Meet Max Bidstrup (30), Lee Macmillan (26) and their lovable Australian Shepherd, Occy (pronounced, “aw-kee”). This adorable trio built a home on wheels and have been travelling North and South America for the last 16 months.
Their journey has gone better than they could have ever imagined, and as of now, there is no end in sight.
Max and Lee’s story may be unique to Barrie, but they are not the first people to jump into a journey like this one. The couple have become part of a rapidly growing community of adventure enthusiasts known as “van lifers”.
People who choose the van life all have one thing in common: an undeniable passion for travel.
Lee is born and raised in Barrie, and Max is from a town called Wangratta in Victoria, Australia. The two met while Lee was on a working-holiday visa in Australia after graduating from university. At the time, Max was working as a paramedic.
After sharing a five-week backpack adventure in southeast Asia together, Max and Lee knew they had both found their ultimate travel buddy.
When Lee returned home, Max joined her. Not long after Max moved to Canada, he and Lee began planning their goal of living the van life.
Step 1: Work hard and save save save.
Step 2: Find the right van.
Step 3: Renovate.
Max and Lee purchased a 2006 Dodge Sprinter for $11 000 and put about $10 000 of renovations into it in order to get it ready for a life on the road. Their adventure began with a departure from Barrie in September 2016.
“We can own less and see more of the world.”
With their third musketeer Occy by their side, Max and Lee started by going west across Canada. From there, they took 3 months to go through the States, 5 1/2 months to go through Mexico, explored Panama and have now landed as far as Colombia.
When discussing the choice to travel for an extended period of time versus a typical 40-hour work week, Max says “I think the American dream of the big house and white picket fence is changing for our generation. Lee adds in: “Our generation is realizing that we don’t need to own so many things to be happy. We can own less and see more of the world.”
To date, Max, Lee and Occy have been to an incredible number of countries including visits before and during their van life travels. Occy ranks third with 12 countries checked off his list, Lee is next with 13 countries and Max takes the lead with a whopping 37 countries visited.
So, for a couple who has seen a pretty good chunk of the world, what tops their list of favourite places?
Lee says, “We pretty much fell in love with Mexico right away.” Despite skeptical opinions about the safety of travelling in this area, Max and Lee excitedly shared their love for Mexico and the positive experiences they had there. Lee says:
“I think by us living through this, we’re experiencing the good, so we’re actually coming out of this with a more positive outlook on all these countries that people look down upon. We recognize that, yeah, every place has their issues but…there’s a hell of a lot more good out there than bad.”
It’s important to note that though Max and Lee were fortunate to have such a positive experience, they were always careful to follow precautions such as sticking to the coastline, driving during the day and securing safe locations to stay overnight.
Although the van life hasn’t changed Max and Lee in any outwardly obvious ways, their experiences on the road have helped shape them into more positive, enhanced versions of themselves. Practices such as living in the moment, welcoming new experiences, learning a second language, engaging in other cultures and diving into conversation with strangers are all things that can enhance our everyday life but may be easily overlooked. In the van life, these things are a must.
“Most people you meet on the road have a similar mindset…”
Lee explains that living this lifestyle has made them less driven by consumerism. With the smallest of living spaces, minimalism is more of a necessity than an option. She says: “Most people you meet on the road have a similar mindset about choosing experiences in life over objects.”
Although many days are filled with adventure, excitement and beautiful sights, Max and Lee discuss the misconception that van life is a relaxing escape.
Lee explains that every single day they are making what feels like 100 decisions about where to go, what to do and how to do it. She says the van life is a very “energy consuming lifestyle.”
Life becomes more challenging and time-consuming without a set routine, familiarity, and convenience. The happy pair love their lifestyle but recognize that van life isn’t exactly the breeze many people think it is. In reality, it’s hard work.
The Wolf Pack
For many reasons, the van life isn’t for everyone. Finding the right person to travel with is even more important than finding the right van. The excessive amount of time spent together combined with living in close quarters can either make or break relationships. Max explains that living in a van for a year is a whole new level of intimacy and knowing each other. He says, “it feels like you’ve been married for 30 years.”
