Holland Roden has portrayed puzzle-solving survivalists on the big screen, but her mid-pandemic move into van life is no act.
The 34-year-old actress plays Rachel Ellis, a character unable to feel physical pain, in Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (out now in theaters), the follow-up to director Adam Robitel’s 2019 psychological thriller. The new film marks Roden’s second time in a horror film about a deadly game, after having starred in 2017’s No Escape.
However, when COVID-19 delayed the spring 2020 release of Escape Room‘s sequel, Roden spent her lockdown time fulfilling a longtime dream of building a camper van from scratch.
Years ago, the Texas-bred star had been “looking for different ways to travel and what I could do between auditions and jobs. Around 2017 I thought about building out a [Mercedes-Benz] Sprinter,” Roden tells The Hollywood Reporter. An avid skier and camper, the actress soaked up YouTube videos on hundreds of van builds over three years and mulled over “whether to commit that much time to something [I’ve] never done and how much money; there’s obviously a range. I have friends who have $850 Econolines and then there are vans that are much nicer than mine.”
During her pandemic downtime, Roden reached out to Steve Meives of Nowhere Vans, a Wisconsin-based company specializing in off-grid van conversions for Mercedes Sprinters.
“I contacted him on Instagram; I’d seen his YouTube channel [and] I DM’d him on a whim,” Roden reveals. “He was home, sure enough, quarantining with his family in Wisconsin and was converting a bus. He said, ‘Yeah, come on up,’ and I stayed with his family for almost four months. [Learning to build] was very stressful but I lucked out to be with such cool people.”
After documenting the entire building process on her YouTube channel, the Teen Wolf star finally gave fans a video tour last fall of her new four-wheeled abode: a 144-inch Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van, which is outfitted with a Tesla battery, a 640-watt solar panel system, an air conditioning and heating unit, a 40-gallon water tank, a mini kitchen, a queen bed and a composting toilet (to name just a few amenities).
It’s been her full-time home for the last seven months, and “it’s hard, everything takes three times as long, it’s obviously tight quarters. But you become really resilient and really grateful; it becomes sort of a meditation practice that I highly recommend,” she says. Currently parked in Los Angeles’ hippie community of Topanga Canyon, Roden says Alaska is on her itinerary later this year and she’ll be driving to Seattle and shipping her van north, “which will save me about 35 hours of driving; on the way back it’s a 69-hour drive.”
Asked whether her own escape room survival chops have come in handy during road trips, the situations “aren’t that similar in that there’s usually not a time clock on the van,” though there is the fear of a mechanical failure, she jokes.
As for her top van life tips, “my favorite word in a van is ‘collapsible’ or ‘Tetris’,” she says. Space-saving essentials — think folding brooms and travel coffee makers — are key in tight quarters, and Roden requires a minimal amount of dishware and cookware. “People really only need one of everything — two is a luxury. That’s what I noticed first off in a van. Even when [I’m] limited to that amount of space, there’s still 70 percent [of items] that I don’t use. I would say wait to buy and see what you actually use, that’s a way to save a lot of money and effort of not having to get rid of it.”
“The things that change in van life are that the ‘fun’ things are the necessities — the things that keep you safe, and the things that you become really grateful to have,” she notes.
Then there’s the question of bathroom breaks. Roden’s essentials include a composting toilet (“I think it’s absolutely important”) and a two-gallon “pee jug” (“those things fill up very fast, and you become a lot more aware of your body’s whole [eating and drinking] cycle”).
In addition to her WC requirements, Roden shares more of her favorite gear (many make an appearance in her YouTube reveal) for van life below. If you’re looking to get a quick taste of the mobile lifestyle, online rental services such as Outdoorsy and RVshare will deliver a travel-ready camper van, RV or trailer directly to your door. You can opt for short- or long-term use, and rentals include roadside assistance and start as low as $99 per night.
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1. WeBoost Drive OTR Cell Signal Booster Kit
Roden’s van is outfitted with a cell signal booster for the more remote trips when reliable communication is essential.
2. Stormate Collapsible Broom & Dust Pan
Roden swears by this collapsible full-sized broom (a treasured find from Camping World, she says) with a telescoping handle that allows her to stow it away in a 24-inch drawer.
3. Nature’s Head Composting Toilet
“Other van lifers might disagree, but I think it is absolutely necessary,” says Roden. Though she has a different brand in her build, she says this Nature’s Head composting toilet is equally popular.
3. KNM Home Drawer Decor 16-Piece Customizable Drawer Organizer
Roden’s drawers are outfitted with these customizable organizers, which can be cut down to size and can help to keep kitchen utensils and other items from getting tossed around while driving.
4. GSI Outdoors Ultralight Java Drip
On days when caffeine is a requirement, Roden relies on this reusable and collapsible coffee filter for making pour-over cups of joe. “I use it almost daily,” she says.
5. Wacaco Nanopresso Portable Espresso Maker
Roden also keeps a portable espresso maker on hand when extra time allows for grinding coffee beans.
6. Gneiss Spice Magnetic Spice Jars
These glass jars with magnetic lids have a designated spot on Roden’s kitchen’s wall. The hexagon shape allows them to fit snugly together to save space.
7. Fujifilm Instax 11 Instant Camera
If your small space allows for sentimental decor, Roden says she’s a fan of hanging Polaroid photos throughout the van. This Fujifilm Instax Mini 11 camera and accessories kit includes enough film and space-saving frames for your next adventure.
8. GSI Outdoors Collapsible Water Cube
A collapsible water cube like this 20-liter one can ensure that you’ve got enough water for drinking and cleaning in between rest stops.
9. Wise Owl Outfitters Camping Hammock
“Everyone should have a hammock,” says Roden of the versatile relaxation accessory.
10. Vitamix Professional Series 750 Blender
Roden has a shelf specifically designed for her favorite low-profile Vitamix blender.
11. Fortem Bungee Cords Set
Yet another staple for making sure stuff stays put, bungee cords are also a must in Roden’s van. “You do not want things falling out of your cabinets when you’re driving,” she warns.
12. Bamboo Land 2-Person Dinnerware Set
“I’m definitely a less-is-more kind of girl,” says Roden. When traveling solo, she doesn’t need more than one or two pieces of dishware. She’s a fan of lightweight stacking dinnerware, similar to these eco-conscious bamboo dinner plates that come in a two-person set with cups and bowls.