Single mom with a budget of $5K transforms van into a tiny home so she can show her little son the world

By | February 16, 2023

Jayla Hardimon, 24, is a single mom with a thirst for adventure. Two years ago, she was juggling college classes, a job as a cashier at McDonald’s, and life as a mother to a toddler with the help of her mother and sister.

She was stretched thin, and thought, “’I can’t keep waking up, going to work and school and doing it all over again. I wanted to show my son the world.”

So she created a brand-new life for herself and her son – outdoors in a van on the open road.

The idea of traveling the country in the van was not just a mere vacation, but a dream. Hardimon thought of this new lifestyle as, “Financial freedom and the ability to be gone for longer than a few weeks.”

Driving through the United States in a van with her young son seemed like a fun way to explore, as well as get a real-life education in the Great Outdoors.

Hardimon had saved enough money from her jobs at the restaurant and as a nanny to make it work financially. There were a few challenges, however.

First, she was not a seasoned traveler. And more importantly, she had never even driven a van or a motorhome, and certainly not with a toddler in tow.

Still, an adventure was an adventure, and she decided to try family life in a van. Kareem was just two years old, and Hardimon figured that this was a good time as any for them to have their escapades before the child started kindergarten. She said, “If this didn’t work, at least we would have made memories.”

So it seemed like fate when in February 2021 a friend offered Hardimon a broken-down 1998 Dodge Ram 3500 van that he had actually planned to leave in a junkyard.

The vehicle needed work and it was certainly not child-friendly. So like most people these days, Hardimon went online to learn more about car renovation.

She said, “I am not a handy person and have no carpentry skills. I was just determined to figure this out.”

She then spent the next six months, and $5,000, on gutting the van, in a trial-and-error project that she documented on her TikTok account This Travel Mom.

She ripped out the seating, installed floorboards using peel-and-stick vinyl coating, and built in wall insulation and shelving with childproof locks.

Their mobile home now holds a portable car fridge and freezer, a two-burner propane stove, a full-size mattress with a wooden bed frame, a kitchen pantry, and a dining table that doubles as a work space.

The bathroom area has a small portable toilet and running water. There is a space for Kareem’s many toys, and Hardimon made the van extra cozy with a colorful steering wheel cover, wall frames, and cute rugs.

In the fall of 2021, Hardimon and Kareem hit the road and have never looked back. They save for trips home to visit family but have spent most of their time traveling in the van.

They have driven up and down California multiple times and visited Nevada, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.

Hardimon said, “My favorite memories are driving up the coast and snowboarding and hiking.” Mother and son bathe in community centers, campgrounds, or gas stations, and do laundry at laundromats.

On the road, Hardimon and Kareem take extended pit stops to stretch their legs and enjoy the sights.

“I try to not drive more than 2 or 3 hours at a time and we usually park in paid campsites or on BLM land,” she said, referring to public land overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and used for conservation, hunting, and renewable energy. Sometimes the family spends the night in a parking lot.

Every day would seem like a normal day, except that the family lives in a van. “When we wake up, I give Kareem cuddles and kisses, and then we get ready for the day,” said Hardimon.

They have a usual breakfast of eggs with bacon, oatmeal, or pancakes. They eat their meals eat inside or outside the van, depending on the weather.

“After breakfast, I work for several hours, while supervising Kareem playing or watching his iPad,” she added.

She works on the road and earns an income through social media brand sponsorships and a coaching business that helps others launch their own van lives. Aside from TikTok, Hardimon also documents their van life on YouTube.

Kareem is homeschooled, and Hardimon spends a portion of the day teaching him the alphabet, numbers, days of the week, vocabulary, and fine motor skills.

Hardimon is also teaching her son Spanish and American Sign Language. The pair also use “recess” to visit playgrounds, go on nature walks, climb trees, or hunt for flowers.

It seems like great fun, but Hardimon acknowledges that life on the road with a toddler can get lonely.

She shared, “There are moments when I wish I had a friend to lean on. But finding (travel) companions, participating in new activities and hobbies, and work helps with loneliness. When I first had Kareem, it took a while for me to find myself outside of motherhood but when I got the van, I discovered my passions.”

Sometimes, they also travel with other van families. Hardimon added, “We have a community through an app and meet at different locations on the road — I met my best friend, also a single mom, in Oregon when she reached out to me through TikTok. Now our kids are friends.”

So far, the best reward of spending so much time together means Hardimon is present for each of Kareem’s “firsts,” such as the first time he saw snow, took snowboard lessons, and built a snowman.

And they have banked so many wonderful memories, including swimming lessons, spotting dolphins on a boat, and riding a pony.

Her family is very supportive of the pair’s lifestyle but cannot help worry about their safety and security.

Hardimon said, “My family knows my location at all times, and I use a texting code to let them know it’s me and not a random person who found my lost phone. My mom also tracks our location with Apple AirTags.”

She installed cameras outside the van that connect to her WiFi hotspot, so she can view their surroundings from inside the van.

Windows are always covered at night, and she always keeps her keychain, which has a can of pepper spray, within reach.

Fortunately, there has only been one scary incident in the pair’s van life. One time in Reno, Nevada, two cars tried to block the van inside a parking lot, and she managed to drive away.

Still, Hardimon feels empowered with her new life behind the wheel. She noted, “I’ve had people tell me, ‘Black people don’t live in vans,’ and it’s been quite a challenge coming across black individuals traveling in a van, although it’s not rare. It’s (a space) definitely occupied by white women, however BIPOC people are coming into van life more and more every day.”

Other than the rewards of freedom and hands-on parenting, Hardimon is also happy to be changing mindsets.

She shared, “I’m breaking a stereotype because I’m not only Black, I’m a woman and a single mother showing others this is possible regardless of race and gender.”

Van life is certainly working out well for this young family. Enjoy their video below:

@thistravelmom TIPS ON HOW MUCH IT COST TO CONVERT A VAN #vanlife #vanlifewithkids #vanlifeconversion #vanlifeonabudget #budgetvanlife #travel #vanbuild #singlemom ♬ Cool Kids (our sped up version) – Echosmith

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