Meet Dakota and Aurora From The Wisconsinites

Dakota and Aurora are a couple from Milwaukee, Wisconsin in their mid-twenties that have been traveling in their 1989 Dodge B250 Xplorer van full time since May 2021.

Previously, Aurora was a Registered Nurse & worked in a NeuroSurgical ICU. Dakota was an auditor/CPA and worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). They both always wanted to own their own businesses so Aurora got her Real Estate License & we started investing in rental properties.

They had always wanted to travel so they saved for 5 years to travel internationally. They had a rough 1-year itinerary going through South America, Africa, Asia then Europe.

However, COVID hit and the lockdowns started right around the time they were ready to depart. Dakota and Aurora knew they still wanted to travel and had been working up for this moment. Their families are also in good health so they saw this as the time to experience life.

Dakota and Aurora then decided to use the money that they had saved for international travel instead to travel in the US. The van popped up on Facebook one day and they were one of 100 people interested. Luckily enough, Dakota was the first to message and set up a showing.

Man and Woman are all smiles as they stand outside of the campervan

“VanLife is simply the concept of experiencing life from anywhere you take your home.”

For the first six months of their travels, Aurora and Dakota didn’t work. They had a hard time traveling and not working or having professional goals. So they ended up starting a bookkeeping business to help small businesses get their finances situated.

With Dakota’s a CPA and Aurora’s business degree, they made a perfect team working together on the road. They work about 1 week out of the month and it’s enough to fund their bills and adventures.

Dakota and Aurora say that #VanLife is not necessarily specific to vans. Instead, they consider it to be a larger group of fellow nomads, some of whom are in vans, but many who are in cars, trucks, rvs, busses, ect. To them, #VanLife is simply the concept of experiencing life from anywhere you take your home.

Dakota and Aurora got started in van life due to some interesting circumstances. On their first vacation together in 2013 they fell in love with traveling. They created a 5-year goal where they would hit numerous “milestones” both personally and professionally.

They both went to college, got degrees, worked in their given careers and created their own businesses to fund their travels. The whole time they were working, their purpose was to get to international travels. Unfortunately, Covid hit and with the travel restrictions across the world, it wasn’t possible.

Having planned on traveling for 5 years it was devastating to cancel their plans. Dakota and Aurora decided instead to change their current situation regardless. So they entertained the idea of moving to Colorado to be in a new environment and get to explore OR move into a van.

One day the beautiful van popped up on Facebook marketplace. It had over 100 inquiries but we happened to be one of the first ones thankfully. Dakota drove a few hours the next day to look at it while Aurora was at work and he ended up buying it.

Vanlife was always something Aurora entertained but not something Dakota was interested in at the time. But nearly a year later, they’re confident that it was supposed to happen just like this!

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The Van Setup

Old Dodge Xplorer camper van parked at a campsite with its doors open

Dakota and Aurora have a 1989 Dodge B250 Xplorer. Although it is not one of the main types of vans that you will see on the road, they love how much character the van has!

The Van At A Glance

Van1989 Dodge B250 Xplorer
Van Cost$3,000
Van Build Cost$11,000
Unique FeaturesA garage and two underfloor storage areas
Bed SetupRemovable platform bed with a garage underneath
Bathroom SetupRV flush toilet hidden under a countertop
Shower SetupPlanet Fitness membership & solar shower
Kitchen SetupThe kitchen is located behind the driver and passenger seats with a dual-zone fridge, sink, spice cabinet and drawer for kitchen gadgets. Behind the passenger seat, there is an oven (3 burner stove top with oven), with storage underneath it for nesting pots/pans & bakeware.
RefrigerationICECO VL60 Dual Zone Chest fridge
CoolingFantastic fan and multiple windows
HeatingHydro flame furnace with a thermostat. As a backup, they have a portable buddy heater
Power & Solar Setup2 x Renogy AGM 100Ah Batteries
2 x Renogy 100-watt Solar panels
Renogy DC-to-DC Charger 40A
Powermax 55A Converter Charger
Victron MPPT 30A/100V Solar Charger
Renogy 1000W Pure Sine Wave Inverter
Water & Plumbing Setup15-gallon freshwater tank located in the garage with a 6-gallon portable water jug as a backup. A 20-gallon black tank is used for greywater or a portable jug
A camper van with its side doors open showing a sign that says "Hippies use side door"

Dakota and Aurora purchased their 1989 Dodge B250 Xplorer used for $3,000. Then they put about $11,000 into building it out.

The van was made by the company Xplorer as a motorhome and built on a Dodge chassis. It was originally decked out with a black tank, 2-burner stovetop, Dometic fridge, fantastic fan & furnace.

Dakota and Aurora had all the original documentation dating back to the sales paperwork from the first owner. However, the van did sit for 4 years in Wisconsin and had some visible interior damage from water. So they knew that they were going to have to gut and rebuild it. White shag carpet doesn’t age well after 30 years of being a motorhome that leaked!

It’s important to know that Dakota and Aurora choose this particular van for numerous reasons:

First, the van was affordable. They didn’t want to sink a ton of money into buying and remodeling a van just to find out that they didn’t like the lifestyle and would be out $50k+. This gave them the perfect opportunity to buy an affordable van, remodel it and test out if they liked the lifestyle all for under $14,000. 

Second, the van was older and less computerized so it would make working on it easier. Dakota and Aurora bought a manual and replaced a lot of things themselves. When/if they would have issues on the road it’s a gas van and due to being a common motor– pretty much any mechanic can work on it as long as the shop could fit the hightop van.

Bedroom

close up of a platform bed in a camper van

The van has a removable platform bed with a garage underneath. They opted to have this bed option for a few reasons.

First, Aurora and Dakota laughably claim that they’re lazy and couldn’t imagine having to make the bed every day. It’s so nice after a long day of exploring to just crawl into bed!

They also needed the garage space for storage, water and electrical systems.  And they decided to make the frame removable in case they ever had to do work in the van. That way they would have more room to work and move around. 

Toilet

In the bathroom, Aurora and Dakota decided that living in the van full time would necessitate a toilet. Since the van was already built out for a black tank and had all the venting, they decided they would go this route. The toilet works like a “regular” toilet and uses water to flush.

But because they didn’t want a shower set up inside the van, they opted to have a smaller toilet area. To access the toilet you lift up the countertop, which is mounted via a piano hinge. A suspension arm holds up the counter so you can comfortably sit on the toilet.

With the black tank, Dakota and Aurora can last typically 1-3 weeks between having to dump, depending on usage. In their experience, dump stations are typically free and easily accessible. At first, they were worried the dumping process would be nasty and messy. However, dumping the tank takes around 5 minutes, isn’t messy and is surprisingly really easy.

Alternatively, Dakota and Aurora use public restrooms if needed.

Butcher block counters and a small sink and faucet in a camper van kitchen
This counter lifts up and reveals the toilet underneath

Showering

The van does not have a built-in shower. Instead, Dakota and Aurora primarily use Planet Fitness to shower. They have a “Black membership,” which is around $23/month for one person and includes a guest each visit.

This gives them both access to any Planet Fitness in the United States. With their app, it’s really easy to use and access any gym. Plus with that membership, you get massage chairs and other perks.

If there are no Planet Fitnesses around, Dakota and Aurora have showered at parks/campgrounds, laundromats, rec centers and truck stops. If the spot isn’t listed on iOverlander, they just give them a call and ask if they have a public shower. A majority of the time the locations do offer a shower. And if they don’t they’re usually quick to point you to someone who does.

Dakota and Aurora’s last resort shower is their solar shower. While they do love this as an option, it’s definitely not their go-to. When they do use it, they try to make sure they set it out in the sun long enough so that it heats up.

They hang it from the roof rack and let gravity do its work. The van has two cargo doors on the side so that they can hang a shower curtain up between the doors to give them a little bit more privacy from the outside world.

The Kitchen

Butcher block counters with a small sink and faucet, a spice rack built into the cabinets and a Iceco chest fridge/freezer underneath in a campervan

The van kitchen is located behind the driver and passenger seats. Behind the driver seat is the ICECO VL60 Dual Zone fridge, sink, spice cabinet and drawer for all of the kitchen gadgets (measuring cups, utensils, flatware, spatulas, etc).

Behind the passenger seat, is the Greystone RV Stove Gas Range/oven combo (3 burner stove top with oven), with storage underneath it for nesting pots/pans and bakeware. The van is also equipped with a large pantry for all of their dried goods next to the oven.

Butcher block counters and a stainless steel gas stove/oven combo in a camper van

Ventilation, Heating and Cooling

For ventilation throughout the van, Dakota and Aurora have a Fantastic Fan, which is located in the middle of the van. To create a good breeze, they open up whatever window they want the breeze to come from.

