Van Life: Minna Kulmala
Finnish-born Minna Kulmala has been living the minimalist lifestyle for years—even before moving into the first of her vans. Her current van, Kiito, is home to her and her rescue dogs Chaos and Kaino and is parked in Spain, her favorite locale to live in to escape the arctic winters of Finland. The web designer and photographer works on the road under the name of Bhakti Creative and spends her free time in nature as much as possible!
Name: Minna Kulmala
Vehicle type: Ford Transit 2005
Time spent in van: On and off 7 years, full-time 2 years
Hometown: Pornainen, Finland
Average monthly expenses: Really varies of how much I drive, and if there are extra costs from van breakdown or vet visits, but generally around 400-700€
What made you decide to move into a van?
Minna: I wanted to travel freely and be independent, so a van is great because you have your home with you wherever you go. I also love waking up in nature and discovering new places. When living in a house, I feel like a prisoner and not living my life to the fullest. I remember when I lived 4 years in a block of flats in a small city and had to open 5 doors to be outside! It was really terrible, and I will never go back to living that way. My big sister also used to live and travel around the U.S. in a van, so that's probably been an inspiration too.
When my lovely father passed away from cancer, I realized how precious life is, so I started taking steps toward living the life I dreamed of. He never got to enjoy his retirement years and was a really hard-working man, so I often think of him and how I wish he got to fulfill more of his dreams. But I know his biggest dream was that his daughters were happy, and that's exactly how we all are, thanks to him being the best dad in the world (same goes to my amazing mom).
I've had two vans, first was a ’97 Ford Transit called Jagannath. I just had a bed and a camping stove in it, no insulation, wall paneling, heating or anything, super simple. I wanted a van where I could actually stand up in it so in 2018 I got my current high-top van Kiito.
What were you doing before that? Minna: I worked random low-paying jobs from pet store to personal assistant. I've also been a trail guide and northern lights photography guide. For me it's really important that I like my job, so it doesn't matter if the pay isn't great as long as I don't hate waking up in the mornings! I was living in a small flat fostering homeless dogs and cats and my life was pretty much just taking care of others.
In 2011 I had enough and quit my job, gave away most of my belongings, and put the rest in storage at my childhood home and went backpacking around Europe, Israel, and Egypt for four months. I was hitch-hiking with friends I met on the road and sleeping in bushes and in nature or in a desert with bedouins and camels. Not because I needed to, but because I wanted to. But I really missed my dog Rebel who I left at my mom's so that was also where the idea for getting a van came from, to be able to easily travel with my best friend!
What’s your job/how you make money?
Minna: I've been working remotely out of my van as a web designer for two years now. All thanks to my amazing big sister who taught me the skills and already had clientele for me to share too. I love my job and being able to work from my van is an absolute dream come true. I have a solar panel on the van's roof that enables me to easily stay and work off-grid.
I'm a photographer by profession, but that's not really something you can easily make money on the road with, when you don't even know where you're going to be in a week's time, and mostly abroad too! I did sell prints and calendars of my photographs online when I was staying in Finland for longer and actually bought my second van with the money made from that which is a pretty amazing feeling, since art is not something one easily makes money from.
For seven years I didn't have a job on the road, so I had to return to Finland (usually from Spain/Portugal) to save up money for the next adventure. I usually worked for six months to a year to have enough money to live on the road again.
When did you get into photography? What do you like to photograph on the road?
Minna: I took a photography course in high school and really fell in love with life in the darkroom. This was still before digital cameras were the main thing and we actually mostly shot on film. I dropped out of high school and applied to art school and got in. My main subject was photography, and after three years I graduated.
On the road I mostly photograph my dogs and mountains. We don't have any mountains in Finland so they always feel really special to me and I never get tired of them. I also love shooting the night sky and northern lights. For work shooting portraits are my favorite thing.
What was the hardest thing to let go of when making the move from apartment/house to a van?
Minna: Can't think of anything really. For me it's quite the opposite, living in houses is a lot harder thing for me to do. I have just gained so much more from this lifestyle. I've lived without running water for 10 years so living in a van is not like downgrading to me, it's just a normal way of life really. I enjoy every aspect of it, like doing laundry by hand, washing dishes (I've never actually owned a washing machine or a dishwasher).
Even when I've not lived in the van (winters spent in Finland for example) I've rented a small simple cabin in the middle of the forest, chopping firewood to heat the house with wood stoves and so on. I've also lived in a tent for a good few months, camping on an island with horses in Finnish Lapland and documenting their life. I think spending a lot of my childhood wild camping has probably made this lifestyle a lot easier for me.
Where are you living right now? Minna: I've now been living full-time in my van since 2019 and I'm currently in Spain, my favorite country to escape the arctic winters of Finland.
