Real Estate

We bought an old ambulance and turned it into a home

“It’s our own little sanctuary on wheels”
Raychel Reimer, as told to Jadine Ngan
Raychel and Nick Reimer-Hurley pose for a photograph with the ambulance they converted into a home. North Vancouver, B.C. July 30, 2023.
Raychel and Nick taught English overseas before deciding to explore life on the road

In 2014, after I graduated from film school in Ontario, I came home to Vancouver to work in the industry. That’s where I met Nick one night at a bar. He was a semi-professional downhill longboarder. We were friends for years while dating other people. When my ex and I broke up in 2017, my friendship with Nick evolved into a relationship. He moved into my apartment soon after that.

My rent was $1,200 a month, and Nick split that with me. You can’t find rent like that in Vancouver anymore, and even still we were drowning to pay rent. We were in our early 20s, working our dream jobs—me as an executive assistant, him in a skateboard warehouse. But Vancouver is one of North America’s most expensive cities, so we still couldn’t afford to do the things that we wanted to do: mostly travel. One day, I was sitting in my office, and Nick was at the warehouse. I texted him and said, “We should just move overseas to teach English.” And he responded, “I’m down.”

In 2017, we got certified to teach English. Then we quit our jobs, sold everything we owned and moved to Cambodia. Once we arrived, we created a YouTube channel and started to see other travellers’ journeys on YouTube as well. That’s how we learned about van life. We were living out of backpacks and staying in hostels, and we thought it would be awesome to continue travelling with our own little sanctuary on wheels. Buying a van became our next mission.

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Two years later, we did a working holiday visa in Australia, where minimum wage is higher and companies pay their employees very well. We saved for eight months and then came back to Vancouver. I think we had $15,000 saved, and we set our price range for vans at $5,000. That’s when we found the ambulance. There was a Craigslist seller in Maple Ridge, about half an hour from Vancouver, who was buying vehicles from government auctions and selling them to people. I said to Nick, “Wouldn’t it be so funny if we got an ambulance?” He thought it wasn’t a bad idea, so we went to go see it.

The couple paid $6,000 for the ambulance and another $6,000 to renovate it

It was in perfect condition. An ambulance is seven feet wide, so we could fit a full-size queen mattress in the back and still have room at the end for storage. There was already electrical in the back, so we’d just need to hook it up to solar power. The walls were insulated. It was like a box in the back, with 90 degree angles, so we wouldn’t have to work with the curvature of a regular van’s roof. We bought it for $6,000.

I was excited, because it felt like buying our first home. But I was also really nervous because we wanted to do a whole build inside of the van, and I’d barely ever held a drill. Luckily, Nick knew a lot about engines and car parts, so I followed his lead. At the time, Nick’s parents had a property in the Okanagan, so we drove four and a half hours out to there to build the van out.

The interior was a full-on ambulance, with ambulance cabinets, the captain’s chair, a space for the oxygen tank, everything. It took three or four weeks for us to rip everything out, then eight weeks to do the build from scratch, which cost us another $6,000. We added more insulation, laid down vinyl flooring, and built everything of plywood and then covered it in vinyl contact wallpaper. We built a kitchen, added a small porta-potty-style toilet with a holding tank, and put our bed in the back. We wanted our van to suit our personal style, so we painted it black on the inside and added pops of colour: colourful tile stickers and bright-red carpet.

The van has a dark interior with bright and colourful design accents

We needed the build to be done right, so there was a lot of pressure some days. We’d start seeing it come together, and when we were almost done we’d run into a problem. By the time it was all done, I was so relieved. At one point, we took the van on our maiden voyage, close to home because we were still waiting for a part to come in the mail. We went to Osoyoos and Penticton for one week. During that trip, we learned to stealth camp in the city for the first time, which means parking on regular streets as stealthily as possible so that you don’t get called in to the city. We didn’t have window coverings made yet, so we had to stick pillows up against our windows when we wanted them covered. We also didn’t know how to cook on our stove, and realized too late that we didn’t own utensils. But I’d been eager to get on the road for so long that it felt like a honeymoon.

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We officially hit the road in September of 2020. The first few weeks were exciting, but we had to learn to live in 80 square feet with another person. Like anything, there are some good days and some days that are very hard. Sometimes you’re struggling for a long time. You get to the camping spots you thought you could park at and there’s no overnight sites, or your friend sends you coordinates for somewhere off-grid and you get stuck in traffic, so you’re trying to drive at night down a dirt road trying to find the spot. At the beginning, we didn’t know much. We didn’t have any idea where to fill up our water (now we know that we can fill five-gallon jugs at grocery stores), and we didn’t know how to find overnight parking spots (now we use an app called iOverlander). Many van lifers shower at the gym, but at first we felt weird about doing it without using the gym first. That all creates a lot of tension in your relationship. It’s the same as any marriage: who’s the first person you get mad at? The person you love the most. It took a year of living in the van until we felt like we were real pros.

For Raychel and Nick, the freedom to travel anywhere is exhilarating

Now, van life is just regular life to us, and I really like it. For our first year, we stayed in Canada because the border was closed due to COVID. We were living on Vancouver Island, then in the Fraser Valley, and then we moved back to Kelowna. When we finally could cross the border in 2021, we drove around the U.S. for six months and went to 15 states. During that trip, we were able to meet hundreds of people living the same lifestyle as us at a big meetup in Arizona. After that, we came back and worked a season in Hamilton, then we drove down to Mexico with a caravan of people from different places who we’d met in the U.S. There were moments when we were driving down the Baja Peninsula and I looked out my window and I just thought, Oh my god, this is everything I ever imagined. It was cool to be able to drive in a line and sit around a fire together at the end of the day on the beach.

Some people think it’s cool that we live in a van, but other people think, Like, you’re just homeless? They don’t understand that we have a home, and we go to bed in a happy marriage every night. We have a place to cook and have our friends over to sing karaoke. Our van is our safe haven. It’s really hard for me to imagine going back to paying rent. With all of our costs included, we spend at most $1,800 a month, including $400 to $800 for gas, $133 for RV insurance, $15 for laundry, $80 for phone bills and $20 for water. All that money that we would have spent on rent, we can either save it or spend it on whatever we want. That feeling of freedom is unmatched for me.