Example: If they are in bed, they will open their back window to create a breeze that will run across them. The van has screens for all the windows (including drivers & passengers) so they don’t get bugs inside.

And the van is not equipped with an air conditioning unit because Dakota and Aurora boondock/dry camp often. The battery bank and solar system aren’t large enough to maintain an AC unit and they don’t have a generator. Like many van lifers, Dakota and Aurora prefer to travel with the weather as much as possible.

As for heating and cooling, the van has a permanently installed furnace. It’s the original hydro flame furnace with a thermostat. As a backup, Dakota and Aurora have a portable buddy heater. They sleep with sleeping bags as they’re easy to clean and are great for cold weather.

If they know that they are going to be facing really cold weather, they will put blankets up to block off the cab from the living area. And they may also use a 12V heated blanket to warm up the bed.

A lit candle sitting on a butcher block counter in a camper van

Propane System

For their propane system, Dakota and Aurora have an under-mount propane tank of around 20 gallons. It came originally with the van. When they bought the van, they dropped it and took it to someone who could check all the valves and do any repairs needed. Even being a 30-year-old tank, the service shop was able to fix it right up and return it as good as new.

The van’s oven and furnace both run off propane and are located right above the tank in the van. The furnace turns on/off with a thermostat when it detects it’s too cold in the van. If it’s summer, Dakota and Aurora use the valve to shut the gas off to this area to avoid any potential leaks. The oven also has a shut-off valve if needed.

Water and Plumbing System

For their water and plumbing system, Dakota and Aurora have a 15-gallon freshwater tank located in the garage, with a 6-gallon portable water jug as a backup. The water typically lasts between 3-7 days and is used as drinking/cooking/dishwater.

Dakota and Aurora can fill the freshwater tank from the outside of the van and can be gravity fed. The van also has a city water hookup. However, they dry camp most often so they don’t use it.

With wastewater, the van has three options for greywater depending on the needs/usage. Dakota and Aurora can run the water into the black tank, a portable grey water jug or directly outside. 

The black water tank is 20 gallons and is located underneath the toilet.

Electrical and Power System

When it comes to electrical system setup, the van is pretty well equipped. Dakota and Aurora installed the following system to provide ample power for all of their needs:

2 x Renogy AGM 100 Ah batteries
2 x Renogy 100 Watt panels
Renogy DC-to-DC Charger 40A
Powermax 55A Converter Charger
Victron MPPT 30A/100V Solar Charger
Renogy 1000 Watt Pure Sine Wave Inverter

Other Features

A man and a woman having a moment together while enjoying coffee as they sit outside of their camper van

And when it comes to eating meals and/or working, Dakota and Aurora typically work/eat outside as much as possible. They set up an outdoor space consisting of a rug, table and chairs. Then they added an outdoor charging box where their old 3-way fridge access panel was so that they can have all of their electronics charging if needed.

On days when they find themselves having to be in the van for work/eating, Dakota and Aurora utilize the swivel chairs or bed. For a while, they were debating adding a dinette into the van. However, the captain’s chairs are so comfy they decided that there was no way they would trade the captain’s chairs for a dinette.

As for any improvements or things they would change, Aurora says that adding a Lagun table to create a better interior dining/working space would be nice. Anytime they have to eat/work inside their plates or computers are always on their lap instead of a table.

It’s such a small improvement but it would make such a difference. With both of the captain’s chairs being swivel it would be perfect to have it right between them.

READ MORE: Check out this post on other great vans for camper conversion.

Living the Van Life Lifestyle

Man and woman standing outside of an old Motel with their camper van parked in the background

Previously, Aurora was a Registered Nurse & worked in a NeuroSurgical ICU. Dakota was an auditor/CPA & worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

To date, Dakota and Aurora live on around $1,200 – $1,500, which consists of groceries, gas, 2 cell phones, insurance, student loan payment and van repairs/maintenance.

The best part of this lifestyle is having the freedom to go where you want, when you want. We don’t have to choose between oceans, mountains, deserts or farms. We can go wherever our heart desires when we want.

Dakota and Aurora wanted to point out that they had several advantages when it comes to expenses on the road.

First, they bought their van outright and put money into fixing it up to get it road ready. Not having a car payment is HUGE.

They also calculate repairs as if it were a monthly bill. They do this because when you live in a vehicle it’s only a matter of WHEN something breaks not IF. By already anticipating a cost every month they are able to not only do preventative maintenance but also to afford when something does break because that money is already set aside for repairs.

So far Dakota and Aurora say that the best and most rewarding part of van life is the freedom to go where you want when you want. They don’t have to choose between oceans, mountains, deserts or farms. They can go wherever their heart desires when they want.

They also have the flexibility of staying as long or as little as they want. Instead of only having a weekend or 2-week vacation from time to time, they can go to vacation spots as if they lived there. It really is such a blessing being able to see so much without spending vacation prices.

But they’ve been surprised by the people they have met on the road. To Aurora, it sounds so silly that they got into this lifestyle for travel, culture & experience. They figured we would meet cool people. However, they didn’t realize that the community itself is so special.

A man and woman looking at a map on the hood of the camper van

They have never experienced anything like this before and they’ve lived in a few different areas. The nomad/van/schoolie community is all about helping each other.

Aurora can’t tell you the number of times someone tried to give them something for free because they were in a good spot and just wanted to be helpful. Or the number of times they’ve been offered help when they broke down.

The people in this community have a great understanding of empathy, compassion and just being good humans. Dakota and Aurora thought that they got into van life to travel. But now they’re seeing it as something completely different. It’s the wholesome experiences you have that make it the best.

When it comes to hardships on the road, Dakota and Aurora had a really bad month once where everything kept going wrong. The tire’s sidewall burst due to a mechanic error, the PCM started to fail, the engine was misfiring and the suspension sounded terrible.

Of course, all these items could be crazy expensive as the repairs at their worst could mean replacing the van’s computer, suspension parts, new tires and possibly a rebuilt engine.

But whenever they go through hardships, Dakota and Aurora allow themselves time to be down. It’s okay to have those feelings and it’s easier to accept them so that later on the next day you’re ready with a plan.

They slowly started working their way through the problems and fixing them up. They were lucky that the town they were in allowed them to stay overnight in a lot right next to the auto parts store. It made workdays so much easier being right next to one another.

But Aurora and Dakota ended up getting lucky and were able to repair everything themselves. It just hit all at once and not knowing exactly what it was at first felt really stressful.

And they think the worst part about living in a van is not always having enough room to create different “living” spaces. No matter what, you’re always only going to be a few steps away from your bed, toilet, kitchen or driving seats.

When it comes to working, they usually thrive in their home offices. However, when they both have to work in the van it’s so easy to get distracted because all of their belongings are everywhere around them. 

Downsizing their lives into a van was surprisingly not that difficult. Dakota and Aurora had been downsizing to a backpack already in anticipation of international travel. So when they bought the van they actually had more room than they were originally planning.

They sold a lot of their belongings but some stuff didn’t make sense in selling because they knew that they would just end up rebuying it or needing it later. So all of their outdoor gear for their hobbies and tools are with their parents. (Thanks Mom and Dad!)

And now that they’re on the road, Dakota and Aurora can’t live without their oven. They knew that they needed one for the type of cooking that they like to do. A lot of people tried to talk them out of it. But Aurora is so glad that they didn’t listen because they use it every day for so many meals.

But they really miss being with their family & friends. Dakota and Aurora are both very family orientated so they knew it was going to be their biggest struggle with traveling full time.

In their spare time on the road, Dakota and Aurora love to hike and explore unfamiliar areas. For more laid-back activities, Dakota enjoys learning and listening to podcasts and Aurora love reading books.

Dakota and Aurora both want people to know that Vanlife and your life, in general, is what you make it & need it to be. They shaped theirs to meet their wants and needs. They thrive on schedules, so they set certain days aside for work, travel, exploring, cleaning, errands and so forth.

Top Mobile Apps

Dakota and Aurora have a few go-to apps that help them out as they travel.

READ MORE: Learn more about 20+ mobile apps to make life on the road better HERE.

Most useful items

They also have several recommendations for the most useful items in the van.

  • Water Bandit
  • Driver/Passenger window screens
  • Fruit Hammock
  • Nesting pots/pans
  • Carabiners

READ MORE: Read this post to learn more about other great van life essentials.

The Van Build

An old, dirty and beat up looking camper van
What their van looked like when they bought it

Dakota and Aurora built their van despite it previously being an RV and they only had to outsource their rooftop rack to a welder. They had a design in mind when it came to how they wanted to mount the solar panels. And they also wanted the rack to be aluminum so it would be rust-resistant and lightweight.

They purchased the van for $3,000 and put $11,000 into building it out. Because the van was already set up as an RV in its previous life, Dakota and Aurora remodeled it only as needed in a few places.

