knew that I had to be one as well.
The experience so far has been supportive and educational, as well as beautiful considering I have gotten to be in Northern California and Central Oregon for my first two contracts. I feel fortunate to have gone to two hospitals so far with an overall good attitude toward travel nurses because I know that that is not always the case.
Q: What have you learned? Any unexpected challenges?
I have learned that I love to float, which as a traveler is something you have to learn to like, or you certainly won’t have a good experience. I love the challenge of a new unit and a new patient demographic outside of my specialty. I will say that I am not learning as much nursing-wise as I would like to, and that’s why I will seek out more trauma and teaching hospitals, like Harborview.
For now, I am trying to keep up to date outside of work. However, I am learning so much about myself being in these smaller cities and hospitals. It is giving me more financial freedom and time to explore the great outdoors with my van and any friends I meet along the way.
As far as nursing goes, the main challenge I have found is that staff nurses tend to be resistant to change, and as the new nurse on the unit all the time, that can make me feel isolated. I have picked up skills and knowledge in various ways and places, and some nurses I work with only know nursing from the college in the same community that they work in—and perhaps have lived in that very community their entire life. As someone who constantly wants to learn and understand the world from other perspectives, it frustrates me to work with complacent and inflexible individuals.
Q: Where have you visited so far? Considering that, what’s your most favorite moment from the places you have visited?
My two contracts so far have been in Eureka, California and Eugene, Oregon. I have visited countless places outside of these two locations since I drove from Minnesota to get here, and in between contracts, I took two-and-a-half weeks off to ski in Wyoming and Utah. Top of my list since starting travel nursing would be as follows in no particular order: Grand Teton National Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Redwoods National Park, and the Southern Oregon coast.
I’m not typically a man of favorites—usually a top three or five kind of guy—but there was an instance during this travel nurse journey that I felt absolute bliss.
I hiked down a steep and wooded part of the Southern Oregon coast, made my way to rocky outcrops, and it was all just after a big storm system had rolled through. The waves crashing against the coast were absolutely massive. I found myself on a peninsula rock outcropping with waves thundering through narrow channels on either side of me, and crashing in front of me over the lower part of the rock formation I was standing on. It was windy and chilly, and a few remnant sprinkles of rain were coming down, and yet, I found myself laughing hysterically, spinning in circles with my arms spread wide, and singing the song “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” from Dirty Dancing.
The pure beauty of my surroundings, and in this very moment, the overwhelming feeling of happiness was cascading over me, like the waves on the shore around me. These are the moments during travel that I absolutely live for.
Q: What made you decide—or gave you the inspiration—to go with a converted van as your method of choice for living/travel?
Quite honestly, my friend Connor was the one to first bring the idea of living in a van to my attention. This is where the internet searches for van ideas first began. Additionally, while working in Seattle, I met a few people with vans and coming from the Midwest where #VanLife simply is not a thing, I was incredibly intrigued by it. I had patients that lived in converted vans, I started noticing them parked all over the city on my bike commute, and then I floated to another unit where a nurse and I were chatting about vans, and sure enough, he was currently building his out!
The van quickly became the mode in which I would travel nurse out of for a few reasons. My home, and thus my bed, kitchen, and belongings would always be with me. RVs are too big and too expensive, plus they cannot go to all of the places that I want to go to. I love the fact that I can just drive until I’m tired, or until I find a great overnight spot, and then I just set up there. I have yet to pay for an overnight spot in the 4-plus months I’ve been living out of the van, which is yet another reason why the van life was for me. The cost-effectiveness of it, especially with travel nursing, is just too great to pass up. Coupled with the fact that I’m always packed and ready to go anywhere? There’s simply no other way to go about it!
Q: What is the technical breakdown of your van build?
Approximate time to completion: Two months is what I took for the build. August was only weekends or long weekends with little work during the week. During September, building occurred every day for most of the day. The “garage” of my van is not nearly as built out as I would like it to be, so an extra few days of building would have been ideal, but I needed to head west.
Total Cost: I tried to keep track of all of my build-out costs individually, but it was just too much with trying to build out the van and be a bookkeeper at night. My total cost for the van build out is about $9,000. Of course, this doesn’t include any labor. My dad calls that sweat equity.
The $9,000 includes all of the solar, the fridge, the heater, the insulation, that dang-expensive-but so-nice composting toilet, etc. The big ticket items that come to mind are:
- 50-quart Dometic fridge
- Nature’s Head composting toilet
- 2000-watt pure sine wave power inverter
- 40-amp MPPT solar charge controller
- 400-watt solar panels
- 200-amp/hr AGM battery
- Propex propane heater
- 4-burner propane stove
- Butcher block counter tops
- Stainless steel deep sink and faucet
All the other costs are mostly the building materials; insulation, wood, flooring, paint, etc.
Dimensions: I have the 2018 Ford Transit 350 High Roof Extended Cargo Van. My living area is roughly 80 square feet. I am 6 feet 5 inches tall, and yes I made sure I can stand fully upright in my van. This is also why I bought a Transit instead of a Sprinter. The Transit cargo model is 81.5 inches tall, whereas the Sprinter cargo version is 77 inches tall. I am 77 inches tall as is, so I knew I needed more room to work with.
Q: What was the most difficult part about customizing your van?
It’s hard to pinpoint a singular thing that was difficult about the van. Had I not had my dad, who is as handy as they come, I would have struggled immensely to complete the build out and it would have taken much longer than it did. My dad is an electrician, carpenter, and many other things, and really the only thing that he didn’t feel safe doing, was setting up the propane and solar. I researched all of the solar needs, install, etc. Then my dad’s brother who works for the gas company helped me set up the propane system.
