When a 50-Square-Foot Van Becomes a Home
Gene Murphy and Shay Edwards moved into a 1984 van with their two cats — here’s how they did it.
Moving in with your partner can be a big step. But moving in with your partner into a 50-square-foot van, now that’s an entirely different story. Take it from Gene Murphy and Shay Edwards, a couple living in a van with their two cats, Bean and Sprout.
Murphy and Edwards met on a dating app in March 2020 while they were both living in Philadelphia. “Our first date was the day before the world shut down,” Edwards says. “I went home the very next day, and we didn't see each other in person for two months.” But they remained in contact, having virtual movie nights together and talking over the phone about their dreams to get out of the city and move into a van.
Edwards dipped her toes in van life back in college, when she joined a friend on a cross-country road trip during a summer break. “That just made me fall in love with the idea of living a more minimalist life,” she says. When the pandemic hit, Edwards’ nine-to-five turned fully remote and Murphy was ready to leave their job, so they decided it was now or never. “We kind of just took a big leap of faith and got this old '84 van,” she says.
They spent the following months converting the van they found on Facebook into their full-time home. Since then, they’ve traveled across the continent with one another, and, of course, their two cats.
Today, Murphy and Edwards are in the process of renovating a bus, which they’re planning to move into in August —which also happens to coincide with their three-year anniversary. “We are taking some time and going up to Oregon near the coast to some of our favorite locations,” Edwards says. For anyone looking to take their life on the road — with partners and pets — here's what Murphy and Edwards have learned along the way.
Build a routine
Living in a van doesn’t necessarily mean you always have to be on the road. In fact, Murphy and Edwards prefer to stay in one spot for a few months at a time. It allows them to build a routine that works for both of them — both as individuals, and together, as partners. Over the past few months, Murphy and Edwards have been living in San Diego. “Everything we need is right here,” Edwards says. “We wake up, we move from our place we slept over to the beach parking lot, we make coffee there, and then we get to work.”
They change up their routines depending on the location, as well. For Murphy, a typical day in San Diego might look like going to the drum studio, or boogie boarding in the ocean. Edwards might spend her day working on her laptop in the van, stretching, and sunbathing. “We kind of do our own thing and then we come back together for dinner,” Edwards says.
Travel the way you want
The beauty of van life is that it gives Murphy and Edwards the flexibility to travel anywhere they want. Toward the beginning of their journey, they spent a lot of time on the road, venturing around the west coast. “We were going really fast in the beginning just to see everything,” Edwards says. “We were so excited, and now we know our spots. We know the places we want to be.”
Now that they’ve settled into a routine and workflow, Murphy and Edwards discovered that they prefer to travel with the seasons and temperature. “We like to stay between 50 and 80 degrees,” Edwards says. For example, they spent last winter in Baja, Mexico, swimming and laying in the sun — the cats enjoyed the warmer weather, too. As spring arrived, and the temperatures in Baja rose, they packed up and gradually made their way up north, exploring Washington, Montana, and Idaho. “We like to hang out in one spot for as long as we can, until it's time to move on and check out the next place,” Edwards says.
Traveling this way allows Murphy and Edwards to create a lifestyle that works for them. For Murphy that means staying in locations where they can hang by the beach or go cliff jumping, while Edwards just appreciates living in environments that give her joy; “[For] the first three years of my adult life, being in a city and working, I just had this sinking feeling,” she says. “Now being able to do my work, then open the door and be outside in nature is just everything to me. I love it.”
To help them indulge in these moments — whether Murphy is bodyboarding while Edwards lies out on the beach, or the couple is returning home after an adventurous day — they crack open a can of Pacifico. “We are stocked up in this van when the sun comes out,” Edwards says. They say the crisp, refreshing taste is the perfect complement to the end of a summer's day.
Bring your pets
Sprout and Bean were always a part of the van-life plan. When Murphy and Edwards began building out the van, they started introducing the cats to their new home early. “We would slowly bring them into the van as it was being built out, feed them a little bit in there,” Edwards says. “We started getting them used to the harness and leashes. We got backpacks.”
Once the van was move-in ready, Murphy and Edwards incorporated items like pillowcases and blankets from their apartment to help the cats acclimate faster. “It smelled like home to them, and I think that really helped them,” Edwards says.
Now Sprout and Bean consider the van their home. Murphy and Edwards take the cats on walks every day, plus they get to enjoy a change of scenery every few months. “We were just staying in a hotel and Sprout cried so much,” Murphy says. “He just wants to be in the van.”
Carve out alone time
Finding alone time in the van wasn’t easy at first. “Being with a significant other 24/7 and [in] 50 square feet definitely has its challenges,” Edwards says. At the beginning of their journey, Murphy and Edwards felt naturally inclined to spend all their time together, and as a result, couldn’t make space for their own interests. “We realized we weren’t focusing on ourselves,” Murphy says.
Instead, they started being intentional about time together and time apart. Murphy began going to drum studios and boogie boarding, while Edwards would read or edit videos. “We'll act like we're not together for an hour or two” even if they're both in the van, Edwards says. Implementing alone time in their daily routines helped Murphy and Edwards with the communication in their relationship. “You have to just get used to hearing from your partner, ‘I really need to spend some alone time right now,’” Edwards says. “It has made a drastic difference in our relationship and individually for us with life on the road.”
Plan date nights
On the flip side, Murphy and Edwards have discovered how to make their time together feel extra special, especially when it comes to date nights. Sometimes it’s as simple as opening two cans of Pacifico and choosing a recipe for dinner together. Edwards says they even bought string lights to add ambiance to their date-night dinners.
Recently, they planned a date where they parked in a movie theater lot, watched their favorite movies in the theater, then went back to the van and ordered takeout for dinner. “We just have to be a little creative,” Edwards says. “Or else every night is just us laying in bed, eating dinner, and watching a TV show.” By carving out time for one another, Murphy and Edwards are able to show up and be present in their relationship, while making everyday van life feel even more adventurous.
Art Director: Becky Joy
Photographer: Anisha Sisodia
Wardrobe Stylist: Giuliana Russo
Hair + Makeup: Amy McNally
Location Manager: Lisa Rothmuller
Producer: Alex Friedlander