Max and Lee found a way to make it work. Lee says, “we feel like we can tackle anything in life now.”
So what’s their secret? Although there may not be one simple answer to this question, their furry little friend plays a big part.
“Occy is like an emotional support animal.”
Occy is crucial member of their team and has significantly affected the way Max and Lee enjoy van life. Lee explains that Occy brings positive energy to their everyday life, no matter what the circumstances are. He amplifies their happiness in the best of times and helps ease their stress in challenging times. Lee says, “Occy is like an emotional support animal”.
Max adds in, “The van feels empty when Occy’s not there.”
The couple explain that having Occy on the road with them hasn’t limited the experiences they’ve been able to have. Occy is a part of their wolf pack and does whatever he can to stick with them… even if that means catching a ride on Max’s back.
Occy quickly becomes a favourite among locals and other travelers wherever he goes. Max and Lee shared a story about a tough group hike where Occy acted almost like a team mascot. During the hike, he would run to the back of the group and walk alongside the stragglers for support. Max says, at the top people were telling him, “I wouldn’t have made it without your dog.”
The Personal Brand
What began as a year long road trip, has turned into full-time lifestyle with the resources of online content creation and social media. Before hitting the road, Max and Lee had saved enough money to sustain full-time travel for just one year. However, after starting up a Youtube channel and gaining a significant online following, their plans changed for the best.
Originally, the couple started their social pages as a way for friends and family to stay up to date with their adventures. Now, they have expanded on their platforms to share tips, tricks, downsides and highlights of van life for a much wider audience.
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Hola 🖐🏼 ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ We’ve just uploaded our first ever VLOG on our YouTube channel 🙌🏼 ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ If you want to see what a normal day adventuring through MEXICO looks like for us, head over to our channel and check it out! ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
With no previous film-making experience, Max and Lee bought their first camera and a book called “How to Shoot a Video That Doesn’t Suck” to get started. Through dedication and self teaching, they managed to build their Youtube channel up to more than 13 million total views in less than a year.
To date, Max and Lee have over 38 000 followers on Instagram and over 250 000 subscribers to their Youtube channel. They have a rapidly growing fan base from all over the world. These platforms have opened up new opportunities for the couple to make money on the road and extend their travels.
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Through income generated from advertisements on their Youtube videos, sponsorships and contributions to their Patreon account (a website designed to help creators get paid), Max and Lee look forward to sustaining their life in the van for as long as possible.
Max says, “We’re now making enough money that it covers the cost of travel. The fact that that’s happening, we just think is unreal.”
Although a growing platform also means an increase in sponsorships, Max and Lee have made it clear that they are only interested in working with brands they believe in. Max explained that they usually turn down about 95% offers they get because if it doesn’t align with their values, they won’t promote it.
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Creating online content has helped implement structure and routine to Max and Lee’s everyday life, that they were starting to miss. They learned that having 100% freedom for an extended period, left them feeling somewhat “directionless”. Lee summarized this by saying, “Too much of anything isn’t good.”
Having something to dedicate themselves to has made them more appreciative of their free time when they have it.
Over Christmas, Max and Lee took a short break from van life to visit their roots. First, was a stop in Barrie, where they sat down to chat with Barrie 360, and next was a surprise visit to Max’s family and friends in Australia.
The couple will be in Australia for 7 weeks before returning to their van with Occy. And then what?
As mentioned, Max and Lee are exploring their options about how to extend life in the van for as long as possible. In the future, they may add further renovations to their current van or start fresh with a new and potentially bigger one.
“What will you do when you return to real-life?”
Max and Lee feel that van life is most enjoyable when they don’t over plan, because it keeps them open to more experiences. More often than not, they make decisions about what to do first and sort out the rest along the way.
A common question the couple is all too familiar with is, “What will you do when you return to real-life?”
Their response is simple: “This is our real life.”
To follow along with Max and Lee + Occy, check out their pages: