A Q & A With Vanlife Pioneer Brendan Leonard

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Brendan Leonard started his blog Semi-Rad in 2011 because he believed people needed to spend more time “doing things they love, going to places that make them feel small, remembering to laugh at themselves, and getting a little cold, tired, and scared every once in a while.”

He’s bicycled across America, ridden through the Grand Canyon on a raft and walked across it twice, and lived out of a converted van for three years before the “vanlife” trend swept through the world of outdoor recreation.

We caught up with Brendan to find out what makes him tick, get the deets on his new book and chat about a book signing he’ll be doing this Saturday, October 8th from 3-4pm at Black Dome Mountain Sports in Asheville, North Carolina as part of the 5Point Adventure Film Festival.

BRO: You kind of pioneered the “vanlife” culture. How did you first find yourself living that lifestyle?

BL: Basically in summer 2011 I had the perfect storm of a relationship ending, a lease on a Denver apartment ending, a job where I was working remotely, and a five-week unpaid vacation from that job, so I moved all my stuff out of my apartment, put what I needed in my car, and took off to go climbing.


After six months of living in my car (then a 1996 Subaru Outback Impreza wagon), I decided a little more space might be nice, so I bought an Astrovan and lived out of that for a little over two years. I wrote and self-published a book about the whole thing in 2013, called The New American Road Trip Mixtape.

BRO:  We love following your blog SemiRad. How’d that get started?

BL: I had just taken a job writing marketing copy for a big software and consulting company in January 2011, and I didn’t want to lose touch with the outdoor adventure side of my life—I’d been pitching articles to magazines since 2004 and had a little side income, and I was just starting to write for Climbing and Backpacker, and a bunch of smaller publications.

But I had all these ideas I didn’t think would work for magazines, so I bought the url Semi-Rad.com and started posting one story a week in February 2011. And I’ve been doing it ever since, thanks to the support of my sponsors, Outdoor Research, Vasque Footwear, and REI. The blog just rolled over the 5 million page views mark a couple weeks ago, and it’s had around half a million unique visitors since I started it.

BRO: We hear you’ll be signing your new book 60 Meters to Anywhere as part of the Asheville 5Point Adventure Film Fest festivities. Ever been to Asheville before? If so, any favorite spots in the area that you’re looking to check out?


BL: I have never been to Asheville before, and I’m excited to check it out. My good friend and creative partner Forest Woodward grew up in the area (near Franklin) and has been trying to persuade me to come out to North Carolina for years now, and I’ve heard nothing but good things. Unfortunately I don’t know if I’ll have time to do much in the mountains during this visit, so I’ll probably just be exploring town for some good food and coffee.

BRO: Tell us about the new book 60 Meters to Anywhere.

BL: I took a rather roundabout path to the mountains, and the book tells that story: I went to substance abuse treatment for alcohol when I was 23, and moved out west to Montana a few weeks after that. The book is the story of finding a new identity in the mountains, becoming a climber, and as a couple friends have put it, “a coming-of-age story about getting your shit together and figuring out what you want to do.” I’ve been told it’s not a rehab book, and I’ve been told it’s not a climbing book, and I like that—I think it’s about our capacity to change our own lives for the better, and I hope that’s one of the things people have been getting out of it.

In addition to the Black Dome book signing,  Brendan will be on stage during both nights’ films at the 5Point Adventure Film Festival to speak about some of his most recent projects.

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