Relationship Advice For Van Life

Living in a tiny space with your partner is like being in a pressure cooker, Kait Russo said. If you don’t release that pressure with honest, open communication, it’s going to explode.

Kait and her partner Joe started living full time on the road in 2015. They went from living in a house and working corporate jobs — and therefore only seeing each other on nights and weekends — to living in a small space together full time. This transition was difficult, especially during the first month.

She remembers a specific moment a month into their travels where they had gone quite a while without saying a word to each other. Kait said it was 30 minutes of silence, but Joe said he distinctly remembers it being at least two hours without speaking.

“I was driving and saw the rest area, and I was like, I’m just going to pull in and we’re going to figure this out. Otherwise this is not going to work,” Kait said.

It was there that the Russos learned how to focus on their communication. Once they figured out how to be on the same page, life on the road has gone “mostly well,” they said.

“I would say we’re much closer now than we’ve ever been,” Kait said.

After many moments like this throughout the years, Joe and Kait had stored up enough relationship advice to lead a panel at Open Roads Fest in McCall, Idaho. People in the audience asked questions and shared tips for living on the road with your partner.

Tip #1: Talk about it

Joe and Kait have a rule: Once something really starts to bother them, they have to talk about it. They have to put it out in the open. It might not get resolved right away, but at least the other person is aware of what’s going on.

Joe has no problem speaking up when something bothers him. He noticed, though, that Kait tends to go silent when she’s upset.

“I found that I didn’t always recognize what was bothering me,” Kait said. “A lot of times it had nothing to do with Joe, it just had to do with me.”

She began saying to Joe: “I recognize that something is bothering me, but I just need a little time to process it, and then let’s talk about it.”

“Giving myself time to think things through and process it allowed us to have a better conversation later about what was actually bothering me.”

Tip #2: Find hobbies with and without your partner

The Russos have found that even though you’re on the road and sharing a small space together, you don’t always have to be together.

That’s why Kait bought Joe a motorcycle.

“The motorcycle is a good way for us to go and do our own thing,” Joe said. “We’ll be driving, and I’ll see some awesome roads. So she’ll pull over, I’ll take the bike off, and I’ll ride. Then we can both drive ourselves and listen to our own music. It’s a good way for us to recharge.”

When they’re inside the van together, Joe and Kait like to play Monopoly Deal. It’s a card game, so it doesn’t take up much space. They also work on their business together, called We’re the Russos, where they blog about their adventures and offer consultation to those who are interested in similar lifestyles.

The Russos asked the audience, “What hobbies do you and your partner have on the road?”

Here are some of their responses:

  • “He goes on hikes with the dogs. I’m not a hiker. I don’t understand hiking. So I grab my Kindle and read almost a book every day sitting inside the van or outside of the van with my feet up enjoying wherever we are. And he goes on these long 2-3 hour adventures. It’s just enough time apart, and then we can come back together and do what we really like together, like cooking.”

  • “She does a day pass at a gym and works out for an hour or two while I watch the dogs. I’m a mountain biker, so when she comes back I’ll find a trail and she watches the dogs. Then on rainy days, we do Mexican train dominoes, backgammon or just basic board games. We like breweries, so we hit those too.”

  • “One hobby that we have that we started when we first bought our van is reading to each other. There’s this series of books called “Dear Bob and Sue,” and it’s a series of stories that this couple writes back to their friends Bob and Sue. We each read a chapter to each other, and sometimes we read around the campfire.”

Tip #3: Don’t be afraid of getting a hotel

You might feel like you need to stay in your van every single night, all year long. But you don’t have to.

“It’s OK to get a hotel room. Get an AirBnb. Kait and I actually got an AirBnb once with two bedrooms — she slept in one and I slept in the other.”

“It was amazing!” Kait chimed in.

“Whatever you need to do to get away from each other and recharge, I say do it.”

Sometimes it’s not just being in close proximity to one another that’s a problem. Those listening to the discussion at Open Roads Fest asked the Russos how they deal with being romantic in a small space where you’re half clean and banging your heads on the cabinets.

“Sometimes we’ll schedule a date night around going to Planet Fitness,” Kait said.

You want to have those romantic moments whether it's physical or not, and sometimes in these small spaces it's difficult. It's always good to find alternatives. Again, if you need to, go get a hotel room. Think outside of the box. You don't always have to spend time in your van.

Joe Russo

“Yeah, the Planet Fitness parking lot is fantastic. Very romantic,” Joe added, which caused the crowd to erupt in laughter.

“You want to have those romantic moments whether it’s physical or not, and sometimes in these small spaces it’s difficult,” he said. “It’s always good to find alternatives. Again, if you need to, go get a hotel room. Think outside of the box. You don’t always have to spend time in your van.”

Tip #4: Thirty Second Dance Party

Joe and Kait now live part time in a Storyteller Overland Ford Transit adventure van after spending more than six years on the road full time.

Even now, arguments come up from time to time. They have a failsafe conflict resolution tactic, though: 30 Second Dance Party.

“Our friends Eric and Tammy in Mobile, Alabama, introduced us to the 30 Second Dance Party during an Alabama tailgating party in 2021,” Kait said. “They had an extra one and gifted it to us after we all danced together.”

When Joe and Kait can’t figure out a solution to an argument and need to have fun together, they push the button and have a dance party. They keep it in their camper and in their house and keep it easily accessible.

To demonstrate, the Russos pushed the button at Open Roads Fest and encouraged the crowd to join in on a dance party. People of all ages and backgrounds and dance abilities stood up from their camp chairs and danced with each other (and their dogs).

“Now don’t you feel better?” Kait asked as everyone settled back into their chairs with smiles on their faces.

We had so much fun at Open Roads! There’s truly nothing better than mountain biking and paddle boarding with strangers who become your friends, and then ending the day by roasting marshmallows by the campfire and laughing until bedtime.

Thank you to Kristen at Bearfoot Theory for putting this amazing event together again this year.

Until next time…

Storyteller Overland