“Living in our van lets us travel the world. Here’s how we do van life while holding jobs in Toronto”
Tal Gershon and Mads Lott bought a 55-square-foot sprinter van after discovering van-life videos on YouTube. Here, they break down their DIY renovations and how their on-the-move lifestyle compares with city living
Toronto-based Tal Gershon, a 30-year-old nurse, and Mads Lott, a 29-year-old elementary school teacher, regularly pack up their Mercedes sprinter van and hit the road. For months at a time, they live in the 55-square-foot space while they travel the world. They document their adventures on their YouTube channel, Tal and Mads, and have amassed over 35,000 subscribers who follow along as they navigate van life abroad. Here, the couple breaks down the DIY renovations that made their home on wheels livable, how much money van life saves them and how they balance their wanderlust with in-person jobs.
Tal: Mads and I met in 2016, when we both started working at the Keg in Richmond Hill. We weren’t that close, but a few years later, we happened to run into each other while we were on separate vacations in the Philippines. We instantly reconnected and ended up having the best time. We started planning other trips together.
Mads: We went to Nicaragua and Guatemala.
Tal: We really bonded in Guatemala. We were dealing with a bout of travel sickness, and being stuck in a single room together for a week turned out to be a recipe for becoming quite close.
Mads: One night, after we got home, I had a few glasses of wine and decided to send Tal a text. I told her that I liked her as more than just as a friend.
Tal: I felt the same way, and we’ve been together for five years now. I love that Mads is completely fearless and so caring.
Mads: Talia knows how to make everybody around her laugh. Plus, she always says yes to going on adventures with me.
Tal: Well, first I say no, but then Mads convinces me.
Mads: I’m an elementary school teacher, and Tal is a nurse. During the pandemic, I would decompress from work by scrolling social media and watching YouTube videos. That’s where I came across the idea of van life. I found it really inspiring, so I went down a bit of a rabbit hole.
Tal: Honestly, at first I didn’t take her van life fantasies too seriously. But, after we got our dog, Bowie, we figured the best way to keep travelling the world with our new pet would be in a van, so I came around to the idea.
Mads: In 2020, I found a 2005 Mercedes sprinter van on Kijiji. It was $24,000, and we split the cost between the two of us.
Tal: We had zero experience with building or renovating, so I was intimidated at first. Luckily, the van already had insulation, flooring, a bed frame and a ceiling fan.
Mads: The bed was built high up, so there’s room for storage underneath. It’s like a garage back there, with bigger electrical stuff, including our battery, as well as our paddleboards and two small cubbies for our clothes.
Tal: We watched a ton of YouTube tutorials and read online manuals to learn how to do the rest of the renovations. Mads’s dad was also a huge help.
Mads: We started by tackling the electrical. We added solar panels, which power the batteries in the van.
Tal: Then we put a water system in the kitchen. It’s a 30-gallon tank with a water pump that feeds into our sink. The water also flows to an outdoor shower we installed on the back of the van.
Mads: If we need a rinse-off, we’ll open the back doors and hang a blanket for privacy. For the rest of our showers, we have a Planet Fitness membership. For $30 a month, we can work out and shower at any location.
Tal: When the van felt ready, in early 2022, we set off on our first trip to Mexico and spent four months there. We went to Baja and quickly discovered that there was a huge van community out there. We started parking on beaches and rolling down our windows to meet new people.
Mads: When got back, we had professionals redo our kitchen. They built a custom counter that was much taller than our old one. They also added three big drawers for bathroom items, kitchen supplies and our electronics.
Tal: During that reno, we added an induction cooktop with one burner. We also installed a pee funnel—you can pee directly into it and it funnels outside the van. Of course, we’re selective about where we use it. Earlier this year, we also added a composting toilet for a trip to Alaska. It’s stored in a cabinet at the centre of the van.
Mads: In the kitchen, we have a bench with our fridge inside it, sort of like a large cooler. We can fit a whole week’s worth of groceries in there. We also have a little swivel table for meals.
Tal: There’s an overhead compartment above the cab that holds extra clothes and camping supplies. In the winter, we use a diesel heater, which is installed under the passenger seat.
Mads: To stay connected, we get Wi-Fi through Starlink. The satellite dish costs about $300, plus a monthly fee of $170. It gives us internet access even when we’re driving. In total, all the upgrades cost about $20,000.
Tal: A big part of van life is learning how to troubleshoot as you go. For example, we have three different ways to charge our batteries—solar panels; a DC to DC charger, which charges our van batteries; and shore power, where the van plugs into an RV site or someone’s garage. If one conks out on us, we’re able to rejig things.
Mads: It’s necessary. We once forgot how tall the van was and drove our solar panels into a giant overhead pole.
Tal: In terms of trips, the cost varies. On our first trip to Mexico, we spent about $1,500 per month.
Mads: We were super frugal—cooking at home, going grocery shopping and only taking cheap excursions.
Tal: On the flip side, we spent $4,000 a month when we went to Alaska this year. A week of groceries in Alaska was about $270 for the two of us, a bit higher than in Toronto. We spent about $800 a month on gas.
Mads: In general, we save the most on trips where we aren’t driving huge distances and where campsites are free. In those cases, it’s definitely cheaper than living full-time in an apartment downtown. On pricier trips, where campsites cost around $40 to $50 a night, the cost of gas and camping fees in a van is basically the same as renting a condo.
Tal: Even when the price is comparable to Toronto, we find that you get so much more bang for your buck—you get to travel, try new things and meet people.
Mads: We also save money on accommodations while we’re travelling, and we can easily stay longer in places we’re enjoying.
Tal: I love knowing that I can have a wild adventure during the day but sleep in my own bed when I get back.
Mads: Van life can get tiring, though. We call it decision fatigue—having to choose where to get water, where to sleep, where to dump your garbage.
Tal: Things do break or go awry, but eventually you realize that everything can be fixed. If we get super frustrated and are at a breaking point, we’ll get a hotel for a night to regroup.
Mads: As a couple in a tiny living space, alone time is important. One of us will take the dog for a walk or go grocery shopping alone. If we’re feeling sassy or irritable, we’ll go for a run. Luckily, we’re both super adaptable. On the road, you have to be willing to change the plan in the face of unexpected challenges. For example, we were parked in Toronto one time and the key to the van broke. Half of it got stuck in the door, and we were locked out.
Tal: Van keys are notoriously flimsy.
Mads: Luckily we were in the city, so we could call a locksmith. But it cost an arm and a leg.
Tal: After that, we started keeping spares. Generally, we avoid staying in cities. We had the van in Toronto for three days and got five parking tickets. It was a total nightmare. Instead, we work for a few months, renting apartments from family members, and then hit the road for our next trip.
Mads: We’ve both been able to adjust our careers to make it work. Tal has become a casual nurse, so she just has to work at least one shift every six months. I’m now a supply teacher instead of having my own classroom year-round.
Tal: Recently, we’ve also started generating some income through our YouTube channel. It paid for our last trip to Alaska, which can be an expensive destination. Our jobs can get pretty heavy, so bringing some joy to people through our videos has been really refreshing.
Mads: We love the half-and-half lifestyle of van living and city living. We plan to continue finding ways to make an income on the road so we can keep it up.
Tal: Down the line, we’d love to own a place in Toronto too. We could rent it out while we’re away on trips. As for the van, it’s in good shape. But we’ll have to redo our flooring soon—we’ve been tracking in a lot of sand and water from all our adventures.