The Road Less Traveled

Advanture Co. turns freewheeling Santa Cruzans’ vans into off-the-grid homes

 By Damon Orion

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It’s no secret that siblings have a way of getting on each other’s nerves. So you’d think that as business partners, local brothers Brandon and Scott Nelson, cofounders of the local van conversion company Advanture Co., would knock heads from time to time.

You’d be right.

“We are polar opposites,” Scott admits with a laugh. “I’m not saying we should have a reality show, but we could. There can be some drama sometimes!”

Luckily, the brothers Nelson—Brandon, 28, and Scott, 26—have a mediator in Shane Titus, their best friend since infancy. Along with resolving disputes, Titus literally deals with the nuts and bolts of turning vans into viable living spaces. Advanture’s vehicle conversions take place on a 20-acre parcel in Aptos where Titus lives.

The company’s services include the installation of flooring, insulation, sound deadening materials, showers, toilets, stoves, refrigerators, heating, air conditioning and/or lighting. As of this writing, Advanture’s newest client was the famed outdoor landscape photographer Chris Burkard, who will be working with Advanture to put together a film about the conversion of his new van.

One of the company’s most memorable creations was a redwood countertop that was custom-built for the van that Brandon was living in until last January, when he began working as a full-time videographer and content creator for an elite fisherman with whom he is currently on the road. The countertop was made from an 800-plus-year-old tree that was harvested in the Santa Cruz Mountains a century ago.

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“That’s just so fulfilling to be able to take something that’s been sitting in the woods, purposeless, for a hundred years, but also, before that, alive and growing for 800-plus years, and make it a piece of art,” notes Brandon, who serves as Advanture’s media director.

Scott, the company’s businessperson, interjects, “We’re trying to keep that as a mission as we go forward: find things that people consider trash and make beautiful art out of it. Maybe it applies to [the van owner’s] history; maybe it has to do with their childhood. How can we pull in pieces of that to each van?”

Putting the pieces together requires skill and ingenuity. In addition to having the standard knowledge required of a building contractor, the Advanture team must choose roadworthy, malleable materials and find creative ways to fit the amenities of a full-sized home into a tiny container.

“No van is square,” Scott says. “You can’t shore up anything in a van, so it’s a game of finesse, and it’s a time-consuming process. Nothing fits the way you think it’s going to fit, so it takes a lot of brainwork to try and figure out how each little piece fits together in a way that makes every piece of the van really usable and functional. There’s such little space that you don’t want to give any up.”

Especially in light of the housing crisis that Santa Cruz County faces, Advanture provides a much-needed opportunity for free spirits who are ready to take the road less traveled. “Forget paying rent every month; forget paying a mortgage every month,” Scott says. “Invest a small amount of money in a van, and you’re not tied to one place. You can go anywhere for a fraction of the cost, and you’re investing in something you can resell someday. The tiny home movement was the start. Now we’re seeing vans and container homes. I think it’s just going to get bigger and bigger.”

He adds that these vans are completely solar-powered, off-grid vehicles. “You don’t have to tie into anything; as long as you can fill up some water once in a while, you’re good to go,” he says.

“And if you have your reverse osmosis hooked up, you can pull straight from the river,” Brandon notes.

The legalities of living in a van are, of course, complex. Because it is illegal to live in your vehicle, the van owner is technically required to park on private property, a campground or an RV park. However, Scott says he and the rest of the Advanture team would like to see those laws adapted to address the changing housing market, especially in areas like Santa Cruz. “If you drive up Highway 1 at night, you will see quite a few vans or small RVs camped out along the coast,” he says. “So navigating the laws is currently a part of the ‘van lifestyle.’”

Advanture is an extension of a way of life that the Nelson brothers came to love during their days of surfing, raising animals, gardening, dirt bike riding and hunting while growing up on a farm in Corralitos. “What I envisioned as a kid was a life of adventure—something untamed and outside the ordinary that no one has ever done before,” Brandon recalls. “This was a means to achieve that: live in a van and create content for clients. I think this is a fun and fulfilling way to give back and help people achieve their goals and dreams.”

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Expanding on this idea, Scott says, “I talk to people whose dream has been to be a blogger, a photographer or a journalist. What happens is: They bought a house or they’re stuck in an 8-to-5, and it’s a cycle they can’t get out of. They either don’t make enough money to get out of it or they just never had enough money in the first place. I try to encourage them [by saying], ‘Let’s break that cycle. Think about buying a van, because you spend maybe a small fraction up-front of what you’re going to spend in a couple of years living in a normal house, and instantly you’re able to put yourself in a position to at least try to do those things you were passionate about.’”


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