Cole's Climb
Trail Talk
Boondocking and Storm Chasing with Rachel, The Traveling DreadHead

Boondocking and Storm Chasing with Rachel, The Traveling DreadHead

“You’re Never Going to get that Moment Again; that Photograph is just a One-Time Deal.”

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Going the Distance to get the Shot

“You Really don’t Know what You’re Getting into, Until You get there.”

Rachel always had a fascination with travel, taking her first real trip to New Zealand on summer break from college, doing work-for-accommodation to pay for her journey.

Years later: remote work gave Rachel the opportunity to take her life to the road, exploring far beyond the reaches of civilization. She’s been documenting her adventures and embracing her love for photography and self-portraiture ever since.

“More People Should Flirt with the Idea of not Buying the Idea of the White Picket Fence and the Golden Retriever, and the ‘American Dream…’ I Think it’s Important to Stray from the Sidewalk a Little bit more.”

This journey has taken Rachel to some truly breathtaking places. The type of travel she does is called boondocking — which is a bit of a happy-medium between primitive camping and staying in RV parks.

Boondocking involves temporary stays, usually on Forest Service land. The maximum time you can stay in a spot is two weeks, but trips are usually cut shorter than that for resource reasons. I’ll get to that in a minute…

Interview Notes:

1:00 — Catching the travel bug
3:15 — The daily routine
4:00 — The hidden research side of #vanlife
6:05 — Challenges and limitations of boondocking
7:40 — Overlapping difficulties: remote cabins, and life on the road
8:40 — Making Amazon Prime work while on the road
9:45 — You’ve got mail
10:30 — Getting help in the middle of nowhere
12:00 — Map hacks that will save you money
13:10 — Judging towns by their Laundromats
16:51 — Storm chasing on the road: getting interested in weather
20:00 — Capturing lightning
21:20 — Waiting for the right storm to roll in
23:00 — Looking for extras to help your picture stand out
24:00 — Making your photography unique
25:30 — Worrying about lightning
27:00 — Our close brushes with death
28:30 — The Haboobs roll in
30:00 — Finding cloud-to-cloud lightning
32:00 — Harsh lessons in the outdoors
33:00 — An exit strategy for life on the road?
36:30 — Learning not to lose your life to overthinking
38:00 — Letting go of material attachments during a crisis
41:00 — Getting used to packing light
42:30 — How to get started down this road

One of Rachel’s boondocking sites

“Whatever comes out of you, needs to come out of your RV”

The biggest complication, Rachel says, has been water management. When your freshwater tank is empty, your trip is over.

When your blackwater tank is full, your trip is over.

The shortage of water also means that some other modern comforts — like a washer and drier — are out-boarded too. Doing the laundry means trips into the nearest town, which can become its own kind of adventure.

“You never know what you’re gonna get at a laundromat. I have met some of the more interesting people of my life in laundromats. And it’s crazy right: because sometimes you can get almost like a Zen garden feel; you get the heavenly aroma of the jasmine, the lavender fabric softener. Other times, it’s just a chaotic mess — you have people fighting over driers — it’s just a fun place to see a little bit of the community.”

Boondocking — or van life if you take that route, Rachel explains the different benefits and drawbacks in our discussion — also complicates other tasks like collecting the mail. Rachel still uses Prime, but has deliveries shipped to Amazon lockers near her temporary location. It’s still feasible; just requires more planning.

Listeners and readers may be surprised to learn how much advance prep-work goes into this lifestyle. As much as — on the outside — things appear carefree and spontaneous, you can’t fly blind without running into trouble.

“Mother Nature is Epic”

From Rachel’s recent chase: a bolt of lightning crackles over an abandoned barn

Boondocking has also allowed Rachel to pursue another passion: storm photography. Getting shots like these does involve some watching and waiting. But again: you don’t catch lightning without a bit of forethought.

“If I see something cool, I’ll drop a pin. Now I have dozens and dozens of pins and coordinates. And then I overlay that with the radar. So now, if there’s a storm crossing that old barn I passed a while back, I can go ahead and set up. I already know there’s a cool foreground there, so I’ll just wait for the right storm to roll in.”

One of the teachers I learned photography from had an interesting philosophy. When he went to tourist destinations and popular spots, it was always his goal to take a unique picture; something no one else had thought of. That could come from unusual angles, different lighting settings or focal lengths.

What I love about Rachel’s approach to storm photography is that she is creating photos that no one else could replicate, even if they wanted to: layering an eye-catching foreground over a wild, dangerous subject that exists only for that instant.

“I want to Know more, but not too much more if that Makes Sense. Because I love the Mystery of it. I Think that’s the Beauty of it too: I don’t want to know it all.”

Rachel has always been interested in meteorology and went into news production in the hopes she could see weather in the field as a photographer. In the end, this path may have been for the best — not wanting to pull back the curtain completely and demystify the experience.

“I want to make Sure that my 80-year-old Self, and my 8-year-old Self, in the end, are Happy.”

I asked Rachel if there’s an endgame or an exit strategy for her life on the road. After all: she does still have a storage locker somewhere full of worldly possessions.

For now, though: there’s no end in sight. Just exploration, and a wide-open world to experience.

Seeing more of Rachel’s Work

Most of Rachel’s content is available on Instagram. She also keeps a travel log of her adventures over on her website, where you can also support her journey by purchasing her photographs.

Follow Rachel on Instagram

Support Rachel’s Photography

I Want to Hear from You

Have you ever considered life on the road? Is there a favorite place or landmark you’d like to see? Do you enjoy watching thunderstorms as much as I do?

Leave a comment

Last time I asked you all to share your favorite pictures of incredible views, you didn’t disappoint. If you have any of your own cloud, storm, or lightning pictures, I’d love to see them! As always, you can e-mail me at

More Great Reads

In today’s episode, I mention an earlier interview with Kelton Wright. She writes a fantastic publication called Shangrilogs — all about living in a remote mountain town.

There’s a fascinating amount of overlap between living the RV life and living in a tiny cabin. If today’s episode interested you, go check out Kelton’s recent interview with a retired smokejumper. It’s absolutely fascinating!

Smokejumpers and the state of wildfire - #43
Wildfire season doesn’t exist anymore. It is now all year — as evidenced by the Marshall Fire in Boulder County this past December that destroyed over 1000 buildings, caused over $500m in damages, and burned over 6,000 acres. My dad, Clay, is a retired smokejumper, and he’s been sending me fire reports for over a decade as the places I’ve called home ha…
Read more

Almost Forgot…

I mention map-making in the podcast discussion. To save money, I use sites like Topo Zone to generate local maps and print them for free. Then I stick them in a plastic bag so they’re safe from the elements.

Make a Map

Click the button above to generate your own map. All you need is the name of the area, trailhead, or landmark you’re exploring.

If you enjoy the Trail Talk theme song, it was composed and produced specially by the very talented Ty Ellenbogen. Check out his other music here:

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Cole's Climb
Trail Talk
Conversations in, and about the outdoors and the incredible adventures you can find there. Topics range from conservation, to tackling tough challenges that push our limits.