With the flooring, they installed sheet vinyl with a thick wear factor. They wanted a floor that didn’t have grooves or slide into one another. And they figured it would make cleaning up easier and wouldn’t shift while driving. So far they love our decision!

And the ceiling of the van is carpeted. They like it because they can velcro the skylight screens to it to keep the sun out if needed on those hot days!

A camper van gutted to the metal sides and floor

Be flexible & don’t get frustrated if you want or need to change things – whether it’s related to your build or lifestyle. When you switch to vanlife you become more on “survival” mode.

Instead of “easy” problems like not having a dishwasher now you’re having to consider where to get water and how to conserve it. Most things just require thought and sometimes reshaping until we figure out a system that works best for us.

Dakota and Aurora built cabinets out of ½” plywood and a mix of 2×2 & 2×3 wood boards. Key factors for the cabinets were latches that were “built-in.” They didn’t want deadbolt style, eye & hook or kid locks.

They also wanted regular knobs because they wanted it to look more “homely.” The overhead cabinets had mounting points already installed for them to use. But they installed the lower cabinets into the floor as well as the walls.

A man building cabinet frames in a van

And with lighting, Dakota and Aurora use 12V dimming puck lights. They wanted dimming lights to be an option in case they needed to stealth camp or were running low on power. The puck lights are in the overhead cabinets and light up the counter as well. They absolutely love them because they make it look like a real home!

When it comes to storage, the van has a garage that Dakota and Aurora use as storage for all of their gear, supplies and dirty laundry. In addition to the garage area, the van also has two underfloor storage areas. This storage area is great for items that they need but don’t use daily and don’t want to clutter up the living space.

And for additional lighting and ventilation, the van came with windows installed already. Dakota and Aurora just cleaned and resealed them to make sure they were waterproof.

Dakota and Aurora are most proud of the way the whole van turned out! They had no carpentry, mechanic, plumbing or electrical skills. Knowing that they built the van they are living in full-time by themselves is very rewarding. The little imperfections are what make the build unique and perfect to them!

And if they could change anything, Dakota and Aurora say that making a work/eating area with a lagun table between the swivel chairs would be great. They didn’t realize how crucial it would be when they found themselves in the van on rainy days.

Dakota and Aurora’s least favorite part of building out the van was waterproofing! When they got the van they knew the interior needed to be redone. But what they didn’t realize was that the fiberglass roof was leaking.

A clear tarp placed around a van so the roof can be painted

When they went to fix the top it was too cold in Wisconsin to actually do it! But they were so excited to start our build that they even considered driving to their family in Texas. However, a winter storm shut the city down and Dakota and Aurora ended up waiting months for a warm enough day to complete the sealing/painting process of the fiberglass. It felt like forever!

And they think waterproofing was also the hardest part. The van is obviously older and has more character than some of the newer vans out there. Trying to figure out where the issues were was like a maze sometimes.

The van leaked from everywhere and it felt like they would never get it to stop. They refused to build until there were no more leaks, so they spent A LOT of time replacing every gasket and window, sealing any cracks and repairing the fiberglass until the roof was as good as new.

When it came to hitting the road, Dakota and Aurora had a wedding they had to be to in Texas so their deadline wasn’t negotiable. They ended up leaving without the solar panels on, inverter hooked up or water tank installed (they had all the pipes ran just had to hook it up).

Inside of a halfway built out camper van

Dakota and Aurora ended up taking a weekend to get all of these hooked up and it made such a difference! The more people they talk to on the road, the more they realize a lot of people leave without their build being finished.

When it comes to giving advice to anyone considering building out their own van, Aurora says to be flexible and don’t get frustrated if you want or need to change things – whether it’s related to your build or lifestyle.

When you switch to vanlife you become more in “survival” mode. Instead of “easy” problems – like not having a dishwasher – now you’re having to consider where to get water and how to conserve it. Most things just require thought and sometimes reshaping until you figure out a system that works best for you.

A camper van parked at a campsite at sunset

The best resources Dakota and Aurora used were just scavenged from YouTube and Pinterest. Youtube was perfect to see how people built their vans out and what they liked/disliked.

Some people were honest and had great feedback about their flaws/dislikes/would do-overs. It made it easier for us to avoid similar mistakes in our build. Pinterest is perfect for figuring out space-saving techniques, gadgets/gizmos & aesthetics.

If you’d like to find more information about the van’s look and feel be sure to connect with Dakota and Aurora on Instagram, YouTube and Tik Tok

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