How do you shower? Minna: For years I just washed standing outside the van. I heat up water on the stove and wash from a bucket. Not too long ago I made an amazing discovery of a folding dog pool, it goes into such a small space but is big enough for me to stand/squat in and now I can wash inside the van! What a luxury after showering outside in below-zero temperatures. I also use a plastic bottle for quick showers (when I don't need to wash my hair). I just put some water in the bottle and wash with that. Super handy!
What’s something that surprised you about living this lifestyle?
Minna: Why everyone doesn't live this way because it's so amazing.
What are some of the ups and downs of van life?
Minna: Too many ups to list, but waking up in nature, exploring new places, and having your home with you wherever you go.
I'm usually abroad and don't speak the same language, so things are a bit more complicated to get sorted out, like having to call a tow truck when your van breaks down on top of a mountain, etc. I almost never can call anywhere for help myself because mostly people don't speak English. So I normally have to find a local, use Google translator, and have them call for help. But things always get sorted out, it just takes more effort. Sometimes I'm outside my comfort zone, sleeping in locations that I don't really want to and so on. For example, when I’m on a long drive and just want to make a lot of road and end up sleeping in a rest area with truckers as neighbors. Or if you simply just don't find a good spot for the night and stay for the night in an area not ideal. So the van takes you to all those amazing locations, but also sometimes you have to compromise.
What are some elements you added to your van that are unique or that you personally wanted?
Minna: Painting my new van from white to army green with a roller. It really camouflages so nicely with the scenery now and also looks like me, not only in the inside, but outside too.
I really like the slide down bulk head element that I built. I can easily access the cab if needed, and muddy dogs have a place to dry out if needed. When closed, it really feels more like a room, not a car. It's also great for insulation and privacy, of course. In hot weather the cab is like a sauna and on cold the heat would escape from there.
It's built using mostly recycled wood because I love the rustic look. I also like my drift wood/branch door handles and use my back door as the main entrance, which I really love because the sliding side door is very heavy and loud on these older Transit vans. Not something you want to open and close multiple times a day. (Been there, done that with my first van).
What kind of small touches have you added to make it feel more like home?
Minna: A photo wall, a plant, fairy lights, carpets, tea light holders. I love my pull-out sofa bed, it makes the van a lot more spacious and I love having a sofa by day and a 120cm bed at night with just 5 seconds work. I also use the bed as a seat for my work desk. It's really practical to have multi-purpose things in such a small space.
What’s one of your favorite spots you’ve camped in your car? Minna: Oh man, too many to choose from! I've traveled in 21 countries so far here in Europe and I never use campsites because I appreciate the solitude of being alone in nature too much. But my favorite spots are off-road, on top of a mountain surrounded by free-roaming cows and horses. That's a typical scene in Northern Spain in Asturias and Cantabria regions. I also love the peacefulness in Finland, by a lake in a forest, all alone with no one around and you can just go skinny dipping whenever you feel like. My favorite spots are those where I don't bump into anyone for days and where I can just open the door and let my dogs run free without worrying they might bark at someone.
What are your favorite outdoor activities?
Minna: Hiking, sitting by a campfire, listening to birds, riding horses.
How would you say being a female living in your van differs from what you think or know the male experience to be? Did you feel like you had to take further precautions or were perceived differently than men who live in their cars?
Minna: I've traveled alone and with company and only had creeps approach me when I've been alone. Even with my dogs barking madly at intruders, that has had zero effect. So definitely when you're alone as a woman, men approach you more. I'm naturally a very trusting and talkative person, but sadly I've learned to be more cautious of talking to men when I'm alone somewhere. So if someone feels a bit off, trust your instincts.
I've had only two scary encounters in all these years though. Once in middle of nowhere by a lake in Poland, a scruffy looking man came to talk to me as I was sitting outside having my morning coffee. He walked up to the van and I went inside, then he just stood by the side door looking in and smirking at me. What really freaked me out was that he had a big hunting knife on his belt, so I got really scared when I spotted that. Luckily, he eventually just went away.
Once in Spain a man started following me with his car when I was walking by a remote lake with my dogs. He even stopped and got out of his car to talk to me. I just kept walking away and he turned his car and started following me, talking to me from his open window. I think situations like this can be more scary because you don't speak the same language and don't really know what they are talking about—could be totally harmless too. But I've never had any men approach me when I've traveled in company so does make it seem more disturbing.
I don't carry any weapons; I think life would be quite sad if you're always expecting something bad to happen. In Nordic countries I never even lock my doors at night, elsewhere I typically do lock them, which is quite funny actually. I think we people are more afraid in countries and cultures not familiar to us. (Nothing ever happens in Finland anyway).
Also I've had some breakdowns with my new van and the mechanics NEVER freaking listen to me. I've just straight-up told them what I think the problem is but they don't listen to me, then sometimes they can't even locate the issue and then they don't properly fix it!! And in the end, I've been right about what the fault was so it's super frustrating and definitely a gender-related issue.
For more on Minna's life on the road, visit her blog here!