Updated: Dec 8, 2018
After having my first RV experience this past summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about this #vanlife thing everyone has been posting about and wondering if it’s a lifestyle that I could enjoy. I mean I love camping, I love having easy access to beautiful spaces, and I love being able to cook a good meal in a fully functioning kitchen after a long day of exploring, so why wouldn’t I love it?
Fast forward to this Fall --> I found out that Atlanta was the new home to an Escape Campervan depot. GAME CHANGER. I’d seen these campervans all over the west coast but never out here in Georgia. We’re all about breaking down barriers when it comes to getting new people in the outdoors so we felt like if we went out and experienced #vanlife in the south for ourselves we’d be able to tell people all about it.
That’s when Cherisa aka the boss lady behind Risa on a Ridge aka my favorite adventure partner and I decided to approach them about partnering up. We’d take the van on an epic 5-day road trip from Atlanta to the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee to Western North Carolina to North Georgia and then we’d share with our community what we learned from the experience. And since Cherisa and I have been exploring the south all of our lives we felt like we’d be the perfect people for the job.
They loved the idea so we set a date. November seemed like a good date at the time, but we’d later figure out that timing is everything when it comes to roadtrippin’ in the south. That’s not the only thing we learned the hard way on this journey. We thought we knew the south like the back of our hand but little did we know that the south had a couple of surprises up it's sleeve. Here is what we learned.
When to Go
Fall in the south can be nothing short of heavenly. The trees put on a show with their orange, gold, and red leaves. The temperatures are mild and there is a minimal amount of rain. THIS makes for perfect camping conditions.
These are not the same conditions that we found ourselves facing last month when we trekked through Tennessee, North Carolina, and North Georgia. We missed peak fall colors by a few weeks and right before we left Georgia, we got hit with a winter storm causing all of the trees to lose their leaves and the temps to drop. Each night we had to boil water to put in our rubber bladders. We slipped these into our sleeping bags a couple minutes before bed in order to stay cozy and warm throughout the night. Which wasn’t hard since we had such a comfortable bed to sleep on. This wouldn’t have been the case if we were sleeping in a tent.
After having trouble find campsites, we learned that state-run campgrounds in those areas close after October 28th each year and so do some privately owned campgrounds. It’s also important to keep in mind that if you plan on traveling along the Blue Ridge Parkway, a scenic highway that starts in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee and ends at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia (which is a must if you go during the fall), that there may be road closures during the colder times of the year due to snow and icy conditions (one of the many things we learned the hard way).
I enjoy camping all year round and could definitely find places to explore regardless of the temps and weather so I don’t think you will go wrong any time of the year. But do take these factors into considerations when deciding. It’ll make your life a whole lot easier!
Where to Stay
When traveling in a campervan, you have a bit of an advantage when it comes to looking for places to spend the night. You’re not just limited to just state parks, national parks, or private campgrounds, instead, you can find other non-traditional places to park and camp. That includes Walmart parking lots and old gravel roads.
Although we do have a whole lotta private land down here, we were still able to find good spots, we just had to look a little harder. That is why we used resources like the iOverlander app and Hipcamp.com. We booked a few amazing Hipcamp sites like the Far Flung Farm in Canton, North Carolina, and this remote mountain lodge close to Max Patch on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee and were blown away with how hospitable the hosts were and how beautiful their properties were. (Pro Tip- when it comes to booking with Hipcamp, it's good to book prior to your trip because not all hosts accept last minute reservations). When we weren’t staying at a Hipcamp, we used the iOverlander app to help us find off the grid sites that had been rated and reviewed by previous travelers. We even stayed in a Walmart parking lot one night and since the van is equipped with blackout curtains all around and a super comfy bed, we slept quite well that night with no distractions. We also felt safe and secure since we had the protection of the locks on the van. I don’t think I’ve slept that well in all the years I’ve been camping.
Just be careful when booking sites. Make sure the site has enough clearance and it’s easy for the campervan to get in and out of. During late fall and winter, the south can be super rainy so the ground gets quite muddy. Don't do what we did and get yourself stuck (palm over face moment). We learned from that and spoke with our hosts prior to arriving to let them know we’d be arriving in a campervan in case they needed to make special accommodations for us.
