cyrus sutton

The Nomad

WORDS: Megan Michelson

Meet Cyrus Sutton. He’s a pro surfer turned filmmaker who’s lived in a van for the last decade. And he’s got a few things to teach you.

When he was 22, Cyrus Sutton bought his first van, which he painted camouflage and outfitted with a bed, a tiny kitchen, and racks for his surfboards. He was a pro surfer and was just coming off a couple of years traveling the world for surf competitions. He didn’t want to be confined to a house, to one place. So he hit the road and started making short surf films. That was 10 years ago. Today, Sutton still lives in a van, alongside his girlfriend, and makes a living as a filmmaker, producing documentaries about big-wall climbers and sustainable food systems. Sutton, now 32 and the founder of, gave us a call from the road somewhere near Death Valley, California, to talk about how to pull off the nomadic lifestyle.

Winding road in the desert


Cyrus Sutton grew up in Southern California, a surfer from age 11. He learned the nomadic life from his father, a college professor with a Volkswagen van. The family would spend summers traveling and living in the van, fishing, surfing and hiking. “I grew up exploring California and the Rockies,” Sutton says.

Tip #1: Learning to love life on the road takes practice and time. But once you adapt, the world has no boundaries.

Van parked by the beach


When he was 22, Sutton bought his first van. He lived in it full time and would often spend days at a time camped at his favorite surf breaks, like this one in Mexico. “I’ve found that over the years, it’s been less about a road trip where I’m spending only a day in a place and then moving on, and more about finding a zone that’s friendly to vans and camping that I love to hang out in,” says Sutton.

Tip #2: Find a good place to sleep, and stay put for a while. “Walmart parking lots have this unwritten policy that’ll allow you to camp overnight in their lots,” Sutton says. 

Van, friend, and doggy


Sutton shot this photo of a friend and his camper in Baja California, where he spends time during the winter surfing and camping. “There’s this culture of people who spend the summer months in the north living out of their vans and then go to Baja to surf and fish each winter,” Sutton says.

Tip #3: Winters can be cold in a van. So follow the birds and migrate south come winter. 

Black and white photo of van in a parking lot with a bike in a rack behind the van


This isn’t your average RV. Sutton always carries a few surfboards, a bike or two, and fishing gear, so he’s up for whatever adventure comes his way. “An average day for me means I’ll wake up early and get my work done for four or five hours, then go outside and enjoy what’s around me.” 

Tip #4: Need internet on the road? “I’ll find local libraries or park outside a number of restaurant chains that have WiFi. If that doesn’t work, I’ll tether from my phone,” Sutton says. 

Center of a 2 lane highway that goes through the mountains


Somewhere in the eastern Sierra Nevada, Sutton captured this image from the road. “The eastern Sierra is a place my dad really loved, so I grew up going there,” Sutton says. “I still like to go there in the summers to hike, fish and backpack.”

Tip #5: Need a shower while on the road? “Find a 24 Hour Fitness, where you can park overnight. If you get a gym pass, you’ll also have a bathroom, shower, and sauna,” Sutton says. 

Tree houses to make the Swiss family Robinson blush.


In this photo, Sutton’s first van is parked at a friend’s property with treehouses and tents in the Pacific Northwest. Sutton bought a standard cargo van, then cut the roof off and built a platform bed. “I turned a van into a little home on wheels, where I could sleep on top and have my office below,” he says.

Tip #6: Smart storage in the van is key. “I cut subfloor storage and also put on a rack for surfboards,” Sutton says. 

Blond woman in a sun hat in the back of an open van


Sutton doesn’t live in his Sprinter van alone. His girlfriend, Anna Ehrgott, lives there, too. “It’s pretty tight quarters,” Sutton admits. At least their new van is twice the size of Sutton’s old van and gets twice the gas mileage.

Tip #7: Learn how to cook in small spaces. “Cooking is a big part of it for me,” Sutton says. “I like a warm home-cooked meal.” He buys bulk foods and has mastered meals that can be cooked using just a stovetop.

In the center curl of a wave on a surfboard


“It’s about freedom—living in a van allows you to be nimble and flexible,” says Sutton. “It’s a new definition of wealth.” When you live in van, you can follow the swell and surf whenever the moment strikes.

Tip #8: Sutton suggests trying car camping in a tent first, before you commit to full-on van life. Or rent a van for a few days to get a taste for it. 

two humans with knees and feet poking out of a hot spring


Sutton and Ehrgott enjoy a soak in a hot springs in the eastern Sierra Nevada. It’s hard to imagine there’s anything hard about this life, but certainly, challenges exist. “The toughest part is not being rooted in a community,” Sutton says. “You spread yourself a little thin and you don’t get as many deep connections.”

Tip #9: Sutton’s become a modern-day Instagram hero, and he says social media can help him feel more connected to friends even when he’s far away. 

Van in parking lot with mountain view


The view from the van parked in Yosemite Valley feels so grand, it may make you forget that you live in a tiny home on wheels. “I do miss living in a house,” Sutton says. “I’m even looking at a little farm property right now, but I don’t think I’ll ever trade in living in the van 100 percent.”

Tip #10: “The biggest thing: Enjoy it,” he says. “Realize that van life can be whatever you want it to be.”

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8 2015 The Red Bulletin

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