Q: Now that you have used it for several months, is there anything you’d change about the build?
I wish that I had more time to build out the garage portion of my van. That is the one area that is not nearly as organized as I would like it to be. I also carry every single thing I own in the van, so it’s relatively full under my bed because of that.
My van is perfect for what I’m doing with it right now and for that I feel comfy and happy in the van. Of course every week I see a new awesome build out, or something I never thought of to put in the van, and as a natural American, I want it too. That being said, maybe this van will always be mine, or maybe I’ll sell it in the future and create something that better fits my lifestyle at that time, whatever that is.
Q: How did your parents and friends react when you told them you wanted to convert a van and travel around the country?
I’d say most everyone back home thought I was totally nuts, and my community in Seattle thought it was cool or normal. One family friend who came over to tour the van a week or so before I left used the would “courageous” to describe my endeavor in the van, and that didn’t seem like the word he wanted to say as it rolled off his tongue, so I suggested that maybe he meant crazy, and not courageous. He agreed, which gave me a good laugh.
My friend Jerod’s dad Jeff, from what I remember, was one of only a couple people over the age of 35 back home in Minnesota who was outwardly excited for my journey and thought that everyone should do something like this in their 20s. All of my west coast friends and fellow Minnesotans who have found their way out of the Midwest just really wanted to know when I would be passing through so they could see the van in person. That has given me a lot of joy—and naturally, future travel destinations!
Q: How has the van life affected your travel nursing experience? What do you like (and dislike) the most about it?
Van life has made my travel nursing experience so much richer. Sure, maybe I’m not always fresh out of the shower when I walk into work, but the van has opened up so many more opportunities for solo travel, as well as being more mobile and flexible to meet up with friends who want to travel.
It’s always fun to have friends in the van for the day to explore. We can retreat into the van for lunch and maybe escape some rain, but then make our way back out onto the beaches or into the forests and mountains.
The biggest thing I dislike is not having a communal place inside to hang out. I always loved having friends over to cook or bake together when I had a house, but now that has changed a bit. That being said, I did put myself in the Pacific Northwest for winter, so had I traveled South, I would have been able to host outdoor dinner parties.
To compromise, I invite myself over to friends houses and make them host, while I then bring dinner to cook as a thank you for hosting. A bit forward, but hey, I live in a van now! Come summer I’ll be hosting more dinner parties, just with the side door slide wide open and seating outside only; can’t have too many cooks in such a small kitchen.
Q: Who’s been your biggest supporter or source of inspiration throughout this experience?
My biggest internet inspiration through the van build, and even now when I want to make adjustments to the van, is definitely @FarOutRide. Although they don’t know me, they have the same van as me and also have incredibly detailed blogs on their website that I visited prior to, during, and still after the build-out. Without them, I certainly wouldn’t have the van build-out that I have.
I don’t have a “biggest” supporter, but I definitely have big supporters. All of my family, despite thinking the van was a crazy idea, who helped with the build out. Jennifer with painting, Janice and Mom with sewing, Dad with most everything, Daryl with the propane, Matt and Lindsey with solar, and the list goes on. All of those people back home that may have thought the van was a crazy and expensive idea still supported me through it.
The motivation and excitement during the build out came a lot from my West coast friends and also from other #VanLifers that I connected with on Instagram. I don’t have any specific names, because the number of people that I felt and still feel supported by is immense. My reason for living is, without a doubt in my mind, people. People are the reason I’m the person I am, the nurse I am, the friend I am, and all the other things that make me, me. I simply love people, and the van life coupled with travel nursing allows me to fully experience that.
Q: Your Instagram posts are very open and honest about your experiences throughout this process and while traveling. What made you decide to document your experience publicly via @thetallmanvan?
I pondered about starting an Instagram account for the van or not, because I do have a personal account already. After a little deliberation, I decided to make it.
First of all, I came up with the name and no one else was using it, so how could I not create the @thetallmanvan? It’s a damn cool name.
I also thought of Instagram as my sort of digital scrapbook. I grew up with my Mom scrapbooking all of our memories, and I certainly do not have the space for endless scrapbooks in the van, so I look at my Instagram account as a way to commemorate and digitally scrapbook my time with the van, my travels, and the people I meet along the way.
You’re certainly not the first person to point out how open and honest, and quite frankly long, my posts are, but I do it all out of pure emotion and genuine desire to connect with whoever decides to take the time to connect themselves with me and my account. I think there’s far more than enough one-liner captioned photos to reel in the likes and views, and people that post daily on their feed and throughout the day on their story. I’m simply not that way.
I post about once a week or so and rarely put things on my story because I find myself forgetting or not wanting to use my phone during a moment so that I can fully feel and experience everything that it has to offer to me. I’m not quite sure when this started, but I’ve found myself hiking amazing hikes to a summit, running along the beach, or biking through PDX, and when it all comes to an end I have no or few photos of my adventure. I’ve forgotten to get that summit photo because I was chatting with a fellow hiker I met at the top, or I’m lost in the smell and the feeling of standing ocean side with waves filling my water booties after a paddle on a coastal lagoon.
I believe there are times when photos are warranted and there are times when all that is needed is to simply be, just be, 100% with your whole being, in that very moment, with that very place, and those very people. I hope that’s relayed somehow through my account to the people that take the time to read and engage with me. If not, it is to me, and that’s all that I can really hope for when I spill my heart out onto the Internet.