What to Bring
Bring it all, baby! At least that’s what I thought when I saw the pictures of the interior of the van prior to packing. I’m used to car camping in my tiny Honda so seeing all that extra space made me go a little overboard. Don’t make the same mistake I made and overpack clothes. Use the limited amount of storage space for the important things. And by important things, I mean ALL the yummy fresh foods. With a working mini-fridge and a two-burner propane stove, you will no longer be eating freeze-dried packaged junk. You’ll be eating things like fresh guacamole, taco bowls with ground beef topped with cilantro and avocado, pork chops with broccoli and mashed potatoes, and marinated carne asada that can be cooked to perfection on the grill. And don’t forget the Cholula! For me, having a fully-functioning kitchen with a stove, mini-fridge, and sink was the highlight of the trip. It made me feel like I was at home. Food can bring you so much comfort when you’ve had a long day on the road.
I also brought items that I knew would make the van feel more like my home, like my favorite pillow, my JBL wireless speaker, my fancy chef knife and cutting board, oh and my favorite Otterbox cooler. Have I mentioned that food is important to me? The mini-fridge is quite spacious but since Cherisa and I went shopping for our full five days on the road, I wanted to make sure we’d be good to go.
What to Remember
Be Flexible. I can’t emphasize this enough. It’s easy to get stuck to an itinerary when roadtrippin’ but that actually may hinder you from truly enjoying your trip. The beauty about being on the road is that it’s all about the journey and not the destination so if you see a cool hike off the side of the road or a crafty boutique that catches your eye, STOP and smell the roses.
At the start of our journey, we were laser focused on seeing the fall foliage, but like mentioned before, the winter storm killed our chances. So we shifted gears and decided to go looking for a waterfall, instead. Which was a great idea since Western North Carolina is a haven for waterfalls. We stopped and hiked to Linville Falls on the way to our next destination and was so glad that we decided to take a moment to hang out with nature because it made me realize why I’d come on the trip, to begin with.
Don’t overbook. This goes right along with being flexible. You may find yourself wanting to stuff your schedule full of fun activities because you’re on vacation but remember that drive time and traffic can be volatile so it may end up being more stressful to stick to a schedule than planned.
We realized halfway through our trip that we had just been going, going, going. We wanted to have a full schedule because we only had 5 days to explore 3 states but we felt like we weren’t able to appreciate the journey so we took at a look at our schedule and changed around some things so we could slow down a bit. Make sure to insert some designated free time into your schedule for some reflection and quiet time
Keep an open mind and go with the flow. We originally planned to travel from the Great Smoky Mountains to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia but after staying the night in the Smokies, we were made aware that the Blue Ridge Parkway was closed due to the recent ice storm. We didn’t know that prior to leaving so we were left with a huge decision to make. Do we try to continue on a route close to our original plan or do we come up with an entirely new plan? We chose to adjust our expectations and came up with a new plan. We chose to stick around the Asheville, NC area and then head back to North Georgia where we could stay at one of our favorite state parks. Not only did that leave us with time to check out Asheville, which is a super cute town with lots of old buildings and adorable boutiques, we also got to take a break from cooking and instead try some yummy Lebanese food at the Gypsy Queen.
Roadtrippin’ in the south is unlike traveling anywhere else. Everywhere we stopped we were met with that southern hospitality we are so used to. We woke up to the foggy forest and to the sound of creeks flowing next to us. We drove through tiny, old towns and around windy roads of the Appalachia. We learned more about the Cherokee Indians, the natives that still dwell on and love these lands, and those that no longer do. It was a beautiful experience and I fell deeper in love with this place I call HOME.
In case you were wondering if Cherisa and I had a great time on this trip, the answer is YES YES YES. We’re problem solvers by nature and love to learn the hard way so the closures and changes to our plans didn’t put a damper on our overall experience. They only enhanced it! Traveling in an Escape Campervan made all of those detours a whole lot easier to manage. When you’ve got a good night's rest and a full belly of fresh, healthy foods nothing can stop you.